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The new vision for saving historic Inverness's Old High Church

By Neil MacPhail

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Jean Slater and Christina Cameron on steps of Old High Church. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Jean Slater and Christina Cameron on steps of Old High Church. Picture: Callum Mackay.

A VISION for the future of an iconic Inverness church has been revealed.

The Old High Church is facing an uncertain time after it fell victim to Church of Scotland cuts, was closed for worship and put up on sale for offers over £150,000.

With its amazing historic links to St Columba, the Battle of Culloden, the Highland regiments and in more recent years, the globally popular historic drama series Outlander, there is growing concern that the city’s oldest church will be lost as a community asset.

But this week Friends of the Old High Church sent out a call for more supporters to come forward to help them give the ancient building a new life as a multi-purpose venue while respecting its background as a place of worship.

The group believes it has potential as a hub for multi-cultural entertainment, educational, social and tourism activity.

Friends secretary Jean Slater said: “We are looking for people who are really interested to back us in transforming the Old High into a non-profit venue but at the same time keeping the integrity of the church and the building with its links to St Columba, Culloden, the Tartan Pimpernel Donald Caskie, the Cameron Highlanders and Outlander.

“It is a hugely popular building and visitor attraction and it must be preserved with a useful function in keeping with its great history.”

She said the Friends are reaching out to various groups such the Gaelic music and language interests, traditional musicians and tourism interests, to hear in what direction people see the church going.

“We would like to see it as a good old-fashioned venue, perhaps even staging weddings, but with a no alcohol proviso in keeping with the building’s background,” Mrs Slater said. “It does stand in a graveyard owned by Highland Council, and we must be respectful.

“We are very positive and looking for suitable people to come forward to help us, people with the expertise to give advice and guidance and help in managing such a large enterprise, and perhaps business people who would like to assist.”

Initially the Friends want to talk to people with the goodwill and skills to help them, for example someone adept at writing bids to funding organisations.

They are also considering online crowdfunding to start the ball rolling towards meeting the purchase price.

Local writer Margaret Kirk went online to plead: “This, folks, is not simply an old church. It’s part of our history, where Jacobite prisoners were executed after the ‘45. And it’s going to disappear in front of our eyes if someone doesn’t step in.”

Local folk musician and Courier columnist Liza Mullholland said: “I am no expert but an interested onlooker with an interest in preserving our buildings and history, if Historic Environment Scotland or the National Trust Scotland cannot take over and preserve the building, then perhaps it could be a fantastic hub for traditional music and song.

“Several former churches have been converted successfully in Glasgow, but since the Old High is listed there would be challenges with building improved toilets and access.

“Whatever happens, I think it must be preserved for the community.”

A Highland Council spokesman said: “The council notes with sadness that the Church of Scotland has decided not to continue Old High St Stephen’s and a number of other churches within the city as places of worship. We recognise the significance of these buildings to the city and our communities, and in that regard, the council looks forward to working with its partners such as Inverness BID in considering how best we can engage in finding future sustainable uses for these important city buildings.”

The Old High dates from 1769/1772 with a late 16th century tower and lower structure dating from 14th century.

Plans for the potential sale of the church emerged 12 months ago.

Sales material from the Church of Scotland states: “The property presents a once-in-a-lifetime purchase opportunity for the right buyer.”

It is not known if any offers have been made so far.

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