Church of Scotland

Kenneth DF Walker

Within the historical development of the Church at large, 55 years – even a century – is a very brief span indeed when seen against the background of 2000 years or so of Christian life and worship. Yet within the second half of the twentieth century, the Church of Scotland in East Lothian experienced many profound changes that reflected the wider social and economic changes during that period and which have left their legacy ever since. Nevertheless, even within the differing influences in church and society, the place of religion retained a place in the lives of people of every background.

During the 19th century the church in rural East Lothian (or Haddingtonshire it was called) appears to have had considerable influence within the social order. The establishment of patronage meant that the local laird retained a direct influence not only within the community but also in the life of the Kirk and parish. Since the laird and other landowners provided the financial means for the church and manse and stipend it was not surprising that they had a major say in the appointment of a minister. With the Disruption of 1843 (when a large proportion of Church of Scotland ministers broke off to form the Free Church) that situation altered dramatically and congregations were able to exercise their democratic right to call a minister. This remained the situation to the end of the 20th century. The Disruption, however, had little effect on rural districts within the county where only a handful of ‘Free’ Churches were established. But it was otherwise in the burghs where there were succeeding churches of various sects even before 1843.

This was particularly true of Haddington, whose famous Burgher preacher, teacher and writer, the Rev. John Brown, had an enthusiastic following and [left] a long-lasting influence. Since the latter part of the 19th century the number of burgh churches has been considerably reduced as the result of various unions, but, as in the rural areas, regular [church] attendance is not now general, except among the fisher folk where interest in religion is notably higher than in the rest of the county. (Snodgrass, CP, 1953, pp57, 58)

Rural families attended church ‘as a matter of habit, but this is no longer so’ (Snodgrass, CP 1953, pp57, 58). So, by the 1950s, churches generally were poorly attended, with the exception of Communion Sundays. Attendance at Holy Communion (or The Lord’s Supper) was understood in relation to membership of the Church and as a guarantee of ministerial services whenever required! Unfortunately, this misunderstanding continued to influence the minds of many to the end of the period, since when the General Assembly has sought to clarify the situation (General Assembly 2000).

Changes in the Church very often reflected the changes in local economic and social circumstances. Within the parish of Tranent in the early 1950s there were two Church of Scotland congregations – the Old Parish and Wishart St Andrew’s – with a combined membership of 1150. On Tranent parish, the Statistical Account (Snodgrass, CP, 1953, p192) revealed an interesting anomaly in that figures for church membership revealed a larger proportion of Roman Catholics and a smaller one for Church of Scotland members than in any other part of the county.

Religious indifference and lack of responsibility appeared to be widespread, but there was little active hostility either to the Church in particular or the Christian Faith at large. Referring further to Tranent, Snodgrass noted that ‘Intense religious emotion is not frequently marked in the life of the community.’ It could be said that a generally lukewarm attitude remained the case to 2000 (and beyond).

As the national Church, the Church of Scotland presence in East Lothian continued to be recognised through the parish system with a ‘kirk’ in almost every village and town. Not that every kirk was full of worshippers on a Sunday – far from it! Even with increasing populations throughout the county the level of church attendance often failed to reflect a corresponding increase. It was noted for example that during fifty years and more in the parish of Pencaitland ‘The habit of attending church service on Sundays has changed much during the last few years.’ (Snodgrass, CP, 1953, p251). Compare the situation around 1913 when both local churches (the Parish and the Free Kirk) were well filled every Sunday. ‘Now’ the writer continued, reflecting the situation in 1953, ‘with a larger population, the one church is only about one quarter filled.’

Even with a far lower level of population as far back as 1627, the minister at that time reported that he had “about six hundred communicants”. In the early 1950s that number had dropped by 50% – yet ‘… certainly not half of these attend more than twice a year.’ – an attitude, already referred to, that linked attendance at Holy Communion (once or twice a year) with retaining membership of the Church. Within the rural parish of Humbie, large numbers attended church on special occasions. The majority of the population ‘… claim some kind of church connection, though often a very slender one; but [as remains the case 55 years on] when occasion arises they are glad to have the services of the minister’ (Snodgrass, CP, 1953, p258). Again, a feeling of indifference dominated the scene in those days. Large numbers were ‘… careless but not irreligious, and hostility to religion is not encountered.’ By contrast, genuine religious belief and faith could be seen frequently in the lives of not a few parishioners who were ‘… devoted to their church, being rarely absent’ (Snodgrass, CP, 1953, p 258).

Again, the same could be said of church life generally by the end of the period. A passive love for the church was not necessary an indicator of a deep-seated and active witness to faith. We find that during the 19th and early 20th century

…pews were better and more regularly filled, but the parishioners as a whole still like their Church which is quiet and attractive for worship and is a place of long associations. (Snodgrass, CP, 1953, pp258, 259)

Furthermore, while a general disinterest went hand in hand with reverence and respect for the Church on the part of the adult population, the younger age groups were encouraged to participate in some of her activities. At Humbie, for example, ‘Sunday School and Bible Class are held at 10.30 am, and the children regularly take out and read books from a small library in the vestry’ (Snodgrass, CP, 1953, p259).

In terms of what are known as the Ordinances of religion, births, marriages and deaths, we can observe certain changes in practices down the years. Christenings, as they were called, took place mostly in the home and not in church as had latterly become the case. Practically all children were baptised. Social customs relating to weddings brought the Church to face added pressures in society, and even the calling of the banns was discontinued from 1978 (Morrison I 1999). Whereas, 50 or 60 years ago the minister would often conduct a wedding in a house or in church (or even at the manse) latterly weddings were permitted to be conducted in a Registry Office by a Registrar, or a minister could marry a couple at almost any suitable place. Local castles, golf clubs, hotels and other attractive venues in East Lothian became special favourite locations; as long as the minister had the relevant paperwork – the marriage schedule – s/he might marry the couple. Nevertheless, the many historic and attractive churches in the county still retained their drawing power, often by couples with no church connection.

Demand for baptisms and marriages might have waned over the period, but many people still preferred a minister to hold a ‘traditional’ funeral. However, referring to the parish of Humbie, it was observed that even by the early 1950s, funerals had become less of an occasion than in the past. In previous generations, a service was conducted by the minister in the house of the deceased. Latterly, a funeral service might still take place in a house, but it was usually very short and, if there was to be no church service, the gathering acted as a precursor to the committal service at the crematorium or cemetery. Cremations were a relative innovation in East Lothian from about 1960 that altered the common practice of interment in the local graveyard, often close to the church.

As town and village began to increase and feel the slow touch of prosperity with better working conditions and higher levels of earning, somehow many people did not always experience a corresponding sense of happiness and satisfaction. Indeed, a survey of attitudes found that people were less happy than in the past. Some admitted being not so happy, others felt a real sense of discontent. It would be interesting to discover why an increasing proportion of the population began to discover that social and economic improvements were not providing the pleasures and satisfaction that might have been expected. Was there a parallel with the effects of materialism on society in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century?

Again, within the rural parishes, quite profound changes occurred in respect of the variety of traditional occupations and which reflected long-standing economic and social circumstances. In the baptismal register of Oldhamstocks Parish Church, the various occupations of householders in 1948 were given as follows:

farmers 11, shepherds 7, other farm workers 26, gardeners 3, gamekeepers 2, other estate workers 4, joiners 2, mason 1, blacksmith 1, contractor 1, roadmen 2, railwayman 1, seaman 1, general labourer 1, school teacher 1, school cleaner 1, postmistress 1, registrar 1, widows 4, retired estate workers 2, retired rabbit catchers 2, (and lastly!) retired minister 1.

Modern East Lothian baptismal registers were likely to contain the names of stockbrokers, lawyers, accountants, management and financial consultants. However, rural traditions, farming practices and estate management had not completely disappeared. These remained central to rural areas and underpinned social and economic conditions to a large extent, although not as widely as in years gone by. Farming demands and political pressures continued to leave their mark on country communities. In addition, from the 1980s and 1990s demand for housing throughout the county meant that scarcely a village or town escaped the inexorable march of developers’ feet – or more accurately the purring of company cars. Faced with such profound changes, the Church endeavoured (and will continue to endeavour) to remain at the centre of community life. While many villages had long lost their doctor and schoolteacher and other respected figures, including the minister, the Church still retained a place in the hearts of many people. Nevertheless, demographic forces and profound changes in population brought increased demands upon the Church, as well as added opportunities. On the one hand, while traditional rural folk have died or left, thus leaving a depressed effect on the life of the Church, a new largely urban mentality was introduced through the arrival and settlement of people from commerce, industry and the professions. Many brought their own skills and aptitudes to utilise within their communities, including the Church. But, while there were those who sought to contribute to their local community and congregation, many others showed little or no interest and regarded their newly domiciled situation as a pleasant area in which to reside and a convenient locus from which to commute.

Further changes in social and economic trends were reflected within the life of the Church. The post-war years brought an increased use of the motorcar and public transport. Bus services to and from Edinburgh made it possible for country folk to travel to the capital. It became commonplace to spend a day shopping and socialising. Money became far more plentiful.

By the mid-1950s, the ordinary person had become better off, better dressed and better housed than at the turn of the 20th century. 50 years later, an even greater degree of wealth increased standards of living, led to a wider view of life, and made worldwide travel an instant reality. At the same time society became enmeshed in the forces of materialism. The Church found itself facing these influences with something of an uphill struggle. Over against the message of the Church, considerable social, moral and economic problems arose through excessive drinking, smoking and, more worryingly, the social problem of drugs. By the 1970s, one local minister was concerned that

The Church today has nothing to offer young people. They have rejected Christianity because it is not ‘their scene’ and were turning to drugs and sex in an attempt to ‘find themselves’.” (Rev George Charlton, St Ninian’s Church)

Musselburgh (Musselburgh News, 18.6.1971)

And that the Church was engrossed in ‘trivia like sales of work and church music’.

In the face of these issues the Church of Scotland locally and nationally provided help centres, hostels and long-term care units, regularly financed by the work and support of congregations within the county. 50 and more years ago, unemployment – if it existed – was a minor social problem. By 2000, unemployment and the threat of redundancy were of real concern not only to local people and organisations, but to the Church as well as it sought to give support and help.

Communication developments through what was commonly referred to as ‘the wireless’ and, from the 1950s, through television brought a certain amount of religious broadcasting into almost every home, leaving some to wonder if there is any need to go to church at all. Latterly, the decreased religious output from radio and television reflected another sign of a materialistic age. Technology through computers, the Internet, mobile phones and other instant means of communication also altered the course of life of East Lothian to a degree that was virtually irreversible. Both society and the Church were faced with the pace of change; it was a challenge in which the Church continued to fulfil its appointed calling within the world. The General Assembly of May 2001 agreed and published the terms of a Special Commission anent Review and Reform – Church Without Walls – in which the Church of Scotland re-appraised its role in modern society.

It is worth noting that, in the past, many people went to church not always on account of any deep spiritual need or desire, but because their livelihoods often depended upon whether or not their employer observed them in church. By 2000, it could be said that people shared in the life and worship of the Church because they had a genuine desire to do so.


According to the Church of Scotland Year Book of 1945 (Diamond Jubilee Volume – Price Two Shillings and Sixpence!) within the Presbytery of Dalkeith there were 39 Charges or congregations, with one or two exceptions each having its own minister. Correspondingly, the Presbytery of Haddington and Dunbar contained some 37 Charges or congregations – a grand total of 76.

A glance at the Church of Scotland Year Book of 2000 reveals that within the combined Presbytery of Lothian (formed in 1975 in response to local government reorganisation) a total of 35 Charges or congregations remained – a reduction of almost 50%. Such have been the effects of social and economic change that increasing unions and linkages have been forced upon the Church. While these radical decisions have resulted in streamlining the Church they were paralleled by numerically declining congregations, more expansive parishes and a considerable extra workload for the ministry.

Further reading & references

A list of Charges is given in Appendices A and B

  • General Assembly 2000 Consolidating Act Anent The Sacraments (incorporating Acts XXI 1956, XVII 1963, IV 1975, III 1985 and XV 1992)
  • Consolidating Act Anent Communion Rolls (incorporating Acts XXIII 1933, VI 1938 (as amended by Acts I 1972, IV 1977 and III 1991), VI 1951 and Regulations IV 1964 and I 1996)
  • Morrison, Iain (1999) Kirkweb – Ministry in the Church of Scotland Information page: [March 2011, only available through]
  • Snodgrass, CP (1953) The Third Statistical Account of Scotland: the County of East Lothian