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Tallest church in Inverness launches appeal to repair crumbling stonework

By Neil MacPhail

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AWE-INSPIRING is not too strong a description for the interior of the 131-year-old Inverness Free North Church.

It is a wonderful building, a gem hidden in full sight.

With its soaring barrel ceiling covering serried ranks of pitch-pine pews that can seat 1100, the word iconic would be another apt description for this vast place of worship, the biggest and tallest in Inverness.

With it’s front door in Bank Street, the church goes all the way back to Church Street, and what became the MacDougall Hotel in Church Street was the manse.

The towering pulpit far above the congregation is so daunting that ministers today prefer to remain at ground level to address their flock which has like most churches dwindled since the packed pews of bygone years.

Back in the day though, what a vantage point from which to put the fear of God into any wrong-doers below!

The interior of this remarkable church benefited from a major make-over back in 1995 when the original terracotta paintwork and stencilled ceiling were restored.

Sadly, the exterior of the Gothic-style edifice does not present such a pleasing picture.

Some crumbling stonework.
Some crumbling stonework.

Despite extensive repairs in 1994 , it is crumbling at an alarming rate from the ravages of time and weather, and this has prompted a major fund raising drive to save if from further harm.

Repairs are estimated at £145,000 and even if their application for 40 per cent of that cost from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) is successful, it still leaves the congregation facing a burden of at least £87,000.

Undaunted, the Free North Restoration Fund Appeal has been launched and seeking donations both locally and worldwide.

Church services are streamed online at home and abroad using YouTube and this will be used not only to spread the word of God but also the bad news regarding the shocking state of the exterior stonework.

The church, built by the prolific Inverness architect Alexander Ross, is notable for having the city’s tallest spire.

Restoration fund co-ordinator Ross Finlay said: “It’s said that the spire was paid for by a wealthy American woman on condition that it would be the tallest in Inverness, and it is, standing at 170ft, several feet higher than its nearest rival.

“We often open our doors when passengers from the Invergordon cruise liners are in town as many are interested in our heritage, so perhaps history might repeat itself and a benefactor will come forward.”

He added: “The congregation contributed upwards of £7000 in a 10-day period. That is an amazing outcome in such a short time but we have a long way to go.”

To date, it has raised around £9000.

Ross Finlay, restoration fund co-ordinator.
Ross Finlay, restoration fund co-ordinator.

The Free North is a stand-out feature of the River Ness scene, and being situated at the east end of Greig Street footbridge, it is often photographed by tourists.

The church was built to replace the original Free Church building in 1893 as it was too small to accommodate all those who wanted to worship there.

When it opened, it could seat 1300, but this was reduced by 200 in recent years when a rear wall was built to make a vestibule and bring worshippers closer to the minister.

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Free North Church interior Picture: James Mackenzie
Free North Church interior Picture: James Mackenzie

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