Sunday, 2 August 2015

Tanfield Hall and the Great Disruption

One bus or a gentle 30 minute walk from Princes St along Hanover Street and down Dundas street will, by virtue of a right bend followed by a left bend at the bottom take you to Edinburgh's Botanical Gardens. On the way you cross the Water of Leith at Brandon Terrace. Just behind the Water of Leith here is the unjustly architecturally acclaimed office complex of Tanfield, a mass of glass and steel surrounded by a garden and bordered by the Water of Leith.

Should you decide to shed your inhibitions about entering the grounds and walk round the garden you may notice the contrast between the modern building and the obviously old stone walls surrounding it and wonder what was there before. You would not guess that Tanfield is the site of about the only thing of interest that ever happened in the area.

Tanfield and its surrounds in Canonmills are, like Cramond, and Newhaven, a place where nothing happens and tends to keep on happening for a long time. Indeed only one thing of note seems to have happened around there and that was the schism of 1843 known as the Great Disruption, when many ministers resigned their livings and and left their parishioners in order to found the Free Church of Scotland.

Background to the Great Disruption of 1843

The background to this is as simple as these things can be.

Church and state have had a mixed relationship since the Middle Ages, if not earlier. Seneca the younger is alleged to have said of Religion

The ignorant consider it true, the educated consider it false and the rulers consider it useful”

and the rulers have always tried to keep control of such a useful tool. Thomas A Beckett was, for example, killed when he began to criticise the monarchy, though most rulers, in Britain at least, preferred to seduce religion and make it part of the Establishment. Henry VIII was the last English ruler to use force to bring the Church under state control after which spiritual leaders rapidly became part of the Establishment and are in Westminster as the Lords Spiritual.

The Church of Scotland had always claimed the right to manage its own affairs and parliamentary and royal interference had been abolished since the 1707 Act of Union. However wealthy patrons could still install a minister into a parish against the wishes of the congregation. The Church regarded this as unacceptable interference, while others regarded is as a matter of property under the jurisdiction of the state. This Right of Patronage had briefly been abolished but restored in 1712. Efforts to abolish it were blocked by the moderate members of the church till they lost control in 1834. The Church then passed an act allowing parishes to refuse a patron's nomination. And later in 1834, as was inevitable, one did and, as was inevitable, the minister concerned went to court.

Not only did the court rule that the Church had exceeded its powers but also that the Church was creation of the state and derived its legitimacy from an act of parliament. You can imagine how the Church liked THAT. The conflict rumbled on till 1843 when Parliament rejected a compromise proposed by the Church.

The Disruption

On 18th May 1843 the Church Split and nearly 200 of the assembly declared UDI and walked out then down to Tanfield Hall in Canonmills where, inevitably, they held a meeting. This was the start of the Free Church of Scotland. The ministers who walked out sacrificed their livings and income. They had to build a church from Scratch. There were tearful partings and in some parishes most of the congregation followed the minster into the new church.

After that the politics got complicated with the Free Church splintering into subgroups and a union with others. It is not clear whether it was like Monty Python's Life of Brian where the main enemy of the Judean Peoples front was not the Romans but the People's front of Judea. By 1900 the situation had more or less settled down and by 1929 Parliament had conceded enough to allow the Free Church and the Church of Scotland to reunite.

Apart from that little or nothing seems to have happened to Tanfield, or if it did it is still to be dug up by local historians. All that is left of Tanfield Hall is the walls round the present glass and steel structure. Even pictures of it are rare, though this one ( ) shows it as rather more interesting than the present structure.

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