Colquhoun Square, where the church stands, is at the heart of the community. Helensburgh is not a particularly ancient town and was laid out by the local laird, Sir James Colquhoun, in the late 18th century. It was named after his wife – Lady Helen Sutherland.
The original church on the site (a very small structure) was built in 1825 as part of the Original Secession Church. In 1839 it became part of the established Church of Scotland – but only for four years since, at the Disruption of 1843, with many others it broke away to become the Free Church. The Congregation remained in the Free Church tradition until 1929 when most parts of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland reunited.
The architect of the present building in 1845 was James Hay of Liverpool to a design which won prizes at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The interior has been reordered several times, most notably after a disastrous fire in 1924 which left only the walls standing. Further restoration leaves us with a comfortable building well suited to the worship of God and the contemplation of his beauty, as well as providing an adaptable performance venue.
The fine front porch is a later addition in 1892, to commemorate the church’s second minister, the Rev Alexander Anderson. The noted architect William Leiper designed the porch. The oak panelling is by AN Paterson and formed part of the reredos in St Bride’s Church (demolished in 1993) and was installed in its present location in 1990. The variety of war memorial tablets serves to remind us that the current congregation is a union of three – the Old Parish, St Bride’s and St Andrew’s.
Whilst a relatively uncommon feature in Scottish church architecture the distinctive half-timbered ceiling was a trademark of James Hay, which he applied to many of his buildings. The rebuilding in 1925 by Robert Wemyss put in place a ceiling virtually identical to the original. Its fine lines, continuing into the choir, when taken together with the building’s excellent proportions, produce a pleasing symmetry. Improved lighting installed in 1990 enables the ceiling to be viewed to greater advantage.
All the windows date from after the fire of 1924, although there is evidence that in the windows at the east end of the knave (on both sides) some original glass has been reused. In the three windows in the choir the twelve apostles (Paul replacing Judas Iscariot) are depicted, each holding an object with which, in church tradition, they have become associated.
This window and the large five-light window in the east gallery are the work of Oscar Paterson. This glorious window is to the memory of Andrew Bonar Law, British Prime Minister (1922-23), and his wife Annie. Bonar Law was brought up in this congregation and taught in the Sunday School.
The window was unveiled by the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin in 1929.
John Logie Baird
This window was installed in 1988 to mark the centenary of Baird’s birth and was unveiled by his widow Margaret. It is the work of Arthur Spiers and depicts the young Baird and some of his early television apparatus.
In certain light conditions this window spreads a whole spectrum of colour across the nearby woodwork – fitting for one who gave the world such a vivid form of communication. Baird was the son of the first minister of the West Parish Church (later St Bride’s) and was educated in the town.
This striking feature, carved from Portland stone, was dedicated in memory of a former minister, John Henry Dutch who died in 1968. The saltire on its cover reminds us that the church at that time bore the name of St Andrew, prior to becoming the West Kirk in 1981, when it united with St Bride’s.
The Choir (or chancel) is unusually generous for a provincial building. It is said to be the deepest of any Scottish parish kirk, outside the cathedrals and other ancient foundations. The rich stencil work also dates from that time, being rediscovered in 1992 in remarkable condition, having been covered with wallpaper for 35 years.
The organ is fine three manual instrument by Hill, Norman and Beard of 1925, rebuilt in 1968 and restored in 1992. The West Kirk is noted for its musical and liturgical tradition and this instrument, together with an excellent choir, give an impressive lead to God’s praise. There is also a particularly fine Steinway grand piano