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Town & Gown & the Church of Irvine

The Church of the Parish has had a long and unique history.
Founded in the early part of the 9th century by one St Inan, who lived and laboured around Irvine and Beith.

Its influence was soon extended to the source of the River that gives the Royal Burgh its name. There are records of gifts given by prominent families in the valley. This to endow missionaries or Chaplaincies. One of them to "Officiate at the Chapel of the Virgin Mary upon the bank of the water at Irvine." These messengers "carried the gospel to villages within a radius of forty miles and even to the 'Island of Aran'."

The first Church belonged to the Celtic Church and the second, built early in the 12th Century came under the famous Bull of Clement III declaring "The Scottish Church is the peculiar daughter of the Roman Church to which alone ('nullo Mediante') she should show subjection".

We find early mention of St. Mary's Church in the agreement between the Burgesses of Irvine and Brice the Earl of Eglintoun in 1205. It was built "small and rude of freestone ashlar" and was cruciform in shape: lit by narrow lancet windows turned with two arches. The oak panelling here exhibited in Irvine Burns Club is a relic of this early Church. The carving is a fine example in the style of the Flemish Guild and the inscription, translated from the Greek, reads: "Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it".

The Church was not large, and by the beginning of the 18th Century, reference was made to the building as being too small for the growing population of the Parish. The Reformation was now a thing of the past, and responsibility for a new building lay with the Heritors of the Parish in consultation with the Presbytery of Irvine. Heritors meetings were dominated by the two leading Heritors - the Earl of Eglintoun and the Provost of Irvine. In their wisdom they decided that their successors should be relieved of any such responsibility in years to come and a large Church was decided upon to meet every future contingency. Hence the name given 'The Big Kirk'.

The decision to build was made in 1770, with a seating capacity of 1770. Interesting? Could that be a seat for every year of Christian Witness in the world?

It might be of interest to record the long and intimate connection between the Town and Gown: with the Incorporated Trades, and Carters' Society. The Minister was Chaplain of all three, each with its special seating accommodation. Since the Reformation and until the end of the 18th Century, the Provost was given his say in the appointment of the Minister, session clerk and treasurer. There is however no record of the Kirk Session having anything to do with the appointment of the Provost. The Church had the dominant part to play in the education of the child with the encouragement and financial support of the Town Council. Early records speak of the school in the upper part of the Kirkgate, and later the guiding hand of the Church in the building of the Royal Academy in 1806 and of the new Royal Academy in 1902.

Thus has the Big Kirk taken her place in the Annals of the Parish.

One hundred and fifty years ago a Historian visited the Royal Burgh and after he left he had something to say about the Church. "The Church is large and has the simplicity and bareness characteristic of Post-Reformation Church architecture". Her lovers, however, changed all that in a transformation to a stately loveliness for the beholder at worship. That rich red pinewood throughout: the beautiful pulpit and its surrounding pinewood supporting the pipes of the large beautifully toned three-manual organ; not to speak of the twenty one lovely stained glass windows. Of special note the replica of Holman Hunt's "Behold I stand at the door and knock" with a lamp that seems alight in any weather.


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