The Floating Church, unusual Clydebuilt

The Floating Church. 

Amongst the many ships built on the Clyde there were a few unusual ones. Built with the same skill and pride as the largest of ships.

One of these was The Floating Church of Loch Sunart (born in the Disruption) which was conceived on a windy hillside in Ardnamurchan in the year 1845 and perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is that it has been completely forgotten.  No stranger church was ever built and no stranger vessel left the Clyde, yet today it is little more than a name, a legend imperfectly understood, in the district where it once played so large a part. Elsewhere, few have heard of it. Even the yard which built it has no records to show that it once stood upon the stocks there.

The landowner Sir James Milles Riddell, an Episcopalian gentleman who controlled a stretch of country forty miles long and was so violently anti-Disurptionist that he refused to allow so much as a tent to be erected upon it. The congregation of about 500 met on a hillside, frequently in the rain and at least once in deep snow. At the end of the first desperate winter someone-no one knows who-had a brilliant idea. Sir James did not own the sea and the sea was at their doors. They would build a church which floated.

The idea was taken up so enthusiastically that £2,000 was quickly raised and an order was placed with the Glen Shipbuilding Yard of Port Glasgow.  In the end all the money was not needed, the price paid was £1,400.

It was a bargain. For their £1,400 the congregation got a church complete with pulpit, vestry and seats for 750 people. Contemporary prints do not show much detail, but it appears to have been a cast-iron Noah’s Ark of no great beauty but immense solidity.  Built on two floors, but without a spire, it was 78ft long, 23 ft wide and 17ft high. This in 1972 values would probably have cost £60,000

In July 1846 she was taken in tow by two tugs and made the journey to Loch Sunart.  As she had no lines so to speak of and the wind resistance must have been appalling. When she arrived she was moored 150 yards offshore about two miles from Sir James’s house.

In this position the church gave long and faithful service. On a Sunday boats could be seen coming from north and south, while numerous groups could be seen far inland winding their way down from the hills to where the floating church was moored. 

The people had their own way of determining the popularity of esteem in which each clergyman was held. It was found for every 100 hearers the vessel sank an inch in the water. 

One night a violent storm struck the shores of Loch Sunart. The home of Sir James was badly damaged in the storm, and when further consequences of the winds was later related to him he became a changed man with changed views towards the people of the Free Church.  For the storm had also blown the Floating Church from her moorings onto the shore, but in such a way that the church had been set and firmly wedged between two great rocks on the shore. It is said that a spirit level later revealed a perfect reading on both horizontal and vertical. On top of that it was discovered that the church had settled, due to the nature of the winds that night on that part of the shore between high tide and low, which is designated in Scotland as “no man’s land “therefore preventing the Lairds intervention.

From a piece by Alistair Borthwick in 1954.

The Pastor’s letter February 1972.

By Harry Silvers.