01.09Symington Parish Church
Symington, Ayrshire, Scotland
Situated on a rise in the center of the conservation village of Symington, is the focal point of village life. Founded in 1160 by Simon Loccard, a Norman knight granted title to the surrounding land by the Royal Steward of King David I and after whom the village of Symington is named.
The church is among the most beautiful and oldest in continuous use for worship (Presbyterian) in Scotland, and is a rare example of surviving Norman architecture.
When David I ascended to the throne in 1124, having married Matilda, an English Countess, widow of the Earl of Northampton, we are told that he was followed by no fewer than a thousand Anglo-Normans. One of these, Hugh-de-Morville, became his ‘High Constable’ and was given vast grants of land. He possessed the greater part of ‘Cunninghame’ and, under his auspices, numerous families, many of whom rose to high feudal distinction, settled in the district. Among these was one, Simon Loccard, who was given lands in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire and it was recorded in 1165 that he held land in Symington under ‘Walter, the High Steward’. It was this Simon who founded the Church in 1160 and gave his name to the village and parish.
It may be, that in accordance with the custom of these days, that he was also the first minister and that he continued as such for the next fifteen years, but this is not certain.
The next record is found in the ‘Muniments of Melrose’ where we see that ‘Mordan was parson of Symington’ from 1175 to 1210.
The original building is clearly identifiable today and forms the majority of the Church. Approximately fourteen meters by six and typical of the architecture of the period, it was aligned east-west and comprised of simple stone walls with narrow arched windows and a steep open oak-rafterred roof, enclosing a nave and chancel. A few of the windows can still be seen in their original form and since their purpose was only to let in a little light and to keep out wind and rain, they are very small. It is likely that the windows would have been unglazed, while the floor would have been clay or stone flags. (Stonework around the three windows behind the altar, on the east gable, was skillfully enriched and extended to almost the entire width of the wall.)
There were two doorways, both surviving, one on the south and the other on the west wall. Originally, there was no seating. Later, as we know from historical records, the people brought their own stools. Externally the only decoration was in the form of carved heads on the skewputts.
During the reign of Alexander III, the ‘Red Friars’ were introduced into Scotland and in 1252 a Priory was established at Failford, just over the border of the parish, by Andrew Bruce. The order was also known as ‘The Trinitarians’ and had been founded originally in 1198 by St. John of Malta. This Order of St. John of Jeruslem in Malta was instituted to raise funds for the redemption of Christians taken into slavery during the Crusades. Symington Church was granted to their care, and from this date right up until the sixteenth century, the order supplied the ministers of the Church, and in 1259 Andrew was vicar of Symington. The Church was now dedicated to the ‘Holy Trinity’.
Until the Reformation, Fail supplied ministers for the church and from then on the list of ministers, ousted and reintroduced reflects the troubled times of Church and State.
The building is believed to have remained largely intact until 1750. When the first seats were provided no one knows, but in 1750 we read that the Church underwent extensive repairs and was ‘furnished with new pews, which were all painted’. At this point, the Reverend Cunningham had the walls plastered and the roof was given a low, flat, plastered ceiling. Over the next forty-seven years the congregation nearly doubled, and in 1797 further accommodation was added. The central portion of the north wall was removed and a galleried transept constructed, while to the south a vestry was added with access via the original south door.
Two small galleries were built at the gables, reached by external staircases, for access by the county families of the Parish. On the east gable a door was slapped through resulting in the loss of the central Norman arch. In common with many Presbyterian churches of the period, the pulpit was also repositioned midway along the south wall, thus allowing a clear view from the entire church.
It was only in 1919, when the Reverend John Gage Boyd instigated a full restoration in memory of the dead of the First World War and implemented by leading architect Dr. MacGregor Chalmers, that the extent and quality of the original Church was discovered. The east and west galleries were removed, and the central arch carefully rebuilt to match its neighbors. The original oak wood trusses were exposed, and the eighteenth century plaster removed from the walls. During this time, the original medieval piscina was discovered on the sill of the east window, south wall and preserved. The piscina is a stone basin in which vessels or cups used in Communion service were rinsed. The remaining gallery, to the north transept, had a pillared oak screen added while new oak flooring, pews and pulpit were installed in the nave and chancel.
Stained glass predominately dates from this time, and was executed by Douglas Strachan. The clock mechanism, suspended over the chancel, was upgraded at this time; however without the east gallery, access became very difficult. In 1950, a number of pews immediately in front of the pulpit were removed to create more space, the clock mechanism was replaced by an electric movement, and the now redundant bell striking mechanism removed to the vestry.
Octocentary and Gifts
In 1960, the timber entrance porch on the west gable was replaced with a large design in stone by Ayr architects J. & J. A. Carrick; a Communion Table, Baptismal Font, Elder’s Stalls made of Blexter stone replaced oak ones and a richly carved Prayer Desk were all gifted.
Also to celebrate the Octocentenary in 1960, eight beautiful tapestry cushions for the Elder’s Stalls were gifted, the work of a former elder, Mr. J. Percival Agnew.
The tapestries depict coats-of-arms of local and historical interest, and industries of Ayrshire. One Elder Stall cushion is a tapestry coat-of-arms of Simon Loccard. Within the last few years the Church has received other gifts: the oak Cross above the pulpit, a red pulpit fall and Communion Table runner, a white pulpit fall and Bible Markers, a cross-stitch embroidery of the Last Supper, 80 Pew Bibles and a painting of the Church by a local artist.
The surrounding kirkyard contains numerous gravestones and slabs dating from the seventeenth century, however earlier markers have eroded or disappeared.
Graves of interest are two mysterious head stones, one of which bears the name Clavers, about which the Covenanter’s Society has expressed an interest, and a communal grave of village folk who died in a 19th century cholera outbreak.
The only evidence of any older graves was the discovery during the 1919 works of an ancient and undisturbed skeleton close to the original altar internally, and it has been suggested that this may be Simon Loccard. In the photographs below the two circles highlight two crosses which mark the head and foot of the skeleton.
In July 1994, this gem in the crown of Scottish architectural heritage was upgraded to ‘A’ listing; firmly defining the building as being of ‘national and international importance’. As is normal for a building of this age, much of the work completed in 1919 has now reached the end of its useful life. The church is accordingly proceeding with a program of essential conservation and repair works to the entire building. Phase 1, programmed for the summer of 1997, comprised complete reroofing, rebuilding the bell ferremanta and clock housing, reinstatement of the striking mechanism, and wallhead stonemasonry works. Other phases include repointing, stone repairs, work to windows and doors, improvements to the boiler house, and the provision of improved disabled facilities. Conservation work on this ‘A’ listed building has the approval and financial support of Historic Scotland and the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland.
Symington Parish Church is open for worship every Sunday at 10:30 am. Additionally, most years the church opens for visitors on Sunday afternoons during the summer months. At other times, access can be gained through the Church Officer whose details are displayed at the church gate. Each September we participate in ‘Ayrshire Doors Open Day’. The visitors book in the church porch displays the names of the hundreds who make their way to Symington Kirk each year. These have included royalty and the titled as well as many who have travelled across the continents from as far afield as North America, Australia and the rest of Europe. Many return to recapture the special atmosphere of the sanctuary and the serenity of the surroundings. The funding for restoration and upkeep of this Church is beyond the means of this well attended rural conservation village.
Support and Donations
Your support and contributions, however small, would be greatly appreciated. Donations may be made to the Symington Parish Church and sent to Tom Dalgleish, Kirkhill, 4 Brewlands Road, Symington, Ayrshire KA1 5QX.
The Church’s Internet site is: www.symingtonparishchurch.com