A chronological account
The earliest church in Stornoway to which we have a definite reference is St Lennan’s, built about 1630 by the Earl of Seaforth. It stood on what is now North Beach, along with a churchyard which has revealed over the years various artefacts of human bones as archaeological evidence. The environs of the church were taken over by Cromwell’s troops during their stay in Stornoway in the early 1650s and gradually fell into disrepair.
A century later, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland had replaced Episcopacy as the established religion of the area. The then owner of the island, Francis Humberston MacKenzie of Seaforth, commissioned a new church, overlooking the town on Kirkhill, at the corner of what are now Lewis Street and Church Street. This church, what is now known as St Columba’s (Old) Parish Church, then known simply as the Established Church of Scotland, was built in 1794, and was described in the Statistical Account of 1799 as being ‘new built and elegantly finished’. This account goes on to state that a ‘very elegant church was lately built in Stornoway; the internal economy of it is very nearly finished’. However, by the early 1830s, there were serious concerns for the building’s safety, and according to the second Statistical Account in 1833, ‘the front wall was still off the plumb-line several inches; the walls receded from the seats in the gallery, and no consideration would make the people enter to attend divine service’. The Rev John Cameron, the then parish minister, soon reported that repair work was nearly finished and would result in a church which would not be surpassed ‘by any in the Western or Northern Hebrides’.
From 1630 to the present day – The ever-evolving history of the Church in Stornoway
Not all followed the newly established church in Stornoway, and visiting clergy served the continuing Episcopal congregation until the building of the town’s second oldest church, St Peter’s Church, on Francis Street was completed in 1838. Dedicated in 1839 and consecrated in 1898, St Peter’s was the only church in the town to have a graveyard within its grounds.
From the mid 18th century through the 19th century, the wider Church of Scotland was riven by controversy and discontent, mainly over patronage and the relationship between church and state. These rifts were reflected in Stornoway, and Secessionists from the established church opened a Preaching Station in 1841. This was abandoned in 1846, probably because of the foundation of the Free Church of Scotland following the ‘Disruption’ when over 400 ministers, led by Thomas Chalmers, walked out from the General Assembly of 1843.
A substantial number of the Established Church of Scotland supported the new church, and a congregation was established in Stornoway in 1844. The first Free Church in the town was erected the following year on Kenneth Street, and its first minister, Rev Duncan MacGregor, was inducted in 1849. Nicknamed ‘eaglais nan cloutaichean‘ because of its felt, pitch coated roof, it was destroyed by fire in 1850, and was rebuilt on a more substantial basis over the next few years, on the same site, where it still stands today. Considerable refurbishment and upgrading was undertaken some 40 years later, from 1892 to 1894.
The (Old) Seminary, near the top of Francis Street, opposite St Peter’s, was originally built as a school, with a teacher’s accommodation in one end. The Hon Mrs. Stewart-Mackenzie presented it to the Free Church for educational purposes at a nominal rent of 1 Scots penny per annum, retaining ownership. Sir James Matheson gifted it, and it was used as a Free Church school until a new school was built beside it. In 1858, the partition between hall and house was removed, and English Sunday services began there. The building deteriorated to such an extent that it was demolished and rebuilt from the foundations, reopening in June 1900.
Stornoway was now a busy fishing port, with many visitors and incoming merchants unable to participate in church services because, in both Established and Free Churches, they were mainly conducted in Gaelic. In 1858, some of the Free Church congregation revived the Secessionists’ (now part of the United Presbyterian Church) Preaching Station, and they were served by visiting preachers until the appointment of a minister in 1861. A new church was built on James Street, the building now housing N. D. MacLeod’s electrical business.
The demand for more English services continued to grow, and the next major development came with the establishment of the Free English Church in 1875, to provide for English speaking residents and visitors who were adherents of the Free Church. They obtained a site for a new church the following year at the corner of Francis Street and Kenneth Street, and the Free English Church opened in October 1878. The church hall was built in 1890, and the spire erected in 1911.
Nationally, further division came when the Declaratory Act was passed by the General Assembly of the Free Church of 1892, and several hundred of the congregation left to form the Free Presbyterian Church. In Stornoway, this new congregation was granted a site for a new church at the top of Scotland Street by Lady Matheson in 1895.
The Declaratory Act helped to pave the way for the Union of the Free and the United Presbyterian Churches, which took place in October 1900, forming the United Free Church of Scotland.
In Stornoway, as in much of Scotland, significant numbers of the Free Church refused to join the Union, and after protracted court hearings, which reached the House of Lords, they were found to be entitled to the funds and property of the Free Church. In Stornoway, over the next few years, the continuing Free Church took possession of the building on Kenneth Street (1904), the manse (1906), and the Seminary (1907).
It was nearly 5 years before the displaced congregation, the United Free High Church, took possession of their new church building at the junction of Matheson Road and Goathill Road in July 1909.
There were now three United Free Churches in Stornoway – the United Free High Church, the United Free English Church and the United Free Church on James Street, plus the Free Church, St Columba’s Old Parish Church (of Scotland), and the Free Presbyterian Church. Some 4 years later, the James Street congregation chose to join the United Free English Church.
This situation continued until 1929, when, in Stornoway, as nationally, the United Free Church came together with the established church to form the Church of Scotland, thus the United Free High Church became the High Church of Scotland of today. The congregation of the United Free English Church chose to change their name to Martin’s Memorial Church of Scotland, in memory of their first minister, Donald Martin.
Schism within the Free Presbyterian Church in 1989 led to the foundation of the Associated Presbyterian Church. Their first minister in Stornoway was inducted in 1993, and their church, on Keith Street, opened in 1995.
Further disagreement in the Free Church resulted in the formation of the Free Church (Continuing) in 2000. The Stornoway congregation built a new church on East Street in Sandwick in 2004.
The Roman Catholic Church, after decades of being based in a temporary ‘tin’ building, opened its first purpose built church, Our Holy Redeemer, in Stornoway on the corner of Scotland Street and Kenneth Street in 1990.
A number of other denominations are now represented in Stornoway. The Christian Brethren have met in a hall in Bayhead since 1952, Jehovah’s Witnesses opened Kingdom Hall on Church Street in 1958, Salvation Army have been in Stornoway since 1983, building their premises in Bayhead in 1986, New Wine Church met initially at Lady Matheson’s Seminary on Scotland Street, but are now based on Point Street, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) built a new church on Newton Street in 1999.