History of the Congregation
St Columba Gaelic Church is part of the Church of Scotland. Christianity came to what is now Scotland around 400 AD, with St. Ninian, who led a mission based at Whithorn in the south-west of the country. St. Columba, (521-597 AD), our church’s patron, was an Irish Abbot and missionary, who settled on the island of Iona, which became a base for spreading Christianity principally to the Picts of the north.
The Church of Scotland was founded in 1560, following the Reformation and the work of John Knox and others, although it did not finally become Presbyterian until 1690. It had comparatively little influence in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland owing to the lack of Gaelic-speaking clergy, and the process of conversion and consolidation was very gradual. In the late 18th century, the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) established schools in the Highlands with the object of preventing a resurgence of Catholicism and countering Jacobitism. While this helped the cause of the Church of Scotland it did nothing for Gaelic, as the language was forbidden in schools and pupils were punished for speaking it.
By the late 18th and on through the 19th century, Highlanders were flocking to the cities, particularly Glasgow, to find work and escape poverty. Several Gaelic speaking congregations were established. The one to which St Columba's traces its beginnings was the first, in 1770. The building was opened on the 18th February in that year, in Ingram Street (see map below). In 1839, the second church was opened in Hope Street, the first having been sold to the British Linen Bank which developed the site for their Glasgow Chief Office.
At the great schism of the church in 1843 known as the Disruption, the exodus to form the Free Church was particularly strong in the Highlands. However, St Columba’s remained in the Established Church of Scotland. One reason for this was that, since the main issue was the unpopular practice of lay patronage - the local landowner choosing the minister – and since St. Columba’s could already choose its own minister because of its unique constitution, the grievance simply did not apply to it. There were also theological differences. Whilst many Highland churches belonged to the Evangelical tradition, St Columba’s traces its roots back to the 18th century tradition of Moderatism, which originally drew on the acceptance of Enlightenment ideas.
In the 20th century The Church of Scotland became recognised (under the Church of Scotland Act 1921) as the national church. It is not subject to state control, and the monarch, whilst Supreme Governor of the Church of England is an ordinary member of the Church of Scotland. As the national church the Kirk, as it is popularly known, has responsibility for every part of Scotland. It exercises this territorial ministry through the parish system, where every congregation has responsibility for a geographical parish. St Columba’s is the unique exception. Its parish has no physical boundaries but is defined instead by its language and culture, so that any individual requiring the services of the church in the Gaelic language may regard themselves as a parishioner of St. Columba's.
This map (reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland) can be viewed in full size on their website. Click the thumbnail above to view. Our original church (1770) can be seen at the bottom left of the map. The second "Gallic Chapel" was built on Duke Street in 1798 and can also be seen in this map.
1807 Street Plan
The Very Rev Dr Andrew Herron writes in his Historical Directory to Glasgow Presbytery (1984):
"About the background to the establishment of the Gaelic congregation the following is recorded - “In 1727 a Highland society was instituted in Glasgow by some gentlemen having associations with the Bens and Glens and being interested in the language of the Gael. It had for its objects the education and welfare of boys of Highland parentage. An offshoot of their activities was the formation in 1768 of "The Gaelic Chapel Society‟, and the culmination of the aims of this body was the opening of the church.”"
The 1948 Annual of An Comunn Gàidhealach (Vol 43) records:
"From 1746 onwards and increasingly during the latter half of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries Highland people crowded into Glasgow, Paisley, and Greenock, driven by economic pressure and attracted by the developing industries of the Clyde region. Between 1772 and 1791 at least 8,000 people from Skye alone came south to the “Galldachd” and most of them settled in Glasgow. In the early 19th century one-fifth of the city’s population was Highland and another fifth was Irish. The best indication we can get of the growing multitude of Highlanders and Gaelic-speakers resident in Glasgow is the number of Gaelic Churches established for them, and later on the numerous clan and district associations founded.
As far as is known, the earliest Gaelic services held in the city were conducted by the eminent preacher and theologian, the Rev. John MacLaurin, minister of what is now St. David’s (Ramshorn) Church from 1723 to 1754. He was born in Glendaruel, where his father was minister, and his brother was the famous mathematician, Professor Colin MacLaurin. MacLaurin held frequent services and monthly meetings for the Gaelic folks of Glasgow. In 1727 a Highland Society was formed in Glasgow for the education and welfare of boys of Highland
parentage. Members of this society and others formed the Gaelic Chapel Society in 1768. The Synod of Argyll also collected money within its bounds to build a church for the Gaels of Glasgow. In 1770 on a site in “Back Cow Loan” (now Ingram Street), facing Queen Street (the site now occupied by the British Linen Bank), the first Gaelic Church in Glasgow was built, now represented by St. Columba Church in St. Vincent
Our three manual E.F. Walcker & Cie pipe-organ is of international interest and is included in the British Institute of Organ Study's Register of Historic Pipe Organs - Grade 1 - as being of importance to national heritage.
When the Highlanders' Institute closed in the 1970s their historic Armorial Collection was transferred to St Columba for safe-keeping and remains there to this day.