In a tight corner: Kirk mulls fate of Bowmore’s Round Church in sell-off

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The future of ‘Islay’s most famous building’, the unique Round Kirk in Bowmore, is under review by the Church of Scotland, as it looks to half the number of churches it has on the island.

‘Change is necessary,’ said the Church, as it launched a Scotland-wide consultation on how to allocate its ‘limited resources’ over the next five years.

Its proposals include reducing church properties on Islay from six to three.

The draft plan suggests selling Columba Hall in Port Ellen, and two kirks designed by the great Scottish engineer Thomas Telford – Kilmeny Church in Ballygrant and Portnahaven Church on the Rhinns peninsula.

A Church of Scotland spokesperson said: ‘Argyll Presbytery, like all Church of Scotland presbyteries, has launched a consultation on a draft mission plan which will determine how limited resources should be allocated to congregations over a five-year period.

‘This is a work in progress and subject to amendment, but change is necessary in order to deliver sustainable and realistic new expressions of ministry and church.

‘One of the options considered last year was a proposal to dispose of all Church buildings on Islay and build a new one on Bowmore Glebe but this will not go ahead.

‘The Church at Bowmore is an historic, listed building, and not conducive to adaptation and discussions around its future are ongoing.’

The Round Church, or Kilarrow Parish Church, is Scotland’s only complete circular church. Legend says it stops the devil hiding in the corners.

The two storey kirk was built between 1767-1769 by Islay’s owner Daniel Campbell. The designer is believed to be John Adam, of the great Scottish dynasty of architects, whose works include Inveraray Castle.

It is thought Adam’s plan for a circular church in Inveraray, never built because it would not allow services to be divided into English and Gaelic, found a home in Bowmore. A U-shaped gallery was added in 1830, increasing its capacity to 500.

But congregation numbers have fallen. ‘Kirk Sessions and congregations are being asked to consider potentially entering into a long-term ecumenical partnership to share buildings across the island,’ the Church spokesperson continued.

‘Islay has already moved from five congregations to two – North and West Islay and South Islay – and it is proposed that the number of Church properties on the island should be reduced from six to three.

‘One option considered in the latest draft plan is that Kilmeny Church, Portnahaven Church and Columba Hall could be sold sometime within the five-year lifespan of the approved plan.

‘Discussions are ongoing across Argyll Presbytery and the final plan must be agreed by the Presbytery, the Faith Nurture Forum and the General Trustees by December 31, 2022.’

Many people expressed their concerns on Islay’s community Facebook page.

‘I understand a lot of churches across the country are in a similar position, and that congregation numbers are low here. However, it would be a huge loss to our communities to lose these churches, especially how iconic they are, and the history that these buildings hold,’ wrote one.

Another added: ‘Kintyre is exactly the same with one minister servicing every parish in the plans for the future. Will there be a Church of Scotland in ten years time?’

A third said: ‘Same across the whole of Scotland. Falling congregations, retiring ministers, shortage of new ministers, upkeep of buildings are all factors. Churches are being encouraged towards outreach and mission. The church is not just a building for Sundays.’

A fourth concluded: ‘There is a simple solution to keep these churches from closing. People could just start going to church again. People could contribute to the church both financially and in physical practice in the maintenance. Islay is famous for raising money for and supporting a good cause. Is not the church a good cause? If these buildings are important to you, save them.’