Love your Local Church – Dundonald Parish Church

In our latest “Love your Local Church…” series of blogs, Session Clerk Bob McMillan shares brief history of his kirk, Dundonald Parish Church, from its early beginnings to the present day.

Christianity appears to have come early to Dundonald.  History records that a lady known as Modwenna, a missionary from the Celtic Christian settlement at Whithorn, founded seven Churches in Scotland in the years around 500. These include one at Dundevenal, an early name for Dundonald. Others were at Dumbarton, Stirling, Edinburgh, Trapain Law and Longforgan. Some of these were strongholds of the Strathclyde Britons, and it seems that the missionaries from Whithorn, including Modwenna, were successful in converting the Britons to Christianity. Thus it appears that Dundonald was one of the earliest Christian settlements in Scotland, and has a Christian history spanning some 1500 years.

The precise location of this early Church is not known but it seems likely that it would have been within the protection of the Dark Age fort which the archaeological excavations confirmed existed on the Castle Hill. It would have been a very small building, little more than a cell, but would have been of special significance to the community that occupied the fort. But the final demise of the Fort appears to have been catastrophic. Archaeology revealed that a major fire occurred around 1000 AD, a conflagration so intense as to have melted the stonework, some vitrified pieces of which were unearthed. The Church, if it was still sited within the Fort, would have been consumed along with the rest of the settlement. Nothing is known about the 100 years or so that followed the catastrophic destruction of the hill fort but, at this point, there may well have been a break in the continuity of Christian worship here. 

Dundonald Parish Church

Photograph from church’s Facebook Page

Certainly by 1220 there was a Church in the village set up by the Gilbertines at the invitation of the High Steward. Once this church was up and running the Gilbertines returned  to their base in England and the Church came under the jurisdiction of Paisley Abbey. This Church was almost certainly the first on the site which our church occupies today and it served Dundonald for more than 250 years. It was replaced by a new building around 1500, and it, in its turn, was replaced in 1804.

The new building was not quite as we know it today. The steeple was not completed until 1809, and the front porch was added in 1817. The session house on the north wall did not appear until 1910, when it was installed to replace a smaller vestry thanks to a generous gift from the Misses Finnie of Springhill. At the same time, and as part of the same gift, the front gate and railings were installed to replace the rather high prison-like wall which originally surrounded the property.  The chancel, organ and large stained glass window were added in 1906.

After addition of the steeple in 1809, which must have been a bit of an event in the village, the old bell was presumably mounted within it. It seems that from the outset it was intended that a clock would be installed in the steeple. Clock faces were carved into the stone of the steeple but no works were fitted, and this remained the situation for the next 30 years or so. In 1840 it seems that there was a general demand amongst the community that a clock be fitted in the steeple so that the villagers would have an accurate indication of the time.  Although time was of less importance in these more relaxed days, it must have seemed desirable that a public indication of the time should be available.  Besides, other local communities may have been installing public clocks and Dundonald would not want to be left behind. However it seems there was a public clock somewhere in the village before the new Church clock was fitted  and the Church was charged with looking after it. Heritors’ Records mention charges for cleaning and repair of this older clock. The only other available indication of the time locally was a sundial, a very unique double-headed sundial, on the school building. It can still be seen high on the south wall of the Montgomerie Hall. 

The communal desire for a clock resulted in a public subscription to which 345 people contributed an unknown amount. It was not quite enough for a clock but the shortfall was made up by the Heritors, and Breckenridge & Son of Kilmarnock were contracted to install the new clock, which cost £84. Breckenridge had been in business since the turn of the century and were skilled clockmakers who also provided the clocks in Mauchline, Kilmaurs,  Riccarton and in St Marnock’s and King Street Churches in Kilmarnock.

With the installation of the new clock the old bell was of a design that was incompatible and the Heritors generously provided a new bell.  This was first rung to mark the arrival of the Earl and Countess of Eglinton on a Tuesday in March 1841 to witness the new clock being set in motion. The clock still keeps good time today, 150 years later.  It was given a major overhaul in 1976 thanks to another public subscription which raised around £1500.  The residue of that money is held in trust by the Church as a Clock Fund for future maintenance.

The Dundonald Bell while on display at the Castle visitors’ centre

Photograph from Bob McMillan

The old bell referred to above is now on display in the National Museum of Scotland but it was in service in the church here for around 350 years. It is cast in bronze and has the date 1495 stamped on it.  It is possible that it was procured for the church building that was built around that time. There is a Latin inscription round the top which reads “St Giles pray for us” along with a fleur-de-lis design.  It also has the marking XT, an abbreviation for Christ. There is a bell of very similar design in a Church in Linlithgow, probably cast by the same maker, and this has led to the speculation that perhaps the bells were gifts from James IV who had close connections with both places.

The church which opened in 1804 was not provided with an organ to accompany congregational singing. This was not the tradition in the Scottish Church; the singing was led by a precentor who would sing the first line of the psalm and then the people would join in. There was a precentor’s desk attached to the pulpit. 

All this was changed in 1865 when an organ was introduced to the Church. It was apparently second hand and was built by Messrs Hamilton of Edinburgh. It was installed upstairs in the centre of the gallery and became a centre of attraction for the community with crowds flocking to see this innovation. While it appears that there was no significant opposition to this departure from an age-old tradition, two incidents are worth recording. When the organ builder arrived to begin his work he sought a room in the village and was directed to the house of an old lady.  When she asked who he was he told her proudly that he was the organ builder.  She lifted her hands in horror exclaiming: 

“Organ builder! Organ builder! Are ye? Awa wi ye, there’s enough sin in Dundonald without ye bringing a kist o’ whustles into the place!”

Also this letter was penned by an anonymous author and appeared in The Ayr Advertiser on 8th May 1866:

This organ did duty for 40 years until it was superseded by the instrument which we still use today. The old organ was sold to a church hall in Falkirk. 

Recent research has shown just how much of an innovation this pipe organ was.  The use of musical instruments to accompany worship in the Church of Scotland was approved by the General assembly in 1865, but the 1864 Assembly had asked Presbyteries for opinion on the use of Church organs.  Returns were so overwhelmingly in favour that the 1865 resolution was a formality and a number of Churches went ahead before that final resolution.  Dundonald appears to have been only the second Church in Scotland to have an organ installed, being beaten by a month by Anderston Church in Glasgow.  Dundonald was certainly the first in Ayr Presbytery.

It is worth noting that much earlier in the century, in 1806, St Andrews Church in Glasgow went ahead with the installation of an organ but were ordered to remove it by Glasgow Presbytery.

The church built in 1804 was square in shape and had a plain back wall behind the pulpit; it must have been a much darker place than we are used to today. Plans to make improvements to the building were proposed by Mr Sime during the latter part of his ministry but, due to his ill-health nothing was done. With the arrival of Rev James Gillespie the plans seem to have been resurrected and in 1906 the fine chancel that we have today was added. Cash came from a variety of sources. The Heritors, as they so often did, financed some of the work and the congregation held a Grand Bazaar which raised a substantial sum. The daughters of Archibald Finnie undertook the provision of the magnificent stained glass window in memory of their father, mother and brothers. The oak pulpit was presented by  Helena Finnie.

A new organ was purchased from the firm of Norman & Beard of Norwich and London. This meant that the old organ in the gallery could be disposed of and the opportunity was taken to replace the seating in the gallery. Since there was no available electricity supply the blower for the organ required an alternative source of energy.  This could be provided manually using a lever attached to a set of bellows beside the organ. These still exist although the bellows have perished and no longer operate. The task of operating the bellows would be a fairly physical one and at some time, either at installation or later, a water driven blower was installed and used water from the village water main that passed the front of the church.

The choir stalls and chancel arch that we know today were not part of the project. These were installed in 1919 as a gift from Mrs George Morton of Lochgreen, Troon in memory of her son. The war memorial tablets were included in this gift. 

The magnificent stained glass window gifted by the Finnie sisters was designed by the firm of William Morris and Co. and incorporates designs by a number of his colleagues. The main feature is ‘The Last  Supper’ by Henry Dearle, who took charge of the stained glass department after the death of William Morris in 1896, and the upper parts of the window, ‘Christ in Majesty’, ‘Agnus Dei’ and the surrounding angels are all designs by Edward Burne-Jones.

These artists were all part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement which operated in England in the second half of the 19th century, and this window is a good illustration of their style.  They took their inspiration from early Italian Renaissance painting and loved bright, translucent colours rather than the darker tones of the early 19th century.  Religious subjects were amongst their favourites, they liked outdoor scenes and their pictures had a wealth of detail. 

This attention to detail is well illustrated here.  In the second panel from the left we find Judas, the man in green with his little pouch of silver fixed to his wrist.  Judas was the treasurer of the twelve disciples and is often portrayed in green to depict jealousy.  And is it Doubting Thomas who is looking out of the picture in the right hand panel?        

The stained glass window in the south wall is dedicated to Rev James Gillespie and his wife and was presented to the Church in the 1950’s by their family.  It is the work of Gordon Webster, one of Scotland’s foremost 20th century stained glass artists. His particular talent lay in his sense of colour and the use of high quality hand blown glass.  He has many windows in Churches throughout the country, including Glasgow Cathedral.  The stained glass window in the north wall upstairs is in memory of James Baird Thornycroft of Hillhouse, Deputy Lieutenant of Ayrshire.

Covid struck in the world in 2020!  Dundonald, like every other church in the UK, had to close its doors.   This did not deter our minister however and we simply moved in to the digital age and went online!  The first services were created using and IPhone in the church and then in the manse when we could not enter the building.  It was put together using input from others who read lessons and prayers at home and sent the files in to be assembled by the Session clerk, Bob Stewart and others.  Photos of the surrounding area where sent in by viewers and were inserted in to the YouTube video to remind those who could not get out just what was around our beautiful wee village.

As the children could not, naturally, get to school, our church teamed up with the Dundonald Primary School staff and produced carrier bags, “Bags of Joy” that were distributed to every primary school age child in the village.  Each bag contained some educational stuff, a toy, sweets and a book of some kind. 

The same idea was repeated for the older folks and then, as a thank you for staying at their posts, one was created and given to the medical and village shop staff. 

When Covid finally started to ease up we were able to get people in to the sanctuary again but only with strict protocols in place and a separation of 2 metres, later reduced to 1 metre, between people.  Our services still went out online and were being viewed by over 400 people all over the world.

Dundonald Parish Church

64 Main Street, Dundonald, KA2 9HG

Thankfully those days are behind us now and life is back to normal.  We invested in new sound and vision equipment that allows us to live stream our services and also put them on YouTube but in a much more professional format.  We still reach people in Brazil, America and all over the world every week. 

Well, that’s Dundonald Parish Church for now.  It’s had a long life in this wee village spanning some 1520 years.  There have been five church buildings that we know of, Saint Modwenna’s cell, The Chapel Royal somewhere around the castle, and three Parish Church buildings.


Some recent stained glass made by Dundonald’s Boys’ Brigade company for battalion competitions, keeping up the long tradition of commemorative stained glass at the church.

Photograph from Bob McMillan

Our enormous thanks to Bob McMillan for providing the above blog and the majority of the images and to Dundonald Parish Church Facebook Page for two of the images. If you would like to share a blog about your local church do please get in touch.

Bibliography and Appendix


  • J H Gillespie, Dundonald, the Parish in its Setting (John Wylie & Co, Glasgow, 1939)
  • Dundonald Session Minutes (Available at Ayrshire Archives, Craigie Park Ayr)
  • “Reminiscences of WM Walker, Ochiltree” in The Kilmarnock Standard. 25th Sept 1909
  • J Kelso Hunter “Retrospect of the Artist’s Life”
  • “Church struck by lightning” The Ayr Advertsier, 1st Aug 1872
  • Robert Kirk, Pictorial History of Dundonald (Alloway Publishing, 1989)
  • J Kirkwood Troon and Dundonald (Arthur Guthrie and Son, 1896)


Dundonald Parish Church List of ministers since the Reformation

  • 1567             Robert Burn
  • 1572             George Campbell
  • 1576             David Mylne
  • 1618             Alexander Sibbald
  • 1625             Robert Ramsay
  • 1642             Gabriel Maxwell
  • 1667             George Wilson
  • 1672             John Osburn
  • 1672             John Hutcheson
  • 1682             John Boyle
  • 1688             James Boog
  • 1698             William Lindsay
  • 1717             James Cowan
  • 1724             Joseph Kearnochan
  • 1729             Hamilton Kennedy
  • 1732             Thomas Walker
  • 1783             Robert Duncan
  • 1815             John Macleod
  • 1841             Alexander Willison
  • 1866             John Sime
  • 1904             James Gillespie
  • 1942             Archie Beaton
  • 1971             David Ness
  • 1988             Robert Mayes
  • 2019             Rev. Lynsey J. Brennan

 Dundonald Free Church ministers from the Disruption to reunification.

  • 1843             Andrew Cunningham
  • 1846             David Simpson
  • 1862             John Kelman
  • 1867             Alexander Craig
  • 1873             William Ross
  • 1882             Robert Strang
  • 1891             Archibald McNichol
  • 1896             James Moffat
  • 1907             Robert Rodger
  • 1912              William Scott