The Laigh Kirk

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Old Laigh Kirk by James Baird and John Hart, 1734 – 36.

Altered by TG Abercrombie in 1901; extended in 1926.

Converted into Paisley Arts Centre, New Street 1987.

The Laigh Kirk was Paisley’s second church after the Abbey. To form the new parish, the council of the expanding town had to get the permission of the feudal superior of the Abbey Church, the Earl of Dundonald, and the existing presbytery.

The Town Council bought up land between the High Street and Causeyside, laid out New Street and in March 1734 it auctioned off 38 building plots at a profit.Townspeople gave subscriptions of £1900, of which only £600 was used for building works, which were entrusted to local masons, James Baird and John Hart

Gothic Style

The Kirk’s T shaped plan and Gothic windows were both by this time old-fashioned. The T plan had been developed for Presbyterian worship about 1600 in the eastern lowlands of Scotland, while the plain Gothic style was employed in the covenanting 1640’s in opposition to the classicism of the English Court

In the T plan, three broad short wings gathered the congregation closely around the pulpit which was placed centrally on the long wall. At the Laigh Kirk, a porch with a stair up to the pulpit and an upper room projects towards New Street. Tall southern windows to either side warmed the church and allowed the minister to see that everyone was paying attention. Galleries in the east and west wings with double stairs up from the two main entrances (separate for men and women) brought the seating to 1318. A birdcage belfry topped the north gable.

Dr John Witherspoon

Dr John Witherspoon (1723 – 1794), the fourth minister of the New Burgh Kirk, is famous in the USA for having helped frame the American Declaration of Independence, and being the only clergyman to sign it. He was invited to become President of Princeton College, New Jersey on the back of the controversial reputation he made for himself while minister here from 1756 to 1766. He tried to enforce the strictest moral standards nationally as well as locally, making war on Sabbath breakers and theatrical plays. (He would hardly have approved of the present uses of the building!)

The town’s rapid growth soon led the Council to build the High Church (in 1754 with seating for 1741) and the Middle Church (in 1779 with 1500 sittings), both on Church Hill, with modern rectangular plans and in a Classical idiom. The New Burgh Kirk now became known as the Laigh Kirk or Low Church. Under its eighth minister Rev. Robert Burns (1787-1869) the congregation grew so much that it moved in 1819 to the elegant St George’s Church in George Street with 1850 sittings (visible at the end of Shuttle Street opposite the Arts Centre). Rev. Robert Burns went on to fame abroad, preaching and teaching in Toronto from 1845.

Evangelical Union

From 1819 the Laigh Kirk building was let out by the council for religious and public meetings. It was bought by a group of individuals in the I830’s to ensure this use would continue. It was leased by the newly formed Evangelical Union in 1835, which then bought it in 1849 for £300 but continued to let it for meetings. As the church was too big for the congregation a floor was constructed at gallery level reducing the sittings to 900.

Turbulent Meetings

The Laigh Kirk saw many turbulent meetings, especially during the depression of the late 1830’s and the 1840’s when the Chartists (campaigning for working class representation in Parliament) and the Anti Corn Law League (calling for Free Trade) directed anger at each other and ‘Mora! Force’ and ‘Physical Force’ Chartists debated furiously over a difference in tactics. Left wing manufacturers and ministers sought to stir up middle class sympathy for the destitute. The building is still used today for pubic meetings.

Having repaired the building in 1873 the Evangelical Union altered it again, about 1901 employing Thomas Graham Abercrombie (1862 – 1926) the pre-eminent Paisley architect. The north wing was divided from the church, with a hall seating 100 above and vestry etc. below. The gallery level floor and gallery in the east wing were removed and the adjacent upper and lower side windows joined to light the choir, located at the end of the long, narrow, east- facing church. Having bought the land from the council, what was now the ED Congregational Church extended the North wing right up to the Church Lane boundary in 1926, bringing the hall to a seating capacity of 250, the great north window was reused, and stone and detailing carefully matched. The roof was renewed in 1937.

Paisley Arts Centre

The building was bought back by the local authority in 1980’s and opened as Paisley Arts Centre in 1987. The basic arrangement of Abercrombie’s plan survives today. Most of the original church serves as the 158 seat theatre  with the stage where the choir was. The vestry has become the dressing room, the gallery is now the bar and most of the church hall is the workshop, with toilets etc. below. The building’s total capacity is 300.

Graves & Headstones

The Church Yard was originally laid out in “lairs” (places to lie in) eight feet square, close to the church. These were sold as family graves, and ownership was denoted by inscriptions on kerb stones on the tops of long stones sunk vertically into the ground at the plot corners and headstones. Epitaphs could be added later. Poor people could be buried around the edges of the yard, but wit no guarantee of being undisturbed by later burials. The first burial was in 1742 and the latest epitaph is 1840. Most people buried here were merchants or manufacturers in the textile industry. The more important folk already had their lairs at the Abbey graveyard.

In the 1870’s 5 metres of the Churchyard’s frontage road was widened and the high wall replaced with railings. Some 20 metres was taken off its western end for development of the Paisley Centre in the late 1980’s. The graveyard was improved in 1994, when headstones which had been laid on their backs were re-erected around the perimeter walls.

The building was listed category B in 1971.