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Caithness Field Club

Thomas Telford's Parliamentary Churches
J D Porter

Without doubt the least known of all Telford's feats of construction was the design and erection of what has come to be known as the Parliamentary Churches. Bracegirdle and Miles in their lavishly illustrated book dismiss the church building in a sentence while in Rolt's biography one paragraph serves to cover the subject. It is only when you get back to Gibbs' 'Story of Telford' that a complete list of the churches is published.

The term 'Parliamentary Churches' arose from the fact that after the programme of highland roads and bridges had been completed the Government, in an attempt to atone for their past neglect of the Highlands and Islands set up a Commission in 1823 under Rickman to erect 43 additional churches in some of the most thinly populated and scattered parishes. The project was backed by a Government grant of 50,000 and this was to include a manse with each church. As Telford was architect and engineer to various previous parliamentary commissions he was asked to supply the plans and specifications - each church and manse to cost not more than 1,500. This financial restraint meant that the design would have to be simple and austere. Telford decided that more economy could be obtained by building all the churches to the same plan - he got the contract and this he proceeded to do. This was not however his first effort in the field of mass production. Throughout all his road and bridge construction work he only employed two designs of toll-house, the hexagonal and the rectangular, with a front porch.

The layout of each church was a simple T-plan. There were two doors and windows in the front wall, which if the terrain allowed, faced south. This was the longest wall of the building being 52' 6". On the left-hand gable there was a small belfry consisting of four plain pillars supporting a pyramidial top; the bell rope came down the outside of the gable. At each side of the building there were two windows, one in the end and one on each side of the rear wing. The exterior was plain and undecorated while the interior was equally austere with the pulpit against the front wall between the front windows and hexagonal in shape. Only six of the churches had a gallery.

At the end of the programme only 32 churches were eventually built, 19 in the Highlands and 13 in the Islands. In addition 11 existing churches were renovated. The ministers, who were paid by the Government, received 120 per annum. On completion of the work in 1830 the total cost was 54,422.

16 of the Highland churches are still standing. The three which have now gone were at Shieldaig, North Ballachulist and Lochgilphead. The existing buildings are at Tomintoul, Duror, Acharacle, Strontian, Ardgour, Plockton, Poolewe, Ullapool, Stoer. Kinlochluichart, Strath Conon, Kinlochberview, Strathy, Keiss, Berriedale and Croick (near Ardgay). This latter church is in almost original condition, unaltered but a little dilapidated, although a fund has now been set up to restore it. It has become famous because of its association with the Highland Clearances. There are messages and names scratched on the east window by people evicted from Glencalvie who were denied shelter in the church and bivouacked in the graveyard for some days before finding some other accommodation.

Berriedale Church has had one of its front doors closed up and a porch built on to the other. This is the only church which carries a date - a stone plaque over the door states "On the application of James Horne of Langwell, who granted all the required Accommodations Lands etc Gratis 1826", and on the south wall "Erected by Commissioners of Parliament in 1826".

At Keiss one doorway has been filled in and a weathervane set on top of the belfry while at Strathy the two front doors have been replaced by 2 small windows and the building is now a dwelling house. Thus this little known aspect of Telford's work fulfilled a vital need in the remote parts of the Highlands and Islands and acts as a living monument to this great Scot.

Bracegirdle B. & Miles, R.H. "Thomas Telford" David & Charles 1973
Rolt, L.J.C. "Thomas Telford" Longmans Green, London 1958
Gibb, Sir A. "The Story of Telford" Maclehose & Co., London 1935

Published in October 1980 Bulletin