While on holiday we visited the Church of Scotland church in Brae (Shetland) for the 10am service. Lynn, the minister, read the reading and said the prayers as well as preaching.
After the service we spoke to Lynn and several of the congregation over tea and biscuits. The Church of Scotland is selling off twenty out of thirty-one churches in the Shetland Isles, which is a very sad thing. Nearly all churches on the outer islands have now closed. At the moment twelve are still in use as one of the designated churches has not yet closed. Lynn and two other clergy look after all twelve. Considering that the remaining churches are spread across four islands connected only by ferry, that is quite a challenge. Lynn lives on the island of Yell so had to catch a ferry to come to Brae which is on the “mainland”, followed by a 30 mile drive. She had two more services that day, on different islands.
After ten minutes, Lynn departed for her next service so we spoke to members of the congregation for a while. Local communities had been upset by closure of their churches, even though very few people had attended the churches. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries everybody walked to church (of course) so there was a kirk in every settlement. In the mid 1800s many were demolished and a few were rebuilt. The church we visited dated from 1846. In the 1800’s only two families lived on the island of Noss but there was a kirk, now a ruin. Noss is now a bird sanctuary and two nature wardens are the only human inhabitants (with over 25,000 gannets).
Some of the recent church closures are understandable. The church on Out Skerries, for example. The small group of three islands is a 2.5 hour ferry journey from Lerwick. Population of Out Skerries has fallen from 65 in 2013 to just 35 people in 2022. The islands are only 200 miles from Norway but 800 miles from London. There is a tiny airfield but in bad weather both air and ferry crossings are impossible. One of the three islands is now uninhabited. The secondary school was closed in 2014 when there were 3 pupils, meaning that teenagers must travel to Lerwick and live in boarding accommodation Monday to Friday. The primary school had only one pupil in 2016 and has now been moth-balled. So the church outlasted both schools.