10.6.1 Churches

Church architecture in Scotland was considered by the National ScARF Modern section (7.4), with information about Highland examples in Hay (1957) and Gifford (1992). The Protestant religion required a new way of preaching, and new layout for churches, where the pulpit was able to be seen. St Duthus Collegiate Church, Tain (MHG8689) preserves one of the earliest pulpits, with parts dating to the 16th century, possibly re-using Pre-Reformation panels (Gifford 1992, 41; Sheila Munro pers comm).

This change in preaching style usually resulted in the churches built before the Reformation moving the pulpit to the middle of the nave, though sometimes galleries were constructed. Some churches had a new wing added or were built to the familiar T-shaped groundplan found in a number of post-Reformation churches. Lofts were often built into these churches too, sometimes with heating and external steps; this allowed lairds to attend in comfort. Roofing was sometimes slate but often heather, and kirk session and presbytery records show frequent reroofing including arrangements for obtaining the materials. Most pre-19th century churches are without architectural ornament, although bellcotes were often added as they were legally required after 1642. Few earlier churches had towers (Gifford 1992, 35ff).

Some classic post-Reformation churches in the Highlands, such as Cromarty East Church (MHG8828) and Old Kiltearn Church (MHG8130; Case Study Kiltearn Old Kirk) in Easter Ross, have been shown to be medieval structures that were converted to T-shaped plans. Alness Old Parish Church, Easter Ross (MHG8124), now unroofed and a building at risk, is also probably a remodelled medieval church, and unusually preserves a possible extension for a carriage house for the local laird. St Andrews, Golspie, Sutherland (MHG10901), is a fine early 18th century T-plan church, later extended to be cruciform in plan. The loft built for the Earls of Sutherland in 1738 offered elaborate architectural flourishes and comfort (Gifford 1992, 579–580).

Alness Old Parish Church and burial ground. Andrew Puls ©The Highland Council

Most surviving Highland churches are from the 19th century or later, and are not only Church of Scotland but also other denominations. In the 1820s and 1830s Thomas Telford was commissioned by Parliament to build churches in the Highlands and Islands, mostly in large parishes where access to the parish church was a problem. A number survive and Datasheet 10.1 records all the Telford designed church and manse buildings, though few remain in use as churches. Telford’s churches and manses are recognisable, being built to a set design (Hackett and Livingston 1984; Maclean 1989; Case Study Thomas Telford in the Highlands; Datasheet 10.1). Some free churches are quite grand, such as Rosskeen Free Church, Auchnagarron, Easter Ross (MHG8031).

Map 10.1 Telford’s Churches and Manses in the Highlands

Use your mouse or touchpad to zoom in and out of the map. Click on the data point for more information about the site and a link to the HER record.

This map is based on the information in Datasheet 10.1 please note that some sites may be missing from the map, for example where there are no co-ordinates for antiquarian finds, so please view the datasheet for the further information).

Plans and elevations of church and manse designs by Telford. ©HES
Telford designed church, Poolewe, Wester Ross. ©Susan Kruse

While the surviving churches are primarily of stone, documentary sources describe timber churches as well, for example at Glen Moriston (Stewart 2003a, 88). Cast iron churches or mission halls (so-called tin churches) survive at Syre, Sutherland (MHG17008), Tomatin, Inverness-shire (MHG49449), Ardaneaskan (MHG60639) and Badcaul, Wester Ross (MHG3341) and Flashader, Skye (MHG52700). Demolished examples are known from Oykell Bridge, Sutherland (MHG51110), Brabsterdorran, Caithness (MHG37092), Achiltibuie, Wester Ross (MHG24786), and Elphin, northwest Sutherland (MHG32212). Churches and other buildings of corrugated iron spread throughout the Highlands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as components were ordered by catalogue and sent up in flat packs, mainly from the Central Belt (Chapter 10.3). They were primarily erected by non-Church of Scotland denominations as relatively inexpensive options, though some, like the Tomatin church, became Church of Scotland after the United Free Church merger in 1929.

A ‘tin church’ at Badcaul, Wester Ross. ©Graham Clark

In the 17th century communion became less frequent, but was an elaborate ceremony. Long communion tables were set up, though these were later replaced by communion pews (Alston 1999, 51). Some survive, for example at Clachan Church Lochbroom (MHG7829), and the Telford church at Croick (MHG7435).

Outdoor pulpits, known as preaching arks or preaching tents, were used in some cases for annual open air communion services, which often attracted large numbers of people. Preaching sites were also used during some of the religious disputes, when congregations left the official church. Few traces remain of these preaching sites, but their locations in the Highlands are preserved in local memories and sometimes even in photographs or sketches. Over 20 are recorded in the Highland HER, and there are contemporary illustrations such as those in Jones (1994). In some cases, caves also appear to have been used, for example at Uamh na Polacher (MHG32058) and Uamh Mor (MHG7958) in Wester Ross and Church Cave on the island of Rona off Skye (MHG3336). In the case of Uamh Mor, the cave was said to have contained a wooden pulpit and benches in 1930, none of which survive now. Church Cave still preserves the rows of stone seating and the stone pulpit. Testpitting by the Scotland’s First Settlers project showed that the site had been used in prehistoric and late medieval times as well (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009).

Church Cave on the island of Rona. ©Scotland’s First Settlers Project

A few Highland preaching arks survive, notably in Edderton Church (MHG21928), Gairloch Museum (used in Shieldaig, Loch Torridon), and the Highland Folk Museum. At Edderton, two folding communion tables and benches as well as a precentor’s table and bench also survive, dated to 1822. Together these would have been heavy to transport, requiring horse and cart (Edderton Old Kirk Preaching Ark). A wooden pulpit was recorded on the 1st edition OS map for Ouchnoire, Badenoch and Strathspey (MHG33656). Other illustrations suggest canvas tents were used in the Highlands (Jones 1994); this is confirmed by kirk session records.

Preaching ark from old Edderton Parish Church. ©HES

In order to attend communion, people in the 18th and 19th century needed to obtain a token from a church official. Tokens were made of pewter or lead, with the name or abbreviation of the church and often a date. A large number of Highland examples survive in museums and collections, though few have provenance information, and this information has not been brought together. Metal detecting finds in recent years are providing find contexts, and in some cases are not local; for example, a token for Croick church Sutherland, dated to 1842, was found in Dornoch Wood (and is currently in Historylinks Museum). Nairn museum has a rare survival of a press for making tokens, in this case for Ardclach Church, dated 1791.

Communion token press. ©Susan Kruse
Communion tokens on display at Dunrobin Castle Museum. ©Susan Kruse
Communion tokens on display at Ullapool Museum. ©Susan Kruse

Other historic communion wares are held in museums and with some churches, but there has been little work on these objects in Scotland and the Highlands, and what they can tell us about craftsmanship and patronage (ScARF Modern sections 4.5, 7.4). Kirk session records can supply information on sources in some cases (see Case Study Kiltearn Old Kirk).

Churches also had fittings to ensure offenders were shamed in public. Documentary sources refer to stools of repentance and jougs (iron rings fastened by a chain to a church wall or other support, with the other end to go round the neck of the offender); jougs survive at Cawdor church, Nairnshire (MHG44935). The kirk session and presbytery records provide vivid accounts of these punishments at work. The evidence of surviving objects, as well as documentary records, for the Highlands remains to be gathered.


The provision of a manse was much-prized, making up to a small extent for the low stipends ministers received, at least in the early days. Without a manse or glebe, ministers were hesitant to reside in the parish, and indeed even when available some ministers resided elsewhere for a variety of reasons (Kirk 1986, 40). Manses were often quite large, as parish business was conducted within the manse. A number of former manses survive in the Highlands, though most like the churches are 19th century re-buildings. The manses constructed by Thomas Telford are easily recognised like the Parliamentary churches, constructed to either a two-storey or one-storey pattern (Maclean 1989).

The Telford designed single-storey manse at Croick. ©Susan Kruse


Case Study: Kiltearn Old Kirk


Case Study: Thomas Telford in the Highlands


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