Page last updated at 08:53 GMT, Friday, 15 May 2009 09:53 UK

Church that floated out of a row

The gay minister row comes 166 years after the Free Church was born out of a major split in the Kirk

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

The appointment of a gay minister in Aberdeen has led to concerns within the Kirk that it could provoke a mass walkout by many of its members.

The row threatens to overshadow the Church of Scotland's General Assembly when it meets in Edinburgh next week.

The BBC Scotland news website looks back - 166 years ago - to an earlier division in the Kirk that led to the building of a floating church for one congregation.

On a frozen hillside in the Highlands worshippers gathered in the snow and shivered through a sermon.

It was 1843, the year of the biggest split in the Church of Scotland and the forming of the Free Church of Scotland.

More than 450 ministers walked out of the General Assembly in a row over the process of appointing ministers.

Under the Patronage Act of 1712, ministers were put into churches by "the patron", usually the local laird, and until 1832 this had gone unchallenged.

Men speak of it as a stirring scene, when ropes and cables were run out from the beach
Reverend Thomas Brown
Annals of the Disruption in 1843

But in that year, the General Assembly decided that if a majority of male heads of local families objected to the patron's choice, they had the right of veto.

Ten years of legal argument followed before the House of Lords ruled that the Assembly's decision allowing the right to veto was illegal.

Those who accepted the Lords' decision stayed in the Church of Scotland and those who did not left to create the Free Church.

The crowd on the snow-covered hill near Strontian on the Ardnamurchan peninsula were among the splitters.

Their struggle to build a church eventually led to the creation of the Floating Church between 1846 and 1847.

Outside of the Highlands, Strontian is probably best known among scientists.

The metal strontium is found in strontianite, a mineral which occurs and was mined near the village.

Battle of Waterloo re-enactment
Lead mined near Strontian provided ammunition in the Napoleonic wars

Last summer, local schoolchildren marked the 200th anniversary of scientist Sir Humphry Davy isolating the metal in 1808 by writing a song about him.

Lead also mined near Strontian in the 1700s was used to make ammunition for Britain's war against France, with the mines providing employment for hundreds of workers.

But the Highlands village's influences go beyond science.

The story of the church-on-a-boat is recorded in the Annals of the Disruption in 1843 written by Reverend Thomas Brown.

According to Rev Brown, the congregation asked landowner Sir James Riddle for a place where members of the Free Church could worship. Sir James refused.

Communions were held in the open air, often in bad weather and at least on one occasion in snow.

If a church could not be built on land, members of the congregation came up with a plan to worship on a boat in a sheltered bay on Sunart, a sea loch.

They raised £1,400 to have the Floating Church built on the Clyde.

It was one of the first, and most unusual, orders for shipbuilder John Reid and Company in Port Glasgow.

A drawing made by the company - now held in the collections of the Highland Folk Museum in Kingussie, near Aviemore - gives the church's dimensions.

Built on two floors, but without a spire, it was 78ft long, 23ft wide and 17ft high. It was constructed to hold about 400 people.

Once completed it was towed to Loch Sunart.

Rev Brown wrote of problems finding a safe anchorage.

Rowing boats
Rev Brown told of boats of worshippers heading for the church

Former Royal Navy sailor Graham Spiers, convener of the Floating Church committee, along with another navy man sought out suitable sites.

The best was below Sir James' mansion, but the congregation opted instead for an anchorage further along the coast.

In his book, Rev Brown wrote of spectacular scenes each Sunday as boats of worshippers arrived, while groups of others walked down from the hills from inland communities.

The minister wrote: "Men speak of it as a stirring scene, when ropes and cables were run out from the beach and the boats were rapidly passed backwards and forwards conveying the worshippers."

The Floating Church is thought to have served Strontian until the 1870s.

By that time there had been further shifts in the shape of worship in Scotland.

In 1847, two other churches, the Secession Church and the Relief Church - which had broken away from the Church of Scotland in the 18th Century - joined to form the United Presbyterian Church.

A copy of Rev Brown's book is part of the Charles Fraser Mackintosh Collection, kept at Inverness Library.

Extracts have been published on Am Baile, Highland Council's Gaelic and English languages website on Highland culture and history.

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