John Guthrie Smith records that the neat little church and manse belonging to the Free Church stands on the site of the old village of Netherton and the first ordained minister was the Rev George Rennie. Early records indicate that by 1864 there was a sufficient number of members and adherents to merit discussion of the building of a Free Church within the parish. An extract of a minute of the 22nd September 1864 states that there were two elders and a communion roll of 25, which suggests that membership had been steadily increasing in the years following the Great Disruption in 1843, when 400 ministers resigned from the Church of Scotland over the issue of “patronage” (the right of a congregation to choose its own ministers). In Strathblane three elders had resigned. Building work for a Free Church began in 1866 on land formerly occupied by two rows of cottages in the Netherton area of the parish. It opened for public worship on the 4th August 1867. The Stirling Observer and Midland Counties Advertiser of the 22nd August 1867 recorded: 

“The new Free Church in connection with the Home Mission Station here was opened for worship on Sabbath the 4th current, when excellent discourses were delivered by the Rev Sir Henry Moncrieff in the forenoon, and by the Rev James Nicol, of the Free St Enoch’s Glasgow in the afternoon, and on both occasions the church was completely filled, many having to be accommodated in the passages. The collection amounted to £31 10s. On the Tuesday evening following a soiree was held in the church, which was crowded on the occasion. The chair was occupied by the Rev Mr Fiddis of Killearn and suitable addresses were given by the Rev Mr McQueen, Milngavie, Rev Mr Gardner, Glasgow, Rev Mr Dykes, who has just entered on the charge of the mission, George Roy Esq. and James Torrens Esq., Glasgow. The building, which is of gothic structure, is from designs by Mr Baird, West Regent Street, Glasgow and does much credit to the architect and to all concerned in its erection, and the site, which was granted by Professor Graham of Ballewan, is one of the finest and most romantic in the Strath. From the easy access to Glasgow by the Blane Valley Railway, which has lately been opened for passenger traffic, Strathblane is likely soon to become one of the most favourite feuing localities in the neighbourhood of the city.”

The Stirling Observer and Midland Counties Advertiser of the 22nd August 1867
Free Church, destroyed by fire in 1905

As the Free Church was entirely self-financing and relied on its members for contributions, it was important for the church to have in its midst members of some means. It is known that Mr Keyden of Craigend Castle was a member, as were various members of the Coubrough family, the owners of the printworks. By March 1871 the minute book was recording a communion roll of 71 and a roll of adherents over 14 years of age of 40, which steadily increased during the 1870’s.

The Rev Thomas Robertson succeeded Rev Rennie in 1872. He oversaw the installation of an organ in 1884, the first Free Church in Scotland to have one. Rev Robertson emigrated to New Zealand in 1889, to be succeeded in turn by the Rev Theodor Johnson, a Shetlander, who remained in post for another 45 years. Soon afterwards the church was extended to accommodate 250 worshippers. Rev Johnson married into the Coubrough family.

Rev Theodor Johnson (in later life). Photograph courtesy of Angus Graham.

The closure of the printworks affected the Free Church and in 1904 a presbytery report on what was now the United Free Church recorded that there had been a fall in numbers resulting in a membership of 68, a sabbath school of 23 and a bible class of 12 members.

Disaster struck in November 1905 when the church was totally destroyed by fire early on a Sunday morning. The cause of the fire was unknown though it was suspected that straw in a ventilator might have been set alight by a spark from a nearby traction engine.

Great excitement swept through the village as people rushed to see what was happening, although they could only stand by and watch the fire burn. Fortunately, the manse was saved by men going up on the roof to stop sparks landing on it. The Glasgow Fire Brigade was contacted but due to the distance to be covered and the nature of the roads, it was decided that they could not reach the building in time.

Following the fire, the Deacons’ Court of the UF Church approached Mr Coubrough to see if they could use the Pavilion [a now demolished hall behind the Spice India Takeaway] for their Services. It took about 18 months to rebuild the church at a cost of £1,930, part of which was met out of subscriptions and the sale of scrap metal.

In his lively account of growing up in the parish before the First World War, Alex Urquhart describes listening to the bells of the churches in Strathblane and Blanefield appearing to compete for custom:

“On a Sunday morning I would walk to the Gowk Stane and maybe slide down its well-polished surface to have my dearest wish fulfilled. And then lie prone on the grass verge to gaze at the valley far below. As the peacefulness was broken by the clanging of the bells from both ends of the community (seemingly striving to drown one another), I would daydream.”

Alex Urquhart, The Strathblane Notebooks

Spasmodically, especially during foul weather, Urquhart counted himself as “an affiliated member” of the Free Church:

“If there was a magic lantern show, we would be there. These were wonderful pictures of scenes from the Holy Land, or the dire effects of alcohol. Then there were soirees, or bun parties with much eating, hymns and prayers for starving children.”

Alex Urquhart, The Strathblane Notebooks
Rev Johnson (second from right) with his wife and son (left) and others at Blanefield House [now Netherblane] in 1917. Shortly afterwards Rev Johnson temporarily left the parish to do war service.
Photograph by John Coubrough, courtesy of Angus Graham

The Church of Scotland and the United Free Church merged in 1929 but the reunification did not take place in the parish of Strathblane until 1934 when both ministers retired. Between them they had served the community for 93 years! The two men were friends and sometimes went cycling together. Both served as army chaplains on the Western Front during the First World War.

Following the union, Blanefield Church as it became known continued to be used for the Sunday school and for evening services. (Staunch former United Free Church members refused to attend services in the Parish Church.) Blanefield Church came into its own again between 1958 and 1959, while the Parish Church was closed for major renovations. However, in 1961 the decision was taken to close the Blanefield Church as a place of worship. Church and manse were to be disposed of and the proceeds put towards the cost of a new manse in Strathblane.

The effects of Blanefield church were disposed of, with the pulpit going to the Larbert congregation, the pews to Whitehill Church in Hamilton, and the bell to Balloch.

The Reverend Theodor Johnson and The Reverend William B. Moyes
Revs Theodor Johnson and William Moyes with their bicycles

The United Free Manse is now a private house as is the church itself, which was the subject of an imaginative conversion after being bought by Hugh Crawford, a former Principal of Dundee College of Art, who made it into a studio and family home.

Newspaper cutting re the conversion of the former United Free Church (Glasgow Herald 23 Feb 1965)

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