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Cupar Parish Church

History of Cupar Parish Church

The first church in Cupar lay some distance north-west of the town and little is known about it, save that by the early 1400s it was in a ruinous condition and that the last remains of it were removed in 1759. The neighbouring church of St. Michael of Tarvit was built in 1245 and lay on the other side of the River Eden, south-east of the town. In 1618 its parish was incorporated into that of Cupar and by the end of the 16th Century the church had ceased to exist.

In 1415 the Prior of St. Andrews erected a new church for Cupar on the present site, described by the Revd. Dr. George Campbell, in 1793, as "a spacious and magnificent church, built in the best style of the times, in length 133 feet by 54 in breadth". John Leighton the historian, writing in 1840, says that it was "A magnificent structure in the pointed style. The roof of carved oak was supported by a double row of pillars, forming a central nave and two side aisles". He says also that it was finely decorated with carved work, both in stone and wood.

John Knox was a frequent visitor in Cupar and preached in the Parish Church - most notably on one occasion after the 'battle' of Cupar Muir (where no shot was fired or violence occurred). On returning to the town, tradition has it that the local people showered the 'victorious' Protestant forces with garlands of laurel leaves. The symbol was adopted as an emblem of the town, and appears in Cupar's coat of arms - to be seen under the gallery clock in the Church.

The main body of this church was pulled down in 1785 to make way for the present building. The Revd. Dr. George Campbell says that the old church was in a state of total decay and that the heritors ''erected on the same site a church of more convenient plan''. Leighton, however, deploring the destruction of "this fine old building", comments "Demolition is not easily explained, even on principles of economy, because although the roof had become decayed and required to be renewed, the walls were perfectly sufficient and stronger than those of the building which replaced it".

A sketch of the old church appears on Gordon's plan of Cupar of 1642. All that remains of it is the tower and a short section, now used as the Session House, connecting the tower with the later building. The view of this from the churchyard shows three pointed stone arches and part of a fourth, now all closed in, springing from round pillars (see drawing on first page). The arches would have given access for the nave to the north aisle and possibly also to the tower. The pillars are now partly buried due to a rise in the level of the adjoining ground.

The tower is of dressed stone laid in courses, a quality form of construction in medieval times. As first built, the tower went up only as far as the projecting stone string-course, which lies immediately above the single narrow window on each face marking the original belfry. The parts above this, namely the new belfry with its twin windows, the stone balustrade and the spire, were all added in 1620 by the Revd. William Scott, the parish minister, at his own expense. A spiral stone staircase runs up inside the tower to the original belfry, after which access to the new belfry is by a wooden staircase. A programme of sympathetic restoration was completed in September 1989 and is commemorated by a plaque at ground floor level.

There are two bells contained in the belfry. The larger, weighing 1000 lbs., was made in 1485, enlarged in 1610 and refounded in 1747. The smaller was made in 1689 and refounded in 1791. Four clock-faces are mounted on the stone balustrade. These were installed in 1910 and are worked by a series of rods from an ingenious clockwork mechanism in the old belfry. The mechanism also has the capacity to sound chimes, but this is not now used.

As regards the present church, Revd. Dr. George Campbell described it in 1793 as "the most convenient and elegant in Fife", whereas his successor forty years later, the Revd. Dr. Laurence Adamson, considered it a "commodious, though by no means elegant building". It is certainly very plain on the outside but much more attractive inside, especially with the very fine Victorian stained glass windows on the south wall.

The walls of the church were heightened in 1800 and traces of two blocked-in windows, lower than the present gallery windows, can be seen on the side facing the street. The porch was added in 1811. Originally the church accommodated 1196 places, but this was increased by 1835 to 1300. The Revd. Dr. Laurence Adamson records that 150 of these were free, the rest being "let at a small rent or in the possession of heritors and their tenants".

There are two War Memorials in the church, one in brass on the east wall and the other, larger, one in stone on the south wall. The standard, or "guidon", which projects from the south wall is that of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and was laid up in the church when the regiment was amalgamated with the Scottish horse in 1958. Seven years earlier, the regiment had presented to the church the fine carved oak baptismal font, incorporating the crest of the regiment, as a memorial to the fallen.

On the west wall of the church, looking strangely out of place in an 18th Century building, is the finely carved recumbent figure of a knight in full late-medieval plate armour. This is part of the old church that was incorporated into the new. The figure, as shown by the coat of arms over the arc above, is one of the Knights of Fernie, who were Constables of the Castle of Cupar from 1203 to the 17th Century. It is not known which knight is portrayed and the figure is commonly referred to as "Muckle Fernie", although, at 5'8" he is not exceptionally big by today's standards.

In the centre front row of the gallery is an imposing carved seat. In the days before 1975, when Cupar still had a Burgh Council, this was where the Provost would sit, wearing his robes of office and flanked on either side by the other councillors, for the Kirking of the Council, a service which took place after each Burgh election and now, regrettably, no more.

At that time, the organ was located on the south wall, between the two tall windows, with the pulpit in front of it. Some five years later it was damaged in a fire and was replaced with a more modem organ from the closed Bow of Fife church. The battery of pipes was installed in its present position in the gallery, controlled from the console near the pulpit, and the pulpit itself moved back to its present and original place.

There are many old and interesting gravestones in the churchyard, including the tomb of the Revd. William Scott and the gravestone of the Revd. Dr. Laurence Adamson, both mentioned above. The Revd. Dr. George Campbell lived in the Chancellor's house in Crossgate and his son who went on to become Lord Chancellor of Great Britain.

Also to be found in the graveyard is the recently cleaned 'Covenanters Grave' - where assorted feet, hands and the heads of three Covenanters involved in the assassination of Archbishop James Sharp in 1679 are buried.
The Church can be opened on request during the week, and in the summer months of June, July and August 1999 is open each Saturday from 10am to 4pm as part of the Scottish Churches scheme.

The Manse

The town of Cupar is littered with houses that were once manses belonging to or used by Cupar Old Parish Church. Belfield, in the Millgate (now part of a new housing development) was a manse in the C16th and C17th; Preston Lodge (built in 1623), in the Bonnygate, as well as housing the Royal Nursery at one point, was used by the Revd. Robert Preston in the mid to late C18th. It was largely due to his influence that the Church was rebuilt in 1785. Blairneuk, in Carslogie Road and Marybank in the Burnside were also leased as manses. Latterly the manse of the First Charge of Cupar Old Parish Church was in the Millgate, opposite the entrance to Belfield. (There used to be two ministers serving what was the Collegiate Charge of Cupar Old Parish Church - a situation which continued until 1936; thereafter there was one minister and a succession of ministerial assistants, and from the mid-1950s, just one minister. By this time the relief Church of St. Michael's had been closed (1950) and so there was only one centre of worship to be serviced).
Eden Manse was built as the manse of the Second Charge of Cupar Old Parish Church in 1890 for the minister the Revd. Robert Frizelle. The amount of the bond on the property was £500, and the debt was eventually cleared, after considerable effort, in the mid 1920s. To date Eden Manse has been the home of six ministers:
Revd. Robert Frizelle (1890 - 1915)
Revd. Robert Alexander (1915 - 1949)
Revd. Graham Brotherton (1950 - 1970)
Revd. John Henderson (1972 - 1978)
Revd. David Clark (!979 - 1986)
Revd. Dr. Derek Browning (1987 - present)
Church of Scotland manses, by Church Law, have to be a certain size, with so many public rooms (these are presently on the ground floor and constitute the drawing room, sitting room and dining room), a study and at least one 'spare' bedroom which was kept for visiting ministers who might be assisting in the conduct of worship. Inevitably this means that manses tended to be large buildings. Eden Manse has around fourteen rooms. Being built at the end of the Victorian era, it was customary for ministers to employ a not inconsiderable number of servants, so the back wing of Eden Manse was built as servant's quarters. The 'maids' wing' currently houses the library and study.

In the time of the Revd. Robert Alexander, there was a 'live-in' maid, a nursery maid, a visiting washerwoman and a gardener/handyman. Currently Dr. Browning employs a house-keeper and a gardener - who visit only on a weekly basis! It is also interesting to note that electricity was not brought into the manse until 1947.Lighting was by candle and gas before that date. Also in that time the manse was, to the south and west, surrounded by fields, and with a clear view down to the River Eden, from whence it took its name.

The Eden Manse is an important part of our Church property, and has consequently been maintained to a very high standard by the Kirk Session. The stripping of woodwork, electrical wiring (including the reinstatement of the original front door pull-bell) conversion of a 'butler's pantry' into a cloak room and lavatory, installation of central heating in the main house, a modern bathroom, improved car-parking facilities at the front, and soon, it is hoped, a new kitchen, have been some of the important works undertaken, along with a continuing redecoration programme. It was during the redecoration of some of the five bedrooms that the original Victorian tiled fireplaces, with ornate iron hoods, were discovered. They had been boarded up for forty years. Another interesting feature is the original Victorian rope ladder which is the only access to the attic.

For its size, the Manse is not difficult to run or maintain, being solidly built and regularly reviewed by the Kirk Session's Property Committee.
The Eden Manse is not just the home of the minister, it is also used regularly for congregational meetings and social events, and continues to be very much at the heart of the life of the congregation.

If you would like to visit Cupar as part of a highly personalized small group tour of my native Scotland please e-mail me:

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