An Extract from Sandy Bell’s


“Reminiscences of Corsock”

The Free Church



Sandy Bell was the son of Margaret Colquhoun Bell neé Murray-Dunlop (1847- 1902.)Her father, his grandfather, was Alexander Murray-Dunlop a gifted lawyer and member of parliament, he was prominent in shaping the movement that resulted in the “Act of Secession”, (The withdrawal of membership of the Free Church from the Church of Scotland in 1843).

 The Free Church was built through his generosity in 1851  

Free Church affairs were an exceedingly important part of the every day life of this little Scottish community in the seventies and eighties of last century. My grandfather was a strong Free Church man and immediately on arrival at Corsock built the present Free Church (now of course, part of the United Church of Scotland) and manse and gave a large piece of ground surrounding the church, for use as a graveyard. It thus happens that it is the Free Church of Corsock that has the parish burying ground, not the parish church as usually is the case.

The Free Church site is half a mile nearer the village than is the  Established Church and is altogether a more attractive building, though the Established Church manse stands on the bank of the pretty  Drumhumphry burn and near the Urr, in a pleasant, though rather  low and damp situation.

 Even to her latest days my grandmother preferred to have Free Church men as her tenants and occasionally was victimised by people who knew her ideas on this subject and managed to secure a favourable lease for an ardent Free Church man, when a better candidate was available, whose only fault was that he belonged to the Auld Kirk. However, she had a great idea of continuity and would always renew a lease to a son of an old tenant, whatever his religion. So there was a number of old and highly respectable farming families, mostly Griersons and Muirheads, who were not of the Free Church.

The minister of the Free Church during my youth was a gentle old man, the Reverend Robert Smith, D.D. He had been in his youth a missionary to the Hungarian s and had written a book on Pesth, (probably Petch or Pécs, a city in southwest Hungary ) which was sometimes read aloud to us children by our grandmother on Sunday evenings. We called it, I fear, Dr. Smith’s pest. Never have I heard from any minister sermons or prayers so long as those delivered by Dr. Smith.

 There was not instrumental music in Corsock Church until later years, nor any hymns. We were not so severe, though, as was Dr. Borrowman in the neighbouring church of Glencairn at Moniave, where the paraphrases at the end of the Bible were stitched up with thread to prevent the young from reading them.

 The precentor and ruling elder at Corsock was John Ewing, my grandmother’s land steward. He had an extremely powerful voice and was a master of what were called “grace notes” and “repeats”, variations on the last line of each stanza, followed by a repetition of it, not provided in the tune book.

  John Ewing’s eldest son became a distinguished preacher and a D.D.,(Doctor of Divinity) his younger sons Robert and Sandy both succeeded him in his office of precentor. Robert was, to my taste, worse than his father, but Sandy better.

The population was distinctly musical and actually hired a music teacher from Dumfries to teach it tonic sol fa singing in four parts. No choir was allowed (“quires quarrel”, Dr. Smith used to say) but it was pretty to hear correct parts being sung by people dotted about the Church. A “plate” was affixed to the rail of the back pew in the church and into this every worshipper cast without fail a contribution, often very noisily and from a distance, but never missing.

 Our family had the two back pews and usually filled them both. Special short cut paths led from the house to the church, crossing and recrossing the main avenue and merging on the high road just opposite one of the church yard gates. I never remember my grandmother consenting to drive downhill to church, but occasionally, not often, she would let herself be drawn back up the long hill in a donkey chair led by an old attendant name Campbell .  

 The musical service at Corsock church consisted of three psalms and a closing paraphrase. It was remarkable how the shepherds’ collies’ who attended their masters to church and remained quietly outside or in the porch during the long 2 ½ hours of service would recognise the strains of the paraphrase and start moving about, sometimes even venturing up the aisle t their master’s pew during the last verse, in expectation of the benediction.

Dr. Smith used to deceive quite innocently the smart society visitor to our pews who had been warned to expect a long sermon. After the Scripture lesson he would embark on what was called the “Exposition”, a discourse of about 20 minutes duration, sometimes extended to half an hour.  At the end of this “exposition” the unwary visitor would say “nothing like so long as I feared” or something of the sort. But this was merely a prelude to the sermon, which would be surprisingly short if it ended in three quarter of an hour. In addition there ere two long prayers and a third very long prayer indeed, interposed between the second psalm and the exposition.

Evening service was not held every Sunday and was only attended by those lining n or near the village. It was held in the school house and the precentor was Mr. Weir, the school master. When the moon was full or nearly full, or in long summer evenings a service was held in a cottage three miles away in the small village of Gibbs Hill. The room in which we met was full of cocks and hens, roosting in the rafters. Only occasionally, when a party of young men and girls thought they would enjoy a six mile moonlight walk, did we yield to our grandmother’s entreaties to “encourage” Dr. Smith to by attending service at Gibbshill. Except in summer and in moonlight it was necessary to take lanterns to guide our steps along the wood path to the school house. Of course there were no such things as street lamps.  

Funerals at Corsock during the last century were functions at which attendance was just as much a sacred duty as was attendance at divine service. The whole male population turned out to every funeral, unless kept away by works of necessity or mercy. As the graveyard was Free Church land, the elders of that Church met each coffin at the churchyard gate and escorted it to the grave. One of a family of three dwarfish, feeble minded brothers was the grave digger and did his duty with enormous gust, wearing a red cap.

The 103rd psalm, or rather that portion of it which likens the life of man to grass, was always sung to the tune “Coleshill”  (a weird and melancholy tune, which always struck me as most suitable to the occasion and to the surrounding scenery) as the coffin bearers approached the grave.

 After the sentences of committal the strange red-capped sexton would shovel earth into the grave with a speed that clearly indicated his mental peculiarity, stopping after a few moments with a jerk that never failed to startle me as a boy and would then whip off his red cap with the speed of lightening! After a shot pause, during which my eyes were always fixed on the cap held stiffly at arms length, the chief mourner would say “Thank you gentlemen for your attendance” and all would slowly depart.