By Ian Cooper from his series of excellent articles, Records of a Bygone Age, first published in The Stronsay Limpet, and republished here with their kind permission.
In October 1929, the United Free Church (whose place of worship was where the current Church now stands) and the Established Church (who worshipped in the old Church at Linkshouse) united to form the Church of Scotland as it still is today.
Following this union, some of the church property was surplus to requirements and, after condition reports on the two churches and the two Manses, it was agreed that the United Free (Mudie) church and manse near the centre of the island should be retained as the buildings for the united congregation to move forward with. Very soon afterwards the old Established Church Manse, along with the Glebe lands and buildings, were bought and incorporated into the farm of Hunton.
Although the churches had formally united in 1929 they had no minister in post as both former charges had fallen vacant before the Union. Andrew Ireland, a Church of Scotland missionary, was appointed as locum at that time and it was under his leadership that the last church service was held in the old St John’s Church on 6th December 1931. At that same service it was recorded that organist Mrs Lizzie Miller (nee Leslie) played and led the singing, probably on the same harmonium that had been purchased by the congregation in 1896.
The first meeting of the newly united Congregational Board didn’t take place until later that same month, chaired by Presbytery Moderator Rev Alexander. At this meeting head teacher John Drever acted as Session Clerk and William Work of the Lodge was appointed as Clerk to the Board and Church Treasurer. Among the business that evening was a report from locum Mr Ireland, who explained his difficulties in travelling throughout the island to fulfil his duties and it was agreed that he should be supplied with a new bicycle!
The following year a new minister was being sought at a stipend of £400 as agreed in the Plan of Union, although some thought this excessive! It must surely still have been a fairly attractive stipend though as Rev George G Ramage was appointed to the post in July 1932.
Among the first duties of the new minister and his board was to arrange the building of a new wooden stable sheeted with corrugated iron for use by those wishing to stable their horses while attending Church. The cost was agreed to be £4.10/- to purchase a stall there in perpetuity or alternatively 7/6d per year for those wishing the annual rental of a stall for their horse. At this same meeting the inevitable but necessary sub-committee tasked with how best to light the Church also reported back, recommending that 5 Tilley lamps should be sufficient to light the Church and their purchase was agreed. It was also reported that at that time the Church membership (the combined total of the two newly united congregations) stood at 511.
In October of 1936 the now redundant Established Church of St John’s was advertised for sale and three offers came forward. The highest offer of £35 was considered to be too low and no sale was concluded but then, after re-advertisement the following year, an offer of £45 from Mr John Cock, who owned the nearby farm of Linkshouse and wished to use the old building as part of his farm steading, was found to be acceptable.
Very few meetings were held throughout the war years, but the meeting of 29th January 1945 was of particular significance to the Stronsay congregation. It was at this meeting that it was announced that a substantial legacy had been left by the late Alexander Moncur in favour of the Stronsay church. The purpose of this bequest was to build a new church and manse in Stronsay and endow the same building to be a memorial to his mother Eliza Moncur (nee Mudie), who had been born and brought up in Stronsay and always loved the place dearly, and his grandfather Rev James Mudie, who had been the Minister of the United Presbyterian Church in Stronsay from 1825 until not long before his death in September 1863 at the age of 72. The Board expressed their gratitude for this generous gift and indicated their willingness “to transfer their offices and duties to the new place of worship when it is available for public worship.”
Alexander Moncur was the owner of a very successful jute manufacturing company in Dundee originally owned by his father and on his death left a valuable estate, said to be worth in excess of £250,000, most of which was bequeathed to charity. £30,000 of this was left as a legacy to the Church in Stronsay, £20,000 of which was earmarked for the new church and manse with the remaining £10,000 to be an endowment, the interest of which was to be used to help pay the ministers stipend and cover ongoing maintenance of church property. The 2nd World War was still going on at the time of Alexander’s death and a stipulation of the bequest was that it should be utilised within three years of the cessation of hostilities.
Little did Board members realise at the time that it would be more than 10 years before this scheme came to fruition and that the original plans for the church and manse were to be reduced and adapted to what we see today!
1945 was also the year that Stronsay’s former minister Rev Claude Brownlie celebrated his Diamond Jubilee as a minister of the gospel and an island collection was made to mark the occasion. Rev Brownlie, as detailed earlier, had spent the first 35 years of his ministry in Stronsay and the fact that £31 was raised in the difficult post-war period paid tribute to how well-respected and popular a figure he had been.
Rev Ramage moved on to pastures new in 1947 and arrangements had to be made to attract a new minister to the island. It was agreed that a stipend of £400 should be offered, the same amount as had been offered when the charge was last vacant in 1931! By 1950, with no suitable candidate having come forward, the stipend offered was increased to £500 and re-advertised. Soon afterwards an application by Rev EPG Fox, one of quite a number of ex-servicemen who had gone into the ministry after being demobbed, successfully applied for the post and was ordained and inducted to his new charge on Wednesday 28th June 1950.
Philip Fox and his wife Janet quickly settled into island life, with one of Rev Fox’s first duties, on Sunday 6th August, being to baptise a backlog of four infants whose parents had been awaiting the arrival of a minister to have them baptised. To have four babies baptised on the same day on such a small island was something worthy of note, with those infants being Rhoda Margaret Bews, Park of Hunda; Carwin Chalmers Cooper, Wardhill; Peter Dennison, Holin and Margaret Shearer Miller, Gesty.
With Philip and Janet Fox quickly being accepted into the community and Mr Fox being well respected pastorally, things were proceeding smoothly on the home front but trying to bring the plans for the new Church forward was proving to be something of a nightmare for Minister, Session and Presbytery!
The original draft in 1945 was for a church and freestanding round tower modelled on St Magnus Church in Egilsay, to be built with local stone finished with lime pointing, with these plans also incorporating a new hall and a new manse. They were drawn by Edinburgh architect Leslie Graham Thomson, whose designs were said to “make use of strong verticality and a mix of traditional and modern detail”.
This plan was proving to be quite controversial, with a strong local body of opinion querying the need to tear down a perfectly adequate church in the first place! With postwar inflation and other rising costs, it was quickly realised that the original project was unachievable with the money available and the architect was asked to go back to the drawing board and come up with a smaller layout. This new plan was soon prepared, not unlike that originally designed for the church but the tower, the new hall and the manse were all removed from the equation. It was also decided that the walls of the church should be cement rendered rather than finished with pointed stonework.
There was still some doubt over whether such a large building was really what was required in the island and these doubts led to a deputation from Stronsay and Orkney Presbytery going to Edinburgh to meet with Mr Thomson “in the hope of coming to a better understanding” It seems that, with the architect having already scaled his plans back from the grandiose church complex he first envisioned, he was adamant that his plan for the new church should go ahead with no more changes. His view seems to have won the day and the plans for the new Church were adopted and quickly put out to tender.
It is interesting to note that in 1949 the architect Leslie Graham Thomson had married Coline MacDougall, elder daughter of Colonel Alexander James MacDougall who was chief of the Clan MacDougall. As the eldest daughter of the clan chief she inherited the hereditary title of Maid of Lorn and, as there were no male heirs when her father died in 1953, the title of Chief of the Clan MacDougall also fell to her. At this point her husband Leslie changed his surname from Thomson to take on his wife’s name of MacDougall, something very uncommon at that time.
Next month the 6th and final part.