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Rosneath: St Modan’s Parish Church

Hill & Son, 1873 — organ surveyed May 2022

Historical overview

The Church
The present building by David Cousin dates from 1853/4,[1] replacing a now ruined building of 1780, and is in the English Gothic style. The church survives in a significantly altered form to the original, with additions of double-gabled North and South transepts in the 19th century alongside extensions to the chancel and a new session house added in the early 20th century. The church commands a central position in the village—itself within the Lomond and Trossachs conservation area. It houses many interesting artefacts from the previous church, including the 1610 Burgerhuis bell (suggested to have been used in 1715 to call parishioners to the first Jacobite rising)[2] and ‘The Beast’, a carved pulpit stone dating from a pre-reformation Celtic church.

Historical Context
The genesis of this history owes much to the Rev’d Dr Robert Herbert Story, who was appointed minister to the parish of Rosneath in 1860. Dr Story proved to be an influential character within the parish – and the wider church more generally – and, by the turn of the 20th century, he had become moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and principal of the University of Glasgow. A founding member of the Church Service Society (founded 1865) he sought to make improvements to the liturgy of the church, a considerable effort at this time. In March 1861 an entry in his diary reads:

“Choir tried, well. My first attempt at substitution of better music for the solo of the old precentor. With ups and downs the movement has gone on ever since.”[3]

Afterwards, the precentor was replaced by a harmonium which, by 1873, was further replaced by the Hill & Son organ—the first organ to be introduced into the Dumbarton Presbytery after such was sanctioned by the Church of Scotland in 1864.[4] Not all in the church approved of the organ, even well into the 1880s. An account survives of a family who would sit through the singing and stand through the prayers in protest.[5]

Although much has been written about the link between this organ and Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria and Duchess of Argyll, only one – much later (1923) – reference is made in the minutes of the Kirk Session: ‘Organ in oak the gift of Her Royal Highness’.[6] The Rev’d William Meiklejohn suggests that, had the organ been a gift from the Princess, she would surely have also gifted the money for a chamber for its accommodation (see comment below regarding its position in 1873).[7] It is known that HRH Princess Louise (and her husband the 9th Duke of Argyll) were generous benefactors to the church and that they hosted the bazaar which raised funds for the work of 1894, however, no more direct links have been forthcoming to date.[8]

The Organ
Hill & Son had enjoyed the distinction of installing the first organ in the Established Church in Scotland following the devolving of decisions around use of organs at the 1864 General Assembly. The organ in question, built in 1865 for Anderston Parish Church, survives in near-original condition at St Bride’s Episcopal Church in Hyndland, Glasgow. By the time of its construction, William Hill was fully 76 years old and, although he worked until his death in 1870, son Thomas Hill’s role in the company was, by this time, well established. On his father’s death, Thomas (1822–1893) and brother-in-law George Meikleham were left as joint trustees of the estate, with plant and machinery passing absolutely to Thomas after five years.[9] Thomas’s subsequent moving of the business to the substantial, custom-built factory at York Road in Islington occurred during the year prior to the construction of the Rosneath organ. By this time the business was building organs for extensive, high-profile customers including, during Thomas’s time in charge, King’s and Trinity Colleges in Cambridge, Westminster Abbey, and Manchester and Worcester Cathedrals.

At Rosneath, no definitive evidence over the choice of Hill & Son appears to have survived—though it is worth noting that they had built a number of similarly sized organs in the west of Scotland at this time (in addition to the Anderston organ previously mentioned; St Mary’s Episcopal Church, Glasgow (1871) and Coodham House, Symington (1873)). An unclear prefix, attached to the surname Houldsworth, in the Hill & Son estimate book entry for Rosneath, could suggest a link to the owner of the aforementioned Coodham House, Sir William Henry Houldsworth. Houldsworth had commissioned a number of significant organs from the company, including Manchester Cathedral (1871) and Holy Trinity Episcopal in Kilmarnock (1876) alongside those for his private residence. Given that Coodham is situated some seventy miles south of Rosneath – and Houldsworth’s links to the British monarchy and nobility – it is not implausible to suggest his involvement, though this is purely conjecture.

The organ, built in 1873, was installed in the newly erected North aisle of the church. A position which later was said never to have been intended for the organ but rather chosen as no suitable alternative was available.[10] The organ was inaugurated on 1st June 1873 by Dr A L Peace of Glasgow Cathedral, and later at a service where the organ was played by Allan Macbeth (son of celebrated Scottish portraitist, Norman Macbeth).[11,12] Macbeth (simply styled ‘Mr Macbeth’ in the account given in the 1873 Greenock Advertiser article) had played the organ for several occasions at the church and was a notable figure in Scottish music; later he would become the founding Principal of the Athaneum of Music (now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland).

Tonally the organ retains similar characteristics to those built at the end of William’s career. At the time of its initial construction, and like at Anderston, the organ featured no undulant and the Swell – with the exception of the Stopped Diapason and Principal – was effectively a Tenor C division. The Great flutes still see the traditional pairing of Stopped Diapason and the distinctive open wooden Wald Flute with its external windway. As the 1870s progressed, these stops were gradually supplanted by open wooden hohl flutes and metal harmonic flutes, with the Wald, or Suabe Flute, often appearing on the Choir division of three-manual instruments.

Although no physical evidence within the organ survives, much has been written about the costs involved in the installation of a hydraulic water pump to power the bellows of the organ in the early 1880s.[13] This appears to have been disconnected and replaced by electric means in 1938.[14]

A substantial re-ordering of the interior of the building took place in the late 19th century and at this time the organ was enlarged and re-sited by Hill & Son, by this time under the management of Thomas’s son Dr Arthur George Hill, Thomas having died a year previously. Thankfully, supposedly owing to a lack of funds, initial plans to buy a completely new organ were overturned and the decision was taken to enlarge the 1873 instrument, at a cost of £285 . The work carried out was not insignificant, as evidenced by an entry in a Hill & Son workshop book. Curiously, a proposed change to the formation of the façade pipes, sketched in the book, seems not to have been fully realised and what survives appears to be a compromise between the two (perhaps to satisfy the needs of Burnet Son & Campbell, architects for the re-ordering of the church and the design of the organ casework). The Swell organ gained three stops: a 16ft Gedackt, 8ft Salicional and 8ft Voix Celeste – unusually, these begin on tenor Bb rather than C. As a result of this work, the entire soundboard and box were made new and, combined with the addition of a trumpet on the Great and a new pedal open diapason, new bellows were required. It should be noted that the trumpet stop was added on a ‘clamp’, alleviating the need for a new Great soundboard (a clamp was also originally planned for the swell organ additions). The 1894 additions are indistinguishable from the aesthetic of the original 1873 instrument, illustrating the continuity of tradition which still pervaded the Hill company in the early years of A G Hill’s management. Also noteworthy is the choice to retain certain non-tonal features of the 1873 organ, including the non-overhanging keyboards.

The only notable change since has been the addition of a balanced Swell pedal, thought to have been added during the 1975 removal and cleaning of the organ by Hill, Norman and Beard.

[1] Conflicting dates: see
[accessed 28/05/2022]

[2] Historic Environment Scotland,
[accessed 30/05/2022]

[3] Memoir of Robert Herbert Story, by his daughters, 1909 p60

[4] St Modan’s Church Guidebook, p14’s%20Guidebook%20(Church%20Rosneath).pdf
[accessed 22/05/22]

[5] Memoir of Robert Herbert Story, by his daughters, 1909 p60

[6] St Modan’s Church, Rosneath 1766-1978, Rev William Meiklejohn, p56

[7] Idem, p57

[8] Helensburgh News, Thursday 31 July 1884

[9] Nicholas Thistlethwaite, Carrying on Ancient Traditions: The Work of Thomas Hill 1870-1893 in JBIOS 19, Positif Press 1995, p100

[10] St Modan’s Church, Rosneath 1766-1978, Rev William Meiklejohn, p53

[11] Idem, p29

[12] Greenock Advertiser, 2nd September 1873

[13] Rosneath Past and Present, William Charles Maughan, 1893, p157 and Helensburgh News, Thursday 31 July 1884

[14] St Modan’s Church, Rosneath 1766-1978, Rev William Meiklejohn, p30

[15] Idem, pp53 & 57

[16] Notes on Rosneath, Colin Menzies, p1, undated – 2011?