Church Life in Dalserf

The Rev. Dr D. Cameron McPherson

Dalserf Parish Church Buildings

Andrew Shaw received spiritual nurture through Dalserf Parish Church during the first thirteen years of his life. In 1892, the year he was born in Ashgillhead, this church was the only religious congregation within the parish of Dalserf. (In Scotland a parish is a defined area designated originally to serve both political and ecclesiastical purposes.) From 1889, however, there were two church buildings. In that year, Rorison Memorial Church, as it came to be known, was built to serve the population of the upper section of the parish. This building was originally called Dalserf Mission Hall or sometimes Rorison Mission Hall or simply Rorison Hall. In 1896, however, it was renamed Dalserf New Church and then, some time after the death on 11 March 1907 of the Reverend Dr William Rorison (see opposite page), formally named Rorison Memorial Church at the suggestion of the Honourable James H. C. Hozier, son of Lord Newlands. In the early 1900s, a hall, kitchen and toilets were added, and also a caretaker’s house. This building complex is not only still in use today but provides accommodation for the majority of the events which take place in the life of the church, the old, much-loved Dalserf Parish Church building being used mainly for Sunday worship and weddings. Rorison church is situated about a mile from the Shaw cottage in Manse Brae, whereas the original Dalserf church building is less than half a mile from it. Dalserf church would therefore have been the most convenient place of worship for the Shaw family to attend, although it is hard to believe that they would never have attended any church event in Rorison.

Two years after Andrew Shaw was born, Dalserf church building underwent the most ­radical alteration in its long history. It had been erected in 1655—in the midst of the Covenanting struggle between a defiant and indignant Presbyterian-minded population and tyrannical and brutal Episcopal-minded monarchs.* It was originally a simple rectangular building. In 1894, the centre transept was added along with three galleries. The cost of these alterations was met by Lord Newlands, whose generosity to Dalserf church has probably made all the difference to the survival of the old Dalserf church building to the present day. It is questionable whether the intention was increased accommodation rather than increased comfort, because it is recorded that ‘520 (exclusive of non-parishioners and strangers) were in the habit of communicating at Dalserf in summer and upwards of 400 in winter.’ That was before the enlargement, but it is hard to envisage more than 380 adults being seated with any degree of comfort in the enlarged building. Perhaps the congregation were spread over two or more services; or perhaps the answer is that there is no comparison in the degree of discomfort which people were willing to tolerate in earlier times with the degree of comfort people demand and expect today. This would be borne out by a comparison of the length of church services today with that of previous generations. Young Andrew Shaw would have sat through church services, and sermons in particular, lasting, I am sure, a good deal longer than is customary today. The building as it is today is basically the same as it was when Andrew emigrated in 1905. He would have had no idea that almost a century later the two largest windows in the church would be dedicated in his honour.

* The Church of Scotland is Presbyterian. In 1638, Scotland and England were under one monarch, King Charles I, who was head of the Church of England. The king tried to force his English religion on Scottish Presbyterians, ordering them to use an Episcopal liturgy in their churches. Enraged, the Scottish Presbyterians wrote—and all levels of the populace signed—a National Covenant, declaring that they would not succumb to the King’s orders. For years afterwards, they were persecuted for following their own religion.

Other Churches

Although, generally speaking, a century ago there was not quite the variety of religious allegiance that there is in Scotland today (much greater of course in the USA!), the situation has fluctuated somewhat. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were eight fairly large Protestant denominations, all of which had their origin in Scotland. In addition, there were several ‘imported’ denominations—Baptist, Congregational, Wesleyan Methodist, and Quaker. At the time Andrew Shaw was born, the number of major Presbyterian denominations had been reduced to three—the Church of Scotland, the Free Church, and the United Presbyterian (U.P.) Church. Eight years later, in 1900, the Free and U.P. had united to form the United Free (U.F.) Church. In 1929, the U.F. Church had merged with the Church of Scotland. There was a Free church and a U.P. church in Larkhall, as well as a Church of Scotland congregation—St Machan’s. St Machan’s is Dalserf’s daughter church, which was created to serve the rapidly growing village of Larkhall and given its own parish (called a quoad sacra parish) in 1837, or shortly thereafter. As a result of the developments just described, three other Church of Scotland parishes in addition to Dalserf now occupy the area once covered by the parish of Dalserf alone. There are currently proposals to unite these other three parishes. Dalserf remains the largest of the four in terms of area, but probably the smallest in terms of population, which is not more than about 2,500.

The Statistical Account of 1840 records that no Roman Catholic resided in Dalserf Parish (which then included Larkhall), although in 1841, almost five per cent of the population of Scotland were Roman Catholic. (By 1891 the number had almost doubled.) It was in 1841 that the potato blight occurred in Ireland, which precipitated an enormous acceleration in immigration to Scotland of Irish Roman Catholics, many of whom settled in Lanarkshire. By 1861, a Roman Catholic worshipping community was developing in Larkhall, served at first by clergy from Strathaven. By 1872, St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was fully established in Larkhall. Unlike some other Lanarkshire communities, the Roman Catholic population was never to grow particularly large in Larkhall, which to this day retains a reputation for being the most strongly ‘orange’ [Protestant] town in Scotland.†

In 1840, no Episcopal church existed in Dalserf Parish. The Statistical Account comments that ‘Episcopalians occasionally residing within our bounds have always been of the higher ranks, and have never failed to conform for the time to the Established Church’ (p. 756). The next year, an officer in the British Army spearheaded a movement for establishing an Episcopal church in Hamilton, the location of the Cameronian barracks. Services began in 1842, and the permanent building for St Mary’s Episcopal Church, Hamilton, opened in 1847. The Reverend Alexander Henderson served as rector as well as chaplain to the troops. His nephew the Reverend Charles Greenhill Henderson followed him in those positions and, in 1881, married Mary Campbell Hamilton of Dalserf, whose family attended St Mary’s church. Changing their names to Henderson-Hamilton, the couple resided in Dalserf House. Their two sons occasionally walked a quarter of a mile to attend Dalserf Parish Church, where they heard their uncle the Reverend Dr William Peebles Rorison deliver the sermons. Another prominent couple, James Hozier of Newlands and Mauldslie and his wife, Catherine, lived in Mauldslie Castle, across the glebe from Dalserf Manse, beginning in 1850. They were original members of St Mary’s Episcopal Church, where James served on the vestry (management) committee. Their son William Wallace Hozier, Lord Newlands, sat in the family pew at Dalserf Parish Church when he was at Mauldslie and, as previously stated, contributed generously to the improvement of the Dalserf church building.

† ‘Orange’ derives from William III, the Protestant Prince of Orange of the Netherlands who, having been invited by the Scots to oppose and replace his father-in-law, the recently crowned Roman Catholic James VII of Scotland (II of England), defeated him in 1689 (the victory being referred to as the Glorious Revolution). This ensured the continuation of Presbyterianism as the established form of religion in Scotland. The name is perpetuated in ‘The Orange Order’, which is particularly strong in Northern Ireland, but also strong in Scotland. ‘Orange’ therefore is synonymous with militant Protestantism.

Church Life

Apart from Sunday worship, church life for young Andrew Shaw for most of his years in Dalserf would have focused on the Sunday school or Sabbath school, as it was more commonly referred to in those days. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, there were around 500 children in Dalserf Sabbath school. They met in a variety of locations—Dalserf, Netherburn, Rosebank, Shawsburn and Swinhill. It is interesting that there is no mention of the New Church [Rorison Memorial Church] as a location for regular meetings of the Sabbath school at this time. (When I first came to Dalserf in June 1982, the Sunday school still met in three locations. Now it is reduced to one.) A highlight of the year for the children was the annual soirée. This was held in two venues—the New Church and Dalserf school—on two separate evenings, a Thursday and a Friday in mid-January. I expect the children from Shawsburn and Swinhill attended the evening in the New Church, and those from Dalserf, Netherburn and Rosebank the evening in Dalserf school, although there may have been some flexibility. Of all 500 children, Andrew possibly had the least distance to travel to the soirée since he lived next door to Dalserf school. What happened at these soirées?

The following excerpts from reports in the Hamilton Advertiser give some idea:

The children were liberally attended to. . . . There was a plentiful ­supply of buns and milk [and] also a fine exhibition of magic lantern slides‡. . . . After tea a limelight exhibition gave great satisfaction. Suitable addresses were delivered by Mr Alex Thomson, Mr McKinnock and Rev. Walter Smith. The Rev. Dr Rorison proposed the usual vote of thanks. A service of fruit followed.

I take it that the last sentence simply means the children were handed a piece of fruit as they left. The idea of having several hundred children listen to three addresses and a vote of thanks at an evening event would scare the living daylights out of most of us who work with children today, but expectations and, consequently, behaviour were evidently different then. Were those indeed the good old days?

‡ The magic lantern slides, projected on a full-sized screen, were suited more to children than to adults. The limelight exhibition, using an optical projector, showed subjects of a more general nature, perhaps travel to foreign countries. The limelight was created when oxygen and hydrogen were squirted on a piece of limestone which turned incandescent once the gases were lit, and produced a light as powerful as that in a modern movie projector.

Up until about the time of Andrew Shaw’s birth, there was a universal preoccupation throughout the Kirk with the disciplining of parishioners guilty of moral laxity. The Church has possibly gone too far in the other direction in the present day, but the extent of the preoccupation in those days is hard to comprehend. For example, I heard recently of one congregation’s Kirk session minutes of 1843, which made no mention whatsoever of the Disruption which took place that year—the greatest event in the history of the Church of Scotland, when thirty-nine per cent of the ministers and a third of the members left to form the Free Church. The only items reported were the inevitable cases of prenuptial intercourse and other disciplinary matters. Dalserf was no exception in those days. After about 1890, however, as far as Dalserf is concerned, a change in priorities and a healthier balance began to be reflected in session minutes.

The motive in handling the type of cases referred to above was without a doubt laudable—the upholding of Christian standards of morality in society. A far better public-relations ­exercise, however, is reflected in the following report from an 1893 copy of the Hamilton ­Advertiser:

The Kirk Session beg to acknowledge with thanks donations for coals from the Duke of Hamilton, Joseph Hutchison Esq., Archibald ­Russell Esq. and Brand & Co. Generous collections were also taken at the church and hall doors. Forty-two carts of coal were distributed amongst the deserving poor and were carted free of expense by Messrs A. J. Frame, Overton; R. Dyer, Sandyholm; Chas. Surgeoner, Netherburn; A. Hamilton, Hill; R. Letham, Over Dalserf; D. Forrest, Auldton; J. Frame, Hills [of Dalserf]; and J. Watson, Candermains, to whom the thanks of the community are specially due.

This report highlights the role of the Church in poor relief before any Welfare State existed. The same was true of education. Here also it was the Church that took the lead.

The last decade of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of a crisis of commitment and belief for the Church from which it has never recovered. One reason given for this by social historians is the Church’s rapidly weakening monopoly on social action and reform during this period. In such matters, the Church was being taken over by Labour activists and left-wing intellectuals who held no intrinsic identification with any religious body. The status hitherto enjoyed by the Church on account of this monopoly was therefore inevitably being eroded. Other factors were equally significant, such as the popularity of Darwinism, and the rise of higher criticism (often these were closely linked). Both influences were seen by many as diminishing the credibility of the Bible, and therefore the teaching of the Church. ‘Rationalised religious doubt was the common currency of the man on the street’ (Brown, p. 186).

The Reverend Dr William Peebles Rorison

Andrew’s minister, the Reverend Dr William Peebles Rorison, was fifty-six years in Dalserf—the longest of a number of long ministries in Dalserf. Dr Rorison’s successor, Dr Alexander Barclay, who died in 1937, was only the seventh minister of Dalserf since 1698—only seven ministers over a period of 239 years! I am the twenty-fourth minister since the Reformation in 1560—an average of over eighteen years for each ministry.

William Rorison was particularly interested in church praise. When he died, he had almost completed for publication a book on the origin of the Scottish Psalter. The original ­manuscript for this can be seen in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. This work is well-enough known to be referred to on the Internet. A website with the name ‘The Scottish Psalter of 1650’ ( refers to the book Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody by Patrick Miller, DD, which it says describes ‘the work of a W. P. Rorison, who with incredible patience and particularity, carried out a detailed comparison of the 1650 version with ten others, in order to trace every line, so far as might be possible, to its source’. It then goes on to give Dr Rorison’s table of the various sources that went into the 1650 Scottish Psalter. The comment is added that ‘today we would say he had too much time on his hands,’ which I think is not a little impertinent, knowing the things that have been said about Dr Rorison’s character and industry, and bearing in mind that he was probably in his seventies when he started the work, an age when most people today have long since ‘put their feet up’. Andrew Cunningham writes that ‘It says much for him that he took on much public work, including the chairmanship of the Parochial Board, at a time when he must have found his own work growing at an alarming rate, since his parish was changing from an agricultural area to an important industrial district. In the latter years of his ministry, the parish contained at least three times as many people as it did at the time of his induction’ (p. 38).

William Rorison’s grandfather the Reverend Dr Peebles Rorison, of Newton-on-Ayr, was well known as a popular orator at Mauchline ‘Holy Fair’. In 1788, he published a piece of ­poetry which caused a somewhat more famous poet – Robert Burns, for whatever reason – to vent intense anger towards him.

Dr Rorison is reputed to have had a feeble voice, which was more of a disadvantage to a preacher in the days before public-address systems. It is said that he made up for this failing by his choice of subject, although the more seriously hard-of-hearing might have argued that the content of his sermons, no matter how praiseworthy, was irrelevant to them if they could not hear him. The smaller-than-average size of Dalserf church would minimise this problem. ­Physically, Dr Rorison was tall. Photographs show him towering above the others. He evidently was also a man of great spiritual stature. When he died, the session clerk, William Sim, described him in the following terms in a tribute recorded in the Kirk session minutes:

He was a man of singular sweetness and beauty of character, knightly in presence, genial in manner, and full of kindly consideration for others. It is impossible to estimate his services to the parish, for which he lived, thought and toiled night and day. His spiritual ministrations in the home and in the pulpit were elevating and comforting. He loved the Gospel of the Grace of God and he preached it with a freshness, directness and homeliness of illustration which captivated the hearts of his hearers; his constant shepherding of his flock gave him intimate knowledge of their spiritual needs and enabled him to meet the soul’s difficulties with a rare sagacity (ibid., pp. 41–2).

Andrew Cunningham says of him: ‘By the faithful discharge of his sacred and public duties this genial and kindly gentleman so endeared himself to his parishioners of every sect and belief that he inscribed his name indelibly on their hearts’ (p. 38).

Andrew Shaw’s fine qualities of character would almost certainly have been reinforced by the example of such a man of God. As well as being one of his flock, Andrew had been one of Dr Rorison’s closest neighbours. I am sure he would have wished Andrew well on his voyage to the United States of America, and even more sure that Andrew would have had the blessing of his prayers for the future.

Manse of Dalserf

September 2001

About the Author

David Cameron McPherson, son of the late David Jeffrey McPherson and the late Margaret Busby McPherson (née McLachlan), was born 2 January 1948 in Glasgow. He attended Queen’s Park Secondary School, Glasgow, and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from the University of Strathclyde, a Bachelor of Divinity degree from the University of Glasgow and a Doctorate in Ministry (D.Min.) from the Reformed Theological Seminary of the USA in partnership with the Highland Theological College of Scotland. He was licensed as a minister of the Church of Scotland in July 1980. After serving a probationary year at Burntisland Parish Church, plus an additional six months as local funds permitted, he received a call to the church and parish of Dalserf, South Lanarkshire, being ordained and inducted to that charge on 2 June 1982, where he has remained. He was national chaplain to the Girls’ Brigade in Scotland, 1994–7.