Portnahaven Parish Church stands in a prime location above the head of the inlet around which the village of Portnahaven is built. The village of Portnahaven was established here in the early 1800s to house people cleared from the interior of Islay, and provide them with an alternative living. The village needed a church, and Portnahaven Parish Church was built in 1828.
Portnahaven Parish Church is an example of a type of church found in many parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Usually known as "Parliamentary" churches, 32 new churches (and accompanying manses) were built with a Parliamentary grant of £50,000 in the years from 1823.
The aim was to increase the number of places of worship in remote areas, and the new churches followed a standard T-plan design produced by Thomas Telford. When completed in 1830 this programme had cost a total of £54,500. A number of Telford's churches remain in use, and Portnahaven Parish Church is unusually complete and unaltered.
The village of Port Wemyss was built a short distance to the south of Portnahaven in 1832. It never had a church of its own, so residents walked the few hundred yards to use Portnahaven Parish Church. The church has two doors on its south face, and it is said that one was used exclusively by residents of Portnahaven and the other exclusively by the residents of Port Wemyss. The internal layout of the church means that the two populations could have remained segregated during services and the story is an interesting one: if not entirely in keeping with the spirit of the religion they were here to practice. The two villages would however have had to share the church's single gateway before following diverging paths to their respective doors.
We've already noted the fairly unaltered feel of the interior of the church. The dominant pulpit is placed at high level mid way along the south wall of the church and is flanked by large windows (and then by the doors). The ground floor of the church is largely occupied by enclosed pews. All three legs of the "T" have galleries which face in towards the pulpit. The most modern feature is a clock placed on the woodwork fronting the north gallery in 1983 in memory of Alistair M. Hay. It is tempting to wonder whether the placement of a clock in the direct eyeline of the Minister was a hint from parishioners about the length of the sermons at the time.
The only obvious change to the normal layout of these churches is the partitioning off of the lower level of the south wing. It also seems unlikely that the modern, and surprisingly attractive, colour scheme of white woodwork and pink walls is original.