The present Greyfriars Church is Gothic is design and the building dates from 1868. The site, and adjacent area, has been associated with Christian life and witness in the community for centuries. The church is the Burgh Church of Dumfries and contains the Provost’s throne and Baillie’s chairs. The clear identity of the building as being the peoples church was in place until 1925 when the Presbyterian establishment seized the ownership of all Scottish Burgh and Town Churches by Act of Parliament.
In the middle of the 13th century Lady Devorgilla, wife of John Balliol (founder of Balliol College, Oxford) founded a convent in Dumfries. She invited members of the Franciscan Order known as Grey Friars, because of the colour of their habits to come to Dumfries. The relationship between the Friars and the town remained good even through the troubles of the reformation period. The pensions of the Friars were guaranteed in the 1560's by the intervention of various members of the secular community. Several of the religious continued to minister within the town as reformed clergy and several sought the shelter of the Maxwell family (who had remained faithful Catholics) . It was these priests who famously sang a Mass in Lincluden Abbey for the Provost and people of the town on Christmas Day 1600. Abbot Gilbert Broun continued with members of his Order to conduct the Offices of his Order and Masses at Sweetheart Abbey until his death. The archives tell us that under the protection of the Maxwells Mass was still being said daily at Sweetheart as late as 1604. These priests and their successors said Mass in the Chapel of St Bride in the Maxwell's castle - the site of the present Greyfriars Church . Mass was still being said daily on the site until the castle chapel was demolished in 1719.
It was in the Convent Church of Our Lady in Dumfries that the Blessed John Duns Scotus received the habit . He was the main player behind the scheme to place Robert the Bruce on the throne of Scotland. Before the high altar of the church in 1306 ( 60 metres west of the present Greyfriars) Robert the Bruce slew the Red Comyn in the incident that rekindled Scotlands fight for independence, which was finally won at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
By the middle of the 16th century the people of Dumfries were feeling the wind of change that had begun in the German-speaking reformation lands of Europe. The new foreign religion was arriving. The unlawful and unsigned Act of the Scottish parliament which abolished the Church in 1560 promoting secular greed was foreseen by many of the townsfolk, much of the property of the Convent of the Greyfriars had already been conveyed into the safe hands of the friends of the Friars who continued to support the Friars and to pay their pensions. Contrary to popular myth there was no overnight conversion of the Scots to Presbyterianism. The Maxwells and many other local families remained Catholics. Many were Episcopalians. Presbyterianism would only finally gain the upper hand in the Scottish Church in 1707 by act of parliament . A Westminster English dominated parliament. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was never called to discuss the matter as it was 80% Episcopalian and would have rejected the idea outright.The period between 1560 and 1707 was hugely disruptive for Christianity in Scotland. In the North the people either remained Catholics or Episcopalians. It is said that until 1715 and the arrival of English forces it was not possible to find a Presbyterian north of the Tay. In Inverness a regiment of English soldiers was needed to install the new Presbyterian minister in the Parish Church. In Killin the new minister was thrown into Loch Tay.
From 1560 until 1707 the Church of Scotland swayed between being controlled by the Presbyterian and Episcopalian parties. The support of many local families meant that a reasonable number were still Catholics even in the 1600s. It is not known when worship stopped in the Abbey Church of Our Lady at the Convent of the Grey Friars. We know that Mass was said by the Maxwells chaplains in the Chapel of Saint Bride in their castle in the town and that local people attended that chapel until the demolition of the castle in 1719. The period between 1600 and 1700 saw the town gradually starved of places of worship for the ordinary people. Before 1560 they could have worshipped in St Michaels, The Convent Church of Our Lady, The Crystal Chapel (Chapel of the Holy Rood), The Chapel of Our Lady at Castledykes, or the Chapel of the Our Lady of the Willows on Irish Street, all destroyed or in secular use by the time we reach the early 1700's.
As the town grew it became apparent that St Michaels (the parish church) was not big enough to accommodate the needs of the towns-people. The Episcopalians of the town (who had been a majority of the congregation of St Michaels in 1689) had been severely persecuted by the Presbyterian establishment and they worshipped under the terrible restrictions of the Penal Laws in various converted buildings. The Griersons of Lagg and Barjarg, gave shelter to the those Episcopalians in mid and upper Nithsdale. Lagg Tower for some time being used as an Episcopalian Meeting House. The Crosbies, the Sharpes of Hoddom , the Herries familes all ant-covenanting families gave shelter and support to the persecuted Episcopalians who held to the faith.
It is important not to get Covenanters and those who signed the Covenant confused. Convenanters were traitors to the Crown and processed accordingly. Those found guilty of crimes received the punishment of the time. Many good and faithful people signed the Covenant, they must never be numbered with those who committed horrendous crimes of brutality. The supposedly wicked Grierson of Lagg died peacefully in his bed at a ripe old age after receiving the Sacraments of the Church.
On behalf of the people of the town the Provost and Council purchased the Castle of the Maxwells from Lord Nithsdale and built a new church in 1727 (the site of the present Greyfriars Church). The Church was to be called the New Church but this didn’t last long. The collective memory of better times prevailed and the people of the town named the Church 'Greyfriars'. The building cost £1,970 Scots being the sum raised by the Provost and Council by imposing a tax on all beer brewed in the town. The Church was the Burgh Church of Dumfries from 1727 and remains the Burgh Church today.
By the 1860's the New Church had fallen into disrepair. The decision was taken to clear the site and build afresh. The present church was designed by John Starforth and completed in 1868. Newly-hewn sandstone from Locharbriggs quarry was used in the construction along with stone from the Castle, Convent and the New Church. A carving of the head of St Peter which had survived from the original Convent is to be found on the staircase wall of the present church.
In Dumfries the first organ in a church after the reformation was installed in St Mary's Episcopal Church (now the Robert the Bruce ) across the road from Greyfriars at the end of Castle Street. The Presbyterians of Greyfriars followed much later in 1873 when an organ was installed in the South Gallery of Greyfrairs.
The Presbyterian establishment abandoned the Burgh Church of Dumfries in 2004. The property was put up for sale in 2008 and bought by a descendant of the Provost who had first inspired the building of the New Church. The Church is now owned by the congregation and is vested in the charity SC 040685.
As the first Church of the Convent of the Grey Friars ministered to the spiritual needs of the people of the town of Dumfries so it is the intention of the present congregation that the present Church should remain available to the people of the town for Christian worship. The Church re-opened for regular worship on St Andrews Day, 2008. The Church is now rededicated to St Bride. It is on a long lease to a traditional Anglican congregation. We have had a Presbyterian wedding and next year there is a Catholic nuptial mass planned for August. At the Town Service on St Andrews Day we had the Presbyterian minister of Haddington as preacher. It is hoped that this St Andrews Day we may have an Orthodox preacher.
The Town Bell which hangs in the tower was cast by William Evans of Chepstow in 1744. It rings out four times each day. Morning, midday and evening to remind us all of the wonder of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ and just before eight to call the Curfew. The bell is also rung before every act of worship.
No short history of Greyfriars would be complete without mentioning the wonderful work done by Mr David Canon , the Beadle of Greyfriars. During the four years when the building was unused David faithfully kept watch and organized repairs and maintenance. David and his wife Moira have been utterly fantastic in their support for us in our work at Greyfriars. I am proud to count them as friends fellow Christians on the pilgrimage of life.