THE AULD KIRKYARD
History of the parish of New Cumnock, Ayrshire, Scotland
© Robert Guthrie
THE AULD KIRKYARD
A remarkable period of stability then followed for the parish church with the ministries of the Reverend Thomas Hunter (1706-1757), the Reverend James Young (1758-1795) and the Reverend William Reid (minister 1796-1829), collectively spanning almost 125 years service.
It was the Reverend Hunter that began keeping records of baptisms in the parish, starting from 1706. He died in 1760, aged 95 and his gravestone can be found in the Auld Kirkyard nestling against the ruinous wall of the Auld Kirk. His wife Christian Ker lies buried with him, dying in 1745 at the age of 84. This is the earliest date of death I can find on any tombstone within the Auld Kirkyard (however the stone was not erected until at least 1760, the year of her husband's death). Many of the Reverend Hunter's parishioners would not have been in the position to afford tombstones and will lie buried in unmarked graves in the Auld Kirkyard, whilst other gravestones of his time will have been damaged or destroyed.
The Reverend Young writing in the Statistical Account of 1793, records that following the building of two villages (Pathhead and The Castle) near the church, the population of the parish had risen from about 1000 souls to about 1200 during his time there. He gives some insight into the activity in the kirkyard by estimating that 'there may be 40 births, near as many deaths, and about 10 marriages per annum'. The Reverend Young died a few years later and his tombstone can also be found in the Auld Kirkyard, huddled against another wall of the Auld Kirk. There are a number of examples of surviving headstones of the Reverend Young's parishioners, where only the husband and spouse initials are given along with the year - presumably the year of death of the last of the partners to die !
The changing style of gravestones is illustrated with this collection of three.
Left: Another example of an intial and date headstone with IT MG and 1774
The Reverend Robert Craig succeeded the Reverend Reid in 1829 and he proved to be an extremely popular minister, albeit his stay lasted only six years. It was during his ministry that a new parish church was built in 1833 and now known as the Martyrs' Kirk. The original parish church built on the Castlehill had passed on at the grand old age of 174.
The Reverend Matthew Kirkland arrived following the Reverend Craig's departure. In 1838 he had the responsibility of writing the New Statistical Account of the parish, where he reported that a few years beforehand in 1831 the population was 2184, with an average of 86 births, 21 marriages and 42 deaths per annum. The Auld Kirk no longer functioned as a parish church but the kirkyard was still the final resting place for New Cumnock souls. However, it was not to be the final resting place of the Reverend Kirkland. In 1843, the year of Disruption, he left the parish church to form New Cumnock's first Free Church. Most of his parishioners followed him to the new church which was built on the Castlehill on the site of Cumnock Castle and a stone's throw from the Auld Kirk and Auld Kirkyard. He died a few years later and was buried in the Gorbals, Glasgow but a fine stone to his memory can still be seen in the grounds of the Arthur Memorial United Free Church.
The Reverend Robert Murray arrived in 1843 to fill the vacancy created by the Reverend Kirkland's departure from the Established Church. Most of the pews were empty but the Reverend Murray persevered and clearly with some style for his tombstone records 'FOR FIFTY ONE YEARS MINISTER OF THIS PARISH'. These fifty years would see the Auld Kirkyard put under increasing pressure to accommodate the needs of a growing population.
Space within the kirkyard was at a premium and several new lairs were opened within the body of the Auld Kirk. Many of the stones still stand here despite the best efforts of mother-nature and mindless vandals.
The real solution came in the form of support from two spinster grocers from Pathhead. Miss Susan Aird and her younger sister Sybella gave the Parish Council a low interest loan of £1000 to open a public cemetery . A new site was chosen on the Afton Road overlooking the Afton Water, and the Afton Cemetery was opened in 1901, although a number of families continued to use family lairs in the Auld Kirkyard for some time.
The Auld Kirkyard remains one of the most important sites in New Cumnock's history. The kirk is the oldest builidng in the town. The tombstones of ministers, lairds and benefactors and acquaintances of Robert Burns can be found in the kirkyard. More importantly so too can the names of families and farms that have contributed so much to the history of our town.
It is a wonderful yet depressing place to visit. Sadly, mindless vandals are in danger of wiping out 350 years of history for a few minutes kicks.The potential of this place, overlooking the Knockshinnoch Nature Reserve is enormous. Securing the crumbling walls of the kirk, flood-lighting the building, laying a gravel bed within the walls of the kirk, cleaning the tombstones, marking out tombstones illustrating the town's history, publishing a register of family names and lairs all would enhance anyone's trip to this historic place.
Rev. Thomas Hunter
Rev. James Young
Rev William Reid
Rev. Matthew Kirkland
Rev. Robert Murray