Every time we drive through Glen Coe, we pass the Church of St John in Ballachulish. It’s not the church itself that draws my eye but a small rectangular building just to the side of it.
Built of stone, it has a slate roof adorned by a simple wooden cross; a window or second entrance looks to have been filled in quite some time ago. In late May and early June, it is surrounded by a sea of bluebells.
So what’s the story behind this lovely little place?
The Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland tells us:
“The graveyard bristles with orderly ranks of crosses and Ballachulish slate graveslabs, mostly 19th century… Much older is the hearse house – local tradition has it that this was the store house from which Bishop Forbes preached in 1770. It was later consecrated as a chapel.”
Who was Bishop Forbes? And why did he have to preach from a store room?
In 1688, James II of England and VII of Scotland abandoned his throne in the midst of rising opposition to his strong Catholic faith and his belief in the Divine Right of Kings. In his place came William of Orange, who was married to James’ Protestant daughter, Mary. Their overthrow of King James was hailed as the ‘Glorious Revolution’.
In Scotland, a large number of the Highland clan chiefs were either Catholics or members of the Scottish Episcopal Church; they remained true to James VII, and in 1745 many were drawn to their doom by the charismatic appeal of James’ son, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Among the Prince’s secret supporters was a clergyman by the name of Robert Forbes; he was arrested and imprisoned, but later released. Forbes was ordained as Bishop of Ross and Caithness in 1762.
Barred from their churches under the Penal Laws, with no minister to lead them, parishioners resorted to worshipping “in caves or on the hillsides”; but at Ballachulish at least, they had a roof over their heads. The website of the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles explains:
“From the Revolution until 1810, the congregation had no settled incumbent and was served by itinerant Gaelic speaking priests such as The Rev’d Allan Cameron who, with Bishop Forbes, visited Ballachulish in 1770. Bishop Forbes mentions in his Journal that he preached to large gatherings from the doorway of a small storehouse… It was gifted by John Stewart, Laird of Ballachulish House.”
Ballachulish lies at the foot of Glen Coe, on the shore of Loch Linnhe. The church and former chapel can be found on the left, just to the west of the village. If you want to see the bluebells in flower, visit between the middle of May and the beginning of June!
Photos copyright © Jo Woolf