Prestonpans | Belief

Church of Scotland | Episcopalian Church | Catholic Church | Salvation Army | Others

For many years Prestonpans has had the typical dynamic of an urban parish; with its industrial base it drew workers in who brought their own sets of beliefs with them. As a result, the parish is home to a number of different religious groups. Additionally, other groups are located outwith the parish, but close enough for practitioners to travel from Prestonpans if necessary.

Annette Gilroy voices the impression these various groups made on her when a small girl:

By the time I was five years old and had started infant school, mention was being made at home of Sunday school. The rest of the family were quite a few years older and had all gone along together quite willingly, just as they had done to the brownies and guides, and the boys’ brigade in my brother’s case. I didn’t mix well when taken out of my usual surroundings and none of my friends who stayed near attended so I refused to go on my own. Anyway, I didn’t know very much about the church, just that my mother sometimes went there on a Sunday morning and the birth of Jesus was responsible for presents at Christmas so you can guess we were not a very religious family. I do recall, however, that once I got into hot water when Uncle Andrew visited with some family news on a Sunday afternoon. I had just learned to knit and produced the two small pins and a ball of lurid yellow wool to show him how well I could do it. He looked a little shocked and my mother immediately ordered me from the room. Afterwards, when she told me you were not supposed to knit on a Sunday and I bombarded her with questions she said, “Right! That’s it! We’ll have to do something about that girl’s religious education.”

‘That girl’ said, “I’ll go to the Salvation Army. Jenny and her brothers go there.”

The hall was quite near so I went for a couple of Sundays and I enjoyed the singing, just as I did the hymns every morning at school. I quickly learned the choruses and loved the action of the swaying tambourine group but when a big red-faced man started talking about blood and being saved and strong drink, well, that was the end for me and no amount of coaxing would make me return.

My teenage sister went to the Ebenezer Gospel Hall and she was persuaded to take me along there. I didn’t mind where I went as long as I was able to sit with her and, for a while, everything went well. An elderly couple, Mr and Mrs Campbell were in charge and they had nice stories and nice singing and everyone behaved nicely, until the morning we arrived to find a young man sitting in the front row wearing a gabardine raincoat, over his pyjamas! I didn’t know that under the stage was an enormous bath which had been filled with seawater and he was to be “saved”; baptism by total immersion and the sight of him in his striped pyjamas walking down the steps into the water was just too much for me. No reasons were given for this service and I collapsed with almost hysterical laughter at the sight of this grown-up behaving in such a manner in public. My sister was ashamed of me and would not take me back.

She did however, take me to see a religious celebration of another kind but emphasised it was to be a secret. At that time most of the Roman Catholics in the town had moved from the west of Scotland to work in the Grange and Links Collieries and services were held in their hall as they didn’t have a church. Nearby, though, there was a monastery where the main festivals were held. One Sunday, an Irish lady visited our neighbour to show off her young daughter dressed in all her finery for her first communion service later that morning. The little girl was like a fairy doll in her white tulle and veil. Our neighbour said, “You must be very proud of her … She’s like a princess.”

“Shore and why not?” said [the lady].

“Oi’m descended from the Kings of Oirland meself.”

I gazed in wonder at her but my mother told me later that all Irish thought they came from royalty and she retold the tale to a neighbour who said, “Her! She’s got the map of Ireland etched on her face!”

Anyway, my sister said if I wanted to see a procession of lots of little girls dressed like that she would take me with Jenny and a couple of other girls but we were not to tell anyone, only that we were going for a walk along the golf course.

Drummohr was in a large estate beyond there and when we got nearer she told us what to expect. There would be priests carrying banners and some would swing balls with a funny smelling smoke coming out of them and they would chant all the time. Then the girls in their pretty dresses would appear with the boys in white shirts and shorts. But when she said we would have to hide behind the bushes and not let anyone catch us, I began to have some misgivings! Because they travelled to a school in the next town we didn’t know any Catholics and were not encouraged to mix so, to us, there was a great deal of mystery surrounding them and we were very curious indeed to find out what they actually did, but the thought of a lot of priests made me stay close to her side. We eventually crept into the estate and waited, by this time almost in terror, cowering behind two large bushes. And then we heard it. The slow chant with answering responses, gradually coming close until we could smell the very odd aroma from the smoking balls being waved from side to side. We watched in complete silence until the procession made its way past, following the narrow path until they were out of sight. With hearts beating just that little bit faster in thankfulness that we were not chased by men in long black robes, we flew home and never ventured there again.

There was another procession which we liked to watch, and this one was held about twice a year. In the influx of new miners and their families, along with the Catholics, had come the Orangemen and, as with so many other things, adults did not give many explanations and I looked often at them to see why they were “orange”. They certainly were not that colour nor did they seem to eat much of the fruit. In fact, they were like the Catholic families in that they did not look any different from anyone else until, that is, they had their “walk” and oh, how we all enjoyed that. We heard the band from far off, slowly getting louder and louder while we danced and sang to the tunes. First, there would be a man carrying a crown on a velvet cushion, then some more controlling the long cords of a magnificent banner of blue and red, gold and orange with a picture of a fine looking man on a white horse. I heard talk of a King Billy and thought that was a very ordinary name for a king! All the men wore bowler hats and were in black suits with bright orange and silver bands round their necks. Then the band was here, following the swaggering, flaunting, jaunting drum major who danced from one side of the road across to the other, jerking his long decorated staff up and down, to and fro in time to that wonderful, loud, brash music. Occasionally, he would hesitate in his steps and fling the staff up, up into the air and, keeping walking, stretch up to catch it on its way downwards. Would he do it? Would it fall? No! He caught it and a great cheer sounded out and off he went again jigging and jogging backwards and forwards and all the time the band played their hearts out. And such tunes! The loudest musician, if he could be called that, was the big drummer. All he seemed to do was beat the drum as hard as he could. No fancy notes here, no twiddly bits as on the flutes, only the steady bong, bong, bong as he sweated his way along in the middle of the band. It was said that the walk usually ended up outside the Catholic hall where the drummer tried to break the skin stretched tautly across his huge instrument with his playing but perhaps that was one of the myths we liked to believe was true!

Within the parish are the following groups of religious adherents:

The Church of Scotland was established in the parish in 1595; post-disruption (1843) a second church was established – resulting in the original being known as Prestonpans Preston, in Kirk Street, and the Free Kirk as Prestonpans Grange, in Ayre’s Wynd. In 1952, the old Preston manse and grounds, at East Loan (now ‘Winfields’), were sold, and a new manse nearby purchased. In the 1970s, ‘The Tower’ in Kirk Wynd (the old Soapworks property) was purchased; it was rebuilt as a meeting house, and later (c1995) sold; it is now a house.

From 1975-81, Grange Church was linked with Ormiston; the two were de-linked, and then the two Preston churches united on 15 November 1981. Preston Church was re-named and formed the new Prestongrange Church.

Grange Manse, West Loan, was sold c1980, and became a private house; Grange Church was converted to a church hall in 1981. It was sold to the Episcopal church in 1992. The Preston Church Hall, Kirk Street (built c1900) was sold in 1982, and the building was converted into flats. The Grange Church Hall, Kirk Street, was sold to the Salvation Army in 1983. It was refurbished 1999-2000. ‘The Session House’, the Prestongrange Church entrance (originally a watch house) remains the property of the church.

Preston Grange
1938 – 49 RN Bell 1928 – 50 K Maclennan
1949 – 58 WCV Smith 1950 – 56 AH Lawson
1958 – 73 P McPhail 1956 – 64 ATH Taylor
1970 – 82 AT Hill
1975 – 81 Prestonpans, Grange became a linked charge with Ormiston
1981 Ormiston & Grange de-linked
15 November 1981 Union of Prestonpans, Grange and Prestonpans, Preston, as Prestongrange Church. AT Hill retired, and RCM Morton became the minister of the new church.
1987 – 94 Moira Herkes
1994 – 2000 RR Simpson

The Church of Scotland is a Presbyterian church, meaning that it is governed by a committee of elders (the Kirk Session), presided over by a moderator (the minister), but all are equal. The church looks after the spiritual needs of members and gives guidance through weekly services which consist of prayers and hymns of worship, supplication and thanksgiving and a sermon preached by the minister on a reading from the bible or a current topic important to members. Communion (bread and wine) is celebrated several times a year when elders officiate with the minister and the baptism service is performed when required. In the 1950s, elders (all men) were dressed formally in dark suits at communion services but gradually this was phased out and dress can be more casual now. All women and most girls wore hats then but this is no longer the case. Women were appointed elders in Prestonpans in the 1960s and the first woman minister in the parish was appointed in 1988.

Groups supported by the Church of Scotland include the following: Woman’s Guild; Sunday schools; youth club; Focus youth group; boys’ brigade; Life Boys; brownies; girl guides; prayer meetings; bible study; drama group (now defunct).

Other Churches of Scotland attended by residents of the parish are the Chalmers Church, Port Seton and that at Tranent.

George Murray recalls the making and placement of the Preston Church weather vane – a reminder of the industrial past (and of the role of the church in life in the 1950s):

Attending the funeral service in the church of an old school pal and lifelong friend, Willie Davie, I was reminded during the service of the years gone by and what the church represented to those who have ‘passed on’.

In 1953, Preston Church, as it was called then, was being repaired in the vicinity of the clock tower, thus providing an ideal opportunity, via the erected scaffolding, to view this rarely accessible area at close quarters. One such person, namely Jimmy Scott, an elder in the church at that time, took full advantage of this situation and put into place his plan for a new weather vane.

Jimmy resided at Nimmo Avenue, then in later years, Station Road. He was chief electrical engineer at Preston Links Colliery and, as a humble apprentice, my boss at that time.

As was the case in those days, many ‘homers’ were produced from the pit workshops; many wrought iron garden gates and railings in this locality are testament to that. Thus the weather vane was a product of that era, a ‘homer’ for the parish kirk and the search was made for suitable material to produce the finished article.

The letters were cut and shaped from brass plate, which originally was part of a small boiler, a cast off from the Pit Pug (train) and long discarded as being unsafe (MOT)!! The cross members are brass rods associated with high voltage switch gear which, once removed and cleaned, had the letters brazed on to them. This was then assembled onto a pre-measured cone shaped structure, lathe turned in the inside to allow the fitting of a ball bearing which was once in service in the gearing of an Anderson Boyce 24 inch high coal cutter, one of several used in the pit at that time. The small height of these cutters was due to the fact that some of the coal seams in production at this time were not much higher than 30 inches.

Once assembled, it was taken to the kirk and on a Saturday afternoon I well remember, Rev Bill Smith, an ardent football enthusiast, shouted up the scores from the pavement on Kirk Street as we secured the weather vane with typical pit efficiency. “That’ll naw fa’ doon”. Neither it should – it’s well and truly secured as time has testified. Others associated with this ‘homer’ for the Kirk were Geordie Storrie (Oswald Terrace); Bobby Sommerville (Polwarth Terrace); and Geordie Scott, Nimmo Avenue.

Worship took place at St Andrew’s Episcopalian Church, located at the east end of the High Street. In 1939, St Andrew’s asked to be taken over by St Peter’s, Musselburgh (up to then it was run as a mission from St Mary’s Cathedral). It was given independent status in 1959 and was linked to St Peter’s in 1976. The original simple church building was clad with stone in 1952. The congregation moved to the former Grange Church (which had been the former United Free Kirk, and then Preston Church Hall) in 1992 and this building was re-furbished in 1999-2000.

The prefabricated Church House, adjacent to the church, was built in 1958; it has now been demolished, as was the original St Andrew’s building c1993; this site is currently vacant.

St Andrew’s clergy
1941 – 47 J McGill
1947 – 49 RL Webber
1950 – 55 J Lyford-Pike
1956 – 60 RA Grant
1960 – 63 DWJ Tweddle
1962 – 75 St Andrew’s had responsibility for St Germain’s, Tranent
1963 – 68 IF Black
1968 – 71 RJS Burns
1971 – 74 CC Porteous
On the death of Rev C.C. Porteus, St Germain’s mission, Tranent, was discontinued
1976 St Andrew’s, Prestonpans linked with St Peter’s, Musselburgh
1976 – 84 IA Deighton, Priest in charge – also Rector of St Peter’s, Musselburgh
1984 – 86 CAG Kerr, Priest in charge – also Rector of St Peter’s, Musselburgh
1986 – 93 Dr KF Scott, Priest in charge – also Rector of St Peter’s, Musselburgh
1993 – 94 J Jones Deacon in Charge – also of St Peter’s, Musselburgh
1994 – 95 J Jones Priest in Charge (female priest) – also of St Peter’s, Musselburgh
1995 – 2002 J Jones Rector with the Rev R Cooke (NS) (Deacon from 1999, Priest from 2000)

A creche is provided during services, and the church runs a Sunday school, and weekday prayer meetings.

Roman Catholic

Catholicism has been represented in the parish since the 1930s, with the opening of the Passionist Monastery at Drummohr and the establishment of St Gabriel’s parish a couple of years later in 1932; St Gabriel’s also encompassed Wallyford and Port Seton.

Pre-war, services were held in the town hall, and in Antonelli’s Hall. St Gabriel’s Church Hall, West Loan (1934) was used as both church and hall to 1965, and thereafter as a hall.

St Gabriel’s Church, West Loan was opened in 1966; St Gabriel’s Parish House, West Loan, was purchased in 1948. By 2000, Drummohr was being used as a camping and caravan centre. The Roman Catholic community supported a range of groups in the parish, including: Women’s Guild; prayer group; support for the sick; St Vincent de Paul Society; youth groups, and the Operetta Group (defunct by 2000).

105 Belief (cont) St Gabriel’s RC Church, West Loan

St Gabriel’s RC Church, West Loan

The parish is a community of the faithful whose pastoral care is entrusted to a parish priest under the authority of the diocesan bishop. Through baptism and confirmation, individuals become part of the religious community of the church and the parish priest is entrusted with the support of this community. The celebration of the beliefs of this community is the responsibility of the parish priest, supported by members of the parish in various ways, including scripture readers, Eucharistic ministers and altar servers.

Annemarie Allan shares her memories of a particular feast day in the 1950s:

I grew up in Edinburgh, but my mother came from Prestonpans and we often went to church in Prestonpans, where her family lived. Every year, there were certain feast days when the parish attended mass with the priests at Drummohr, in a little wooden church beside the house. Many of the people of the parish were married in the monastery church, which was much prettier than St Gabriel’s church hall in Prestonpans itself. There was a verandah round the outside and roses grew in and out of the trellis right up to the roof.

On feast days, after mass, the priest led everyone out of the church and through the rose garden. The girls all wore white dresses and veils, with circlets of white flowers to hold the veil in place. Some carried baskets and they scattered handfuls of rose petals as we walked along, singing hymns and saying prayers.

The girls brought their dresses with them and changed out of their everyday clothes in Drummohr House. Drummohr was a beautiful house, with polished wooden floors and sunlit rooms filled with flowers. Once we were dressed, we waited in the hallway till everyone was ready and then we went across to the church together. It was always a bit of a scrum: lots of little girls running around in their new white socks, squealing with excitement, mothers with their arms filled with skirts and jerseys, and black clumpy school shoes. And there was always a long queue for the toilet.

On one particular feast day, I had waited ages to get to the toilet. By the time I was next in line, it was almost time to go to the church. The girl in front of me was in the toilet for so long, I began to get anxious. Eventually, I reached up, and turned off the light. It must have been pitch dark in there because there was no window, and the girl inside squealed in panic. So I turned the light back on again. But she still didn’t come out. So I did it again. And again. Then I gave up and went over to the door to wait for everyone else.

We were all in a big muddle, sorting ourselves out at the door when I heard someone shout. “That’s her Mum! That’s the girl over there!” When I looked up, I saw the girl from the toilet, tugging on the arm of a great big woman with a ferocious frown. She looked to me like an enraged mountain.

So I did what any sensible person would do. I ran for it. Out the door and down the path to the gardens where I knew no-one would come looking for me – everyone was hurrying into the church.

But once I got there, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go late into church. So instead, I just stayed there, waiting. I didn’t really mind, though. The roses were beautiful and the garden smelt wonderful. I wandered around for ages, looking at all the different colours.

It was only when I heard the sound of people singing that I realised what a stupid hiding place I had chosen. The procession was on its way and there was no way I could get out of the garden without being seen. I slid behind a bush and watched as the priest appeared, followed by two altar boys in red and white robes carrying an enormous cross. Behind them came other priests, some in long black cloaks that brushed the ground, and then the people of the parish, men, women and children, with the girls in the middle scattering their rose petals as they came down the path.

I couldn’t stay where I was. The procession was almost at my bush, so I tucked my dress into my knickers and bent over to make myself as small as possible. Then I took a deep breath and scuttled towards the shelter of another bush. With my white dress and veil, I must have looked like a little goblin bride. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed heads were turning in my direction, and the next time I moved, though everyone was still singing and praying away, almost every eye was fixed on me.

I spotted my mother, eyes forward, singing “like a lintie”. My dad was bounding along, looking up at the sky, singing away as loud as he could. Beside him, my brother had his hands clasped together and his eyes on the ground. It seemed like the only people who didn’t know I was there were my own family. Some of the people were smiling, but the priest looked very annoyed. He didn’t break step, but his eyes kept flicking in my direction. Worst of all, though, were – The Aunts! A formidable set of women at the best of times, they now had their eyes fixed on me with expressions ranging from astonishment to fury.

I slunk towards a gap in the hedge and escaped from the garden, but I didn’t know what to do then. In the end, I just went round to the front of the house and waited till it was all over and people left the church to make their way home. But the strangest thing of all was that no-one, not one single person, ever mentioned it to me. Perhaps my crime was so awful there was no adequate punishment. Perhaps the family thought it best to draw a veil over the whole affair. Or maybe I was completely wrong and no-one had noticed. After all, it was the one and only time I ever saw the procession at Drummohr from the outside. Perhaps everyone always looked that way. I don’t think so, though.

Salvation Army

Established within the parish in 1919, until 1978 the Salvation Army was based at an old bakery building in the High Street (now demolished). From 1978-83, home was the redundant Prestongrange Miners’ Institute (now demolished), and from 1983 on, the former Grange Church hall, which the Army refurbished in 1999-2000. Council-owned housing was provided for the church officers.

Groups that operated under the Salvation Army included: the Women’s Home League; Sunday school; prayer meetings; brownies; bible study; parent & toddlers, and the junior youth club.


Other groups located outwith the parish, but available for Prestonpans folk are: the Elcho Place Gospel (1980) Port Seton (formerly Glanton Brethren); Jehovah’s Witnesses (c1960) Tranent; Methodists (1880) Cockenzie; and Viewforth Gospel (1922) Port Seton (formerly Plymouth Brethren). Post-war to 1949, there was one Jewish family in the parish. There are some other religions represented by the working population, though these are non-resident. The Alpha Study programme is run by the combined churches.

The burial sites in the parish are: the West cemetery, High Street, which is the earliest – the last burial there was in the early 1950s. The last burial at the Prestongrange Church cemetery was c1970. The cemetery currently in use is the Nethershot Road cemetery; it opened pre-1945, and has twice been extended.