The Church in Stronsay Part 2

By Ian Cooper from his series, Records of a Bygone Age’, published first in The Stronsay Limpet and republished here with permission.

With the difficulty in travelling when roads were very poor or non-existent, a number of other small chapels also existed on Stronsay at various times, usually erected near to larger farms where there would have been more folk to come along to worship or built near the sea where easy access could be made by boat. There is now little to be seen of any of those buildings other than to be remembered in a field name or local folklore.

Grave stones with a view over the bay

In St Peter’s parish, in addition to the two chapels on Papa Stronsay and the parish church west of the village there was also said to be a chapel on Linga Holm, one at Corcabreck (or Kirkabreck) at the back of Whitehall Village, another at Margaret’s Kirk at Clestrain, both now field names, and of course the Chapel of Kildinguie near the famous Well of Kildinguie whose waters, when taken together with dulse from Geo Odin, could reputedly cure all ails but the black Death!

We move on now to the parish of Lady, which covered most of the middle of the island, and it too had its own Parish Church thought to be in the vicinity of the cemetery which lies between Aith and Rothiesholm.

the cemetery from above with lots of gravestones

There was also a chapel site at Quoy Olie near the Bu in Rothiesholm, thought to be where the church of St Olaf stood. In that same area were houses called St Salvator and St Catherine’s and, while there is no record of chapels by that name, this could well have been Church land of which there appeared to be an abundance at that time. With a number of pre-reformation side altars in St Magnus Cathedral dedicated to various saints, including St Catherine and St Salvator, there is a possibility that, if these were in fact church lands, then the rents collected from them could have gone to help fund these altars in the Cathedral.

the gravestones with a raised area leading to a big house in the background

Although there is no indication of where St Nicholas’ Church stood, it too is thought to have been in the near vicinity of a cemetery, this time that of St Nicholas at Holland. There are also a number of other chapels recorded in the parish of St Nicholas: one at Mell’s Kirk near the seal hide at Holland, one at Housebay, one where the farm house of Cleat now stands and another near Kirbuster. Auskerry also lays claim to an ancient chapel near its eastern shore, with the remains of some of the walls still to be seen.

The remains of three Hermitage stack sites are still visible along Stronsay’s rugged east coast: one at Malme, one at Tam’s Castle and one at the Brough of Burgh Head, surely the ultimate destinations for individual solitude and contemplation!

viewed from above the tiny islet with the remains of a rectangular building

It’s plain to see from this that Stronsay’s religious needs were well catered for over a period of many hundreds of years but it is only as we moved toward the second half of the 16th century that records began to be more complete. This was the time of the Reformation, which caused so much strife and violence across Europe, yet seemed to come to Stronsay with something of a whimper rather than with a bang. It is recorded that James Maxwell, who had been serving the island as their Catholic Priest for 20 years, adopted the new form of Protestant worship and served as the island’s minister for a further 30 years!

While the Reformation appeared to cause little strife in Orkney it also appeared to have little effect on the struggle between Church and State as to who should have ultimate control over the island properties and the power, prestige and pounds associated with that.

This was a battle that the Church was eventually set to win as, from around the 16th century onwards, the principle was accepted that the Church in Scotland had a given right to share in the fruits of the land. This developed into a practice where one-tenth of the produce of the fields, known as ‘tithes’ or ‘teinds’ was taken to support the Church within the parish, while the remainder had to provide housing, food, clothing and all the other necessities for the rural population to survive and, in addition, to cover the cost of rents to the landlord. This legally enforceable payment of the share of the produce was originally often paid in grain or meal but, if it had been a poor farming year or the tenants were facing hard times then there would be no surplus to fund the teinds, with the inevitable result that their collection could be fraught with difficulty.

One such time was recorded in 1670 when an action was raised in the Sherriff Court by William Douglas of Egilsay against Edward Colville of Housbie, John Linklett in Clett, Oliver Rowsay in Quoyis and Magnus Keldallie in Housbie among others, where Mr Douglas complained that those debtors and many others from the estate

“to the number of three score and above” had come to stop him from collecting his parsonage teinds of Housbie “armed with great birkin kaiberis, fork schafts, flailes and other great tries, and the women with boagies full of coackll shells and stones for the scareing of the horses, with the which tries the whole men threatened to strick and abuse the same complainer and his servands and in effect accomplished the samyne, to the effusion of the said complainer’s servand blood in great quantities, by and attour many bauch and blea stroaks which they received upon thaire bodies. Lykas the foirnamed persones woemane did also accomplish thaire design in scareing the horse who came to transport and awat cairie the saids personage teynds, and in beating and stricking the said complainer his servands with many great stones which they threw at them, and in teareing of thaire clothes to thaure great hurt and prejudice”

the fertile fields around Housebay

Although the language is archaic and the meaning of some of the words lost, the gist of their meeting is easily enough understood. There is no record of the outcome of this case but non-payment of teinds, whether through inability to pay or through long-held principle, was to continue causing problems for as long as the system was in place.

As time passed this gathering of teinds in kind was converted into a standard monetary value, to be paid instead of with produce. By the 1920s the funding of ministers’ stipends directly by teinds came to an end, with the central church in Edinburgh collecting funds from each congregation’s free will offerings and then paying the minister directly, although the teinds were still shown on any title deeds as a burden on the estate and liability to pay it was transferred along with the property whenever it was sold.

front page of the teind roll

By the 1970s, with the method of financing Ministry within parishes long changed and the value of teinds having never been increased for generations, they were hardly worth the expense of collection. With the total teinds for the whole of Stronsay worth less than £200, the Church was encouraging landowners to buy out or ‘extinguish’ the burden of their teinds charge for a set sum, usually between six and seven times their annual value, and this was taken up by most landowners at that time. Following an Act of Parliament in 2004, all teinds were finally extinguished and are no longer of any legal significance, with no mention of them now required in any Title Deeds to a property.

Returning now to the 17th century, the Protestants were slowly gaining more control over their own destiny but all was far from sweetness and light. Disputes arose about what form this new religion should take, with the Episcopalian vicars imposed on the congregations by the bishops not always finding favour and a growing Presbyterian movement looking to have more say in who should be appointed as preacher but, even within that movement, differences of opinion were emerging on how Scripture should be interpreted and worship conducted.

The first minister in Stronsay under the new Presbyterian authority appears to have been Rev John Cobb, ordained as such to the Stronsay Church in 1696. As he had only recently transferred away from the authority of the Episcopacy, his appointment found little favour with Stronsay’s Episcopalians, who were in the greater part well-to-do landowners. They apparently continued to bear a long-standing grudge against him, leading Rev Cobb to note that, when he sought to transfer to the parish of St Andrews and Deerness in 1700, some of his parishioners “shaking off all fear of God, have wished the Devil go with me, and called me knave and wretch in their ordinary discourse.” This was certainly less than a fond farewell from some of his congregation but hopefully not a view shared by all!

The Episcopalian traditions of the new Protestant church continues to be gradually overtaken by Presbyterianism, and in 1707 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland set up as an overseeing body the Presbytery of the North Isles which, with the Presbytery of Kirkwall and the Presbytery of Cairston, meant there were now three Presbyteries in Orkney.

By 1719 the Presbytery had appointed Rev John Scollay, a Stronsay man who had been born at Hunton in 1686 and who had been Master of Kirkwall Grammar School for the previous 8 years, as Minister of Stronsay.

Local tradition and folklore has it that when Rev Scollay came back to Stronsay in 1719 the Town Clerk’s daughter, Miss Helen Orem, accompanied him “to make him more comfortable”, firstly as his housekeeper and later as his wife. It is always a shame to spoil a good story so I was quite disappointed to discover that, when they moved to Stronsay in 1719, she had apparently been making him comfortable for some time as by then they had been married for six years and had three children!

There is no reason to doubt the rest of the story though, where we are told that she disliked the location of the Manse, situated down in the valley, and picked out a new site for a house on the brow of the hill above Hunton near where Yearnasetter now stands. This new building never materialised, although the spot was known ever afterwards as ‘Orem’s Fancy’ and the good wife known locally as ‘Lady Orem’. Many years later a house was built on that same site and adopted the name of Orem’s Fancy.

dilapidated cottage

It was perhaps no surprise that Mrs Scollay (‘Lady Orem’) was less than satisfied with the Manse as it appears that little money had been spent on maintenance of Church (of which in theory there would still have been one in each parish) and Manse over the previous number of years and it was reported that in 1724, by which time John Scollay would have been five years into his ministry, “the whole three kirks are intirely demolished. The Glory of God and the good of the Souls of the Inhabitants is what is denied, and our Minister hath been exposed these four years to the greatest hazard in preaching under the open heaven.”

While it was painfully obvious that Stronsay was in desperate need of a new church it was to be a further 20 years before this new kirk was to be built, too late for John Scollay who had died in 1741 but much appreciated by his son Robert who succeeded him as parish minister until he too died in 1761.

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