A Short History of Biggar Parish Church
There has been a place of worship on this site stretching back into the mists of time when early Celtic Saints brought the Gospel into this part of Clydesdale. The first stone built church, dedicated to St Nicholas, is recorded as being in existence as early as the 12th Century and, in the vestibule of this building, hangs a list of ministers from Pastor Robert of Bigir in 1164, down to our most recent minister, the Rev Michael (Mike) Fucella who joined our congregation in August 2013.
The church building you see today dates from 1545-6 when the church was rebuilt by Malcolm, Lord Fleming, following an incident in Tweeddale when his father John, Lord Fleming of Boghall Castle in Biggar, was slain by the Tweedie family while out hunting. The purpose of the new church was to offer prayers for the "weal of the soul" of the founder, his wife, Janet Stewart (daughter of James IV), his parents, forebears and successors in the years to come. To this end a provost, eight prebenderies, four singing boys and six bedesmen were appointed to serve in the new church of St Mary's in Biggar. It was to be the last Collegiate Foundation to be built in Scotland before the Reformation.
A book from the library of the first Provost, John Stevenson, is still in the possession of the Kirk Session and his motto, "Spe Expecto", (I look forward in hope) features on the Grant of Arms presented by the Ross Herald, Charles Burnett, of the Lord Lyon's Court, at a special Thanksgiving Service held on Sunday, 30th June 1996, to mark the 450th Anniversary of the re-building of the Kirk in 1545-6.
The church flourished briefly as a Collegiate Foundation until the Reformation when, in 1560, the papacy in Scotland was overthrown. In 1592 the Church in Scotland became Presbyterian. Then, in 1612, Bishops were re-introduced and in 1637 Charles I tried to enforce Archbishop Laud's Liturgy on the church in Scotland. In 1638 the National Covenant was signed in Edinburgh and, in this building, 200 parishioners signed the Covenant and Lord Fleming took a troop of able men to join the Covenanting Army against the King. During the Commonwealth, Cromwell's Army took Boghall Castle. The Assembly was dispersed and for the next 40 years Synods, Presbyteries, and Kirk Sessions were free to conduct their business in a period of relative peace and prosperity. The diary, preserved to this day, of one Andrew Hay, lawyer and elder of Biggar Kirk, gives a fascinating insight into Kirk life and regular diets of worship at this time. One service described by him is the licensing service in Biggar Kirk of Alexander Peden, the famous "Prophet" of the Covenant. (Extracts from this diary are read as part of one of the exhibits in the depicting Andrew Hay in the Greenhill Covenanter's Museum in the Burnbraes, Biggar.)
After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 an act of parliament was passed bringing back Episcopacy. This brought about further bloodshed in Scotland and the reigns of Charles II and James VII were known as the "Killing Times". Ministers, including Mr Livingstone of Biggar Kirk, resigned and took to the hills to preach and the government appointed Curates to take their place. This was the time of conventicles when men were hunted down by the King's troops, killed, fined and imprisoned for non-conformity and adherence to the Covenant. In 1690 Presbyterianism was restored when William and Mary came to the throne. The Kirk Session in Biggar resumed rule over the congregation and prepared for the discipline of sinners by obtaining a new stool of repentance! The stool, on which is carved 16.B.K.94, is still to be seen in the glass case in the vestibule of the Church.
In the 18th Century internal strife within the Church of Scotland, on subjects such as patronage, led to factions breaking away. In Biggar, those who had seceeded from the Church, formed separate congregations and in time built their own places of worship. The Secession or Burgher Church in 1754 and the Relief Kirk in 1781. Following the twists and turns of Scottish Church history and the replacement of the original buildings with somewhat grander ones in Victorian times, these congregations became known as the North United Presbyterian Church (Moat Park Church) and the South United Presbyterian Church (Gillespie Church) respectively. Following the Union of the Church of Scotland in 1929, the two congregations eventually united in 1946 becoming the Gillespie Moat Park Church and, in 1977, were re-united with the congregation of St. Mary's to become Biggar Kirk.
The Moat Park Church building is currently being offered for sale after the recent closure of the Moat Park Heritage Centre, which was the hub of the Biggar Museum Trust for a large number of years. The former Gillespie Church, now the Gillespie Centre, is run by the Gillespie Association in partnership with Biggar Kirk as a Community Outreach providing Biggar and the surrounding rural area with a focus for a variety of activities and events. It has a popular Coffee Shop, staffed mainly by volunteers, serving teas, coffees, snacks and home-baking and is open from 9:00am - 4:00pm, Monday to Friday.
The church interior that you see today is the result of the restoration of 1935 when plaster was stripped away to reveal the rubble work below. This was done in the mistaken belief that this is how the church would have looked when it was built, but it is nevertheless pleasing. Most of the furnishings, including the communion table, pews, pulpit, lectern, etc., date from this period. The architect was Latto Morrison who is commemorated in the west window. Some interesting items from the earlier church were uncovered at this time including the piscina which was found embedded upside down in a wall under the plaster and can now be seen in the South wall of the Chancel. The church has a total of 13 stained glass windows, the earliest dating from 1870 and the most recent, installed in 1991, is by local stained glass artist, Crear McCartney, which depicts the Times and Seasons and is the only non-figurative window in the church.
More recent additions to church furnishings include two beautifully sewn banners, one commemorating the 450th Anniversary of Biggar Kirk in 1996 and the other representing the Holy Spirit. Both were designed and worked by Mrs Joan MacEwen, assisted by other talented ladies from the congregation. Other banners hung in the church from time to time were made the children of the Sunday Club. The choir chairs were bought by members of the congregation and installed early in 1999 and in 2003 the table and chairs were specially made for the north transept. These were gifted to the church by the families of Miss Mary Barrie, for many years a faithful member of Biggar Kirk, and the Rev. John Warnock a former minister in Biggar.
The organ is by P. Conacher of Huddersfield, originally installed in 1889 in a gallery in the north transept and was rebuilt in the small "Chapter House" in 1935 by Messrs Scovel and Company, Edinburgh. It has been overhauled several times and was completely rebuilt in 1996 by A. F. Edmonstone, organ builder of Forteviot.
The Kirkyard is well worth exploring as it contains many old and interesting stones including a good example of an Adam and Eve stone. At the east end of the church, under the centre window in the south apse, there is a stone to the memory of Alexander Wardlaw, with an epitaph from the pen of Allan Ramsay. Nearby is the burial place of the forebears of William Ewart Gladstone and a recumbent stone marking the grave of the Scottish motoring pioneer, Thomas Blackwood Murray. The stone in the church porch is a pre-Reformation tombstone of a very early date with a floriated cross incised on it. For more than 200 years it formed the lintel of a humble dwelling in Howieson Square, Biggar, before it was restored to the church.