Our commitment extends beyond the Church walls to PEOPLE in their everyday life wherever they are in a variety of circumstances.
St Columba’s is a Parish Church and as such has responsibilities to all who live within the Parish not only to the members of the congregation. Our care and support are available to everyone who lives within the Parish.
Please take the opportunity to come and meet us and enjoy the Fellowship within the church
HISTORICAL NOTES ON ST. COLUMBA’S PARISH CHURCH of SCOTLAND STEWARTON (1961-2011)
Ancient records show that the history of the church in Stewarton goes back to the time of the de Morvilles who held sway in the district at the beginnings of the recorded annals of Scotland. Hugh de Morville founded the abbey at Kilwinning (around 1140) and Hugh, or another of the family of De Morvilles, granted the church at Stewarton (then spelt Steuartoun or Stewartoun) to the abbey. This building would be a very small church, would have no heating, no seats, tiny windows with no glass in them, and an earth floor which would become muddy in wet weather.
It is recorded that “the monks enjoyed the rectorial revenues of the church and a vicarage was established for serving the cure.” In Bagimont’s Roll, as it stood during the reign of James V, the vicarage of Stewarton in the Deanery of Cuninghame was “taxed £4, being a tenth of its estimated value.” In pre-Reformation days there was a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the lands of Lainshaw and from this chapel the present name, Chapeltoun, derives. There is a historical reference about the year 1450 to a dispute between Cuninghame and Eglinton (the two main families in the district) which was settled by a conference between them held at the Stewarton Kirk.
From notes compiled by the late Rev. Andrew R. Hastie, minister of Stewarton Laigh Kirk from 1939 to 1960, it is noted that: – “we have preserved to us the names of the last two curates serving Stewarton Parish Church prior to the Reformation in 1560 by which time Stewarton was becoming established as a bonnet making town. At the Reformation Stewarton became reformed like the rest of the country and doubtless the main families took their part in the work of the Reformation. The influence of the Lollards of Kyle a hundred years earlier must have made itself felt, and the supporters of the lords of the congregation meeting at Craigie and then marching to Perth to the support of John Knox’s party in 1558 must have had men from this community or parish – Glencairn being one of the strongest supporters. The light of truth was alight and kept alight by faithful followers of the Reformed Cause and although we have no known martyrs’ graves here, there was a strong covenanting support through this entire region.” The present church – now known as St. Columba’s after the union with the Cairns Church in June, 1961 – was built in 1696 evidently on the site of an older chapel or church. When, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, extensive alterations were made to the building, and earth was being excavated, human bones came to light. These provided evidence of a church much earlier than the reformation.
The building of 1696 was small and the unpretentious spire remaining today was then in the centre of the place. The only other part of that church still standing is the Corsehill Aisle. The Lainshaw Aisle is built in line with the Corsehill one and may not be of much later date. In 1772 the roof was removed and the walls heightened. The minister of that time wrote: – “it is now well seated and holds a great number.” This minister may have been well pleased with his renovated Kirk, but his feelings were ruffled over the conditions of the manse. It had been built in 1642, fifty years before the church. The minister stated that, although it had some small repairs at different times, it was still in a “very bad condition.” That can be easily understood because the manses of those far-off days were usually small and thatched-roofed with not much more accommodation than the traditional but-and-ben.
In 1825 still further alterations and additions were made to the building, but, it is difficult to be specific about what form these took. The Old Belfry still stands where it did when it left the hands of the mason, but the church was widened to the north, throwing the belfry to one side. Close behind the belfry is that part of the Kirk known as the “Bell Loft,” while the “Bloak Loft” is built opposite. The Corsehill and Lainshaw Aisles remained as they were, but the nave of the church was enlarged in front of them. The pulpit and precentor’s desk were opposite these aisles. There were long table-seats in the centre of the church. At communion times the congregation entered at one door and, after sitting down at the tables and partaking of the elements, passed out under the Bloak Loft “to the doleful singing of the tune, ‘Coleshill’.”
A wooden booth or tent was erected in the kirkyard; there ministers and people from far and near preached and listened in the open. An interesting note from these days:- “one or two especially favoured families had boxed seats in the church with the sides built so high that only the bald pates of the men and the feathers or ribbons on the bonnets of the fairer sex could be seen when they stood up at prayers.” The floor was clay and this turned to mud in wet weather when the worshippers entered the Kirk with boots and shoes saturated with rain. Flagstones were laid down the middle of the passages and a wooden bar under each seat for a footstool was all there was to keep the congregation’s feet from treading on mother earth.
In those days all the lofts had outside stairs and the quaint old church must have seemed even more old world as each worshipper climbed the low stair to his own loft. It is interesting to note that there was a fireplace in the Lainshaw gallery where the retainers served soup to the laird’s family between the services – held at 11:00am (until about 1:30pm) and at 2:00pm. This fireplace has long since been bricked up. Towards the end of the 1860’s the church was again altered – it was floored; the stairs brought into the interior and the entire place was greatly improved. Since then it has been re-seated and now seats 1070.
The old pulpit has been done away with and a platform erected. In the late 1980’s the organ console was re-sited to its present position giving maximum access to the communion table and baptismal font. The font was the gift of Mr. and Mrs John A. Sim, in June 1929, in memory of their parents. Above where the organ sits is a brass memorial plate erected to the memory of those members of the Laigh Kirk who made the supreme sacrifice during the two great wars. Further up the wall is a marble tablet to the memory of a Mrs Donaldson of Thornhill (died 1786) and her husband James Donaldson (died 1805).
On the extreme top of the south wall is to be found three keystone shaped recesses with the dates, 1736, 1772, and 1825 carved in them; these represent the dates of major changes to the church building, which were mentioned earlier. The Lainshaw Loft, converted in the 1960’s, contains the communion table and baptismal font which formerly belonged to the Cairns Church. This part of the Church has been used from time to time for small or private occasions. In October 2014, it was set apart for use as Stewarton Foodbank and dedicated to this purpose by Rt. Rev. John P. Chalmers, the then Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
When the Harmonium, built by Alexandre of Paris, was installed, four stained-glass windows were inserted on the north side of the building. Two (one on each side of the pulpit) represent Dorcas and St. Paul. These are in memory of William Mackie and Mary Airstone, his wife. One of the other two windows is in memory of James Gilmour of Clerkland, born 1779, died 1851, Jane Alexander, his wife, and their children. The other was erected by public subscription in memory of John Gilmour, poet, who died at Clerkland in 1828, aged 18 years. “And, oh, prepare our hearts with grace divine, That in the broken bread we may descry, The Lord’s own body bruised: and in the wine Thy blood, oh Jesus, shed by thee for sins not Thine”. John Gilmour was a young poet of Stewarton Parish, and these lines are from his poem “Sacrament Sabbath”. The windows were the work of Powell of London and Keir of Glasgow.
Three stained glass windows are set into the south wall, one being “the tree of life” which originally was situated in the Cairns Church, the other two are found in the Corsehill Aisle – all are dedicated to the memory of John Cuninghame and Margaret Love (presumably his wife.) Also in the Corsehill Aisle is a marble tablet to the memory of Sir Thomas Cuninghame of Corsehill. In the Lainshaw Aisle there is a marble tablet to the memory of William Cunninghame. On the exterior of the east side of the church there are remains of an old sundial built into the wall. On the west wall there are two further stained glass windows. These were also originally situated in the Cairns Church. The Norwell family and the Sim family had them installed in the church during the 300th anniversary of the church in 1996. one is “love” and the other “hope”. The refurbishment is the work of the Kilmaurs Stained Glass Company.
A modern stained glass window was dedicated to the memory of Rev. Philip McCardel first minister of St Columba’s, so named after the union of the Laigh Kirk and the Cairns Church in 1961. This window is the work of Susan Bradbury, a stained glass artist at the Stained Glass Design Partnership in Kilmaurs and represents the journey of Columba from Ireland to Iona on the west coast of Scotland. The outline of the western isles is superimposed by a celtic cross. This window was funded by donations from the McCardel family , the congregation and friends. It was dedcated on St Columba’s Day, 9 June 1996 by the then Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Rt. Rev. John H. McIndoe.
Also on the western side there is the Clock Tower, and in the front there is a pointed arched doorway, now built up, which evidently at one time formed the main entrance. Over that is “an oblong window like compartment” now built up. The “shake fork” of the Cuninghame Arms in an exaggerated size fills up the ancient window place and the motto, “over fork over.” The Church Clock (refurbished in 2015) is understood to be an exceedingly good one. It is very old, dating back to the time when Stewarton was famed for the making of clock-work. The original mechanism was apparently very simple and was the work of a local man called Skeoch.
The bell was originally cast in 1697 for use in the Laigh Kirk of Kilmarnock. It cracked in 1853 and was recast. No longer suiting the requirements of that church it was sold to the Laigh Kirk, Stewarton, that same year. It was further cast due to cracking in 1902 and it is this bell that hangs in the steeple today. The original bell material is therefore as old as the church itself. One old custom still in practice is the ringing of the church bell at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning (to waken the congregation up) and later, just before the Service, at 11am.
Still in use is the solid silver communion service, which bears the date 1720, the work of a local man, and the mark of the silver-smith’s hammer can be plainly seen on it. There is another and later service of pewter bearing the date 1826 and inscribed as presented by the minister and elders. These items are so valuable that they are stored in one of the local banks between communion Sundays. Old communion tokens, dated 1709 and 1725, can be seen in the collection in the Dick Institute, Kilmarnock.
Today the pews are all comfortably cushioned (1991), the main passageways carpeted, and the entire church building well heated: a great change indeed from a hundred years ago! One part of the building that was previously spoken of only in low breath was the mortuary. It is now known as the Bell Tree room and has been used by the bible class and as a collection point for the elders’ material. It is now used for general storage. After several coats of paint, a carpet, a table and some chairs you would never guess its former use. It was named after the Bell Tree that was situated outside the entrance to the room. From this tree the church bell was at one time suspended.
Over many years, and the last 300 odd in particular, a great number of people have passed through the church, some to be baptised, some to be married and unfortunately many for a final service giving thanks for their life. During its history, numerous ministers, church officers (beadles), organists, choir members, elders and others have left their personal mark on the lives of the members and the church itself. Within the old burial ground surrounding the church many Stewartonians found their final resting place.
Some have no memorial whilst others have monumental works of art to mark the grave. One such stone was erected in 1910 by the Stewarton Literary Society to mark the grave of an uncle of Robert Burns, the Ayrshire poet. Some of the stones are extremely old with one bearing the date 1412, although there is doubt over its authenticity. Upon the stones are the names of bygone days, of trades and professions that no longer exist, and reminders of poor sanitation and lack of medical knowledge, which resulted in many deaths at an early age of life. Others, of course, indicate longevity of life as well. Herein lies the past of Stewarton townspeople – those who were the church in their day. The car park over the rear church wall was at one time the local quoiting ground and was well known in the Glasgow and Lanarkshire areas.
Returning to the church, during the last 150 years other churches (such as the Congregational (now the United Reformed Church); John Knox and Our Lady and St. John) have been formed in Stewarton, but this church, at one time called the Laigh Kirk (meaning “low church”), now St. Columba’s when the Laigh and Cairns churches were united in 1961, has an unbroken tradition lasting for many centuries of keeping the truth of Christianity before the people of the parish. The membership of the church comes from within the parish boundaries which stretch from the Eastwood boundary on the Old Glasgow Road to Torranyard in the direction of Kilwinning; It includes about half of Stewarton itself, and it also contains around 100 farms.
These notes (updated in 2016) were kindly compiled by Mr. Archibald Chalmers in 2011 for the purpose of acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the union of the Laigh Kirk with the Cairns Church in June 1961 and contain material extracted from the Kilmarnock Standard, March 1965, (article by Oswald C. Campbell) plus additional notes by Rev. A. J. Geddes (minister 1989-1998), Rev. George Lind (2010-2017).