Chapel of the Month – September 2018

This month we have a bumper issue of Chapel of the Month as Roger N Holden, a keen photographer and Chapels Society member, shares his thoughts about some of the charming and very varied chapels to be found in the Shetland Islands.

From a chapels point of view, the most surprising thing about Shetland, the most northerly group of islands in Scotland and hence the United Kingdom, is the large number of Methodist chapels. Methodism has always been weak in Presbyterian dominated Scotland, no doubt being seen as an English import. Counting numbers on the Methodist Church web-site, there are currently some 50 Methodist Churches in Scotland of which no fewer the 13 are on Shetland. That is 26% of churches on islands which contain a mere 0.05% of the population of Scotland. This includes churches on Fair Isle and at Haroldswick on Unst which claims to be not just the most northerly Methodist church but the most northerly church in the United Kingdom. John Wesley never visited Shetland and the first Methodists to come to the islands were Samuel Dunn and John Raby in October 1822. But growth of the Methodists in Shetland is principally attributed to the missionary work of Adam Clarke later in the 1820s. The Methodist Church in Lerwick, built in 1872, is named the Adam Clarke Memorial Church in his honour (photo 1). The chapel at Walls is of such size and prominence to be mistaken for the parish church (photo 2) although others are simpler buildings like that at Vidlin (photo 3) which stands hard by the water’s edge. In the past there were more active churches than there are now and a number of chapels survive in residential or commercial use such as those at Skelberry on South Mainland (photo 4) and Burravoe on Yell (photo 5). All the churches on Shetland were originally Wesleyan, none of the other Methodist Connexions got this far.

Why Wesleyan Methodism took such a hold on Shetland while it made no impact on the rest of the Highlands and Islands, is a matter of speculation. Culturally Shetland, and also Orkney, is very different from the Western Isles. Their associations are more Nordic, they never have been Gaelic speaking and their traditional language was a form of Old Norse. This may be one reason why the strict Presbyterianism of the Western Isles never took root here but it may also be a reflection of the fact that the established church found great difficulties in serving this remote and scattered group of Islands as other evangelists before the Methodists had found that their message took root here.

James Haldane had visited Shetland in 1799 and when George Reid was sent in 1806 to preach to “its poor inhabitants” he already found a number of people who had separated from the Established Church. A church was accordingly formed in Lerwick on Congregational principles while Reid travelled throughout the islands preaching. Resulting from this Congregational churches were established in a number of places, including the remote island of Foula. The Congregational church in Lerwick still meets in its chapel originally built in 1820, enlarged and rebuilt in 1840 and 1893 (photo 6). As far as is known the only other currently active Congregational church on Shetland is that at Reawick.

Sinclair Thompson formed a branch of the Lerwick church at Spigge, in South Mainland but subsequently he became convinced of Baptist principles and was baptised, it is not clear by whom, in Spiggie Loch in August 1815 resulting in the formation of Dunrossness Baptist Church. The current rather curious building used by the church was designed by the pastor of the church, William Fotheringham (photo 7). The initials ST over the doorway clearly refer to Sinclair Thompson, the dates 1816 and 1912 being the dates respectively of the founding of the church and the construction of the present building (photo 8). The Baptist Church building of 1894 in Lerwick, which stands opposite the Congregational Chapel, has now been converted for residential use (photo 9). This is not because the congregation has disbanded but because they moved to a large new building in 2013 at Quoys Road, amongst a housing development with a very Scandinavian feel in the suburbs of Lerwick. The building of Burra Baptist Church dates from 1904 and stands on East Burra just above the bridge linking to West Burra (photo 10); the church also meets in Hamnavoe on West Burra.

The Plymouth Brethren came to Shetland later, in the 1860s. Ebenezer Gospel Hall in Lerwick is almost impossible to photograph, standing as it does in Navy Lane, one of the narrow lanes leading up from the water-front. More accessible for photography is the Hall in Lang Closs, Scalloway (photo 11). The final word, however, must go the Gospel Hall in Sound, a suburb of Lerwick, which prominently proclaims that it is the “Sound Gospel Hall” (photo 12). Well, indeed one would not wish to attend an unsound Gospel Hall!

Photos:

  1. Adam Clarke Memorial Methodist Church, Lerwick
  2. Walls Methodist Church
  3. Vidlin Methodist Church
  4. Skelberry Methodist Chapel
  5. Burravoe Methodist Chapel, Yell
  6. Lerwick Congregational Church
  7. Dunrossness Baptist Church
  8. Dunrossness Baptist Chapel
  9. Lerwick Baptist Chapel
  10. Burra Baptist Church
  11. Gospel Hall, Lang Closs, Scalloway
  12. Sound Gospel Hall

Sources:

  • John Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland: Highlands and Islands (London: Penguin, 1992), 467-518
  • William D. McNaughton, Early Congregational Independency in Shetland (Lerwick: Shetland Times, 2005)
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