Following the rabbling of the Curates in 1689, when the Episcopalians were expelled from the Church of Scotland by their Presbyterian brethren, there is little trace of them in the Stewartry for over 100 years. By 1855, though, a congregation had been established in Castle Douglas, meeting in various halls and houses, and a group, led by General Thomas Johnston of Carnsalloch and Carlingwark, had begun planning for the establishment of a Church building. The congregation, then as now, was drawn from both the town and the surrounding district.
A plot on the south end of St Andrew Street was gifted by Lady Elizabeth Abercromby (a niece of the town’s founder Sir William Douglas). The “famously-maverick” London architect, Edward Buckton Lamb, FRIBA, was commissioned to design the building, and the foundation-stone was laid by the then Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway, Dr Walter Trower, on 10th September, 1856.
There are indications that the building (described in John Gifford’s register of Scottish architecture as “rogue Gothic”) was in use in the following year, although it was not completed until 1861 and only consecrated in 1874 when (it is assumed – the records are sketchy) the charge was raised to Incumbency status.
The connection with E B Lamb was evidently through General Johnston, for whose father the architect had built a Chapel at Carnsalloch in 1847. Lamb was in the forefront of the Victorian Gothic revival. He designed many handsome churches, each one quirkier than the next, although his most-prestigious commission was probably the building of Hughenden House for Benjamin Disraeli.
Some of his eccentricities are evident in St. Ninian’s including the vestigial arch behind the pulpit and the, purely-decorative, blind windows in the south wall. The raggle-taggle collection of pews may be explained by Lamb’s known habit of putting in the cheapest possible seats to offset budget-overruns.
The appealing granite-and-whinstone building has stood the test of time well, although the spire had to be removed in 1950, following an outbreak of woodworm.
Its intimate and prayerful atmosphere is complemented by fine stained-glass windows, mostly Gothic in style with a hint of Pre-Raphaelite influence. The east window is by the famous Edinburgh artist James Ballantyne. A new window, representing the Holy Spirit as a dove, was installed in 2009.
There was tremendous missionary activity in the early days. In particular, The Revd W M Ramsay, Rector 1873-86, must have been a man of extraordinary energy, not only growing the congregation at Castle Douglas, but founding new charges at Kirkcudbright (Greyfriars), Dalbeattie (Christ Church), New Galloway (St. Margaret’s) and Stranraer (St. John’s). He officiated at the four Stewartry Churches each Sunday – a round trip of some 30 miles by pony. It is assumed, though, that he travelled to Stranraer (on Fridays) courtesy of the Dumfries-Stranraer railway, the famous “Paddy Line”.
The following extracts from the Castle Douglas Journal in September 1856 give further details about the origin of the Church:
St. Ninian’s Church CASTLE-DOUGLAS
extracts from The Castle-Douglas Journal
Monday, September 8th, 1856
EPISCOPAL PLACE OF WORSHIP IN CASTLE-DOUGLAS.–Sometime back a scheme was entered into for erecting an episcopal place of worship in this town, and the arrangements are now nearly completed for the commencement of the edifice. The foundation stone is, we understand, to be laid by the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway, on Wednesday next, the 10th inst., at one o’clock.
Monday, September 15th, 1856
LAYING OF THE FOUNDATION STONE OF THE EPISCOPALIAN CHAPEL, CASTLE-DOUGLAS.
The foundation stone of this place of worship was laid on the 10th instant, by the Rt. Rev. the Lord Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway, assisted by the officiating clergyman the Rev. Mr M‘Coll, the Rev. Mr M‘Ewen of Dumfries, and the Rev. Mr Hutchison, attired in their robes. We observed also present, Col. Johnstone of Carnsalloch, G. W. Lawrence, Esq., Largnean, R. Weems, Esq. of Kirkennan, R. J. Congreve, Esq., Danevale, Wm. Gordon, Esq. of Culvennan, Dr Bell of Hillowton, several gentlemen from London and elsewhere, Provost Martin, Bailies Dobie and Craig, most of the members of the town council, and a goodly proportion of our merchants and bankers. The Bishop stated in a few remarks the importance of having a place of worship of the kind, after which he went through the usual forms as enjoined by the episcopal church, for laying the foundation stone of a church. He placed in a recess cut in the stone for the purpose, the plan, names of the founders, and coins of the present day, on the top of which was lowered a large granite block which we understand is intended for the sill of one of the windows. The Bishop having struck the stone with the mallet two or three times, part of the 133d psalm being read, and prayer offered up, the important work was concluded. The name given to the chapel is SAINT NINIAN.
At two o’clock about 60 gentlemen partook of an elegant and sumptuous luncheon, composed of every delicacy of the season, in the work shop which was fitted up for the occasion, and at 4 o’clock, the workmen to the number of about 30 were entertained to a substantial dinner to which they did ample justice, the whole being provided by Mr Payne of the Douglas’ Arms Inn, and, we believe, at the expense of the promoters of the chapel. There was also a sum of money and a quantity of beef and bread distributed among the poor of the town. Such philanthropic acts we rarely have the pleasure of recording.
A substantial bequest from Major Alan Gordon of Threave was received by the church, which he had served for many years as Secretary and then Treasurer, on his death in 1957. The money was lodged in an endowment fund, the income from which pays the Rector’s stipend and for the maintenance of the Rectory. Additionally, part of the income of the fund is donated to the diocesan Gordon Fund, which is used to support ministry throughout the Diocese.
For its millennium project, the congregation built a matching hall, with all modern facilities, to the design of local architect Anthony Wolffe. This was dedicated by the Rt Revd Dr Idris Jones on St. Ninian’s Day, 16th September, 2001. The project was funded from the endowment fund, with the congregation repaying over five years, and the building was named after its benefactor. The Gordon Memorial Hall has proved as functional and durable as it is stylish, and is in use on almost every day of the year by over 40 Church and community groups.