Blessed with unusually pleasant weather on a visit to the extreme North West of Scotland in September I’ve decided after looking over some images from the trip that it’s time to share a few of the Highland churches I was able to whirl around whilst visiting family in the area earlier in the year. This is the first, covering one church in a series of three posts I will make.
Approaching Kinlochbervie from Rhiconich along the narrow road that runs along the high rise of Loch Inchard’s shoreline, the south facing view from the hill-top at Badcall before entering KLB is one of the finest I’ve seen. From here you can see North West Sutherland’s highest mountains. Running from left to right in the panoramic below are Foinaven (highest), Arkle and Ben Stack (the shortest of the three). Note quite Munros with Foinaven reaching a mere 3 feet short of the Munro standard. A sense of the remoteness a crucial introduction to the history of the region’s religious history.
Stone churches of any great age in the highland landscape are few and far between. Where well documented, archaeological evidence of early Christian activity has presented itself in a variety of forms from burials and Pictish standing stones to various small finds at sites across the upper Highlands and on the Atlantic Scottish islands of Orkney, Shetland and Lewis, the presence of early church buildings survive in lesser numbers on the mainland. The ancient ruins of early monastic and stone hut buildings remain in fascinating condition out on the Altantic – “beyond the oceans of time” – on the Northern and Western isles. Medieval stone churches can be found however, but in the North West Highlands they are simply not present in great numbers. The well known 13th century cathedral at Fortrose near Inverness remains partly in good condition with it’s fantastic red sandstone. There is allegedly documentary evidence in the Vatican archives for a financial contribution to the third crusade in 1190 from a church at the coastal town of Durness (I write about the present remains of the 17th century church at Durness in a following article), some 34 miles North East from Kinlochbervie. So whilst there is a possibility that a small monastic community or church building of some description (documentary evidence of a financial contribution to a crusade 1190 is suggestive, surely, of a 12th century site of some significance however…) was present at Durness, and others may once have perhaps been situated elsewhere on the North Atlantic coast, there is less evidence of mainland sites. Archaeological discoveries of monastic sites and communities of the Scottish Middle Ages are being made to this day in nearby regions and hopefully soon more discoveries will be made in the North West to shed some more light on the area’s early beginnings.
But all this is not to say that historic churches don’t appear across the Highlands. They are dotted around. Most are just from a different period of history and look a little different. Opposite the regrettably now often empty harbour in Kinlochbervie is a small white wall church. It’s no bigger than one of the local houses, which are largely of the same age and sturdy, wind-breaking design. It’s one of nearly 32 churches built across the Scottish Highlands in the 1820’s by renown architect Thomas Telford.
Following waves of successive Highland clearances over the 18th and 19th centuries the religious needs of the Highland people changed. Since Highland parish boundaries covered such large areas, those who were moved from their homes and relocated in new villages as a consequence of the clearances were unable to continue attending services in their parish kirk. What was once perhaps a somewhat easier walk to church for many was now an impossible distance to travel across such an unforgiving landscape. Parliament made £1,000,000 open for the building of new Church of England churches and chapels in 1819 (and again in 1824 with a further £500,000) after the Napoleonic Wars as ‘an expression of gratitude to God for victory’. Combined with the fact that many Highlanders could not get to church and therefore, presumably express this sentiment of gratitude as well, the government in 1824, after delays and revisions in their allocated budget, granted £50,000 for the building of new Highland churches, or “Parliament churches” as they would come to be known, under the ‘Act for Building Additional Places of Worship in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland’.
A proposal for a grant towards church building in the southern Highlands was shot down in 1825. Large portions of Scotland received no grant at all. The Northern Highlands was clearly in desperate need for more churches. On each one of the proposed new Parliamentary churches – of which between 30 and 40 with an accompanying manse where one was not already present were proposed – no more than £1500 was to be spent. An additional 11 current buildings were also adapted into new churches under the same initiative. Building work began in roughly 1826 and the last church was completed by 1830. Kinlochbervie church was completed in 1829.
The Telford church in Kinlochbervie has been noted as ‘the classic example’ of one of Telford’s new Church of Scotland buildings in the Highlands. One was built as far away as Iona. Another at the coastal harbour town of Ullapool has since been converted into a small museum. Most of the original Telford buildings adhere to the same design standardised by the architect of a central, basic rectangular shape with an extension at the back to form an overall ‘T’ form plan. Two doors flank two central windows on the front face and a small belfry sits on one side of the roof. Unusually, although part of their design, there is no window inserted into the rear face of the extension – as you might expect on a typical church plan of any modern age. The placement of two windows on each face of the rear extensions shorter walls projecting from the central cell appear to be chosen entry points for the extension’s access of light – aesthetically however, this looks clumsy, although in a building of such simplicity is this really such an issue? Perhaps so, since internal visibility was low when I sneaked a peak inside the church through one of its windows. Darkness has made this place home and light is scant; allowed to enter through three faces only. It becomes clear that Northern weather conditions and church architecture do not go hand in hand.
The Highland churches of the 1820’s are significant as a historical product of social change across Scotland in the 19th century.
Kinlochbervie’s is a simple, beautiful building. Sadly it isn’t unlocked very often anymore. At some point after 1906, Kinlochbervie’s Telford church later became the village’s Free Presbyterian Church. The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland was formed in 1893 and the church is still under its ownership to this day. Plain and unassuming; paralleled entirely against the surrounding landscape of natural beauty. The Telford churches are a harrowing product and survival of the conditions of life within their surrounding landscape, the harsh and brutal climate and beating weather. Kinlochbervie’s church a solemn lasting memory of the Highland’s social and economic struggle within far away politics.