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Community singing from same hymn sheet in effort to save Melness Church

A local committee is investigating acquiring Melness Church
A local committee is investigating acquiring Melness Church

A Highland community is fighting to save its last remaining church to use as a multi-faith centre and help local regeneration plans.

A committee is looking at acquiring historic Melness Church for community activities as well as for religious services by different denominations.

The Church of Scotland first announced its intention to close the church in 2019.

Informal discussions continued during lockdown and a seven-strong committee was formed recently after a public meeting.

Pledges of support for church plan

It aims to develop a business plan next month for a community-owned, multi-faith, multi-purpose facility.

It has approached potential funding sources and a draft constitution is being sent to the Scottish Charity Register.

Other people from Melness and neighbouring communities have pledged support.

Committee member Dorothy Pritchard also chairs Melness Crofters Estate which is behind plans to bring the UK’s first spaceport to Sutherland.

She said: “Our community is particularly vulnerable due to an ageing and reduced population.

Dorothy Pritchard says the church is part of reinvigorating the community

“Like so many villages around the north coast, which rely on tourism, many of the houses are now holiday rentals.

“The consequence of this is empty homes for about five months of the year.

“With the development of the new space hub and the proposed building of new social housing we hope to reinvigorate this community.

“Our church building will be an integral part of that.

“All we need now is the time to continue this process to its conclusion and present our plan to Church of Scotland Trustees.”

Church numbers have fallen in recent years

The church, built in 1902, has seen numbers falling in recent years and services are discontinued.

It is linked to St Andrew’s Church in Tongue, which is being retained.

The area also has Catholic, Episcopalian and Free Church members and a multi-faith church is seen as a way forward.

The committee report strong support to retain the church, which was built by local tradesmen, with locally-quarried stone using money from the community.

When funds ran out, Hugh Gunn, the local stonemason, completed the porch at his own expense.

Local donations have funded repairs, with at least 16 windows being paid for by residents and their families.

Rhoda Kennedy says the church is a beautiful building

Melness Crofters’ Estate, in conjunction with the grazings committee, also paid for a stock management fence around the church

In addition, crofters installed a cement access pathway around 20 years ago.

“Our community has invested time, energy and money in our local church building”, said Dorothy.

“Despite the fact that we have an ageing, vulnerable community, our desire to retain our church is undiminished.”

Another committee member, Rhoda Kennedy, said: “I think it is a beautiful building and was built by the people of Melness for the community.

“I would like to see it used as a community hub with a cafe, history and visitor information and space for youth, school and other community groups to come together.

Built by the people at their own expense

“I have a family here and I work in the local schools. So having an indoor space where the children can take part in activities or socialise would be so good for all our young people.”

Colin McDonogh serves on the committee and Tongue Community Council, which supports the acquisition.

“The church was built by the people of Melness at their own expense for use by them.

“Their successors should continue to enjoy the benefit of the building.”

Stuart Mingham, a former elder and Sunday school teacher at Melness and Tongue Church, now leads a Christian fellowship in the area.

The Space Hub Sutherland project is planned at Melness

“Numbers attending show that people still feel a need to meet together for worship, though not necessarily in a traditional way.

“I am sure that it is also important, even for non church-goers, to know there is a ‘sacred’ space where special events, such as weddings and funerals, can be held.

“The Melness Church building, run as a community venture, would meet that need.

“It would also provide a venue for more regular religious services for different denominations, with part of the building perhaps modified for other uses, such as local history displays, exhibitions, etc.”

Community bid will be considered by Church

A Church of Scotland spokesman said: “We are aware that a community organisation may be interested in the property and it is working towards being able to submit an offer.

“It will be considered by the various church bodies who are involved in the sale along with any other offers received.”

In September, the £17.5 million Space Hub Sutherland project was cleared by the Scottish Land Court.

A judge gave the go-ahead to Highlands and Islands Enterprise to use land owned by crofters for the plan.

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