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Bell tolls for historic Old High Church as regular services set to end this month

The church has been part of the Inverness landscape for centuries
The church has been part of the Inverness landscape for centuries

The congregation of the historic Old High Church in Inverness will hold its final regular service this month after centuries of worship.

The city landmark faces closure due to falling numbers and a need to rationalise the number of Church of Scotland buildings and ministers.

Last year, the congregation voted 179-71 to close the Old High and retain the joint charge of St Stephen’s.

The joint kirk session and Inverness Presbytery also voted to shut the Old High.

Final regular service on January 30

The decision has been passed to the Kirk’s General Trustees, who own the building.

This week after a “full and frank discussion”, the kirk session voted 21-4 to close the church for worship services from the end of February 2022.

However, as members will worship in St Stephen’s in February, the final service will be on Sunday, January 30.

Locum minister Rev James Bissett will conduct a service for people who have been bereaved during the last year on February 13 in the Old High.

An event was held last year on the spot where St Columba is reputed to have converted the Pictish King Brude to Christianity in 565 AD, on the 1500th anniversary of the saint’s birth

Members of the local band Torridon will take part and a collection will be taken for the Mikeysline charity.

Inverness Presbytery also plans to hold a closure service for the city’s oldest church at a later date.

It has raised concerns among many who fear losing the listed building and its equally important contents.

Session clerk Christine MacKenzie said: “It’s very sad.

“It was the first charge of the presbytery and the very cradle of Christianity in Inverness.

Other Inverness churches facing closure

“But there will be other churches closing in Inverness in the next year or two. We will not be the only ones.”

It is hoped the building could remain open to the public as a heritage or music centre.

However, any group taking it over would face a significant repair bill and listed building restrictions.

“Presumably the General Trustees will put it up for sale and hopefully it will be sold to somebody who will treat it with the respect it needs to be treated with”, said Ms MacKenzie.

“I would certainly like to see the building retained in some form and used by the public.

The church is a prominent feature on the Inverness landscape

“But you are restricted in what you can do and any historical building takes a lot of money to run.”

St Michael’s Mount, where the church stands, is where St Columba reputedly brought Christianity to the Highlands in 565 AD.

The current building dates from 1772 and is popular with tourists, forming part of a historic trail including Inverness Castle, the Town House, the Steeple and Abertarff House.

Wounded Jacobite prisoners from the Battle of Culloden were imprisoned in the church before being shot in the churchyard outside.

Church holds historic artefacts

The churchyard walls still bear scars said to have been caused by Redcoat musket balls.

It has become a place of pilgrimage for many fans of the Outlander books and TV series.

The building holds artefacts from the local regiment, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, including the regimental colours and the memorial books naming the soldiers who fell during conflicts.

Many of the men were Old High Church members and are listed on the war memorial on the outside wall.

The church also houses a Victorian ‘Father’ Henry Willis organ, which underwent a £200,000 reconstruction 20 years ago.

The church is still classed as the regimental chapel and the grounds are a designated Commonwealth War Grave.

It is also where the traditional ‘Kirking of the Council’ takes place.

The Old High Church, church organ is one of its many assets

Maureen Kenyon, from the Inverness Local History Forum, said closure would mean a “terrible loss” for Inverness.

“Closing the church and losing the history of the place doesn’t seem right.

“It’s such a shame, it’s the town’s kirk. But it’s not me that has to pay the bills.

“It would be a terrible loss. There is a possibility of someone buying it and using it as a museum or cultural centre, but it would be a huge financial undertaking.

Support for church buyout

“Certainly our group would be interested in supporting anyone interested in a buyout.”

Inverness Presbytery clerk Rev Trevor Hunt said he welcomes any move to save the church and retain public access.

“The problem for anyone taking it over is that it has quite a big repair bill.”

“Ideally the Church would like to hold on to it. But the reality is we can’t afford it.”

A Church of Scotland spokesman said: “No official decisions have been made around the future of the Old High Church building.

“The process is ongoing.”