PRIOR to 1643 Tweedsmuir was part of Drumelzier Parish and was sometimes known as Over (or Upper) Drumelzier. The reason for the splitting off is uncertain, perhaps the distances involved in those days of travel on foot and by horse. The decision to found the new parish was made in 1643 and in the following year Mr Alexander Trotter from the Isle of Barra was appointed as minister.
The original Kirk, which was a simple building (as illustrated) was opened in 1648. Prior to its opening, the new minister took services in The Crook Inn. There is an interesting description of the Kirk by Mary Tweedie-Stoddart, a daughter of the Rev John Dick (a minister of the Kirk in the second half of file nineteenth century). She recalled a whitewashed barn-like building with a small belfry at one end. Inside there were old-fashioned square pews. At one end was a small gallery belonging to Oliver (House). There was a stove in the middle of the church with a long chimney through the roof and it was often red-hot. Many of the shepherds took their dogs to the church and these occasionally fought round the stove, causing a great smell of singeing.
The 1648 Kirk was on a mound known on old maps as Quarter Knowe, which is generally considered to be a natural alluvial knoll at the junction of the waters of the Tweed and the Talla (the latter presumably much larger before the building of the Talla Dam). Although there is no definite evidence of previous structures on the mound, it seems likely that it was used as a fortified area and/or a religious site.
Sixteenth century records mention a “Quarter Chapel”, presumably a pre-Reformation chapel. Also older records alluding to the ford across the Tweed at this point suggest that there may have been something of religious significance (such as a cross) on the Quarter Knowe.
Although at its foundation it was noted that the new parish was "fully equipped with all parochial necessities", this statement was probably somewhat optimistic.
The 1640s and 50s were hard times for Tweeddale. It was a period of famine and poverty, black rites and witchcraft (with subsequent witch-hunts), severe winters and sickness. One of the worst outbreaks of plague in the Upper Tweed occurred in 1645. It was likely that little money was made available for the new parish. The minister was often not paid and during rite tenure of the first minister the manse was not kept in good repair. Sometimes there was no money even for the bread and wine for communion services. A visitor to Mr Trotter not long before his death in 1661 described him as “dying in a ruinous house with no livelihood”.
The foundation of the parish took place in a period of considerable political and religious upheaval affecting the whole of Britain – not least in Scotland and the Border country. The National Covenant was signed in 1638 and from 1641 the ultra-Presbyterian Covenant held the reins of government in Scotland for eleven years. The English Civil War was fought from 1642 to 1651. Following Cromwell's victory at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, Scotland was occupied under the control of General Monk until 1660. In 1649 Charles I was executed and Charles II was proclaimed King in Scotland. In the new year he signed the Solemn League and Covenant. In 1660 (a year before the death of Mr Trotter, the first minister of Tweedsmuir) Charles II was restored to the throne. There followed the reestablishment of episcopal government of the Church – until Presbyterianism was restored in Scotland after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.
The second minister of Tweedsmuir Kirk was Robert Scott (1662 to 1674). Mr Scott was placed in Tweedsmuir after the reintroduction of episcopy in 1661. Mr Scott was often admonished by the presbytery for failing to attend its meetings in Peebles and he, in turn, complained of having no stipend. Tweedsmuir remained a poor parish. There was still no bridge over the Tweed; often, when the river was running high, it was impossible to get to church even on horseback.
Robert Scott’s successor as minister, “by the popular request of the local people and the agreement of the archbishop and the presbytery”, was his son Francis. However, these were covenanting times and as most of the parish (including the elders) were strong Covenanters and Mr Scott was loyal to the King, he was eventually “outed” in 1688. An indication of the strength of covenanting feeling in the district is that, between 1679 and 1685, fines imposed in connection with covenanting troubles in Peeblesshire as a whole amounted to £2089, of which £1130 were for Tweedsmuir parish.
Francis Scott was succeeded as minister by James Thomson, who was ordained at The Crook Inn and preached there until the Kirk was re-possessed, Mr Scott having taken the key with him when he was kicked out. Mr Thomson seems to have been the first person seriously to try to raise money to build a bridge across the Tweed.
Thus the fascinating minutes of the Kirk Session and copies of the first and second Statistical Accounts of Scotland (in the 1770s and in 1834 respectively) show the differences regarding church government. They also make clear that both the church and the general population experienced a degree of poverty which is hard for us to appreciate in Britain today. During the first century of the existence of Tweedsmuir parish there were continual references to struggles to make the manse habitable and to keep the Kirk in good repair. Most of the Sunday collections seem to have bean devoted to assisting the poor of the parish (although it is surprising to read, in 1718, of a collection in the church for "suffering brethren in Lithuania"). Over many decades there was discussion about the appointment of a schoolmaster and the building of a school for the parish; eventually the latter was achieved, after a long struggle, in the 1760s.
This article is based upon a talk given to the Upper Tweeddale Guild in 2005. I am most grateful for the assistance of Mr Tony Hope in directing me to source references, his monographs on Tweedsmuir history and other material.