The South of Scotland has a habit of producing great national leaders. Wallace was born in Ayrshire (possibly Renfrewshire), The Bruce at Turnberry (possibly Lochmaben) John Knox at Morham (possibly Haddington) but David Welsh was definitely born in Tweedsmuir. I can hear you saying now, “I know the first three but who is Welsh?”
In his way Welsh was just as great and influential a figure as the others, playing a very prominent part in a struggle every bit as vital those involving the other three.
Rev Dr David Welsh. Engraved by Robert Bell, from a painting by W Bonnar,
Jordanhill Library, University of Glasgow
David Welsh was the son of Margaret and David Welsh of Earlshaugh and Tweedshaws (both buried in Tweedsmuir Kirk in which there is a plaque in memory of Dr Welsh). He was destined for the ministry being ordained in 1821 to Crossmichael Church, later translating to St Davids, Glasgow. He was an acknowledged preacher with a keen intellect and in 1831 was appointed Professor of Divinity at Edinburgh University. It was no surprise to anyone when in 1841 he was nominated to be Moderator of The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for 1842, despite being under 50.
These were not quiet times in the Church’s history. There was considerable strife about whether the secular law of the land, or the church’s own ecclesiastical law, took precedence. This manifested itself in a struggle over the appointment of ministers. The State held that the local landowner had the right to name the minister, some in the church argued that it was up to the congregation to pick their own. The Duke of Buccleuch, for instance, had the right of patronage over nearly all pulpits between Galashiels and the English border.
Things came to a head in the Banffshire parish of Marnoch where the Duke of Fife proposed a much-disliked assistant minister and schoolmaster for the parish. The congregation wanted a different minister who had worked with them previously. The case went to the Court of Session where the Duke’s nominee was upheld and the local Presbytery had to install him. (One might ask why the schoolmaster went to all this trouble but the minister’s stipend was 7 times the schoolmaster’s salary; personally I think it’s high time this differential was re-established but I doubt the Church Treasurer would agree). On a snowy January Saturday in 1841 the service of ordination was scheduled. The Church was filled to overflowing and when the new minister was called a riot broke out, snowballs and even coins were thrown at the Presbytery Clerk. Eventually the congregation walked out to set up their own Church with their own choice of minister. Other congregations did likewise throughout Scotland holding services in houses, barns, fields and even on a boat when the local Laird refused to allow the minister on his land.
By the time the General Assembly met in May 1842 with Dr Welsh as Moderator, a whole plethora of legal edicts, injunctions and penalties had been issued against the church for failing to comply with the secular laws of London. The General Assembly bravely rejected all these stating that Jesus was the head of the Church and Christ’s kingdom took precedence over any temporal power. This attitude was not well received by the legal authorities and despite appeals to Parliament further injunctions were issued.
This led to Dr Welsh’s finest hour. As outgoing Moderator it was his job to celebrate communion and open the Assembly of 1843. He conducted the service in St Giles but instead of constituting the Assembly in St Andrews Church he stood up and read a statement that as the General Assembly was no longer free to decide matters religious for itself it could no longer be said to be the voice of the Church of Scotland and that he and all free thinking ministers and elders had no option but to leave. With that, still dressed in his ceremonial robes, he led a walk out. He and the rest were cheered through the streets of Edinburgh as they processed to Tanfield Hall where they constituted themselves the first General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. Lord Jeffrey wrote of the events, “I am proud of my country for nowhere bar Scotland could such a deed have been done”. Like Knox 300 years before him Welsh had managed to bring about great change peaceably but not without great personal stress and anxiety.
There can be no doubt that Dr Welsh’s Tweedsmuir upbringing enabled him to make a stand which was costly both materially and emotionally. The strain it placed upon him is evidenced by the fact that he died less than two years later at the age of 52.
The reforms brought about by Dr Welsh and the others in 1843 are still in force and enjoyed by the Church today, a Church which thankfully finally reunited as the National church in 1929.
Certain dates hold great resonance for Scotland 1298; 1314 and 1560, perhaps less happily 1513, 1707 and 1746 but we all, church members or not, should be proud of 1843 and the part played in that year by a Tweedsmuir lad.
Rev Bob Milne