The Church of Colmonell has a long and ancient history. The Cell, originally founded around 555AD by St Colmon of Ella, who was reputed to be a nephew of the great Columba of Iona, gradually grew to be a church and small clachan. A plaque on the present church building ‘Heir is ane hous bult to serve God 1591’ gives us an indication of the first church as such. The local lairds of the parish no doubt subscribed to the building of the churches and had their own loft or ‘Laird's Loft’ for their family and retainers e.g. Knockdolian, Kirkhill and Dalreoch. Local landowners or heritors, until very recently, paid tiends or ‘seat rents’ for the maintenance of the church.
In the 17th Century, in the south-west of Scotland, Colmonell played a large part in the Covenanting times, as it was sufficiently secluded to serve as a favourite haunt of the persecuted. The Covenanters took their name from the two Covenants which they signed: The National Covenant of 1638; The Solemn League and Covenant of 1643.
The basic issue was the freedom of the Church to settle her own government and worship, and the freedom of worship which we enjoy today is owed, in no small measure to those Covenanters. The local minister, Anthony Schaw, was ousted and many conventicles were held in the open air, near Wheeb, and to this day is known as ‘Peden’s Pulpit’, after the famous covenanting Preacher Alexander Peden of Glenluce. Another local ‘pulpit’ may be found above the wood at Belhamie Farm.
In the present kirkyard lie three martyred Covenanters, the best known being Matthew Mclwraith. His stone can be seen in the kirkyard and it is a ‘double-stone’ that is to say there is another name recorded on the other side.
Youth Matthew was the son of a farmer near Barrhill who was courting a Miss McEwan of Colmonell. The story runs that Matthew was arrested at family worship but managed to escape badly wounded. He eventually died in Dangart Glen. His body lay all night because the locals were afraid to move it. However, next day, two young women came and wrapped his body in a plaid and carried it to the kirkyard. Years later, a Janet Carson told of her part in the adventure but never revealed who her companion was. Colmonell knew that love had paid her last respects.
Matthew Mcllwraith is supposed to have provided Sir Walter Scott with the prototype for Mucklewrath in Old Mortality.
Another church was built in 1772 and recast in 1849 but the Church proved too small for the congregation. The present Church was built around and above, allowing worship to continue during rebuilding work.
Inside the Church
Colmonell Church possesses many stained glass windows and wood carvings of remarkable beauty. There are 13 windows in the Church, ten of which depict life throughout the valley. The first window on the right as you enter from the vestry door is the McConnel window installed by the family in memory of John Wanklyn McConnel of Knockdolian. The theme is the Good Shepherd and, in the background can be seen the River Stinchar, Knockdolian Castle and Hill. Next is a Nativity window by Louis Davis of London, showing Mary, Joseph and the Infant.
Above the pulpit there are three beautiful windows, the gift of Robert F McEwen. It took over four years to complete the magnificent detail of the triptych whose main theme is Praise. The beauty and interest of the whole design is enhanced by the introduction of scrolls bearing appropriate quotations, either words or music. One instance is the opening phrase of ‘Martyrs’ – an old Scottish Psalter tune of 1615 which has always been associated with the Martyrs of the Covenant in Scotland. Others reflect the great love of music which has been a feature of church services in Colmonell.
The right hand window features among the Sun, Moon and Stars a comet. Further down we have the elements and a gracious figure of a girl can be seen set in the familiar landscape of Craigneil, Knockdolian and the River Stinchar. Other windows show Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, a young warrior receiving the Crown of Life and the Resurrection theme. The last window "The Tree of Life" was erected in 1994 by Her Grace the Duchess of Wellington in memory of her parents.
The pulpit and reredos are of finely carved oak in linen-fold panelling, with symbolic tracery above. The present Communion Table and Font are gifts in memory of local families: Lt Col Alaister Grant of Ardmillan and Captain Peter Tinn, who gave their lives in the Second World War. The pews are made of stained pine. In 1874 the pews in the centre of the church were made to be convertible, by means of hinges, thereby forming a series of tables where the people of a former day sat for the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. There are few, if any, of this type of pew to be found else- where in Scotland.
In the present church there are many memorial tablets to those who served in the Great War, past ministers etc. There is also an alabaster tablet to a member of the Kennedy family, linked for centuries to the history of Colmonell. It was originally outside in the kirkyard. Above the vestry door is a fine memorial to John Snell – one of the most illustrious sons of the parish.
In the early 17th Century every parish was compelled by Act of Parliament to provide vessels for the Sacrament, and it appears probable the two Colmonell Communion Cups were provided by the Kirk Session between 1617-1619. In 1907 the late R F McEwen of Bardrochat asked the Kirk Session to accept, on behalf of the congregation two new Communion Cups, made in the exact pattern of the old. Thus, centuries are linked together on the Holy Table on Communion Sundays.
The particularly fine pipe organ was a gift of the McEwen family of Bardrochat. Installed in 1909 by Norman and Beard, it is housed in a magnificently carved oak case by Sir Robert Lorimer. R F McEwen was a great lover of music and his great delight was in the composition and playing of church music. Around 1920 he produced his: “Divine Service according to the Use of Colmonell” – which he intended as a "Model Service" for use in the Church of Scotland. To encourage the use of music in Divine Service a bequest was made available in 1927 so that each year in May a Church is chosen to use this Order of Service.
A local worthy and churchgoer, Mary Caldwell by name, who could neither read nor write, was not enamoured with this new form of worship and reported to her friends that they sang a "paraffin" (paraphrase)!!
The organ, pulpit, communion tables and five beautiful stained glass windows, the Snell Memorial Tablet in Colmonell Church, as well as the Church Hall – built in 1090 are visible examples of the McEwen family's devotion to their beloved church.
Installed in 1848, the bell has called the faithful to worship every Sunday – apart from during the war years when the sound of the bell signified an enemy invasion. However, by the end of 1986, it was found to be in a dangerous condition and was sent back to the original founders at Whitechapel, London for repair. It can only be hoped that its clear tones will be heard over the valley for another 100 years.
The Church itself is surrounded by a beautifully kept kirkyard, in which, curiously, the majority of gravestones face eastwards. The most imposing memorial in the kirkyard is Knockdolian vault where since 1683 the owners of Knockdolian Castle have been interred. One of the oldest headstones is to Andrew Snell blacksmith at Almont who died March 10th, 1663 aged 72 years. It was erected by his son John, founder of the famous Snell Exhibition Scholarship.
The most eloquent memorial of all is that of the Covenanter Matthew McIlwraith, whose inscription reads:
“I Matthew Mclwraith in this Parish of Colmonell,
By bloody Claverhouse I fell
Who did command that I should die
For owing Covenanted Presbytery
My blood a witness still doth stand
’Gainst all defections in this land.”
The old Kirkyard holds its notables, but the great majority are country folk from the valley. On browsing through the kirkyard it is interesting to note how often 'died in infancy' occurs on headstones – we are indeed fortunate nowadays that advances in medicine and public health make this a rarity.
Most internments are now carried out in the peaceful and beautifully kept new cemetery lying to the east of the village beyond Clachanton.
The Free Church
In addition to the old parish church, two more churches were built in the village at different times. The first of these, the Succession Church was built in 1780 on a site in Main Street where Kirkhill Lodge stands today and at the corner of the road that led to Craighit Quarry. This congregation was dissolved in 1877.
The second church was the Free Church built in 1844 further up Main Street and back from the road. A manse was later built in front of it and later still, in 1890, a handsome new church was built next to the schoolhouse. The foundation stone for the 1890 church was laid by Mrs Farquhar Grey of Kirkhill using a silver trowel. The Free Church was dissolved in 1963 and the rather fine building is now a contractor’s yard and dwelling.