COMMUNITIES across Scotland are praying they can save their historic churches and the treasures within them.

Up to 400 Church of Scotland kirks are earmarked for disposal and other denominations also face having to sell off buildings as a result of declining membership.

Many have been used as places of worship continuously since before the Reformation, stretching back to the medieval era.

Now there is a race to save not only some of the buildings, but also culturally significant items contained within many of them, such as lecterns, fonts and statues.

“There is a crisis in church buildings in Scotland which goes beyond those who attend church on a Sunday morning,” said Dr DJ Johnston-Smith, director of the Scottish Churches Trust, which has launched an appeal for volunteers to record the contents of the buildings before they close.

“In St Fillans, for example, the church is 900-years-old. That is how long it has been used as a community hub and we know today, during the cost of living crisis, how important these buildings are. The wellbeing they provide goes far beyond religion and I think that is the shock that is going to come to communities.

The National: Dr DJ Johnston-Smith, director of the Scottish Churches TrustDr DJ Johnston-Smith, director of the Scottish Churches Trust (Image: -)

"Our communities have lost their banks, their post offices, their libraries and their pubs and now the church is the last community building standing. Every one of these buildings is of value to their communities and if they are closed to the public it is going to be a big shock.”

One of the buildings at risk is Kilbirnie Auld in Ayrshire which has “stunning” 17th and 18th century wood panelling.

“It is an incredible building of national importance,” said Johnston-Smith. A petition against the possible closure has been launched by the community.

He added that while the majority of the churches were not necessarily going contain such panelling, they were still “repositories of unique cultural heritage that is of significance to Scotland’s history”.

Already lost are irreplaceable items contained within Lundie Kirk in Angus, which dated back to the 12th century, but was ravaged by fire in November after being sold last year for £40,000.

The wood panelled interior decorated with tributes to Admiral Adam Duncan, who led the British fleet’s defeat of the Dutch in the 1797 Battle of Camperdown, was destroyed.

“Around 1000 years of collective history in that church is gone,” said Johnston-Smith.

Seven A-listed kirks in Fife are also under threat, including the historic 13th century Culross Abbey which has featured in hit time-travelling drama Outlander.

Said to be built on the site of an early Christian community that included St Mungo, it features the ruins of a Cistercian monastery and contains the vault of Sir George Bruce, a visionary born in 1550 who developed a highly innovative system of coal mining at the village.

The community council has made a plea for the abbey to be saved as a “sacred and special place which welcomes visitors from around the globe”. In a letter to Kirk trustees, the council stated “dismay” at the plan and said the building should “not be disposed of in a way that deprives the public of its sacred meaning, benefits and history”.

However the disposal plans, which are expected to be finalised shortly by presbyteries across Scotland, would mean the buildings would be sold off as quickly as possible, giving communities little time to form feasible buy-out proposals.

A case in point is that of the Old West Kirk in Greenock, the first Presbyterian church to be built in Scotland following the Reformation. Plans for the community to buy it fell through but it has been bought by a Greenock businessman who has pledged to preserve the building and continue to let it play a role in the life of the community.

While it looks as though the fate of the Old West Kirk is secured, that is not the case for hundreds of others and the items they contain which, it is feared, will be lost, sold or damaged when the buildings are disposed of.

“That is why Scotland’s Churches Trust is working with Historic Environment Scotland on a national initiative to recruit and support volunteers across the country who will help record the contents of these churches, before the building closes and these items are lost and scattered forever,” said Johnston-Smith.

However even if the churches are not of historic value or hold precious artefacts, they are still seen as valuable assets by communities, he pointed out.

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“They are sometimes the only permanent, built landmarks that some of us, regular church-goers or not, have known for most, if not all, of our lives,” said Johnston-Smith.

While it is often thought that churches are used only for the occasional baptism, wedding or funeral the reality is that they are used by many localities for fetes, coffee mornings, clubs and meetings.

“Today, right now, there are churches up and down the country operating as food and warmth banks during this generation-defining cost of living crisis. This only highlights the contemporary need for these vital community spaces even more,” Johnston-Smith said.

In Shetland, 19 churches have closed already and more closures are planned. On Islay and Jura, where there is a total of six churches, including the A-listed iconic Round Church, there is no Church of Scotland minister and services are conducted by session clerks with the Baptist minister and locums filling in for sacraments like baptism.

“At least tw;o of those are likely to be closing and I can see the rest following if you are relying on volunteers who may become exhausted. That is what we are seeing all round the country,” said Johnston-Smith.

He acknowledged that the Kirk had, over many years, tried to make many of its buildings sustainable but falling membership had taken its toll, with the two year closure of the buildings due to the pandemic accelerating their cost liabilities.

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“Unless congregations find a way to reconnect these buildings to the community they cannot be sustainable,” he said.

As part of the Church of Scotland’s “Mission Plans”, presbyteries across the country have been tasked with drawing up plans to conserve their contracting resources by pinpointing buildings that can be sold, but the difficulty of choosing which to save means that the deadline of the end of last year has had to be extended.

Said Johnston-Smith: “This is mission planning to make the church stronger but a sense of place is important and that has to be recognised – and at the moment, I fear it is not being recognised.

“We are attached to the places we have always known and when that is taken away it is very hard to reconnect. People don’t understand why their church is closing and they are sadly giving up on their church because they are not prepared to travel to another building.”

A Church of Scotland spokesperson said: “The Church of Scotland’s 2021 General Assembly instructed presbyteries to complete a Mission Plan by the end of 2022 as part of a comprehensive programme of reforms to equip the Church for the challenges of Christian mission in the coming years.

“The Church owns thousands of properties, far more than required to achieve our mission of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and serving our local communities.

“Changing population patterns along with falling membership, fewer people training for ministry and a reduction in financial contributions mean that it is necessary to reduce the number of buildings we own.

“We recognise that church buildings have meaning and value to their local communities, so we know that some of these decisions will be difficult. However, the mission plans will consider what is best for the whole of the presbytery area.

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“A number of our buildings are also of national and local importance.

“In the case of such properties, including A-listed buildings no longer considered suitable for worship, the General Trustees will work closely with interested parties to determine the best future for those buildings.

“Whilst the General Trustees cannot be seen as a “heritage society” and such buildings cannot be retained indefinitely, they will always seek to deal with them sensitively and appropriately.

“Most presbyteries have now completed their mission plans and the remaining presbyteries are working diligently to complete their plans in the coming weeks.”