Inverclyde Church Recorders

Dr Peter Christie, Scotland’s Churches Trust Volunteer

26 October 2023

I’m Peter, and I’m one of the volunteer SCT recorders with our small Inverclyde-based team, the other two founding members being Lynnette Robertson and Alison McKenzie. To date we have visited and documented five churches – including one where the contents had been completely stripped out by the new owner and only the archive documents remained available to us.

We now have our eyes on half a dozen or more churches in the west of Scotland which are earmarked ‘for disposal’ by the Church of Scotland. Church closures are always a sad event within their communities, and a heavy (and often discounted) bereavement for many of their parishioners. A friend of mine, a Church of Scotland Minister, on seeing the photos from our first church survey (see below) was moved to comment: ‘To think that for so many generations of souls, this was the very gate of Heaven’.

This is nothing less than the house of God; this is the very gate of Heaven.”
– Genesis 28:16-17

So, why do I volunteer?

I was brought up in the Church of Scotland, and even as a child I was fascinated by the fixtures and fittings of what I now know to be a somewhat plain church – a large organ case covering the East wall with integral pulpit, the old pews with locking bible boxes, the gold lettering around the galleries – the one opposite ‘our’ pew. I remember to this day proclaimed ‘A day in thy courts is better than a thousand’; as a child I remember wondering ‘a thousand whats’?

Out of my experiences there I became a church organist, with my first post at the tender age of 14 in a Congregational Church in Paisley (now closed) – a musical career of over 50 years now, which has seen me working with the Church of Scotland, the Congregationalists, the Methodists, the Baptists, the Roman Catholics and (currently) the Episcopalians.

The pink, blue and gold diapered (painted) show pipes of the organ in St Bartholomew’s Church, Gourock.

Photographed by the Inverclyde Church Recorders

Since those early days I’ve had a lifelong interest in churches, especially their interiors. The outsides of churches are in general well documented, with photos and architectural histories easily available in the public domain online, and their exteriors often left still intact even after repurposing. I am always more interested to see pictures of the interiors – particularly the organs of course! But I’ve been serially disappointed that for so many churches there are no online records of the appearance of their internal furnishings and decorations – which enhanced worship for so very many decades – far less, of the donors and families commemorated in memorials of various sorts. There will be old photos in drawers and in boxes up in the lofts of parishioners and office bearers of course, but that is essentially a lost archive and inaccessible to anyone else.

So, when I stumbled across the SCT recording project I seized upon the opportunity to help create a publicly available heritage record of at least some of these otherwise lost artistic, cultural, spiritual, social and historical treasure houses.  

Our first team visit was to St Bartholomew’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Gourock, where I had played the organ in a couple of services for a congregation in single figures. A pretty little church in a stunning location by the Firth of Clyde, the contents were so interesting and rewarding to document and photograph, an ideal project to cut our teeth on. A very fine white sandstone altar has had too many years of damp soaking it, and it’s gradually returning to sand – it won’t be as impressive ere long, but at least it’s now photographically recorded in detail.

St Bartholomew’s Church, Gourock

Photograph: Author’s own collection

The stained glass windows are very fine, with histories attached of their maker, their donors, and the dear ones in whose memory they were given. Being an Episcopal church, there was a great variety of Eucharistic and liturgical items, of which many also had donor or memorial inscriptions. The organ display pipes (though not the rest of the original organ) with their intricately painted surfaces remain in situ. As is the process within the Scottish Episcopal Church, the memorials are offered back to the families of the deceased (if they can be traced), and the movable furnishings are offered to other churches within the Diocese. Inevitably, many furnishings get left for the new owners in such circumstances.

High Altar, St Bartholomew’s Church, Gourock – (Image: Inverclyde Church Recorders)

Interior pictures of St Bartholomew’s Church, Gourock, showing rood screen, organ and eagle lectern and stained glass window on east wall – (Images: Inverclyde Church Recorders)

Particularly interesting at St Bart’s is a bright white sandstone plaque on the exterior south wall which has weathered badly and is largely illegible. During our visit we found a hand-written note at the back of an old cupboard in the Vestry, a transcription of the carved text when it was still visible – a local heritage story which was nearly lost to us.

Weathered and illegible exterior plaque from St Bartholomew’s Church, Gourock, and framed partial transcription of inscription found during survey – (Images: Inverclyde Church Recorders)

All the other churches we have visited have their treasures and fascinating stories – memorial plaques on the walls and brass plates on furniture give names and dates, but old church history booklets in cupboards can tell of the life stories of the named individuals, their roles in the church and the locations of their families in the community. Several of our local contacts who acted as our guides have been able to supply rich and crucial historical details from their memories of working and worshipping in a beloved building. These details can be added to the data entry for that artifact, and subsequently be in the public domain once published by Historic Environment Scotland.

Once lost, these items and their histories disappear forever. We have lost so much already – we must do what we can to record and make available what is left while we still can.

All of the team have experienced an increased enthusiasm for these recording visits with every church we visit – I would warmly encourage anyone with an interest to volunteer for this vital heritage project, especially in the central belt. We are always happy to help out in training and advising new recorders so that new teams can be established right across Scotland. Please message DJ, our Director, to find out more.

Some of the volunteer church recorders from Inverclyde and Argyll taking a brief break while recording the contents of Dunoon High Church 

Left to Right – Susan, Harriet, Hannah, Alison, Lynnette and Peter (Photograph: Author’s own collection).

Our sincerest and warmest thanks to Peter for kindly writing this blog for us about why he volunteers on this important project and also to all of the other amazing, incredible volunteers who, like him, have been giving up their precious free time to diligently record churches in Inverclyde and elsewhere.

Scotland’s religious buildings are experiencing a period of upheaval unseen since the mid-19th century. Several hundred of the country’s most beloved and historic churches are earmarked for closure in the coming months.

In late 2022, with the support of Historic Environment Scotland, Scotland’s Churches Trust re-launched its initiative to rapidly record the interior, moveable contents of as many of these closing churches as possible before these items are dispersed and lost forever.

Please watch our brief video below and do drop our director a line if you are able to volunteer a few hours to help make a public and permanent record of this hugely valuable manifestation of Scotland’s cultural heritage in your local area.