West of Bonar Bridge and Ardgay, very minor roads run for ten miles along Strathcarron into the foothills of the high mountains of the (largely treeless) Diebidale Forest and Freevater Forest. The public road runs out in the tiny scattered settlement of Croick, a mere 20 miles cross country from the west coast at Loch Broom. Here you find Croick Church. See the note at the bottom about the spelling of "Croick".
Croick Church owes its origins to the 1823 Parliamentary Act for Building Additional Places of Worship in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. This voted the sum of £50,000 to build 40 churches and accompanying manses to standardised designs produced by Thomas Telford. Croick Church was built during the years 1825-1827.
As surviving Parliamentary Churches go, Croick is notable in being exceptionally well preserved. Enter Croick Church today and what you see is pretty much what Thomas Telford had in mind when he turned to his drawing board. The church was built to serve some 200 parishioners living at the time within walking distance in the surrounding glens. The site chosen was adjacent to that of an iron age broch, immediately to the west: and looking at what's left of the broch today, it's easy to wonder whether some of it was recycled into the church.
In 1843 there was a schism in the Church of Scotland. As a result, according to a correspondent writing in the Times on 2 June 1845, the congregation in the established church immediately shrank to no more than 10. Most of the people the church was built for became part of the Free Church and took to gathering on Sundays on the open hillside.
But the correspondent of the Times was not in Strathcarron to report on the state of the Church of Scotland. He was here to help blow the whistle on a scandal that had been sweeping across the Highlands and Islands for decades. The clearances were passed off by many at the time (and some since) as simple agricultural improvements. What clearance meant for many of the individuals involved was eviction from land their families had farmed for centuries and removal from the only world they had ever known. More widely it meant the utter destruction of a way of life and the culture that went with it. And all so the landlords' income could be increased by letting their cleared lands out to sheep farmers.
The Times article on 2 June 1845 was a watershed. It related in detail how some 80 people who had been cleared from Glen Calvie, to the south of Croick, had found refuge in a common shelter made from poles and tarpaulins in Croick churchyard. The publicity raised by the Times may have helped spread knowledge of the clearances. But it came too late for most who had once lived in the Highlands, and it certainly came too late for those cleared from Glen Calvie.
No one knows what became of the 80 refugees living in the churchyard in May 1845. But they are believed to have left their mark before they departed. The east window of Croick Church carries a number of messages inscribed in its diamond-shaped panes. These include: "Glencalvie people was in the churchyard here May 24 1845" and "The Glencalvie tenants resided here May 24 1845" and, perhaps most poignantly, "Glencalvie People the wicked generation Glencalvie".
The atmosphere created by this tangible link with the past is remarkable, but there are a number of oddities about the messages we've never seen fully resolved. The most obvious is that they are in copperplate handwriting and in English. Various suggestions have been offered as to why English might have been used, but none seem to square with the Times correspondent's description in his 2 June 1845 article of his inability to communicate with the the 80 refugees living here because they spoke only Gaelic.
It's also odd that the inscribed graffiti on the windows cover not only the events of 1845, but also touch on things that happened in 1854, 1869 and 1870. We've not been able to find any reference to the first known appearance of the Glencalvie inscriptions on the windows, but their distribution amongst the panes carrying apparently later graffiti does raise unresolved questions.
And, finally, it's been suggested that the refugees chose to shelter in the churchyard rather than in the church itself because sheltering in the church would seemed to them to be a desecration of it. And yet those same people are supposed to have scratched graffiti on the church windows. That, too, seems odd.
None of these questions about the origin of the inscriptions should take away from the enormity of what happened during the clearances, nor from the suffering of the 80 people whose plight was reported on by the Times correspondent.
But until some of the loose ends about the inscriptions can be tied up there has to be some doubt about whether they were really placed there by the people the Times correspondent met in May 1845. But if you are able to resolve any of these questions, we'd be very pleased to hear from you!
Note: "Croick" is spelled "Croich" on the 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey Landranger Map published in 2002. This must be an error: the 1988 OS Landranger Map and every other scale of map by the OS give the name as "Croick".