The open-air church that drew hundreds in the Highlands

The open-air church at Plockton. PIC: National Trust for Scotland.
The open-air church at Plockton. PIC: National Trust for Scotland.
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They came from miles around to gather among the rocks for Sunday ­services, the new open-air church created after a deep schism in the Kirk left worshippers without a home.

The open-air preaching place at Plockton, Wester Ross, was one of several set up in the north west Highlands following the Disruption of 1843, when the Church of Scotland split over the rights of parishioners – rather than landowners – to choose their ministers.

The divide ultimately led to the creation of the Free Church of Scotland, but as land owners refused to give over property for the new church buildings, alternative homes were sought.

At Plockton, a natural amphitheatre to the south of the village was seized upon. The slopes were dug out with terraces so that worshippers could be seated. A rubble wall and archway were built to form an entrance.

A corrugated iron shed was put in place to protect the minister from the elements, his little wooden ­pulpit standing inside and ­hundreds of people came from across the surrounding countryside for services.

Although the Free Church was quickly able to raise funds for a church in the village, the open-air church remained in use until the mid-1930s. In recent times, ­weddings have occasionally been held there.

How the site of the open-air church, now a scheduled monument, looks today. PIC. NTS.

How the site of the open-air church, now a scheduled monument, looks today. PIC. NTS.

Gavin Skipper, ranger on the ­Balmacara Estate, which is run by the National Trust for Scotland, said: “Although they completed a new church in the village within two years, they kept on using the open-air church for communion services. People were coming from all over Glenelg by boat and horse and cart to attend the church.”

He added: “It’s ironic that when the Church of Scotland was sold in the village a couple of years ago, it was actually the Free Church of Scotland who bought it.”

The remains of the open-air church are a scheduled monument.

Other similar sites can be found Aite na h’Uardighean near Achiltibuie and Am Ploc at Torridon, which is made up of four rows of flat boulders enclosed by a drystane wall, although Plockton is considered unusual given its more formal and permanent feel.

A spokesman for Historic Environment Scotland said: “Such open air communion sites were common along the north west coast after the Disruption when local ­heritors denied adherents of the newly established Free Church sites upon which to build churches.

“As a consequence, the Free Church was pushed to marginal sites, especially along the coast. Such places of worship were often transitory and Plockton is unusual in the permanence of its construction and its formal layout.

“The site was used for annual ­communion services by the Free Church and was last used as such in July 1936.”

The open air church is included in a new history walk of Plockton, which is being held as part of Highland Archaeology Festival and Wester Ross Walktober Week.

The walk has been created by National Trust for Scotland and Plockton Heritage Society.

Plockton has become known as the Jewel of the Crown of the Highlands given its pretty harbour and the palm trees that grace the waterfront. They were planted in 1950 by horticulturist Tom Cload and thrive in the village due to the warm air created by the North Atlantic Drift.

In the early 19th Century, however, Plockton had the unenviable tag of Village of the Poor given the high number of destitute crofters moving into the planned village following the Clearances. The village was created by landowner Sir Hugh Innes to house tenants moved off his surrounding farm land, with shipbuilding and herring fishing the new sources of income.

By 1841, there were 537 permanent residents in the village – the highest number on record.