The thread about the Disruption; why that meant churchgoing in Scotland went offshore for some, and why it was a pivotal moment for the development of photography

Happy Disruption Day to all whom celebrate!

The Disruption Assembly by David Octavius Hill
The Disruption Assembly by David Octavius Hill

In case you aren’t too familiar with it, The Disruption of 1843 was a rather seismic event in Scottish civic and religious life whereby 121 ministers and 73 elders of the established Church of Scotland (the Kirk) walked out of the General Assembly and set up their own church; the Free Church of Scotland (the Free Kirk). The walk-out was not just symbolic, they literally walked out of the Church of Saint Andrew on George Street, where the Assembly was being held, and down the hill to Tanfield Hall in Canonmills where they held their own meeting; The Disruption Assembly.

The Church of St. Andrew (now of St. Andrew and St. George), image credit Kilnburn
The Church of St. Andrew (now of St. Andrew and St. George), image credit Kilnburn
Tanfield Hall, a converted gasworks, 1849 painting by William Bonnar, which probably represents the union of the Relief Church and Secession Church a few years after the Distruption. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Five days after the walkout, the breakaway assembly re-convened at Tanfield and signed an Act of Separation from the Kirk. Around 474 ministers; almost 1/3 of the entire Kirk left to join the Free Kirk. Their appointed Moderator, Thomas Chalmers declared:

Though we quit the Establishment, we go out on the Establishment principle; we quit a vitiated Establishment but would rejoice in returning to a pure one. We are advocates for a national recognition of religion – and we are not voluntaries

The artist David Octavius Hill’s huge painting – it is 12 feet wide and 4.75 feet tall – is of that momentous second meeting, in that building. My learned acquaintance Neil MacLeod an put the reason behind the Disruption into words better than I;

Key to the Disruption was the interference of the State into matters within the jurisdiction of the Church. This is seen most clearly in the court cases of the “10 Years Conflict” leading up to 1843. In essence the point at dispute was who could choose the minister of a congregation? The landowner of where the church building was, or the congregation? Those who formed the Free Church said it was the congregation.

There is a plaque at Tanfield marking the occassion, which reads:


The First Assembly of the
Free Church of Scotland
Was Held Here on 18th May 1843
And in the Same Hall the
Union of the Secession and
Relief Churches was
Consummated 13th May 1847

(Note the old building in the background is not the Tanfield Hall; it’s a former wool storage warehouse that wasn’t built until 10-20 years after the Disruption. )

Tanfield Hall plaque. Credit: Gnomonic
Tanfield Hall plaque. Credit: Gnomonic

Many notable worthies of 1840s Scottish life joined the Free Kirk and there are all sorts of very interesting stories to tell about the likes of Thomas Guthrie, James Begg, Thomas Chalmers and the phrenologist David Welsh; but those are stories for another day.

Alexander Murray-Dunlop and David Welsh, by Hill & Adamson
Alexander Murray-Dunlop and David Welsh, by Hill & Adamson

David Octavius Hill was himself present at The Disruption. A son of Perth, he was established as an artist in Edinburgh’s New Town at this time. He was encouraged to paint a fittingly epic picture of the momentous occasion.

D. O. Hill, calotype by Hill & Adamson
D. O. Hill, calotype by Hill & Adamson

Someone who was also there was the physicist Sir David Brewster; the inventor of the binocular camera and the Kaleidoscope, he had an interest in optics and photography and also suggested to Hill that he might try out this new-fangled approach to help in the mammoth task of taking likenesses of all the ministers involved.

Sir David Brewster
Sir David Brewster

Brewster introduced Hill to a protégé, Robert Adamson, a chemist who was showing promise as a photographer and had just set up a studio at Rock House on Calton Hill. Adamson’s brother had produced the first Calotype photograph in Scotland in 1841.

Robert Adamson, by Hill & Adamson

Hill and Adamson hit it off and got to work. There was something special about the combination of Hill’s artistic eye for his subjects and composition and Adamson’s scientific approach and skill with the processes of photography and developing whereby the end product was far greater than the sum of its parts. In all, they captured the likenesses of over 450 ministers of the Free Kirk on calotypes, most posed at the Rock House studio in small groups. Hill then took these and painstakingly painted them onto the enormous canvas; it would take him over 23 years! By the time he was nearing completion, many of his subjects had passed away and others had aged; he went back over their hair and whiskers with the white paint to age them accordingly. Robert Adamson would die tragically young in 1848 aged just 26, many years before the work was completed.

However brief it was, the partnership of Hill and Adamson; the artist and the scientist, produced a quite remarkable and groundbreaking body of work in terms of its subject matter; its artistic nature; its volume and its quality. Their depictions of the Fisher Folk of Newhaven and street scenes are quite incredible. You can lose yourself for weeks in early Victorian Edinburgh and east Scotland in Hill & Adamson’s work on the National Galleries site.

His Faither’s Breeks, a Newhaven fisher lad poses infront of a boat and leaning on an oyster creel

There are some nice little “easter eggs” hidden in The Disruption painting; Robert Adamson (red arrow) is peering into his camera viewfinder. Behind him (blue arrow), David Octavius Hill is scribbling on his sketchbook.

Hill and Adamson, by Hill and Adamson
Hill and Adamson, by Hill and Adamson

Lurking in a doorway at the back is Thomas Annan, a printer and photographer, who would would pioneer the recording of social conditions using photography. Annan purchased the Rock House studio and its contents off of Hill and would go on to print some of the work by the process of photogravury. In a nice squaring of the circle, it was Hill’s intention that the painting, once completed, would be photographed and printed by Thomas Annan for sale to the public.

Thomas Annan

Hill and Adamson may also have unwittingly invented an early version of Where’s Wally as you can look at their original photos of posed ministers and try and match them up on the big painting.

Ministers of the Dumbarton Presbytery, by Hill & Adamson.

The also managed to take the first known photograph of beer being drunk, in a lighthearted moment that shows these serious men, at serious work, could also have a bit of a giggle. Robert Adamson took the photo, and it shows (left to right) writer and stained glass artist James Ballantine; social reformer Dr. George Bell; and David Octavius Hill himself on the right, there is a glass of beer for all three, Younger’s Edinburgh Ale was notoriously strong. It is a very impressive photograph considering just how long they would have to have sat perfectly still in their mirthsome poses to make the necessary long exposure time.

Edinburgh Ale by Hill & Adamson, 1844

The Free Kirk didn’t mess about; they had to set up parallel structures to the established Kirk – this meant churches in which to worship, manses and stipends for ministers and their families, schools (the parish had responsibility for education at this time), a college for training ministers, an overarching administration, missions… It took some quite impressive fund-raising activity to finance all of this (which was not without further controversy in itself at the time, and to this day, as a not insignificant amount of money was raised by sympathetic American Presbyterians who were also slave owners).

The Free Church held on to the blood-stained money, and continued to justify itself in its position — and of course to apologize for slavery — and does so till this day. She lost a glorious opportunity for giving her voice, her vote, and her example to the cause of humanity ; and to-day she is staggering under the curse of the enslaved, whose blood is in her skirts.

Frederick Douglass, “My Bondage and My Freedom”, 1855

In all, some 1,400 churches, manses and schools would be built across Scotland. One of the more unusual of these new churches was the Strontian Iron Church (Gaelic: Eaglais Iaruinn). The landowner, Sir James Riddell, refused to allow a Free Church on his land – if you recall, landowner influence over the Church and their patronage was one of the conflicts which had led to the Disruption in the first place. This led the inventive Free Kirk to commission a floating church with seats for 700 people, built on an iron pontoon, and they had it towed to Loch Sunart.

The Iron Church arrives in Loch Sunart by tugboat
The Iron Church arrives in Loch Sunart by tugboat

The Eaglais Iaruinn was built in Glasgow with £1,400 raised in the Strontian community and launched in 1846. Two steam tugs, the Gulliver and the Conqueror towed it down the Clyde and up the west coast to Loch Sunart in Ardnastang Bay. It was 24 metres long and 7m wide and had an upper gallery and a pulpit. In the bow was the vestry, which doubled as a bunk for the Minister. The below sketches of the interior of the Iron Church and people on their way to worship there are from Am Baile, the Highlands History & Culture Archive.

The church was anchored 150 yards from the shore, outside the landowner’s reach and yet prominently in sight of him. A line was fixed along which the congregation pulled themselves in row boats to and from the service (see the top left image in the above panel). Attendance varied depending on the popularity of the visiting minster. It was said that when Dr Beith from Stirling visited to preach, he did three sittings on a Sunday, two in Gaelic and “the church was never so deep in the water;” people would travel very far in those days to make sure they could hear a service in their own language.

This situation was ended by a storm in September 1847 that drove the church from its moorings and onto the shore. The reluctant landowner relented somewhat and agreed to help fund its repair and it was used where it had come to rest on the shore (see the top right image in the panel above) until a permanent church was built in 1873.

Anyway, the Free Church of Scotland was one of the bigger of the interminable schisms in the Scottish Presbyterian churches. It’s one of the things you always need to bear in mind when asking yourself the question “why did Victorian Scotland build so many churches?” It has also given us one of the most elegantly pleasing diagrams on Wikipedia:

Schisms and unions in the Scottish churches, 1560-present

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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