10.6 Religion and Ritual

The Reformation of 1560 marked a major change for Scotland and the Highlands, leading to changes in architecture and material culture (ScARF Modern section 2.2; 7.4). The situation was complex and changing, with Catholicism and Episcopalianism adhered to in some places, and new Presbyterian churches forming and reforming in various religious upheavals, some following national concerns, others more local. The Highlands were considered in many ways more diverse than the Lowlands, containing many Episcopalians and Catholics as well as Presbyterians. This diversity was perceived as having political aspects, linked to Jacobite threats. Organisations, like the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPSK), which founded schools in the area promoted schools as one way to bring over Highland communities into the Presbyterian fold (Kelly 2016).

The Disruption of 1843, where evangelical ministers broke with the Church of Scotland (Presbyterianism) to form their own church, the Free Church of Scotland, had a profound impact on Highland religious life and society, resulting in the formation of new denominations, and the need for places of worship, sometimes temporary but later often in the form of substantial churches. The situation is undeniably complicated, with divisions and re-unifications over the years (see Alston 1999, 56).

General overviews for the period can be found in Ansdell (1998) and Cameron (1993), while overviews, with a Highland angle appear in MacInnes (1975), Mowat (1981), Kirk (1986), especially for the early post-Reformation period), R, Munro (1994), Alston (1999) and Bangor-Jones (2000). Kirk session and presbytery records provide valuable insights, with several commencing in the 17th century. They provide evidence of local society and concerns, but also the physical church buildings. The Old and New Statistical Accounts, generally written by local ministers in the late 1700s and early to mid 1800s respectively, often provide evidence about churches and manses as well as local religious matters. Various local studies of Highland churches have been undertaken, most published on websites or small pamphlets. A good example is a community project organised by the Evanton Community Trust investigating Kiltearn Old Kirk, with historical research, a standing building survey and grave marker recording (Case Study Kiltearn Old Kirk).

The parish system was retained, though in some cases parishes were joined, created or the boundaries redefined (see National ScARF Case Study: Re-drawing the Religious Landscape). Nevertheless, many Highland parishes remained large, causing difficulties for people wanting to attend church regularly.

The chief beneficiaries of the Reformation, particularly in terms of benefiting from the redistribution of church land, were the clan chiefs and gentry, who forged links with the Crown and the reformed bishops in the new church organisation. Establishing a new church organisation in the early years was difficult in some areas of the Highlands (Kirk 1986, 31ff). Ministers were appointed by the Crown or local landowners, an increasing area of contention as time went on.

10.6.1 Churches

10.6.2 Burial Evidence

10.6.3 Holy Wells and Ritual Sites


Case Study: Kiltearn Old Kirk


ScARF Case Study: Re-drawing the Religious Landscape


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