The Pastor's Letter (February 1972)

My dear friends,

In these days when it is often difficult for new congregations to obtain a permanent place of worship it should always do us good to remember that our present situation is far from unique in the history of Christ's Church and that the scope of our abilities and ingenuity has, perhaps, not yet been stretched to the full.

In the “Annals of the Disruption,” published some years after the succession of the “Free Kirk” from the Established Church of Scotland in 1843, numerous incidents of ingenuity, sacrifice, and adaptability are recorded as time and again the new “Free” congregations were refused land on which to erect their own places of worship, or even refusal to build. The following account of “The Floating Church” at Strontian in Argyll-shire, however, must rank high among the most unique of the ventures of that trying and testing time.

“The whole district of Ardnamurchan was the property of Sir James Riddell, extending over an area of forty miles in length. Many of the people joined the Free Church, and forwarded a respectful petition, asking for sites. His reply was a refusal, and the people of Strontian had to meet – which they did to the number of about 500 – in the open air. At communion season, and at other times, Mr. MacLean of Tobermory held services on the hillside, often in severe weather, and sometimes when the congregation ‘was very wet.’ Mr McRae of Knockbain, has preached to them with snow on the ground, and when ‘it was laying snow’… …”

The refusal of sites by the proprietor of 40 miles' of landed estates was a serious matter, but men at that time were not easily baffled. Engraving of the Floating Church being towed into Loch Sunart A Floating Church was proposed, which might be anchored in some sheltered bay near the beach, and give accommodation to the people until better days came round. The idea was eagerly taken up, subscriptions were raised, plans carefully drawn out, the vessel was contracted for at an expense of 1400, and much interest was felt as her construction went on in one of the building yards of the Clyde, under the skilful superintendence of Robert Brown, Esq. Of Fairlie. Then came the launch, and the voyage from Greenock to Loch Sunart. At first there was some difficulty as to a proper anchorage for the vessel … The best place, safest for the ship and most convenient for the people, would have been just under the windows of Sir James Riddell's Mansion, but, as a matter of good taste, another was chosen two miles off, and there, at a point about 150 yards from the shore, the vessel was safely moored.

“How gladly the people left the storm-beaten hillside for this strange Highland Church of the sea, need not be said. It was a singular spectacle on each returning Sabbath morning, as the hour of public worship drew near, to see the boats coasting along from North and South, each with its contingent of hearers, while numerous groups could be descried far inland, wending their way down from the hills to where the floating church lay moored. 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 on board. In winter, the hearers came from a distance of eight or nine miles, and in summer from a still wider circuit. In rough weather it was no slight undertaking to get so many people on board. Even in summer, when all was calm, it was a tedious operation, and not infrequently darkness was settling in before all were again on shore. The numbers who assembled depended on the reputation of the Minister expected to preach, and the people had their own way of testing the esteem in which the different clergymen were held. It was found that, for every hundred hearers, the vessel sank an inch in the water; nothing therefore, could be easier than to keep the register. They could tell to an inch the popularity of every minister who came. A depression of six inches told that a congregation of six hundred had been drawn together, and on some occasions it is said that this number was exceeded.”

In this respect, Dr. Beith of Stirling, seems to have been one of the most notable preachers to have crossed over the waters of Loch Sunart to preach on the iron church; “I was thanked by the office-bearers,” he tells us in the Annals, “and told that their church had never been so deep down in the water before.” It is also from Dr. Beith that we learn that the actual amount raised by the people for the building of the church actually came to the sum of 2000, although the church only cost 1400. Like the children of Israel building their Tabernacle in the wilderness they brought more than the Lord required so that He had to restrain their giving. But, it should be appreciated that the sum of 2000, in the eighteen forties is comparable to something like 60,000 by our rates today (1972) for the average wage of those days was little more than 10/- (50p) a week. But the Lord's people required a House wherein the Lord's honour might dwell, and their hearts were bent in that direction. There was no elaboration in design; functionability appears to have been the keynote according to the ship's description, also given by the same Dr. Beith.

“The huge hulk, constructed of iron, was built, fitted up with pulpit and benches, small vestry etc., and successfully towed from the Clyde round the Mull of Kintyre by one or two tug-steamers, and in the end safely moored in the appointed place … As a place of worship the accommodations was very comfortable. The pulpit stood at the bow – under cover of course – having the vestry at one side. The entrance for the congregation was towards the stern; that for the minister near the bow. A passage on one side, running the whole length of the church, afforded access to the benches, which were ranged straight across ship throughout her whole length, and occupied the entire breadth, excepting what was required for the passage. About 750 hearers could be comfortably accommodated.”

And so the worship continued, until … and here is the most glorious episode of all the church's life, for, they who honour the Lord, He will honour. One night a violent storm struck the shores of Loch Sunart, bringing havoc in its wake to the surrounding countryside. The home of Sir James Riddell was badly damaged in the storm, and when the further consequences of the winds were later related to him he became a changed man with changed views towards the people of the Free church who had also gone on to serve the Lord, none daring to make them afraid. For the storm that had blasted the unsympathetic Laird's Mansion had also blown the iron church from her moorings and had hurled her on to the shores of the Loch; but in such a way that the Lord's hand in that night's transactions could in no way be denied. For one thing, the church had been set – and firmly wedged between two great rocks on the shore. It is said that a spirit level later revealed a perfect reading both horizontally and vertically. On top of that, however, it was discovered that the church had settled - due to the nature of the winds that night - on that part of the shore between high tide and low which is designated in Scotland as “no man's land,” thereby preventing the Laird's intervention, even if he was in a mind to do so. This was not the case, however, and at a future date, land was granted and the people moved from what was now their church on the shore to one on the land.

Of a truth, the Lord will build His church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Yours Sincerely,
   W. J. Seaton

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