The Rev McAllister And A Religious "Punch Up" In Crieff

Rev Finlay McAllister

I have written on several occasions  in these  blogs  about churches and in particular church buildings . Crieff has had  over the last  two centuries a host  of  large  and small places of  worship . Some  like  the old Relief Church hidden and inaccessible between Addison Terrace and High Street are sad remnants of different way of life . Of  all the church buildings in Crieff , two I find unique and worthy of preservation .The Catholic  Church in Ford Road is a wee gem having  been built  in 1871 to the design of  Andrew Heaton Jr who believe it or  not  designed Keillour Castle  near Methven some  eight years later . My other  favourite is  the dominant sand stone  edifice  of the old Crieff Free Kirk and latterly designated  the Crieff South and Monzievaird Church . Built in 1881- 82 to the design of JJ Stevenson and Robert Ewan  it is  modelled on nearby  Dunblane Cathedral and is built  from Alloa sandstone  , a richer  coloured and more workable  stone than its local equivalent. Sadly it has  been lying empty since 2006  and the last Minister ,The Rev Henry AG Tait, better  known as Sandy , died last year .

The  story  about its  construction  and history  is a fascinating  tale of Victorian Presbyterian hypocrisy and dissension  and not a little skulduggery ! It starts  at the time of the “ Disruption “ in 1843 when 450 Ministers walked out of the General Assembly of the Established Presbyterian Church of Scotland – the Kirk as it was generally known .The reasoning  behind  this was over the  rights of the congregation  to choose  their  own Minister and not appoint  someone  chosen by the  local Laird or the person who was seen locally as the “ Lord of the Manor “ in an English context . Known as “patronage “ it  was deeply resented  by many Scots Presbyterians and it was reason that they all got up and walked away from the Assembly . In Crieff there were at the time , two  Established Church of Scotland churches , the Parish Church in what is now Church Street and the West Church on the Comrie Road  which  was a
“ Chapel of Ease “ or  an extension to the main church . The Minister was one Finlay McAlister who had  been appointed in 1839 when the church opened . McAlister appears to have  been a fairly strong individual if perhaps  not  a bit opinionated ! We have an account of his demeanour in the little  pamphlet  produced  in 1982  to mark the church’s centenary :

“ He seemed  to be at loggerheads with one of his elders Alexander Menteith of Broich House, perhaps  because  both men were autocratic and unbending. Whether  there was any other reason for their antagonism is not recorded  but certainly Mr Menteith was not happy until the Minister 
retired ”.

McAllister had  been born in the Parish of Rothesay in the Island of Bute – incidentally the same place  that my maternal ancestors hailed  from  over many generations . He  had quickly determined that the  secession from the Kirk and the setting up of  an independent Free Church was what  had to be  done . He  must have  been a persuasive individual because the  vast  majority of  his  congregation  supported his decision . This began some four  years of vituperative  behaviour from both the seceeders and the establishment . McAllister and his followers refused to leave the building . The  bitter  tension eventually saw the Church of Scotland achieve a valid  title  to the building  and  a legal enforcement  was enacted  to  get the  keys  handed over and the protesters summarily ejected . They did  not  leave however in a passive mood  or indeed in the spirit of Christian fellowship ! Our Victorian Presbyterian forbearers had a pretty strong feeling of  “ we are right and you are wrong “! Before  departing the building they wrote the word “ Ichabod ! ” on the walls and  defaced many of the pews .The term Ichabod was a biblical reference to the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament and indicates that the building was no longer the House of God . The break away congregation did  more than  just desecrate  the building , they took away the Communion Plate and all the Church documents  bar one ! It was  nearly one hundred years  before they were duly returned !

View of the West Church taken about 1900 from Carrington Terrace

Religion played an important  part in the Scottish way of life in the 19th  Century . The national or established  church , the Presbyterian Church of Scotland had throughout the 18th and into the 19th Century held a strong grip over the morality  and general behaviour  in most of  Scotlands’s 900 plus parishes . The Kirk Session  ( the committee of  senior members  of the congregation or elders ) ruled in a virtual dictatorial manner and could summon members to appear  before them or indeed the whole congregation to  “ seek repentance “  for  crimes  ranging from adultery  to  milking your cows on a Sunday morning ! Scotland’s national  poet Robert Burns  was  a regular occupant of the penance  seat in his local church . Burn’ s penned the phrase “ the fornication police “ for that august body of men !

The Church of Scotland endured  numerous  breakaways  and “ disruptions ” or schisms over the years . The first of many occurred in 1733 and it  was over the question of patronage  an issue that was to raise its head  again more than a century later . After 1843 there  were more adherents in Crieff of the non Established Presbyterian  Churches than the of the original body . The two largest were the Free Church and the  United Presbyterian  Church which were  to amalgamate in 1900 . It would appear  from the records  that many of the town’s leading  citizens and local land owners were members of the breakaway bodies .Apart  from Menteith of Broich ( Menteith Street iss named after him ) there were others  such as Dr Thom of McDuff Lodge , Mrs McDougall who was  a Wright of  Milnab Tannery . She donated £ 1000 to the Free Kirk plus  £ 200 to aid the poor in or  around 1870 - a large sum of money at that time . Lewis Miller - the ploughboy who made a fortune out of timber  and  built  Bennachie ( Richmond Hosuse ) when only in his 30s paid  for the cost of the steeple  to  the UP North Church to ensure it  was at least 3 feet  taller than the adjoining Parish Church ! 

The newly formed  Free Kirk in Crieff had  left the old Kirk in a somewhat shaky state . Problems occurred  over filling the  vacancy in the West Kirk now that Mr McAllister and his followers had departed .The following was written in 1912 in Porteous ‘ History of Crieff  :

For some years there was no settled minister , the pulpit  being filled by members of the Presbytery or licentiates . Finally one Mr Mucklewraith was chosen , who is only remembered from the circumstance that on one occasion he rebuked the members for coughing in Church . He was succeeded by a Mr Law  ,who left in 1856. Both of these were  shadowy ministers  , whose names are barely remembered “.

After being ejected from the West Kirk the  Free Churchers  arranged a temporary use of the premises of the old established Crieff Masonic Lodge in Comrie Street . They then  procured a site  in Commissioner  Street and erected a simple  structure that today is the Crieff Primary School Dining Hall . 

The first Free Church in Commissioner Street

With the congregation expanding a move  was made to construct something considerably grander . They  had  already  built  a “ mission hall “ and bought a site  at th junction of Comrie street and Coldwells Road – very  close to their old base of the West Kirk . It opened  for worship in August 1882 . The design was imaginative  and  based on  many of the features of Dunblane Cathedral . An impressive feature  was the  130’ high steeple  which still dominates  much of the landscape  in this western part of the town. It  perhaps  was a sign of growing “ women power ” as the Victorian era  drew  slowly to a close , that the  church bell was gifted by the female  members of the congregation from monies  raised .

A somewhat unique picture  showing the Free Kirk under construction in 1881

In 1929 the breakaway was healed  when the Free Kirk ( now known as the United Free Church ) at last re-joined the established Church of Scotland . As the years  passed Crieff  found  itself with a multiplicity of church buildings and dwindling congregations . In 2006  it  eventually closed as a church and  although it  functioned   for a short while as an antique centre it too eventually shut its doors . This  grand  building  was  sadly slipping into the inevitable decay pattern – a malaise  that seems  to strike small towns  like Crieff .

There is however a glimmer of hope on the horizon as a local  design and build company have lodged  a planning application to transform the building into a 13 bed roomed  hotel to  include a Hammam-style spa and self-catering accommodation. The church tower, inspired by Dunblane Cathedral  will be turned into a VIP guest suite, with a bedroom at the top of the structure. The ground floor would house seven rooms and the Moroccan-style spa .

It  would  be a great reprieve for a great building . Wonder what old McAllister is thinking about up there !

An impressive edifice ! 


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