N E W S F E E D S >>>

The Shape of Churches
Geoff Leet

12th Century churches like St Mary's, Crosskirk, and Old St Peters, Thurso, had a rectangular naive opening to a smaller chancel at the east end. The focus of the service was the altar which the priest faced, his back mostly to the congregation. Suitable members of the congregation knelt at the altar rail to receive Holy Communion, a tradition preserved in the Roman and Episcopalian service. After the reformation (1560 in Scotland) the pulpit was moved into the centre of the church and Communion tables were introduced, often flanked by benches.


Early churches like the ones at Dunnet and Reay were heightened to allow galleries, and transeptural wings were added often producing a "T" plan, sometimes, as at Old St Peters, Thurso, and Canisbay an "X" plan. The 1823 act commissioned Telford to build 40 standardised churches in the Highlands and he used a "T" plan as at Berridale, Keiss, Strathy, Kinlochbervie, Ullapool, etc. The disruption in the 1840's caused an explosion of church building. Later, as congregrations reduced, galleries were removed and, at Dunnet, a timber floor was inserted 1.5M above the flag floor.


Pews and pew rent were introduced slowly, the less wealthy keeping a stool in the kirk, and a woman from Reay Kirk is described as weeping as she collected her stool at the Disruption to transfer it to the new "double-aisled" Reay Free Church at Shebster, presumably also lacking pews.

Double-Aisle Free Churches

Unique to Caithness are these "double aisled" Free Churches with two equal roofs, and the valley between (always a source of damp and rot) supported by four cast-iron columns. In Castletown the church is now a contractor's workshop; in Halkirk one aisle is a house, the other a garden. The Watten Church is intact but I was able to take Elizabeth Beaton into the above-mentioned Church at Shebster, built 1844. The decay allowed Elizabeth to observe the original plaster on the stonework and the later lath & plaster which both show that the Minister stood with his back to the west wall and his congregation were ramped on broad steps to left and right, with more, also on broad steps, facing him through the row of columns. He entered from an elevated vestry directly into his pulpit. The two public doors may have been needed to handle the 700 adherents or possibly to segregate the sexes.

My note in the 1998 Bulletin, page 29, shows plans of the foundations of two "churches". Les Myatt drew my attention to his article in the April 1977 Bulletin about the "Chapel and Burial Ground at Ach-na h’uai, Kinbrace", one of the sites I mention. I show a "T" outline, maybe indicating a post-reformation date. Les correctly shows that my "T" is composed of two rectangles, so it is possibly of earlier origin. Les quotes Donald Sage (Memorabilia Domesticia page 60) in 1816 preaching there:-"....Ach-na-h'uaidh (field of the graves) to the North. The latter was so called from a burying-ground which has been used from time immemorial.(George Watson suggests that Sage may have mistaken the adjacent set of stone rows for grave stones; Les regards the rows to be too compact for such a mistake to be possible). In the middle of this place of graves stood a rude and homely church or meeting house, as it was more appropriately called. The building was constructed of the simplest materials.

The lower part of the walls, to the height of about two feet, was built of dry stone; the walls and gables were then brought to their full height by alternate rows of turf and stone.

The roof was constructed of branches of birch laid on the couples, covered with divot, and thatched with a thin layer of straw which was secured with heather ropes. Etc."

George Watson surmises that the rude church was built by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and operated by missionaries from Achness (Achadh an Eas), Strathnaver. Sage (page 105) mentions George Gordon preaching at Ach'na h-Uai which Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Vol 7, dates as 1797, but Gordon's predecessor, Alex Urquhart, may have served there after 1786, and George Watson feels that the rude church is unlikely to be earlier.

Sage last preached there in April 1819 prior to the Strathnaver clearances, and the three visible graves date from 1837-45.

The present ruin has one proper stone wall standing to greater than window height, and the graveyard also has an all-stone wall. This was not Sage's rude church. It could have been a later construction utilising Sage's foundations but the purpose is unclear.

The foundations at Deasphollag, Strath Hallidale, are definitely "T" shaped (so unlikely to be very old) and do not stand in a graveyard. Les Myatt feels that any church would appear in records so suggests a lay use like a barn, or an unfinished project.