Thanks to David Wilson for the following account of the early history of the parish church in Dumbarton.
The Early Church
No one can be really certain when the Christian message first came to Dumbarton. The ‘Dark Ages’, that period following the departure of the Romans from Britain being but rarely, and often inaccurately, recorded.
What is certainly known is that Dumbarton was the capital city of an extensive Cymric (Britons) kingdom which stretched from Glen Falloch southwards as far as modern Morecombe. The only westward part of the land outwith the kingdom of Strathclyde was the Galloway peninsula.
The Celtic bishops of Alcluyd
To the Britons, Dumbarton was known as Alcluyd, Alcluid, Alclwyd, Alcluithe, Alclut, all meaning the Rock on the Clyde. To the Gaelic speaking people of the kingdom of Dalriada (roughly corresponding to modern Argyll) the town was known as Dunbretane, Dunbretan, Dumbartane, and finally Dumbarton (the fort of the Britons).
The Annals of Ulster contain one of the earliest references to a Christian community in Dumbarton. In 314AD it records that three bishops accompanied by a deacon represented Alcyuyd at a conference in Arles, the former capital of Burgandy in south-east France.
Throughout the 6th century frequent references to Alcluyd occur. Again in the Annals of Ulster it is shown that bishops of the Celtic Church were taking their name and style from Dumbarton, As an example, in 554AD the Annals record the death of Cathul MacFergus, Bishop of Alcluyd. At about the same date, in the Episcopus Britannorum, Kentigern, more widely known as Mungo (‘the beloved’), is recorded as having gone with his monks from Glasgow to Alcluid, ‘where they laboured with great diligence among the people’.
In the 6th century Modwenna, an Irish princess, endowed a chapel, dedicated to St Patrick, on the south side of Dumbarton Castle. Bede in the 7th century refers to Alcluyd as a ‘well fortified city’.
The ‘crusader’ stone
One, perhaps conclusive, piece of evidence of a church on this site was the discovery in 1848, when installing heating pipes under the floor, of a grave stone featuring a cross and a sword. It lay north/south and formed part of the flagged passage at the east end of the church. Donald Macleod, the well-known local historian, concluded that it appeared to belong to the Crusades period of history – the late 11th or early 12th century.
Aisle of churches have long been used for burial and therefore a church must have stood here in the 11th century. Certainly it would be reasonable to assume that when King Alexander II granted royal burghal status in 1222 to ‘his new town beside his castle at Dumbarton’, there was already a well-established church.
Dumbarton Parish Church was ‘apportioned’ by Robert de Brus to Kilwinning Abbey in 1320. The church was confirmed to the use of the abbey by John, Bishop of Glasgow in 1325 and by the Chapter of the same in 1330. Papal confirmation followed in 1329 and 1332. It is worth noting that burgh accounts show that both the parsonage and vicarage ‘fruits’ still pertained to Kilwinning Abbey at the time of the Reformation, indeed and rather inexplicably the records show payments still being made to Spottiswoode of St Andrews, Commendator of Kilwinning, years after the Reformation.
The Old Parish Kirk
Although we know little of the first church built of this site, it was probably of the same size and structure as the ruins of Cardross Parish Church in Levengrove Park, we know much more about the one the present building replaced.
The first entry in Dumbarton burgh records that refers to the Parish Church is dated 1372. It refers to a deed engaging Patrick de Greym, heir to David de Greym (Dominus de Dundaff) ‘to support a chaplain of the rood altar in the parish church of Dumbarton for the soul of Isabella Fleming’. ‘Quod Omnia de Dalnottar’.
The buildings and altars
This (second) church had a broad tower surmounted by a short spire and weather cock. The ‘T’ shape at the east end was caused by 17th century south transept enlargement of the burial vault of the Lords of Kirkmichael which was paid for by Robert Semple of Fullwood and Kirkmichael.
Within the church were six alters, each with their own chaplain; St James’, the Rood altar or the Holy Cross, St Peter’s, St Ninian’s, St Sebastian’s and the altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Town Council as patrons of the Parish Church
In 1617 Spttiswoode, Archbishop of St Andrews, Commendator of Kilwinning Abbey, resigned the Parish Church of Dumbarton along with the patronage, vicarage, and manse in the hands of James VI, in order that it might be conveyed to the Town Council. A charter dated 10 June 1618, granted under the great seal, conveyed to the provost and baillies, Council and community of Dumbarton, the right of patronage, manse etc. and confirmed Spottiswoode’s resignation. The terms of the Charter were ratified by Act of Parliament in 1663. In view of the above, an entry in the burgh records is puzzling – ‘8 January 1670, the thirds part of the year’s patronage payet to the treasurer of the Abbacy of Kilwinning’.
The Parish Church Buildings
Proposed new church
On 9 January 1810 the heritors appeared at presbytery with proposals for a new church. The total cost was estimated at £5,100 with £305 provided by the government in respect of accommodation for soldiers garrisoned at the castle.
The architect appointed was John Brash, a then little known Glasgow architect. His first plan was rejected by the heritors as being too large and too decorative. Brash then submitted plans which closely resembled Galston Parish Church which he had already designed.
The result was a dignified Georgian church. The steeple is pedimented and on each corner of the gate piers one can see urns that became Brash’s trademark, referred to by his fellow architects as Brash’s ‘Indian clubs’. Yet these urns and the ‘pressed in’ portico relieves and in a way enhances the classical severity of the front elevation.
The interior with his horseshoe balcony was a typical Presbyterian hall church of its time, the only decoration the Presbyterian clock flanked by the burning bush insignia of the Church of Scotland and the burgh coat of arms.
Lighting was at first by candles, replaced by gas in 1832 and by electricity in 1912.
The original 1811 pulpit was a three ‘decker’ – minster, reader/precentor and finally ‘repentant’s stool’.
Further information about the current church building can be found here.
Fast forward to 1972
Riverside was formed following the union of the Old Parish Church, the North Church and the High Church. The sale of surplus buildings facilitated the development of the impressive Halls complex in the early 1970s and the refurbishment of the sanctuary. The complex now boast 3 large multi-purpose halls; one with a stage, complete with a sound & light system, a games hall and the large rear hall, marked for a badminton court, which can be subdivided. There are a number of smaller meeting rooms; a crèche, lounge, choir room, the church office and vestry, refurbished kitchens, toilets and various stores for the use of affiliated organisations.
As well as being a hub for community activities in the suite of halls in the centre of the town, Riverside Parish Church has reached out to the community in a variety of ways, helping found a local basketball team (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumbarton_Dodgers), a youth football club (www.dumbartonriversidefc.org) and assisting with the launch of Dumbarton Credit Union back in June 1990 (see a history of the Credit Union at www.dumbartoncreditunion.org/images/library/documents/14062010-153629.pdf)
The collapse of part of the Sanctuary ceiling in the early 1990s led to a full refurbishment programme under the watchful eye of Historic Scotland, including overhauling the stained glass windows and re-pointing and cleaning the outside of the landmark building.
Ministers since the formation of Riverside:
To 1977 – James F. Dunn (translated to Coatbridge)
To 1977 – Finlayson Niven (died in 1977)
1978 to 84 – James F. Miller (translated to Dunblane, then to the USA)
1985 to 2001 – John B. Cairns (translated to Aberlady w/ Gullane)
2002 to 2010 – Robert J. Watt (retired to Dunfermline)
2010 to 2013 – Eleanor McMahon (translated to St Nicholas Cardonald)
2014 – Ian Johnson