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Kirk of Calder, Mid Calder

Kirk of Calder, Mid Calder  - Copyright Dougie Milne Photography 2018

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The Kirk of Calder is a historically significant church situated in the pretty little conservation village of Mid Calder, just to the south-east of Livingston. The church yard is quite small, and it is difficult to find a vantage point where the whole church may be fitted into one picture without the use of a wide angle lens. However, by tucking yourself right into the south-east corner of the graveyard, the stained glass windows of the building’s southern façade make for nice close cropped images, with the gravestones creating foreground interest, as well as some implied leading lines.

An alternative viewpoint is from the graveyard across the road, where a wider view of the church framed among the trees may be obtained.

As might be expected, there are a number of interesting details that might be picked out among the gravestones and in the carvings on the church itself. Look out for:

About the Church

The historic Kirk of Calder, located in the beautiful conservation village of Mid Calder, West Lothian, Scotland, dates from 1541, although there has been a church on the site since around 1150. The church has a long and fascinating history.

The Reformation

Work began on Calder Kirk in 1541. It had been commissioned by Rector Peter Sandilands, a member of the powerful Sandilands family who owned the lands of Calder, and who, as the Lords Torphichen, still live in Calder House, adjacent to the church, to this day. Sandilands died around 1546, but work continued according to instructions that he had left. He had planned a grand collegiate style Roman Catholic Church with naves and cloisters, but when a new Rector, John Spottiswood, was appointed in 1547, this changed. Spottiswood became a member of the Reformers, the movement led by the great Presbyterian orator John Knox to break Scotland of its ties with the Papacy. Mid Calder found itself at the heart of the religious change that was sweeping Scotland. The Calder Kirk was renamed the Kirk of Calder. The building of the church continued in line with the new Presbyterian values, but the stonework that was to support the cloister arches is still visible on the church wall.

Knox himself preached many times at Mid Calder. Supported by both Spottiswood and Lord Torphichen, he is known to have regularly taken communion at Calder House, where he also performed the first reformed Celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Spottiswood was one of five who assisted Knox when the Scots Confession of Faith was drawn up in 1560. Seven years later, following the enforced abdication of Mary Queen of Scots, Spottiswood officiated at the Coronation of James VI, placing the crown on the young King’s head at Stirling on 29 July 1567.

The Covenanters

In the 17th century religious intolerance broke out in Scotland, when James VI’s son, Charles I, now the monarch of both England and Scotland, tried to impose his Anglican Book of Common Prayer on Scotland’s Presbyterian Church. Under the Anglican Church, Charles believed himself to be God’s representative on Earth, chosen by God himself to be King, and his Book said so. But Presbyterians believed all souls to be equal in the eyes of God, including the King’s. In 1638, Scots revolted against the Crown to sign the National Covenant, a document rejecting Charles’ impositions on the Presbyterian Church.

This began a long conflict between the Crown and the Covenanters. Mid Calder became a centre of Covenanter activity. The church came under attack from Royalist troops under the command of General Tam Dalyell, aka “Bluidy Tam”. Bullet holes from the musket shots can still be seen in the church walls. Presbyterian ministers, unable to preach within their churches, began to hold open-air services, or Conventicles, in the hills around Mid Calder, leading to the Pentland Uprising and the Battle of Rullion Green.

The Kirk of Calder hosted a military tribunal following the murder of two of the King’s Life Guards in Livingston, who had picked on a local Covenanter. The inquiry sat for three days, calling upon many parishioners as witnesses. But such was the strength of the Covenanters in the area that no guilty party was found.

The Growth of Mid Calder

By the 19th century, Mid Calder had grown due to its position as a crossroads between the drove roads taking cattle from the Falkirk Tryst south into England, and the turnpike road between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The village was a popular overnight stopping point and infrastructure developed to support the trade that came with it. By 1838, Mid Calder was home to at least nine pubs. The population had grown from 760 in 1755 to 1489 by 1831, and the Kirk of Calder became too small for its expanding congregation. Edinburgh architects Brown and Wardrop designed a new extension, ignoring Peter Sandiland’s original 1542 deed, which anticipated a nave running lengthwise from the western end of the church, in favour of a north/south addition, giving the church the typical “T” shape of many later Scottish churches.

Apart from John Knox, the church has welcomed other famous worshippers.

Frédéric Chopin

The composer Frédéric Chopin was a tutor to Lord Torphichen’s sister-in-law, Jane Wilhelmina Stirling. Although there is no evidence that Chopin and Stirling were lovers, he dedicated his two 1844 Nocturnes, Op.55 to her. By 1848, she had become his secretary, agent and business manager. They were living in Paris, but fled to London when the February Revolution broke out. Stirling arranged and financed a series of concerts in London, including a private function for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, before inviting Chopin to stay at Calder House. Despite her kindness, he seems to have been a reluctant visitor to the church – he wrote in a letter that he was exasperated by her habit of bringing him religious pamphlets. This is perhaps understandable, as he spoke only Polish and French, and his health was deteriorating. Financed by Stirling, Chopin returned to Paris in November 1848, where she paid his mounting debts and rented him a seven room apartment to stay. After his death, from tuberculosis in Paris in October 1849, Stirling paid for his funeral and brought his family to Paris from Warsaw to attend. She purchased his furniture and effects and shipped them to Calder House, where it was displayed in a dedicated room which became known as the Chopin Museum.

Stirling died on 6 February 1859, and was buried at Dunblane Cathedral. There is a plaque to Stirling in the crypt of the Kirk of Calder.

James Young

The Scottish chemist and entrepreneur, James ‘Paraffin’ Young, whose process of distilling paraffin oil from coal and oil shale is responsible for the huge shale bings that pepper the West Lothian landscape, was a regular visitor to the church. One of the magnificent stained glass windows is dedicated to his memory. Another is dedicated to the memory of one of Young’s daughters. Both were paid for by his son, John.

David Livingstone

Young’s friend, the explorer David Livingstone, was also a regular visitor, attending church with Young. Young financed Livingstone’s African expeditions, and contributed to the search expedition, which was unfortunately too late to find Livingstone alive. Following Livingstone’s death, Young presented a statue in his memory to the City of Glasgow, which still stands in George Square.

This picture was taken on 16 January 2018.