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Fraser's Scottish Annual
The Scotch Church of Birmingham


I DO not know how it may be now, but twenty years ago there were not many Scotch people in the midlands of England, and in Birmingham there were very few as you may tell by looking at the directories of that time. Those who were there were principally engaged in the distribution, at a profit, of dry goods and Scotch tweeds, and they ranged from the proprietor of one of the most extensive wholesale dry goods businesses to the hardy "packman" who took his piece goods on his back and sold them on the instalment principle to the operative classes. The proprietor, just mentioned, was, by the way, a magistrate, but I never heard of one of his own countrymen being brought up before him.

If the Scots in Birmingham were few they were substantial, and had built a very substantial church on one of the leading thoroughfares. It was called the "Scotch church." It presented no example of "sentiment in stone," it was, rather, an instance of common sense in blue brick. Blue brick and hard free stone were its materials, but blue brick—the blue brick of the "black country"—was in the ascendant. Consequently it will be standing when the pyramids have crumbled. Most people, viewing its tower and cupola from a distance, would take it for an exchange, or, seeing that a gilt cross towers aloft on its highest extremity, an exchange which the Roman Catholics, ready to utilize and consecrate all places, had converted into a chapel. The Scotch church did not make much noise in the town. It never had a bazaar at the town hail, as some of the other churches had, nor did it produce a town councillor or an M.P.

At the threshold, on Sundays, a very pleasant looking gentleman stood behind a table on which was a money box. Strangers passed him hurriedly, perhaps they did not want him to think they were in search of alms. Regular church goers put coins into the box.

The interior of the church was on the Romano Greek packing box principle, and lighted from above as most churches profess to be. Right before you, at about the usual pulpit elevation, was a recess surmounted by an arch. In front of the recess was a slightly projecting brass rail, having marone hangings, and in the centre of this was the minister's desk. The minister attained his position there by means of an unseen postern. He did not give his congregation that sight of him ascending the pulpit stairs which was one of the pleasures of our childish days, when we rejoiced at the stairs in that they were high and many, and wondered why the parson could not shut the door himself but had the beadle to do it, and whether or not the beadle locked him in.

All the colouring of the church interior was sombre, and did not reflect much of the light from the glass ceiling on to the preacher's face, so that under these circumstances even an open-hearted man looked sinister ; all the projecting parts of his physiognomy casting deep shadows. When the minister came in, an elderly man and grave, in black gown and bands, he seemed like a judge about to pass sentence. In fact, the whole impression of the place was that produced by a court of justice, especially as the minister preached in black kid gloves. Visitors sometimes thought they understood that gilt cross on the top of the tower outside, and fancied that the architect must have had a tussle with the building committee about it. They fancied him pleading that no one would know it was a church if they did not let him give it some distinctive sign. But it was upon the seating of the church that the architect had lavished the resources of his intellect. From the backs of the pews rose small, ornamental, cast iron standards, supporting a round mahogany rail, about as thick as a thick ruler against which the auditor leaned. The effect of these rails stretching right across the church—there was no central aisle— was quite original. The rail was not very nice to lean against, it kept you awake, but it gave a sort of polished and comfortable look to the place.

The sermons at the Scotch church were long and solid, but at the time of which I speak they had been reduced to one hour. The singing was led by a precentor who guided very well the vocal performances of a choir composed of eight lassies and the same number of laddies. The congregation was small and intelligent-looking, with an unusually large proportion of men in it. They were very attentive to strangers, and gave them Bibles and hymnbooks with great liberality.

As a congregation, the Presbyterians in Birmingham were somewhat isolated, keeping very much to themselves, and giving the occasional visitor the impression that they were exiles from their native land. They did not fraternize with other religious bodies. They never advertised their services, nor mingled in the life of the town. The contrast between the Presbyterians of Canada and those in Birmingham at the time of which we are speaking could not be much greater than it is.

B. M.

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