Friday, May 13, 2011

The Parliamentary Churches

There are some awfully big parishes in the West Highlands of Scotland. In the early 19th century, one of the biggest was Kilmallie which included all the land on the west side of the Great Glen from north of Loch Arkaig to deep into Morvern as well as a big wedge of land on the east side of the Glen from Fort William to Loch Leven.

Another problem was parishes which were not only large but in which the church had ended up being in the wrong place due to shifts of population as a result of the Highland Clearances or the creation of new fishing villages (such as Tobermory and Ullapool) in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A good example of the latter syndrome was the parish of Assynt in Sutherland.

The church was at Inchnadamph at the head of Loch Assynt which was a nice central location when the population lived in the inland glens but quite useless once it had been cleared out to the western and northern coastal strip and the new village of Lochinver. (Note, incidentally, that these two maps are not at the same scale. They make Kilmallie and Assynt look roughly the same sort of size but Kilmallie is actually much larger than Assynt.)

Ever since the Reformation (1560 in Scotland), there had existed a statutory procedure for building a new church where required, jurisdiction over such matters being vested in the sonorously titled "Commission for Plantation of Kirks". But the responsibility for actually paying for kirks, manses (Scottish equivalent of the vicarage) and the salaries of the ministers of the Church of Scotland rested with the "heritors" (landowners) of the parish. The initiative to "plant" (build) a new kirk had to come from the heritors and they were generally reluctant due to the multiplication of expense to themselves this involved.

A Highland heritor reluctant to put his hand is his sporran to pay for a new church.
The response to these tensions so far as the Highlands were concerned came with the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland appealing in 1819 for public funds for the endowment of new churches. 200 years ago, the provision of churches and ministers was regarded as a matter almost as (if not more) important than the provision of schools or dosctors would be today so Parliament eventually responded favourably with the Additional Places of Worship in the Highlands Act 1823.

This provided £50,000 of public money to build not more than 40 new churches (with relative manses), none to cost not more than £1,500. Provision was also made to renovate not more than 10 dilapidated churches and provide them with new manses. A stipend of £120 a year would be paid by the government to the ministers appointed to these "Parliamentary Churches", as they became known, and thus the heritors had nothing to fear bar the cost of maintaining the church to an amount not exceeding 1% of its building cost (i.e. max. £15 per year) so far as that wasn't covered by the pew rents of 2 shillings and sixpence per sitter a year. Imagine having to pay for the privilege of sitting in church! It was standard at the time and the 1823 Act provided that a third of the pews were to be set aside for the free use of poorer parishioners (and imagine the sort of "do you live in a coonsil hoose or a bought coonsil hoose" sort of snobbery that must have engendered!).    

The Act set up a Commission to oversee the building of the new churches and appointed as its consulting engineer (to use an anachronistic modern expression) the celebrated Scottish engineer, Thomas Telford: hence they are also sometimes referred to as "Telford Churches". They were all built in the late 1820s to a standard design (by William Thomson rather than Telford). For the manses, there was the option of the one or two storey design.

The example at Ullapool (now a museum) is typical with the Tudor "Y tracery" latticed windows and "spikily pinnacled birdcage bellcote" being characteristic of the Parliamentary Churches:-

Photo credit - The Poss
The manse at Hallin in Vaternish on Skye is a well preserved example of the two storey manse:-

Photo credit - RCAHMS
And the manse at Shieldaig, Loch Torridon is a good example of the one storey option - these are rather stylish Georgian villas:-

According to the Tenth Schedule of the Church of Scotland (Property and Endowments) Act 1925 (a more authoritative source it's hard to think of), 35 Parliamentary Churches (PCs) were built plus eight extra manses alongside churches which were renovated.

As well as those built in huge parishes like Kilmallie - which had two PCs built within its bounds, one at Corran of Ardgour and the other at North Ballachulish (Onich), these both to be served by the same minister whose single storey manse was at the latter location - and parishes in which the population had moved (Assynt where a PC was built at Stoer on the coast north of Lochinver), others were built on islands which weren't parishes in their own right (Iona, Ulva and Berneray). Others were built in the "new" fishing villages of the era (Tobermory, Ullapool, Plockton, Shieldaig, Portnahaven.)

The Parliamentary Church and Manse on Ulva - the "H-plan" is distinctive of the single storey manse design.
 Sixteen of the PCs are still in use, five have been rebuilt (Tomintoul, Tobermory, Lochgilphead, Shieldaig & North Ballachulish - all still in use), two have been demolished (Cross & Knock in Lewis), nine are intact but no longer in use as churches and four are in ruins (Berneray, Trumisgarry (N Uist), Oa (Islay) and Stoer). All of the manses are still standing but none - with the possible exception of Sandwick in Shetland which I'm not sure about - is still in use as a manse. The manse at Kinlochbervie is derelict.

The derelict Parliamentary Manse at Kinlochbervie - the little wings on either side are a classic part of the original design - Photo credit Gary Sutherland
 There's an irony about some of the Parliamentary Churches which is that, despite the great effort of having to get an Act of Parliament passed to get them built, many didn't retain the congregations they were designed for for very long. This was due to two factors. First, further clearances. This was exemplified by Ulva. In 1841, thirteen years after the PC was built, the island's population peaked at 859 but was reduced by clearance to 150 only 7 years later. By 1889, the population of Ulva had slumped to 53 and today is less than 20.

The second (and more prevalent) cause of the PCs losing their congregations so soon after they were built was "the Disruption" in 1843 whereby many Highland congregations walked out of the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church. Both syndromes (clearance and Disruption) are exemplified at what's probably the most famous of all the PCs, Croick in Easter Ross.

Croick Parliamentary Church - Photo credit Frank Stephen
The minister of Croick, the Rev. Gustavus Aird, led most of his congregation out to the Free Church leaving only two families worshipping in the Parliamentary Church. Two years later, in 1845, 90 people were evicted from nearby Glen Calvie and took temporary shelter in the church yard of Croick PC. The Glen Calvie clearance became famous for two reasons - first, it was covered "live" (as it were) by The Times newspaper and, second, a number of the evicted people scratched messages on the window panes of the church where they can still be seen to this day.

Scratchings on the window of Croick PC - Photo credit thefourthcraw
In combination with other less well publicised clearances from the glens around Croick Church, it is left at the end of the public road in a virtually deserted glen in a place less appropriate for a church it is now hard to imagine. Having said that, Croick remains in use to this day as a church despite - or perhaps because of - its history.

Inside Croick Parliamentary Church - photo credit Lee Carson

No doubt there are other Parliamentary Churches with good stories to tell. I'd particularly like to hear about how Kinlochbervie came to be the only one: (a) in use today other than by the Church of Scotland (it's a Free Presbyterian Church); and (b) where the manse is derelict.

I leave you with a map of all the PCs and manses - click to enlarge.



  1. Thanks, lovely article about the PCs and the West Coast in general. I knew about the church in Lochgilphead, but fascinating background for the rest. I'll link to your article from the blog for Corrarie Cottage (a holiday cottage near Kilberry kirk, which is older but an example of a church originally at the centre of a large parish).

  2. Hi Neil. I've just come across your great article here about the PCs while doing a bit of background research on the subject. I'm an Architect and have been involved in carrying out Quinquennial Inspections for Presbytery, so I've visited a few of them. I'm also an Elder at Muckairn Kirk in Taynuilt. Although not a true Parliamentary Kirk, (it was paid by private patronage), it was based very closely on the standard Telford design and incorporates the same window pattern and belfry. However, to clarify one part of your article, the manse at Taynuilt is a Parliamentary Manse, and is still in use as such. It was built at the same time as the Church, around 1829 and is of the 2-storey design. Despite the slightly varied provenance of the Church itself, I think Taynuilt must be one of the very few locations where a Telford Church and Manse still survive and work together. Iona still has both buildings together, but while the Church continues in its original use, the single storey pattern manse has been adapted to form a heritage centre and tearoom, but with an alteration in the centre bay to provide a small 2 storey flat still used by the parish minister.

  3. Great feedback, thanks for that Ronnie.