The history of Laigh Kirk

Welcome to this short history of Laigh Kirk, Kilmarnock This well known Church, historically old, but modern and vigorous in work and witness, is steeped in history, and we give thanks for the faithfulness of previous generations who have provided us with such a heritage.

Laigh Kirk's history and development is an integral part of the history and development of Kilmarnock itself. Between the 4th and 6th centuries an Irish missionary Saint called Marnoc, probably a follower of St. Columba, established a Christian settlement here, and popular belief has it that this settlement was near the site of the present Laigh West High Kirk. Indeed the town is thought to have taken the Saint’s name.

Around the 13th century a church was erected on or near the site of the present building. It was known as the Low (or Laigh) Church, a reference to its geographical position in that it stood in the low part of the town or hamlet as Kilmarnock then was. Nearby there was a corn mill, and the Dean Castle was built about the same time; all of which suggest the establishment of a community.

This then was the first church in Kilmarnock, and following the reformation in 1560, the Laigh was the first and only Church of Scotland in the town.

By 1731, as Kilmarnock flourished and the population increased, Laigh Kirk became too small to accommodate all the worshippers and in that year another Church (the Old High) was born.

The commencement of a third congregation some 30 years later is worthy of mention in that it gives an interesting insight into the system of patronage then existing in the appointment of ministers and the absence of democracy in the Kirk. In 1764 the Earl of Glencairn announced the appointment of the Rev. William Lindsay to the Laigh Kirk. The Kirk Session and congregation opposed this nomination resulting in the matter reaching the General Assembly who ordered the nomination to proceed. On the appointed day many of the congregation surrounded the Kirk, but even after members of Presbytery and other notables, including Lord Glencairn, managed to enter the Church, there was riot and disorder. Reports say that "the good folk of Killie fairly pelted the dignitaries with mud and rotten vegetables, dead cats and other filthy substances". Although the induction had to be abandoned, it was later achieved at the Presbytery House in Irvine, and Mr. Lindsay was installed rather than inducted. Because of this many members left Laigh, some of who formed their own congregation from which the present Henderson Church is descended.

Some 22 years later, in 1786, the response was exactly the opposite when the Rev. Dr. James MacKinlay commenced a ministry that was to continue for 55 years, during which he gained wide respect. Robert Burns seems to have taken an interest in Laigh Kirk ministers of his time, making mention of at least three in his works, and he hailed MacKinlay’s arrival with great pleasure.

During Dr. MacKinlay’s ministry it was not unusual for the Kirk to be packed to overflowing, and old women and the poor took collapsible canvas seats to allow them to sit in the aisles, this probably because of the seat rent system.

A noteworthy occurrence of Dr. MacKinlay’s ministry was the tragedy of 1801. On Sunday, 18th October of that year the Kirk was packed as usual for the afternoon service when some plaster fell from the ceiling. People thought the building was about to collapse, there was a rush towards the doors, and in the panic some thirty people were killed. On examination afterwards the reports say that, although the roof was insecure, there was no danger, and had the people dispersed calmly no lives would have been lost. The building was however condemned and pulled down, and in 1802 the foundation stone of the present Church was laid on the same site.

For 50 years of the present century (1916-1966) the Laigh was served by the Rev. D.P. Howie who is still remembered by some of today’s congregation. Mr. Howie had the remarkable experience of ministering to the Laigh during the latter part of the first world war and throughout the second world war. Following his retirement Kilmarnock Town Council conferred on Mr. Howie the Freedom of the Burgh in recognition of his long service.

Although today all Church of Scotland Churches are Parish Churches historically Laigh has been the town Church of Kilmarnock, closely connected with municipal services and affairs. It is interesting to note from records of 1709 that the former Kilmarnock Town Council accepted responsibility for the maintenance of the clock on the Laigh Kirk Steeple, and to this day the clock is maintained by the local authority. Another example of this relationship was the commissioning in 1721 at the town’s expense of a new weathercock which still proudly adorns the Laigh steeple.

In the burial ground at the side of the Kirk can be seen the gravestones of John Ross, John Shields, and John Nisbet, all executed for taking part in the covenanter’s uprising at Bothwell Bridge, a reminder that the people of Kilmarnock played a significant part in Scotland’s fight to secure and retain the Presbyterian form of worship and administration. Also laid to rest here is Tam Samson, the great friend of poet Robert Burns.

On the Kirk tower the date 1410 is inscribed, and although the entire structure is not that age, relics of a pre-reformation altar from Roman times were revealed in 1803 when the new building was in progress. The present Church building dates from 1802 and the bell from 1853. The first organ installed in 1877 was replaced in the 1920’s, while as recently as November, 1984, the musical praise was further enhanced by the installation of a modern organ following a successful financial campaign by the congregation.

In Bank Street, the stairway to the pulpit still exists although no longer in use; while across the road the former vestry is now a shop. One can picture the minister in bygone days stepping across the road to take the service, an expectant congregation, uncomfortable, straight-backed, and squeezed into old pews.

Originally every space was filled with pews. They were narrow, straight-backed, and with narrow entrance doors at the end. It is only as recently as 1972 that the downstairs part of the Church was re-fitted with well-designed pews, which are comfortable!Inside, the Church is bright and attractive with a feeling of history and appreciation for a treasured inheritance; and nowhere is this projected better than on a Communion Sunday morning with the finely carved table set with fine silver, some of which dates from 1709.

Throughout the centuries the Laigh has been at the heart of Kilmarnock, situated just off the town Centre, and close to what was The Cross. The redevelopment of the town centre involving movement of population, presented Laigh with a fresh challenge and mission, and following the re-seating and redecoration the Church was re-dedicated in January, 1973. In 1995, with financial assistance from grant-giving bodies, the stonework of the building was restored, new lighting installed, and internal decoration carried out. On completion of this massive undertaking the Church was again re-dedicated on 3rd December, 1995.

On the translation of the incumbent minister in 1999, the General Assembly decreed that the vacancy would be filled on the basis of a "reviewable tenure". This was not thought by the Kirk Session to be either a permanent or forward-thinking solution, and so discussions were entered into with West High Church whose own minister Rev. Robert Christie was due to retire and the General Assembly was unlikely to permit a call to the impending vacancy. A Basis of Union was established between the two congregations. This resulted in the union of the congregations of Kilmarnock: Laigh and Kilmarnock: West High on 5th October 2000.

During the union negotiations a joint vacancy committee was formed from both congregations with a remit to seek a new minister who would be inducted as minister of the united congregation as early as possible following the service of union. In January 2001 the Rev. David S Cameron was inducted to the united charge of Kilmarnock: Laigh West High Kirk.

In 2002 a new stained glass window was installed and dedicated in the North Porch. Signifying "New Beginnings" this window adds to the history of this building in the "new Beginnings" of the millennium, the newly-invigorated congregation, and a new modern ministry. So as we go forward in the 21st century the congregation of Laigh West High Kirk looks forward to continuing God’s work here in this historic building.

Early in the year 2009 the Kirk Session of Laigh West High Kirk were approached by the Kirk Session of Grange Church with a view to a possible further union. Discussions were entered into between representatives of the respective Kirk Sessions, and a basis of union was presented to both congregations, this basis of union being accepted by the congregations on Sunday 4th October, 2009. The Presbytery of Irvine and Kilmarnock, at their October meeting, approved the proposed union, and agreed that a Service of Union should take place in Laigh West High Kirk on the evening of 29th October.

The Service of Union was held on 29th October, 2009 when the Reverend David S Cameron was inducted to the charge of New Laigh Kirk. It is of note that three members of the officiating team from Presbytery were themselves members of the new congregation - Presbytery Moderator, Mr Derrick MacAllister; Presbytery Clerk, Rev Colin Brockie; and Presbytery Depute Clerk, Mr. Steuart Dey.

At the reception following the Service of Union a covenant was signed between New Laigh Kirk and St. John's Onthank for a pioneering ministry covering the North West Area of the town.