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By James Hendrie

Hendrie – Witches, Composers 
This is an article written by James Hendrie  that appeared in Scottish Home & Country (the magazine of the 'Scottish Women's Rural Institutes') published in August 2009. 

James lives in Mid Calder and is an Elder in the Kirk of Calder.

James Hendrie     


Kirk of Calder is a beautiful church located in the peaceful village of Mid Calder, near Edinburgh, traditional in manner with its T-shaped structure, church tower, complete with its charming cockerel weather vane and well maintained grounds. However many worshippers and visitors have no idea of its remarkable and fascinating history.

The Calder Kirk as it would have looked at 
the time of the witch trials dark and foreboding 
to those who dabbled in the Black Arts


The Kirk of Calder today, so much more than the picturesque 
church seen here, definitely a church with an amazing amount 
of history contained within its walls and grounds

Known as the Kirk of Calder in modern times, but Calder Kirk in the past, its picturesque church and grounds once echoed to the sounds of musket fire, witch trials and the thundering preaching of the fiery Presbyterian minister John Knox. Frederick Chopin, the composer, also has associations with the church as well as James ‘Paraffin’ Young and the explorer David Livingston.

Hew Kennedie; Calder Kirk’s firebrand minister appointed to the post in the 1640’s was a passionate persecutor of witches. He vigorously and ruthlessly tracked down those who practised the Black Arts, and  any that were caught were hauled before Kennedie and the Kirk Session for trials that took place in the church itself. Those who were found guilty were condemned to burning at the stake and met a horrific end on the Cunnigar Hill, which today still remains on the edge of the village.

The Cunnigar Hill, which is said to have been the 
place where witches were burnt at the stake 
during the witch trials of the 17th century

This Celtic cross which is part of the wall of the vestry in the 
current Kirk of Calder is believed to have come from the 
original church built on this site in 1160.

Worship has taken place on the site of the present church for over 800 years in various building forms, and there is still today a Celtic cross which is believed to have dated from 1160 located in the walls of the vestry of today’s church.

A closer inspection of the outside walls of this parish church will also reveal musket shot bullet holes from another period of both Scottish and the church’s history. These unusual landmarks come from the 17th century when Scotland was in dispute with the King over his imposition of the Book of Common Prayer; the Scots were fiercely proud Presbyterians and led by their noblemen lined up against the Crown with the signing of the National Covenant.

For a number of years there was a terrible conflict between the King and the Covenanters, as they became known. Ministers were forced to hold open-air services or Conventicles and many took place in the hills surrounding Mid Calder, which became a hotbed of revolt against the King. The royal troops led by the infamous General Tam Dalyell or “Bluidy Tam”, meted out some horrific punishments and indeed routed the Covenanters at the Battle of Rullion Green nearby.

Musket ball holes are visible even today on the church walls, 
seen on the column end and underneath the church window 
in this picture. These show that in troubled times even the 
church became embroiled in the conflict.

Calder Kirk found itself being used as the venue for a military tribunal during these troubled times. Two of the Kings Life Guards were murdered in the nearby parish of Livingston it is thought because of their abuse of a well-known local Covenanter. Despite the inquiry sitting for three days and requiring many of the church’s parishioners to appear before it, it was not able to determine who was guilty in part due to the strong covenanter feelings of the area.

One hundred years before this the church had also been the centre of the religious change that was taking place in Scotland as its walls resonated to the preaching of the great Presbyterian orator John Knox. This again was a time of  religious intolerance in Scotland, with the Crown attempting to reinforce the status of Catholicism in the land against the Protestant religion favoured by the people

During these times the plans for the church were changed from that of a grand collegiate style Catholic Church with naves and cloisters, to the traditional church that it is today. The outside wall still has the stonework that would have supported the cloister arches visible to those who know what to look for.

Knox, who was supported in his cause by the then Lord Torphichen, found himself many times preaching at Mid Calder both in the church grounds under a famous Plane tree that rose magnificently above all other landmarks, and also in the church as well. As well as this, he performed the first reformed Celebration of the Lords Supper in the nearby Calder House, home of the Sandilands family, who as the Lords of Torphichen have been connected with the church throughout its history.

The Calder Kirk at this time was renamed the Kirk of Calder and its minister the Reverend John Spottiswood assisted Knox in the drawing up of the Scots Confession of Faith in 1560. This famous document which contained within it the basic doctrines of the newly reformed church was the official confession of the Scottish Reformed Church until it was superseded by the Westminster Confession of Faith eighty years later.

A portrait of John Knox who famously preached at the Calder 
Kirk in 1556, which hangs in the vestry of the current church 
a constant reminder of the church’s historic past


Kirk of Calder has welcomed other famous people to worship within its walls or to become associated with it. Frederick Chopin spent a summer in residence with Lord Torphichen in 1882 having been befriended by his Lordship’s sister in law, Jane Wilhelmina Stirling, and she is remembered in the crypt of the present church with a plaque. Chopin who was in failing health became her tutor and she supported him in the twilight of his career. 

The church has two sets of magnificent stain glass windows which confirm the relationship of the church and the Scottish entrepreneur James ‘Paraffin’ Young. He worshipped in the church and on some occasions was joined by his great friend the missionary David Livingston. His son paid for the installation of one of the windows as a memory to his parents, the other is in memory of his sister and Young’s daughter Mrs Walker.

Kirk of Calder is a church with character and beauty. It is also a church whose buildings, walls and grounds have throughout their long years of existence witnessed so much of the history of the Scottish Nation, and indeed in many cases played at several different times a significant part in it.

 The church is open to visitors on Sundays from May to September from 2pm – 4pm, experienced guides are on hand to talk to people about all aspects of this historic church and it is certainly well worth a visit.

The Author, James Hendrie .

 James is a writer and lives in Mid Calder, he is an Elder in the Kirk of Calder. More information on his previous work is available on his website http://www.jameshendrie.com

You can contact him - Tel: 01506 – 883907 (Home)  07801 – 388797 (Mobile), or e-mail: james@hendriej.freeserve.co.uk   



Account of the parish of Mid Calder By John Sommers (Printed for author for private distribution, 1838.)

The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Mid Calder By Hardy Bertram McCall (Richard Cameron, 1894.)

Old Mid & East Calder By William F Hendrie (Stenlake Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1 84033 299 9)


The Parish Kirk of Calder  From original by Ian G. Lindsay ( Kirk of Calder)

Calder Witches
An article by John M Povey, MA, BD (Kirk of Calder)

The Kirk Photo Album has many interior and exterior photos. There is also a separate pages on the Kirk's Stained Glass windows, the History of the Church and The Calder Witches




Kirk of Calder Parish (Church of Scotland) is registered Scottish Charity No SCO13461

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