Fearn Abbey is found on the fertile low-lying ground just east of the Hill of Fearn and two miles north-west of the coastal village of Balintore. At first sight it is an ordinary rectangular parish church. The reality is a much more complex story dating back almost 800 years.
On the ground the church you see today is simple in design and largely dates from a major reconstruction in 1772. Internally the look and feel of the church owes much to alterations made as recently as 1971. Towards the east end roofless mausoleums project from both the north and south sides, suggesting much older buildings.
Perhaps the oddest feature is the much larger enclosure projecting from the south side of the church and very obvious in views from that side, as shown in the header photo. To the untrained eye this looks intrusive: almost as if someone has used modern breeze-blocks to build some sort of agricultural structure against the church.
Yet this is actually all that is left of St Michael's Aisle, added to the abbey church by Abbot Finlay McFaed in time to house his tomb and effigy on his death in 1485. And once inside the aisle, the great age of the structure is obvious. The difference between the internal and external appearance is because in 1790 a stone "skin" was wrapped around the outside of the aisle, presumably to keep it standing: it's a shame it wasn't done in a style more in keeping with the church itself.
Fearn Abbey was founded at Fearn by the Earl of Ross in 1225. But not at this Fearn: rather at the hamlet of that name on the south side of the Dornoch Firth between Bonar Bridge and Edderton. The Abbey relocated the 15 miles or so to its current site on much better agricultural land in 1238. It kept its name, and the settlement that grew nearby became known as New Fearn: over time the "New" was dropped.
The Abbey Church was rebuilt in the mid 1300s, and the St Michael's Aisle was added to the south in the 1400s, with a new dormitory building to its south and a cloister. At the same time the Abbey Church was reroofed in stone flags. Some time later a chapel was added to the south of the east end of the church.
After the Reformation of 1560 the Abbey Church became the Parish Church and a mausoleum was added to the north side of the east end, which was itself taken over as a burial place for the Ross family. On Sunday 10 October 1742 the church was struck by lightning during a service and the stone-flagged roof collapsed on the congregation, killing as many as 50. The Minister, who had been saved by the bulk of the pulpit, insisted a new church be built to the south, using stone from the remains of the dormitory and cloister, and from the west end of the church.
Yet by 1771 the new church was itself in ruins, and in 1772 the original church was reconstructed, employing where necessary stone from the replacement church built in the 1740s. What was not reused was demolished and no sign of this very short-lived church can be seen on the ground today.