Plan to stop churches going to ruin

CONSERVATIONISTS are calling on entrepreneurs to take over Scotland's abandoned churches and turn them into everything from petrol stations to bars in an effort to save them from ruin.

Hundreds of rural churches and city steeples are under threat from the country's increasing Godlessness. Dwindling congregation numbers now pose the largest threat to Scotland's historic character and must be countered through innovative business planning, say conservationists.

They pointed to a variety of successful church conversions, including bars and nightclubs, activity centres and the popular Orn Mr arts venue in Glasgow.

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The call comes as Historic Scotland, which gives grants to maintain historic buildings, has said it has been inundated with applications from churches for funds for urgent repairs. In 2002, more than a third of its grant money went to maintain or renovate churches.

"[We] cannot solve the problem alone. Sustainable new ways need to be found for redundant churches before they deteriorate too far, and that is why we fund the Buildings At Risk register," said a Historic Scotland spokeswoman.

Redundant churches are particularly prevalent in Scotland because of the country's history. Following the establishment of the Church of Scotland, numerous groups broke away and built new churches for worship, only to rejoin the Kirk a few years later. But the churches built during this turbulent time remain.

Sectarian conflict continues to complicate conservation efforts. Last week, a leading architectural historian blamed Catholic councillors in Glasgow for allowing a Protestant landmark - the St Vincent church - to fall into disrepair.

The Scottish Civic Trust, which advises the government on conservation, is currently composing a report on potential uses for redundant churches. Employees at the trust jokingly refer to the report, due to be published in March, as "101 Uses for A Dead Church".

Terry Levinthal, the trust director, said: "These buildings are very important socially and architecturally. The implications of change to them can be quite significant. What the trust is looking at is the positive dimension that can come out of any change of use.

"We're saying, 'don't despair - it is possible to find new and often surprising uses for redundant churches'."

Mr Levinthal pointed to a variety of successful renovations to former churches - a block of flats in Lanark, a nightclub in Aberdeen, a petrol station in Whithorn and even a car wash in Dundee.

Mr Levinthal said: "It's really horses for courses. What is required is creative and innovative thinking in each case. Some small or rural churches might work well as a house or B&B. Larger urban ones could have a leisure use like a nightclub or bar/restaurant.

"A change from ecclesiastical to secular use does not mean that the building has to lose its focus in the community."

Richard Murphy, an Edinburgh-based architect who was behind the redevelopment of a 19th-century church in Peebles into a theatre and arts centre, said more designers should consider churches for a host of architectural possibilities.

He said: "There are disadvantages, but if the use is going to be public, many churches have great presence where they are sited and are generally well located."

The Scottish Redundant Churches Trust, a private group that raises money for threatened churches, said finding future use for churches was a "highly emotive issue". Its executive director, Victoria Collison-Owen, said sensitive conversions - to licensed premises, for example - were often necessary to secure the future of the building .

She said: "Churches are buildings that people have strong feelings about and if you were baptised and married in a church and then someone told you it would be turned into a pub or bar you can see that people's feelings would be hurt."