Church History

The current church for worship is at the Sangomore of Durness where the parish minister for Kinlochbervie and Durness holds a service each week. The ruins of the church at Balnakeil ceased to be used for worship in 1843. In the summer of 1996, a student minister of the Church of Scotland held two services as they might have been when last used for regular practice. The Durine church, built to replace the ancient church at Balnakeil, originally was erected in The Green near the present village centre but as no surveyor was employed it was not until after being built it was noticed the church was subsiding on soft ground and was taken apart brick by brick and moved. This Established Church of Scotland was closed in 1945 and is now a joiner's workshop. In 1996, the roof was replaced and an extension was added to the rear. There are local people who can recall the Durine church being used for a wedding service in the 1930's and during the war the Durine church was used as a Home Guard canteen. The Sangomore Church was built as a Free Church of Scotland in 1891 and joined with the Durine Church in 1929 to become Durness Parish Church. Nothing has changed inside the church except for the electric lights. There was no organ before 1940. The average church attendance is about fifteen each week but a strong bond for the existence is supported in individual actions. A different student minister has been residing in Durness each summer and participates and organises small social pursuits. The Church of Scotland Parish Minister resides and holds services in Kinlochbervie church.

The history of the parish is very closely intermingled with the religious and social account; related writings are practically non-existent and primitive actual boundaries are difficult to discover. The early Celtic Church formed portions of land into Parishes and from church records, there is apparent evidence to show that those favouring the Roman Catholic Church received grants, the Celtic owners being dispossessed. The new landowners dedicated a portion to the church and gave a tenth of their produce. This granting of a tenth became a right of the church and it is safe to presume that the parish of Durness was formed at this early period. Durness was church land owned by the Bishop of Caithness and in 1559 granted by the then Bishop to the Earls of Sutherland. While this area is popularly proclaimed as Mackay country, the Mackay lands did not include Durness parish. Their land was known as Strathnaver or Farr and extended from the bounds of Durness at Diri-more eastwards to the bounds of Caithness and Southwards to Ben Chilbrig.

Up to the time of the Reformation, the parish of Durness was more or less under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church. Strathnaver, Durness, Sutherland and Caithness formed one diocese and from the reformation to the Revolution Settlement in 1688, they remained as one ecclesiastical unit alternatively Presbyterian and Prelate. On The tenth of April 1638, an agreement was made between the First Lord of Reay and the Bishop of Caithness regarding a Parish at Tongue. This agreement mentions that there had been two parishes covering Farr and Durness since Papal times. The agreement was registered in the Presbyterian books but erection did not take place as the Bishop was deposed a few weeks later.

The first Protestant minister in the parish of Durness was John Reid; Farquer Reid followed him in 1574. About eighteen ministers in the next one hundred and fifty years are recorded and laterally in that period the ancient order of Catechises were employed by the wealthier families, where there were no settled ministers, to act as family tutors. Until 1724 Durness parish stretched to Tongue in the east and to Kylesku in the south; " ….But, as one clergyman was not equal to the task of instructing the inhabitants of so extensive a district in religion, and inspecting their manners…," it was divided in three; Durness, Tongue and Eddrachillis. The Rev. Mr. Macdonald of Durness in his diary for June 1741 states that the death of Mr. Mackay, the minister of the Parish of Eddrachillis who had been ordained only two months previously, was brought about by a reputed witch whose daughter Mr. Mackay had severely rebuked. Action was brought against this woman by the church and she suffered great punishment.

In 1772, the Presbytery, finding that the Parish of Durness was divided by a Kyle and that another preaching station was necessary besides the church, appointed a mission house at West Moine. On occasions when Lord Reay or his eldest son stayed at Durness, the minister there would preach for four Sundays at the church and the fifth at West Moine. It would further recommend that one discourse at least would be in English each Sabbath at Durness.

Although God fearing people most highlanders had little interest in Presbyterian Protestantism until the 18th century. The main mission of the Established Church was to put down Episcopalians. The Presbyterian offensive intensified after each Jacobite rebellion and reached a climax in 1746 when many Episcopalian chapels and meeting houses were destroyed. The Established Church was identified with the landlords. Ministers objecting with the evictions were rare. Disorientated and demoralised by the social and economic changes and without their traditional leadership the small tenantry were unable to look to the Established Church for guidance and assistance. The Evangelism led most of the people into the Free Church.

The Gaelic bible was the only book widely available in Gaelic and used in society schools after the translation was completed in 1801. It was of great importance to the crofting population. Society ministers were looked on with disfavour by the moderate ministers and often persecuted, being brought before the church courts but it brought a new self-confidence amongst the crofters. Lay preachers became prominent, the first leadership of any sort to emerge from the crofting population. The laymen were known as 'na daoine' The Men.

The clearances, removals and evictions wer

e questioning times and led to the formation of the Free Protesting Church of Scotland in May 1843. In Sutherland eight out of eighteen parish ministers came out into the new Free Church, approximately eighteen thousand of the twenty five thousand population. On the first Sunday after the Disruption the Durness Church bell was muffled with an old sock and the congregation reduced to practically nil. Only the sheep farmers and their shepherds attended. The landlords were very suspicious of the Free Church and harassed and obstructed them whenever possible. It was a danger to the landowner as it threatened to end the crofters' political isolation and translate their wrongs into English. In 1843, it was the first time the crofting community had stood up to the proprietors and won. Through various sequences of events and Parliamentary enquiries the Crofters Act was passed in 1886.

The Disruption of 1843 affected the parish. when the Rev. Wm. Findlater was one of those ministers who came out followed by a great majority of his congregation. For a few years they had neither church nor manse and were compelled to worship in the open. Eventually a site was obtained at Sangomore on which a church, manse and school were erected. The old church at Balnakeil remained the church of the Established congregation. They moved to the Durine with the Established manse at the Gleb. The two domination's continued like this for years except the Free Church became the United Free Church in 1900. At the general assembly of both churches in May 1929, it was resolved to unite as one denomination and in April 1931, on the death of the minister of the former Established church a local union was consummated. In July 1931, the minister of the former United Free congregation was inducted to the charge of one congregation of The Church Of Scotland. The United Free Church in Sangomore became the Church of the Parish and the Established Manse the manse of the parish. The United Free manse was sold in 1935.

Durness used to be a Gaelic speaking ministerial charge but was departed from around 1935 because of the difficulties of securing a minister. In 1955, it was reported there had been a vacancy for three years with no prospect of an early settlement. The Air Ministry, who had acquired twelve acres of land in the Glebe in 1954 offered to buy the manse and the congregation, accepted their offer. In 1955, there were two elders, ten communicants and an average attendance of about twenty. From 1991 to 1998, the Rev. Donny MacSween was the Church of Scotland minister to the Parish. The Church of Scotland owns some land around Durness mostly in the region called the Glebe in Durine.

Illustrative chronicles

There have been five Statistical Accounts for the parish of Durness, recording contrasting aspects of the life styles and range of activities at the altered intervals and miscellaneous writings with brief chronicles. Following are summary interpretations of accounts and condensed translations from the earlier writings. The original authors are named but the text has been explained quite differently yet retaining the meaning.

Durine Church around 1990  now a joiners workshop
Churchend church as currently used by church of Scotland