Paisley High Church (1843-1994)

From the Reformation until 1736, the Abbey was the only church in the burgh and parish of Paisley.  During that year, however, the Laigh Kirk was built in New Street, followed by the High Kirk in 1754, adding a significant feature to Paisley’s skyline, especially when the steeple was erected between 1767 and 1770.

In 1872, the Town Council promoted a Bill of Parliament “to secure by legislative enacment the town’s financial affairs”.  This Bill proposed to pay each of the ministers of the town’s three churches £266-13s-4d per annum, being one third of the interest of 4% on £20,000, the sum in which the churches ranked in the estate of the Burgh.

Over the intervening years, extensive repairs involving excavating, asphaltic for ventilation and dry-rot prevention, erection of light cast-iron pillars to support the balcony, new seating and pulpit, hot water heating, new ornamental ceiling, plastering of all walls, a new entrace to the north side as well as new stairs to both sides of the gallery formed the grand scheme.

Substantial refurbishment was undertaken in the final years of the century in concert with the organ installation and re-siting of the original church hall, opened in 1880, now recognised as too small to cater for the needs of an expanded congregation.  After negotiation for adjoining land in Oakshaw Street, the long-awaited new church hall was built in 1913 at a cost of £2000.  The Session House was used for the first time that year, and the initial suite completed with the McLachlan Hall in 1924.  

The complex was eventually extended by the gift of the Hutcheson School by William Lang, in memory of his sister, Margaret, in 1935.  Incandescent lighting was installed in the church in 1906 and electric lighting in 1935 and 1967.  The gift of a sound system was donated anonymously in 1971.

With the cessation of hostilities in 1918, the War Memorial Committee recommended the expenditure of over £400, contribute in gratitude by the congregation, on to magnificent windows on either side of the pulpit.  Designed by Oscar Paterson, FRSA, the Crucifixion window recognises the 414 men and women who served in the Great War, while the Resurrection window honours the 53 who paid the supreme sacrifice.

On certain Sundays a special effect can be witnessed.  About the start of the sermon, the Crucifixion window, lit by the sun, appears to display the same intensity of light as that of the Resurrection window.  Gradually, but perceptively as the sun moves, a shaw from the steeple darkens the Crucifixion window by stages, while the Resurrection window increases in brightness, until the sun shines, partly through the figure of the angel, with an intensity that almost blinds.

The other stained glass windows are in memory of Rev. Alexander Montgomerie Lang, Minister from 1875 to 1909, and Rev. John Muir, 1910 to 1947.

June 1973 saw the unveiling of the Semple window, appropriately in the presence of the Provost of Paisley as its theme is the close link between Church and Burgh.  The motto of the town, incorporated in the window, referred to the preaching “The” word instead of “Thy” word.  In the 1994 refurbishment this was amended.

The first concession to musical accompaniment of worship was made by the donation to install a harmonium, superseded by the Connoiseur, a powerful instrument at a cost of £83. It was not until the AGM of 1896 that is was agreed to install an organ, completed in 1899, by Messrs Hill and Son, London, at a cost of £1,150.  The organ console was improved as part of a general refurbishment in 1923 and an electric power supply fitted in 1927. After the second World War, a virtual rebuilding of the organ was deemed necessary but not completed until 1950 at a cost of £1800.  This instrument was re-dedicated in December of that year.  

During preparations for one of the broadcasts from the church in the late 1970’s, a BBC engineer proffered advice on the correction of a number of faults, and as a direct result, at a cost of £3,500 a fan and motor were replaced.

Following completion of the steeple and the installation of the clock, the first bell weighing 1050 lbs was put in place in 1771 at a cost of £75.  In 1820, due to, it is said, enthusiastic acknowledgement of the accession of George IV, it cracked after 49 years of service.

The new bell, financed by the Manufacturers of Causeyside, was hung, contrary to convention, to swing from north to south in order that the donors might hear it more distinctly.  Weighin gjust under a ton it was named “Roaring Tam” after a Mr Farquharson who had been most active in raising funds.

In 1832, the first reformed Town Council contended that they had the right to have the bell run for any meeting, even those of organisations with views opposed to the church.  The Provost gave permission for it to be rung to summon a meeting of the Burgher Church, Abbey Close to discuss the formation of a youth group.  As the High Kirk Session had just met for worship, the moderator ordered the bell stopped.

Using the strictest of tones, the minister protested against the action of the Provost.  While the Council agreed to ascertain their rights in the matter, an interdict was granted to the minister and session restricting the ringing to the morning and evening worship and occasions of public rejoicing.  This position was ultimately upheld by the Court of Session.

The bell cracked again in October 1865 while being tolled for the funeral of Lord Palmerston.  Cast from the old, the replacement weighed well over a ton and was hung in 1866.  December of that year saw the tongue break off and in 1871 the bell cracked again.  

Paisley appeared to suffer from cracked bells, as we read of one being replaced temporarily by a repaired bell from the Cross Steeple.  The bell of the High Kirk was restored by James Duff of Greenock in 1872 (see this picture).

The High Kirk has been generously endowed during its 237 years.  Communion Cups were gifted as the congregation grew.  In 1758, silver cups were presented by Bailies Matthew and William Reid, Town Clerk Alexander Skeoch, and Charles Simpson, a local lawyer.  In 1872, a further two silver cups were gifted by Robert Brown in response to a change in Communion distribution to cover the entire church area, and in 1879, a similar donation was made by James Craig to mark the renovation. Another two silver cups were gifted by James Weir in 1927, as were two platters by William Lang.  Two silver flagons were the offerings of Mrs McKenzie of Milliken in 1891 and of Thomas Little in 1966, while plates on which bread was first served in cubes for Communion were the bequest of Miss Walker in 1900.  A similar gift from Mrs Marie Hamilton in memory of her father and brother, both elders, was made in 1983. Ladles and Communion linen were presented by the Allison family in 1947.

The Communion Table was gifted by Mr John McLachlan of Saucel Bank in 1901 and the matching chairs by his wife and nieces in his memory in 1922.  The Misses Begg were also instrumental in having the organ console refurbished and the chancel extended in their uncle’s memory. Austrian oak hymn-boards were donated in 1931 by Revd. John Muir, it is thought, in memory of his minister father who worshipped in the High Church after his retirement and died that year. Around 1970, the offering stands were gifted by Mrs Houston in memory of her parents, Mr and Mrs Andrew, and the vestibule table was provided by the Women’s Guild.

Objections were received in 1791 from the proprietors of lairs in the churchyard about the damage being done by grazing horses.  The Council duly enacted that no cattle of any kind (including horses?) be permitted in any churchyard in the Burgh and that ministers had no rights over grass in the graveyards.  The churchyard was dug over and re-sown in 1884. Notification from the Council intimated that the churchyard might be closed as it was “so situated and so crowded as to be offensive and injurious to health”.  Entrusting to their lair holders to defend their property, the Trustees decided to take no action.  In 1909, the Town Clerk once again served notice on the Trustees to deal with the insanitary condition of the area surrounding the church.
Following the removal of the old church hall, the Town Council paved and railed the space from the gates to the new hall in 1924.  With the permission of the Sherriff, some lairs and parapet walls were removed and the churchyard levelled.

The controversies surrounding the Disruption found the minister throw in his lot with the Free Church party, severing his connection with the High Kirk on 23 May 1843.  Such was his popularity that many of his flock went with him, the precentor being the sole church official left.  In his final sermon, Rev. John McNaughtan said, “I am not going to take farewell of the congregation for they are coming with me; neither am I taking farewell of the walls of the church, for these will hereafter be occupied by the owls, the bats and the spiders.”

On the Sunday following the Disruption, only fifty or so members were present and through a misunderstanding with the Presbytery – one can well imagine why – no clergyman was present. The next Sunday, however, saw the Abbey minister preach at two services to around 800 souls. The status of the Established Church was uncertain and in July 1843, the Council suggested that the three town charges be united – a suggestion immediately rejected by the Presbytery.  By September, the Town Council were apprised of the decision by the Solicitor General that the charges were to remain and the stipends paid.

As the Council had effectively permitted the congregation to choose its minister in 1832, the issues of 1843 would appear to have been less significant for the High Kirk than for other congregations.

Membership had risen to almost 1,200 by the Disruption in 1843 and had returned to that level by 1860.  Rising to well over 1,300 by the turn of the century to 1,600 b the mid 1920’s to 1,800 by the late 1930’s, a peak of 1,861 was reached in the immediate post-war years.  Purging of the roll was obviously practiced more rigorously in the nineteenth than in the twentieth century.  Within twenty years it had fallen to 1,150 to 800 by the early 1980’s and 560 at the time of union.  Communion attendances pre-war were close to 70%.  It is reported that in one year 90% of the congregation took Communion at least once and in 1926, 1,331 people, 80% of the roll, were present at a single diet of Communion.  From 1950, even with decreasing roll, the proportion taking Communion fell to around 65%.

By 1986, the High had joined the Wynd Centre and that proved to be the catalyst for initiating discussions on the “way forward” in late 1987.  Three years and more of intense activity by the Joint Strategy Committee, acceptance by congregations and courts of the individual churches of the Basis and Plan of Union led to the union in 1991.

In March 1903, notification was received from New Zealand that a native of Paisley, William Adams, had died on 15 January and had left about £55,000 from which his relatives were to enjoy the income while they lived.  On their deaths the capital was to revert to the Kirk Session as the Trustees and the income from that money applied to the “maintenance, clothing and benefit of orphan children of High Church members”.

The scope of the Trust was extended over the years, most notably by the cy-pres scheme of the late 1960’s, to accommodate varying degrees the young and not-so-young of the congregation<

Adams House in Elderslie was so named in recognition of the Trust’s contribution of £300,000 towards establishment costs.  Consideration was given in 1956 to a permanent recognition of William Adams, but the Trust was at that time deemed to be sufficient memorial.  A picture of William Adams was later hung in the Session House.