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The richness of the edge of the world

15 July 2016

Small remote churches are full of warmth, welcome, and worship, argues Fiona Newton

By the people’s hand: St Donnan’s, Nostie, was built about 50 years ago, from stone

By the people’s hand: St Donnan’s, Nostie, was built about 50 years ago, from stone

NOSTIE: not many people have heard of it. Think Scotland; think the west coast, the road to the Isle of Skye; now think a few miles beyond Eilean Donan Castle — the one on almost every biscuit tin — and think remote.

Now, imagine a wee glen with some birch-wooded land, not so far from the sea, and beside a burn, alongside which, about 50 or so years ago, a group of practical and imag­inative people built a small church. Stones, perhaps from the beach, form a backdrop to the stone altar table: their simplicity is stun­ning. Sitting in this quiet place, it is easy to see, in the carefully placed rocks, the figures of Christ and his disciples, or per­haps pilgrims and holidaymakers. People like you and me.

There you have St Donnan’s: a Scottish Episcopal church a little to the east of the Kyle of Lochalsh. It can seem like the edge of the world.

It is because most people have not heard of it that I wish to write about it — not because it is mighty and growing, but because it is small and faithful, and often flooded. Small and faithful can also include vibrant, imaginative, and creative. It must have been so in the people who made the simple exterior with their hands. It is still so today.

As I turned to take my coffee after today’s service, another retired priest was setting off to take com­munion to a housebound soul and former member and leader of this congregation, who is now living on the Isle of Skye. It is a journey of about six miles; easy, so long as the bridge remains open, despite the high winds.

Distances and weather are chal­lenging in the Highlands. When in the north, we live only a 20-minute drive from Nostie. Not so the former minister: he drove for 90 minutes each way to celebrate the eucharist; it takes our bishop two hours each way from Inverness to visit.

That kind of challenge is part of the formation of the nature of the congregation. Every person is welcomed. There is eye contact, and genuine interest in the lone arrival, or family; for each one must have made some effort to gather for worship. And yet there is the Scot­tish reserve that never overwhelms or intrudes, should someone wish to slip away quietly. . .

Are we worth the travelling time, some might ask.

I have a resounding answer. It is the same answer to anyone asking about small rural congregations anywhere in Britain (we had ten worshippers this morning). It is the answer that a local person might have meant as we stood welcoming at the door today: “Church is meant to be a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints,” he quoted.

It is the answer that a retired farmer might give, as he added his wisdom to the conversation over a post-service lunch. It is the answer that I would give, as I listen to lay people leading the intercessions, and describing the depth of inclusiveness in the place. It is the answer that a classroom assistant might give, as she goes in early to switch on the heaters and prepare the altar. It is also reflected in the efforts taken when the river invades, and rises yet again to the sanctuary step, although not in a holy gesture for communion.

The answer is yes, yes, yes; and yes again. Small faithful groups in remote country places are worship­p­ing God and showing practical compassion to one another and those around them: hospitality, like oatcakes, scones, and soup, from men and women discovering and unlocking gifts that they did not dream of — the sounds of hymn-singing adding to the noise of the rush of the river as it takes the snow-melt to the sea.

At St Donnan’s, Nostie, people sustain each other. And, yes, people deepen their faith. A newly joined man last month asked whether there was a Bible-study group. There soon will be, or something similar.

Next time you are travelling to the Isle of Skye, stop off for the 10.30-a.m. Sunday worship at Nostie. You will join a small congre­gation, with big warm hearts. The Scottish Episcopal sign stands like a bus stop at the side of the road. It is a signpost to Christ — just like the congregation.


Canon Fiona Newton was formerly Rector of Worlingworth and Bedfield, Rural Dean of Hoxne, and an Honorary Canon of St Edmunds­bury Cathedral, in the diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich.

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