A Brief History of the Church in the Parish of Row (1648-1900)

A Brief History of the Church
in the Parish of Row


James Henry Dunan


By the end of the 16th century the architectural heritage of the pre-Reformation Church was largely destroyed and following in its wake came bleak Reformed Church buildings.

The Parish Church at Row was one such ‘preaching box’ conforming to the ‘T Plan’ style that appeared to be evolving for Scottish churches in the 17th century – a single chambered building with lofts and galleries containing the private pews of local magnates and magistrates.

It was in 1648 that the new parish of Row was created – the first Parish Church building being completed in 1649. A local heritor, McAulay, Laird of Ardencaple, undertook to build the church, he also provided the land for both the church and the minister’s manse and garden.

The Rev. Archibald McLean, M.A. from Kingarth on the Isle of Bute, first ministered to the parish. McLean remained in this charge from 1648 until 1651; thereafter the pulpit lay vacant until 1658 due to the difficulty in finding a Gaelic-speaking minister.

James Glendinning took an interim appointment in 1658; this ‘interim’ appointment was to last until 1665 when the Rev. Hugh Gordon from Comrie was translated to the charge. The ministry of the Rev. Hugh Gordon was to last from 1658 until 1683 when he transferred to the nearby Parish of Cardross.

Throughout Gordon’s ministry (1658-1683) and that of his successor, the Rev. Robert Anderson (1684-1688), Episcopalian worship was the accepted form in the parish.

Interestingly, the Rev. Robert Anderson demitted his charge with the abdication and flight of King James VII in 1688 but after the Restoration of Presbyterianism and patronage in 1689 he was recalled to the charge where he remained until his death in 1708, his patron was Archibald Campbell, 3rd Duke of Argyll.

During those turbulent years for the Scottish churches (1638-1689) there is no evidence of upset, from any agency, directed at the ministry of the Parish of Row from the time of its foundation in 1648, which was only 10 years after the signing of the National Covenant, until the demise of King James VII in 1688. At that time Row was considered to be a remote parish within the Highland region and not easily accessible although access by sea was straightforward.

Little is known of the individual who succeeded the Rev. Robert Anderson to the parish ministry in 1709 and whilst the Rev. Archibald Currie (or McCurry) remained parish minister for 8 years until 1717 there is no documentation of his service other than the length of term of his charge.

Two years passed before a replacement was found in 1719 for the Rev. Currie and with his successor began a most noteworthy era in the history of the Parish of Row church.

In 1719 the Rev. John Allan was ordained, a schoolmaster from Campbeltown appointed under the patronage of the Duke of Argyll. This signalled the beginning of almost 100 years of family ministry for the parish. ‘Family ministry’ was a remarkable feature in Scottish church history before and after the Reformation. By 1761 the Rev. John Allan was in poor health and was succeeded by his son, also John, an appointment that received the unanimous approval of the heritors. Rev. John Allan, Sr. died in 1765 at the age of 82 and his son continued to minister to the parish until his death in 1812, 95 years of ministry between them and 51 years service for John Allan Jr.

Rev. John Allan Jr was the author of the 1st Statistical Account (OSA) for Row; this makes little comment or observation about the church other than to say there is only one family of seceders. It does state, however, that there are eight poor who regularly receive assistance from the church and a further eight who occasionally receive assistance from the church, the indication being that such funds that are disbursed are collected at the church door and amount to some £10 - £12 per annum. The population at the time of the OSA was considered to be 1,000.

At this time in mid-18th century Row the church was responsible for education and one, Christine Turner, was paid three shillings sterling for keeping school.

The OSA goes on to say that there are no other churches in the parish although “there are several remains of popish chapels”. These chapels would be long since extinct and can probably be identified as Chapel Dermid in Glenfruin, St Michaels and Kirkmichael in the Barony of Millig where the present Helensburgh township is situated.

Throughout the ministry of the Allans it is recorded that the Kirk Session, though small, was indeed active and always busily engaged in the spiritual and moral guardianship of the parish. There are many instances recorded of the type of penalties being issued by the Kirk Session of Row – fines, admonition before the Session, public rebuke from the pulpit, placement on the repentance stool (known locally as the jougs or jags) or the ultimate penalty of excommunication being the most serious form of punishment.

Excommunication would mean total boycott of the individual with the certain loss of employment; such treatment would be applied not only in the home parish but also in surrounding parishes. Removal of the excommunication punishment could be granted by complete and sincere repentance of the original offence before the assembled congregation.

Within the Parish of Row it was traditional to make marriage agreements at boisterous assemblies in local public houses, Saturday night being favoured for such festivities. The noisy, drunken revelries usually spilled over to impinge on ‘ye Lord’s day’ and so it was that in 1757 the Row Kirk Session put an end to this ‘unacceptable tradition’ by refusing the Proclamation of Banns on the following Sabbath day.

During the ministry of the Allans the original Row Church became ruinous and a second church was built on the site in 1763. This was a simple building with a small bell-tower and two galleries for local estate owners, one for Lord John Campbell and the other for Ardenconnel. The interior had a bare earthen floor with seats and pews constructed from rough deal boards. This building was to serve the parish for the next 90 years.

An additional church appeared in the Parish of Row about 1802. This was a Congregational Church located in the relatively new village of Helensburgh that formed part of the Parish of Row. It existed with extremely small numbers that were further diminished by secessions to the Baptist Church.

Following 95 years of the Allan father and son ministry there arrived in the pulpit in 1812 ‘a quiet and uneventful man’, the Rev. Alexander McArthur. McArthur remained at his charge in the Parish of Row for 13 years until his transference in 1825. However, the ministerial appointment that was to follow McArthur in 1825 was anything but quiet and uneventful. The little Parish of Row was about to hit the national headlines and become a significant part of the history of the Church of Scotland with what is now referred to as The Row Heresy.

In 1825 there was inducted as minister of the Parish Church of Row the 25-year-old John McLeod Campbell, a son of the manse, his father was minister at Kilninver, Argyllshire. John McLeod Campbell was a graduate of both Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities and a native Gaelic speaker.

What an opportunity for a young man – the parish had slipped morally, church attendance was seriously declining, the parish had 30 public houses (or tippling houses as they are later referred to in the 2nd Statistical Account) and smuggling was a major activity.

John McLeod Campbell quickly gained a reputation as a preacher and was heard by great attendances in the parish and elsewhere. So much so that within two years of his arrival, in 1827, it was necessary to enlarge the church to accommodate the increased numbers. No doubt the ever-expanding population in the area also contributed to the increased congregation size of the Parish of Row church, nevertheless, the preaching of John McLeod Campbell was attractive to many – although somewhat radical.

The theological message delivered by Campbell was not universally accepted since he endeavoured to dismantle many of the cold Calvinistic beliefs.

Calvin’s Doctrine of Election

Whereas, John McLeod Campbell preached

Intrigue commenced against Campbell within the Parish of Row, this soon escalated to become a national scandal.

In 1827 the Rev. Robert Story in the neighbouring Parish of Roseneath is quoted as having said about the preaching of John McLeod Campbell the “The ministers of Glasgow have taken alarm and there is much excitement in Edinburgh”.

In 1828 a small hostile group of Campbell’s parishioners made a formal complaint against him; this was eventually lodged with the Presbytery of Dumbarton in 1830. The Presbytery deliberated and decided the complaint should be turned into a Libel; they conducted a brief trial and found the Libel proven. An appeal was lodged which finally reached the General Assembly.

The details of the complaints against John McLeod Campbell can be found in the “Precognition of Witnesses for the Libelled 1831”. A package containing precognitions was found in the church tower as recently as 1980, they make fascinating reading. These precognitions are from listeners to the preaching of John McLeod Campbell who claim that they contained the following libellous or heretical comments:-

  1. God forgives every human being for his sins past, present and future, whether they believe it or not – the sin of unbelief excepted.
  2. That God loves every person alike.
  3. That no one is a Christian unless they be positively assured of their own salvation. So much so that if they were to die the next moment they would be safe.

Such preaching was deemed to be “…..unsound and pernicious doctrines contrary to the Holy Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith”

Rev. John McLeod Campbell did not deny his preaching and vigorously defended himself throughout.

The General Assembly debated his case at an ‘all-night’ sitting on 25th July 1831 and on the following morning at 6.15 a.m. a verdict was given against Campbell by a majority of 119 to 6 with many abstentions. Whereupon John McLeod Campbell was deposed as a minister of the Church of Scotland, stripped of his priestly and pastoral functions and forbidden to enter any church buildings to preach therein.

John McLeod Campbell preached a farewell sermon to a crowd of thousands in August 1831, not in the church at Row, that was forbidden him, but in a field within the parish. Following his deposition he became an itinerant preacher, travelling the country on horseback, preaching to vast congregations, often in Gaelic.

By the time of his death in 1872 it was clear that, in the preceding 40 years, the Establishment was accepting his views and attitudes. Church historians now consider John McLeod Campbell to be a major contributor to the theology of the Church of Scotland.

The Rev. John Laurie filled the pulpit vacancy in the Parish of Row that was caused by the deposition of John McLeod Campbell in 1832 and, like John Allan Jr before him, he was to serve the parish for over 50 years.

The deposed John McLeod Campbell was supportive of his replacement and successfully encouraged his supporters and erstwhile parishioners to remain loyal to the Parish Church of Row and the new minister.

Soon after taking his charge in 1832 John Laurie realised the spiritual needs of his 2,000 scattered parishioners and introduced preaching on alternative Sunday evenings in Helensburgh, Garelochhead and Glenfruin. Local schoolhouses were used as places of worship and the success of this programme resulted in a church building being erected in Garelochhead in 1838, not a church as such, more a preaching station.

Rev. John Laurie was the author of the 2nd Statistical Account (NSA) for the Parish of Row (now more commonly called by its present spelling of Rhu) which he completed in January 1839. In this he confirms the establishment of the ‘preaching station’ at Garelochhead in 1838, the existence of the Old Licht Burgers in Helensburgh in 1839 and another church in Helensburgh supporting a very small Independent congregation.

Laurie shows church membership statistics as follows:-

Established Church of Scotland (communicants) = 600
Old Licht Burgers (Rhu, Cardross and Roseneath) = 115
Independents = 32

About the time that Laurie was writing the NSA there was formed in Helensburgh in 1839 a United Presbyterian Church, it does not receive mention in the NSA.

In 1838 the population of the Parish of Rhu was in the region of 2,600 of whom some 1,400 resided in Helensburgh.

The NSA states that although Helensburgh had a small and incommodious pier there were three daily steamboat connections to Glasgow.This brought the summer traffic that was to be a contributory factor to church expansions.

The Poor and Parochial Funds detailed in the NSA show there to have been 26 persons on the regular Poor Roll. Such regular poor receive 6/- to £1 per quarter according to their needs. The total annual disbursement amounts to about £120. This sum is obtained without assessment, Sabbath collections contributing about £80 and the balance coming from the let of a few sittings, marriage dues, mort cloth dues and interest from a small fund belonging to the poor.

About 1840 Rev. John Laurie succeeded to a small estate in Perthshire, this caused him to change his name forthwith to John Laurie Fogo.

John Laurie Fogo elected not to depart the Established Church at the Disruption of 1843 and there was never a Free Church in the village of Rhu, one probable reason being that Church of Scotland supporters owned all of the land.

Very few of his parishioners in and around Rhu village seceded, those who did from all of the adjacent Garelochside parishes combined to worship in a disused local granary until the opening of a Free Church at Shandon in 1844. The Shandon Church was a simple, plain building that was later adorned with transepts and spire in 1884.

In the growing town of Helensburgh, which was fast becoming the focal point of the parish, there were many seceders at the Disruption including all of the Old Licht Burgers, they continue to use the Helensburgh Church of Scotland building as their place of worship. It was very largely due to the efforts of the Rev. Laurie Fogo from Rhu that a new church was constructed for the Established Church congregation in Helensburgh. This new church building opened in 1847 prior to which the congregation had spent the previous three or four years conducting their services in a variety of large houses or public halls.

From now on Helensburgh was to expand rapidly and in 1851 Rev. Laurie Fogo was to oversee the rebuilding of the Parish Church at Rhu close by the site of the original church built in 1649. The building that exists in 2001 is essentially the 1851 structure, the architect was William Spence of Helensburgh and financial assistance was forthcoming in the amount of £1,200 from the main heritor and land superior, Sir James Colquhoun of Rossdhu, the other major benefactor was Robert Napier of Clyde Engineering in the amount of £800. Upon the re-opening Napier also presented a bell which hung in the church tower.

By 1858 the railway system had reached Helensburgh from Dumbarton, steamers were sailing thrice daily to the Gare Loch piers at Rhu, Roseneath, Barremann, Shandon, Rahane, Mambeg and Garelochhead. It was a thriving, busy place and as such there was greater demand placed on the churches of the district to meet the denominational differences of the expanding populace.

In 1859 the Park Free Church was opened in Helensburgh and in 1867 there opened the Helensburgh West Parish Church.

Shortly after patronage was abolished in 1874 an assistant minister was called to the Parish of Rhu to help an ailing Rev. Laurie Fogo. And in 1876 the congregation called the Rev. John A Webster, a son of the manse, from the Shetland Isles where his father had been minister on the Island of Fetlar. He ministered alongside Laurie Fogo until the latter’s death in 1882 – over 50 years in ministry.

Hostility to any form of music in the Reformed Church had existed for many centuries, only Psalm-singing was countenanced. Gradually the mood changed with the introduction of stringed instruments, precentors, harmoniums and finally to the acceptance of pipe organs. The latter met with serious opposition in many quarters in the mid to late 19th century. Rhu Parish was no exception in this debate, however, Rev. Laurie Fogo was to see the installation of a pipe organ in his church with the inaugural recital being played on 29th December 1880.

Gardiner Muir of Ardenvohr gifted the organ to the church in memory of his late father. The following year, 1881, the church was in receipt of another gift in memoriam in the form of a clock and chiming bells.

Rev. John A Webster was the incumbent when the church was enlarged in 1891 to meet the demands of an increasing congregation. Whilst the roll contained only 400 these numbers were greatly increased by summer visitors and by large, permanent contingents of boys from the training ships anchored in Rhu Bay.

Rev. John A Webster continued to serve the parish until his death in 1914.

The 3rd Statistical Account, written in 1951 when the population of Helensburgh had risen to 8,760, shows the following churches in the Parish of Rhu:-

Church of Scotland (five), Roman Catholic, Congregational, Baptist, Scottish Episcopal, Salvation Army, Plymouth Brethren and Christian Scientists.

© J H Dunan 2002

Milngavie, Glasgow, SCOTLAND


  1. 1st Statistical Account (OSA)
  2. 2nd Statistical Account (NSA)
  3. 3rd Statistical Account
  4. “A Village Heritage” by Iain B Galbraith published 1981 by Rhu and Shandon Kirk Session
  5. “Sketches of Churches and Clergy” Parishes of Row, Roseneath and Cardross published 1889 by McNeur & Bryden, Helensburgh
  6. Copies of “Precognition of Witnesses for the Libelled” held by Dumbarton Central Library, Local History Archive.

Last Update: April 2005