The history of West High Kirk

By comparison with the original Laigh Kirk, the West High Kirk was just a youngster.  A second Church (now known as the Old High Kirk) had been built in Kilmarnock in 1732 to accommodate the growing population, but this did not have the same rights and privileges as the Parish Kirk.  It was known as a Chapel of Ease, as there could only be one Parish Church, and its ministers were appointed by, and answerable to, the Laigh Kirk until 1764.

Ten years after the Laigh Kirk tragedy of 1801, however, the High Kirk was allowed to become a separate independent Parish Kirk.  By this time there were around thirteen Presbyterian Churches in Kilmarnock.

The most important event in the history of the Kilmarnock churches came 30 years later in 1843 with the Disruption.  In 1835 the Church of Scotland had passed the Veto Act (to prevent the worst abuses of lairds and councils picking their ministers) and the Chapel Act (giving ministers of Chapels of Ease, such as the High Kirk, the same rights as the minister in the Laigh Kirk).

This was contested in the courts by, among others, William Cunninghame of Lainshaw House at Stewarton, as he was the laird who picked the Stewarton minister.

He won his case and as a result Dr Thomas Chalmers led a ‘walk-out’ from the General Assembly on May 18th1843. Among the 474 ministers who walked out was Rev. Thomas Main of the High Kirk along with most of his elders, to be joined by six elders from the Laigh Kirk.  Since they had no Church, they were allowed to meet in the old King Street Church.  These new churches called themselves Free Churches and the Kirk Session then acquired a plot of land at the top of Portland Street, and set about raising funds.  Their new Church was designed by Cousin and Gale of Edinburgh and built by local tradesmen.  The foundation stone was laid by William Houison Crawford of Craufurdland Castle, one of the elders who had left the Laigh Kirk, and it was finished within the year.  It cost, including the land, approximately £3,000 and it is to their credit that they opened the new Free High Kirk on July 26th 1844.  It is worth noting that this new Free Church had, within a few years, around 700 church buildings, 500 manses and three theological colleges.  In 1876 some members left the Free High Kirk to form the Grange Free Kirk, then in 1900 the name was changed to the High United Free Kirk.  In 1929 the Church returned to the fold, to be known from then on as the West High Kirk.  1994 saw the 150th anniversary celebrations, yet within six years the wheel had turned full circle with the West High Kirk uniting once again with the Laigh Kirk in October 2000 to form the Laigh West High Kirk.

As regards West High Kirk minsters, in the last years of the 19th century Rev. James Moffat was an interim minister during the Rev. Thom’s illness.  He went on to become Professor Moffat at the United Free Church College in Glasgow and thence to the Theological Seminary in New York.  He was the author of the Moffat translation of the Bible (1926).

Several ministers and former ministers of the West High Kirk were the following Moderators:

Rev. Thomas Main (1843-1857)

Rev. Daniel Lamont 1900-1904)

Rev. G. J. Jeffrey (1920-1928)

Rev. Leonard Small (1935 – 1944)

Rev Ian Miller (1945-1950) (not in Scotland)

In addition, Rev A. McLellan’s son (2000) and Rev I. Millar’s son (2001) also served in this high office. This was a unique achievement for a Scottish Parish Church, with past ministers’ sons providing two consecutive moderators.