Ulva Church stands near the eastern end of the island of Ulva. To reach it you head north-west from the slipway on which you will have been landed by the Ulva Ferry. The rough track to the church passes Sheila's Cottage, home to a museum and heritage centre, before heading inland. After a little over three quarters of a miles of surprising twists and turns the track leads you past what was originally the manse, to the church itself.
Ulva 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. Ulva Church was built in 1828 and the cost of church and manse together was £1495, 14 shillings and 1 penny.
The idea of a T-plan church was to allow the maximum number of parishioners to sit as closely as possible to the pulpit. Presbyterian worship had a strong focus on the sermon, and when initially built, the pulpit would have been placed centrally on the east wall, flanked by windows. Pews would have been arranged facing inwards on all three arms of the "T". The end result is sometimes unkindly described as a "preaching box".
In 1841 Ulva had a population of 570, and a fair proportion of them could have been accommodated in the church, where services would have been conducted in Gaelic. In 1845 the island was purchased by a new laird, Francis William Clark. He undertook large scale and rapid clearance of the resident population to allow grazing of the land by sheep. As a result the population had declined by three quarters by 1851 and the church must suddenly have seemed a rather empty place.
In the 1950s the island's then owner, Lady Congleton, funded the conversion of the church into the dual purpose building you see today. Much of it is now used as a community hall, though the island's entire 2011 population of 11 (and neighbouring Gometra's 1) could be accommodated many times over within it. What was originally the southern arm of the "T" now serves as the church, and is furnished with some of the original pews. Also still in the church is the superb original two-tier pulpit, complete with a sounding board above where the minister would have stood, and a precentor's desk at a lower level in front of the main pulpit.
You don't have to be an expert on building preservation to see that much needs to be done to maintain the church on an ongoing basis, and funding is clearly an issue. If you visit Ulva Church make sure you play your part in ensuring it will still be there for future generations to visit, and leave a donation.
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GridRef: NM 437 398