Beginnings

At a meeting of adherents of the Free Church convened at the Altnaharra Inn during March 1854, 17 men of the district decided to build a place of worship in Altnaharra. James Notman of Clebrig was elected chairman and they invites the Rev. D McKenzie of Farr to lead them in prayer. They wrote to the Duke of Sutherland’s factor in Tongue requesting the lease of a site between “the water of Mudale or Naver and the house of John McKenzie, forester” - their request was granted.

Altnaharra Church

 



 

Later that year the committee accepted a tender from Hugh Mackay of Kirkiboll to build the church for the sum of £53 and in November Thomas McIver, a carpenter from Tongue, began work on the seating for the church.


In 1855 at a meeting of the “heads of families connected with the Free Church” the seats in the church were allocated “according to the number of settings required, and their respective joint subscriptions”.  Among the allocations we find that Mr. Robson of Clebrig and Mr. McDonald of Mudale were allocated seats 6 & 7 “on the understanding that Sir Edward and Lady Kerrison will be accommodated with sittings there”.


In that year, seat rents were fixed at 4 shillings per seat or 6d per sitting, to cover the expenses incurred in bringing “Rev D. Mackenzie and other ministers who might preach”.  This was in addition to the “ordinary collection”.


In December of 1857, the accounts having been settled in full, the church was handed over “finished and without debt to the managers appointed by the congregation”. Thanks were expressed to the Duke of Sutherland and his factor Mr. Horsburgh for their assistance in finding a site, to Lady Kerrison for the “small but handsome steeple”, to Miss Elizabeth Ormiston for the cloth on the pulpit, to James Notman for two zinc windows and to the many others who had contributed.


Mr. Robson bequeathed a sum of money to the church to pay for a colporteur to serve the district.  At a meeting in 1861 the “male heads of the F.C. congregation” agreed to apply the Robson Bequest to the provision of a minister.  A letter was written to Dr. Marshall (who was related to the late Mr. Robson, and believed to have charge of the estate) who apparently agreed to the request.


After application to the Committee of the Free Church for the Highlands - a probationer Mr. Murdoch Mackay was appointed to serve in Altnaharra, on condition that the congregation met his salary.  This was made possible by the Robson bequest, and the generosity of the local population.


In 1863 at a congregational meeting the managers of the church in Altnaharra were asked to consider building a manse and also a small schoolhouse, the money to be raised by subscription. That year it is recorded that a letter had been received from Mr. P. P. Sellar, enclosing a copy of a letter from the Duke of Sutherland stating “His Grace's pleasure to give £5 annually to the church of Altnaharra”. Today the manse (built 1870) no longer belongs to the church, and is occupied by the schoolteacher, and there is no trace of the old school (built 1866) which was probably situated a little way along the road to Bettyhill.


In 1866 at a congregational meeting it was decided to widen the appeal for funds to enable a manse to be built.  The wording of the proposed circular gives a description which shows how little some things change -

“… the district of Aultnaharrow is an extensive pastoral one, composed of portions of five surrounding parishes; … the population exclusive of tourists and labourers who frequently resort to it may be about 150, … the inn is often overcrowded and there is no lodging place for the minister who has consequently to go upwards of 20 miles to lodge with friends.”


As the parish was served by a probationer there was no provision of the “sealing ordinances”, and therefore the probationer would exchange pulpits with a nearby minister whenever a Baptism was required.  This entailed both minister and probationer in round trips in excess of 40 miles.  This course was considered preferable to exposing infants to such a hazardous journey, especially in winter.  This was the main reason put forward when in that same year the congregation petitioned the Presbytery of Tongue for status as a full charge connected to the Free Church.


The Rev. Murdoch Mackay died at the Free Manse in Tongue in February 1871.  The congregational record shows that they had resolved unanimously to call Mr. Mackay to be their pastor, a call which he had accepted, but “it pleased the Lord to remove him by death before his ordination.”  He was greatly loved by the people and there was great sorrow that he was unable to pastor the people amongst whom he had laboured in the preceding years.


The first minister of the parish was the Rev. J. Stuart Mackay, who ministered between 1872 and 1884.  He was followed by the Rev. Alexander Sutherland in 1891 under whose ministry the congregation decided to build a Mission Station at Syre.


The church at Syre is a listed building of corrugated iron construction.  It is located near the junction of the Syre to Kinbrace road with the Altnaharra to Bettyhill road.  On your way there you will pass the Aberach Burial Ground (near Grumbeg) and on the far side of the river at the lower end of Loch Naver can be seen the buildings of Achness where David Mackenzie was a missionary in the days of the clearances. As you travel north by the Naver you will see the MacLeod Memorial recalling the author of "Gloomy Memories". Beside the road are many reminders of the Highland Clearances whose mark is still on the land.


Continuing north from Syre you will pass through Strathnaver to Bettyhill where there is a museum of the clearances in the church at Clachan.  Today's congregation worship in the former U.F. church in Bettyhill.


The remarks column in the Baptismal Register makes interesting reading - a common reason for a delayed baptism being given as due to the parents irregular church attendance.  Most baptisms in the early days were in private houses or the manse, our modern practice is to baptise in the church in “face of the congregation”.


From 1900


In 1900 the congregation of Altnaharra, along with others in the Free Church united with congregations of the United Presbyterian Church to form the United Free Church of Scotland.  Some congregations of the Free Church (such as that at Bettyhill) retained their identity, remaining outwith the union.


Free Church tradition was followed until 1920, when exclusive psalmody was replaced by the singing of both metrical psalms and hymns.  There is no organ in the church and the old oil lamps have been retained.  Whilst visiting the church note the unique design of communion table where members literally “sit at the Lord's table”.  Also of note are the stained glass windows either side of the pulpit. In the south wall of the church is a beautiful stained glass window in memory of Kathleen Joan Kimball, a regular worshipper in this place.


In 1929 the United Free Church united with the established Church of Scotland forming the Church of Scotland as we now know it.  Both before and after this union at a national level the church continued under the ministry of the Rev. Duncan MacMillan.  In 1961 the old presbyteries of Tongue and Dornoch united as the Presbytery of Sutherland.


After Mr. MacMillan retired the parish of Altnaharra was linked with the parish of Farr, in the interests of saving manpower in an area with a declining population.  The minister at Farr, the Rev. Andrew Howe became minister of the linked congregations. In 1982 the parishes were united during the ministry of the Rev. Cliff Rennie.


The Presbytery intend to link the parishes of Altnaharra and Farr with the parishes of Melness and Tongue sometime after 2014.


Ministers of the parish


(Murdoch Mackenzie         1861   1871   Probationer)

John Stuart Mackay         1872   1889   translated to Fort Augustus

Alexander Sutherland       1891   1901   trans. to Brodick

George Mackay              1902   1909   trans. to Kilcalmonell &

                                         Kilberry

Malcolm Gillies            1910   1917   trans. to Shieldaig

Duncan MacMillan MA        1919   1962   retired - deceased 1974

Andrew Youngson Howe       1963   1969   trans. to Rosskeen

Robert Sloan               1969   1974   died in office

Clifford A J Rennie MA BD  1974   1985   trans. to Larbert Old

John Lincoln MPhil BD      1986   1997   trans. to Balquhidder linked

                                         with Killin & Ardeonaig

John M Wilson MA BD        1998   2004   retired

Anthony P Thornthwaite MTh 2008   2011   trans. Coldside, Dundee