The Scottish Unitarian Association was originally formed in 1813, then reformed in 1830. While modest in membership among the General Assembly (GA) family of UK Districts, it may claim to be the most extensive in area, since its bailiwick (notionally at any rate) stretches from the Solway Firth to Unst in the Shetland Isles and from the Isle of Lewis to Aberdeen. As far as we know, there are no Unitarians in Shetland, but we have been in contact with Unitarians in Lewis, Orkney, Berwick-upon-Tweed and on the Mull of Kintyre.
The SUA is a national as well as a district Organisation, as it functions in a different jurisdiction from the GA since the Scottish and English legal systems do not coincide. This discontinuity creates certain administrative difficulties and will no doubt become ever more marked as devolution gains momentum.
The SUA was founded by two Englishmen, the Rev. James Yates, Minister in Glasgow, and the Rev. Thomas Southwood Smith of Edinburgh, on 28th.July 1813, and was revived in 1830 (after its demise in 1824) by another Englishman, the Rev. George Harris. Although Scottish Unitarianism was stimulated and organised by the energy of English missionaries such as the Rev. Richard Wright, a growing indigenous Universalist opposition to Calvinism provided them with ready converts. The credit for founding the first Scottish Unitarian Congregation, at Montrose in 1781, is due to a Scot William Christie (albeit heavily influenced by Joseph Priestley).
The Montrose Church did not survive Christie's departure from the town in 1794, and in the ensuing century and a half another nine Unitarian Churches elsewhere in Scotland, recorded similarly brief life-spans, leaving behind the four survivors which today constitute the SUA.
The SUA celebrated its 200th Anniversary in Edinburgh in mid-September 2013 being accorded a Civic Reception in the Town House on the Friday and by a days celebration on the Saturday in St Marks Unitarian Church. 1813 an' a' that! was a presentation in verse and song put together by Bill Stephen, a past Secretary and President of the Association from Aberdeen about the history of the Association. A lunch and a service of Thanksgiving was conducted in the afternoon.
Each of the four churches, funded by income from free-will offering, fund-raising, investments, property and bequests is soundly based and in the case of Aberdeen supports a professional ministry. The other three congregations rely on lay celebrants from the congregation or invited celebrants. Each Congregation is seated comfortably in its own city-centre premises and Edinburgh still occupies its 1835 building, the exuberant facade now happily restored. The others, having been obliged to surrender their own architectural heritage to the importunities of town-planners and economic exigencies, occupy plain-faced, modern buildings. The SUA and each of its four churches and Fellowship have their respective websites.
As may be expected of congregations at least 50 miles apart, each has its own distinct profile; however, it would be difficult to be specific about these differences, whether demotic or philosophical: what is certain is that the range of religious belief within the SUA membership encompasses the whole Unitarian spectrum, from traditional Free Christian to New Age and the varieties of Humanism.
The Heroic Age of Scottish Universalism / Unitarianism with its martyrdom on the gallows (Thomas Aikenhead, Edinburgh, 1696) and transportation to Botany Bay (Thomas Fyshe Palmer, Dundee, 1793) is fortunately long past; and also long departed are our 19th. century giants, who, by their deeds, moulded Scottish Unitarianism in their pursuit of religious freedom, innovation and social justice, Alexander Webster (Aberdeen), Henry Williamson (Dundee) George Hope and Robert Drummond (Edinburgh) Henry Crosskey and John Page Hopps (Glasgow). They have bequeathed us an agenda, which in our modest way we, severally, try to honour in our service to the community, our support of inter-faith activities and our on-going concern with freedom and fair-play, at home and abroad.
Although a coordinating body, and dependent for most of its funding upon its constituent Churches, the SUA, by means of its Annual Meeting and its Executive Committee, which meets at least three times a year, is also empowered to act on its own behalf and, therefore, is a supporter of various institutions, including Jubilee 2000, and Interfaith Scotland. The SUA was a founder member of its predecessor, the Scottish Interfaith Council.
The SUA also tries to be sensitive to the wider community's evolving perception of the role of a religious denomination in a person's spiritual life and how its services may be accessed and used.
Over the past few years responses to press stories and advertisements have demonstrated a widespread curiosity about Unitarianism in Scotland and the SUA has to find acceptable ways of transforming this curiosity into serious interest.