Recording Scotland’s Closing Churches – A Race against time

Dr DJ Johnston-Smith

Director, Scotland’s Churches Trust

Changing demographics and falling church attendance figures in Scotland have provided both a philosophical and a financial challenge to the various denominational owners of large portfolios of religious buildings found in every corner of the country.

These often large, historic, usually stone-built structures are almost always very costly and difficult to maintain, to heat and, where necessary, to repair and restore. For decades now, religious buildings that were deemed surplus to requirements have slowly trickled onto the open market.

Sometimes these buildings have found new public uses, taken over by other denominations or faith groups, or as community venues, or for variety of business ventures. Many churches have been converted into private homes and, sadly all too often, many have been demolished to make way for other buildings

Recording a church within a church at Greenside in Edinburgh

In 2019, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, keenly aware that it possessed close to half of the church buildings then in use for worship in Scotland, signaled its desire to review its property portfolio and internal governance structures.

Its many Presbyteries were instructed to work with their congregations to produce local area “Mission Plans” that would help make the church fit for purpose in contemporary Scotland. In practice, this would mean the rationalisation and shared use of buildings, leading to the planned disposal of buildings across the country.

The process only really got under way post-pandemic, after the majority of church buildings had spent many months and sometimes even whole years closed to the public. This period of enforced closure exacerbated many of the existing fabric issues with many -of the buildings, encouraging a much-accelerated disposal programme than many had originally predicted.

The slow trickle of church sales continued throughout the three years of “Mission Planning”, which officially closed at the end of December 2022. Buildings were internally categorised as “A”, meaning they are safe from disposal until the next round of Mission Planning or “B”, meaning they are for short-term disposal. Working estimates in February 2023 for church disposal in the next few years suggest the Church of Scotland will close around 30% of its churches, or between 350 and 400 buildings.

“For Sale” signs outside churches like this one will become an increasingly common sight in communities across Scotland in the coming months.

When this process was still in its early days, and being very aware that other denominations, similarly charged with maintaining costly church buildings, were looking on and mulling over which of theirs to keep, Scotland’s Churches Trust approached Historic Environment Scotland in 2019 about potentially supporting a pilot national emergency church recording initiative.

Rather than concentrate upon the architectural features and built fabric of these buildings, which we must hope will survive their sale relatively intact, our project aims to record the moveable contents of each church – the hundreds of fragile artefacts gathered within each building by their local communities, often over many generations, which will inevitably be removed and scattered after the church is closed.

Initially launching in early 2020, our volunteers attempted to get the pilot project off the ground just as COVID appeared. Over the months that followed, as regulations allowed, our volunteers began to visit some churches and keep the initiative alive. They recorded and produced short reports on Dysart St Clair, Sullom and Uyeasound in Shetland and Viewforth Parish Church in Kirkcaldy.

Due to staff changes at our Trust and the inevitable vagaries of public engagement with such initiatives during a pandemic, it wasn’t until late summer of 2022 that we were once again able to re-boot the project, effectively starting it all over again.

After embarking upon a volunteer recruitment drive and seeking out churches that were likely to close, in August and September our volunteers visited and recorded the contents of Greenside Parish Church in Edinburgh and Innerwick and Oldhamstocks Parish Churches in East Lothian. In February 2023, they visited Portnahaven and Kilmeny in Islay and Morham in East Lothian. 

As well as physically recording the churches themselves and training new volunteers in the basic techniques of recording churches, these sessions helped our office team and leading volunteers to develop an emergency church recording methodology that we hope to roll out across the country in the coming year.  

We created an online form, to collate images and recording data in a single location, that can easily be replicated by small local groups, who have identified and sought permission to record their local closing churches, and we have developed a recorders’ handbook with advice and tips to assist with the recording and uploading of each church record to the HES Archives.

As scores of local churches begin to close their doors, alter their traditional use or vanish completely from our cultural landscape in the coming months and years these records will provide future researchers with a valuable insight into what once took place within those walls and the value that these buildings had to their communities over many generations.

We hope to publish our handbook on here in the coming weeks, but we talk more about the emergency church recording process we have developed in the webinar below that we recently recorded with an online audience of over a hundred potential recorders from around the country.

If you would like to join our “potential church recorder” mailing list and help us to make a permanent, public record of the contents of your local closing church building please drop us a line here.