Stornoway Free Church History

It is generally well-known that at the time of the Disruption of 1843 the people, in majority, in Lewis separated from the state, or the Established, Church of Scotland. Choosing to form congregations of the newly formed Free Church of Scotland.

In the town of Stornoway, on 21 February 1845, the Lewis Estate granted a feu charter to the Trustees of the "Gaelic Free Church". A feu charter for the ground on Kenneth Street, where our church building stands. The Trustees were: Dr Roderick Millar; John Mackenzie, Merchant; Alexander Morrison, Rope-maker; and John Fraser, Baker. Entry to the feu was at Martinmas 1844, and completion of the first church building occurred in 1845.

The following are brief biographical notes on the founding Trustees :

(In the well-known book "The Men of the Lews", by Rev Norman C Macfarlane, there is more extensive cover on both Alexander Morrison and John Mackenzie.)

A fire destroyed the first church building in June 1850. Alexander Morrison made his premises available to the congregation for worship until construction of the present church building, c1854. This building remains essentially as constructed in 1854. Granted to the church, around 1850, was a substantial area of ground on Francis Street. In due course, here erected was a School and a splendid Georgian manse.

Early Ministers

From the founding of the Free Church in Stornoway until 1849 it appears that Lay preachers conducted services. Notably the previously mentioned Messrs Mackenzie and Morrison and by probationers. In 1849 the Rev Duncan Macgregor was inducted to the charge where he remained until 1854. It is understood that Rev Macgregor came to Lewis from Canada.

Rev Peter Maclean succeeded Rev Macgregor in 1855. A native of Uig, born in 1800 who had previously ministered in Cape Breton and Tobermory, Mull. He died in 1868. The congregation remained vacant until the induction of the Rev James Greenfield in 1872 . Rev Greenfield was born in Montreal in 1831 and trained for the ministry at Knox College, Toronto. Along the way he had acquired fluency in Gaelic to the extent that he was able to preach in the language.

Early in Rev Greenfield’s ministry a substantial minority of the congregation – between two and three hundred members and adherents – petitioned the Session to establish an English Preaching Mission Station under supervision of the Lewis Presbytery. The Session opposed this petition. When the Presbytery approved the movement the Session appealed to the Synod. The General Assembly of 1875 granted the Petitioner’s request. The Kirk Session of the "Free English Preaching Station" met for the first time in June 1875.

This new congregation met initially in the Masonic Hall on Kenneth Street. They chose as their first minister a qualified Probationer Donald John Martin. His ordination and induction took place in September 1876. Meanwhile funds were being raised to erect a church and such was the progress made that in October 1878 the new church opened for Public Worship. This is the church we know today as Martin’s Memorial Church.

Thus, in 1878 there were two Free Church of Scotland congregations in Stornoway. Both on Kenneth Street. The Free Church Gaelic in our present building and the Free Church English in the newly built church. This explains why both Rev D J Martin and his successor (1898) Rev John S Macdonald, are listed as being ministers of Stornoway Free Church of Scotland. This you can on the list of our ministers on the board in the hall entrance.

Returning to the 1850’s both the manse and school were erected on Francis Street. The school opened c1852 and continued until 1896 earning for itself a good reputation. In 1896 the Deacon’s Court agreed to transfer the building, and the remaining pupils, to the Nicolson Institute. The building known today as Museum nan Eilean was built in 1898 as the Secondary Dept of the Nicolson consisting of four classrooms. It was grafted on to the existing F C school providing extra classrooms for many years. The old F C School was finally demolished in 1972 co-incident, approximately, with the demolition of the original manse.

The Seminary building was erected in 1900 as a subsidiary church. The building contractors being Messers Chrichton and Maciver of Keith Street. It was substantially extended in the 1960’s by Stornoway Builders Ltd.

Meanwhile, within the Free Church of Scotland at large, there was a movement for union with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland (the U P) which in Stornoway had built a church on James Street with a manse on Lewis Street in 1860. (The church building is now N D Macleod, electrical contractors.) With the exception of Lewis and the Highlands, the union of the then Free Church and the U P Church took place in 1900. The union became the United Free Church of Scotland. A section of our Free Church Gaelic congregation also moved into the United Free. This section formed the U F Gaelic Church known today as the High Church on Matheson Road, built in 1910.

Thus in the years post 1900 there were three United Free Church of Scotland congregations in Stornoway: The U F English, U F Gaelic and the U F, James Street. The later congregation merging with the U F English in 1912 and the church and manse sold. Also of course there was the Parish Church of the Established Church of Scotland built 1794. In 1929 the UF went into union with the Church of Scotland. Our former Free Church of Scotland was the renamed "Martin’s Memorial" after their first Minister.

(with thanks to Norrie Macgregor, 38 Anderson Road, Stornoway)