Evanton Community Trust joins with the Highlands Historic Buildings Trust and the Kirkmichael Trust for a tour

of Kiltearn and Alness Old Kirks and Burial Grounds                                                           

 

Fifty people came together for a tour of the ruined kirks of Kiltearn and Alness on the sunny and warm afternoon of Sunday 14th August 2016, which has triggered considerable fresh interest in the future of these venerable buildings.

Members of Highland Historic Buildings Trust (HHBT), the Evanton Community Trust and the Kirkmichael Trust (which is currently involved in a major repair project of the ancient mausolea at Kirkmichael near Balblair on the Black Isle) plus many interested local residents attended, and some fascinating architectural insights were shared, as well as connections between the stories of all three kirks

The tour, which was well-publicised in advance through the Ross-shire Journal, social media and posters throughout the area, provided a valuable opportunity to re-engage local people in discussions about both kirk repair projects. 

The tour of Alness was led by architect Les Hunter with contributions from HHBT’s Conservation Adviser Andrew Wright and Chairman John Duncan, who commented:

"There has been considerable and continuing backing locally for moves to consolidate the church, particularly following the proposal for its demolition in 1985. Anecdotal evidence suggests that literally hundreds of people showed their support for maintaining the building in some form at that time, and a committee was formed to demonstrate this. A public meeting was held to consider whether to turn the church into a heritage centre. Local people and others were not in favour of this approach because of the church's location, spiritual significance and architecture, as well as the considerable cost of re-roofing. Since then of course, a successful Civic and Heritage Centre has been established in Alness town centre and this is now better and more appropriately placed for this role than the church would have been.

Leaving these ruins to decay further however is disrespectful to the generations that have gone before us and so some consolidation work is required.  Ignoring this can only lead to potential vandalism as has been witnessed at both sites in different ways and to a dangerous building which would have implications for all visitors, whether from the local community or those from overseas with family connections to the church or burial ground.”

At Kiltearn the tour was welcomed by Evanton Community Trust Chair Iain Clark, who mounted the pulpit platform within the old kirk to demonstrate its fine acoustics.  He afterwards commented:

 “We were delighted with the excellent turnout and the positive response. It was a most interesting tour and the eminent architectural historian, Andrew Wright, highlighted some fascinating features of Kiltearn Kirk building. It had always been believed that Kiltearn stood on the site of a much earlier pre-reformation church and the east gable has some arched stonework that was probably evidence of this.  Andrew was quick to point out however, much to people’s surprise, other examples of medieval stonework including the buttress at the corner of the east gable. We know now that Kiltearn is one of only two or three examples in Scotland of a church erected during the Georgian period which incorporates features from an earlier medieval church.

This was exciting information that highlights the importance of preserving the heritage of Kiltearn for future generations.  To this end the Trust has recently submitted a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a community-based project which will allow local people to learn more about this historic site and record its findings”

Some valuable and contrasting insights were also shared by local people, including Hugh Urquhart, who told those assembled that he had recently encountered a young man abseiling down the highly unstable kirk walls - and received a mouthful of abuse when Hugh warned him of the terrible risk he was taking. ECT member, Catriona Fraser, who has written a book on the history of Kiltearn, talked to visitors about some of the interesting gravestones there.

Verity Walker, project development manager of the Kirkmichael Trust, who facilitated the tour as part of its own funder community engagement requirements, commented:

“Allowing these kirk buildings to decay cannot be an option as they will steadily increase in danger to the public.  They are the focal points for many stories which belong within the collective memory of their local communities and these stories merit being shared down the generations. 

Deterioration of these buildings also encourages inappropriate activity, and that is highly disrespectful within an active cemetery.  Consolidating and paving these fine ruins would at the very least provide a focal point and place for quiet contemplation within each burial ground, which could be a comfort to many.  Increased visiting and use of a consolidated ruin will trigger a proportional decrease in undesirable activity.  Fortrose Cathedral and Beauly Priory, for example, prove an asset to their communities.

The substantial funding which would need to be secured even for this modest consolidation activity from sources such as the Heritage Lottery Fund would be likely to have a significant requirement for community engagement, and this could perhaps encourage desirable changes in attitude and behaviour where necessary.”

Jim Mackay, Chairman of the Kirkmichael Trust added:

“There are connections between our ancient Resolis kirks and burial grounds and those at Alness and Kiltearn.  Master John Fraser of Alness, for example, was imprisoned and exiled to America for his religious beliefs and the Reverend Thomas Hog was similarly imprisoned and exiled. Hog went to Holland to become a minister to the Prince of Orange, always prophesying he would return to Kiltearn, which eventually happened!  At Kirkmichael, with much community support, we are repairing and reroofing our damaged buildings, and establishing within them a display of the rare medieval crosses within our parish that disappearing through weathering. It will be a low-key, unstaffed display which visitors can enter during daylight hours, and respectful to the nature of the site. All the monuments near the building work have been temporarily boxed in to protect against any damage.  In just a few months we will have Kirkmichael back to being the heritage and community gem it once was. I would encourage folk to come to one of our forthcoming open days to see how an old building can be brought back from the brink."

 

Work started on Saturday 22nd clearing out the growth which had taken over the inside of the building to allow surveyors access to inspect the internal walls of the Old Parish Church. Steeplejacks have also started to check the state of the stonework, includng the belfry, to stabilise where they can and ascertain what work is required to further protect the building.

These are the very first steps on the long road to completing a major project to safeguard this historic site for future generations.

 

Saturday 1st August saw a break in the weather for a very pleasant event when the village got together to mark the unveiling of the information plinths at the Village Green. Rob Gibson MSP gave an interesting short history of the area before unveiling the plinths, watched by around 100 people who attended.