‘No faith’ in Church over Islay kirk sell-off

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

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The Church of Scotland’s proposals to close half its kirks on Islay would be ‘disastrous’, and ‘a blow some villages may not recover from’, Islay Community Council has heard.

The future of ‘Islay’s most famous building’, the unique Round Kirk in Bowmore, is under review by the Church of Scotland, which is looking 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 Thomas Telford – Kilmeny Church in Ballygrant and Portnahaven Church on the Rhinns peninsula.

Local concerns were aired at Islay Community Council on Wednesday April 20.

Community councillor Calum Murray began: ‘The strong local feeling is they don’t want to be in competition with each other, but they do feel that a church, like a school, is part of the community.

‘They don’t want to have to travel far for their services – they would rather do it within their own community, despite the fact there are falling congregations.’

‘It’s difficult for people to move between parishes because there’s no buses on a Sunday,’ added community councillor Garry MacLean.

Community councillor Jim Porteous said: ‘There was a lot of concern expressed about the Bowmore Round Church, because it’s so iconic, and possibly also a listed building. What would be the conditions of sale? Would the church engage with the community on that?’

Community councillor Murray continued: ‘People were concerned that these places become houses for wealthy people who don’t live on the island, who are able to buy places and call it ‘The Old Kirk’, the way they did with ‘The Old Schoolhouse’.

He understood there were economic arguments, he said, but closing resources ‘in a community for over 100 years, simply to make a quick buck for the Church,’ seemed to be wrong.

Argyll and Bute councillor Alasdair Redman said: ‘The reason I’ve been hearing is the low numbers in the congregation. And, of course, the buildings will be worth a lot of money.

‘They are very important focal points of the village and to lose them is very much like a local school or a local shop closing. It’s one of the pillars of the community and it’s holding up some of these communities. To lose them would be a massive blow.

‘There are parts of my ward which are hollowed out now. The loss of the churches is a blow some villages may not be able to recover from and we have to fight to keep them.’

Argyll and Bute Council leader, and fellow Islay councillor, Robin Currie said: ‘I have got no faith whatsoever in the Church of Scotland doing business properly. Myself and others were for years and years involved in trying to purchase Kilchoman Church.

‘We were going to pay for it. And what did they do? They gave us a huge slap in the face. Told us to buzz off. And sold it for £1. And it’s laying there empty, crumbling.

‘I think it would be disasterous to close these churches. I think we have to, as an island community, get together to campaign to keep those buildings in public ownership.’

Community councillor Billy Sinclair said: ‘This process has happened across the Church of Scotland for many years. There is a number of good examples in rural communities on the mainland where the churches are retained as charitable trusts and used by the community. St Conan’s Kirk in Lochawe is one.

‘There’s options to look at, rather than it just being sold off.’