Harray, Orkney – St Michael’s

Another church (or to be more precise, churchyard) we visited on Wednesday 12 July was Harray Church (HY 314179). I think it is St Michael’s Kirk. It was locked.

Steering the Stone Ships, is a book about the Orkney church by Jocelyn Rendall, Saint Andrew Press, 2009. She writes that in the C18 the Church of Scotland was not in a good place – there was a shortage of ministers, a huge social gulf between the minister and the people, a cosy alliance between Manse and mansion, “dull, moralistic sermons endured in damp and draughty buildings; the almost total lack of connection between the teaching of the New Testament and the practice of the Kirk” (page 148). Across Scotland there were divisions caused by the question of Patronage, who was in charge of appointing the minister – the people or the Laird? – and what right did Parliament have to interfere in Church affairs? At the General Assembly in 1843 474 ministers, 192 probationers, all overseas missionaries, and thousands of ordinary people left the Church of Scotland to form the Church of Scotland Free.

“For their stand on principle, the ministers gave up a respected position, a large house, a substantial salary and all security for themselves and their families – a considerable social and financial sacrifice that won them widespread admiration. (Perhaps the most courageous thing that they did was to go home and tell their wives that they could start packing!)”

The assistant minister at Birsay and Harray was a young man called John Garson. When news of the Disruption reached Orkney he announced he was joining the Free Kirk. His Presbytery excluded him, and appointed the Sandwick minister, Charles Clouston, to officiate at Harray the following Sunday. He preached inside the church, Garson preached outside to a much larger and very excited crowd. I hope Jocelyn (if I may) does not mind me quoting her:

“St Michael’s Kirk was just a few years old at the time, but the kirkyard was ancient, tumbling over a prominent mound where a broch had once dominated the fertile lands that sweep to the Harray loch. That day, the roads to the kirk had buzzed with the news from Edinburgh; the women’s summer dresses made bright splashes of colour against the gravestones; everyone’s eyes were fixed on the young minister who was speaking with such passion from the top of the mound. The door of the kirk opened. Clouston emerged, torn between desire to appear calm and dignified, and the urgency to get to his horse as quickly as possible. It was saddled and waiting; so was Garson’s. Did the ministers exchange looks before they leapt on their horses and raced each other to get to the Birsay kirk?” (page 155).

Clouston got there first, but most of the congregation walked out. Garson became the first Free Kirk minister at Birsay, and served there for 38 years.

I had a wander round the churchyard and let the wind blow the cobwebs away.

I found the grave of Eric Linklater (1899-1974). Although born in Wales, his father was Orcadian, and Eric spent many years on the islands. He served in WW1, then went to Aberdeen University, then spent time travelling in Asia. He became a full time writer in the 1930s and wrote about 20 novels for adults and children, plus short stories, travel pieces, military histories and other works. He is one of those authors I have heard of, but I fear I have not read. I will have to remedy that – and I did. I found I had a copy of his book The Dark of Summer, Jonathan Cape, 1956. It is a good yarn, with excellent descriptions of a storm at sea, the countryside of Orkney and Shetland, and the war in Korea (a subject I know nothing about). Well worth a read.

Harray, Birsay and Sandwick are now served by Milestone Community Church in Dounby. They have a very good website – and I admire their decision to close their old buildings and re-locate to the centre of their community. However I was sad that when I stopped to have a look at the new church I found it locked.

There are incredibly old religious sites in Harray – the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. On our last holiday we had a very special time at Brodgar – Hannah and Gareth having fun – and had a sunset visit to Stenness. Here are photos from that holiday. I won’t try and write up the history of these amazing places – have a look at this website.

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