The Church of 1792
Christian worship has taken place at Duns Parish Church for the best part of a millennium: the modest Norman church where generations of ‘Dingers’ like John Duns Scotus and Thomas Boston came, the Homes and Cockburns duelled and Robert Burns found inspiration for ‘To A Louse’ stood directly south of its successor.
On August 31, 1790, the foundation stone was laid for a new church on the current site, costing £900 and opened two years later, and its walls and steeple still stand today.
Seating 1,200, later reduced to around 900, in its day this would have been a typical ‘toon kirk’ with simple box pews, ‘lofts’ above on three sides, clear glazed windows, whitewashed walls and long tables for communion.
During the 19th century it underwent adaptation including stained glass and an organ - among the first in the Church of Scotland, and the very first with official approval. The organ was installed 150 years ago this year, in about May, 1866.
Just before 2am on Monday, February 17, 1879, a servant girl cried out from a house in Church Square. Fire had broken out in the west gable heating system. People spilled onto the streets and the fire bell rang out.
Efforts to combat the blaze should have been aided by the Duns fire engine of 1806. A rudimentary design, when attached to a tap, hydrant or stream men could heave on its parallel handles to pump water.
Unfortunately it took half an hour to wake the man with the key to the engine house...who took half an hour find the key...then a further half an hour to get the engine across to Church Square...only to establish that the hose was not long enough to reach from the nearest source in Castle Street.
Runners with pails of water were pressed into action, but the church was too far gone.
However, the engine did manage to save surrounding houses, whose roofs were so hot that snow and water turned to steam.
During the night the flames got into the spire, burnt the beams and sent the bell crashing down. People broke into the vestry, saving the communion silver and records. By morning the church was a smoking ruin.
‘Nec Tamen Consumebatur’
“Yet it was not consumed.” This has been the motto of the Church of Scotland since 1691, and refers to Moses encountering the burning bush - no matter how it burned, it was not consumed by the flames.
Despite the physical devastation, and what must have been heartbreak at the loss of so much that was beautiful and historic, the kirk session and congregation had to keep faith and move forward.
Clearly a temporary place of worship was needed, and the congregation was able to hold afternoon services in the South United Presbyterian Church on the other side of Currie Street, which is now Carpet Mart Warehouse, and whose own congregation later united with the parish church in 1976.
This church’s kirk session had met the day after the fire opposite, and judiciously doubled their fire insurance!
Services were also held in Millbank School, halfway between Preston and Ellemford, including a rented harmonium. There was no organ in the South Church until the 1890s.
Sunday School was held in the Town Hall in Market Square, demolished 50 years ago this year, and in the Corn Exchange on Newtown Street, later Swan Garage, now site of the Co-op.
Although the congregation had been among the first to move from two to four per year, there was no communion between November 1879 and February 1881.
One of the most unfortunate victims of circumstance was Herr Johannes Albe, the organist and choirmaster, who was given his notice.
Thankfully he was later retained to lead the psalmody, then returned to his old role once the church was reopened. In 1903 he was commemorated with a small stained glass window, next to the main door, presented by the choir.
The Church of 1881
Despite inflation, the church was only insured for £1,000, with cover for the organ matching its original £300 cost.
‘Heritors’ responsible for maintaining parish churches on behalf of the community - considered five plans from well-known architects Wardrop and Reid, ranging from £1,850 to £4,000 and seating 884 to 1,000.
After consultation with the session and congregation an option was chosen costing £2,500 (plus any organ and ornamental fittings), seating 1,000 and to take a year.
In the end the church sat 920, cost over £4,000 and took almost a year and a half! There were 127 numbered pitch pine pews, of varying size, 79 downstairs and 48 in the three-sided gallery. Over the years 21 downstairs have been removed to free up space or improve access. After the current primary school opened on February 1, 1880, the old school was donated to form halls. These were linked by a new vestibule, and also added were external stairwells, rounded windowheads, and a substantial north aisle.
All walls were raised two feet and a new bell fitted.
The Great Organ and Grand Reopening
Many fine decorative features were installed, like most of the beautiful stained glass seen today, but undoubtedly the most spectacular is the organ.
This was selected by the kirk session from a list of three options supplied by the famous Peter Conacher of Huddersfield, who had also installed the original consumed in the flames. It cost £600.
Conacher’s “Opus 528”, the Duns organ, boasts no fewer than 1,157 pipes, ranging in height from half an inch to 20 feet and in diameter from a quarter inch to one foot.
Those in front glory in a delightful array of stencil shapes and lines applied by R.J. and M. Hume, painters, who still operate in Berwickshire to this day.
Originally powered by a hydraulic water engine in the base of the steeple, it was later turned into a gas pneumatic and then electrical operation.
Renovated several times in the intervening decades and still sounding with beauty, power and grace, it now also carries the prestigious National Organ Certificate listing.
Duns Parish Church reopened at 8pm on Friday, January 14, 1881, with a concert of sacred organ music played by Herbert Oakley, Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, accompanied by the choir.
Despite heavy snow, the church filled with between 1,200 and 1,300 people - many sitting on temporary benches or stood in the aisles.
As a symbolic act, not a word was read out before, during or after the concert, leaving that significant act for the first Sunday service.
On that occasion, Herr Walter, organist of Edinburgh Morningside, would sit at the keys.
‘Praise ye the Lord’
After two years, divine worship resumed at 11.15am on Sunday, January 16, 1881. It was led by the Rev A.K.H. Boyd, St Andrews, a writer and well-known church figure.
He took Psalm 96 as his text, and especially verse nine: “O worship the Lord in the beauty of his holiness”.
There was then a 6pm evening service led by the Rev Cornelius Giffen, Edinburgh St Mary’s, and the attendance must have been over 1,000 as all the pews and temporary benches were filled. In a strange twist of fate, there was a serious fire in the South UP Church as the service was beginning.