Church Redundancy

Lessons from Scotland

Victoria Collison-Owen

  Repaired parish church of Cromarty.  
  The historic parish church of Cromarty (East Church) was closed in the late 1990s and extensively repaired and conserved by Historic Churches Scotland. It is now open to visitors daily throughout the year, holds around six services a year, and an annual programme of community events. (Photo: Historic Churches Scotland)  

Church redundancy in Scotland is nothing new. In a nation once reputed to have had more pews than people, there is a long history of closing church buildings. The 1977 V&A exhibition ‘Change and Decay – a future for our churches’ observed that ‘in Scotland, since 1900, more churches have been abandoned, closed or demolished than are now in use’.

Scotland also has a history of pragmatic repurposing of churches. In the 1950s, St George’s Church in Edinburgh’s New Town, a landmark church based on a 1791 design by Robert Adam, was a high-profile casualty of a marked postwar decline in church attendance. Poor condition and a diminishing congregation led to its closure, and in 1960 the imposing domed Greek-plan church was acquired by the Crown. Gutted and converted to a national archive facility by the Ministry of Public Building and Works, the former church became West Register House, now part of the National Records of Scotland.


The dissociation of society from organised religion and the continued decline in church attendance are among the major causes of redundancy in Scotland today. In the 2011 census, 36.7 per cent of Scots described themselves as ‘not religious’, increasing to 52 per cent in the 2016 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. Among all faiths and denominations, the decline in the Church of Scotland has been most marked, losing around 80 per cent of its membership since the 1950s. It is now half the size it was in 2000, with membership declining at around four per cent per annum.

However, a reduction in religious adherence and church-going is only part of the picture. The fragmentation of the Presbyterian Church during the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in an unprecedented church-building programme by seceding denominations. A series of reunifications during the 20th century left countless united congregations throughout Scotland with more than one church. Many of these were repurposed as church halls and others demolished, however a significant proportion were retained and continued to be used for worship. For example, when the United Free Church rejoined the Church of Scotland in 1929, the small Black Isle town of Cromarty found itself with one combined congregation and two churches: the historic parish church (East Church) and the former Free Church (West Church). Worship continued with services held alternately in both churches until the late 1990s, when the East Church was closed. In this instance it was acquired by Historic Churches Scotland for £1. It was extensively repaired and conserved in a £1.2 million project between 2008 and 2012 and now holds around six services a year, plus weddings and funerals. Supported by an active group of local Friends (aged 9 to 90), the church also hosts concerts, an annual art and flower festival, music workshops and exhibitions. It has been used to record albums by award-winning traditional musicians, and also welcomes around 20,000 visitors every year.

Such congregational unions and linkages within the Church of Scotland in more recent years have significantly increased the trend of one congregation with many churches, with some taking on the increased responsibility and expense for up to four church buildings. The Church of Scotland currently has 1,250 congregations and estimates it owns around 3,000 churches. Many of these are historic buildings, and research in 2008–9 identified that the Church of Scotland is responsible for the single largest portfolio of listed buildings in Scotland. This is greater than that of the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland combined.

An ageing building stock, the impact of climate change, and increasing repair costs also contribute to a growing crisis for the nation’s church buildings, and demographic change, shifting centres of population, and a particular decline in more remote rural communities all increase the risk of churches closing. However, it is the challenge of adapting churches to meet the needs of modernday worship that makes Scotland’s historic churches especially vulnerable to redundancy. Buildings are required to provide warm and comfortable flexible spaces with level access, parking and toilets, and they need to be economical to operate. In its report to the 2019 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the General Trustees (the propertyowning body of the Church) noted that ‘land and buildings are resources for worship and mission and not an end in themselves.’ With the aim of providing buildings that are fit for purpose and sustainable, the General Trustees have developed a strategy with the overall theme of ‘well-equipped spaces in the right places.’ A Land and Buildings Plan consultation paper will be considered at the 2019 General Assembly with a view to presenting a finalised plan in 2020.

  St Peter's, Sandwick, restored and now used to host events.  
  St Peter’s, the former parish church of Sandwick in Orkney, was purchased by Historic Churches Scotland and extensively repaired and conserved in 2003–4. The church is used for weddings and funerals, is open to visitors,
and hosts Champing in partnership with the Churches Conservation Trust. (Photo: Historic Churches Scotland)

Increased levels of redundancy are inevitable. Indeed, the General Trustees previously indicated that an overall reduction of up to 40 per cent of their church buildings in the coming decade might be necessary. More remote areas are likely to be particularly severely affected by closures, and this has already been seen in some parts of Scotland, most notably the Shetland Islands. In October 2018, the closure of 20 of the Presbytery of Shetland’s 31 churches was announced, including Hillswick, Shetland’s oldest church, dating from 1733. In another radical move, the Howe of Fife congregation has taken a decision in principle to close and dispose of all four of its churches and build a new place of worship at the centre of the parish. This echoes the Orkney parish of Birsay, Harray and Sandwick, which over a period of years closed all of its historic kirks, replacing them with the multi-purpose eco-friendly Milestone Community Church in 2012. St Peter’s, the former parish church of Sandwick, was acquired by Historic Churches Scotland in 1998 for £1 in a derelict state and extensively repaired and conserved in 2003–4. The church is used for weddings and funerals and hosts musical events including excursion concerts as part of the St Magnus International Festival. It is open to the public and, in partnership with the Churches Conservation Trust, hosts ‘Champing’ (overnight stays in churches) during the summer months.


In an effort to be more innovative, the General Trustees are exploring alternatives to closure and disposal of churches. Traditionally, surplus buildings have been placed on the open market, and the Church of Scotland’s website typically lists between five and ten churches for sale at any one time (seven at the time of writing, together with manses, halls, glebes, and other residential properties). Churches are typically sold without planning consent or a development brief, and buyers are required to consult with local planners to establish what reuse options might be permissible. Recently, however, the option of a negotiated sale has been considered, in which a congregation remains in a church as one of a number of users and occupiers. Another innovation being investigated is the creation of rural hubs in which a church provides a base for essential services such as the police or post office. Similarly, a congregation might leave their church and relocate to worship in a hub building as a tenant. Whether in a rural or an urban setting, sharing of space and facilities in order to make best use of a building, and to reduce costs, makes good practical sense. The challenge is to do this in a way that is not detrimental to the significance of a church, and to ensure that adaptations are carried out sensitively and in an informed way.

An example of an historic church successfully sharing space without detrimental impact on its significance is St Munn’s Church in Kilmun, on the shores of the Holy Loch in Argyll. Kilmun has a rich religious history dating back to the 6th century when Fintan Munnu (Saint Munn), a contemporary of Saint Columba, arrived from Ireland and built a chapel. The category A listed church replaced the 15th-century St Mund’s Collegiate Church, the west tower of which survives as a scheduled monument. The complex historical site includes the Argyll Mausoleum (1795–6), resting place of the Dukes and Earls of Argyll, Chiefs of the Clan Campbell, and the Douglas of Glenfinart Mausoleum (1888). Led by the Benmore and Kilmun Community Development Trust, a charitable trust was established to restore the mausoleum and create a visitor centre within the church to interpret and celebrate the nationally important religious heritage of the area. The project was completed in 2014, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund) and Historic Environment Scotland, and enabled by a 30 year lease of part of the church and a similar lease from Argyll and Bute Council for the mausoleum. The Historic Kilmun project demonstrates that thoughtful and sensitive adaptation of an historic church can enable worship to co-exist with a complementary function, in this case tourism. Regrettably, uncertainty about the future of worship in the church poses a question about the longer-term sustainability of St Munn’s.


Perhaps as a consequence of the Scottish government’s emphasis on community empowerment, there has been an increase in the number of local initiatives in the face of threats posed by the closure or the poor condition of churches. In particular, there has been an increase in the number of redundant churches acquired by local trusts in order to retain a community space or asset following the closure of the post office, shop, pub and school. Although a long-established practice in Scotland, with examples of community-led trusts acquiring and preserving redundant churches dating back several decades, there has been a marked upturn in the trend in the past five years. One such community at Loch Broom in the north-west Highlands established the Clachan Lochbroom Heritage Trust in order to raise funds to buy the category B listed Lochbroom Parish Church, which held its final service in 2016. The Trust successfully acquired the church from the Church of Scotland General Trustees in 2018 and plan to use it as a community resource for concerts, heritage interpretation, arts and crafts displays, and also as a place for occasional services, weddings, and funerals.

  Interior of St Margaret's, Braemar, where a band is playing as part of the cultural events programme.
  The rescue and regeneration of St Margaret’s, Braemar, is a partnership project between Historic Churches Scotland and the community-led St Margaret’s Trust. A dynamic programme of cultural events is reanimating
the previously derelict church while a £2 million repair project is developed. (Photo above: Dale Johnson) (Photo below: Historic Churches Scotland)
  Exterior of St Margaret's, Braemar.

Urban communities too have taken the initiative, looking to retain a church as an asset for local people and a hub in which a range of community-led initiatives can be delivered. In 2018, following a campaign by local group Action Porty, Portobello Old Parish Church in Edinburgh became the first church to be successfully acquired through the Community Right To Buy process, with the Scottish Land Fund contributing 94 per cent of the purchase price. Now called Bellfield, the former church provides a range of spaces for hire, including the main former worship space in which pews have been retained, together with smaller multi-purpose hall spaces and break-out rooms. A similar purchase, also supported by the Scottish Land Fund, has seen the striking category B listed 1968 Anderston Kelvingrove Church in Glasgow become the Pyramid at Anderston, a communityowned space for local people and ‘a place to connect, create and celebrate.’

An alternative model for community involvement in an historic church is St Margaret’s Braemar, a category A listed church of 1899–1907 by Sir J Ninian Comper for the Scottish Episcopal Church. Built not for a local congregation, but to accommodate the influx of Anglican visitors following Queen Victoria’s fashion for holidaying in the Highlands of Scotland, the longevity of the church was in doubt almost immediately. Plagued by water ingress, the church was never completed, with a planned spire and north aisle left unbuilt. Nonetheless, St Margaret’s is considered to be Comper’s ‘Scottish Masterpiece’, a building referencing key ecclesiastical sites including the abbeys of Iona and Pluscarden. Closed for worship in 1997, the church sat empty and deteriorating, and was put on the Buildings at Risk Register in 2003. Local concern for the condition of the church, in a prominent location at the centre of the village next to the primary school, increased over time, prompting the formation of an action group by the community council. Motivated by a desire for a derelict building to benefit rather than blight the community, the group worked with Historic Churches Scotland to rescue and reanimate St Margaret’s. From small beginnings in 2011, the local group has developed a year-round programme of arts events in the church, including internationally renowned artists and performers, at the outset working within the constraints of a building that was neither weathertight nor heated. In 2013, Historic Churches Scotland acquired St Margaret’s from the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney for £1, establishing a partnership with the local group (now the St Margaret’s Trust). The complementary nature of the partnership in terms of motivation, skills, connections, and locality brings resilience, strength and many advantages, enabling both organisations to benefit from each other’s particular expertise. While the planned £2 million project to repair, conserve and adapt the building has some way to go, the process of reanimating St Margaret’s, engaging the community, and testing uses offers a useful model that can be applied to other redundant churches. An essential component of that model is the value of partnership and collaboration – of working with others who share an interest in a building – and one which Historic Churches Scotland actively promotes to the growing number of community-based trusts now caring for churches around the nation.

This is a uniquely challenging time for churches in Scotland, with a wide range of factors, both historical and contemporary, conspiring to create a perfect storm. The nation’s past experience of redundancy makes it accepting of loss and change which can be freeing when seeking to reimagine and repurpose churches, but creates ambivalence in terms of valuing ecclesiastical heritage as we would its artistic or literary counterparts. The willingness of denominations to identify new solutions and, in particular, the action and engagement of communities, are all positives. What is currently lacking, however, is coordination and collaboration: a coming-together of denominations, national organisations, and decision-makers to create a strategic approach that will ensure that the rich heritage of Scotland’s churches survives for future generations.

Historic Churches, 2019


VICTORIA COLLISON-OWEN is the director of Historic Churches Scotland (formerly the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust) ( Appointed in 1999 she has managed two of its major conservation projects from development and fundraising through to completion.

Further information


An Introduction to Conservation and Repairs

Restoration Case Studies

The Future of England's Parish Churches

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