Church as museum…

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I love old church buildings, so what else would I do to fill my solitary evenings but to go and find one? I took a drive out over the Black Isle to Cromarty, a lovely old town overshadowed slightly by looming oil rigs being repaired out in the firth. There I discovered Cromarty East Church.

The East Church, the former Parish Church of Cromarty is a remarkable building of national importance, not only for its architecture but also for its representation of ecclesiastical and social change. The physical additions, alterations and remodellings carried out at the church bear witness to specific periods in the history of Cromarty and of Scotland with times of prosperity, rises in population, the influence of individuals and changes in liturgical practice.

It is principally the events of the 18th century that have given the East Church the outward appearance we see today. The survival of the interior in such an unaltered fashion has led to the East Church’s reputation as ‘unquestionably one of the finest 18th century parish churches in Scotland, the epitome of the development of Presbyterian worship during that century. There is something satisfying about its long, low form with its simple clear-glazed windows and its intimate interior, bringing preacher and congregation together in a very direct way.’ [John Hume, former Principal Inspector of Historic Buildings for Historic Scotland, describing the East Church in 1999.]

The origins of the church, however, are more ancient and complex than might at first be apparent and recent excavations have confirmed that it stands on the site of the medieval parish church. A large number of burials were uncovered beneath the floor of the church, together with a 15th century grave slab which had been re-used as a step or kerb within the pre-Reformation church to demarcate the approach to the altar. The post-Reformation church was significantly enlarged in 1739 when Alexander Mitchell and Donald Robson, masons, and David Sandieson and John Keith, wrights, added a north aisle to create a T-plan church. Further alterations followed in 1756 and 1798-9, the latter being carried out by Andrew Hossack who added porches to each of the three gable ends and the birdcage bellcote on the east gable.

The interior dates principally from the 18th century, with galleries or lofts added to the north (Poors Loft), west and east (Laird’s Loft) to accommodate the growing congregation. The most elaborate of these is the Laird’s Loft dating from1756 with its paired Ionic columns and Doric frieze. The loft also contains a fine funeral hatchment on the ceiling, painted with the arms of George Ross of Pitkerrie and Cromarty.

Also of note are a series of wooden panels, re-used and incorporated into a number of pews, most notably at the front of the north loft with a sunburst motif and Mackenzie coat of arms.

It is not a Church any more- it is redundant, but better preserved than many that are still in use as it has been restored by the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust. It stands as a museum to religious observance.

The early rituals of the mass, mixed in with the colour and patronage of the rich, which was then replaced by a focus on the pulpit. More pews and galleries were added in to accommodate the sinners now saved, before the numbers dwindled away again.

Along the way the walls took on monuments to men who died in distant colonial wars- Afghanistan, or at sea fighting the French. Their stone tablets sit at ease with those commemorating faithful long serving ministers of religion.

Faith is not contained by buildings, but they come to be like fossils of what once was. Beautiful fossils they are but new life takes on new shapes…

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