Torridon Open Air Church (Am Ploc), Wester Ross

Torridon Open Air Church, looking towards Pulpit Rock (© Natalya Jagger)

Last week I stumbled across a video about an open air church in Torridon. Neither of us even knew it existed, and we were even more surprised that it is only a few miles from A’s house! So, on Saturday we set out to find it!

Map showing the location of Torridon Open Air Church

As you head into the village of Torridon you’ll reach a cafe, and opposite, there is small gravel track which, after a very short walk, leads you to the church.

Torridon Open Air Church is of national importance as it serves as a reminder of the greatest religious upheaval of the 19th century, the Disruption, which led to religious and social change in Scotland. Its exposed location on the shore speaks eloquently of the initially marginalised position of the Free Church of Scotland.

The Disruption was a spectacular and cataclysmic event, culminating in a mass walk out from the Kirk’s General Assembly in Edinburgh. It was the result of tensions in the Church of Scotland going back well over 100 years, to the very beginning of the 18th century.

In the Patronage Act of 1712, local lairds were given the legal power to choose ministers. Thus meant, in effect, that congregations had no say in who preached to them.

This ruling often caused deep unhappiness, as local Kirk members felt they had a right to say who should preside over their worship. Slowly but surely, ministers began to leave the church.

The build-up to the Disruption came with the Reform Act of 1832 and the establishment of a group of Evangelicals within the Kirk, who were strict Calvinists advocating more mission work by the church both in Scotland and overseas.

The Evangelicals found themselves in tension with the so-called Moderates who ran the church and accepted its links with the state and the lairds. As the power of the rebel group grew, they insisted that the Kirk allow congregations to have their own ministers and that ties with the government be relaxed.

In 1834, the Kirk’s General Assembly passed the Veto Act, which allowed a majority of male heads of families within a congregation to reject a patron’s choice of minister.

It should have been a major step forward but John Hope, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates and one of Scotland’s leading legal figures, challenged the ruling and it became bogged down in court test cases.

By this stage, the church was in crisis. The House of Lords eventually ruled that the General Assembly did not have the legal right to amend the Patronage Act, stoking up the tensions even further.

By 1842, relations between Kirk and government had deteriorated even more. The General Assembly drew up a Claim of Right saying it did not want its work interfered with by the state. Jesus Christ, it said, was head of the church, not the government.

As a desperate last measure, ministers met in Edinburgh and attempted to convince the government that they were not being deliberately troublesome, but were acting with integrity and on principle. However, there was another purpose to the gathering: to begin to map out plans for a breakaway church.

Just as the meeting broke up, a reply from the government was received rejecting the Claim of Right. The then Prime Minister was Robert Peel, a Tory, and he believed that the church was trying to manoeuvre itself into a position where it was above the law of the land

It was the final straw. At the opening of the General Assembly in 1843, the retiring Moderator read out a prepared protest, bowed to the Queen’s Commissioner, and immediately walked out. He was followed by 200 other ministers and elders.

The Disruption Assembly by David Octavius Hill

They immediately processed to the nearby Tanfield Hall, where they declared the establishment of the Free Church of Scotland with the much-respected academic and former minister of the Tron Kirk in Glasgow, Thomas Chalmers, elected as their first Moderator.

In total, 474 ministers quit the Kirk as a result of the Disruption. Each of them willingly signed away their stipends, their manses and their churches, leaving them homeless and in some cases without an income.

All in all, the new church comprised about a third of all the ministers and worshippers who had been members of the Church of Scotland. This made it a formidable force to be reckoned with.

Torridon Open Air Church comprises an open-air preaching place, used for some years after the Disruption by the Free Church congregation of the area around Torridon.

It takes the form of a natural amphitheatre, created within a V shaped cleft in the low sandstone cliffs that form the East side of the Ploc of Torridon. The cleft faces South East towards Loch Torridon and the open, seaward, side has been closed by a curved drystone wall.

The wall is crudely constructed with massive boulders placed irregularly and fixed by a great many small pinning stones. The site is regularly inundated by the sea and the South section of the wall has collapsed.

Within the enclosure, there are four rows of boulders forming seating. The stone seating faces toward a natural pillar of rock, which has fissured away from the cliff. This is locally known as the pulpit rock, and may have been the focus for preaching.

Torridon Open Air Church with Pulput Rock to the left and some of the Torridon Hills and Beinn Eighe in the distance. (© Natalya Jagger)

Such open air communion sites were common along the North West coast after the disruption when local heritors denied adherents of the newly established Free Church sites upon which to build churches. As a consequence the Free Church were pushed to marginal sites, especially along the coast.

Such places of worship were often transitory and Torridon is unusual in the permanence of its construction and its formal layout. This may reflect an earlier use as a local meeting place. The site was last used for occasional services in the 1980’s.

Villagers gathered at Am Ploc for an outdoor service taken by Rev Peter Findlay. (Photo held by Murdo Macdonald and Ross and Cromarty Heritage)

Sources:

Historic Environment Scotland

http://www.canmore.org.uk – Map

Wikipedia – The Disruption Assembly Painting

Ross and Cromarty Heritage

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