History Lesson: A John Dunn Story

In a book published in Quebec City in 1832 concerning the settlement of Canada, Joseph Bouchette says:

“The first systematic emigration we have to record took place in 1815. It consisted of about 700 natives of Scotland. They were located in lands in the district of Johnstown in the upper province, and commenced in 1816 the now flourishing settlement of Perth, which afterwards received a considerable increase of population from the recession of soldiers of the regiments disbanded in the colony after the war.”

Three townships had been surveyed for their reception, and in 1816 the settlers repaired to the lands allotted to them.

In the following year the population of the settlement stood thus:

Emigrants: 716
Discharged soldiers: 1194

The make-up of population was this:

Men: 947
Women: 290
Children: 653
Total: 1890

Further emigrations from Perthshire in Scotland came in 1818 to Beckwith Township, and another 1000 from Glasgow came to Lanark and Dalho usie townships. The following year a further 2,080 settlers came from Scotland, and were followed in 1823 by the Peter Robinson settlers from the South of Ireland, numbering nearly 600 souls.

In 1817, the Rev. Wm. Bell came out from Scotland to the Perth military settlement, and ministered to this growing population, largely Presbyterian from that central place for the next forty years. During the period 1818 to 1830 the Rev. Wm. Bell, and later the Rev. Dr. Buchanan from Franktown, visited the outlying scattered emigrants and set up preaching stations where the congregations could be gathered together, in barns, in houses, and, it must be said, sometimes in the open.

The records of the earliest emigrations to the County of Lanark indicate quite clearly the difficulties which the emigrants had to overcome, since most of them had left Scotland with little other than their early possessions in their hands, and an iron determination in their souls to build a new life in a new world. Part of that building enterprise, and a most important part in the lives of those emigrants, was the continuation of their spiritual heritage in the new world. It is not surprising then to find their earliest records of letters going back to Scotland asking for the consolation of religion as they had known it in Scotland.

The AULD KIRK sits near the centre of Ramsay Township in Lanark County. Were it for the sole reason of its location, a stranger might indeed conclude that the settlers of the district in pioneer times must have come from Scotland.

And the stranger would be correct in that conclusion.

Congregational records of the settlement around Leckie’s Corners where the Tannery Creek crosses the eighth line of Ramsay on the way to the Mississippi River, began to be kept only in 1833 on the arrival of the Reverend John Fairbairn in October of that year.

The importance of a church for a central place of worship of the growing number of settlers can be obtained from a reading of the Rev. Wm. Bell’s notes describing Perth, which he described in 1824 as follows:

“Perth is the capital of the district, and the courts of law and justice are held in that town. It contains a jail and court house, four churches, five taverns, besides between 50 and 100 private houses….

When strangers arrive in Perth and compare the number of churches with the population of the village, they conclude that we are either a very religious people, or in building them have taken care to provide accommodation for our country friends.

There are in the county one Episcopal clergyman, four Presbyterian ministers, one American Methodist preacher, and two Roman Catholic priests, besides a great variety of lay preachers in the remote parts of the settlement.”

To overcome the danger of living without a settled dispensation of the means of grace, according to the rite of the Established Church of Scotland, the settlers of Ramsay residing along the eighth line around the tannery creek at Leckie’s Corners sought out a “minister of our own persuasion”.

The Reverend John Fairbairn was sent out by the Church of Scotland and arrived in the settlement in October, 1833, and immediately he set to work to organize the congregation of Presbyterian adherents.

In May of the following year the first session was elected and the newly-organized congregation of the Established Church of Scotland was called St. Andrew’s. At a further meeting on June 7th, 1834, the following were chosen as elders.

Alexander Erskine
William McQueen
Thomas Kennedy
John Hutchinson
John Lockhart.

On June 9th, the session met at John Gemmill’s house (on the site of the present-day Gemmill Park in Almonte), and the first communion service for this Ramsay congregation of St. Andrew’s was held there also on June 29th. One hundred and fifty-eight members participated.

At the same time, under the inspiration of the Rev. John Fairbairn, the congregation undertook action to build a church and acquire a suitable plot of ground for a cemetery.

A plot containing two and a half acres of ground was purchased by the Trustees of the Presbyterian Church in the Township of Ramsay in connection with the Established Church of Scotland from John Mitchell, Jun., for a purchase price of Three pounds, Two shilling and sixpence.

The plot was composed of part of the East Half of Lot Number Sixteen in the Seventh Concession of Ramsay, the south-east corner of lot number 16.

The Trustees of the Presbyterian Church listed in the deed were the following:

James Wylie, Township of Ramsay,
Robert Bell, Township of Beckwith,
John Gemmill, Township of Ramsay, Merchant,
James Wilson,
James Yuill,
John Lockhart,
James Wilkie,
James Paterson,
James Steward, all of the Township of Ramsay, Yeomen.

Witnesses of this deed or bargain and sale were John Fairbairn, and David Campbell.

The church was built in 1836, although the first use of the cemetery surrounding the church was in 1834.

The cemetery was added to in subsequent years. Three acres in addition to the original two and one -half, were purchased from Elizabeth Mansel, and later on, a further addition was purchased from James Camelon.

By 1843 when the Great Disruption of the Presbyterian church was being felt in Scotland, waves of the same ecclesiastical feelings swept over the congregation in Ramsay. As a result St. John’s Free Church was erected diagonally across the corner from the Auld Kirk, but, since the ground there did not lend itself to suitable arrangements for burials, the congregation of the Free Church continued to use the Auld Kirk cemetery for internments.

Over the years, the cemetery has continued to be regarded as a communal burial ground, and has gained a character transcending its original denominational stats as a community burying ground.

By the time of the establishment of the first Rosamond woollen mill in the village of Almonte, the population of this part of Ramsay Township felt the pull of the larger village for the sake of work for wages, and by the beginning of the 1860’s the growing population of the newly-named village of Almonte, required the Presbyterian congregation of the Auld Kirk and of the Free Church to examine the needs of the village as the focus of their congregation for the future.

The result of this was the decision of the congregation of St. Andrew’s under the leadership of the Rev. John McMorine to relocated in the village, and to build a new church, dedicated also to St. Andrew, in Almonte.

Thus, St. Andrew’s built a new church on Elgin Street in teh village in 1861, and named it also after the patron saint of Scotland.

The Free Church moved in the same direction, and built St. John’s Church on Church Street in 1863.

As a result of the flight of the people from the country to the village, the AULD KIRK was left in a state of disrepair for many years, until the years following the first World War, when former residents of the community got together to work out a plan for the restoration of the building, and its maintenance as a place full of the religious heritage of the original Scottish settlers and their descendants.

Thus the year 1980, which is the centennial year of the incorporation of the town of Almonte as a town, will also witness the 160th anniversary of the Presbyterian tradition in this part of Ramsay, a tradition which continues to be symbolized in the district by the AULD KIRK.

The building itself was erected in 1836 is a wonder in symmetry. The basic construction is that of stone rubble walls, interrupted in each side by three large windows, and on the front by two windows of the same scale as those of the sides, and by a large central door at ground level.

In the front also is a further almost fan-shaped window set above the doorway, which is a duplicate of the upper third of the main windows.

Each of the openings moves in a classic neo-gothic style towards the top of the Gothic arch formation, and the lines of the window openings for glass intertwine in the rule of three in a style both distinctive, and architecturally symmetrical.

As a result of the care extended over the years for the building, and its conversion to practical purposes, tow of the windows, one on either side, have been blocked in, in order to make room for a vault on the inside of the building. This is somewhat of a tragedy from the viewpoint of tradition, although entirely within the bounds of practical wisdom on the part of the trustees.

The conclusion arrived at from examination of the records of the congregation of Presbyterians who first built the AULD KIRK is that they built for the present and the future, and aimed at having a distinctive meeting place for continuing worship according to the Church of Scotland.

The building which is today called the AULD KIRK is sound enough to permit one to think that it will last for another hundred and sixty years, and will continue to show forth the zeal and dedication of its founders, and be a shining example of the religious heritage of the people of Ramsay and of Almonte.

John Dunn
April, 1979