Ian Scott: It’s back to the future for landmark Falkirk church

St James Church, a familiar landmark in Grahamston.
St James Church, a familiar landmark in Grahamston.

Another year and another long-serving Church of Scotland building faces an uncertain future.

St James in Thornhill Road, which opened in 1900, closed last year with the remaining congregation likely to join with Grahamston United.

It’s easy enough to explain the recent church closures – dwindling numbers rattling about in buildings that were designed to hold hundreds in an age where attendance on a Sunday is the choice of fewer and fewer people.

But there is another reason which is peculiar to us here in Scotland.

The divisions and secessions of earlier centuries left almost every town and village over-provided in church bricks and mortar terms and Falkirk is no different.

Today we find it hard to credit that such splits could arise from pretty flimsy disagreements but, at the time, fine points of theology, liturgy or church government stirred up passionate debate and led to disharmony on a grand scale.

St James is a classic example of a congregation born in such circumstances and which went through a whole series of divisions and mergers decades before it reached more tranquil days in Thornhill Road.

The story begins in 1836 when the Erskine Church (a much earlier breakaway) appointed a new minister, Rev. Alexander Cumming Rutherford, a very divisive figure who, by all accounts, could start a religious argument in an empty room. All was well for a few years but in 1843 he was suspended for embracing what his church thought was a heretical doctrine. He helped form the Evangelical Union along with a few other ministers and moved into the empty Baptist chapel in Bank Street with a good part of his congregation.

What happened after that is very complicated but suffice to say that by the time the dust settled and Rev Rutherford was long departed both Falkirk and this life there were three new congregations in the town including the Congregational Church in Meeks Road, St Modan’s Church in Bank Street (later in the Pleasance) and St James in Thornhill Road, all owing something to the feisty minister’s initiatives.

In 1896 the Bank Street building was sold and what was left of the congregation joined the United Presbyterian Church which was itself a reunion of the original Erskine breakaway.

If you are still with me then you will see that we are nearly back where we started! After a brief spell in Melville Street the land in Thornhill Road was purchased and one of Falkirk’s leading architects, George Deas Page, was invited to design the building which cost nearly £5000. The congregation, by this time called ‘‘St James’’, moved from Melville Street into their hall which was used for over a year before the church was ready.

Built of red Locharbriggs sandstone, which was cheaper than the architect’s original choice, the building was dedicated in October 1900 by which time St James was part of the United Free Church after yet another national merger.

For more than a century St James served the people of Grahamston under a series of outstanding ministers including Rev. Alexander Fleming Kerr and Rev. Thomas Linkie who was in post for over 30 years and presided over the 1929 reunion which brought St James and nearly all the others back to the Church of Scotland.

And now the story has come to an end. Well, not quite!

The Destiny Church, a relatively new evangelical congregation, has been meeting there since last year. So the building is being used by the community for its original purpose and that can only be a good thing.