Cromarty, Highland – East Church

After a morning (Friday 7 July) in Inverness we drove over the Kessock Bridge and on to the Black Isle to visit the little town of Cromarty. Coffee in the bookshop, then I parked by the sea and went for a 2 mile walk. The town looks slightly more prosperous than it was – there are some lovely houses. We first came we came here was when the kids were little, and we came on the bus from Inverness – then went across to Dingwall (or it could have been vice versa). Buses still terminate by the shore. There is a three car ferry across to Nigg – website.

Cromarty Courthouse – website – was a favourite place (you could dress up) and Hugh Miller’s cottage – website – is a lovely National Trust for Scotland property.

I don’t recall ever visiting the East Church, Cromarty – grid reference NH 792673. It has a website and a sixty page full colour guidebook. It is somewhat ironic when redundant churches have so much more resources than open churches.

This church is on the site of the medieval church – we know that James IV lodged with the parish priest in March 1499 on one of his pilgrimages to St Duthac at Tain (if I remember rightly he also had a mistress in a village nearby). Cromarty was a royal burgh and a flourishing town before then.

This C15 grave slab was excavated when the church was restored. The long swords signify that it is for a man of some importance, and the open book suggest he was also a man of learning. The three Calvary steps at the bottom were a common shorthand for the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. They instruct the viewer that the way to heaven – shown as a lively sunburst – was by following his example.

The Reformation of 1560 meant a church that was governed by its members, rather than bishops, through a series of church courts. At the parish level the governing body was the Kirk Session, and it was a long and painful progress to move the church on. The focus of the worship moved from the altar to the pulpit – and the pulpit is decidedly central. It was 1582 before the first Presbyterian minister was appointed to the church, his name was Robert Williamson. Gilbert Anderson was next, then his son Hugh – Hugh managed to cling on during the Episcopalian church rule under Charles II. And so it went on – very lively these Scots!

I missed the memorial to Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611-c60). He was Laird of the Cromarty estate from 1642. He fought in the Civil War on the Royalist side, was at the Battle of Worcester which Charles lost to the Parliamentarians, and is said to have died laughing when he heard that the king had been restored in 1660. Recounting an argument with the parish minister, Gilbert Anderson, he writes that he “did rail against [me and my] family in the pulpit at several times … more like a scolding, tripe seller’s wife than good minister, squirting the poison of detraction and abominable falsehood … in the ears of [my] tenancy”.

In 1684 the Cromarty estate passed to the George Mackenzie of Tarbat and then to his son Kenneth in 1695. Fragments of painted armorial panels survive – Sir Kenneth’s is dated 1702. Originally these would have been at least three metres high and over a metre wide. They may have once formed ceiling panels in the church, or they may have originally been in Cromarty castle. They were later used as pew back in the east loft, perhaps when the east loft was built in 1756. They are now displayed in the west loft.

The North Loft was added in 1739 – the population of the town was growing as the port and Burgh were prosperous. Money to build it came from the Poor Fund. It was an investment – once they had built the loft, they rented out the space, and people built their own pews. I didn’t look closely enough, but apparently you can see the individual style and wealth of the occupants by reflecting on the variation of pew size and differences in latches and hinges (I feel a PhD thesis coming on).

There are several interesting memorial tablets. The middle one is to Hugh Rose Ross, who died in Afghanistan. We forgot how many wars have taken place there, and how many we have been behind.

Cromarty’s fortunes declined in the C19, and economic decline was matched by increasing discontent in the church. At the Disruption in 1843 one third of Church of Scotland ministers left to form the Free Church of Scotland, where congregations had the right to appoint their own ministers, free from the influence of the lairds. Hugh Miller was one of the leaders of the movement to create the Free Church, but he felt the pain – “I do begrudge [the Church of Scotland] our snug, comfortable churches. I begrudge them my father’s pew. It bears date 1741, and was held by my family through times of poverty and depression, a sort of memorial of better days, when we could afford getting a pew in the front gallery.” The congregation of this church was greatly reduced. It was modernised at the end of Victoria’s reign – so, in fact, the pulpit only dates to 1901.

The town was busy during the First World War. The guidebook contains the memories of Mrs Newell (born in the town in 1908). She remembered Handel’s “Comfort ye” sung at a Christmas service, and a very talented organist, soon to be sent to France, sitting and staring at his hands in fear that they would be injured on the battlefield.” Cromarty lost 45 of its sons during the War.

Through the C20 the population of the town continued to decline, and by 1971 it had dropped to 484. As early as 1936 there was a plan to close the East Church, but it was not until 1998 that it was finally declared surplus to requirements. A huge amount of restoration work was done between 2008-11 and now “the church is open daily for all to visit and is once again being used by the community. Its fine acoustics and intimate elegance provide the ideal setting for events, concerts, occasional services and weddings.”


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