STRATHCONON – Parliamentary church of the Strath
Attribution: Photo courtesy of Iain Sinclair (Strathconon, October 2018.)
The following chapter about Strathconon Church is taken from the book Land of Churches by Leonella Longmore and is reproduced by kind permission of Leonella and her husband Bryan.
Chapter 21 - STRATHCONON - Parliamentary church of the Strath
Undiscovered by travel writers of the past, the ageless tranquillity of Strathconon remains relatively untouched by tourist traffic. Yet the glen, whose serene beauty challenges that of better-known straths, was once not the sparsely populated locality that it is today.
Where there were people, churches are to be found, so at Marybank, near Contin, follow the ‘No through road to the West.’ The winding, tree-lined road skirting the river Conon offers picture-postcard vistas that most countries would envy and exploit: spindly birch trees allow tantalising glimpses of Loch Achonochie; forests of varying hues rise abruptly to bare rocky peaks; black-faced Cheviots on a frosty morning illustrate the truth of a Farquharson painting. Finally, after 13 miles of travelling through a land of tiny hamlets and scattered crofts, you come upon your destination: Strathconon Church, Carnoch, one of Telford’s Parliamentary Churches.
Standing resolutely at the foot of a craggy peak, the isolated kirk may seem familiar to you, for its design is one of many still to be seen in the Highlands. Encircled by a wire-fence to keep out the sheep that ousted a people, the stolid building with paired lattice-glazed windows and Tudor- arched doors has a spiky stone belfry whose bell could still ring out to the faithful on a Sunday afternoon. The congregation is tiny now, but in 1823 Strathconon was well-populated otherwise Thomas Telford, engaged by Parliament ‘to design and build 32 churches and 43 manses in remote Highland parishes’, would not have sited one of them at Carnoch seven years later.
Better known for the building of bridges and canals, Thomas Telford was the obvious choice of the Government when Commissioners were appointed – after all, Telford knew the Highlands well and was a close friend of the Mitchells, Joseph having succeeded his father, John, as Chief Inspector and Superintendent of Highland Roads and Bridges in Inverness. In his autobiography, Telford states: ‘I ought not to omit in this place the Highland Churches, for building which a Parliamentary grant of £50,000 was given in the year 1823, in reliance that the work might be conducted at moderate expense, although in scattered and remote situations…I was called upon to furnish the plans and specifications, and to arrange the first contracts; but I had little occasion to undertake personal super-intendance, which was well performed by Mr Joseph Mitchell in the northern counties.’
The grant of £50,000 was chicken-feed compared with the £1,500,000 allocated to church extension in England, ‘…to show our thanks (after the Napoleonic Wars) by immediately dedicating to God’s honour a number of free churches and chapels.’ Nevertheless, in response to public notices in Highland newspapers, about 60 applications were received and choices had to be made by the Commissioners. The Inverness Courier of 1st July 1829 reported that the Commissioners, after having built 42 churches and 41 manses, found they had a little money left over. They decided to apply it in building a church and manse at Carnoch, ‘a specially remote and needy district.’ Carnoch was the last site chosen, Carnoch is the name by which the church is known; but Carnoch is not where Telford’s building is situated for the site of that name lies a few miles further up the glen. Local tradition maintains, however, that when the heavy building materials were being transported from Muir of Ord, the carts became so bogged down in the rough terrain it was decided just to build the church where they had stuck.
A walk round the rectangular building reveals the hardy aspect of this ‘Telford’ church – a misleading term, for Thomas Telford did not design the churches. He revised the standard design of three surveyors whom he had asked to draw up plans for a church and manse that were ‘particularly calculated to resist the effects of a stormy climate.’ The design preferred by Telford was that of William Thomson, whose success in making the churches weather-proof is evident here in Strathconon, and even more so at Ullapool.
There, you will see the A-listed building that has been turned into a museum, its original galleries, Communion table and pulpit surviving unscathed after fifty years of neglect. Here at Carnoch, study the six standardised windows, so designed that they could be pre-fabricated and bought from James Abernethy of Aberdeen; look in vain for the outside staircase that would lead to the inside gallery, a traditional feature done away with by Telford; examine the simple interior where no provision was made for heating or ventilation and galleries proved to be unnecessary. Outside, about a hundred yards away, walk into a field and photograph the former manse with its church in the background. Designed by James Smith of Inverness, the single-storeyed house on an H-plan had rooms for minister, family and cows.
One of the ‘Men’ of Carnoch at that time was Roderick Mackenzie, better known by the name of Rory Phadrig. ‘I’m but a rude crabbed bodach,’ he used to say of himself. Probably an apt description of many of the ‘Men’ of the time who, though with little education, had studied the Bible and spoke at religious meetings throughout the Highlands. According to the description in The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, Rory Phadrig’s voice was harsh and ‘could not be tamed into melody.’ Harsh, too, were his condemnations of the sins of the flesh and bitter were his thoughts when he was removed from the influence of Alexander Macadam, minister of the Gaelic Chapel at Cromarty. Resentfully he proclaimed: ‘Beware that you don’t make idols of your ministers, it was this that banished me to the bleak hills of Strathconon.’
That the people of Strathconon needed a minister to help them in their darkest hour there is no doubt. But it was not in this church, capable of seating 400 even without galleries, that the people stayed for comfort; in 1843, the year of the Disruption, the congregation left with its minister to join the Free Church. Moreover, those lairds who owned land in the area had no sense of belonging: as the writer in the New Statistical Account states: ‘… the number of land-owners is 11 of whom only one resides in the parish.’
The one who did reside amongst them, Sir George Mackenzie of Coul, in his Survey of Ross and Cromarty-shires of 1810 had referred to the people as ‘Natives’ and declared: ‘The people are useless to the community. Their whole labour is devoted to keep themselves from starving; and they can neither spare food for others, nor apply themselves to any art. In short, as crofters merely, they can be of no earthly use whatever, unless, as has been proposed, for the purpose of breeding and rearing recruits for the army…’
With views like this from the sole resident proprietor, it is not surprising that humans were replaced with sheep and deer. The Inverness Advertiser of April 2 1850 reported from Strathconon: ‘We understand that about 30 small tenants have been served with notices to quit, and cherish no hope that they will be allowed to remain after Whitsunday.’ These evictions were amongst the last on the Strathconon estate that had been turned into a sheepfarm by the father of Arthur James Balfour: Prime Minister at the turn of this century and the Foreign Secretary who signed the Balfour Declaration that favoured ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jews.’ Balfour recalled an early childhood journey with his family who were going deer stalking on the estate. It was the family’s first visit to Strathconon in the year after the clearance and he was made to travel in the second carriage with the women for fear of attack by angry protesters. Even as far away as London the scale of the evictions struck home. The Times of May 20 1845 when talking about James Gillanders of Highfield wrote: ‘The same factor manages the Strathconon estate, from which during the last four years, some hundreds of families have been weeded. The Government Church of that district, built eighteen years ago, to meet the necessities of the population, is now almost unnecessary from the want of population.’
But the dwindling congregation still needed a minister. And one who quickly went up the clerical ladder began his ministry at Carnoch in 1856. Presented to the parish by Queen Victoria, James Cameron Lees soon left for Paisley Abbey before becoming Dean of St Giles in Edinburgh. His work A History of the County of Inverness ensured his fame as one of the many distinguished writer/ministers of the 19th century who took to the writing of local history.
As you look from the church to the sheep that graze in the fields on the other side of the river, it is hard to visualise the glen populated as it must have been when one of its most colourful characters was born. In 1784, Fearchair-A-Ghunna, Farquhar Maclennan, was born in Strathconon where he spent his youth and, some maintain, lost his mind after a severe beating by his father. Whatever the truth of the story, the Maclennans were amongst the many illicit distillers of Strathconon – notorious for its smugglers – and had several encounters with the Excise Officers of the area. After his brother had been accidentally killed by them and his father caught and heavily fined at Dingwall, Farquhar turned his back on the Strath in 1809, never to return.
For the next 50 years or so, the Ross-shire Wanderer roamed the land sticking and pinning onto his hat and clothes all the pieces of metal, bones, rags, paper and feathers he came across. Rich and poor alike were drawn by his dress, his witticisms and his home-made gun – a gigantic, dangerous contraption. Throughout his wanderings the man from Strathconon never abandoned his faith and part of his claim to fame rested in his famous prayer, one that was so long no-one could ever repeat more than a fourth of it: ‘O blessed Trinity, Thou art in the Highlands, and in Inverness, and on the high steeples. Thou are giving slated houses to the big folk, but Thou hast only given a black sooty bothy to me, which won’t keep out a rain drop … Bless also the wood, hemp, cotton, and tea and sugar – although poor Fearchair’s share of them be small…’
The houses of the ‘big folk’ remain – Scatwell, little Scatwell, Strathconon, Scardroy – and rain-proofed habitations have replaced a fraction of the bothies of Feachair’s day. All through the prolific church-building of the 19th century to the growing church-closing of the late 20th, Telford’s modest kirk has kept its doors open to those who want to enter. A few still do…
But a bold peasantry, a country’s pride,
If once destroyed, can never be supplied.