History of Bishopton Parish Church

A SHORT HISTORY

From an historical perspective Eriskyne was the old name of this parish and was one of the original parishes of the Presbytery of Paisley when it was constituted in 1590, after the Reformation in 1560.   The first minister was a former priest by the name of the Rev. Robert Semphill and he was appointed in 1567: he served until 1571.

Between 1571 and 1591 there were three further ministers after which two members of the aristocratic Brisbane family [predecessors to the Blantyre family] became the  5th and 6th ministers.   In 1591 the Rev William Brisbane became the minister, serving until 1642 after which his son, the Rev Mathew Brisbane, ministered for 7 years until 1649.   It is interesting to note that the Australian city of Brisbane was named after one of the family who became Governor General of New South Wales.

Even earlier than this, reference is made to Eriskyne in 1207 when a dispute between the Abbot of Paisley and the Bishop of Glasgow arose regarding the livings [source of income] of the parish.   When Walter Fitzalan, the High Steward of Scotland, established Paisley Abbey he granted the livings of Strathgryffe to the Abbot but because Erskine was in Strathclyde, the Bishop laid claim.   After reference to Rome the Bishop won, although a few years later he assented to the livings given to the Abbot.

Robert Walter Stuart, the 11th Lord Blantyre [1777-1830], was the benefactor who gifted the site and built the church.   He lived at Erskine House [now Mar Hall Hotel] and was the Laird of Erskine and the Heritor at that time, with the responsibility of providing a church building the consequence of which is the building we see today.  

It is interesting to note that the 80 foot high obelisk, which occupies a prominent position off Erskine Ferry Road between the church and Erskine Golf Course, was erected to the memory of Lord Blantyre, who was a Major General in the British Army and served with the Duke of Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815.

The present church building, which was completed in 1815, is located on a site where Christian Worship has taken place for centuries and it sits on a hillock facing southwards and slightly west of an earlier church building which had been located in the kirkyard: Bishopton lies about 1 mile away. 

The Church was designed a galleried Gothic Style by David Hamilton in[1768-1843], a Glasgow architect who trained originally as a mason and who was called the “father of the profession” in Glasgow.  

He was responsible for a number of famous buildings in Glasgow, including Hutchesons’ Hall in Ingram Street and the Royal Exchange in Queen Street.   The stone used in the construction of the church building is that of a local grey flagstone from a quarry which was opened on the Erskine Estate.

It has been suggested that some of the labour for the building construction was provided by French prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars who were imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle but there is no verified evidence for this.   Historically, it is understood that the original site was close to an ancient crossing point at Dumbuck Ford on the River Clyde and it is thought that this could possibly have been on the old route to the Community of St Columba on Iona and thus a Mission Station was probably established.

The original organwas installed in 1896, purchased second hand from one of the large houses of Paisley.   Also, it is worth reminding ourselves that at this time electricity was not in general everyday use and the ‘power’ for the organ was provided by an Organ Blower, who would have been paid around £2.00 per annum.   Subsequently it was operated by electricity.   However, in 2014 it became known that a more modern pipe organ was available at nominal cost from Corran Esplanade Church in Oban, which had closed, and in early 2015 [co-incidentally the bi-centenary year of the present church building] this organ was installed in Bishopton Church with minimal disruption.   This organ was built in 1956 by J W Walker & Sons Ltd of London: the large pipes behind the organ are ornamental. 

The first minister of this new church [1815] was the Rev. Dr. Andrew Stewart, who in October 1809 had married the Honourable Margaret, the only daughter of Alexander the 10th Lord Blantyre who died in 1783.   The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stewart was both a well-known medical doctor, writer to the signet and a minister.   The only child of this union was Robert Walter Stewart who became a minster and the assistant to his father in 1837.   He succeeded his father on his death in December 1838.

It may be of interest to learn that the Stewart family history did not end here because in 1845 the Rev. Robert Walter Stewart moved to Leghorn [read Livorno], Italy and surprisingly, ministered to a large Scottish population in this region of Italy.   In 1849 he received a doctorate and then on 19th September 1852 his son, Alexander David Stewart, was born.   Alexander’s antecedents included the Hon. Henry Cockburn, Justice of the Supreme Court of Scotland … his grandfather on his mother’s side.   

At the age of ten Alexander was sent back to Scotland for his education.   Later he studied medicine at Edinburgh University.   He also studied with Joseph Lister … the well-known pioneer of antiseptic surgery … at Aberdeen University but in essence he had a somewhat erratic life.   He was intelligent, courageous, impulsive and never lacked confidence and in the mid 1870’s set out for Canada to fulfil his dreams: in 1880 at the age of twenty eight he became Hamilton’s Chief of Police.   Subsequently, in the 1890’s he served two terms as mayor of Hamilton, Ontario but overall he had a very ‘colourful’ life, dying in 1899 at the age of forty six.

However, over the last 200 years the church has had several minor name changes culminating in 1999 with a change from Erskine Parish Church Bishopton to Bishopton Parish Church, this change being made to avoid confusion with the nearby New Town of Erskine.

Our church symbol was designed in the early 1970’s when the Erskine Bridge and the M8 motorway were opened.  This was also the time when two church congregations [Old Erskine Parish Church and Rossland Church] united as one Church of Scotland in Bishopton and ultimately became known as Erskine Parish Church Bishopton.   Hence the symbol’s shape of strength in unity and the predominance of the Cross here in our parish, with its hint of motorways and bridge girders.

The church had a total seating capacity of about 350, with side aisles on the ground floor and a semi-circular gallery but in the year 2000 the chancel was extended by removing the front pew and four smaller side pews [two inward looking pews on either side of the pulpit] thus reducing the capacity to around 300, including extra space being provided for a few wheelchair users.

The main entrance is under the tower at the south-west end of the church and the arch over the door has figures at each end: their origins are unknown.   Above this arch is the weathered coat-of-arms of the Blantyre family.  

This ‘west end’ of the church has an embattlemented tower, where a bell from the “old church” was hung.   In 1824 it was reported that the bell was cracked and a new bell was cast in 1826 at a total cost of £33.   This is still rung every Sunday to call “The Faithful” to worship, although until 1955 the bell was also rung at 10.00 a.m. as a “Wakening Bell” to rouse the congregation.

On the outside of the building, at the left side of the main door, is an Ordnance Survey bench mark indicating that the building is 120 feet [approx. 36 metres] above sea level.   

During construction it was decided that a room for the use of the Heritors would be provided and this was built into the tower immediately below the bell.   Entering the door into the tower one notices that the walls are of the original rough stonework.   This was revealed in the late 1990’s when the old plaster was removed because of problems with rot and gives the entrance an older and more rustic appearance.

On the door [to the modern boiler-house] opposite the front entrance hangs a ‘Welcome Banner’ made by ladies of the church and on the wall of the stair leading to the wood floored gallery is a beautiful wall hanging portraying the classic symbols of Christianity … Celtic Cross, a Dove, a Fish, the letters Alpha & Omega, nails to represent the Crucifixion … and our local Church Symbol.   This hanging was designed and hung in the early 1990’s.

Access to the gallery is gained from the base of the tower and from the gallery one gets an idea of the size and shape of the church’s interior.   One notable feature of this ‘formal’ country church is that there is no stained glass in any of the windows.   In the circle of the front gallery there is the pew that, in the days of the Heritors, would have been the Laird’s Pew.   One interesting feature at the front lower edge of the church gallery is that one can see the hooks which were used to hang oil lamps before electricity was installed … in 1933.   The system has been replaced since then!!

Bishopton Parish Church is a side aisle church … with an aisle running down both the long north [left] and south [right] walls, when the sanctuary is entered from the church tower.   On the north wall is a brass memorial plaque to members of three generations of the Maxwell family who fell in the Great War and adjacent is a plaque commemorating the men of the Parish who gave their lives in that conflict.   Also on this wall is a hand-stitched ‘tapestry’ by ladies of the congregation acknowledging the bi-centenary of the church in 2015.

There are several other commemorative plaques on the walls together with some attractive wall hanging made by ladies of the congregation. 

Also, in the sanctuary adjacent to the chancel is a Baptismal Font dating from 1843, this still being used for modern baptisms.   It was originally the baptismal font for Rossland Church and came to this church building in 1971 when the churches united.  

The Communion Table was consecrated in November 1947 as a memorial to all who fell in both World Wars and on this table is a small cross acknowledging the bi-centenary of this church in 2015.   It was made by a member of the congregation.

There are also several small but important extensions to the building.   One of these was designed by W. D. McLennan [1872-1940], a Paisley architect and a contemporary of Charles Rennie Mackintosh [1868-1928], and this was formally opened in 1903.   The other main and more modern addition is that of a small, flat roofed extension hall built in the 1960s.   The windows from this extension hall and former vestry look out onto the old Churchyard in which the oldest headstone is dated 1590, the year that Paisley Presbytery was set up after the Reformation.

Within the old Churchyard a stone of national interest marks the resting place of Jean Breckenridge or Burns [died 1841], wife of Gilbert Burns who was the younger brother of Robert Burns and therefore the sister-in-law of the National Bard.   Buried beside her is her second son, James Burns, who died only 6 years later in June 1847.   Jean worked in Erskine House with the Blantyre family after her husband’s death in 1827.    The Churchyard is also a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, in which there are more than twenty internments.