The history of Sannox Church

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The Arran Historical Society held the final meeting of 2018 when 55 members and visitors heard John Jackson deliver his talk on the history of Sannox Congregational Church.

John came last year with his immense collection of books on Arran, and it was good to welcome him back. He attributed much of the content of his talk to the researches by David Potts of Lochranza, and expressed his gratitude to him.

A church has stood at Sannox for nigh on 200 years, and sadly by the millenium it was starting to look a little sad and neglected.  It was bought in 2012 and the Sannox Christian Centre is now being developed.

The church and adjoining manse were built in 1822.  Beside the church was Dundarroch cottage, a pitched roof building which has had many uses in its time, including serving as a stable.  In the intervening years the pitched roof has been replaced by the iconic Dutch roof.  The church has a bell tower and happily the bell is still rung today. On the site is a standing stone from the Bronze age.  No-one can know the purpose of these stones, but they were highly likely to have a spiritual significance.

Following the Neolithic age, Arran entered the Celtic period.  Celtic saints, St Patrick, St Bendan, St Donan, St Columba and St Bridget, were all to eventually give their names to Arran churches.  Arran’s own Saint, St Molaise, a former Bishop of Ireland, lived as a hermit in a cave cell on Holy Isle in Lamlash Bay, which now of course houses monks of a different faith, Buddhism.

During the Medieval period Britain had Catholic and Celtic religions.  In 604 at the Synod of Whitby, the two churches met to principally decide the date of Easter.  Whatever else transpired at that meeting it saw the subsequent waning of the Celtic religion and the growth of Catholicism.  Although the remnants of the Celtic chapels are visible in other locations, nothing remains now on Arran except a wall stone depicting St Michael in the wall of Sannox Cemetery.

John said in terms of religion the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries seemed to be very fallow years on Arran, although not elsewhere. In the 16th century Presbyterianism came to Scotland. In the 17th century the Covenanters were very active, and in the 18th century England saw the Methodist movement gathered strength under the leadership of the Wesleys.  There was a worry at this time that the Revolution, which had been witnessed in France, might spread to Britain.

In 1772 a Welsh landowner, Thomas Pennant, recorded on a visit to Arran a large number of devout Christians attending an open air service on Sannox beach under a sail canvas shelter.  Visiting evangelists are recorded, including two brothers, James and Robert Haldane, minor aristocrats who had both served with the Royal Navy and the East India Company.  James, together with a John Campbell, visited Arran in 1800 together with Cumbrae, Bute and Kintyre.  However, by 1799 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had forbidden anyone to preach unless they were licensed.

Archibald McCallum who visited Arran in 1803, reported a great revival of worship. Researches show that the Sannox area was one of the most populated areas on the island at that time, so congregations were large. Robert McLellan in his book surmised that the religious revival was due to the fear felt by folk of the threat of the Clearances.

The first named minister was Alexander McKay, who served from 1806 to 1856. The Church had 40 members and all services were held outdoors or in stables or mills.  A young man in his 20s, he married a local girl and had a family of five girls and two boys, but the boys sadly died in their teens.  All services were of course in Gaelic.

In 1822 the church was built for the very happy congregation. Only seven years later the Clearances were underway, with people moving to the coastal strips of land, to Glasgow or even further afield, and emigrating to Canada.  Rev McKay, preached on the deck of the immigrant ship in Lamlash Bay in 1829, and two years later more people left to join them. The Sannox congregation was reduced to just 12, and the minister had to seek work himself as a school teacher. He remained philosophical about it all though, and remained on the island and after his death was buried in Sannox cemetery.

From 1860 to 1878, John Blacklock set up a Bible School there for young male preachers. He was followed by Allan Cameron McDougall, who was minister for 56 years and was the first to welcome tourists into the congregation.  Many prominent figures in Scottish life came to hear him preach, and numbers often over-spilled outside the church.

There followed a succession of short-term ministries;  Rev. Wiseman, who was not a Gaelic speaker;  in 1947 to 1962 an Episcopalian priest, Rev McDougall, came out of retirement and he and his sister gave 98 years of service to Sannox Church.

Since the purchase of the church in 2013 the cottage has been restored and renovated. It sleeps nine, and is used for retreats, teaching programmes and quiet gatherings. John showed us pictures of the present beautifully renovated cottage and accommodation.  Much of the work on the buildings is by volunteers, so progress is slow but sure.

Refurbishment of the church is to commence soon, because although it is usable it needs work to bring it up to the standard of the cottage. Ambitious plans for further buildings on the site are attractive, with a further residential building, a beehive shaped chapel and work on the manse all in prospect. The large wooden Celtic cross standing in the grounds was donated by a Church in Stirlingshire.

Much has been done already to safeguard this ecclesiastical piece of Arran’s history, and much remains to be done. The Arran Historical Society wishes them all well.

                                                                                                                                      Norma Davidson

Speaker John Jackson. NO_B48history01