Stranraer history

A short history of Stranraer RP Church

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Following the refurbishment of our church hall, we had a look into the archives to find some information about when the hall was first built, and found this article that was published in the Free Press in January 1975

Reference was made to the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, in Stranraer, by Rev J. T. Moffett Blair, on Sunday. The congregation is, of course, much older but the present church is now 150 years old.

The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland met in 1560, and in 1638 the Church bound itself by the National Covenant, and there followed times of severe persecution, and those who held to the Covenant were known as Covenanters or Cameronians.

When the Revolution Church of Scotland was set up in 1690 the Covenanters felt that they could not consistently be part of that Church, and for about sixty years they met as Societies in different parts of the country.

In 1743 they united to form the first Reformed Presbyterian Presbytery and places of worship were erected at suitable centres for the convenience of worshippers. The whole of Galloway formed one congregation but there were many difficulties in working such a large and widespread congregation.

Records show that about 1778 a Jane Blain, living at Kilhilt, resolved to have a R. P. minister at Stranraer. She went to Presbytery at Castle-Douglas with her plea, and ultimately Rev John Fairley came to Kilhilt and preached in the barn there. There was a splendid audience and that was the beginning of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Stranraer and in due course a small church was built where the present church stands.

It was not until Rev William Symington came to Stranraer that the church began to prosper. It is reported that he was ordained on 18th August, 1819, in the presence of an immense crowd, estimated at about four thousand who assembled in the burying ground adjoining the meeting-house.

For the next twenty years Dr Symington did excellent service for the Church. In a short time the church building proved too small for the large congregations that gathered, and in 1824 it was taken down, and another built on the same sit. This church, which is the present building, was opened for worship on 2nd January, 1825. Rev J. T. Moffett Blair, the present minister, referred to this 150th anniversary in the course of the service on Sunday.

The "Free Press" of 31st June, 1898, reports that plans were passed at the Dean of Guild Court for the erection of a hall on a piece of ground adjoining the church which had been gifted earlier by Sir James Caird for the purpose of improving the amenities of the Church. At that time the site was occupied by an old thatched house, then a smithy and a sculptor's yard. The hall was opened on 1st December 1898 at an estimated cost of £300.

'A Special Relationship'

Earlier this year the BBC screened a 3-part documentary entitled A Special Relationship, exploring the connections between Scotland and Northern Ireland. They were originally planning to do some filming in Stranraer, both at the RP church and the Football Club, but had to pull out a few weeks before due to scheduling conflicts.

However a recent book, Preachers of the Covenants, does highlight many of the connections between the RP Churches in the two countries - including quite a few links to Stranraer in particular.

Scottish Connections

David Houston, who 'firmly established the cause of Reformed Presbyterianism in Ulster', was born in Paisley in 1633 and educated at Glasgow University. William Martin, an Irish minister who emigrated with 460 families to America in 1772 was also a Glasgow University graduate, who completed his theological training in Dumfries. At this time Covenanters in Ireland were under the oversight of the Scottish Presbytery, who ordained Martin in 1757 - the first minister of the RP Church to be ordained in Ireland.

Stewart Bates, the son-in-law and biographer of John Paul, who is quoted frequently in the chapter on his father-in-law, was born in Co. Londonderry, received a doctorate from Glasgow university, and served congregations in Kelso and Glasgow. Alexander McLeod Stavely was born near Cloughmills, graduated from Edinburgh university, and as was required of all ministry students at the time, studied for three terms at the Scottish Theological Hall in Paisley under Dr Andrew Symington (brother of Stranraer's most famous minister). J. A. Chancellor also studied under Symington in Paisley.

Torrens Boyd was born in Ireland and ordained to Penpont near Dumfries. Some of his members walked 17 miles to get to church. He resisted calls for unity with other denominations which had begun to embrace liberalism, warning that such a union would be like chaining two ships together - when the waves begin to roll 'they will rasp each other's sides off, tear open each other's hearts and go down together'. The subsequent history of the churches in question would prove him right.

Penpont communion token in use during Boyd's time - on display at Dumfries Museum

Penpont communion token in use during Boyd's time - on display at Dumfries Museum

A. C. Gregg was a Donegal man who served congregations in Loanhead (south of Edinburgh) and Greenock. He served the church through writing as well as preaching: editing the church's magazine, the Reformed Presbyterian Witness, and helping put together the biography of the famous J. P. Struthers of Whithorn and Greenock.

F. S. Leahy, another Donegal man, studied at the Free Church College in Edinburgh and initialled ministered in the Irish Evangelical Church before his increasingly Presbyterian convictions led to him joining the RPCI.

Stranraer Connections

Part of the sermon A. C. Gregg preached at the ordination of Moffett Blair (twice minister of Stranraer, 1932-44 and 1969-78) is quoted. There is also a whole chapter devoted to Moffett's brother Hugh Blair, who began his ministry in Loanhead and served as edited of the R. P. Witness. He spent the majority of his ministry in Ballymoney and wrote the commentary on the book of Joshua in the New Bible Commentary.

Willie Young (pictured below) who was minister of Stranraer from 1946-56 also gets a mention for the role he played in organising a convention of the Reformed Presbyterian Churches of Scotland, Ireland and North America, which was held in Scotland in 1938.

There are also connections to Stranraer in the authors of some of the chapters. Tim Donachie (who contributed the chapter on David Houston) was the moderator of the RPCS when our current minister Stephen Steele was ordained, and preached the ordination sermon. Samuel Ferguson, whose biography of William Stavely is republished in the book, was minister of Stephen's home congregation of Faughan for 47 years. Sam Cromie baptised Stephen's wife Carla. Then Stephen himself has a chapter on Thomas Houston of Knockbracken.

Preachers of the Covenants is available to buy from James Dickson Books in Kilsyth, or the Covenanter Bookshop in Belfast.

Related articles: New book traces history of RP churches in Galloway
Related audio: Sermons on Psalm 23 by Dr Hugh J. Blair.

Mission team wrap-up

Previously:
- Encouraging first full day with Mission Team
- Mission Team: Monday and Tuesday

WEDNESDAY
Having finished distributing leaflets to homes in Stranraer, the team did the villages of Castle Kennedy, Stoneykirk and Sandhead.

In the afternoon two of the team came with Stephen to the Cafe N-Spire recovery cafe he helps out with - sadly the weather meant we weren't able to go fishing as planned, but it was still a good opportunity to chat to those there - and experience some Scottish culture!

The rest of the team did practical work, such as getting the church hall ready for the first night of the mission and gardening. They then went to different peoples houses for dinner, before meeting back at the church hall in time for the first of our special services.

THURSDAY
With the leaflets finished, the team had the opportunity to see some of the many sites around us associated with the Scottish Covenanters, the forerunners of the RP Church.

We were thankful to the Baptist church for the use of their minibus, which meant we could go to Anwoth (where Samuel Rutherford preached about Jesus in the early 1600s) and then Wigtown (where the two Margarets were martyred for Jesus in the late 1600s). Again, the team members were divided between two different homes for dinner before the second night of the Mission.

FRIDAY
In the morning we practiced some songs that we were planning to sing at Belmont Care Home. On arrival however we found that because of illness to some residents, we wouldn't be able to perform. The weather meant we were unable to do any psalm singing in the town centre either, but it did give the team a chance to see round the Castle of St John in the middle of Stranraer. The Castle is also associated with the Covenanting era as government troops were stationed here during the 'Killing Times' in the 1680s.

In the afternoon, the team cleaned seats at Stair Park, where Stephen serves as chaplain to Stranraer FC, in preparation for the new season. After having dinner together in Kirkcolm, the team attended the final of our three special services. Audio of all the talks is available here on our website and on iTunes.

SATURDAY
In the morning the team went to Galloway Forest Park and walked to the monument set up to mark the deaths of six Covenanter martyrs. The monument was originally set up by the Whithorn Reformed Presbyterian congregation during the ministry of Gavin Rowatt, who died at the young age of 30, six years after becoming a minister.

In the afternoon the team attended the baptism of Willow Steele, before heading back to base with those who had come down from Airdrie for the baptism. We're thankful for all the work the team members did and pray that God will use it. We're also thankful for the opportunity to renew friendships from last year, and make new ones. The team came from many different places and churches, but in Christ there is far more that unites us than divides us.

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"Give them the whole Bible!"

Kenneth Stewart (Glasgow RPCS) preaching at the ordination in Stornoway Town Hall last night

Kenneth Stewart (Glasgow RPCS) preaching at the ordination in Stornoway Town Hall last night

Last night saw the ordination of Stephen McCollum as minister in Stornoway. At an ordination service, one of the other ministers is usually given the task of addressing the new minister and exhorting him in one or more particular aspects of his work.

One such address was given in Stranraer in 1932 by Rev. Andrew Cross Gregg at the ordination of Mr Moffett Blair as minister - and it's still as relevant as ever.

After warning about the mistake of thinking that orthodox sermons are more important than a Christ-like life, the older minister went on:

"Another great mistake we ministers make is that we do not give our people enough of the Bible. We have preached too much and too often from single verses and single clauses, and not often enough from whole passages. I advise you to serve to your people big slices of the bread of life...The late Mr. Struthers once took for his text the 119th Psalm - the whole 176 verses! The sermon was printed, and a fine sermon it is, and not too long either! Give your hearers plenty of the Bible. Give them the whole Bible.

A. C. Gregg, then minister in Greenock

A. C. Gregg, then minister in Greenock

After more than forty years of attempt to preach I regret to have to confess that there still remain large and fertile tracts of Bible material which I have never tried to expound. I have, of course, taken many texts from the great Prophets of Israel, but I have not yet tried to travel right through Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and Daniel, to bring to my hearers some of the rich and luscious fruit of the linked thoughts of those grand, inspired men with their living and creative messages.

I take it for granted that you are a diligent student of the Word of God. Walk through the length of it and the breadth of it, survey its heights and its depths, its green pastures and its quiet waters, and then take your people through that good land and let them feel by experience that it is flowing with milk and honey".

- A. C. Gregg, 'To a young minister' in R. P. Witness (Dec 1932), 279-280.

The Reformer John Calvin also urged the importance of studying Scripture in its context. Commenting on a frequent misunderstanding of Isaiah 14:12 (that 'Lucifer' is another name for Satan), he says: 'When passages of Scripture are taken up at random, and no attention is paid to the context, we need not wonder that mistakes of this kind frequently arise'.

As he concluded his ordination address, Gregg said: 'I can assure you, my dear young brother, that there is far more cause to-day for a happy view of the future of our Church than I have ever seen'. Perhaps some of us could say the same today - but if we do, may it not be because our confidence is in men, but because it is in the Word of God. And not just parts of it, but all of it! 'Give them the whole Bible'.

New book traces history of RP churches in Galloway

Although Stranraer is currently the only Reformed Presbyterian Church in Dumfries and Galloway, it wasn't always that way. In fact, there is a rich history of Reformed Presbyterianism in South-West Scotland. This is highlighted in the newly-released Ministers and Congregations of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland: 1688-2016 by James A. Dickson.

The front cover features the Ordnance Survey map of Whithorn from 1844

The front cover features the Ordnance Survey map of Whithorn from 1844

The book contains sections on both the congregations and ministers of the RPCS. Congregations particularly close to Stranraer (which originally included Stoneykirk) included Colmonell, Girvan, New Luce, Newton Stewart and Whithorn. During the ministry of William Symington in Stranraer (1819-1839), we're told that a large proportion of the members were from outside the town itself - Inch, Leswalt, New Luce, Stoneykirk etc.

For an interactive map of locations of RPCS congregations past and present, click here

For an interactive map of locations of RPCS congregations past and present, click here

Other Congregations in Dumfries and Galloway included Castle Douglas, Dumfries, Dunscore, Lockerbie (Hightae), Scaurbridge (Penpont), Quarrelwood and Sanquhar. Congregations in nearby Ayrshire included Ayr, Crookedholm, Darvel and New Cumnock.

The book also mentions a number of revivals which took place in Dumfries in the 1800s, which Stranraer's minister at the time, William Symington, was 'very much involved in'.

Let's pray and work to see God's blessing on this part of Scotland in the twenty-first century!