Whitekirk & Tyninghame | Belief

The historic and humbly beautiful parish church of St Mary, Whitekirk is the only church in the parish. Its red sandstone continued to crumble and flake for most of the period – though a major repair project ten years in the planning was completed in 2001, bringing the church back to its former glory.

In 1945 Whitekirk and Tyninghame was still an independent parish with a roll of about 400. A distinguished incumbent, the Reverend Doctor William D. Maxwell (1950-56) left to become Professor of Divinity at Grahamstown University, South Africa. Then in 1969, as a result of bad management, declining congregations and income, and mounting debts, the living became vacant and the manse had to be sold.

After an interval of two years an association was set up with Dunbar Old Church, with the Reverend John Blair as associate minister living in a manse in Tyninghame leased by the estate. This lasted until Presbytery decided to break the association with Dunbar and link Whitekirk instead with Athelstaneford. The new arrangement was finally realised in June 1974 with John Blair as minister in charge and a manse to be built in Athelstaneford. John Blair retired in 1976; the Reverend Kenneth Walker (Doctor in 2001) was then appointed to the linked charge.

St Mary’s Parish Church and graveyard, Whitekirk.

St Mary’s Parish Church and graveyard, Whitekirk.

1917-50 J.T. Soutter
1950-56 W.D. Maxwell
1957-69 T.A. Tulloch
1971-76 J.L. Blair
1971-74 Whitekirk & Tyninghame associated with Dunbar Old
1974 Linked with Athelstaneford
1976-date K. Walker

In 2000 the roll was 180, having held steady for 15 years, the church was solvent and in good heart, offering a weekly service of morning prayer, quarterly communion and a candlelit service of carols and nine lessons on Christmas Eve. There was a small choir and junior church. An annual pilgrimage to St Mary’s Haddington and Lennoxlove, begun in 1977 at the instigation of the Earl of Lauderdale, attracted large numbers and international interest in its heyday in the 1980s. The search for the site of the Holy Well, which had attracted thousands of pilgrims in the Middle Ages before it was ploughed over in the 16th century, continued without success. There were five royal visits: Princess Margaret in 1953 (the first royal to visit since James IV, who had loved the place and come often); Princess Alexandra in 1957 and 1961; Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1963; and Princess Marina in 1965.

Recollections on church and belief

In 1945 and for some time after, most inhabitants were members of the Church of Scotland, into which they were baptised.and buried. Most marriages were conducted by the minister of the kirk; it was not exceptional to get married in the front room of the manse. During the second half of this period the monopoly of interment was broken and cremation became acceptable.

In our informants’ views, not much has changed in the local church services. The Sunday school, twice resurrected since 1992 is a shadow of what it used to be. In past years, the Sunday school enjoyed a picnic in the summer on the beach, for which Mr Dale provided the transport – a wagon, first drawn by horses, then by tractor.

There were two services per Sunday (one in the morning in 2000) so mothers with smaller children and those involved in Sunday farm work could attend at the later time.

One person, long since living in Dunbar, vowed never to set foot in this church again as his farm worker father had been threatened by his boss with the sack if he and his family did not regularly attend church. He declined to give his name or that of the farmer! Harvest Thanksgiving is a fondly remembered service.

The church organised a flower festival lasting a week in 1986, during which concerts were given by organists, a local choir, post-graduate students from St. Andrew’s University and St. Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh. In later years the building was again a few times used for concerts mainly by musicians from East Lothian.

On rites of passage

Boys and girls mostly married locals. If not from families of the same or neighbouring farm they had probably met at school and Sunday school; after that at the dances in the church hall, which stood opposite the Orlit houses in the glebe. On pleasant evenings the girls would walk up the Leuchie road, arm in arm, giggling, meeting the boys who had been up the hill playing football.

In spite of so many adults around constantly to keep a watchful eye, shotgun marriages were not that uncommon.

Each couple applied to the man’s employer for the use of a farm cottage.

For some years after the war the ‘creeling’ of the groom was still practised; a basket was tied around the groom’s neck and the bride had to cut the strings. This was done amid great hilarity from the friends of the couple.

On funerals

Only men attended funerals, in their one and only dark suit and a hat or cap. For close relatives a black armband was worn, for six months if it was for your husband or wife.

On behaviour

The general impression is of quite a close family life, strict discipline exercised by parents on their children, physical punishment not shunned (by the parents), free time (such as there was) spent in the family circle, or with neighbours and others in the village. As one lady said ‘There was no pub and it was not everybody’s idea of fun to cycle to East Linton on a dark night and back again just to have a few beers. And that over quite hilly roads’. Hogmanay, of course, being the exception.