The Church in Stronsay Part 6

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

This was intended to be the final part of the story of the Stronsay Church but I’ve been given some more photos of the demolition of the church which I’ve included here so there will be one more episode yet to come!

With plans for the new church now accepted and Kirkwall contractor Ernest Firth securing the contract for the demolition of the old church and the erection of the new, the congregation met in the old church for the last time on Sunday March 4th 1951, with the builders then moving in on Tuesday 6th. The expectation of the congregation at that time was that the new church would be completed and ready for worship within two years. This new church was to be 20’ longer, 6’ narrower and a little higher than the old building, but with slightly less capacity due to the lack of a gallery as was in the old building. Worship moved to the Church Hall while demolition and building work was going on.

the church being reduced to rubble
These two photos show the demolition of the church. The church gate can be seen in the photo on the right, showing how little space there was between the gate and the old church.

The work progressed well through the summer of 1951 as the old United Free (or Presbyterian) church was demolished to make way for the new Moncur Memorial and, during its demolition, some articles were found within the walls of the old building, no doubt placed there as what we would now call a ‘time capsule’.

These were two missionary magazines, two notebooks and a ‘Tom Thumb’ bottle containing a letter. Sadly, the two notebooks were quite blank due to the writing having faded completely and the two magazines have been lost over the course of time. Fortunately, the bottle is still to the fore, with the remains of some of the builder’s plaster still adhering to it, and the contents of the letter had been recorded before, through time, it too was mislaid or lost. The letter read:

church being demolished with 2 men standing outside
Two further photos of the demolition of the old kirk. The photo on the left shows where the old kirk butted up against the Vestry, which is still in use today.
church being demolished, not much left.
On the left is another view of the demolition, this time from the inside of the old church, with the remains of the tiered, seated balcony of the old church to be seen in the foreground. On the right is the ‘time capsule’ bottle discovered within the walls of the old church

The demolition of the old building progressed quickly but then things ground to a halt and, in early 1952, frustration at the lack of progress led the Stronsay Church Board to make strong approaches to the appropriate Presbytery of Orkney Committee, who were overseeing the project, to ensure work was speeded up on the new building. On 30th April, members of Presbytery and the Stronsay Board met with Mr Firth the contractor, where concern was expressed at the slow progress of the building works, of unfulfilled promises, unpaid accounts and other complaints of unsatisfactory work. The contractor gave an undertaking to make more effort and was given until 1st June to satisfy the Board that work was progressing satisfactorily. Assurance was also given that the Church would be completed and ready to open in 1953, the same year that the coronation of Queen Elizabeth 2nd was to take place.

Over the following years, a number of progress reports were given, in Board minutes and other church documents, as follows:

By December 1952, it was stated that the building was slowly beginning to take shape but that there was still a long way to go. In March 1953, it was reported that contractor Mr Firth had paid one of his all too infrequent ‘lightning’ visits to the site and concern was expressed that he should be staying on site to see the job to completion. In June of that year, it was recorded that Mr Firth, had paid another of his all too short visits to the scene of the building operations, where he was present when architect Mr R W Johnston, one of the partners of Leslie Grahame Thomson and Associates, inspected the work which, although very slow, was approved, and everything was ready for the arrival of the timber for the roof. In early September 1953, architect Mr Johnston, along with Rev D A Williams, Presbytery Clerk, again visited the site. At this time it was recorded that Mr Firth had been on site for the last month, the longest stretch he had been on the island since the start of his contract, and by then the roof had been completed to the stage of slating. Again the work was passed but concern was expressed as to the late arrival of the slates to complete the roof. This concern was to be fully justified, as neither contractor nor slates were to make an appearance for fully two months!

In early March 1954, the architect and Presbytery Clerk again arrived to inspect progress on the Church. This progress was well below expectations and, after much consultation, plans were made to speed up operations. It was agreed that another inspection would take place in approximately six weeks and, thereafter, monthly inspections until complete.

the workmen on the site
This photo would probably have been taken sometime in 1953/54 as the Church was opened in May 1955and shows some of the workmen who were involved in the building of the new Kirk having a break, Note the machinery in the background – I have a feeling that Health and Safety regulations may not have been quite as strict then as they are today! Standing: James Mowat, Johnno Miller, Tom Carter, James Work Snr, George (Dod) Burghes, Ernest Firth, (contractor) & Sammy Reid. Sitting: Ronnie Garson, Edward Dunnet, Frances Craigie, John Miller, John Pottinger.

The slates came from Caithness and the flagstones in the Chancel were sourced from a quarry in Sandwick but there was a strong local element to the building, with local blue whinstone and red sandstone both being quarried in Rothiesholm for some of the decorative stonework. The best of the building stones in the walls of the old church had also been carefully set aside for future use in the walls of the new, but this was far from enough to complete the new build. Several derelict houses in the Lower Station were also demolished so that the stones could be salvaged for the new church, These houses had formed a small street that ran at right angles to the road, just past the row of cottages that were later turned into a cattle shelter, the street being known affectionately as ‘The Closs’ or ‘Duke Street’. One house in particular is worthy of mention, ‘Davie’s’ by name. It was a three storey house built by Master Mason James Davie who had helped build the old Mudie Church in 1858 and whose signature was on the document found in the foundations of that church when it was demolished in 1951. It seems strangely fitting that so many of the stones that he had originally built, both in church and dwelling, should be used in this new memorial!

Below are some verses from a poem written by Tom McLachlan in 1954 (just at the time when some of the houses of his youth were being demolished) where he is taking a nostalgic and pensive look back at the people and houses of the Station of his youth fifty years previously:

a group photo of the men relaxing on the rails at the foreshore
Some of the workmen involved in the building of the Stronsay Church quarrying red sandstone for use in the Church from the shore out past Furrowend in Rothiesholm. A few blocks of sandstone still lie where they were quarried and taken to the top of the beach but not needed. Metal rails were laid on a wooden base and a bogey used to move the stones ‘fae the ebb tae the top o’ the banks’. I don’t have names for the first three in this photo but think the others are Sammy Reid, John Miller and Jim Work.

Local labour was used almost entirely, both at the demolition of the old Church and the building of the new. The following Stronsay men were employed on the job most of the time: James Work snr, Coneyhole; Sammy Reid, John Miller, John Pottinger and George Burghes, all of the Village. In addition, J Harvey, E Dunnet and J Irvine, all of Kirkwall, were masons and slaters, while J Leask, F Craigie, L Firth and E Firth were joiners, also from Kirkwall. Mr R Campbell, formerly of Sandybank, was Clerk of Works until he found travelling from Kirkwall too much, after which time David Fotheringhame of Holmsgarth took over that role.

As the building was nearing completion, more details were being finalised regarding some of the interior fixtures and fittings, the cost of some of which would have to be borne by the congregation and the most expensive of these being wiring the building for electricity. The Session Room and Vestry were to have a tiled grate and small sink fitted, with two new toilets constructed inside the entrance to the Vestry and Hall. The interior walls of the Church were to be plastered, with the roof open to show off the beams to best effect. Windows were to be of Cathedral glass, with the east window to be stained glass, a gift from the Women’s Guild. ‘Alamac’ hardwood flooring in Sapele was to be laid, while the pulpit and lectern were to be pre-assembled by a ‘south’ firm then mounted on red sandstone bases. The Communion table and Elder’s chairs were made in Edinburgh, while the chairs for the congregation were made and supplied by disabled ex-servicemen employed in the Lord Robert’s Workshops.

Many smaller items were gifted, some anonymously, including a Church bell to hang in the belfry. By the summer of 1954, with the building slowly nearing completion, arrangements were made for the opening of the new Church and the date for this opening was fixed for 6th September 1954. It soon became apparent that this deadline was going to be missed and the Board felt they had no option but to postpone the opening until the spring of the following year.

the church just finished
The newly completed church in all its glory, Note the long wooden ladders still lying along the side of the dyke, an indication of how soon before the building had been finished.

11th May 1955 was the new date set for the opening of the church but the completion of the last few small tasks still dragged on for some time until the keys were eventually handed over by the contractor on 18th April 1955, less than a month before the opening ceremony of the new church and a full 10 years after the first intimation of the bequest.

Next month, Ian Cooper concludes this series of articles.

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