Celebrating bicentenary of Airth Parish Church

The congregation of Airth Parish Church is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its handsome church building which opened its doors on February 20, 1820.

By Ian Scott
Saturday, 22nd February 2020, 11:02 am
Updated Saturday, 22nd February 2020, 11:09 am

It was the culmination of nearly 20 years of discussion and argument as the original medieval kirk on the hill next to the castle slowly crumbled so that it was no longer suitable as place of worship.

The original village of Airth sat high and dry up on the 70 foot high ‘‘Hill of Airth’’ where the first community served the great ones who lived in the castle and provided military, agricultural and domestic support to the de Erths, Bruces and Grahams by turn as the centuries passed.

As was normal in Scotland, settlements consisted of the three Cs – castle, community and church – and thus the first kirk was established a few yards from the castle on the edge of the hill.

There are still a few stones from that first building but the main body of the kirk was rebuilt in the mid 17th century at the same time as the tower.

However there are three much earlier aisles associated with the families whose parish church it was.

The Airth Aisle is the earliest (around 1480) created as the burial place of the family next door!

Two other major families added their own spots, the Elphinstones of what we now call Dunmore in 1593 and the Bruces of Powfoulis (1614).

Inside the building, and especially in the aisles, are remnants of many gravestones and those commemorating the Elphinstones are particularly impressive.

Outside the walls all round the building are nearly 500 stones now covered by heavy undergrowth though, thanks to Geoff Bailey’s efforts, we have a record of what was written on most of them.

The three massive cast iron mortsafes which are also hidden from view are a reminder of the time when body snatching was a common crime and congregations locked the deceased inside until they were of no further interest to the anatomists in Edinburgh!

Towards the end of the 17th century the community began the steady process of decanting to the flat land below the hill as the busy harbour and valuable reclaimed land increased economic activity.

The town’s ‘‘new’’ mercat cross in the High Street carries the date 1697 and up on the hill the old one was abandoned. Throughout the 18th century the faithful continued to climb up to the old church but, by the turn of the century, it was clear that a new place was essential.

In 1806 a local mason was asked to give a view on repairing or replacing the church and he recommended the latter.

Since finding the money was the responsibility of main landowners there were the usual wrangles and delays but, by 1817, the architect David Hamilton (of Falkirk steeple and Larbert Old fame) had condemned the old building.

Two years later work on the present building began to the design of William Stirling of Dunblane.

When it was completed it was universally admired as one of the most beautiful small churches in the country.

The 1890s brought a major refurbishment with a new roof and internal decoration and reorganisation.

Out went the old box pews and in came a new pulpit and a beautiful stained glass window designed by Stephen Adam of Glasgow.

New heating was introduced and lighting was by oil lamps!

All went well until the high winds of 1968 damaged the four finials on the tower and they were removed for safety reasons. The congregation will be praying Storm Dennis left them in peace to enjoy their celebrations!