Churches and places of worship define who we are. Their history is unique, built for worship and often with peculiarities that speak of the history of the community that first enjoyed them and then changing and evolving as national and local ideas changed and evolved. Churches can be a quiet place of worship and reflection but equally they can be an exciting place to explore, containing a wealth of interest, information and wonder whether your interest is religion, history, architecture, culture or genealogy. Studying historic churches provided a sanity break for Adam Cumming from his career as a research scientist, and led to involvement in Scotland’s Churches Trust, now as chair.  The Trust is not affiliated to any religious body. The Trust grew from a merger of Scotland’s Churches Scheme supporting awareness, opening and pilgrimages and the Scottish Churches Architectural Heritage Trust. It has a full-time director, Dr DJ Johnson-Smith, with one part-time assistant and several volunteers. Scotland’s Churches Trust works with other bodies including the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum, Historic Churches Trust and the Places of Worship Forum. It enjoys the patronage of HRH the Princess Royal and until the pandemic was able to sustain a programme of events, talks and recitals.

Now the priorities are church recording so as to preserve social and cultural history, supported in part by Historic Environment Scotland with reports available on Canmore, with a second strand of campaigning for church retention in whatever form they can serve the community, not exclusively for worship. In the future church buildings may become multiuse, being used for community activities as well as worship. One example is Kilmun which combines arts with a worship centre. Faced with accelerating closures in all denominations, though most visibly at present in the Church of Scotland, church recording has become a race against time, with recent examples locally of Abercorn that may be secured by the Hopetoun Estate and Oldhamstocks which is being disposed of. Up to four hundred churches await that fate, heritage not being seen as a priority by the Church of Scotland with consequent risk to our country’s inheritance through wholesale loss of their contents. 

The issue has recently prompted press coverage particularly at Morham where a descendant of the Dalrymple family has taken court action to protect the burial place of his ancestors. Elsewhere in East Lothian the kirk at Saltoun where Andrew Fletcher lies buried is likely to also be for sale. The church’s place in the Scottish landscape is under threat, and as the late James Dunbar-Naismith put it whereas it used to be that the job of the churches was to save people, now it is the job of the people to save churches. Home of one of only two round towers in Scotland, the fine thirteenth-century Brechin Cathedral recently closed, and Historic Environment Scotland does not have the money to take on the maintenance that it needs.  Built in 1400 and modernised in 1642, Kilbirnie is at risk though it has had its contents recorded, but others at risk include Burntisland Parish Church and the already closed Old West Kirk in Greenock. Auchtertool in Fife is an example of a small, little-known place whose church is nevertheless important, being twelfth century in origin and with many articles of historic interest including a local war memorial. The contents of threatened churches which need to be recorded include archive and library materials, memorials (including war memorials), communion plate, artworks, musical instruments especially organs, paintings and pictures, textiles, plaques and stained-glass windows.  One example of artwork is a set of murals in Dysart St Clair church by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, once overpainted but now rescued. If a church is sold these may all be lost to the community. The Trust trains volunteers in the skills of recording, complementing Arts Society activities but whereas the Arts Society approach is more thorough and leisurely there is not the time for that if we are to produce a record rapidly enough.  For example, we allocate typically one day or maybe two to record the contents of one church. 

Partnerships can be with anyone keen to record what’s there, promoting awareness through a directory of churches with information to help people looking to visit and experience these amazing buildings. Identifying grants and bursaries where available, the Trust works with active congregations and other Scottish bodies including those of any faith to save and preserve items, finding new uses for redundant buildings in association with the Scottish Government and its agencies or indeed UK bodies. The Trust is planning open days, talks and musical events, with future gatherings to update members or others. The Trust wants to reconnect the Scottish people with the history, architecture, and contents of their churches, following their stories through time. It cannot succeed alone and seeks the help of individuals as volunteers or Friends. The Church of Scotland is producing a document recognising signature churches, but these may amount to no more than a handful. Everywhere else will require local effort which the Trust will aim to support.