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Tents and Tables

The large number of ministers involved at that Denny Sacrament shows the presence of communicants from neighbouring parishes whose clergy would assist at the sacrament days. In his poem ‘The Holy Fair’ Burns mentions five preachers at ‘Mauchline Fair.’ The congregation being far too large to be contained by the quite small church buildings of the area, it gathered by custom in the kirkyard or in a neighbouring field. In order for the various preachers to be seen and heard by this multitude a wooden structure was erected outside; this ‘tent’ as it was called both sheltered the preacher from the elements and elevated them above the crowds. It also served as a focal point for the meeting. The Dictionary of the Scots Language defines it thus:

‘a portable shelter; a moveable wooden pulpit, with steps and a canopy, erected in the open air, especially at the half-yearly communion services when the congregation is too large for the church to contain.’

Such a tent is recorded at Bo’ness in 1706 :

“for making a tent for accommodating ministers who preach without in time of the Sacrament.” 

Again in 1712 in the same parish,

“the session appoints Robt. Govan, wright, to take a view of the Tent, and if it will not serve with amendments to make a new one and repair the seats belonging to the Sacrament Table quhilk are wrong.”

Carriden supplies an idea of the cost of these structures in 1728:

“This day the Committee appointed to Visit the Communion Tables and to Consider what the making of a Tent would amount unto; reported that they had conversed with Wrights thereanent and according to a large calculation they were of opinion all might be done for about fourtie shill. Sterling.” 

The elevated position of the tent is shown at Slamannan in 1734 where “£3 [was paid] to Richard Russell for a ladder to the tent again.”  This reflects the description of a minister climbing up to his perch in Burns’ ‘The Holy Fair’:

“For Moodie speels [climbs] the holy door, 
Wi’ tidings of salvation.”
Illus: Robert Bryden, illustration from ‘The Holy Fair.’

The tent was also used by the precentor who led the singing of the psalms in the kirkyard.  At Carriden in 1745 one pound ten shillings was paid “to one for precenting in the Tent.”  The same entry illustrates the portable nature of these structures, twelve shillings being paid for “carrying, putting up and taking down the Tent.”

As we have seen, not only the tents but also the communion tables were temporary and portable structures. They were kept safe somewhere between communion services, were often repaired or new ones had to be constructed. At Bo’ness full details are found in this entry:

“The Session appoint sixpound to be given to Robert Gilloan, wright, for taking out the seats, putting up the Communion Table, and setting up and taking down the Tent, he having engaged in all time coming while he serves to keep the Comm. Table, forms thereto, and Tent in good order so that he is to furnish nails, to mend anything that is broken and do every other thing except when he shall be obliged to make any form new, or do anything that cannot be repaired by mending.” 

Fuller details concerning the size and make of the tables is found in the minutes of the Association Congregation of Bo’ness for 1763:

“The communion tables, 4 ft in breadth, to be in the middle of the new meeting house. The west end of the house for the Bo’ness people, and the east for Carriden people. Each party to put in the communion table at their own end at their own expense.”

The mention of ‘taking out the seats’ indicates that room had to be made to set up several tables in the space made by their removal. This was to accommodate the increased numbers of communicants, often from several parishes, at the actual taking of bread and wine at the communion; the records of the Falkirk session in 1747 note:

To John Crawford, wright, for 6 Communion Tables at 5sh 6d each, wood and workmanship.”

It was a major operation as, of course, the seats then had to be replaced, as this note, also from Bo’ness, suggests:

“To David Jervy, wright, for removing and fixing the seats again Six pounds Scots. To the workmen who assisted him four shillings Sterling.”

In addition to tables for the communion, a table for the elements, the bread and the wine, was also needed. In 1716 the session at Bo’ness appointed

“ten shillings Ster[ling] to be given for renewing of the Table on which the Elements are sett.”  

By 1791 they seem to have been making a permanent site for this:

The Session considering that they have no proper place in which to lodge the Elements at the time of the Communion, appoint Messrs Grindlay& Lindsay, two of their number, to apply to the Treasurer of the Representatives to fit up a place for that purpose in the unoccupied area of the Church.”

Allan Ronald, 2021

See Organisation of the Communion Service to continue reading about the administration of the Communion Service