Sunday 19 August 2018

Dalserf - a 17th Century Scottish Parish Church

Dalserf  Church Today
[Image Used with the Kind Permission
of Bob Hamilton Photography]

Dalserf Parish Church in Lanarkshire, Scotland and originally built in 1655, is an interesting and very historic building dating from the time of Oliver Cromwell's "Interregnum" (Commonwealth). Unpretentious in design and not overly large, it is truly a rare survivor of this period in Scottish history. Having been altered, enlarged and ornamented over the intervening 363 years, Dalserf Church still happily serves the purpose for which it was originally built and consecrated. Furthermore, the church has weathered not just the passage of the ages but also, early on in its history, a major ecclesiastical upheaval which shook the Church of Scotland itself to its very core. This picturesque church, which I have personally visited three times, is also of great significance to me as my maternal mother's family worshiped here from 1784 to 1910, most now lying at rest in the adjoining walled graveyard.

The Curious "Hog Back" Stone (lower left)
outside Dalserf Church
[Image Used with the Kind Permission
of Bob Hamilton Photography]

But first let us take a short look at the interesting history of the church site itself. Other ecclesiastical buildings are believed to have existed here prior to the present structure and evidence of this early habitation can still be found outside the Church. In 1897, the gravedigger, Mr Ritchie, dug up a 6ft 3in long gravestone or foundation stone with four rows of scalloping resembling shingles, the style known as a "hog-back" stone. A report to the Ecclesiological Society in 1922 stated that the stone may date from, or even pre-date, Norman times. Similar "hog-back" stones can be found at Govan including a slab fragment at Paisley Abbey. The graveyard itself is in fact known to contain the former foundations of an earlier chapel, most likely to St Serf, "a follower of St Mungo", but this has never been properly investigated, no doubt out of respect for those now interred within the graveyard and not wishing to disturb a large quantity of human remains. But when the wooden flooring of the church was removed in 1894 and two feet of earth dug out prior to being concreted, "a great number of human bones and skulls were found, showing that in bygone days people had been buried within the sacred edifice."  These burials would, however, most likely pre-date the construction of the present church in 1655.

The road leading to the small village of Dalserf is off the now very busy A72 Lanark Road which winds through the scenic Clyde River valley between Lanark and Hamilton, being aptly known as the "Orchard District". A short tree lined side road leads us to the village itself which now comprises of a small row of very picturesque and much photographed cottages and the stone walled church grounds, all being situated in a bend of the River Clyde surrounded by farm and parkland. It is therefore hard to imagine that this truly idyllic and peaceful corner of rural Lanarkshire was formerly much larger and quite populous with the main Ayr to Edinburgh Road in fact passing through "Dalserfe Toune" to the nearby Clyde River crossing. Hence the original importance of this town as a strategic river crossing point and in fact, on the other side of the river is the former ancient site of the strategically placed "Moat Castle".

The Rev Wm. Rorison with "Old Parishioners"
Taken circa 1901
[Source : In Memoriam - Rev W.P. Rorison]

As noted, the Parish would very early on in its existence face a major upheaval, being very aptly named, "The Killing Time". From the ousting of Cromwell in 1660 and the Restoration of the Catholic Stuarts under King Charles II until the overthrow of his successor King James VII at "The Glorious Revolution" in 1688, the Church of Scotland and its members were forced to accept Episcopacy, in other words, the English form of church governance. This included the installation of Bishops and Curates, and the signing of an oath acknowledging the English King as head of the Church of Scotland. Records tell us that no less that 52 parishioners from Dalserf (out of a Parish population of 600) "suffered sorely for their church", with many no doubt refusing to sign the odious 'Oath of Allegiance' to the King. A gravestone to Robert Laurie, being a 'Covenantor' (one who actively resisted this imposition), can be found opposite the belfry door.

But along with a third of Scottish Ministers who, and to their great credit, would not accept the new forms of Episcopacy, the then Dalserf Parish Minister, the Rev Francis Aird M.A., would likewise be ousted from his charge in 1664. Aird would be replaced by Ministers who "conformed" to the new style of church Government and worship, the final appointment being the highly unpopular "Curate" Joseph Cleland. Well educated but single minded and "steeped in Episcopacy", he would put 35 steadfast and resolute parishioners "to the circuit court for trial". Scotland would finally be delivered by "The Glorious Revolution" of 1688 with the Catholic Stuart's now themselves being banished and replaced by the Protestant Hanoverians under King William III.

Thus, one morning in December 1688, Curate Cleland would be "visited by a deputation of armed men" led by my own Covenanting forbear, Captain John Steel of Waterhead. Steel, and as instructed to instill fear, drew his sword and made a small rent in the Curate's gown whereupon the Curate's wife unexpectedly threw herself between the two, asking the Captain to spare her husband and kill her instead! To his credit, Steel "immediately put down his sword and was at great pains to comfort her." Further bloodshed was not the intention with Cleland being simply informed "of the changed circumstances of Church and State..." and "in King William's name ordered to depart beyond the parish bounds".

The Rev Wm. Rorison with Session Members, 1901
(L to R) : Mr Thompson, Mr Chisholm, Mr Scott,
Mr Sorbie, Rev. Dr. W.P. Rorison, Mr Sim,
Mr John Watson (Cander Mains), Mr William Templeton.
[From my own collection]

It was only just prior to this turbulent time in Scottish ecclesiastical history that Dalserf Church had been built, being originally rectangular in shape and without the now distinctive belfry or "bell-cote" with its "elegant slender cast-iron posts".  A branch of the noble and powerful Hamilton family were responsible for funding the building cost, most parishioners being relatively poor but hard working tenant farmers. Within the Church of Scotland these benefactors were known as 'Heritors' and would continue to support the church, the maintenance of the fabric of the Church, and payment of the Minister's stipend. But the downside of this arrangement would be that the 'Heritors' would "present" a Presbyterian Minister of their own choosing to the parish. Only the Rev. James Hog, who served for a short time after 1690, appears to have not settled at Dalserf, believing his congregation "made large profession" but of whom "many were grossly ignorant and otherwise defective" in all that pertained to religion. Some well liked and respected Ministers have, however, happily served unusually long ministries in the parish.

Styles of worship and preaching have changed somewhat since the Protestant Reformation in Scotland in 1560. The aforementioned Rev Aird, having been installed in 1646, was noted for his piety and "wept much in prayer and preaching and insisted much on death and judgment". His communions were well attended, drawing many "hearers" from outside the parish which was quite a compliment. Aird was also "punctilious in dress" and believed that "mounted [embroidered] gloves" should be worn while preaching.

The earliest extant Communion cup now at Dalserf is a "glitter ware" vessel of "chaste [restrained] design", having been donated to the parish in 1701. The original church accommodated a long "fenced" communion table down the centre, the style of communion formerly practiced being to sit down at the table to receive the Lord's Supper so more than one sitting would have been necessary. 

It was in the early 18th century that the area "gained a rather odious reputation for the crime of body snatching". Cadavers were then sold for medical dissections on a "no questions asked" basis. This crime was prevalent in many areas and although no specific cases are given,  Dalserf was, according to Historian Andrew Cunningham B.Sc., like their neighbours not immune.

Order of Service for the Coronation
of King Edward VII, 9 Aug 1902
[From my own collection]

The Rev. John Risk, who served from 1761 to 1805, appears to have been blessed with a quick wit and keen sense of humour although this did not always please his parishioners. When a number of pious men of the district expressed dissatisfaction with his doctrine as, "he did not make them renounce their own righteousness." He replied, "For a very guid reason; I didna ken ye had ony to renounce." 

Until the latter years of the 19th century the Church Minister and Session spent what we would consider to be an excessive amount of time passing judgement on Parishioners who were in breach of accepted standards of behaviour, an example of which occurs in the Dalserf Session minute book of 1812 ; "The Session resolve that all persons absenting themselves habitually from Divine Service shall be excluded from all communion with the Church till they shall give solemn promises of amendment and ample external proofs of repentance, etc., etc.

Church discipline also extended to those who needlessly worked on the Sabbath and to those who, "ignored or forestalled the marriage ceremony". But equally, the Heritors and Church Fathers administered poor relief and oversaw the Dalserf Church Library and Church School, educational support from the State then being sadly lacking. In 1840 the Session Clerk was also the Schoolmaster and had the responsibility of "collector of [the] poor's rate".

A Presentation Bible, Purse and Sovereign
presented to my Gt. Grandfather in 1910
[From my own collection]

Church attendance over the early years of the 19th century is worthy of mention. With 800 regular communicants there was only seating in Dalserf church for 550 and "much bad temper at times prevailed amongst the parishioners, and some unseemly quarrels took place even in the church." By 1835 this had led to the unusual phenomena of "tent preaching" in the church yard over the summer months. With a chapel opened at Larkhall in 1836 this would finally relieve the pressure on church accommodation at Dalserf. But from the 1831 census we know that not only was the population of Dalserf itself dwindling but that the population of the parish was growing to the extent that there were 91 more families in the parish than houses. The importance of Dalserf had in fact diminished from the time of the opening of the direct Hamilton to Lanark Road in 1800 which bypassed the town.

From 1848 the parishioners of Dalserf would have the added convenience of a stove in the church to keep them warm during services. This was no doubt appreciated as services - and sermons - could be tediously long. Little wonder that one of my forebears at Dalserf took their own "pew cushion" to church. I note, however, a reference dated 1904 that unusually for the time, sermons were; "sometimes as short as ten or twelve minutes, but usually much longer." The now aged Minister had probably not the same stamina as formerly. Short sermons would, in earlier years, certainly be the exception rather than the rule.

"William P. Rorison Minister of Dalserf" [30 Nov 1882]
[From my own collection]

A notable Ministry, being the Rev. William Rorison D.D., occurred from 1851 until his death "in office" in March 1907, a quite remarkable period of 56 years. The great depth of feeling at his loss is aptly expressed in the account of his funeral service and mournful procession through the village to the Dalserf Railway Station (which closed in 1951). An interesting anecdote describes an event which occurred at the end of the funeral service;

"In conclusion [Rev] Mr Paterson, with a thrill of emotion, besought the divine intercession for the bereaved congregation, and the sorrowing relatives and partner of his life. After the benediction, the children of the four Board schools in the parish sang that beautiful hymn, 'The Sands of Time are Sinking'... Up till this point in the service the interior of the church was somewhat dull and dark, but when the second verse of the hymn was reached a stream of sunshine burst from one of the gallery windows, and striking up the coffin, encircled it with a halo of light. The effect produced added much to the general impressiveness of the service." 

Dalserf Church, circa 1906
[From my own collection]

Rorison's Ministry marked a time of further change in Church worship and practice ranging from the use of the new "Scottish Hymnal" to the use of printed communion cards in 1874 which now replaced the traditional metal 'communion token', and the introduction in 1894 of an "American Organ Harmonium" to now accompany church singing. By now the taking of Communion had also changed with the Lord's Table no longer being "fenced off". I have been informed by a former Presbyterian Church Archivist that the communion wine had, in at least one Church of Scotland parish, been taken using small individual ladles rather than commonly drinking from Communion cups or vessels. Curiously, upon my Great Aunt's death we found upwards of 20 six inch long mid-Victorian era silver plate curved ladles carefully wrapped in old thin brown paper. As her Father had been a long-serving Elder at Dalserf I wonder if there is a connection here as whatever reason could they otherwise have had for so many ladles!

In 1894 William Hozier, First Baron Newlands, being the owner of nearby Mauldslie Castle, gifted £1,000 to further enlarge and renovate the church (previous renovations and enlargements having occurred in 1721 and 1818-19), including the addition of upper galleries and the curious outdoors stairways to access them as well as a new clock for the steeple. The church now forms a "T" shape but retains elements of the original fabric of the 1655 church. While each of the three galleries have their own entrance the ground floor alone has four entrances, so with seven entrances in total this is surely a record for any church of this size! Pews still have numbers while some 'boxed' areas and galleries carry the names of local estates including Dalserf House and Mauldslie House [castle] denoting reserved seating for themselves, their staff, guests, and principal tenants. Records confirm that "pew rentals" were not charged prior to 1840 but, as indicated by the numbered pews, may have been subsequently introduced as a source of revenue .

In 1911 the Church 'Heritors', with their landholdings and fortunes diminishing from changed economic conditions, suppressed agricultural prices, and the imposition of punitive death duties and taxes, offered to pay just half the cost of the redecoration and repainting of the church and now expected the parishioners to assume responsibility for the other half. Hozier's son, James, Lord Newlands, would, however, generously come to their aid, and completely covered the parish's liability. Such was the generosity of these great families who gave so much back to their community. Now, sadly, even their grand residences have gone, including Dalserf House, Broomhill, and the much lamented Mauldslie Castle.

Dalserf Church Interior Today
 [Image Used with the Kind Permission
of Bob Hamilton Photography]

In late 1910, my Great Grandparents along with the remainder of their children, having been tenant farmers on lands in the Parish owned by the Duke of Hamilton, departed Dalserf to join the rest of their family in New Zealand. Three members of the same family would return in 1957, noting that the Church interior had been renewed since their time; "Pulpit and organ and Communion Table all changed – too modern to be in keeping with the rest of the Church.” Personally I like the design but they would have been familiar with the original which was no doubt typically plain and sombre. The attractive oak Communion table and chairs were in fact donated by Mrs Lockhart of Lockhart House in 1911, the year after my family departed so even by 1957 were not exactly "modern". They also noted the "thatched cottages" leading to the church which are now roofed in slate which lacks the same romantic appeal. The beautiful large stained glass windows on either side of the pulpit were gifted, according to the church history, in 1928. These windows were formerly covered up except for a small section of "coloured glass" in the upper areas, being the generous gift of the Rev and Mrs Rorison in 1894.

My Great Aunt would, however, never forget Dalserf, the church of her youth and of former happy times. Upon reading in the "News" of October 1977 that very expensive repairs costing upwards of £7,000 were required to the then decayed fabric of the church including three outside staircases coming away from their walls with one being "potentially dangerous", eroded lead roof flashing, water damage and rot to the massive roofing timbers, and a deteriorating bell tower; she remitted a sum of money to the Parish towards the repair fund and only a month before her death was thrilled to receive a personal reply from the Minister, the Rev Keith McRobb. Now without the support of the former 'Heritors', maintaining Dalserf church over the intervening years has evidently been, for a now smaller congregation, rather a challenge. But the historic nature of the building together with a Category A Historic Places listing and thus eligibility for "grant aid" engenders for it a level of public and local support which other churches may lack.

The church now appears to be well cared for and in good condition. One hopes that Dalserf church will, in these times of ever diminishing congregations, continue to serve as a House of God for many more years, a purpose for which it has already ably served for over three centuries. If you have the opportunity please visit this 'hidden' gem and neighbouring village which, incidentally, is currently vying for the "Wee Villages" section of the "Beautiful Scotland" contest to find the nation's 'greenest' communities. I think it has every chance of success. The winners will be announced in September 2018.

All Rights Reserved

The very kind assistance of Mr Bob Hamilton of Bob Hamilton Photography, Motherwell for his beautiful photographs of Dalserf Church and cemetery grounds is very gratefully acknowledged.

Sources :

- Watson family collection; photographs, ephemera and artefacts (held by the writer)
- Period newspaper clippings (no attribution)
- The "News", October 1977 (from my own collection)
- Dalserf Parish Magazine, 1912 (from my own collection)
- "In Memoriam, Rev. W.P. Rorison, D.D." (from my own collection)
- "A Short Historical Account of Dalserf Parish Church", 1955 (from my own collection)
- "Dalserf Parish Church, Founded 1655", circa 1977 (from my own collection)
- "Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae : The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland" (Hewitson Theological Library, Knox College, Dunedin)
- "The Lairds of Dalserf", by C. Henderson-Hamilton (Internet source).
- South Lanarkshire Council Cemeteries Officer (correspondence 2013)

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