Urray Free Church

In 1843, the Free Church of Scotland was formed following what became known as ‘The Disruption’. The Disruption was due to many years of disagreement over how much influence the state could have over the Church. Furthermore, the ministers felt the system known as ‘Patronage’ was unacceptable. This was a system where the landowners could nominate their own ministers regardless of the wishes of the congregation. Historically, the church should have been independent of authority and should function with the main aim of the Christian good of Scotland. Almost all, around a third of Presbyterian Church of Scotland ministers resigned their charges and formed a new denomination- the Free Church of Scotland.

Urray Free Church

Attribution: not recorded or unknown

Rev James MacDonald 1843 - 1880– see also, Urray West Church

James was born in 1804 at Barvas, Lewis where his father was minister who later moved to Urray West Church in 1812. In 1830, James was ordained as assistant and successor to his father.

Rev James MacDonald was one such minister taking many of his congregation with him to a new church two miles from the parish church at West Urray. The church was built with some haste and was not greatly suitable, however, the congregation continued to worship here until a new building could be built on the same site.
Rev James MacDonald took an active part in the consolidation of Free Church congregations throughout the highlands and became regarded as the father of the Free Presbytery of Dingwall and the Synod of Ross. Education of the young was also one of his main concerns and he was a member of the Urray School Board since its inception and chairman from 1876.
One of the kindliest and most highly respected clergymen in the North. He was a man of peace, disliking controversy and was firm in his own personal convictions. An amiable and courteous gentleman, with a clear head and warm heart, his popularity and influence were very high and the respect entertained for him suffered no diminution to the end.
He was the fifth minister in succession to serve within Urray, and served for more than 50 years and celebrated his 50th anniversary in 1880 when he was presented with a sum of £200 from his congregation. He retired to live in Dingwall that same year but continued to give occasional services to assist his brethren. He attended his weekly worship until a few days before his death in 1882.
1861 saw adverts for contractors to undertake building work for a new church building which was opened the following year with a sermon in Gaelic presented by Rev. Aird of Creich, followed by and English service led by Rev. Kennedy of Dingwall. There was still a substantial debt outstanding on the property so the congregation were requested to assist liberally in the collection. There was a large attendance with a sum of £108 10s being collected on the day. Mrs Keith Stewart Mackenzie of Seaforth had also previously donated £50 to the building.

Rev Archibald Beaton 1880 - 1900

Archibald Beaton was born in 1842 at Applecross. He studied at the Free Church College, Glasgow and was ordained at Coigach in 1872 where he met and married Amelie Mackenzie of Lochbroom in 1872. He was called to the Free Church Urray in 1880 when Rev. James MacDonald retired.
There had been a further split within the Free Church in 1847, when the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland (UP) was formed. In 1900, the UP and the majority of the Free Church agreed to unite in 1900 forming the United Free Church of Scotland. Rev Archibald Beaton was one such minister who joined the new UF Church, remaining at the Free Church and in the manse.
Rev Beaton, died in 1904 and within a few months, the few remaining members of the Free congregation took back the church by force leaving the UF congregation with no formal home to worship from.


Urray United Free Church was preached vacant on Sunday last owing to the death of its revered pastor, the Rev. Mrs Beaton. Its was seized by a crowd of Free Churchmen yesterday and may now be considered to be in the possession of the Free Church.

This is the Communion week in the parish of Urray and services were to be held by the United Free Churchmen today (Thursday.) The seizure took place about three o’clock in the afternoon. A crowd of Free Churchmen, numbering about thirty persons, among whom were prominent Mr Logan, blacksmith, Messrs Mackenzie, carpenters and Mr Morrison, carpenter, collected on the railway bridge and marched to the church. Some members of the crowd at once forced the lock of the gate which was thrown open, and then proceeded to burst open the doors of the Church. Their proceedings were watched with interest at a distance by a number of villagers, including the local constable.

The Free Churchmen, having gained access to the church, took off the locks of two of the doors and put on new locks. Amidst the hub-bub a prominent lady-member of the U.F. congregation entered the church and politely asked for the cushion of her seat “if they had no objections.” She was informed that they had “no objections whatever” and she carried the cushion triumphantly away.

When night fell a crowd still lingered about the church and some surprise was expressed that no opposition was offered to the proceedings. After a while the last remnants of the crowd, which made up a convivial party, melted away. But it was soon apparent that every precaution was being taken to prevent the locks being tampered with, as the lights were occasionally seen in the church after dark. It was evident that several watchers were concealed inside, and the hope was expressed by onlookers that they were not smoking.

As we said this is Communion week in the parish of Urray. The Rev. Mr Macgregor, U.F. Church, Kiltarlity, was to have preached in Mr Beaton’s church today, but the United Free Churchmen, who offered no resistance whatever to the proceedings, have arranged to hold the communion service in the public school, after which they will probably go to the hall which has been used by the “Frees” since 1900. The Rev. Mr Mackay, assistant to the Rev. Murdo Mackenzie, Free North Church, Inverness, and a native of Canada, will preach in the seized church today. The Free Churchmen are in the majority in Urray; in fact, they comprise about three-fourths of the congregation as it stood before the Union.

The Church, which was built in 1860, is held under the Model Trust deed, the ground having been leased for 57 years from the laird of Ord. The church and the manse are entirely free from debt. The latter, which is empty, the Rev. Mr Beaton’s furniture having been sold last week, has not been interfered with so far. A formal request for the keys of the church was made last Thursday, after the sale at the manse, when the U.F. Session Clerk was waited upon by a deputation consisting of Mr Mackay, Ord Cottage, Mr James Cameron, Croft and Mr Angus MacDonald, Lochan. They were informed that the Session Clerk had no authority from the Congregational Committee to hand over the keys, but he promised to have the matter enquired into. The following letter was sent by the Session Clerk to Mr MacKay, Ord Cottage, Muir of Ord on Saturday: –

“Your request that the Church Keys be delivered to the Free Church has been under the consideration of the committee of the United Free Church. They consider that, however willing they might be, and however much they regret your inconvenience at the present time, they have no power whatever to comply with your demand. They have instructions from the Advisory Committee of the United Free Church to keep possession of the Church buildings meantime. In the absence therefore of a legal deliverance on the Congregational property in dispute they cannot do otherwise than retain possession of the keys until such time as they receive authority part with them.

Furthermore, they understand that Free Church congregations have been instructed by their own Advisory Committee not to take possession of Church buildings without their authority.”


A meeting of the Free Church congregation was held on Monday, but no reply was sent to this letter. Yesterday the U.F. Session Clerk was waited upon by another deputation consisting of Mr James Maclean, Tarradale Muir; Mrs Roderick Bisset, Croft; and Mr Roderick Mackay, carpenter, Tarradale Muir. They asked for the keys of the church, but presented no letter authorising them to represent the Free Church party. They were informed by the Session Clerk that he had no authority to deliver up the keys.
The seizure of the church has created a great deal of stir in the parish of Urray. The U.F. party regret that the Free Churchmen did not wait until the matter was settled in an equitable manner. There is plenty of accommodation in the large church for both congregations, but some of the prominent Free Church men have refused to entertain such a proposal. They say that “there must be no sharing.”
Urray Church is the first church in possession of the U.F.’s that has been seized on the mainland.

Thursday 17 November 1904,  North Star and Farmers’ Chronicle


Rev John MacLeod 1905-1914

Roderick MacLeod was native to Ross and Cromarty and was ordained to the Urray Free Church in 1905.
Suring WW1 he was appointed as chaplain with the Expeditionary Forces where he served on the frontline for two years. Upon his return to Scotland, he was appointed as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland in 1917. At that time, he was one of the youngest ministers to have held this position. He was then appointed Assistant principal Chaplain at the Northern Command in York before being called to serve at Dornoch in 1919. That same year he was awarded an O.B.E. for his services as Army Chaplain.
In 1921 he was called to Hope Street, Glasgow where he remained for the next 18 years. During this time, he was convenor of the Foreign Mission Committee and became a co-opted member of the Education Committee of Glasgow Corporation in 1937.
He died in 1939 at his home in Glasgow.

Rev Roderick A. Finlayson 1922 - 1940

Roderick Alick Finlayson was born at Black Point, Lochcarron in 1895. He was educated at Aberdeen University , where he gained distinction in several classes and first place in English Literature. His studies were interrupted due to WW1 where Roderick served with the 51st(Highland) Division and was wounded at the Battle of the Marne.
He returned to his studies and after graduating he moved to the Free Church College in Edinburgh. Hi first posting was to the Free Church at Urray where he was ordained in 1922 and shortly after he was appointed chaplain to the Lovat Scouts. In 1933 he spent a short time undertaking missionary work to the hungry and destitute Gaelic Speaking men in Canada. He found the country to be a promising field to those training for the ministry, especially Toronto that appeared to have become a ‘dumping ground’ for all the emigrants from Scotland.
1937 saw Rev Finlayson taking up his duties as Editor of the “Monthly Record”, the magazine of the Free Church of Scotland. He was called to serve at Hope Street, Glasgow in 1940 after 17 years at Urray. That same year he was released during WW2, when he received a staff chaplaincy to the 12th Highland Light Infantry. He was later became Deputy Assistant Chaplain General until 1943.
In 1944, he was nominated to be Moderator-Designate of the General Assembly of which he served as Moderator in 1945. By 1946, that same Assembly appointed him as Professor of Systemic Theology at the College of the Free Church of Scotland in Edinburgh.
He retired in 1966 aged 71. His health began to fail in 1983 and he died in Edinburgh in February 1989 aged 93.

Rev Donald MacDonald 1941-1958

Donald MacDonald was born at Ness on the Isle of Lewis in 1910. He studied at the Free Church College in Edinburgh and was ordained in 1941. His first charge being at Urray Free Church where he remained for 17 years, before being called to serve at Greyfriars in Inverness. In 1972, he was elected Moderator of the general Assembly and was regarded as one of the best known and loved ministers in the Free Church of Scotland during the mid-twentieth century. He remained at Greyfriars until his death in 1977.

Rev Donald MacDonald Urray Free Church

Attribution: not recorded or unknown

Rev Murdo J. Nicholson 1959-1991

It has taken me hours of research to map out the life of Rev. Murdo J. Nicolson mainly as there were two ministers, born 7 years apart, both born in Glasgow and both with strong family ties to the Isle of Raasay. I suspect, as Murdo J. was the younger of the two, he added the J as a middle name to differentiate himself from the Rev. Murdo Nicolson who was a missionary in Peru and Canada, whilst he was in his early career.
Murdo J. was born in Glasgow during WW1 and possibly spent much of his childhood on Raasay. He studied for the ministry at the Free Presbytery of Glasgow before moving as a probationer in 1941, at the High Church in Oban where he was assistant to Rev. A.M. Ross. Newspaper reports state that he remained there for some time in 1942 and we next find him serving the congregation at Helmsdale in Sutherland in 1945.
There is a report in 1948 where the congregation of Campbelltown were intimating a call for Murdo to move there, however it appears that this never happened. That same year he was married to John MacLean at Lochcarron and by 1949 he was showing signs of entering the realms of local politics.
In 1955, Murdo received a call to serve the congregation of Buccluech and Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh, however this request was declined by the Free Church presbytery of Dornoch as Murdo was now a member of the Sutherland County Council and the Sutherland Education Committee. The call to Buccluech and Greyfriars must have been recalled as in 1959 there is a report stating that they had been without a minister since the Rev Murdo J Nicolson had moved to Urray.
Back in the North, Murdo wasted no time and was duly voted as a member of the Ross and Cromarty County Council where he became chairman of the Health and Welfare Committee. Within five years, in 1966, he was appointed as Convenor of Ross and Cromarty County Council, taking the reins for Captain A.F. Matheson of Brahan. In 1974, when the boundaries of local government were reorganised, he was duly appointed as the first convenor of Highland Regional Council and two years later, the Secretary of State for Scotland appointed him as chairman to the Advisory Committee on Scotland’s Travelling people. The committee was in the process of establishing authorised caravan sites for travellers in various local authorities. That same year he was awarded a C.B.E. for his services to local government.
Throughout his busy schedule in politics, it appears that he continued in the pastoral care of his congregation retiring from the Church in 1990. He did however continue his work with the Highland Council until 1994 when he intimated, he would be stepping down just before his 80th birthday. He sadly, died within weeks of his retirement in 1994.

Rev Murdo Nicholson, Urray Free Church

Rev. Murdo J. Nicolson(middle) at the centenary celebrations at Helmsdale 1990. Mrs Nicolson is 2nd left.

Since 1991 the church has had at least three ministers with the current minister, Rev Gordon Martin serving since 2007.

Page created on 24 June 2024

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