Religion has always played a vital part in the life and culture of the Highlands and Islands.
Little is known about what kind of religion our early ancestors, the hunter-gatherers, practiced. Many of the ancient pre-historic monuments scattered around the Highlands and Islands, e.g. the Standing Stones of Callanish, have some religious connection. Some believe that they were used for measuring times and seasons by the sun and the moon.
The Celtic Church
Christianity first came to the Highlands and Islands during the 6th century. St. Columba (Columcille) founded a Celtic monastery in Iona c. 563AD. From Iona missionaries went out across Scotland and even to Western Europe converting many to Christianity. Placenames with Kil- (derived from ceall, meaning "monastic cell"), as in Kiltearn or Killearnan for example, give a good indication of where the earliest churches were located.
The Catholic Church
The Celtic Church lasted from the 6th to the 12th century, but gradually fell under the sway of the Catholic Church. From then until the Reformation in 1560 the Highlands and Islands, along with the rest of Scotland, was Roman Catholic. During this time the Church grew in power and influence. However, it also provided education and social care and built some fine churches such as Dornoch and St Magnus Cathedrals.
After the Reformation
Following the Reformation, the Church of Scotland was recognised by the Scots Parliament in 1590 and, by 1690, had become the established Church. Its form of church government was Presbyterian with decisions made by the church elders.
But Presbyterianism was slow to gain a hold in the Highlands. Vestiges of the Roman faith remained in South Uist and Barra in the Western Isles, Knoydart, Lochaber and Braemar on the mainland. Episcopalians continued to hold many parish churches until the Jacobite Risings. Following both 1715 and 1746 penal laws were enacted in an attempt to abolish the Scottish Episcopal Church, yet in the Highlands the church and its Gaelic worship held on in Appin and Glencoe in Strathnairn and Inverness, Ross-shire and on the Black Isle. The church at St John?s, Arpafeelie sent its ministers throughout the highlands to serve those who remained faithful to their historic church, and Gaelic service continued there until the early 20th century. Paganism too exerted a strong hold on the people into the late 17th century.
A history of secession
By the early 19th century the Highland and Islands were staunchly Presbyterian. When the Disruption of 1843 came, the majority of the population came out with the Free Church, later to become the United Free Church. Fifty years later tensions within the United Free Church led to the secession of the Free Presbyterian Church (1893) and the Free Church (1900).
State of religion today
In recent times the Highlands and Islands have seen a decline in church membership in all denominations, though not nearly so great as in other parts of Britain.
If a book listed in the bibliography below is available from the Highland Libraries it will be indicated by a book icon -
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