Cromarty East Church, also sometimes known as the Old Church, lies at the east end of Cromarty's Church Street, the old heart of the town, standing amid a graveyard predominantly of low or horizontal gravestones. At first sight a fairly ordinary Scottish T-plan church, it is actually a nationally important illustration of the changes that swept across Scotland's churches after the Reformation of 1560.
Cromarty East Church continued to share the role of Parish Church with the West Church until 1998, when it was declared surplus to ecclesiastical needs. Since taking ownership of the East Church in 1998 the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust (SRCT) has worked with local people to secure the long-term future of the building through re-establishing it at the heart of the community. Decay and damp threatened the survival of the church, but its plight came to the attention of the nation in 2006 when it was a finalist in the BBC's "Restoration Village" series.
Funding success followed in 2007 when the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a grant towards the £1.3 million project. Historic Environment Scotland and The Highland Council were also major funders. Between 2008 and 2011 the church underwent a major restoration project. It then reopened its doors to the public.
A first time visitor to Cromarty East Church may well wonder what was actually done here during the three years of work, as the building has a very old, unaltered feel. That is, of course, precisely the point. The most important part of the project was to make the building weathertight and combat the dampness which was threatening to completely destroy it. This involved removal of the "waterproof" cement render applied at various times between the 1940s and the 1980s, which simply had the effect of sealing the damp into the structure and making matters worse. This was replaced by five coats of traditional lime harling (or render), the effect of which is to allow the building to breath, and the dampness to evaporate over time. As one visitor commented when we were last there, this has yet to remove the dampness entirely: but it has secured the future of the building.
Meanwhile, the slates on the roof and the boards supporting them were replaced with new(er) slates, originally from the long disused quarries at Ballachulish, recycled from a demolished building. Meanwhile, the windows and window frames were all repaired and restored. Within the church, the ground floor pews were removed and the floors lifted, both to check for damp and to allow archaeological investigation of the history of the church to take place. At the same time the woodwork of the galleries was repaired and restored, and paintwork brought back to life.
After all this was done, the church was internally decorated in what had been established as the colour scheme applied during the Georgian era, of pavilion gray and hay yellow. Photographs we took on visits in 2004 and 2007 can be compared with those taken since the completion of the work to show that the changes have been very subtle in terms of their impact on the overall look and feel of the interior. They have, however, been much more dramatic in terms of the detailed changes brought about, for example on the face of the north gallery; on the painted pew in the north gallery; and on the medieval graveslab on display in the church. In terms of the wider picture, the most noticeable changes have involved painting the front facing surfaces of the east and west galleries light grey: they previously had a natural wood finish.
There's been a church on this site since medieval times, and James IV stayed in the parish priest's house in March 1499 while on pilgrimage to Tain. Until archaeological investigation began in 2008, the only real evidence of a medieval church was a wall cupboard thought to have originally served as an aumbry in the earlier church, plus a graveslab dating back to the 1400s. Finding a large numbers of skeletons within the footprint of the main rectangle of the church confirmed that it shared its footprint with the earlier medieval church, which would have comprised a nave with a chancel at the east end.
The Reformation of 1560 led to the internal reorganisation of the church, with the pulpit being moved to a position mid way along the south wall. Lofts were subsequently built with external stairs at the east and west ends to increase the capacity: the one at the west being referred to as the "scholars' loft" as it was used by the (often unruly) pupils of the parish school. In 1739 a north aisle, plus gallery, was added to the church, originally also accessed by an external stair.
Further changes were made in 1799-1800, when the roof of the north aisle was raised to match the rest of the church, three porches were added, complete with internal stairs to access the three galleries, larger windows were installed in the south face of the church, and a new bellcote was added. The result was very much the church you see today, and it is the survival of so many features from the Georgian era that helps make Cromarty East Church "one of the eight most important post-Reformation churches in Scotland" in the eyes of one expert.
The surrounding graveyard, in the care of The Highland Council, contains a number of memorials carved by the geologist, writer and church reformer Hugh Miller (1802-1856) during his time as a stone mason in Cromarty. The church is also significant for its associations with the writer and translator Sir Thomas Urquhart (c.1611-1660) and the laird and businessman George Ross (c.1700-1786).