Kirkcowan – What's Going On?


Kirkcowan was obviously named in honour of an early saint. Over the years it has been variously ascribed to the memory of St. Conan, St. Coan, St. Owen, St. Kevin, and St. Comgan (or Comghain).

Nothing is known about the first three mentioned. St. Kevin is said by Dempster to have belonged to the Western Isles. St. Comgan, an uncle of one of the St. Fillans, died in October, 52? A.D. According to McKer1ie, he was Prince of Leinster and was forced to flee from his land to Scotland when, because of his conversion to Christianity, his rule became violently opposed. His sister, St. Caentigerna, and her children shared his flight. In Turriff, Aberdeenshire, an annual fair was held in his honour on his feast day, 13th October. It was called “Cowan’ s Fair.

During the reign of James I V, Kirkcowan and Kirkinner churches were granted to the Chapel Royal in Stirling. Sir George Clapperton was sub—dene and Sir James Paterson was sacristan. Kirkcowan church was leased for 680 merks a year and out of this the preacher was paid 100 merks. This connection with the Chapel Royal was dissolved at the reformation.

In 1591, after the Reformation, the patronage of the two churches of Kirkcowan and Kirkinner was granted to Sir Patrick Vans of Barnbarroch. At this period the two churches were served by one minister who preached one Sunday in Kirkcowan and two in Kirkinner. Later Kirkcowan had its own minister and, in 1658, a new church was built, presumably on the site of an earlier one.

When, in the early 1660’s, King Charles 11 sought to impose Episcopalian rule on the Presbyterian churches of Scotland, Kirkcowan’s minister, Rev. Alexander Ross, M.A., lost his charge as a supporter of the Covenant. He fled back to his home of Dalreoch, in the parish of Colmonell, where he was later charged with holding unlawful conventicles and baptizing in private.

Among the covenanter sympathisers in Kirkcowan parish during the following difficult thirty years were the powerful Gordons of Craichlaw.

The laird and his heir were both known as covenanters and fined accordingly, with the son eventually being charged for his part in the 1679 rebellion at Bothwell Bridge with outlawing and forfeiture of the family estate being the penalty. The family were forced to leave Craichlaw during the “killing times” and took up residence across the Bladnoch on their property of Glaisnick while a Major Main was granted title to the forfeited Craichlaw.

Another Kirkcowan covenanter, William Kerr of Boreland, was imprisoned with the Wigtown martyrs in the tollbooth of the county town in May of 1685. He managed to effect an escape from the dungeon, thus being spared the fate of hanging.

In that same month, a fugitive covenanter from the parish of New Luce, Alexander Linn, was shot to death on the Bide of Craigmoddie Fell near the Derry Farm in Kirkcowan parish. His walled—in tomb is on the spot where he was killed.

In 1689, Rev. Alexander Japhray became minister of the church at Kirkcowan. He had been for a time the schoolmaster of Wigtown’s Grammar School, one of those of the period described by Crockett as “Stickit Ministers.”  There is evidence of his unpopularity as Wigtown’s Master, but his time in Kirkcowan was too short to leave an impression.

Like many other Episcopalian ministers, he was removed from his charge at the time of King William’s enthronement that year to make room for the Presbyterian minister of the peoples’ choice. Japhray afterwards resided at St. Ninians, Stirling, where he died in 1722. He left £100 to the poor of St. Ninian’s.

After the revolution, several of the Kirkcowan ministers were men who came from Ireland, possibly Presbyterians who had found shelter there during Scotland’s “killing times.” Gilbert Milroy, a covenanter from Penninghame parish also came to reside in Kirkcowan parish after his return from a ten year term of slavery in Jamaica. He served as an elder in Kirkcowan’ s parish church and founded the family that later brought the mill industry to the village.

In 1744, the new minister, Robert Hunter, came to Kirkcowan from an earlier position as chaplain to John McDowall of Logan. In 1783, the minister was the Rev. John Dickson, third son of a local farmer, Adam Dickson of Kiladam. He wrote Kirkcowan’s chapter for the Old Statistical Account. His entry is notable for its silence regarding the affairs of his parish church.

In 1799, he was succeeded by a relative, Rev. Dr. Anthony Stewart, M.D. , a medical doctor as well as a minister. Dr. Stewart mother was a Dickson of Kiladam. He had written the New Luce chapter for the Old Statistical Account while serving as minister there, and he remained in Kirkcowan long enough to contribute Kirkcowan’s entry in the New Statistical Account of 1841. His daughter became Lady Craichlaw. During the long ministry of Rev.- Dr. Stewart in the village (45 years), the church building became too small for the congregation and, in 1834, a new church was built to seat 400 people.

Pigot and Company’s National Commercial Directory of 1837 described the new church as “A very neat edifice Its site, as well as the ground occupied by the church yard, was munificently given by Captain W. C. Hamilton of Craighlaw.” This Captain Hamilton was, of course, the son-in-law of the minister:

The most unusual feature of the new church was and remains the two outside stairways leading to side galleries in the sanctuary.

In 1841’s New Statistical Account, it is said that there were then 263 families attending the Parish Church and that the stipend of the minister was £292. 11s. 8d. There were also 21 families connected with the Secession and Relief Church, 7 families of the Reformed Presbytery, and 13 Roman Catholic families in the parish.

In 1849, Kirkcowan called Rev. James Charles to be its minister. Having been educated at Glasgow University, and then having served for a short time as chaplain on a Bengal establishment, the Rev. Charles had been minister of St. Andrews, Calcutta, from 1832—181+7. He returned to Scotland to become Kirkcowan’s minister for 31+ years. He published seven works in his lifetime.

By 1883 there was a United Presbyterian Church in Kirkcowan. When it united with the Free Church to become the United Free Church, the church in Newton Stewart Road became known as Dawson Memorial. It was named in honour of Rev. James Anderson Dawson of the York Road U. F. Church in Newton Stewart, who was a favourite preacher of the Kirkcowan congregation. Whenever he visited the village to preach, because of his tiny stature, a special box had to be placed on the floor of the pulpit so that he could be seen. He died in 1932.

On 14th February, 1954, Dawson Memorial united with St. Couans to form Kirkcowan Parish Church under the ministry of Rev. Hugh Tolland. Since 1982, the church has shared a minister with Wigtown Parish Church.

During the Second World War, the tower of Kirkcowan Parish Church was used by the Royal Observer Corps. It was manned 24 hours a day to watch for airplanes. The minister, Rev. Hugh Tolland, was the chief observer. The headmaster of the school, Mr. Heat lie, was his deputy. There were also four full—time watchers and a rota of part—time watchers to cover night duty.

All passing planes were reported directly to Ayr. Details were given of the type of plane seen, its height, and its direction. Observation posts were named: Bargrennan was Edward One; Newton Stewart was Edward Two; Kirkcowan Church was Edward Three.