Wham, Scott – The Scottish Parish Kirk: Challenges and Opportunities

Wham, Scott – The Scottish Parish Kirk: Challenges and Opportunities

By Scott Wham

All of us are aware of the many challenges facing church buildings across Europe as a result of aging and declining congregations as well as spiralling maintenance and energy costs. In addition to these common issues Scotland’s 4000 church buildings face a number of particular challenges arising from an interesting mixture of historical and geographical factors. Whilst these have contributed to a very rich and diverse ecclesiastical heritage they have also left a legacy of widespread duplication, and consequential redundancy and decay. In recent years various strategies have been employed to address these challenges such as the exploration of extended use, faith tourism and development of innovative approaches towards energy management.

Fig. 1 - Iona Abbey – Roots Design Workshop

Fig. 1 – Iona Abbey – Roots Design Workshop

Scotland has an eclectic mix of ecclesiastical architecture from medieval chapels and exquisite Celtic abbeys (fig. 1) to simple understated post-reformation kirks and an impressive selection of Classical and Gothic Victorian churches. The Reformation of course was to have the most profound impact upon the architecture of the Scottish parish kirk. With the focus shifted from the altar and the celebration of the mass, to the pulpit and the teaching tradition, kirks essentially became large auditoria designed to maximise all who could hear the word. The existing east-west orientated medieval chapels where easily adapted to this purpose by the addition of a north aisle and as such the familiar form of the T-plan kirk was born. Accommodating the pulpit, the south wall became the focus of attention with new flanking windows flooding the space with light, both physically and metaphorically.

The symmetrical T-plan ‘Parliamentary Churches’ designed by the famous Scottish engineer and architect Thomas Telford (1757-1834) provide the clearest illustration of this new form.  32 were constructed through an Act of Parliament of 1824 to improve church provision in remote parishes across the highlands and islands. The £1500 cost of each church was met by the ’Thanksgiving for Peace’ fund which was set up following the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). Of the 32 built only 24 remain and of them only 11 still serve as churches. Portnahaven Parish Church on the Hebridean island of Islay (figs. 2 & 3), constructed in 1828, is one of the finest examples remaining in original unaltered condition. The churches are attractive in their simplicity, being noticeably bereft of many of the traditional decorative features.


Fig. 2 - Portnahaven Parish Church in Islay – author’s own

Fig. 2 – Portnahaven Parish Church in Islay – author’s own

Fig. 3 - Portnahaven Parish Church in Islay – author’s own

Fig. 3 – Portnahaven Parish Church in Islay – author’s own

Over subsequent years the national reformed Presbyterian church was to face a number of schisms, the most famous of which being the Great Disruption of 1843 which saw the established Church of Scotland split over the issue of state interference in Kirk matters and of the ordination of ministers (at the time the laird still reserved the right to call). The split resulted in the walkout of 474 minsters (one third) from the General Assembly to form the Free Church of Scotland. Overnight the number of congregations effectively doubled and new buildings were rapidly erected, often in close proximity to the existing parish kirk. By 1900 the Free Church of Scotland had united with the United Presbyterian Church to become the United Free Church which subsequently rejoined the Church of Scotland again in 1929. The church now had to find a means of either accommodating or disposing of this vast increase in property, a task complicated by the natural reluctance of congregations to lose their own building and identity. The legacy of this and other denominational unions is still very much being felt today with congregational unions an inevitable outcome.

Duplication was equally encouraged by the construction through local petition of ‘Chapels of Ease’ intended to reduce the travel distance to the parish kirk. Church building increased again in Victorian times when they were very much perceived as community status symbols. This period saw Scottish church architecture shift away from the sedate simplicity of the traditional parish kirk with a proliferation of Classical, Gothic and Romanesque styles, each a statement of denominational identity or indeed the local landowner or subscriber’s wealth.

Understandably into the 20th century with improved means of travel, not to mention large scale urban repopulation, this concentration of church buildings could not be sustained. Many were demolished as part of traffic management and regeneration schemes and yet others simply left to decay. Glasgow in particular saw the greatest loss of church buildings with no architectural monument, however precious, safe from the city’s struggle to transform itself from a once mighty Victorian industrial powerhouse to a clean modern car friendly metropolis. This modernisation agenda was often pursued with undue zeal.  Indeed no less than 20 churches were demolished as a direct consequence of the construction of the M8 motorway and associated urban regeneration schemes, which somewhat unceremoniously carved through large swathes of the city centre during the 1960s and 70s. This map of the city centre illustrates the true extent of the destruction across the city centre (fig. 4).

Fig. 4 - Glasgow City Centre Churches Past and Present – Glasgow City Council

Fig. 4 – Glasgow City Centre Churches Past and Present – Glasgow City Council

In securing the future of this heritage the most obvious strategy available is to increase the occupancy of these buildings through extended use, in other words to combine church, community and cultural functions. This is far from a new concept and is indeed a return to the historical use of churches which served as the first true community centres providing for the full range of community needs.  This extended use helps to reduce the burden of maintenance and running costs on the congregation.Glasgow, although not possessing the most sympathetic attitude towards its church buildings at times, has in many ways been at the forefront of the development of extended use. In the heart of the city the impressive J T Emmett gothic masterpiece of Renfield St. Stephens (figs. 5 & 6) dating from 1852 was converted into a conference centre and café space in the 1960s with the sanctuary space retained for worship.  The city also provides over 50 examples of successful alternative uses for redundant church buildings from music venues and theatres to hotels and offices.

Fig. 5 - Renfield St. Stephens Church in Glasgow - John Gair

Fig. 5 – Renfield St. Stephens Church in Glasgow – John Gair

Fig. 6 - Renfield St. Stephens Church in Glasgow - John Gair

Fig. 6 – Renfield St. Stephens Church in Glasgow – John Gair

With 80% of the country’s population of 5 million people living in the urbanised central belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland has always been predominately rural. Of course rural churches face their own particular set of challenges to those of urban congregations. The Hebridean Isle of Islay provides an excellent case study of these issues. Islay is the southernmost of the Hebrides and measures roughly 25 miles by 20 miles. Christianity reached Islay in the 6th century and missionaries established a number of chapels to serve the growing population of the island before they travelled onwards to Iona. As such Islay is a very important location for early Christianity in Scotland with the island boasting 17 wonderfully preserved carved crosses, the earliest of which date from the 8th century. The population, the majority of whom lived in crofting communities scattered across the island, reached a high of over 15,000 in 1830 but like many highland and island communities Islay suffered a huge depopulation due to emigration and forced clearances (fig. 7). Today its population, which is sustained largely on fishing, farming and the whisky industry, is nearer 3,500. Serving such a large and scattered population required a substantial number of church buildings, and over the centuries there have been are no less than 58 chapels/churches on the island. Of these, only 8 are still in use as places of worship. This rural depopulation has created a number of isolated and seemingly detached churches such as Kilchoman Parish Church on the Hebridean Island of Islay (fig. 8). Following the decline of the local crofting population 4822 in 1841 to only 1081 by 1951 the church was left 8 miles from the nearest village.

Fig. 7 – Rural Depopulation in Islay – author’s own

Fig. 7 – Rural Depopulation in Islay – author’s own

Fig. 8 – The former Kilchoman Parish Church in Islay – author’s own

Fig. 8 – The former Kilchoman Parish Church in Islay – author’s own

Hope may lie in the growth of ‘faith tourism’ which has seen the re-establishment of a number of historic pilgrimage routes from pre-reformation times.  One such example is the Whithorn Pilgrim’s Way in Galloway in south-west of the country. This has the attraction of being the cradle of Christianity in Scotland has drawn many visitors to the area since its inception in 1992. There are many other historic routes which could be reinstated and the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum was established in February 2012 to promote the development of new routes. There is further potential for links across Europe with one possibility being the creation of a Celtic trail leading from northern Spain. This faith tourism has the potential to boost fragile rural economies and to some extent contribute to the care of churches. To use Iona as an example, the small Hebridean island attracts in excess of 130,000 visitors each year with 60,000 of these paying admission to the abbey itself.

In rural areas where a significant increase in occupancy simply cannot be achieved, efforts can be focused upon how to reduce the running costs of the buildings. As heating is one of the single biggest drains on rural congregations there are real advantages to be gained from the appropriate application of renewable heating technologies. This approach not only has the potential to drastically reduce heating costs but can also provide a surplus which can be used to provide background heating to protect the building. One such project which is spearheading this approach is the recently launched Cowal Churches Together initiative on the Cowal peninsula in Argyll in the west of the country. The area has a rich Christian heritage dating back to the 6th century with the Celtic saints St. Columba, St. Finan and St. Munn. Today there are 19 active Church of Scotland churches across the peninsula (fig. 9).The initiative identified five key development areas all designed to tackle the diverse challenges posed by life in this rural and remote part of the country. In particular, one of these projects focuses upon the exploration of opportunities for reducing the energy consumption of the buildings and for application of renewable heating and microgeneration technologies. The ultimate aim of the project is to secure the long term future of vulnerable rural congregations and heritage as well as to provide a model for the wider church.

Fig. 9 – Kilmorich Parish Church in the Cowal Peninsula - author’s own

Fig. 9 – Kilmorich Parish Church in the Cowal Peninsula – author’s own

Through all of the changes in the religious and political landscape, the Scottish parish kirk has remained a focal point of urban and rural communities. Whilst over time some of the church’s roles as provider of education and healthcare have been assumed by the state, the church still performs a very important social function, particularly in rural communities where facilities are limited. These buildings therefore retain a social value just as much as a heritage one. There is of course no single solution to the challenges facing our church buildings and our strategy has to be carefully tailored to suit each individual situation. Hopefully we will never again see the level of thoughtless destruction witnessed during the mid 20th century and this rich heritage will be able to be enjoyed well into the future.

Scott is the director of newly established practice Wham Architecture and was recently appointed to develop the Cowal Churches Together project as a pilot study for the wider church. He is also an architect with Roots Design Workshop, a practice based on the Isle of Tiree, where he is part of the design team working on the refurbishment of the residential quarters of Iona Abbey. Scott is a committee member of the Church Buildings Renewal Trust.



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