The Church in Stronsay – Part 4

By Ian Cooper , from his series ‘Records of a Bygone Age in the Stronsay Limpet and republished here with their kind permission.

Rev John Thomson had been appointed as an assistant to James Mudie’s United Presbyterian church near the end of his ministry and, following Rev Mudie’s death in 1861, was himself ordained and inducted as minister before moving on to Edinburgh five years later. He was followed by Rev John Wilson in 1867 who in turn was followed by Rev David Buchanan in 1873.

It seems that at this time the secession church had been funding and running a school for the island children for some years, with two male and one female teachers. With the introduction of the Education Act of 1872 which made education compulsory, this duty was handed over to the School Board the following year. The female who had been teaching there was Peterina Peace who was to be appointed as the first teacher at the newly built South School in 1874 and continued to teach there for over 30 years.

Rev Buchanan was reputedly a good preacher, well-liked by most of his parishioners, and his stipend was soon raised to £180 but payment of this soon began to fall into arrears. He was apparently inclined to ‘the making of ill-judged statements from the pulpit’ and this led to some of his congregation, presumably some of those who bore the brunt of these ill-judged statements, making a charge against him to Presbytery. Rev Buchanan offered his resignation providing that his stipend arrears, by then over £200, would be paid in full and this seemed to result in a reasonably amicable parting of the ways.

The next incumbent was 29 year old Lanarkshire born Claude Brownlie who was ordained and inducted to the UP Church in March 1885, marking the beginning of a period of long and successful ministry which was to last 35 years.

On the left is Rev Claude Brownlie, his wife Louisa and three of their five children: William, Margaret and Claude. William joined the army with the Royal Scots and was killed 
in Gallipoli in 1915. On the right is Rev Brownlie in his later years
On the left is Rev Claude Brownlie, his wife Louisa and three of their five children: William, Margaret and Claude. William joined the army with the Royal Scots and was killed in Gallipoli in 1915. On the right is Rev Brownlie in his later years

There seems to have been a thriving congregation in this church, due no doubt in large part to the efforts of Rev Brownlie. Nearing the end of the 19th century, with the centenary of the foundation of the secession church in Stronsay fast approaching, ambitious plans were put in place and implemented to mark this centenary. By far the biggest of these plans was to be the erection of a new Church Hall and associated rooms, with the ground for this measured off by James Sinclair of Hazelbank on 18th June 1900, while the first sods were cut that same day by David Cock junior of Linkshouse and Edward Sinclair of Orem’s Fancy. The vigorous fund raising for this and other works had been going on for some time and in 1900 and through into 1901 the church was plastered, the roof repaired, a new belfry and trefoil fitted to the gable ends of the church and improvements made to the Manse and surrounding walls. During this same period the new Church Hall to seat 150, a vestry, a library and a ladies room were all built adjoining the church.

Here is Rev Brownlie with the Kirk Session of the United Free Church, taken in 1901.
In the back row are: Robert Miller Coweshouse; James Cooper, Furrowend; Tom Scott, 
Dale; James Smith, Midhouse; James Chalmers, Rosebank.
In the front row are: James Shearer, Sunnybank; Tom Peace, Comelybank; Rev Claude 
Brownlie, Manse; James Miller, Mansefield; Oliver Drever, Bay.

The celebrations themselves began at the church service of Sunday 4th August 1901, followed by gatherings in the church and hall on the 6th where Miss Sinclair, a photographer from Kirkwall, took photos of a number of the church groups and organisations. The main celebration started at 3.00 pm on the 7th, with a service attended by a great number of the island population and also several past ministers of the church. This was also the official opening of the new Memorial Hall and Miss Sinclair gathered all present outside for a commemorative photo. The day’s events finished off with a lavish supper in the church and new hall and the week of celebration ended with a communion service on Sunday 11th.

During the same period that the new Church Hall was being planned and built the United Presbyterian Church and the Free Church amalgamated to form the United Free Church of Scotland, a change that made little difference to the congregation or minister of their church in Stronsay.

This is a photograph taken at the opening of the new Hall in 1901 and, although this reproduction does it no favours, it is quite a clear photo. Amazingly there is also a list of 
names for most of the folk in this photo
This is a photograph taken at the opening of the new Hall in 1901 and, although this reproduction does it no favours, it is quite a clear photo. Amazingly there is also a list of names for most of the folk in this photo

Mention was made previously of the short-lived Methodist congregation in Stronsay, the origins of which could be linked to the fishing community in Stronsay. This connection between fisher folk and religion was seldom more apparent than during the herring fishing boom in Stronsay from the mid-19th century until the late 1930s. During this time, for the summer months of the herring season, the population of Stronsay could be swelled by up to 5,000 folk, with approaching 2,000 fisher lasses, in excess of that number of fishermen and a large number of coopers, stevedores, coalmen and ancillary workers supplying the needs of around 18 curing stations on Stronsay and Papa Stronsay. To cater for this migrant population’s needs, both physical and spiritual, a number of organisations and individuals provided their services, many of those in low cost purpose built buildings.

Some of the steam drifters jostling for a berth at one of the Stronsay piers. 
This was part of the fleet that, together with the fisher lasses, transformed Stronsay for a  few months every year.

At Helmsley, near the top of the Village, Sister Wray and two assistant nurses ran a sick bay and rest hut funded by the Scottish Episcopal Church. In a March 1927 report of the work carried out there the previous season it was explained that this Mission Church aimed to follow the herring workers from place to place, establishing ‘Centres’ under the care of skilled church workers. The centres were described as a type of club, the main features of which were holding Mission services, providing rest rooms and carrying out First Aid work. In addition to this, visits were paid to the sick and others, lodgings found where needed and help given in many ways ‘too numerous to mention’. In the Centre at Stronsay the previous season it was reported that Sister Wray and her colleagues had paid 148 visits to people in need of their services and applied an amazing 2,934 surgical dressings in the course of their work, with a cost to the church of around £650.

At this time the Episcopalian centre of worship in Stronsay was the lovely St Ninian’s Chapel, one of five ‘Mission Stations’ in Orkney overseen by St Olaf’s Episcopal Church in Kirkwall and known locally as the ‘English Kirk’. This chapel stood between
houses of Cedarbank and Glenfield and church services were held there regularly.

Saint Ninian’s Chapel (the ‘English’ Kirk), a simple wooden hut but beautifully decorated 
internally. It blew away in the hurricane of 1952.

Further down the village, near the Kildiguie Hall, there was a wooden chapel with a rest hut alongside owned and run by the Home Mission of the Church of Scotland, with a similar but smaller chapel and rest hut on Papa Stronsay managed by the United Free Church. It was said that the chapel in the village was absolutely packed for Sunday night services with the fisher lasses and drifter men, many of whom came from Scotland’s East Coast where there was a strong religious and musical tradition, combining to raise the roof with their singing of the old Sankey hymns in four part harmony.

Reports suggest that this chapel was badly damaged or perhaps blew away completely in a storm in 1936 although this is unclear but anyhow that same year the Home Mission entered into negotiations with the Trustees of the Balfour Estates to purchase a larger feu for the erection of a chapel on the same site as the former one. This was agreed and a more spacious block-built chapel was built, on the same site but further away from the public road, and opened there the following year, proving every bit as popular as the old one.

In addition to this religious provision Stronsay was visited regularly by Westray born colporteur Thomas Groat who held regular services in church and chapel, also visiting throughout the island distributing bibles and religious tracts during his stay.

A number of travelling Evangelists also visited regularly during the herring season, holding services in halls, stores or chapel as the need and opportunity arose. One of the more regular visitors was Harry Young, reputedly ‘an able, earnest and enthusiastic preacher’ who travelled throughout Scotland holding meetings in the early years of the 20th century. His services were held in a tent in Whitehall Village and were apparently well remembered by all those attending.

On the left is Colporteur Thomas Groat and his wife Elizabeth. Tom was a nephew of 
James Groat of Windbreck in Stronsay. On the right is an advertising slip for evangelist 
Harry Young’s ‘Tent Mission’ meetings held all over the north of Scotland.

With the demise of the herring fishing in 1939 there was little need for a number of the above mentioned buildings so the rest hut and sick bay run by Sister Wray and her colleagues at Helmsley were sold to become a family home.

St Ninian’s Chapel (the ‘English Kirk’) continued in regular use until 1952 when, on 15th January, Orkney was struck by a terrific hurricane from the south-west and the chapel was torn bodily from its foundations, with most of it finishing up ‘in the ebb’ near the lifeboat slip more than ½ mile away. The roof was never seen again and much of the contents were strewn along the way to mark its passage as it was hurled along by the wind. The area inside the concrete foundations was later used as a garden and grew the most beautiful flowers and apparently the gardener, on being complimented on the beautiful display, replied “What else did you expect? After all, it is holy ground!”

The chapel and rest hut in Papa Stronsay were both demolished, along with the wooden fisher lasses’ huts there and much of it used to make hen houses to be sold in Stronsay. The Rest Hut alongside the chapel in the Village, which had been used as a
YMCA as well as a rest hut for a time, was used as the base for a Men’s Club for those in the north end of the island, run along the same lines as the South End Men’s Club held in the South School.

On the left is the old rest hut, now a family home named ‘Dunera’, with a rather sorry looking Village Chapel, hopefully soon to be a new Heritage Centre, on the right.
On the left is the old rest hut, now a family home named ‘Dunera’, with a rather sorry looking Village Chapel, hopefully soon to be a new Heritage Centre, on the right.

In 1967 the Church of Scotland’s Home Board, who owned the rest hut, indicated their intent to demolish and sell the building. With this in mind they offered the local Congregational Board the first £40 from the sale plus one third of the remainder of the proceeds from the sale of the materials, providing that the Board agreed to be responsible for the demolition and sale of the building. This was thought to be a generous offer and was accepted by the Board but, in the course of events, the sale went down another route and the building was bought as it stood by William Chalmers of Mirland. He and his wife Gladys converted it into a dwelling house and moved in, renaming it Dunera.

The Chapel, by now of course a solid concrete structure, continued to be used as such with church services held there every Sunday night until the late 1980s. One of my abiding memories as a young lad was attending those Sunday evening services on a dark winter‘s evening where the old Sankey hymns were being sung in harmony to the accompaniment of the old pedal organ, with the Tilley lamps hissing away quietly in the background – an atmosphere never to be forgotten!

This photo, taken in the mid-1980s, shows the interior of the Village Chapel which held  fond memories for me. The Tilley lamps had been replaced by electric light by then, much  more practical but so much less atmospheric

With the chapel no longer being used it was sold in 1991, then sold again a few years later to the Transalpine Redemptorist monks on Papa Stronsay who used it as a library until such time as they erected a purpose built library for their books across in Papa Stronsay. Then, in 2022, the Chapel was sold again, this time to the Stronsay Development Trust and plans are now well advanced to renovate the building and convert it into a Heritage Centre for the island.

Part 5 next month.

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