Recollections of the Old Mackenzie Hall

Recollections of the Old Mackenzie Hall —
Kirkcudbright Usages.

John Graham. Galloway News – 1966.

Today when I stroll along the old High Street of my native town, Kirkcudbright I marvel at the clean tidy condition of the houses, every one of them painted and decorated, and without a blemish on the walls. The street itself is spic and span.

This state of affairs is not entirely due to the Queen’s visit last year because the trend for some years has been towards the improvement in the external appearance of the dwellings in the High Street. This street is so different from what it was in my young days when I must confess it looked very drab.

In turning the corner at the Tolbooth the pedestrian might notice – if observant – the narrow entrance to the old Mackenzie Hall. The building itself is hidden by the houses Nos. 67-77 High Street (approximately) and was at one time known as the Old Associates’ Church, afterwards the United Presbyterian Church. The late Joseph Robison who was painstaking and accurate in his research has given us the story of this church in his booklet on St Mary’s Church of Scotland, Kirkcudbright.

The British Parliament by passing an Act in 1712 created a crisis in the history of the Church of Scotland by giving once more to patrons the right to present ministers to parishes. By the years 1733 the leader of those who held that the people had the right to choose their own minister – Ebenezer Erskine left the Establishment and with his supporters formed a Communion, the Associate Presbytery. They were known simply as Seceders.

Eighty seven years were to pass before the formation of the Associate Congregation in Kirkcudbright. The foundation stone of their church must have been laid in 1820, or 1821, according to the dates of the newspapers found in the stone during alterations later on. There must have been buildings on the site prior to the erection of the church for it is said that the titles go back as far as the middle of the eighteenth century.

The first minister was the Rev George Wood, and his congregation, though at first small, increased in numbers, a few members coming from Gatehouse which at that time was a prosperous little town. The original Jail Buildings, erected in 1815 and demolished in 1866 would be in close proximity to the church. These were situated behind the present Sheriff Court House, and very likely were part of the old High Street.

The Rev George Wood continued his ministry until 1868, and he died in 1870. He was held in high esteem, and his congregation erected a tombstone in his memory in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard. This can be seen in the old part of the churchyard not far from the main path going northwards from the entrance gate. His successor was the Rev. William Watson who came to Kirkcudbright in 1869, and in 1878 led his congregation into the new United Presbyterian Church in St Cuthbert Street.

The Rev Mr Watson died in 1894 a short time after he had celebrated his semi-jubilee. In 1895 the Rev Richard (afterwards Dr) Glaister succeeded to the ministry of the UP Church. The union with St Cuthbert’s Free Church took place in 1900, and lasted till 1914 in which year the Rev Alexander Marshall died. Shortly afterwards Dr Glaister left for Brisbane to take up his appointment as Principal of Emmanuel College, Brisbane.

To return to the old church in the High Street, when the new UP Church was built the building was sold to a Company, and thereafter became known as the Mackenzie Hall. For many years the gallery remained, supported by pillars, and for the period from 1878 to 1913 the building was put to many uses.

What precisely the purchasing company traded in is not known but during the decade 1880 – 1890 a Trader named Small used to hold 6½d. Bazaars in the building. No article was sold above 6½d. and it can be assumed that the sum was almost the value. To increase the attendance he organised “Go as you please” competitions, and the performers were either “discovered” or “found out.”

My own father has told me he was one of the “discoveries” (?). He stepped across the road from Bell’s Close (now known as Greengate) where he then lived, and won a watch from this Mr Small for his rendering of the classic “Sleepin’ in the Brick Field.” The last line of the chorus of this song ran as follows “When I’m in luck with plenty of chuck, go hand the man that works.” Great propaganda for the work-shy of these days!

I can recall the old church being used as a Milk Depot, and the rattle of milk cans could be heard above the noisy children at play in the High Street. Furniture sales were held too, and on Saturday evenings the place was cleared for a “hop”, when the dancers whirled round the pillars to fiddle music supplied by Bobby Branney, Charlie Dorrance or Jamie Wemyss.

After the R.C. Congregation purchased the building in 1913, the gallery was removed and the pillars taken away, and it be came known as St Andrew’s Hall. Dances, whist drives, concerts and plays have been held here, for the past fifty years.

After the 1914-18, War the young people were “dancing daft”, and dancing classes were held in 1918-19 by the said Bobby Branney, and Quintin Kean and Peter Marshall. Of course the R.C. congregation reserved the building for their own functions, and they put on many good plays ‘— “The Bishops Candlesticks” was one that comes readily to mind. Among the principal actors were Frank Gallaher and Peter Collins the latter still alive and kicking, and able to recall his histrionic achievements.

Kirkcudbright Choral Society too had associations with this hall for here in the nineteen twenties (when they had such a run of successes at Newton Stewart and Dumfries Musical Festivals) they practised their peices. The Rev. John M. Hunter M A M C came to Kirkcudbright in the beginning of 1921 as minister of the U.F. Church. He had been wounded in the 1914-18 War and suffered the loss of a leg. He resuscitated the old Choral Society whose history went back to the days of Sheriff Nicholson. By dint of hard practice he brought the choir to a high state of perfecAtion, carrying off the major awards at the important Music Festivals.

Then he formed an orchestra, and staged such oratorios as “The Messiah”, “Elijah” etc:
For some years the choral concert was one of the highlights of the many musical events in the town.

I can still see the reverend gentleman’ standing high above us on the platform, mopping his brow and praising or haranguing his choir as the performance in his opinion waranted; He was a perfectionist in music, a disciplinarian too, and it was easy to trace in his face his pleasure – or displeasure.

During l925-26 the hall was used to accommodate some of the Academy pupils while the new Academy was being built. During the past thirty years the activities in the Hall have been confined to functions connected With the R.C. Church and its congregation.

And now this old landmark of the High Street has changed hands once more. No doubt furniture sales will again be held here, but the familiar faces of those who made “bids” in the past – George Milroy, Francie Kearney, Sam Solley and others too numerous to mention – will be seen no more.