Stow’s holy history put to print

ONE of the most prominent churches in the Borders has finally had its history put to paper, writes Kenny Paterson.

Stow Parish Church – also known as St Mary of Wedale – has sat at the south end of the village since 1875, with its clock providing a timely reminder to commuters using the region’s busiest road, the A7.

But Christianity in the Gala Water Valley goes back as far as the seventh century, as Stow resident and Scottish Borders councillor Sandy Aitchison discovered while compiling the booklet, which includes photographs by Hazell Morrell.

Mr Aitchison said: “We have never previously had a booklet on the church. It has really been a labour of love for me and I have spent months looking through the archives in The Heritage Hub at Hawick at old newspapers such as The Southern Reporter.

“The Hub really is a superb resource and their staff helped me greatly with my research.”

Stow, meaning the a holy or consecrated place in old English, saw the church of St Mary of Wedale passed into the diocese of St Andrews in 1018.

It was consecrated in 1242 by Bishop David de Bernham and became part of the Synod of Merse and Teviotdale, within the presbytery of Selkirk, until 1613 and subsequently with the presbytery of Earlston until 1929.

The former church – known locally as the Auld Kirk – still stands just a few hundred yards from the current place of worship.

Mr Aitchison writes: “The old building shows traces of architecture which has been changed significantly over the years. Fortunately, one of the most wonderful features of this building was not hidden when the new addition to the basic building was made to accommodate the laird’s gallery.”

A petition by parishioners of Stow in 1871 requested a new church be built to accommodate a growing congregation, and five years later the first service was held at the current Church of Scotland site.

TheSouthern covered the first service and noted the Reverend Mr Robertson telling congregation that both the “internal and external effect and outline is pleasing and really church like”.

The church cost £8,000, which was donated by a Mr Mitchell, named as Stow’s most generous benefactor, who also gave the land for the site of the United Presbyterian Church – demolished in the 1960s – and the current Town Hall.

Mr Aitchison added: “Unfortunately, largely due to both physical and mental injuries received at Sebastopol in the Crimean War, Mr Mitchell died relatively young and did not live to see the new church built.”

There was also scandal, particularly in the early years, with arguments reaching the letters page of The Scotsman newspaper regarding legal claims over who could sit in the best pews.

And TheSouthern also noted a accident which saw a watchmaker, Mr Dowie, pulled 16ft off the ground while attempting to ring the church bell, resulting in broken ribs and a fractured collar bone.

But the church’s striking position and design meant it was named as “one of the finest parish churches in the south of Scotland” by the Ordnance Gazeteer in 1885.

Mr Aitchison hopes the new booklet will encourage more villagers to visit the stunning structure, which now serves the parish of Stow and Heriot.

He added: “The church has such an interesting story and there is a lot more to research in the future.

“It was fabulous fun for me as I was born and brought up in Stow.

“The building has played such an important role in my life.

“It is also prominent for those not just from the village but those would have travelled through the town by train and now by car.

“The clock is so accurate and has informed commuters travelling to and from Edinburgh whether they may be late for a meeting or appointment for many years.

“You can’t avoid it. It is such a beautiful building that we also hope the booklet will send out a message to people to please come and join us in the church.”

The booklet is priced at £7.50 and is available from Mr Aitchison by phoning 01578 730323.