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A Brief History of Christianity on Mull and Iona 

In 563 CE St Columba arrived on Iona and with him came the dawn of Christianity in Scotland.  The island became known as The Sacred Isle of Iona.  Columba founded the Celtic Church or the Church of the Culdees – ‘Servants of God’ – with centres throughout Scotland.  The Church of Rome was the Mother Church at this time and, since it differed in certain doctrinal details, the Celtic Church was finally suppressed by King David in 1144.

The period from the 5th century to the 15th century inclusive is known as the Middle Ages or Medieval times, and during that time Mull was mainly Catholic.  Throughout the Highlands there were many parishes.  Church sizes varied and often included chapels.

Following the Act of Supremacy in 1534, when Henry VIII repudiated the authority of the Pope over the Church of England, because he wished to divorce his first wife, the British Isles became protestant and the celebration of Mass was forbidden.  This period was known as the Reformation.

The Reformed Church of Scotland was then established on Presbyterian lines, with the hierarchy of a General Assembly, Synod, Presbytery and Kirk Session controlling its affairs.

This carried on for over 100 years in spite of attempts by successive Stewart kings to return the Scottish Kirk to Episcopalianism.  Finally, during the Revolution of the late 1680s, the Church of Scotland became Presbyterian.  Those who preferred Episcopacy formed the Episcopal Church in Scotland.  The first General Assembly of the Church of Scotland occurred in 1690.

Progress was slow for the Presbyterian Church, as in some areas Roman Catholicism and Episcopalianism were deeply entrenched.  There was also a shortage of Gaelic speaking ministers and many ancient parishes were either amalgamated or suppressed, so that the geographical area administered by a parish minister was frequently vast.  However, by the 18th century new churches began to be built to replace buildings that were often in ruins.  The need for extra parishes was also recognised and it was intended that money from the Forfeited Estates of the Jacobites (Annexing Act 1752) would be used, but this never came about.  It was not until 21 June 1824 that an amended Act of Parliament (5 Geo IV c90) was passed, under which the Government would fund 30 churches, with manses annexed, and support 40 stipends of 120 pounds – total cost 50,000 pounds.  The Commissioners were then dependent on sites being made available by heritors (landowners) and finally in the 1828 Fourth Report, 43 sites were accepted, for which 42 stipends were required.  The churches subsequently built under this initiative are known as ‘parliamentary churches’.

Meanwhile Thomas Telford, one of the greatest civil engineers, was asked to supervise the building of the churches and a plan designed by one of the surveyors, William Thomson, was accepted.  The Thomson/Telford Church was easily adapted to suit the size of congregations.  The interior was of the tradition of that time and similar to those of churches built in the previous hundred years.  They were designed to be solid and to resist the stormy climate.  Any repairs would be paid for from ‘seat-rents’, if any, and by the heritor.

The following Telford churches were built:

  • Iona — this remains unaltered and in use by the Church of Scotland
  • Ulva — where the greater part of the church is converted into a community hall
  • Kinlochspelvie — this has been converted into a holday home
  • Salen –this fell into disrepair after 60 years and was rebuilt in 1899
  • Tobermory — was demolished and rebuilt in 1897.

During the early part of the 19th century there was a great deal of unrest within the churches, because they were ruled by Parliament in the shape of the reigning Monarch as Head of the Church of Scotland, and also by patronage in the shape of lairds.  This meant that congregations had no choice as to who their minister was to be.

On 18th May 1843 at a meeting held by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, Dr Welsh, the retiring Moderator, read a protest, laid it in front of the Royal Representative and left along with Dr Thomas Chalmers and 400 other ministers.  They marched to Tanfield Hall and a new assembly was constituted with prayer by Dr Welsh.  Dr Chalmers was voted the new church’s first Moderator.

On the 23 May the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission was signed and the Free Church of Scotland was born.  Four hundred and eighty ministers signed this Act.  It was a huge step to take, because it meant that the ministers had no security or salaries, or funding, or land to build their own churches.

It was not until 1869 that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland resolved to petition Parliament to end patronage and five years later congregations had the freedom of choice.

In 1900 there was a union of the majority of Free Churches with other splintered Presbyterian Churches and they became known as the United Free Church of Scotland. Finally, in 1929, they were reunited with the Church of Scotland.  A small minority continued as the Free Church as they were unhappy with certain doctrines, namely ‘an agreement to adopt a confession of faith sufficiently vague and elastic as to allow those holding different views to subscribe to it with good conscience’ (Dr Ian R MacDonald, Chairman Publications Deptartment, Free Church of Scotland, Historical Introduction).