HISTORY Extracts from 'Tranent Parish Church - a brief account of it's place of worship' - available from the church building.Also see the pdf here
Origins and Situation
Tranent Parish Church represents over a thousand years of continuous worship on or near its present site, exactly how long is not known. Legend has a chapel being founded here by missionary monks in the 8th century, associated with the work established at Lindisfame by St Cuthbert. It was supposedly dedicated to St Martin of Tours, patron saint of beggars and cavalrymen, and founder of the monastic system in the West. This is, however, only legend, without any known proof.
The first written reference that we know of dates from 1145 when Thorald son of Swan, the then local landowner, granted revenues known as benifices to the Augustinian Canons Regular of Holyrood Abbey. In his grant Thorald mentioned previous grants by his predecessors, and so presumably a church had been in existence for some time by then. The Augustinians had been introduced to Holyrood the previous year by King David I, and this was part of his provision for their upkeep, They received the compulsory fuedal dues that were owed to the church, and in return they provided a priest to say mass. The fuedal system was then a new thing in Scotland, the ecclesiastical component of which was the Parish system of territorial responsibility. Tranent's contribution to Holyrood Abbey was specifically to provide clothing.
There exist descriptions in various canonical records of a parish chapel of St Peter on a rocky outcrop overlooking a coal bearing ravine at "Travement". This is almost certainly the Heugh, which is where the primary settlement at Tranent occurred. The site of the chapel was very likely the site we now know. and though it is unfortunately placed for modem day purposes it was not so at its inception. It was convenient for the the original settlement along the Heugh, and also for the later village and burgh which was built on the higher ground to the east, consisting essentially of what is now Church Street and Fowler Street. Furthermore it was within 3 miles or so of the outermost limits of the first demarcated parish it was called to serve. In the days of walking, 3 miles was a reasonable distance. (The original parish consisted of a strip of land stretching from Elphinstone to the shores of the Forth, embracing what is now Prestonpans and Port Seton, and some land that is now in the parishes of Pencaitland and Gladsmuir.) The churchyard layout with a gateway (now built up) at the north west comer, in addition to the main entrance at the south east, indicates a long held intention to serve the wider landward area as well as the settlement itself.
Catholic and Reformed
The church in Tranent was originally part of the whole western Church that gave aliegiance to Rome. The first vicar of Tranent whose name is recorded was one John in 1222. Throughout the Middle Ages the Canons of Holyrood had the right to the parsonage of Tranent but a later Lord of the manor called DeQuincey gave much of the parish lands, and tithes to the rival Cistercian order at Newbattle.
Following the Reformation and the defeat of the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, by the Protestant Lords of Congregation, St Peters became a Protestant Church. The last Roman Catholic priest, Stephen Moffat, demitted in favour of the first minister, Thomas Cranstoun, in 1562. It was then, like the whole Church of Scotland, 'Reformed'. Sometimes that meant Presbyterian (governed by courts - another name for committees) and sometimes Episcopal (governed by bishops). Which one was largely dependent on the comparative strengths of rival parties, and the ability of the king to impose his will. After 1688 and the final demise of the Stuarts, who liked Episcopacy that offered them firmer control over the church, the Church of Scotland including Tranent, became finally Presbyterian.
The Original Building
There are two stories regarding the construction of the first church on the -site One claims that the stones used came from the Heugh, being prized from the rocky outcrops or cast up by the primitive grubbing for coal. The other story claims that the stones came from the shoreline at Cockenzie, being transported by rolling and passing them along a human chain to get them up the hill. (There were no dumper trucks in those days')
That first Church building was variously altered and extended during its history- In its latter days it was described as having a long narrow nave and choir - seemingly as long as the present building, but a lot narrower - and with aisles attached to north and south, connected to the central nave "by arches of different form and size". Rising above the centre was a square tower supported on arches. No doubt in earlier times it was a much simpler structure, perhaps consisting of a shorter part of the knave.
In 1544 the church was razed, like much of the village, by English raiders led by the Earl of Hertford, an act he repealed in 1547 following his crushing victory at the battle of Pinkie- (By then he was Duke of Somerset.) In these raids the building was looted of anything that could be carried away, including the bells. Thereafter the church stood roofless for years, and it was to remain dilapidated for some time, certainly into the 1600's. That may be part of the reason that the worshipping congregation was very small- It was reported in 1589 as about 80, sometimes rising to 100, even though the number of communicants was 2.000.
Exactly when the building was refurbished and extended is not known. Probably work was carried out over a period of time, as suggested by the differences in style that were so obvious to contemporary observers. The First Statistical Account of Scotland written in 1794 describes the parish church as, "resembling three oblong buildings placed sideways the middle being considerably longer at each end...... a square lower rises from the centre of the whole supported by two cross arches." It added that the church had a stone vaulted roof and with few windows was "dark and dismal".
A Victorian impression of the building is reproduced at the top of this page, though the accuracy of the drawing may be open to question since it shows a cruciform shape that does not seem to match the contemporary descriptions nor the fragments of the building that remain.
The New Building of 1799
The dark and dismal conditions may have been one of the reasons why the decision was taken to replace the church with a newer, larger building. The very limited space, damp conditions when it rained, and unsatisfactory layout were others. From 1786 onwards several petitions to the Kirk Session were made requesting bigger and better accommodation. The last in 1796 stated that the petitioners believed that in the church iheir lives were in immediate danger! Whatever the reason it was determined to enter ihe 19th century in new premises- Work on the new structure was started around 1799 and was complete by 1SOO. There was an almost total rebuild. As indicated previously, some of the sub structure and foundation was almost all that was retained- The new building was larger iban the old and some of the churchyard and burial plots nearest to it were subsumed by the new structure. The new floor level was significantly higher than the old which then formed the basement or crypt.
The Much Altered Church of 1954
The next big change came with a large modernisation programme in the 1950's- Ideas for major renovation had been afoot prior to the war, but with the national emergency nothing could he done- A Church Restoration Fund was launched in 1947, with an initial transfer of £1000 from the Congregational Fabric Fund. The following year a gift of stock, valued at £1250, was made by Mr J S Wilson. Over the next six years the fund steadily increased. Substantial sums were raised by the Women's Guild but the bulk of the contributions were collected from the congregation. Increasing costs meant that the start to the work could not be made until 1953 by which time a total of £6.880 had been gathered.
Messers Leslie, Graham, Thomson and Associates of Edinburgh were appointed as Architects, and their design is what is seen today, though budget restraints meant that the new floor and repositioning of the organ were not included in the initial phase of the work. These items were in fact done and eventually paid for by further contributions from the congregation and a few large donations. Dr Jessie Wilson gave a donation of £2,000, and the Baird Trust contributed £500. The eventual total cost of the work including new pews and choir seats was £10,805. Much of the rubbThe Renovations of 2011
In 2011 further modofications were made to the church. A new floor was constructed at the rear of the nave, forming a spacious upper room, a lift and stairway was inserted for access. Downstairs further toilet facilities (including disabled toilet) and a kitchen area were created along with a 'communal' area, partitioned from the main nave with a wood and glass division. This area is used as a creche and general meeting place. Teas and coffees are held after most services in this area.
This new layout is largely what is seen today. For much more detail on the history of the church, the churchyard, worship here through the ages and various anecdotes, a copy of the small booklet 'Tranent Parish Church - a brief account of it's place of worship' - is here in pdf form. The booklet is available from the church building.
Tranent Parish Church