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Raising the anchor on the legend of Strontian's floating kirk

The relic proves the floating church wasn't a legend - now the community just need to raise it.

By STV News

Published 12 Nov 2016.

Beneath the depths of Loch Sunart, a relic of what was long considered a local legend is nestled into the seabed.

An iron anchor with thick chains leading to no boat or pier, the piece of history it once kept tethered to the local community may be long gone, but the proof that it ever existed in the first place has finally been discovered below the water.

Now all that remains is for the local community of Strontian to gather enough funds to raise the historic anchor from the seabed which once kept the floating kirk for the free church from sailing away hundreds of years ago.

"We're trying to resurrect the anchor but also resurrect the story," explains local community councillor James Hilder.

"It's not widely known in the public sphere which is why we felt the story of how the congregation raised the money to built a floating church should be known more widely.

"Within the village obviously a lot of people knew this existed but they didn't know much about it."

Established after the Free Church broke away from the Church of Scotland in 1843, land dwellers were forced to meet in caves and on beaches to preach as the local landowner Sir James Riddell forbid congregations to meet on his land.

With harsh conditions to contend with and no solid building to worship in, the congregation established a crowdfunded mission of their own, raising £1400 for a floating church which sat on the loch and wouldn't violate Sir Riddell's land ruling.

James explains: "They commissioned a shipbuilding firm in Glasgow and they built it and then it was towed all the way up from the Clyde and into Ardnastang Bay at the head of Loch Sunart.

"It's interesting that this congregation made the decision to have a church and float it on the water so that the landowner couldn't control what happened."

The vessel was almost 80ft long, 24ft wide and 27ft high and housed enough seating for 400 worshippers.

People would walk for miles to reach the shore before rowing to the floating kirk or pulling themselves out in small boats on long ropes stretched between the church and the shore.

"It symbolises what went on when the Church of Scotland split 1843 which was of national significance and of course there are Free Church congregations across the world now, who is who were trying to reach with crowdfunding," James adds.

Up until last year, the local tale of the church that floated upon the loch wasn't widely known, considering the village of Strontian is perhaps best known for being the only Scottish place to have an element named after it on the periodic table.

But when local diver John MacMillan and his colleague, who service moorings in the area came across an odd shape on the seabed, it sparked their curiosity

"We certainly didn't think there was anything tangibly left of [the church] which is why it was so exciting when John confirmed not only had he found [the anchor] but the style of the anchor and looked at the type of iron used and that's when we had a pretty accurate dating that this was from the church," James says.

Bringing their findings to the local community council, the decision was made to start a crowdfunding campaign, mirroring that of the residents of Strontian hundreds of years ago, in a bid to raise the anchor and preserve it on dry land.

Since the campaign was launched, offers of help have flooded in. Isle of Mull diving company MDive have offered to help raise the anchor for free to help the community and money has been donated from around the world.

Relics from the floating kirk have also been found and could form part of an exhibition if plans for a visitor centre in the village come to fruition. A pulpit chair from the kirk may have been discovered in New Zealand and the original communion set was discovered in an attic near Fort William.

Once the anchor is finally raised from the seabed, it is hoped the story of the floating kirk will come to its conclusion. A booklet written by a local historian about the kirk remains unfinished, and it is hoped it will be reprinted next year to educate people about what happened to the innovative solution to a land ban of the Free Church.

"It was broken up for scrap but in a way that's the nice part of the story," James explains.

"The local landowner Sir James Riddell who owned the whole of Ardnamurchan then gave them land to build the proper church - it was actually his wife Lady Riddell who performed the official opening of the church.

"So we feel there a happy ending and that's never been told before, so that's why we're republishing the booklet as part of the crowdfunder next year. We want to tell the final chapters."