Canisbay Kirk can be found beside the main A836 coast road in the hamlet of Kirkstyle, just over two miles west of John o' Groats. This beautifully maintained and startlingly white church stands on a slight rise at the eastern end of Gills Bay, and from the kirkyard there are superb views north to the abandoned island of Stroma and out over the ten mile wide Pentland Firth to Orkney. It is no surprise that the church has served as a landmark for shipping in these sometimes very turbulent waters for centuries.
The origins of Canisbay Kirk may be very ancient. Legend has it that it stands on the site of a chapel established here by St Drostan in the 500s. St Drostan seems to have been a son of the royal family of Dalriada who became a follower of Saint Columba. He was active in Aberdeenshire, and founded a monastery at Old Deer. As a missionary it is possible he made the journey north to the north coast of Caithness, but equally possible that the early chapel that stood here was dedicated to him rather than founded by him. Either way, it is likely that there has been a place of Christian worship on this spot for the better part of 1,400 years.
It is also likely that a number of further churches would have stood on this same spot over that period. The earliest stonework that can be found in the church you see today dates back to the medieval period, perhaps to the 1200s. Most of what now stands is considerably more recent. The medieval church was probably still in use at the time of the Reformation in 1560. Throughout Scotland, however, old churches were proving very difficult to adapt to the needs of a new style of worship, and as soon as funds became available medieval churches tended to be replaced or significantly changed.
By the early 1600s patronage of Canisbay Kirk belonged to the Mowat family of Freswick. Over the following three centuries the kirk underwent a series of revisions, restorations and rebuilds which resulted in the building you see today.
Canisbay Kirk is actually nearly cruciform in shape, though this isn't obvious internally. It comprises a long nave aligned east west with largely unadorned white walls that is packed with pews. A northern aisle is likewise full of pews. This is the Stroma Aisle, used by the residents of the now uninhabited island of Stroma, which formed part of the parish while it still had a population. Balancing it to the south is a vestibule separated from the nave by a frosted glass screen. In the middle of the south wall, and visible if slightly offset from the north aisle, is the pulpit. There are small galleries at the east and west ends of the church, known as the Freswick and Mey Lofts, reflecting the traditional division of the parish between the estates of Freswick and Mey. The connection with the Castle of Mey has continued, with the late Queen Mother worshipping at Canisbay Kirk when in residence at the castle, and other members of the family continuing to do so.
Standing in the vestibule is the John de Groat Stone. This originally marked the burial place within the church of John de Groat or Jan de Groot, who gave his name to nearby John o' Groats. It was found under the floor of the church during work in 1898 and embedded in the south wall. It has since been moved to its current location. The stone is impressively large and carries an inscription in a highly unusual text that looks almost modern in style.
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Grid Ref: ND 344 729