The wee kirk at Kirkandrews
Resembling a miniature castle, buttressed and turreted with ornamental portcullis at the entrance and windows, as though its designer was indulging childhood fantasies of building his own toy fort, Kirkandrews church is one of Dumfries and Galloway's hidden treasures.
Photographs by and copyright of Allan Devlin
We sit down to a starter of chestnut and bacon risotto followed by lacy pancakes – so delicate, I tell myself, they can’t possibly be fattening – stuffed with an amazing medley of seafood. The restaurant buzzes with animated conversation focussing, perhaps oddly to anyone listening in, on police speed traps, road hogs and the introduction of petrol pumps. I am sharing a table with Vera Hughes and David Weller of Chester House Production, a touring company specialising in historical drama. Earlier, David as Sir Stenson Cooke, first Secretary of the AA, and Vera, as his wife, Lady May, performed ‘The AA Man’, an entertaining account of the beginnings of the association, established 100 years ago to help motorists avoid police speed traps. At the end of the performance the audience decamped from the ‘theatre’ in a convoy of cars to the Borgue Hotel for the set two-course supper.
The evening, both performance and supper, was an imaginative fundraising event organised bythe Kirkandrews Kirk Trust, set up to restore andmaintain a rather special little church, which, like the AA, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Resembling a miniature castle, buttressed and turreted with ornamental portcullis at the entrance and windows, as though its designer was indulging childhood fantasies of building his own toy fort, Kirkandrews Church is one of Dumfries and Galloway’s hidden treasures. Referred to locally as Kirkanners, it is situated off the scenic B727 coast road from Kirkcudbright to Borgue village or, as they say in these parts, “oot o the world an intae Borgue.” Two miles after the village, is an almost hidden side road on the left. Despite a sign indicating a dead end, this is the road leading to the picturesque church in the hamlet of Kirkandrews.
The church was completed in 1906, by the then laird of Knockbrex estate, James Brown, chairman of Affleck & Brown, the Manchester department store known as ‘the Harrods of the North.’ One of several buildings James Brown constructed on his estate, it replaced a corrugatediron Mission hut. He also renovated the estate workers’ cottages, which until then were little more than hovels, built a laundry where tenants’ wives could do their weekly wash and, a short distance away erected Corseyard Dairy, nicknamed the ‘coo palace’ for its state of the art glazed brick walls, terracotta tiled floor and, at a time when it was almost unheard of in most domestic homes, electricity. James Brown’s choice of craftsmen, cabinet-maker Frank Hallows and coppersmith James Smithies reflects his support of the Arts and Crafts movement and his architect was probably G H Higginbottom of Manchester who designed several of his buildings.
The approach to the kirk is through a pretty stone and wood lychgate – itself a rarity in Scottish churches – with a red tile roof and a stone seat carved on either side. James Brown lies buried on the left of the path while commemorative plaques to other family members are set in the enclosing walls on the right. An intricate design on the porch floor has been created with dozens ofsmall, matching sized pebbles handpicked from the shore. The same pebble patterns can alsobe seen outside several of the nearby cottages. Inside, thechurch boasts several unusual features including a high panelled dado, wood columns richly ornamented with neo-Celtic motifs frame thedoorway and windows, and Norman slab glass in the windows. A dominant feature is the round-archedopen stone fireplace, whose chimney is disguised as a turret. The church can hold around 50 comfortably, though more have been known to squeeze in for the annual carol service when a welcoming fire blazes in the hearth and the church glows in candlelight. It is standing room only for latecomers. Above the fire is a relief sculpture by local artist Jemma Montagu featuring the church’s namesake, St Andrew.
The improbability of the globetrotting saint ever setting foot in Kirkandrews, is ignored in a verse by an unknown author:
‘The pious St. Andrew – he came from abroad,
He crossed the wide ocean, and landed at Borgue,
He built there a church, which is seen to this day,
At ancient Kirkandrews in fair Galloway.’
The lines may be a reference to an older church, the remains of which, now scarcely visible, are in a field next to the nearby graveyard, and date from mediaeval times. Keeping legend alive, R de Bruce Trotter, author of the entertaining Galloway Gossip published in 1901, assures us Andrew visited – to teach the population how to fish as well as helping St Ninian convert the “natives tae Christianity… an he biggit a kirk an ca’t it Kirkanners efer hissel.” To avoid quibbles over the discrepancy in dates Dr Trotter defends his position. “As St Ringan cam tae Whithorn in 305, St Anra maun a been gey aul by then,” he wrote, “But it’s a gran climate thereawa, and they say they hae to shoot the aul wifies tae get them oot o the road, for they dinnae like to bury them leevin.”
Our patron saint would surely have been shocked at the spectacle of “drink and debauch, and commonly great lewdness,” described by an Episcopalian rector in a Large Description of Galloway published in 1684. The occasion was Kirkandrews Fair held annually on August 10, also St Lawrence’s Feast Day. Trading and hiring took place in the morning and presumably strong drink was taken, leading to the lewd and libidinous practices Symson witnessed.
Although the Knockbrex estate was mostly sold off by the middle of the last century, the Brown family still owns the wee kirk at Kirkandrews and uses it for christenings and weddings. “My sister-in-law was married there, and one of my sons,” said Elizabeth Brown, secretary of the Kirkandrews Kirk Trust, whose late husband Andrew was James Brown’s grandson. “All four of my sons were christened in it and five grandchildren.” Unfortunately, builders in 1906 knew little about how to ensure the flat roof remained watertight and, almost from the start, there were problems with leaks, which, in turn, led to warping of the oak panelling and distortion of the metal framed windows. Piecemeal repairs proved ineffective and prohibitively expensive. “Andrew was greatly concerned about the church’s deteriorating condition and worried about its future,” she said. “The family could not afford to undertake the extensive repair work needed. It seemed ashame. It’s full of little unique details like the Celtic motifs and especially the Norman slab glass, which was typically used in the Arts and Crafts movement. There’s only one firm now that makes it. We decided to form the Kirkandrews Kirk Trust so we could seek funding from charities and the Lottery Heritage Fund.”
Total costs of the restoration are likely to be in the region of £178,000. Historic Scotland, enthusiastic about the project, gave a generous grant. Scottish Churches Architectural Heritage Trust, which part funded fees for the initial report, has also been supportive. With these grants, and donations from private individuals, the first phase of the work – the complete renewal of the roof – was able to go ahead. The next stage will include re-pointing the walls and restoring the windows and door followed by the renovation of the interior panelling. Finally, the lychgate and boundary walls will be repaired and easier access for disabled people provided. Despite the possibility of further major grants from funding agencies the Kirk Trust must also raise a large amount of the required funding from its own efforts.
Finding people who can replicate the original work has involved considerable detective work. A company in Kilmaurs has been found to work on the hand made Norman slab glass, which was produced at the turn of the century for the Arts and Crafts movement. A firm asked to repair the roan pipe on the lychgate requested a photograph showing the original pipe. Unable to find one in the family’s collection, Elizabeth Brown contacted the Stewartry Museum in Kirkcudbright. “Amazingly, David Devereux had a glass negative which shows the detail needed. We had a print made and sent it to the firm who will now be able to match the original roan pipe.”
The negative is one of a collection of about a hundred held by the museum taken by a Miss MacFee who travelled round the country in the 1930s, photographing places all over the Stewartry. She kept meticulous records of all the pictures she took and the one of Kirkandrews lychgate is dated 5th September 1935.
Although it may not be the most well known attraction in the Stewartry, from comments in the visitors’ book, those who succeed in finding the church are delighted to do so. Visitors from places as far away as Germany and California, Liverpool, London, Winchester, Cambridge and Lancaster have commented on the wonderful atmosphere in the tiny church. “Astonishing,” writes one, “an amazing place” says another, and it clearly appeals to romantics. One visitor was prompted to write if he were to marry his wife again, “this is the place I would choose for the ceremony.” A young couple dreamed of being married there and a year later a second entry shows their dream came true when they held their wedding in Kirkandrews. And don’t you long to know what sad story lies behind the entry saying, “So sorry, Marina, I spoilt your dream, love, Howard.”
The wee kirk has a special place in the hearts of many who live or lived in the area. Kirkcudbright resident, Amy Smith, grew up near Kirkandrews and attended Sunday school in the church. “It was that nice and cosy, really nice. You thought you were important, going to the Sunday school and putting your hymn book into the saddle bag at the back of the chair,” she remembers. “I always take visitors to see it and everyone remarks on what a special place it is.”
The late John Palmer was born the year the church was built. I was fortunate to meet with John on several occasions before his death a few years before he made his century, and hear his reminiscences. He had good reason to remember the bell, which used to hang in the porch. “We children were strictly forbidden to pull the bell rope,” he told me. “One Sunday just after the end of the 1st World War, I gave in to temptation and gave it a tug.” The rope broke and he had to wriggle into the belfry to carry out a makeshift repair. The very next Sunday the teacher brought an expert bell ringer to give a demonstration. “Explaining how the bell must say ‘lint and tow’, he gave a mighty tug on the rope and the bell pealed out a clear ‘lint.’ My repairs weren’t up to that and before it could reply with a ‘tow’ the whole rope came down round about him,” John chuckled at the memory.
Elizabeth Brown could find no one else who remembered the bell and it was only when the roof repair was being undertaken the fifty-year mystery was solved. “The workmen were removing the old roof,” said Elizabeth. “The trapdoor above the porch had been re-leaded years ago, sealing the entrance to the belfry. We were delighted when they found the bell there.” Thanks to the endeavours of Mr A C Wolffe, the Gatehouse of Fleet architect in charge of the restoration project, a copy of the original invoice for the bell, made by bell founders, Taylor of Loughborough was traced. Dated April 1906, the invoice was sent to the builder, Mr. Wallace. Addressed to Kirkcudbright, North Britain, it includes instructions on how to tune the bell. The eighteen-inch diameter bell has been re-hung in its original position and I like to think John Palmer can sometimes hear it peal out ‘lint’ and ‘tow’.
At the end of the fundraising supper a raffle is drawn for a bottle of whisky and petits fours are served with the coffee. I cannot pretend they are not fattening and ask Elizabeth what else is happening in the wee kirk this summer. “In July and August evening services are being held on Sundays at 7pm. Other fundraising initiatives in the pipeline include the sale of decorative mugs and we’re waiting to hear if we’ve won the Lottery grant to allow us to renew the floor – the piano stool nearly went through it when someone was playing.”
The picturesque church is becoming increasingly popular as a romantic wedding venue. “It is available to all denominations for weddings and christenings,” said Elizabeth. “We don’t make a charge but simply ask people to give a donation and the Trust is also happy to let the church be used for local meetings and concerts. We are trying to conserve the church for posterity – it’s a major task, but worth pursuing.” Elizabeth, in her role as secretary of the Kirkandrews Trust Fund, is happy for people to contact her about using the church. Her telephone number is 01557 870214
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