‘It was a singular spectacle on each returning Sabbath morning, as the hour of public worship drew near, to see the boats coasting along from North and South, each with its contingent of hearers, while numerous groups could be descried far inland, wending their way down from the hills to where the floating church lay moored.
‘Men speak of it as a stirring scene, when ropes and cables were run out from the beach, and the boats were rapidly passed backwards and forwards, conveying the worshippers on board. In winter, the hearers came from a distance of eight or nine miles, and in summer from a still wider circuit. In rough weather it was no slight undertaking to get so many people on board. Even in summer, when all was calm, it was a tedious operation, and not infrequently darkness was settling in before all were again on shore.
‘The numbers who assembled depended on the reputation of the Minister expected to preach, and the people had their own way of testing the esteem in which the different clergymen were held. It was found that, for every hundred hearers, the vessel sank an inch in the water; nothing therefore, could be easier than to keep the register. They could tell to an inch the popularity of every minister who came. A depression of six inches told that a congregation of six hundred had been drawn together, and on some occasions it is said that this number was exceeded.’
Why have a floating Free Church? The reason is a matter of the history of the Scottish churches. The Patronage Act of 1712 allowed the local landowner to choose the minister of a church, and this is said to have led to a schism in which almost 500 ministers left the Church of Scotland General Assembly to form the Church of Scotland Free, later renamed the Free Church of Scotland.
The Free Church then had to find ways of providing churches, manses and schools in a situation where many local landlords refused to grant the new church land to build.
At Strontian on Loch Sunart local landowner Sir James Riddell made his views clear in a letter: ‘I find it impossible, conscientiously, to grant sites for churches, manses, and schools, which would imply a sanction on my part, and give a perpetuity on my estates, to a system which I believe to be anti-social and anti-Christian.’
So at Strontian, a floating church it had to be. Subscriptions were raised, the floating church with a design capacity of 400 was built at a Clyde shipyard at a cost of £1400 by Robert Brown of Fairlie, and the vessel was towed to Loch Sunart and finally moored 150 yards from the shore, at a respectful distance from Riddell’s living room window.
Given the design capacity, you’d have to say that with 600 aboard, the worshippers may have been closer to their maker than they perhaps fully realised…