The ecclesiastical history of the parish of Sorn, although of respectable antiquity, does not stretch backward for so many hundreds of years as that of some country parishes in the neighbourhood, as it was only late in the seventeenth Century that it and Muirkirk, were finally severed from Mauchline. Before the Reformation Mauchline was a priory of Melrose, a place of considerable ecclesiastical importance and a burgh of regality. The wide-spread parish had two chapels or oratories, one on the Water of Greenock, and the other on the Ayr, about two miles from Sorn, both, doubtless, situated for the convenience of the population in the country around. The chapels were suppressed at the Reformation, and in all probability the minister, or reader, of Mauchline had his hands filled with work nearer home and found it impossible to visit the outlying districts very often. In 1636 Sorn was disjoined, but it was not until 1658 that a place of worship was erected. It was a troubled time in the history of the Church and matters did not go smoothly in this little inland parish. Various men were appointed to the charge in the days of the Episcopacy, but, from the record in the "Fasti," they seem to have shared in the disaffection of the people. Kyle was a home of the Lollards before the Reformation, and when the great day dawned, the people were so impregnated with the new doctrines, that they passed easily and happily from the old to the new order of things. When Episcopacy was imposed upon them, they were ready to resist to the death. The first minister of Sorn, John Campbell, A.M. (University, Glasgow), was deprived of his living, and summoned to appear before a committee of the diocesan synod for nonconformity, April, 1664. The next minister, Andrew Dalrymple, previously of Auchinleck, was fined in half of his stipend, for one year, for neglecting to keep the 29th of May, the day of the Restoration. In 1672 John Campbell again obtained the living in the status of an indulged minister, but six years later he was accused of preaching at conventicles and officiating in private houses. Such things were then considered treasonable crimes, and he was remitted by the Lords Justiciary to the Privy Council. He confessed that he had not read the proclamation for thanksgiving for the Restoration and that he had officiated in private families. His license to preach was taken from him: he was fined and ordered to leave the country, and thus John Campbell disappeared, and nothing further is known of him. In 1684 William Blair, A.M. (St. Andrews), was ordained, and five years later was transferred to Symington. In 1689 William Anderson, A.M. (Aberdeen), became curate of Sorn, but his day came to a speedy end.
The people of Sorn could not lay the accusation against the men who occupied their pulpit, which many parishes could justly place to the account of those charged with their spiritual oversight, that they were uneducated. To a man they were well educated, with honourable degrees from the various Universities. Uncultured lads were often taken from the plough and set as curates over large parishes, and a grim joke of the day was to the effect that no ploughmen could be had for love or money as they had all become Curates. William Anderson, as subsequent events proved, was not a favourite with the people. It may be that he exacted his pound of flesh too rigorously, but it would have been impossible for anyone in his position to have ingratiated himself with the stern Covenanters of the district. Nothing definite is known of the character of this last of the curates, but doubtless he was not of the easygoing type that allowed the parishioners to enter by one church door, walk through the building, and leave by another, and counted that as church attendance. Indeed, the presence of Lieutenant Lauder, who was quartered with his dragoons at the castle of Sorn, would have precluded such a possibility had the curate been ever so willing. The moorland toward the north, and in the neighbouring parish of Muirkirk, saw many a tussle between the Covenanters and the dragoons, and many a time the friendly mist descended and interposed like a wall between the soldiers and their prey, and many a time the yielding moss proved a friend to light-footed men and women fleeing for their lives, but a treacherous foe to the heavily-accoutred horsemen in pursuit. It did not happen always that the peasants, so strong in their faith, escaped with their lives, and at least one martyr's tombstone is raised in the quiet little churchyard of Sorn; and on Sunday mornings, when the music of psalms and hymns steals out through the open church doors, the sound is wafted over the last resting-place of many who could only sing their songs of thanksgiving in secret. A crouching figure starts before the mind's eye, leaping from crag to crag in the river, hiding behind trees, and living in caves and dens of the earth. Such was Peden, the martyr prophet persecuted and hounded like a wild beast for the faith that was in him, spending one happy night in the church during his miserable wanderings, and at last dying grandly, with unbroken vows.
But to return to the curate of Sorn. After the Revolution, when the persecution of Presbyterians ceased, and in the see-saw of life and politics they were once more in the ascendant, the curate of Sorn was rabbled- his gown torn, his person roughly used, and it may be he was carried, as was done elsewhere, in mock triumph round the parish. The rabblings were disgraceful affairs, and could only have been permitted in a very unsettled state of society-certainly very little of the spirit was shown which one could have expected from heroes of the faith. But the minds of men lost their balance from the cruelties and insults to which they had been subjected, and women, much repressed and hysterical, whose feelings are apt to carry them away at all times, took part in them. Those same dragoons of Lauder shot a lad, near Tarbolton in cold blood-a youth of eighteen who had done absolutely nothing to merit his death, or even to incur the displeasure of the powers. Such things sink into the hearts of men and women, and the curate, under the protection of Lauder, would seem to them the personification of all the evil that had gone before, and so the highly-wronged, untutored men and women wreaked a little of the vengeance upon him, which had rankled in their hearts so long. A pass near Sorn Castle over which the luckless man fled is called the Curate's Steps to this day. A thought of compassion and pity, however, we may spare for the poor curate, for he died in the following year, only thirty years of age. It may have been the rough usage to which he was subjected hastened his end, and whether or no, it could not have failed to embitter the last days of his life.
In 1692 the church was opened as a Presbyterian place of worship, a minister was ordained, a manse was built, a glebe and stipend provided, and the parish completely severed from that of Mauchlne. The first minister was the Rev. Mungo Lyndesay, who began his duties with great zeal and ardour. The first entry in the Session records shows the thorough character of the man. The following is an extract: -
"Dec.18, 1692.-Whilk day, after calling on the name of the Lord, the minister, Mr, Mungo Lyndesay, inquired whether or no there was any parish register belonging to the Session or congregation, and it being answered and declared that there was none since the disjoining of the paroch from the paroch of Mauchline, the late Prelacy being not long thereafter introduced into the national Church, and during it the said paroch not being planted with any ordained minister, but men of a prelatick stamp intruded thereupon, and in such tymes of confusion there was no register kept. The minister farther inquired if any other elders used to sit as members of the Session than those present, and it was declared that Robert Farquhar of Catarin, Andrew Wylie, portioner of Logan, John Peden of Blindburn, and Alexander M'Kerrow in Blackside, were yet living in the paroch, that had been established elders; that Robert Farquhar, though in late times, through the power of temptation, and through the persecution, did swear that abominable oath called the test, yet, to the knowledge of many, he grievously repented that sin; of the others, two were also guilty of the same desertion."
Six years afterwards we find the indefatigible minister urging upon the heritors the necessity for a school in the parish. At a meeting held to consider the matter, although the attendance was pretty fair, "not being present the major part of the heritors of this paroch, (those present) found and declared themselves not to be in a capacity to stent the paroch for a schoolmaster." In 1702, "The Earl of Loudoun and many other heritors present, met for the purpose of appropriating his room to every heritor for a seat, the aisle for the Earl was determined on, and for Dalgayne three pews south of the pulpit," etc. The whole was apportioned at that time, and it was also resolved to erect "lofts" or galleries. In 1698 Jean M'Latchie was recorded for profanation of the Sabbath, and was punished by standing in the "jougges" from the ringing of the first to the ringing of the third bell. In 1700 " Christian Beg in Corsebogue confesses voluntarily that she inned some stuff on Saturday near the Sabbath, and on Sabbath night she caved some corn from the shaw and gave it to the calfs. She was dismissed with a sessional rebuke, as she had not waited for a judicial summons, but told voluntarily; but the congregation is to be told that she was rebuked, and the magistrate has decerned her in a personal fine which she is to pay." All of which goes to show the strictness with which the letter of the law was enforced in those days. Poor Christian Beg, with her tender conscience, had to pay pretty dearly for what, even to the most fastidious church-member of to day, would not cost a second thought. People had to walk most circumspectly at that time, for the Church was argus-eyed and extracted fines and imposed penalties on both civil and ecclesiastical shortcomings.
Mr Lyndesay remained in Sorn until his death in 1736. He was married to someone of the name of Christian Beg, in all probability the Christian Beg of the Session records. It may have been the tenderness of Christian's conscience which recommended her to the minister, and aroused thoughts in the mind of the worthy man as to her suitability for the position of a minister's wife! It is hardly likely that Christian's tender regard for the well-being of the calves would have carried her away so completely, to the grievous wounding of her conscience, had she thought that the minister was looking upon her in the light of a future helpmeet! Or was it a little ruse on Christian's part to fall under the notice of the hard-working man? History is silent on the point, but the fact remains that Christian Beg became Mrs Lyndesay, and her epitaph to her husband can be seen and read on the church-wall to this day. When Mr Lyndesay died he left 200 marks to the poor of the parish. He seems to have been of upright and exemplary life, and a faithful and loving pastor.
Mr Steel, with his usual earnestness of purpose, resolved that no more accidents should happen at the ford, and set about collecting money to build a bridge. The money was gathered together, the bridge was built, and remains to this day. It is a quaint-looking structure, very high in the centre, with two strongly-built arches. It is not unlike, on a small scale, the old bridge over the same river at the county town. Another work by Mr Steel was the building of the manse, or rather rebuilding, for we read that a manse had been provided for Mr Lyndesay. Mr Steel's manse was a model of accommodation and neatness, and was built almost entirely at his own expense. He enclosed the glebe with hedges, which were then a novelty in the district, and laid out a garden of half-an-acre in extent. Mr Steel was also distinguished as a speaker in Church Courts, and in 1751 was chosen as one of the Commissioners by the General Assembly, to apply to Government for the augmentation of ministers' stipends in Scotland. The application failed through the heated opposition of the landed interest. The writer of the Statistical Account makes a little moan over the fact that Mr Steel and his fellow-Commissioners missed a grand opportunity. Although no augmentation was granted in money or in grain, it was whispered that they had only to ask to have their glebes enlarged. But the short-sighted ministers, full of chargin at their failure, and remembering how little value was attached to land, turned away from this crumb of comfort and so lost a considerable benefit to their successors. Mr Steel did not return to Sorn. Perhaps he had pictured a triumphant home-coming, crowned with success and with all the prestige which would accrue to him from his honourable position as Commissioner, and as a travelled man- for in those days a journey to London was looked upon as a perilous adventure, and men made their wills before setting out, and looked on familiar scenes as those who might never see them again. Mr Steel had not the moral courage to return to face his people, or perhaps he felt the bodily fatigue of the journey was more than he could bear; in any case he did not return to Scotland. The congregation of Salter's Hill invited him to become their pastor. He accepted the call, but London was not congenial to him. Doubtless he missed the breezy freedom of his country parish, and the kindly interest and respect of his Scottish congregation. He fell into a consumption and died within a year, finding his grave far from the murmuring Ayr, far from the home he had done so much to beautify, far from the rugged faces and kindly hearts he had known and loved so long.
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