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Eight Caithness churches could close over the next six years

By Gordon Calder

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EIGHT churches in Caithness could be closed over the next six years. That was confirmed this week and means that if a draft plan – approved by the Caithness Presbytery of the Church of Scotland – is endorsed by the kirk's headquarters in Edinburgh more than half of its churches in the far north would be shut by 2028.

It is understood that some Presbytery members are unhappy with the extent of the closures which have been mooted due to high maintenance costs of the buildings coupled with fewer people going to church.

Under the proposal, Watten would close in June, 2023. Reay, Dunnet and Dunbeath could be shut by the following June with Keiss closing in June 2025 and Olrig in June 2026. Thurso West and Pulteneytown in Wick are set to shut by December 2028.

Pulteneytown Parish Church in Wick could close in 2028
Pulteneytown Parish Church in Wick could close in 2028

Only six churches would remain: St Peter's and St Andrew's in Thurso; Wick St Fergus; Strathy; Halkirk; Lybster and Canisbay.

A retired Caithness minister, who did not wish to be named, described the planned closure of eight churches as "disappointing" and claimed Presbytery had "not handled the situation well."

He said: "We were asked to close 25 per cent of the churches but it was decided to close more than that. We cover a huge geographic area and people are not going to travel a distance to attend a service. We could have retained ten, eight or six churches but decided to retain six. It is disappointing the way things have gone."

The Rev. Heather Stewart, who is a locum minister at Latheron and Caithness Presbytery clerk, said a draft plan has been voted on and members are just waiting for approval from the church's headquarters in Edinburgh.

Rev Stewart said: "It is a national cutback and Presbytery is well aware of the pain and hurt that it causes when our buildings close but if we are going to be sustainable in the future this is necessary at the moment. Falling attendances in the church also makes it more difficult to maintain our buildings."

At present, Caithness Presbytery has four full-time ministers at Thurso St Peter's and St Andrews, Pulteneytown, the North Coast Parish and the Pentland Parish as well as two part-time parish assistants and one ordained local minister. In 2021, Edinburgh reduced the number of ministers in the Caithness area from 9.1 to 5.5

The church closures were raised at last week's meeting of the Castletown and District Community Council. Secretary Liz Geddes, who is an elder and session clerk at the Pentland Parish which includes Olrig Church, said: "There is always the chance of a review and always hope that something may happen to change the situation otherwise the churches will have to close."

Thurso and northwest Caithness Highland councillor, Ron Gunn, wondered if the decision was influenced by a shortage of ministers but Mrs Geddes said the main issue was one of finance and the maintenance of "these big buildings."

"It is costing a lot of money to maintain and heat them," she said. Mrs Geddes added: "This is not just a problem here in Caithness but all over Scotland. It is a pity for the churches."

She also pointed out that during the Covid pandemic people could access church services online and "got in the habit of doing that."

Community council chairman Billy Dunbar pointed out that church attendances "have been in decline for years."

The planned closures will be discussed at Caithness Presbytery's meeting in the Thurso West Church on Tuesday night.

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