The Church in Stronsay Part 3

By Ian Cooper, from his Records of a Bygone Age Published in The Stronsay Limpet.

Last month we left Rev John Scollay after he had submitted a report in 1724 to the effect that, in reference to his charge of the three parishes within Stronsay, “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.”

It seems little heed was paid to his report until, in April 1737, Rev Scollay was apparently reimbursed for repairs previously carried out to the church roof and walls by one James Chalmers.

Receipt for repairs to the church roof in April 1737

This shows 1,000 slates, together with carriage from Eday to Stronsay, at a cost of £10, 6 barrels of lime costing £3-12/- and one meil bere valued at £1-7/- paid to James Chalmers for carrying out the repairs to the church. A meil weighed 133lbs, or around
60kgs, and this would have been of bere meal, made from the old Orkney type of bere barley. This ‘payment in kind’ for work done would have been quite common at that time, where the ‘ordinary’ folk would have had little use for cash. It seems strange that slates were freighted from Eday for use in Stronsay but it may be that these slates had been salvaged from an existing building in Eday.

When John Scollay died in 1741 he was succeeded by his son Robert Scollay who ministered to the island congregation until his death in 1763 at the age of 46. The next incumbent was Rev Robert Tyler who was appointed to the post in 1764, a post he held until his death in 1779 at the age of 47.

It was during Rev Tyler’s ministry that, in 1766, a new Manse was built which, with two large rooms and a closet on both the ground and first floors and a garret and lumber room in the attic, seemed to be perfectly adequate for Rev Tyler at the time but failed to find favour with the next incumbent as we will see later!

This next minister was Rev John Anderson, who served from 1779 until 1804 and it was he who achieved some fame for the writing of the Stronsay section of the 1795 ‘Statistical Account of Scotland’, a comprehensive and insightful snapshot of the island at that time, together with some of its history and folklore.

frontispiece of the Stronsay section of the statistical account
The beginning of John Anderson’s wide-ranging Statistical Report

Rev Anderson’s ministry was not without conflict, mostly with the Church Heritors who were in charge of the church properties and the purse strings. Most of the disputes centred around the condition of the Manse, which had only been built in 1766, and the associated Glebe farm buildings erected around the same time. Soon after his appointment to Stronsay in 1779 (this, remember, was only 13 years after these buildings had been erected) Rev Anderson sent a report and complaint to Presbytery regarding the condition of the buildings, declaring that “In 1766 the Heritors, without the authority of the North Isles Presbytery, built a Manse for the Rev Robert Tyler which was not only inferior in its size to the legal standard but built of materials of the worst kind, particularly in mortar in place of lime and wood sclates of the worst quality, and the work itself was carried on in the slightest and meanest slovenly manner, and that the office houses and garden then built and laid were so insufficiently finished and made up that they had become totally ruinous previous to the year 1779”

Nothing is known of the Presbytery’s response to this report but, over the next few years, Rev Anderson was to send numerous estimates to the Heritors for the necessary repairs to the property, while the Heritors consistently refused to authorise the work.

In October 1782 this apparently led to Rev Anderson climbing to the top of the byre in a fit of rage and there “in a most violent manner tore off and threw to the ground the whole feals or divots with which the said byre was finished and topped in the usual manner whereby the thatch was in danger of being destroyed and carried away by wind and weather”.

Disputes between Minister and Heritors seemed to continue throughout Rev Anderson’s ministry and by 1796 he was suing the Heritors for non-payment of teinds, this time with more success, as his demands appeared to be met with little objection and the arrears quickly paid. There is no record of whether his demands for improvements to the Manse were ever met and it was to be nigh on 40 years before a new Manse was built.

Rev Anderson was followed in 1804 by Rev Andrew Dishington, who had some time previously served as an assistant minister in Stronsay and was apparently well liked.

It was during this time of ministry by John Anderson and Andrew Dishington in the Established Church that the newly formed breakaway Secession Church began to take a stronger hold in Stronsay. A few Stronsay residents had been attending the new secession meetings in Kirkwall and came back to the island determined to promote this new church to the folk of Stronsay. They were fortunate in this aim in being able to recruit Rev James Wilson, a Fife man who had completed his ministerial studies not long before. Rev Wilson had been newly appointed as pastor to a church in Kentucky but had time to fill before he moved to America to take up that post, and he was accompanied to Stronsay by one Magnus Anderson, an Orcadian catechist and evangelist. In 1798/99 they rapidly established themselves and the new secession movement in the island and by 1800/1801 a new church to seat 391, together with a new manse, had been built in the south-east of the island midway between the Ha’ and Roadside at a cost of £400. This new church, manse and glebe was given the name of Mansefield and was only the second Secession Church to have its own place of worship in Orkney, Kirkwall being the first.

The building in  a poor state with no glass in the windows and gaping holes in the roof

The congregation now needed a permanent minister and, having been most impressed by Rev Wilson, they implored him to stay. He must have felt that this was to be his calling as, with all thoughts of Kentucky now forgotten he quickly accepted this invitation and, on 25th June 1800, was ordained and inducted to the Stronsay charge. He had a very successful ministry until being overtaken by ill health, thought to have been brought on by his walking around visiting his flock in all weathers. Sadly he was to quickly succumb to this illness and died in 1812 while still a young man.

There is a tale worth the telling of Rev Sinclair’s one-time assistant, the aforementioned catechist and evangelist Magnus (or Mansie) Anderson. Mansie was a man of Shetland extraction, a pious God-fearing man full of Christian zeal and fervour and one day, so the story goes, Mansie had urgent need to travel from Kirkwall back to Stronsay but found that no boat was available. Mansie, no doubt thinking of St Peter of old’s attempt to walk on the water only to be thwarted by his lack of faith, decided that he should attempt to get to Stronsay by this same method. His heroic effort soon came to grief as he found himself sinking rather than walking and, looking behind him to where the long swallow-tails of his coat were visible floating on top of the water, was heard to cry out “O Mansie, Mansie, there’s more faith in your coat-tails than in yersel!” Fortunately Mansie was none the worse for his failed attempt but no doubt would have stuck to more conventional means for inter-island travel ever after!

Returning now to the Established Church, after Rev Dishington demitted his charge in 1820 Rev John Simpson was appointed in September that same year, a post he was to hold for 27 years. He had been only a few months in his new post when, in February 1821, a report into the condition of the church building was given by the Presbytery of the North Isles. This stated that they found the church to be utterly ruinous and irreparable and, in consequence condemned the building. They went on to give instruction for a new church to be built, this to be completed by June the following year.

A contract was soon entered into with builder James Firth, who undertook to have the building wind and waterproof by October that year and to be completely finished by the following June. The total cost was to be £399, half of which was to be paid at the commencement of building, a quarter when roof, windows and doors were fitted and the final quarter upon completion and acceptance by the congregation. The site chosen for the new building, to be known as St John’s Church and to be capable of seating 500, was near the shores of the Mill Bay where the farm of Linkshouse now stands. This new church was to be built in the traditional old style, with an entrance on either end, each with a balcony above. One wall of the church was windowless and it was in the middle of this wall that the pulpit was situated.

the church when it was in use and the church now as a barn
the well maintained interior of ST Johns Church now used as a barn

Life for John Simpson wasn’t without its problems, one of which was obtaining enough water to supply the needs of the manse and provide water to the stock he kept on the Glebe land. A supply through the winter could be obtained by collecting rainwater and drawing from supplies nearby but these all dried up throughout the summer. Despite several attempts at digging and quarrying wells to a depth of anything from 18 to 32 feet, a water supply to meet this summer need couldn’t be found and the practice was for the Manse needs to be met by carting water from what was known as the Bleaching well on land belonging to Whitehall Farm, at the side of the Ayre of the Myres loch.

In 1822 Whitehall was taken into the possession of Samuel Laing, the same Samuel Laing who was the main instigator of the Stronsay herring fishing industry. Samuel set about carrying out improvements to the farm, during which the roads and access to the Bleaching well were destroyed by ploughing and the building of dykes to partition off his fields. It appears that any further access to the well by Rev Simpson was denied and this led to his considering taking Mr Laing to court to gain a right of servitude to the well. Documents regarding this are held in the Orkney Library Archives and, in these papers, Rev Simpson’s property was called the ‘Glebe of Spurquoy’, a name I had never heard of for that land and a name that has long been forgotten. The advice received was that, although he would probably win a court battle to gain access to the well, this would be expensive and it was suggested that, as Mr Laing was one of the wealthier Heritors of the church, every attempt should be made to reach an amicable agreement. Nothing more is heard of this dispute so it seems this agreement must have been achieved.

Although apparently a good preacher and well enough liked by his congregation, it was thought by some that he spent too much time farming his Glebe land and not enough tending to his flock. This may have been part of the reason that members of Rev Simpson’s Established Church congregation were gradually drifting away to the new Secession (later United Presbyterian) Church and, by the mid-1830s, it was reported that only around 30 were attending the Established Church while around 300 were attending the Secession Church.

In 1834, despite lack of numbers attending church, a new Manse was built in the same location as the previous one and, perhaps finally paying some heed to Rev Anderson’s demands 50 years previously, this was a most impressive and capacious three storey building, complete with a range of outhouses and a number of fields enclosed by drystane dykes. This continued to be the Established Church manse until their union with the United Free Church in 1929. It then stood empty for nigh on eighty years and, with some of the roof blowing off in the hurricane of 1952, it slowly deteriorated until it was bought in 2006 and completely renovated and restored. It’s great to see this historic old building returned to its former glory and it has now been occupied as a lovely family home since its completion in 2012.

The manse as a ruin then completely restored

Although delighted with his new manse, in that same year of 1834 there was to be another blow to Rev Simpson’s already dwindling church. There was apparently quite a strong Methodist presence on Stronsay, particularly among the fishing community, a good number of whom had emigrated from Fair Isle to set up home on Stronsay. Some of those fishermen asked for Stronsay to be included on the Methodist preaching rota and this was done, with the powerful evangelical preacher Samuel Dunn visiting Stronsay a number of times. As time passed he was followed by an equally eloquent and inspiring evangelist named Thomas Collins who was soon to be appointed as the full time preacher for this newly formed Wesleyan Methodist congregation. Numbers attending quickly grew and, in 1837, a new chapel was erected near Yearnasetter as their place of worship. This new building, which cost £270 to build, had a seating capacity of 418 and was of simple stone construction with a grey slate hip roof, quite an unusual style of building for an Orkney church.

The chapel proved to be highly successful for a time but when Mr Collins left the island to return to England it seems that the congregation soon declined, with some members returning to the United Free Church and others heading to the Established Church led by its new Minister Joseph Caskey.

As numbers attending had fallen to a point where the congregation was no longer financially viable, the remainder of the Wesleyan flock handed the building over to the Free Church of Scotland who gratefully accepted the building. It soon became apparent to them that there was to be no realistic hope of setting up a branch of the Free Church in Stronsay and, with ongoing maintenance and feu duties to be paid on the building, they too vacated it. From a report in the Orkney Herald of June 1860 it appears that it was then used for a time by the Stronsay Branch of the Total Abstinence Society which had formed in September the previous year with a membership of 106 and of these, from that time until the date of the report, “two only of whom have proved recreants to the cause.” This too seemed to be quite a short-lived use of the chapel and in 1864 the building was handed over to the newly formed Stronsay branch of the Orkney Artillery Volunteers as a meeting place and Volunteer Drill Hall.

With the erection of a new Drill Hall for the Volunteers in 1886 (later to become what is now the Community Centre) the chapel once again became redundant and was bought by the nearby farm of Yearnasetter, to be used as a barn for many years. In the 1980s there was a change of use again, with a large door formed on the east end so that it could be used as a farm implement store.

Finally in 2012 it changed ownership once more, with it being lovingly and sympathetically renovated, restored and converted into a Craft Centre.

The building as a barn then restored as a craft centre

With the Established Church minister John Simpson’s retiral through old age and ill health in 1847 a new minister was needed for Stronsay and this came in the form of Irishman Rev Joseph Caskey, who was to have a long, stabilising and effective ministry where he built up the number of members attending his church to something near to those attending the United Presbyterian one. In 1861 the church was extensively altered and repaired, with the costs all covered by members of the congregation. More alterations were carried out in 1896, funded by subscriptions amounting to £25 from members of the congregation. This included the formation of choir seats in front of the pulpit, the Precentor’s desk being removed and a new harmonium purchased.

The use of musical instruments for worship in Presbyterian churches had been shunned for centuries, with singing being led by the Precentor giving a starting note and leading off with no musical accompaniment so this move to demote the Precentor and lead singing with the harmonium would have been seen as a fairly radical move at the time.

Rev Caskey celebrated his golden jubilee in Stronsay in 1897, eventually retiring to Kirkwall in November 1900 where he died four years later.

He was succeeded by Rev W B Dempster who soon afterwards fell into poor health whereupon Rev Walter J Mathams was called to be his assistant. Rev Mathams is still remembered as the composer of several hymns, including ‘Jesus, Friend of Little Children, be a Friend to me’, and it was also he who penned the poignant poem ‘The Wreck of the Evangeline’ telling the tragic tale of the herring drifter Evangeline, lost with all hands on Stronsay in January 1905.

Back now to the Secession Church, soon to become the United Presbyterian Church, where in 1825 Rev James Mudie from Dundee had been appointed as its new minister. 173 members had signed the call to him but only 13 years later the membership had risen to 368.

By 1858 funding had been found and plans were in place for a new church, by now United Presbyterian, to be built in the middle of the island to replace the old church and manse at Mansefield in the south-east of the island.

The foundations of this new building were laid on Monday 26th April that year when, at 9 o’ clock that morning, Rev Mudie began a Service of Worship at the site, which included the laying of the foundation stone, and immediately after this service the masons started building. The plans also included the building of a new Manse, which was to begin within the next few days, and the total combined cost of both buildings was estimated to be just under one thousand pounds.

The Building Committee in charge of the works were Robert Chalmers, miller, Mill of Millfield, William Meil, tailor, Peter Shearer, merchant, Feastown and John Meil, postmaster, Samson’s Lane. The contractors for the building work were Master Masons James Davie of Stronsay and John Halcro of Kirkwall together with Journeyman masons Peter Inkster, James Dick, Joseph Bews, James Clouston, John Isbister and John Wilson, all of Kirkwall. Master joiners were James Chalmers from Stronsay and William Peace from Kirkwall.

The church and the manse looking good

In 1860 Rev James Mudie, no longer physically able to minister, was forced to retire and it was said that ‘after 35 years of incessant toil on behalf of his people he became an old man in labours, if not quite so in years’. Sadly he never regained his health and died and was buried in Stronsay, his home for so many years, in 1863.

Part 4 will be in next month.

The history of the church in Scotland after 1560 is quite complex as shown by the diagram below. See for a larger, more readable version of the diagram

flow chart

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