History of the Parish
of New Cumnock
by Robert Guthrie
'Although we be for government and governors such as the
word of God and our covenant allows, yet we for ourselves
and all that will adhere to us, as the representative of the true
presbyterian kirk and covenanted nation of Scotland,
considering the great hazard of lying under such a sin any
longer, do by thir presents disown Charles Stuart, that been
reigning (or rather tyrannizing as we may say) on the throne
of Britain these years bygone, as having any right, title to, or
interest in, the said Crown of Scotland for government, as
forfeited several years since, by his perjury and breach of
covenant both to God and His Kirk, and usurpation of His
Crown and royal perogatives therein, and many other
breaches in matters ecclesiastical, and by his tyranny and
breach of the very leges regnandi in matters civil. For which
reason, we declare, that several years since he should have
been denuded of being king, ruler or magistrate, or of having
any power to act, or to be obeyed as such. As also, we,
being under the standard of our Lord Jesus Christ, Captain of
Salvation, do declare war with such a tyrant and usurper'
The Reformed Presbyterian Church is oftened referred to as the Cameronian Kirk in honour
of Richard Cameron, 'the Lion of the Covenant', one of the greatest field preachers of the
Covenanting period. On June 22nd 1680, he and his brother Michael, and 19 of their
associates, including Patrick Gemmel of Cumnock Mains (New Cumnock), gathered at
Sanquhar Cross and issued the first of the historic Sanquhar Declarations .
The royal response was swift and a warrant was issued on
the 30th June 1680 for the apprehension of these
'notorious Traitors and Rebels against Us and Our
Authority'. Three weeks later, on the 22nd July 1680, the
government troops under Bruce of Earlshall, came upon
Richard Cameron and sixty of his followers at Airdsmoss
(Ayrsmoss), in the parish of Auchinleck. Richard, his
brother Michael and seven others were killed in the battle.
Patrik Gemmel escaped with his life but one of those fallen
was said to be the spouse of Joanet McMichall of the
Bank, New Cumnock. Five years later when the 'Killing
Times' visited the parish of New Cumnock, tradition has it
that Marion Cameron, sister of Richard, was martyred
with Margaret Dun of Ochiltree and both lie in an
unmarked grave in the Martyrs' Moss, near Dalgig Farm.
Declaration monument at Sanquhar
Persecuted people from across the country had formed societies for Prayer and Fellowship.
The moors and hill-sides became open-air churches for these hill-folk as they were also
called. A rugged lonely boulder would suffice as a makeshift pulpit, for preachers such as
Cameron, Renwick or Peden. 'As the persecution grew more intense, these socities
multiplied and expanded, and were graded and grouped together in counties or
districts, and federated or subordinated as in Presybyterian order, and were wont to
assemble in General Quarterly Meeting. On the authority of the Gordon of Earlston,
where the General Meeting was often held, we learn that in 1683 there were eighty
Societies, representing an aggregate of seven thousand members, exclusive of women;
and at the Revolution they mustered nine thousand on Douglas Moor' [James Barr,
'The Scottish Covenanters']
[Aside - William Gordon of Earlston , fighting with the Covenanters was killed at the Battle of
Bothwell Bridge in1679. His son William (born 1654) became the 1st Baron of Earlston and
Afton in 1706, he died without issue and the title passed to his elder brother Alexander
Gordon. Three generations later Alexander's great-granddaughter Catherine, would be one of
the leading pioneers in developing the New Cumnock Coalfields.]
Richard Cameron and fellow
Covenanters before Airdsmoss
The 'Killing Times' of 1684-1685 represent the height of the persecution of the Covenanters.
The Reverend James Renwick had filled the enormous gap left following Cameron's death,
and was the acknowledged figurehead of the Society people. Two Covenanters' tombstones
stand at opposite end of the parish of New Cumnock, marking the spot of martyrdoms of five
Covenanters, who had been captured on their way home from Renwick's conventicles. The
names of Humphry, Wilson, Jamieson, Corson and Hair passing into New Cumnock's history
on the Killing Day in 1685. Although it is unlikely that any of the fallen belonged to the parish,
there are many in parish that feared for their lives for their adherance to the Scotland's
Covenants. The aforementioned Patrick Gemmel, Crichton of Craigman, Stillie of Craigman,
John Tennant of the old castle, John Wood of Lowes, William Lambie in Polquheys, James
Steel in Waterhead, George Gemmil in Maneight, Greig in Maneight, James Wilson in the old
castle, all appeared in a 'proclamation for apprehension'. Other Covenanting traditions
include the families of Campbell of Dalhanna, Campbell of Lochbrowan, Campbell of
Lochengarroch, Good of Little Mark and Hutchison of Dalgig.
James VII and II was proclaimed king in 1685. Renwick and his Society People as 'the
contending and sufferering remant of the true presbyterians of the Church' , followed in the
footsteps of Cameron to Sanquhar Cross and on the 28th May 1685 declared their protest against
'a murderer that had shed the blood of saints of God' - the second Sanquhar Declaration.
Renwick would pay with his life on the scaffold at the Grassmarket, Edinburgh in 1688. However,
no others would make that final climb for James was overthrown by William of Orange in what
was called the Glorious Revolution. However, to the Society People the Revolution Settlement
was far from glorious. Although presbyterianism was restored as the Established Church in
Scotland in 1690, the Covenants were not, the spirit of the Sanquhar Declarations was not and
William and Mary were not Covenanted monarchs. Those that felt strongly enough stayed outside
the Established Church to form their own Reformed Presybterian Church.
Reformed Presbyterian Church
In the first decade of the new century the Reverend John
McMillan, of Balmaghie, left the Estbalished Church and
became the leading minister in the Reformed Presbyterian
Church. His influence being so great that the Reformed
Presbyterians were known as 'McMillanites'. A thousand
McMillanites attended the the first communion of this church
on Auchensaugh hill, near Douglas in Lanarkshire. 'The
Queen and Parliament and all opposers of Our
Covenants and Covenanted Reformation' were barred
from the communion Tables on that historic day on 27th July
1712. [Rev James Barr 'The Scottish Covenanters'].
This open-air meeting, an18th century conventicle, would
remind all those that attended that the origins of their church
were with Richard Cameron and the Covenanters of the 17th
Century. The Reformed Presbyterian Church is still often
referred to as the Covenanters or the Cameronian Church.
Balmaghie Church and Covenanting
Tombstone to two David Hallidays.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church in New Cumnock
The parish of New Cumnock has a strong Covenanting heritage. However, most parishioners
remained within the Established Church when Presbyterianism was restored in 1690. Almost
100 years later in 1793, the Reverend James Young writing in the First Statistical Account
of the parish states that from a population of 1200 only 12 were Seceeders from the
Helen J Steven explains that these 'Dissenters belonged to the families of the Reformed
Presbyterians , the Wilsons and Stitts, who had come about that time from
Dumfriesshire to the farms of Gatehead and Brockloch. The two families formed the
nucleus of the church, and by and bye a place of worship was built, probably at the
beginning of the century, as it is first recorded in the year 1809. The meeting house was
a very small edifice, plain and unpretentious in appearance, and very uncomfortable,
notwithstanding, that much was done to ameliorate its first condition.' James Stitt's name
was on the title deeds of this small building at Afton Bridgend [George Sanderson].
The Reverend Matthew Kirkland writing in the second Statistical Account of the parish in
1842, provides a breakdown of church attendance in the parish in 1831 ' Established Church
-1752, Seceeders of various denominations- 299 and Reformed Presbyterians- 117'. One
year later, in the Disruption Year of 1843, the Reverend Kirkland had left the Established
Church, to set up the Free Church on the Castlehill, and the vast majority of his congregation
went with him. The small minister-less congregation of Reformed Presbyterians may either
have been inspired or feel threatend by this schism, but whatever the case they formally aligned
themselves to the Presbyterian Church in 1847. It would be 12 more years before a minister
accepted the call to this small meeting place in the rural upland parish of New Cumnock, but in
Matthew Hutchison from Edinburgh, the wait proved to be worthwhile .
1859 - 1900 : Reverend Matthew Hutchison
In 1859, the Reverend Matthew Hutchison, born in Lasswade, Edinburgh in 1829 became the
first minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in New Cumnock. The small meeting place
was replaced in 1866 with a fine new church, with seating for 300 and a manse for the fine new
minister. Despite being isolated in this remote parish, the Reverend Hutchison attained national
acclaim within the church as its historian following the publication of his ' The Reformed
Presbyterian Church in Scotland: Its Origin and History, 1680-1876' .
Here, Hutchison reaffirms his church's historical link with Richard Cameron. 'In Richard
Cameron and his associates we see the founders of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and
the Sanquhar Declaration was the first public announcement of its seperate position.
Without binding itself to every form of expression or detail, that Church has ever regarded
this document as embodying principles that are of high importance in themselves, of
enduring value, and of world-wide application'
Reformed Presbyterian or Cameronian Church built in 1866 (photo courtesy of Donald McIver)
The Reverend James Barr in 'The Scottish
Covenanters' relates that one of the key
purposes of the Society Meetings was,
'To erect and repair fitting memorials to
the Martyrs to bring to the next General
Meeting the epitaphs, and also an account
of these martyrs' carriage and behaviour
at the time of their martyrdom. This was
the story of these humble men embalmed
for all time.'
The Reverend Hutchison continued this
tradition of his founders as the editor of the
Reverend J.H. Thomson's colossal work
'The Martyrs Graves of Scotland'.
George Sanderson puts some names to the congregation, 'auld Dalhanna' (Campbell) was one
of the original dissenters from the Established Kirk; Stitt, Hastings, Wilson, Milligan and
Campbell were elders; Logan and Orr were deacons; Paterson, Craig, Proudfoot were farmers
with long associations with the church; and Sharp and Beattie were precentors.
The Reverend Hutchison's history of the Reformed Presbyterian Church ends in 1876. For in
that year, Reformed Presbyterians throughout Scotland joined with the Free Church of Scotland.
An acknowledgement that their congregations had much in common with the Free Church of
Scotland, a church free from civil interference. The small church at New Cumnock was no
different and there were now three Free Churches in New Cumnock, the original one on the
Castlehill, one at the Bank and now one at Afton Bridgend.
In the 1881 Census Records, the Reverend Hutchison, now 52, gives his address as Afton Free
Church Manse. Sharing the manse at that time were his New Cumnock born children Mary
(16), Robert (13), John (9) and Janet (6) and the domestic servant Jane Hutchison (18), born in
Loudon, Ayrshire. He retired to Ayr, nine years later in 1900, the year in which the Free Church
and the United Presbyterian Church joined in union to form the United Free Church.
The Reverend Campbell and then Reverend Davidson would be ministers of what was now the
Afton United Free Church for the next 20 or so years, before the congregation moved to the
Arthur Memorial United Free Church in 1923. The church was sold to the Masonic Lodge and
was used for some time as the Masonic Temple. The pathway from Afton Bridgend to Dalhanna
Drive is still known as the Temple Brae. In 1929, the United Free Church returned to the
Established Church and by the 1940's the church building was back in use as a church hall,
atttached to the parish church, the Martyrs Kirk . The old church building was pulled down in
the 1970's, to be replaced by a new modern hall, the Afton Bridgend Hall. It was built on the
site of the original church, adjacent to the original Church Manse, which for many years was the
Afton Lea, Bed & Breakfast.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church may have been extinguished in New Cumnock in 1867 and
the stones of the church knocked down in the 1970's. However, what cannot be extinguished is
the contribution that New Cumnock has made to that church. The Reverend Matthew Hutchison
became the recognised historian of the church, and still is to this day. But more remarkably, if
those 21 Covenanters, including Partick Gemmel of Cumnock Mains , New Cumnock hadn't
ridden into Sanquhar Cross in 1680 to publicly disown the monarch , there would have been no
Sanquhar Declaration and probably no Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Afton Bridgend Hall, with the original Church Manse in the background
The original manse of the Reformed Presbyterian Church next to the Temple Brae