Greyfriars Dumfries


The present Greyfriars Church is a neo-Gothic building dating from 1868. The site and the adjacent area have been associated with Christian life and witness in the community for centuries. It is the Burgh Church of Dumfries and contains the Provost’s throne and Baillie’s chairs. The clear identity of the building as being the people’s church lasted until 1925 when the Presbyterian establishment seized the ownership of all Scottish Burgh and Town Churches by Act of Parliament.

ConventIn the mid 13th century Lady Devorgilla, wife of John Balliol (founder of Balliol College, Oxford), founded a convent in Dumfries. She invited members of the Franciscan Order – known as grey friars because of the colour of their habits – to come to Dumfries. There is no surviving image of the Convent of the Grey Friars. The written description of the Church of Our Lady is that it was in the early English style, made up of nave and aisle, chancel and choir. It is reasonable to think that the Convent of the Greyfriars in Dumfries would have been similar to other Minorite houses. The image of the Grey Friars in Leicester portrays what probably stood on the site West of castle.

In was in the Convent Church of Our Lady, Dumfries, that the Blessed John Duns Scotus received the habit. He was the main activist behind the scheme to place Robert the Bruce on the throne of Scotland. Before the high altar of the church in 1306 (60 metres west of the present Greyfriars) Robert the Bruce slew the Red Comyn in the incident that rekindled Scotland’s fight for independence, which was finally won at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

By the middle of the 16th century the people of Dumfries were feeling the wind of change that had begun to blow across the German-speaking lands of Europe: a new foreign religion was arriving. Nevertheless, the relationship between the friars and the town remained good throughout the troubles of the Reformation. At the time of the unlawful and unsigned Act of the Scottish parliament that abolished the Church in 1560 the threat of asset stripping was foreseen by many of the townsfolk. Much of the property of the Convent of the Grey Friars was conveyed into the safe hands of the friends of the friars, and members of the secular community intervened to pay the friars’ pensions.

CastleAfter the Reformation some members of the Order continued to minister within the town as reformed clergy, while others sought the shelter of the Maxwell family, who had remained faithful Catholics. It was these priests who famously sang a Mass in Lincluden Abbey for the Provost and people of the town on Christmas Day 1600. Abbot Gilbert Broun and his priests continued to conduct the Offices of the Order and said Masses at Sweetheart Abbey until his death. The archives tell us that under the protection of the Maxwells, Mass was still being said daily at Sweetheart as late as 1604. These priests and their successors said Mass in the Chapel of Saint Bride in the Maxwell’s castle – the site of the present Greyfriars Church. Mass was still being said daily on the site until the castle chapel was demolished in 1719. It is not known when worship stopped in the Abbey Church of Our Lady at the Convent of the Grey Friars.

The period between 1560 and 1707 was hugely disruptive for Christianity in Scotland. Contrary to popular myth there was no overnight conversion of the Scots to Presbyterianism. In the north the people either remained Catholics or Episcopalians (Anglicans). It is said that until 1715 and the arrival of English forces it was not possible to find a Presbyterian north of the Tay. In Inverness a regiment of English soldiers was needed to install the new Presbyterian minister in the parish church. In Killin the new Presbyterian minister was thrown into Loch Tay.

In Dumfries the Maxwells were not the only local family who remained Catholics. Many were Episcopalians. Presbyterianism would only finally gain the upper hand in the Scottish Church in 1707 by Act of Parliament – an English dominated parliament based at Westminster. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was never called to discuss the matter since it was eighty percent Episcopalian and would have rejected the idea outright.

From 1560 until 1707 the Church of Scotland swayed between being controlled by the Presbyterian and Episcopalian parties. The support of many local families meant that a goodly number were still Catholics even in the 1600s. The period saw the town of Dumfries gradually starved of places of worship for ordinary people. Before 1560 they could have worshipped in Saint Michael’s, the Convent Church of Our Lady, the Crystal Chapel (Chapel of Our Lady & the Holy Rood), the Chapel of Our Lady at Castledykes, or the Chapel of Our Lady of the Willows on Irish Street, all destroyed or in secular use by the early 1700s.

As the town grew it became apparent that Saint Michael’s (the parish church) was not big enough to accommodate the needs of the townspeople. The Episcopalians (who had been a majority of the congregation of Saint Michael’s in 1689) had been severely persecuted by the Presbyterian establishment, and they were forced to worship under the terrible restrictions of the Penal Laws in various converted buildings. The Griersons of Lagg and Barjarg gave shelter to those Episcopalians in mid and upper Nithsdale, Lagg Tower for some time being used as an Episcopalian meeting house. The Crosbies, the Sharpes of Hoddom, the Herries, just some of the main anti-covenanting families, gave shelter and support to those persecuted Episcopalians who held to the faith.

It is important not to get Covenanters and those who signed the National Covenant confused. Militant Covenanters were traitors to the Crown and processed accordingly, and those who were found guilty of crimes received the punishment of the time. They were not in any sense martyrs. Many good and faithful people signed the Covenant; they should never be numbered among those Covenanters who committed acts of brutality in the name of Presbyterianism. The supposedly wicked Grierson of Lagg died peacefully in his bed at a ripe old age after receiving the Sacraments of the Church.

On behalf of the people of the town of Dumfries, the Provost and Council purchased the castle of the Maxwells from Lord Nithsdale and built a new church in 1727 (on the site of the present Greyfriars Church). It was to be called the New Church, but this did not last long. The collective memory of better times prevailed, and the people of the town named the church Greyfriars. The building cost £1,970 Scots, being the sum raised by the Provost and Council by imposing a tax on all beer brewed in the town. Greyfriars was the Burgh Church of Dumfries from 1727 and remains the Burgh Church today.

Greyfriars Old Church

By the 1860s the New Church had fallen into disrepair and a decision was taken to clear the site and build anew. The present church was designed by John Starforth in fashionable neo-Gothic style and completed in 1868. Newly hewn sandstone from Locharbriggs quarry was used in the construction along with stone from the castle, the convent and the New Church. A carving of the head of Saint Peter that had survived from the original convent can be seen on the staircase wall of the present church. An organ was installed in the south gallery in 1873. The town bell that hangs in the tower was cast by William Evans of Chepstow in 1744.Greyfriars with railings

The Presbyterian establishment abandoned the Burgh Church in 2004. The property was put up for sale in 2008 and bought by registered charity founded by a descendant of the Provost who had first inspired the building of the New Church. The church was rededicated to Saint Bride and re-opened for regular worship on Saint Andrew’s Day, 2008.

The Burgh Church today
As the first church of the Convent of the Grey Friars ministered to the spiritual needs of the people of the town of Dumfries, so it is the intention of the present congregation that the church of Greyfriars should remain available to the people of the town for Christian worship. The bell rings out at least four times each day: morning, midday and evening to remind us all of the wonder of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and just before eight to call the Curfew.