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Rev Robert Jaffray (1747-1814)
Minister of Gallows Knowe Church Kilmarnock
by Archie McKellar

Three Kilmarnock ministers who feature prominently in the poems of Robert Burns are buried in the town's Laigh West High Kirk churchyard.  The Rev John Robertson, the Rev John Murtrie, and the Rev Dr Mackinlay mentioned in 'The Ordination' were all ministers of the then Laigh Kirk.  The Rev Dr Mackinlay and the Rev John Robertson also feature in the poems 'Tam Samson's Elegy' and 'Tam Samson's Epitaph'.

In the same kirkyard is buried another minister, the Rev Robert Jaffray, who was also a contemporary of Robert Burns, but was never mentioned in any of his poems.  Robert Burns was noted for his anti-Calvinist stance and some of his poems, including 'Address to the Unco Guid' and 'Holy Willie's Prayer' satirise the gloomy Auld Licht doctrine.  The Rev Robert Jaffray came to Kilmarnock in 1775 to be minister of Gallows Knowe Church, the only Burgher church in Ayrshire at that time.  Perhaps the Rev Jaffray did meet Robert Burns but was held in too high esteem in the town to be ridiculed by the poet.

Robert Jaffray was born in 1747 at Throsk, a large farm near Stirling; he matriculated at Glasgow University in 1766 to study for the ministry of the Associate Synod Church in Scotland.  From 1767 the Associate Synod's Professor was the Rev John Brown of Haddington, a distinguished minister and theological writer.  The Rev Brown taught the students for nine weeks each year of their university course and would cram 150 hours of teaching encompassing the whole disciplinary span into these weeks.  Under John Brown's guidance the Rev Jaffray became a distinguished preacher and pastor.

In Scotland in the eighteenth century there were very few parishes in which the gospel was preached; Legalism, Moderatism and Erastianism prevailed.  In Kilmarnock from 1762 to 1772 the Rev Oliphant, also mentioned in the poems of Robert Burns, who had received his training in the Secession Church but afterwards joined the Established Church, was minister of the High Church.  His views were evangelical and his preaching sound and impressive.  When the Rev Oliphant left Kilmarnock for Dumbarton in 1772 a small group of Kilmarnock worshippers decided to leave the Established Church and join the few Burgher Seceders scattered around the district.

The Burgher place of public worship, as granted by the magistrates, was the Meal Market, in which a tent was erected.  This tent was an eyesore to the established party, who sent a delegation to the magistrates - as they had granted the place - 'to put the Seceders out'.  The reply was sharp, but suitable. 'Preach them out', said the magistrates.

In a petition to the Associate Burgher Presbytery of Glasgow to supply preachers the group argued that owing to 'distance and destitution' they lamented they had 'to spend in comparative retirement Silent Sabbaths.'  On the 16th of June 1772 the petition secured the appointment of the first preacher.  Mr Hamilton, a probationer, was to preach on the first two Sabbaths in July.  As a welcome gift Mr Hamilton was given a pair of gloves, manufactured in Kilmarnock, which cost the group six shillings.  The first ordained minister to preach in Kilmarnock was the Rev Walker of Pollockshaws.  He was given a present of a Red Cap, also manufactured in Kilmarnock.  The preacher's fee at that time was ten shillings and sixpence per week with board costing five shillings per week and a further one shilling and two pence per day to stable the preacher's horse.  The average collection was fifteen shillings each Sunday.  The group were greatly encouraged by the attendance and the support given to their meetings.  However as there was a great shortage of preachers at that time the services of a preacher could only be obtained for two Sundays per month.

Soon the group set about raising funds to build a meeting house.  Eventually ground was purchased at Gallowhill in the north of the town at a cost of £8-5-6d with £2-6-0d being paid as compensation to the farmer, Mr Gibson for the damage done to his barley growing in the field at that time.  The yearly feu-duty was £2.  Money was borrowed first from Mr Hall of Cathcart Mill, an elder in Glasgow and father of the late Dr James Hall of Edinburgh.  Collections were made and subscriptions given: the Glasgow Shuttle Street congregation gave £13-5s, the Stirling congregation £10 and Bailie Buchanan, Greenock, £11.  At length the group presented to the Burgher Presbytery of Glasgow in 1773 a petition for erection into a congregation and its prayer was granted at a meeting of the Presbytery on the 9th of August 1773.  This date is when the Gallows Knowe Church, Ayrshire's only Burgher Church, was first established.  A further petition to the Presbytery for the election of elders was presented and granted on the 11th of January 1774.  Three elders, James Menzies, James Muir, and James Findlay were ordained on the third Sabbath of March 1774.

Some described the new church building as 'plain and homely'; others called it 'barn like'.  The building consisted of a thatched roof, earthen floors and stiff pews.  By day it was lit by daylight from the small windows and at night by the candles each of the worshippers carried.  The first appearance of Mr Jaffray was as a probationer on 14th March 1775.  On the day after he preached, a petition to the Burgher Presbytery of Glasgow for moderation in a call was presented and granted to take place on the 19th of April 1775.  Mr Robert Jaffray was called, and the call was sustained at a meeting of the Presbytery held in Glasgow on the 25th of April 1775.  The stipend was £50 per year, plus a manse in College Wynd, near Kilmarnock Cross, the annual rent of which was first £15 then latterly £20.  When the minister married, which he did and raised a family in Kilmarnock, his stipend was to be increased to £60 per year.  On the 23rd of August 1775 the Rev Jaffray's ordination took place in Barber's Park  One Thomas Walker was paid 1s 3d for keeping non-members of the congregation out of the park.  The tent, which had been pitched at the Meal Market, was carried by a man who was paid one shilling for transporting it to the site of the church.  As a welcoming gift the congregation gave the Rev Jaffray a suit of clothes costing £5-5s.  Mr Jaffray's wardrobe was at first a chest, which cost the congregation 2 shillings to transport to Kilmarnock.  At the ordination service Mr Walker of Pollockshaws preached from 2 Cor. 2 .16, 'Who is sufficient for these things?'  Mr Richardson from Greenock preached the ordination sermon from 2 Tim. 2 .15, 'Study to shew thyself', and Mr Campbell of Stirling concluded the work by a sermon from Ezekiel 3. 17, 'Son of man I have made thee a watchman.'  At the close of the service Mr James Menzies, a ruling elder, was elected by the session to represent the congregation at the Presbytery and Synod along with the minister.

On his arrival at Gallows Knowe tradition says that the Rev Jaffray thought his motives were not pure in accepting the call to Kilmarnock.  At first he believed he could only depend on six families, so after securing the means he was determined to go to America.  But God ordered otherwise, and the congregation increased under his faithful ministry.

Before a year had elapsed after his settlement, Rev Jaffray's health broke down and the church was in consequence closed for a month.  For twenty years after Rev Jaffray's ordination considerable accessions of members came from the surrounding country.  Each Sunday groups of men, women, and children would walk many miles from Fenwick, Stewarton, and Galston and elsewhere in Ayrshire to attend the services.  The roads at that time were little more than mud paths trodden with the hooves of animals.  Many of the women and children walked barefoot in all types of weather.  Summer and winter they would wash their feet in a well before donning shoes to enter the church.  The well was owned by a member of Gallows Knowe Church, and he allowed the pilgrims this privilege.  As it was a spring well its use was allowed; had it been a pump well having to pump the water would have been a sin on the Sabbath day.

As a preacher the Rev Jaffray gave no long introductions to his sermons, but proceeded at once to his subject. His manner of preaching was deliberate, distinct, and impressive, with uniform voice, putting one hand into the palm of the other.  A country woman said she could depend on Mr Jaffray's preaching, for he counted it down on his loof.  The Rev Jaffray also gave a monthly Sabbath Evening Exercise, as it was then called, embracing expositions in order of the doctrines of grace as contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith.  An excellent pastor and peacemaker in his own church, Mr Jaffray was often called to promote peace in neighbouring congregations and sessions.  In 1802 he helped comfort the relatives of the dead when disaster struck the then Laigh Kirk in Kilmarnock.  A piece of plaster fell from the ceiling as the minister the Rev Dr Mackinlay was making his way to the pulpit.  Thinking the roof was about to collapse, panic ensued and in the rush to leave the church, 29 people were killed.

The Rev Jaffray was not without his problems in Kilmarnock.  When some of his leading parishioners became intoxicated by French views influencing not only politics but also religion, brought about by the French Revolution, the minister became so distressed that he thought for a second time of resigning his position in Kilmarnock and going to America; thankfully he changed his mind.  When a dispute arose in the church regarding the division between the New Lichts and the Auld Lichts the minister kept his congregation from having bitter arguments by preaching on the text Amos 5. 13, 'The prudent shall keep silence in that time, for it is an evil time.'  He was annoyed sometimes with anonymous letters.  The author of one he detected one day in his own Session.  It concerned an improvement in the assistantship at Communions.  Mr Jaffray and some of the elders read stronger ministers as recommended as an improvement.  An elder called out 'It's not stronger ministers we want it's stranger ministers that are wanted.'  'Oh John! I see you know something about this letter. Why did you not put your name to it, or converse with us on the subject?'  The anonymous scribbler became dumb, betraying his own secret.

The division between the Auld Lichts and the New Lichts came about by a change of sentiment on the question of government support of the Secession Churches, which led to conflict.  This shift at the end of the eighteenth century also opened the way to a wider toleration of theological diversity within the church.  The enlightenment advocacy of reason and the right of free enquiry disposed people to assert the liberty to think, speak, write and publish as they pleased; as a corollary, some objected to the civil government acting as patron to any form of religion.

Eighteenth century Communion Services were held twice a year, early and late in the year.  The Communion season, also known as 'The Holy Fair', usually lasted a few days with a Fast Day on the Thursday, when two sermons were preached, a service on the Friday night, when one sermon was preached, two sermons at the Preparatory Service on the Saturday, and two sermons at the Thanksgiving Service on the Monday following the Sunday celebration.  At Gallows Knowe the church and tent belonging the church were both occupied with ten tables of communicants each Communion Sunday, when several sittings of Communion would be held, with the minister being assisted by a visiting clergyman.  A common feature at the Communion Services was the 'Fencing of the table' by which all potentially unworthy takers were debarred.  Attendances were large, with much emphasis being placed on the minister's catechetical examination and Communion Tokens, which granted admission of true believers of good moral life to the Lord's Table.  Communion Tokens were metal discs, some square, some round and some oblong depending on the local moulds which were available, with the name of the church and the initials of the minister and often the date of casting stamped on them.  The minister, elders or deacons either at catechizing visits or at the preparatory service before the sacrament of the Lord's Supper usually distributed them.  Tokens were withheld for disciplinary reasons and presentation of the token was obligatory for admission.  Traders would also set up their stalls around a church at Communion time in order to obtain trade from the crowds who attended these services.

The Rev Jaffray's house, as tradition says, always offered hospitality to the poor.  No one was ever turned away.  Refreshments for ministers and elders were provided in the Session House at Communion time, as Mr Jaffray's house was in College Wynd, some distance from the church.  A record of 1781 states 'The committee being met ... agreed to provide (for the refreshment of the Ministers and elders over Communion week-end) one bottle of red wine, one bottle of white wine, one leg of lamb, four pounds of beef for broth, one bottle of brandy.  Mrs Smith, the wife of an elder was to provide tea, sugar, pepper, and vinegar and to be paid for it. The committee to provide six bottles of porter.'

 In 1805 important changes were made to the structure of Gallows Knowe Church.  Pillars were constructed to strengthen the roof, part of the ground was removed to make a new road plus the necessary new fences were constructed.  The stairs which were on the inside leading to the gallery were now built outside the building.

The Rev Robert Jaffray died on 4th April 1814 aged 67 years. His gravestone in the Laigh West High Kirkyard bears the following inscription:

Robert Jaffray

Minister of the Gospel

Born at Throsk in Stirlingshire

22nd July, 1747

Ordained at Kilmarnock

August, 1775


4th April, 1814

Now with his God.

For some years after the Rev Robert Jaffray's death his tombstone was well cared for by members of his congregation.  The Jaffray family were most grateful for this as they thought it was 'a good token of the congregation', for ensuring the tombstone was in a wonderful state of preservation.

After the death of the Rev Jaffray there were great changes at Gallows Knowe Church.  The Auld Lichts and the New Lichts became divided and problems ensued.  The house with the spring in the garden had changed owners and the gate was closed to the pilgrims.  This was a great inconvenience to the people who had walked barefooted the five miles from Stewarton.  The groups from Fenwick had started their own church in 1782, as did the Galston group in 1800; they had been filling the north gallery of the church for so long that it was called 'The Galston Laft'.  The Stewarton group continued to walk to Gallows Knowe for a short time after the death of the minister, but difficulties started to arise when disputes divided the congregation.  In 1815 the Stewarton Pilgrims ceased their trudge to Kilmarnock except at Communion.  Then they took the step to form an Auld Licht Kirk in Stewarton.

At Gallows Knowe the congregation became divided, with a small group calling themselves the New Lichts breaking away and worshipping in a joiner's shop in East George Street, Kilmarnock.  They eventually became the Portland Road Church.  The larger group, the Auld Lichts, paid £265 to recover Gallows Knowe church and in 1818 built a new church in Wellington Street, Kilmarnock.  Later in 1907 they built the present Henderson Church in London Road, Kilmarnock.

Like his teacher, the Rev John Brown of Haddington, the Rev Robert Jaffray left some literature on the interpretation of the gospels, but his greatest legacy is the many souls who were inspired by his teachings and started their own churches.  Today, nearly two hundred years after his death, the Rev Robert Jaffray's ministry is still evident in Kilmarnock and the surrounding district by the many churches, although some have now amalgamated, of which his ministry laid the Christian foundations all those years ago.


Henderson Church, Kilmarnock The first church in Wellington Street, Kilmarnock was completed in 1818 and was named after the Rev Alexander Henderson (1583-1646).  A well-known minister in his day and leading covenanter, Henderson was the prime architect of the National Covenant (1638) and the Solemn League and Covenant (1643).  He was Moderator of the Glasgow Meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1638.  The present building in London Road was built in 1907.

Portland Road Church, Kilmarnock was demolished to make way for a new building in the early 1970's.  Now known as Howard St Andrew's Church, this building is situated some 50 yards from John Finnie Street near the centre of Kilmarnock and also serves the congregations of the now closed King Street and St Andrew's North Churches.

Erastianism: the supremacy of state over church at one extreme and the independent jurisdiction of the church at the other.

Legalism: the legal relationship between the church and state.  Each institution tends to view the matter differently from the other.

Moderatism: the attitude of those who were so satisfied with the ecclesiastical settlement secured by the Revolution of 1690 that they were prepared to endure hardships such as the presentation of ministers to parishes by patrons and the necessity of subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The First Committee of the Petitioners

This committee was appointed in 1772 to manage the affairs of the petitioners.  The first petition requesting the supply of sermon was presented to the Burgher Presbytery of Glasgow on the 16th of June 1772.

Preses: John Brown, Farmer, Nether Raith, Fenwick

Treasurer: William Creelman, Bonnet maker, Kilmarnock

Thomas Lockhart, tailor, Kilmarnock; John Burns, weaver, Fenwick; John Love junior, farmer, Monkland, Kilmarnock Parish; George Borland, wright, Kilmarnock; William Muir, labourer, Kilmarnock; Andrew Smith, weaver, Kilmarnock; James Menzies, clerk to the old tan work, Kilmarnock.

To these afterwards were added: William Brown, John Gibson, James Paterson, T. Templeton, William Clerkson, James Findlay, Andrew Creelman, Robert Walker, David Walker, George Miller and Matthew Faulds.

Archie McKellar

The author acknowledges the help given to him by Mr George Jaffray Baxter of Pennsylvania, USA, the great, great, great, great grandson of the Rev Robert Jaffray; also the Staff of The Dick Library, Kilmarnock, for supplying information for this article. A special thanks is extended to Mr I Macdonald MA and the Rev J Roy BA, who read the original script.


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