Proper decorum to be observed in the Church especially during Divine Service

by David Birrell (Notes by Jean Barclay)

It is not my intention to occupy much of your time on this important subject, but I honestly trust that the few observations I intend making will be listened to with attention, hopeful at the same time it may prove profitable to one and all of us.

I would in the first place draw your attention to the practice of some members of the Congregation being always rather late in making their appearance in the Church – I am however very glad in being able to say that this is by no means a general practice in the Free Abbey, indeed I may say far less than in many Churches I have visited, but I would at same time beg of those who are occasionally the last in making their appearance that in future (especially those on the right hand side of the Pulpit) they would use their best endeavours to come one minute or two earlier than they have been accustomed to heretofore – indeed on some days I have noticed our Worthy Minister wending his way with some difficulty from his room to the Pulpit, so much so that I have been thinking it would be a vast improvement to have our friend Robert Marshall (probably the beadle) to walk before in place of after the Minister.

Sketch of The Free Abbey Church, Canmore Street

  I shall now proceed to notice what I may justly call a nuisance that is continued almost during the whole time the Service lasts, that is Cough, Cough, Coughing. When the first Psalm is announced (or indeed any of the Psalms), it is often with very great difficulty I can learn what the Psalm is. Our Worthy Clergyman announces a Psalm, say one beyond the 100th , and I hear him say the Hundred and… , but here a storm of coughs occur which completely drowns what Psalm it is beyond the 100th  – moreover the Minister after reading over the portion of the Psalm that is to be sung again announces what Psalm it is by saying the Hundred and…(Cough Cough), say Seventh but, Having lost the words after the hundred and, causes me to look at the 127, 137, and so on until I find it out.

  During the singing of the Psalm I believe there is comparatively little or no coughing and I only wish I could say the same thing during Prayer.  It is certainly most unseemly that any of the Audience at this most solemn part of the Service should do anything in the hindrance of his neighbour joining in this most solemn duty, and I would earnestly beseech all of you to be particularly careful during the Prayer. After the text is announced then begins the War of Coughs, indeed I may say from the beginning of the discourse (sermon) to its termination the fearful conflict goes on without almost any intermission, so much so that many of the most interesting parts of the discourse is heard but very partially.  I have noticed however that when our Minister means to illustrate part of his discourse by referring to an event that may have occurred during the lifetime of many who may be present, such as some awful shipwreck whereby someone or more belonging to the wrecked ship through the miraculous ways of Providence had been saved, then there is a dead silence, not a cough to be heard, all are still and silent! But the moment the illustration so aptly bid in (introduced) is concluded then begins the Cough, Cough, Cough even louder than before the interesting story was begun.

  Now my friends I do lament and feel for many who are suffering from Colds or any other illness and whose coughs are caused by this illness, but I would humbly suggest to any who are so suffering a simple remedy, from which as regard to myself I have often benefited, and that is bring a little liquorish to Church with you take a little bit when you feel the Cough approaching and then put your handkerchief to your mouth  – it will bring the noise of the Cough to a narrow compass. 

  Now my friends with your permission I will take a pinch of snuff and thereafter address a few words to my brother Snuffers.  A friend of mine, a Snuffer, recently asked me if I took my Snuff Box along with me to the Church, I told him I did and could see no harm in doing so.  Well, says he, I never do for I might be inclined to take a snuff and I might sneeze and thereby disturb my neighbours. Well done, I said, and now I shall follow your example and henceforth never take my Snuff Box with me to Church.  It is for me now to tell my Brother Snuffers, at least to some of them, that in taking a pinch of snuff they do make a fearful noise.  I can hear some sitting at a good distance from where I sit taking their pinch of Snuff and it is often followed by a fearful blowing of the Nose!  Do endeavour to take your pinch quietly if you will take it and be less uproarious with the cleaning of the Nose. 

  Some 20 years ago I attended a Church in our own Town on a Sunday evening to hear a very celebrated Preacher.  The house was very crowded but I fortunately got a seat under the Gallery and immediately opposite the Pulpit.  At the door of the seat opposite to where I sat was a friend of mine who was a great snuffer but at the same time I believe a very good man. The passageway divided him from me, but I could not but observe that during the prayer he took out his Snuff Box and, having helped himself to a pinch, indicated, by his waving his Box across the passage to me, that he wanted me to help myself.  This offer, however, I decidedly refused and showed my disapprobation of the offer made to me by the shake of my head, and I believe with a bit of a frown upon my countenance.  On the following day I met my friend in the Street and his first exclamation he made on seeing me `Man David, hae ye gi`en o`er snuffing`?  `No, no, my Worthy Friend`, I replied, `I have not given over snuffing but I make a practice never to snuff during prayer`. My friend looked with astonishment at what I told him and saw the absurdity of his conduct, and declared he would never again snuff during Prayer.  Now my friends, I honestly believe there are none in our Church would so far forget himself as snuff during Prayer but plenty of them who do so during the Sermon and all that I would humbly suggest to such is to make as little of a Hoosel (wheeze) as possible.

  Another matter I will shortly allude to and then be done. In my opinion after the Blessing is pronounced at the close of the Service we ought to leave our Seats with becoming decorum.  I must say that the seeming hurry that many show would make a Stranger believe the Church was about to come tumbling about their ears.  This should be avoided and I trust in future it will,

  Now to the dear little Children I see around me, a word to you.  Mind and behave yourselves in the Church and avoid coughing as much as you can, ever keeping in mind it is the House of God, and therefore be ever attentive to what our Worthy Minister says and keep in your constant remembrance the 4th Commandment – Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.


  1. This account comes from `The Folio of Oddities`, four volumes held in the archives of the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries, and is reproduced by permission of OnFife Archives, (Dunfermline Local Studies) on behalf of Fife Council.
  2. David Birrell (1795-1874) was a linen manufacturer, a lawyer, a Council bailie, collector of taxes and sheriff clerk of west Fife for a number of years. He had been a volunteer in the Napoleonic Wars and became a founder member and secretary of the Volunteer Movement established in Dunfermline in 1859. He was an antiquarian with a museum at his house in St. Margaret Street and in addition to `The Folio of Oddities` compiled several scrapbooks about the Volunteers, also held in the Carnegie Library.                         
  3. The church attended by Mr. Birrell was the Free Abbey Church founded in Canmore Street after the Disruption of 1843. It later became St Columba’s St Paul’s and was destroyed by fire in 1976.