Campaign launched to save 19th century floating church

It was forged by the fitters, welders and engineers of Clydeside with a little divine inspiration.

Underwater footage of a diver beside the floating church. Picture: SWNS

Now, a campaign has been launched to safeguard the last remaining relic of a unique floating church frequented by members of the Free Church in the 19th century.

The unlikely place of worship has its roots in the Disruption of 1843, when around 450 evangelical ministers of the Church of Scotland broke away.

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Although the schism resulted in a vast building scheme as the new faction erected churches and manses of their own, they encountered opposition from landowners in Ardnamurchan.

The old floating church.

Undeterred, the Free Church’s members approached the Glen shipyard in the Inverclyde town of Port Glasgow with an uncommon commission. Instead of a steamer or a battleship, they were asked to build a church that could berth in Loch Sunart.

The £1,400 project, hailed as an example of “community power,” was completed by 1846 and the church towed north to the loch and anchored to the seabed. Resembling a corrugated iron shed, it lacked aesthetic charm, but that did not prevent hundreds of people being ushered across the waters by boat from Ardnastang Bay to attend regular services.

The church was driven ashore during a storm and eventually sold for scrap after permission was granted for a new church to be built on land in 1869.

Nearly 150 years later, divers have discovered one of the anchors which tethered the church to the seabed, sparking a campaign to have it brought to the surface and preserved.

The old floating church.

Those behind the £6,000 project want to place the anchor in the village of Strontian, located at the head of the loch, with an exhibition relaying the church’s remarkable if short lived history.

The broadcaster and musician Mary Ann Kennedy, who features in video promoting the campaign, said: “This is the last surviving link in an important piece of history – not just Scottish history, but the history of the Free Church.

“It’s a unique piece of history. On one hand it’s a rusty old piece of metal – something people had thought disappeared completely.

“But it connects to the wider world as the Free Church exists worldwide. It’s part of their history as well, not just local history.”

She added: “I’m interested because of the fact it was a local idea. Ordinary people having been refused land to build their own church just take matters into their own hands.

“They said if we can’t do it at land we’ll do it at sea. It’s a fantastic example of community power.”

Isobel Baker, local development officer at the Sunart Community Company, said there had been a great of interest generated by the find.

She explained: “The church vanished a long time ago, so there is nobody who remembers it in the community now. But it has entered local folklore and there has been a lot of research about it.”

Ms Baker added: “Everybody has always thought it is a really good story. What usually happens is that these stories get forgotten over time, but if we can actually recover this link to the past it gives everyone an excuse to tell the story all over again.”