The History of Nairn Congregational Church and Nairn United Reformed Church
(Ack David Ellen, Harry Escott’s History of Scottish Congregationalism)
Towards the close of the eighteenth century, two laymen preached from the flight of steps in front of Nairn Jail. The established churchmen and Seceders of the time as a rule regarded lay preaching as an alarming innovation. A few people in the town and county sympathised, however with the lay preachers in their mission. Other preachers from time to time followed, and were cordially welcomed by the small band of sympathisers. This led to he formation amongst these sympathisers of a meeting for prayer held in each other’s houses. They had not originally the remotest intention of forming a church or congregation, but ‘The Society for the Propagation of The Gospel’, having sent several preachers to the north, it was found necessary to have a place to hold their services.
A piece of ground on the North side of Kings Street was acquired for this purpose in May 1801 and also the house behind which had been erected some time before. The title of the property was made out in the names of Lewis McElvain in Golford. High Cameron alias McPhatrick at Newton of Park, David Rose of Allanaha, Hugh Rose, James Wallace and Alexander Nicol, weavers in Nairn, as trustees and managers for a congregation, establishes or or about to be establishes in Nairn and County of Nairn.
The Haldane brothers interested themselves in the erection of the church at Nairn, and Robert Haldane gave £400 on loan, which with a sum of £139, raised by voluntary contributions sufficed for the erection of the modest building. It was called ‘The Independent Chapel’ and the object in view in its erection was ‘that it will be open to all evangelical ministers of the Gospel who may be pleased to officiate in it’. Some time later (July 1806) the supporters formed themselves into a Congregational Church
In March 1802, they obtained the services of James Ferguson who laboured for about two years as an unordained preacher. In an account of the congregation it is related that Ferguson travelled on foot from Edinburgh to Nairn and on the day on which he was expected a few of the brethren went to meet him. At a short distance from the town they met one whom they knew to be a stranger who carried a staff, an umbrella and a small bundle. The brethren accosted the stranger with the question ‘Art thou he that would come, or look we for another?’ Ferguson knew he was amongst friends and they entered the town together.
Mr Ferguson was succeeded by a Mr MacKay, who, however, resigned in 1804. The first pastorate of importance was that of James Dewar. He was a native of Breadalbane, of a devoted evangelical spirit, entirely in harmony with the feelings of his flock and was ordained in July 1806, at which time the church was regularly formed. The number of members composing the church was seventeen. Serious financial embarrassments overtook the small congregation when Mr Haldane called up his money; now amounting with accumulated interest to £500. The property was about to be sold when Mr Dewar undertook to see Mr Haldane whom he had known in early life. The sum of £200 was subscribed by friends, and on Mr Dewar candidly telling Mr Haldane that only half the sum they owed could be paid, he freely forgave the rest. The congregation now plucked up courage and the cause amongst them prospered. Mr Dewar preached three English sermons and one Gaelic sermon each Sunday and opened the first Sunday School in Nairn.
Each summer in company with his brother he made wide tours throughout the Highlands, travelling on foot and preaching wherever they went. It was not uncommon for them to walk forty miles in a day and preach three or four sermons in addition. These journeys were undertaken every year till within a year or two of his death.
Mr Dewar’s simple, earnest character dispelled any prejudice that existed amongst the churches and missionaries as they were called, and he lived in terms of friendship with Seceders and established churchmen, alike.
When the Parish Church was rebuilt in 1810, the congregation held their services in the Independent Chapel. In 1812,there was a religious revival in Nairn, and one more fervent in 1842. The Congregational Chapel was the centre of the work and church union meetings for prayer were held daily; morning and evenings for several weeks, when the chapel was generally filled to capacity.
In December 1842, Mr Dewer died to the great sorrow of his congregation and regret of the whole community. He was succeeded by John Gilles, who was ordained in 1844, but resigned in the following year. The congregation was once more restored to prosperity by the appointment of James Howie who laboured amongst them for eleven years on the lines laid down by James Dewar. In 1857, however he accepted a call to a church in Adelaide, Australia. He was succeeded shortly afterwards By Mr Ingram who, however demitted the charge after a short pastorate. The Rev James Johnston was ordained in June 1859 and shortly after his arrival it was thought advisable for the comfort and welfare of the congregation to have a new place of worship. The foundation stone of the new Congregational Church was laid by Provost Dr John Grigor on 14th August 1861, on the site of the old ’Shambles Park.’ The ceremony was preceded by a devotional service in the old chapel in King Street by Mr Johnston, pastor of the church. Provost Grigor was presented with the silver trowel used in the laying of the foundation stone. This special trowel is now in the Nairn Museum in Viewfield House outside of which stands the statue of Dr Grigor.
In 1810, Mrs Elizabeth Rose of Kilravock has an entry in her diary stating that she ‘heard Mr Wesley preach’ in Nairn and we can only assume that he preached from the stone stairs in front of the Tollbooth.