According to David Ure’s History of East Kilbride and Rutherglen published in 1793, the site of the present church may originally have been a centre of Druid worship. The evidence for this was a circular ring of trees which enclosed the graveyard up until the 17th century – circular rings of trees being typical of Druid ‘groves’. The earliest surviving records of the graveyard round the church date from 1262 A.D.
There has been a church building on the site of the present church for 1400 years. The first church was founded in the 6th century by St. Conval, a disciple of St. Kentigern, the Patron Saint of Glasgow, and was most likely a wattle-and-daub structure.
A more permanent church was built on the site in the 12th century. Norman capitals (the tops of columns) from this church used to be on display in the former Rutherglen Museum and the gable end of this mediaeval church still stands in the graveyard supporting St. Mary’s steeple which was added to the mediaeval church around 1500 A.D. In the Middle Ages the minister of Rutherglen was a rural Dean and his Deanery took in almost half of Lanarkshire.
It was either in this former church or in the graveyard that William Wallace concluded the peace between England and Scotland on 8th February, 1297 and it was in this same place that Sir John Monteith contracted with the English to betray Wallace. These events are commemorated on two plaques donated by the Society of William Wallace, one in the church located adjacent to St Mary’s door and the other on the outside wall of the church facing St Mary’s Tower.
The Scottish Parliament called by the Guardians of Scotland met on 10th May 1300 in the mediaeval church.
The area round the church and graveyard was once the site of an important ‘Fair’. In his Book of Common Order published in 1564, John Knox lists what he called the ‘Fairies of Scotland’ i.e. Fairs of Scotland. St. Luke’s Fair is listed as being held on October 18th in ‘Ruglane’. October 18th is St. Luke’s Day and the Kirk Session has for some years decided to have a service of Communion on the Sunday nearest to that date to mark St. Luke’s Day and so maintain a link with this tradition of the past.
The next Church on this site was built in 1794. During the demolition of the old 12th century church a stone statue of St. Eloi, the patron saint of hammermen was unearthed, as was a very old sundial. The statue of St. Eloi is now displayed in the Low Parks Museums in Hamilton.
The church which is presently in use, was built in 1902 by the famous Glaswegian Victorian architect, J J Burnett. It consists of blonde ashlar stonework supporting traditionally pitched and slated roofs with open timber beams and trusses. The church has a number of notable architectural features including a series of leaded glass windows. Among many other items of interest are the historic silver communion cups dating from 1665 which are still in regular use.
An incumbents’ plaque in the church lists all the ministers of the Old Parish Church since the Reformation. Among these is Rev. John Dickson, one of the leaders of the Covenanting Movement. The Rev. John Dickson was eventually to be imprisoned on the Bass Rock. In 1679 the Rutherglen Rising took place – this event consisted of the burning at Rutherglen of the edicts of Charles II and is seen as the prelude to the battle of Bothwell Bridge.
The baptismal bowl from the previous church is still kept in the vestry of the present church.
The earliest existing Kirk Session records date back to 1658. The records are stored in the Mitchell Library and have been taken out on loan, photocopied and the earliest have been typed to make them more legible. A selection of old Bibles, the earliest dating from before the American Declaration of Independence, is kept in the church and may be viewed on request.
Above the former “Councillors’ Gallery” is a carving of the Rutherglen Coat of Arms depicting the Virgin Mary and Child – prior to the Reformation our church was called the church of St. Mary the Virgin. The Coat of Arms also depicts a sailing boat – a reference to the fact that, at one time, Rutherglen was the main port in the West of Scotland. This Coat of Arms is always referred to when the school children from the Burgh Primary school come to visit the church each year. It provides an opportunity to teach them about not only the history of the church but also the history of the town of Rutherglen, and of the strong relationship between the church and the Royal Burgh of Rutherglen.
Other important features of the church are the stained glass windows. The North window is a memorial to the Rev. William Ferrie Stevenson who was minister at the time of the construction of the present building. The South window (facing Main Street) is the war memorial window. Underneath it is a record of those citizens of Rutherglen who were killed in the Great War.
At the entrance to the graveyard from the Main Street there is a Kirk Port dated 1663 – when it was built this entrance led directly to the main door of the mediaeval church. On top of the Kirk Port is a sundial dated 1679 and on either side are two stone shelters dated 1761 and it is believed that Rutherglen Old Parish Church is the only church which has such shelters. The church elders once stood in these stone shelters to collect the offerings of the congregation.
Within St. Mary’s Steeple there is a bell dating from 1635. It was made in Middleburg in Holland, is still in use, and is inscribed in Latin with words which translate to ‘Glory to God alone. Michael Burgerhuys made me.
The Old Parish as a place of Christian worship has a much longer history than the bell, but it is still in use and looks forward to the future.