The Reverend Robert Shirra

The Reverend Robert Shirra (1759-1840)

In an article written by my Great Grandfather (Alexander Sweet) and published in August,1908 in the Scottish Gardener and Northern Forester (of which he was an editor), he makes the following reference to the Sweet family of Yetholm: 

“They were ‘Auld Lichts’ of an actively religious kind, their minister, Rev. Robert Shirra, latterly of Kirkcaldy, being a cousin. He was the great preacher and noted wittiest man of his time”.

In fact there were two ministers called Robert Shirra. The first was indeed a preacher in Kirkcaldy Born in Stirling in 1724 and died in 1803 and was renowned for his preaching and witticisms. His nephew, also Robert Shirra, was born in 1759 in Gargunnock, Stirling and died in 1840, he was the minister in Yetholm from 1759 to 1840 and is more likely to be the cousin to the Sweet family. Indeed Anne and Robert Sweet, who lived at Sweet Holm named their daughter Mary Shirra Sweet; she was born on 16 Nov 1840, the same day as the Rev Robert Shirra died. Indeed Shirra appears in the naming pattern in later generations of the family after they had emigrated to Australia :Maude Mary Shirra McDonald born in Strathalbyn in 1872 and died in Perth in 1945, Mary was a daughter of Jean Hogarth Sweet.

It is interesting that in the 1841 census for Yetholm, Mary Shirra (Robert’s widow) and her son George Gibb, have living in the properties next to them Adam Elliot and Mary Elliot (Adam was the first son from the marriage of James Elliot and Elizabeth Sweet) and the next property is occupied by Ann Martin, James Martin (her son)  and Jean Elliot, (Ann is the first daughter of James Elliot and Elizabeth Sweet she married James Martin and they had a son also James. Jean Elliot is sister in law to Ann Martin. 

Also, I understand that the Rev Robert Shirra was a witness to Jean Sweet’s will. This however would not be unusual as I am sure ministers would witness many wills in their time.

Although the claim is that Robert Shirra was a cousin to the Sweets, I have not yet found evidence of this despite extensive research among 26 related families. This is not unexpected however as, at the time, births, marriages and deaths were not always recorded and indeed there are a number of family members for whom I have no succession details. If there is a connection, I have a hunch that it is through Elliot. However, there is a William Sweet who married a Katherine Riddell probably in 1697 (although I have not yet found where they fit in the Sweet tree) and there is also a John Riddell who married Mary Turnbull in 1854 in the Shirra tree. So a possible connection.

Background to the Rev Robert Shirra (1759-1840) of Yetholm.

From ‘The Annals and Statistics of the Original Secession Church’ David Scott 

Robert Shirra, from Stirling, entered Divinity Hall (Rev. Professor Brown, of Haddington), 1710 ; called to Fenwick and Yetholm, and ordained at the latter place in 1717; joined Original Associate Presbytery, 12th November 1799; died I6th November 1840, in the eighty-second year of his age, and the fifty-third of his ministry. 

Obituary Border Advertiser:

Mr Robert Shirra, minister of Yetholm, was the nephew of Mr Robert Shirra, M.A., minister of Kirkcaldy, 1750-1799, who has been called the Rowland Hill of Scotland, for his wit, his popular sayings, his privilege for doing and saying eccentric things, no less than for his piety. Both uncle and nephew were from the First Associate Congregation, Stirling. 

Mr Shirra, jun., entered the Divinity Hall, along with other ten students, in 1780, being the twelfth session of Professor John Brown of Haddington. He was licensed by the Presbytery of Stirling on the 4th of January 1786 ; called to Fenwick and Yetholm, and ordained at the latter place on the 1st of August 1787. The following ministers were present and took part in his ordination, viz. : Messrs William Elder, Newtown, 1782-1819, who preached and presided ; George Coventry, Stitchell, 1755-1795; William Kidston, of Stow, 1756-1808 Alexander Shanks, Jedburgh, 1760-1795; George Bell, Wooler, 1778-1800; John Blackhall, Berwick, 1782-1813; John Riddoch, Coldstream, 1768-1804. Mr Shirra, of Kirkcaldy, resigned his charge on account of declining health, and removed to Stirling, where he died on the 12th September 1803, in the eightieth year of his age, and fifty-fourth of his ministry. 

At the end of the century, what was called the Old Light Controversy arose in the Synod, and Mr Shirra, of Yetholm, with the minority, withdrew from the Associate or Burgher Synod, and formed the Original Associate Synod in 1799. His congregation adhered to him as the minister of this Synod while he lived. He died on the 16th November 1840, in the eighty-second year of his age, and fifty-fourth of his ministry, and was buried with his forefathers at Stirling.”—From Border Advertiser, contributed by Rev. Mr Robson, U.P. Church, Lauder. 

In an article contained in the Kelso Sphere of Influence some years ago the following appeared:

“In about 1840, John Baird, Minister of the Established Church, writes in his report:

There are two dissenting chapels in the parish, both of which are in Town Yetholm. One belongs to the Old Light Burghers, the other to the United Associate Synod. Both have been built within the last fifty years. The ministers are paid from the seat rents and collections, the one being promised, I believe, £70, the other £108 annually. Of old and young in the parish, 888 may belong to the Established Church; and the number of Dissenters may be about 412. One probable cause of the number of Dissenters may be the want of accommodation in the parish church.

Yetholm St James’ Church.

The first building for this church was erected in 1786 with seating for 600. It was rebuilt in 1882 on the same site and remained in use until 1940, when the two parish churches united. Standing to the right of the road to Kirk Yetholm, it was sold in 1954, and is now used only for storage.

Yetholm Border View Church

In 1815, 200 members of the Sr Jamea’ Church congregation split away and formed a new Burgher Church. Meeting first in a brewery building in the village, they were donated ground by the Wauchope family on which to build their new church. By 1818, a building for 470 was completed just across the street from St James’ Church. In 1842 the two churches reunited, and in 1852 they joined up with the Free Church to become the Yetholm Border View United Presbyterian Church. A new church was built on the same site in 1881, and this building remained in use until 1914, when all the Secession Churches had reunited and were using St James’ Church building. This building became the Wauchope Community Hall.”

Yetholm Past and Present has an entry for Shirrafield “The old Secession manse at Shirrafield had become by1862 ‘incommodious and antiquated ‘ funds were raised for a new manse for the Free Church at Copsewood. The old manse seems subsequently to have been improved and heightened. It was, for many years, the house and workshop of a millwright. The house was named after Robert Shirra, the long-serving first minister of the Secession Church in Yetholm, 1797-1840.The adjoining camping and caravan site occupies what was once the glebe field of the church. 

Robert Shirra’s church

Excerpts from ‘The Annals and Statistics of the Original Secession Church’ David Scott

On l5th July 1834 application was made for a colleague and successor to Mr Shirra, stipend offered £60 with a free house, and £10 for sacramental expenses. This was granted, …..The call was for Mr John Hastie, Probationer, and was subscribed in all by 100 members and 9 adherents…..Second Minister, Rev. John Hastie. Ordained 15th October 1834. ….Mr Shirra, the senior colleague, died 16th November 1840, in the eighty-second year of his age, and the fifty-third of his ministry, and Mr Hastie and the congregation united with the Original Secession Synod on 13th September 1842, and with the Free Church of Scotland in 185 2. Mr Hastie died 4th July 1863.

A congregational correspondent states the following: —

” In this lovely and secluded parish then numbering 1200 souls, the young minister (Mr Shirra) and his young congregation had a career of usefulness and spiritual prosperity not altogether unchequered. The old meeting-house was seated for 600, and such was Mr Shirra’s popularity that it was generally filled, and often crowded. He was well read in geography, the history and usages of ancient nations, but he excelled in the knowledge of the Scriptures, and in applying them to the heart and conscience.

Education being at a low ebb he devoted much time to visiting and catechising, especially in the hill districts. On these journeys he was wont to think out his sermons, and was often heard speaking aloud to himself. Along with all faithful ministers of that time, Mr Shirra had many ecclesiastical offences to deal with, chiefly, however, ‘ irregular marriages.’ Offenders of this class, and indeed of all classes, before being re-admitted to sealing ordinances, had first of all to give satisfaction to the kirk-session, and afterwards to compear before the congregation at an ordinary diet of worship,….. In those more patriarchal times any quarrel or misunderstanding among neighbours was generally settled, or attempted to be settled, by the minister. This was called ‘agreeing them.’ Mr Shirra was often resorted to as a peacemaker after this fashion.”

He was a Moderator of the Associate Burgher Synod in April 1808, Edinburgh.

He wrote a pamphlet relating to the New Light Controversy: “The Good Old Way Sought Out and Defended” by Rev Robert Shirra, Glasgow, 1799. (Now available on Amazon as a reprint)

Rev Robert Shirra of Kirkcaldy (1724 – 1803)

Copied from annals and statistics of the Original Secession Church

Robert Shirra, born at Stirling, March 1724; entered Divinity Hall (Professor Alex. Moncrieff, M.A., Abernethy), 1746 ; ordained at Kirkcaldy, 28th August 1750 ; called in 1756 and 1757 to be the successor of the Rev. Ralph Erskine, of Dunfermline, but continued at Kirkcaldy ; demitted his charge, 19th June 1798, and removed to Stirling; adhered to the Original Burghers; and died 12th September 1803, in the eightieth year of his age, and the fifty-fourth of his ministry. Author of numerous Sermons printed at different times, and three small treatises entitled—1. “A Death- bed Dialogue between Mr Shirra and Mr Lister, late Minister at Dundee ; ” 2. ” The Good Old Way sought out and defended ” 3. ” The Church and State Government.”

Mr Shirra was in many respects a very notable Old Light. An excellent memoir of him, by Dr Brown Johnston, was published in 1850. In appearance he was tall and portly, and his private character showed that be was a godly as well as a goodly man. Being well acquainted with Scripture, its language, to a large extent, was the medium of his every-day reflections. A praying frame of mind was with him habitual, and hence a large part of his life was spent in the exercise. Whilst walking on the road, or having intercourse with his friends, he would occasionally ask them to unite with him in the blessed and profitable exercise of prayer. As is well known, in 1779, the noted pirate, Paul Jones, who with his fleet designed mischief, were driven out of the Firth of Forth by a gale, which, it is believed, was sent by God in answer to Mr Shirra’s earnest prayers.
Many anecdotes are related of Mr Shirra’s eccentricities and quaint sayings. Thus, in quoting Phil. iv. 11, “I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content,” Mr Shirra added, ” Ay, Paul, ye have learned well ye have got far on ; but let us be thankful we are at the schule.”
On the separation of the Old Lights from the Synod in 1799, Mr. Shirra, who had then retired to Stirling, resumed his ministry by preaching in his dwelling to those who sympathised with his views, and thus was formed the nucleus of the Old Light Burgher congregation of that town. 

January 2020