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The naval policy of the Free Church of Scotland

In 1843 the established Church of Scotland suffered a large secession of members who formed the Free Church of Scotland. In the early years of its existence the new church had to overcome a shortage of buildings and clergy, as well as the hostility of many landowners. Their response included the use of a floating church, a floating manse and the building of a yacht dedicated to the task of taking ministers to remote islands. The lecture looks at this curious episode in Scottish history and how and why the church evolved a ‘naval policy’.

Alex Ritchie is the Business Archives Advice Manager at The National Archives. In this lecture he distils years of research into the shipbuilding industry, maritime history and Scottish church history. He also reveals a key fact discovered in The National Archives itself.


The ‘naval policy’ of the Free Church of Scotland 1843-1853

Let us hear the word of God as it is contained in the scriptures of the Old Testament, in the book of Genesis, Chapter 6, verse 13 and reading to verse 16:

13 So God said to Noah: ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.
14 So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out.
15 This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.
16 Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks.

Here ends the reading of the Old Testament scriptures.

A Scotsman was marooned, quite alone, on a desert island. Several years later, when his rescuers found him they were intrigued to find that there was not one church on the island, but two. When he was asked to explain, he pointed to the first structure and said. ‘That’s my church.’ When asked to explain the purpose of the second building, he replied ‘Ah that, that’s the church I don’t go to.’

It is an apocryphal story, of course, but one that is appropriate for the Scotland of 1843. For years prior to this, in the so-called Ten Years Conflict, the Church of Scotland had been in a state of turmoil. The contentious issue was that of lay patronage, the right of landowners to present ministers of their choice to parish churches.

Lay patronage had long been a problem and the Church had suffered the loss of congregations throughout the 18th century, in a series of secessions, when unpopular presentees had been ‘intruded’ on reluctant parishioners. In 1843 the Church of Scotland had sought to popularise the selection of ministers by the introduction of a right of veto for congregations.

This meant that, while they could not actually choose their ministers, they could say no to them. However, the first use of the veto, at Auchterarder, ran into difficulties when the vetoed presentee appealed to the civil courts. The civil courts ruled in his favour, taking the view that the church courts had exceeded their powers in introducing the veto.

This did nothing to resolve the issue and only stoked it up still further. It did not help that the church itself was not of one mind on the subject. It was composed of Evangelical and Moderate parties. After a long period of Moderate ascendancy, the Evangelicals now commanded a majority in the General Assembly, but the Moderates did not support the veto and sided with the civil courts.

As further legal cases accumulated, the issue broadened into one of spiritual independence. Was the church to be free to popularise itself or was it to be shackled by the state? With politicians unwilling to act, the church and civil courts deadlocked, and division in the Kirk itself, it became apparent that the issue was likely to result in a new and unprecedently large secession.

Long before the Disruption of 1843, as it came to be called, preparations had been in progress. At a Convocation in November 1842 a future outside the Established Church was not merely contemplated, it was planned. Dr Thomas Chalmers used his persuasive skills to the extent that it was remarked that he made the lifeboat appear more attractive than the ship.

If the evangelical majority in the church had resulted in an actual majority of ministers leaving it, then the Established church would have been in a desperate situation indeed. As it was, 474 ministers signed the Deed of Demission in May 1843, relinquishing their livings and constituting the Free Church of Scotland. This was not a majority of the Church of Scotland’s ministers; in fact it was only about a third. But if the Free Churchmen were disappointed that they could not claim the moral authority that would have gone with an actual majority, they could console themselves that many of the most prominent ministers of the day had rallied to their cause.

The Established church, by contrast, was left seriously under strength and with an aged and largely undistinguished leadership. From this point on, Scotland had two Presbyterian denominations in competition to provide religious ordinances on a national basis. Scottish Presbyterians now not only had a church to attend; they also had one to which they did not go.

That, then, is a simplified sketch of the state of affairs in Scotland’s national church in 1843. But at this point we are going to remove ourselves from the more general questions of the Disruption and concentrate on those matters that resulted in the adoption of what I have called a ‘naval policy’ by the Free Church of Scotland.

The first vessel in the Free Church Navy was a modest yacht, the Betsey. Much of what we know about her is drawn from the pen of Hugh Miller, the Cromarty stonemason, geologist and Free Church propagandist who recorded his experiences in a book, The cruise of the Betsey: or, A summer ramble among the fossiliferous deposits of the Hebrides. This unusual blend of theology and geology sheds light on conditions in 1844.

When the minister of the Small Isles ‘went out’ at the Disruption he was forced to give up his home on the island of Eigg. Unable to remain there on account of the proprietor’s hostility, the Rev John Swanson put forward the idea to acquire a yacht, which served, in effect, as a floating manse. Hugh Miller described the cramped conditions whereby

‘The cabin…I found to be an apartment about twice the size of a common bed, and just lofty enough under the beams to permit a man of five feet eleven to stand erect in his nightcap’.

As an example of the hybrid nature of the vessel a copy of Calvin’s Institutes stood next to The Coaster’s Sailing Directions. Miller described the Betsey lying off Eigg:

‘looking wonderfully diminutive, but evidently a little thing of high spirit, taut-masted, with a smart rake aft, and a spruce outrigger astern, and flaunting her triangular flag of blue in the sun’

The blue flag had been adopted as the Free Church’s house colours. The Betsey had a crew of two, the minister himself was the skipper and the faithful John Stewart was sole mate and general factotum. The islanders were full of anticipation for her arrival and once, when the Betsey was becalmed, a boat rowed out to tow her the last five miles to Eigg.

A year later, the Betsey was showing signs of wear and tear. Miller described her behaviour in a storm thus: ‘like a good Free Churchwoman, the lowlier she bent, the more steadfastly did she hold her head to the storm.’

The Betsey’s sale appears in the Free Church’s accounts for 1847-48, when she realised the sum of £40. John Swanson moved to Nigg in 1847 on the unusual grounds that his manse had become unseaworthy.

The second unit in the Free Church Navy was the Breadalbane. The idea was that a vessel would be dedicated to ferrying Free Church ministers to distant islands in order to register a presence where the church had no fixed and permanent arrangements. I didn’t think that an image of the Breadalbane existed until recently I was alerted to the fact that it appeared on the cover page of a contemporary Gaelic-language periodical.

Built to order and launched at the Bay of Quick yard of John Barnhill & Co in 1844, the Breadalbane received her name in recognition of one of the church’s few friends among the aristocracy, the Marquess of Breadalbane. Many Scottish landowners were Episcopalian and either indifferent or hostile to the Free Church. The Marquess was thus unusual in his support, as well as being a generous benefactor.

Special design features were incorporated to fit the Breadalbane for her holy purpose. A contemporary description put it thus:

‘Her construction is such as to combine fast sailing with what, in nautical phrase, is called better “bearing” and greater capacity than is usual in small yachts. By “bearing” is meant greater stability than ordinary under sail – no ordinary recommendation to gentlemen not accustomed with being “afloat”. Her capacity also causes her to yield much more and better accommodation below deck than is usual in many vessels of larger size. Her length on deck is 49 feet, breadth 13 feet 6 inches, height of cabin about 6 feet. She has an excellent after-cabin, substantially and comfortably fitted up with two sleeping berths, and two state rooms, with one bed in each. The sofas in the cabin are also convertible into comfortable accommodation for six cabin passengers…She is strongly built of British oak, and schooner rigged; and her having received the name indicated at the head of our notice, The Breadalbane, will give her not the less interest in the minds of our readers-all of whom will, we doubt not, account the compliment not more than well-merited and fitly bestowed.’

The early operation of the vessel was described in the Free Church’s Missionary Record:

‘The Breadalbane carries the messengers of Christ from island to island, and her blue flag is welcomed in many a creek where hitherto the Gospel has been a strange sound. You can have no idea of the feelings with which the islanders view the good schooner. I will never forget one evening when a party came from a distance, “just to get a sight of the ship”, and having examined her snug and comfortable cabin, one of them came to me, and with tears in his eyes said “I now see the Free Church is determined to send us the preaching of the Cross, and to look after our souls.”’

Equipped with the Breadalbane, the Free Church was able to send clergy along the whole of the West Coast of Scotland, even as far as distant St Kilda, which Breadalbane visited annually.

The precariousness of such arrangements was underlined when, in 1853, a storm got up and the captain, unwilling to risk his vessel in the open bay of St Kilda, ran for the coast of Sutherland and the islanders were forced to wait a further year to receive communion. This was the last year of Breadalbane’s service. The development of reliable steamer services to the Hebrides rendered her surplus to requirements and she was sold.

What is a navy without an admiral? If anyone had that status in the Free Church navy it was the ‘apostolic’ Graham Speirs. Robert Cunningham Graham Speirs was Sheriff of Midlothian and one of the Free Church’s most prominent laymen. We are fortunate that, despite his early death in 1847, we have a photograph for him. David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson had used Free Church ministers and elders as early subjects for portrait photography and to inform the giant painting of the Disruption day that still hangs in the Free Church offices.

But for most of what we know about Graham Speirs, we are indebted to that great chronicler of 19th century Edinburgh, Lord Cockburn. After his untimely death, Cockburn described Speirs thus:

‘He was a most excellent and valuable man, and of a sort of which we have few. Sensible without what could be called talent, intelligent without learning, effective in plain speech without eloquence, and industrious without slavery, he had all the qualities necessary for practical use, with an almost total exemption from all those calculated for exhibition or ornament…I don’t think I ever knew a layman to whom such religious authority attached in virtue of mere solemnity of character and gravity of manner’.

Intriguingly, Cockburn added something else:

‘Speirs’s later character makes it quite safe to allude to his earlier one. His life would not be turned to its right use were it not held out as another of the many examples of the propriety of never despairing of a young man too soon. He began in the navy, where he reached a lieutenancy; and although always active, gallant and popular, his wild irregularities and nearly constant disregard of discipline gave the utmost alarm to his friends’

So what had Speirs done in the navy? There was only one place to find out and that was among the Admiralty records here in The National Archives ( But immediately, I hit a brick wall. There was no evidence that Speirs had passed as a lieutenant. Perhaps he had not been in the navy, after all?

His will gave a clue, in that he bequeathed a diamond ring to a male friend, Sir William Gibson Craig. His will clearly stated that the same ring had been bequeathed to Speirs by a naval captain, William Burnett. Burnett was near in age to Speirs and came from a similar background, that of a Scottish gentry family. I assumed that the two men served together in the navy, and by pursuing Burnett’s service record; it might be possible to find something about Speirs.

And so it proved. The names of the two friends appear in the ship’s muster for HMS Newcastle, a 60-gun frigate, in 1817. Both men were entered as midshipmen and shortly afterwards their paths diverged, with Speirs following a career in law. By 1845 Speirs has assumed the position in which he rendered his most valuable service to the Free Church.

The problems of providing religious ordinances in distant and inaccessible areas and with a limited supply of clergy were compounded by a further obstacle: site-refusal. The reaction of many landowners to the Free Church was that, if they ignored it, it might well go away. They certainly did not see themselves as obliged to grant them the sites on which to build their own churches.

In many districts this was an insuperable obstacle, particularly in the Highlands. This was the case on the estates of Sir James Riddell, proprietor of over 100,000 acres comprising the districts of Ardnamurchan and Sunart. Together they made up a peninsula, with Ardnamurchan Point at one end. At the eastern end lay Strontian, at the head of a long sea-loch, Loch Sunart. Here was Sir James’s mansion house and a concentration of the estate’s population.

Sir James was a well-travelled and cultivated man, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, though he had little in common with his tenantry. They were Gaelic-speaking Presbyterians; he was an Episcopalian who expressed himself at considerable length in English, mainly on the question of why he refused to grant a site to build a church.

A compromise was proposed, which would have allowed the Free Church congregation at Strontian the use of a tent in the winter. The concession was hedged with conditions.

These were considered unacceptable and the agreement foundered. This was Sir James’s response:

‘The refusal of the boon offered, proves to me that the Dissenting party aim at nothing short of the complete overthrow of the Church established in Scotland. My eyes being more than ever opened to the intentions of the leading men among the Dissenters – for I consider the poor people as being deluded, and put in the foreground merely for the purpose of carrying these intentions the more easily into execution – I cannot regret the refusal of the boon offered. The door is now closed, not by me, but by the people themselves, against all future concessions on my part’.

For those unfamiliar with Presbyterianism, one of its distinguishing features, if not its greatest glory, is its system of committees. There was no problem so great that a well-constituted committee could not face it down. The Free Church’s committee on Popery was perhaps an exception to this rule.

As site-refusal emerged as a problem, a sites committee was formed under Graham Speirs. Speirs was seen as an ideal choice for this role by virtue of his legal background and his social standing. Being from a gentry family himself, he could negotiate with landowners and not feel at any social disadvantage.

However, his exchanges with Sir James were as fruitless as those which had preceded his appointment. For a while it seemed that the Free Church congregation at Strontian was just going to have to worship in the rain. And so it might have proved, but Speirs had a plan. Once again the Free Church had recourse to the shipyard. This time it was to produce the Dreadnought of Free Church naval policy.

What Speirs proposed was an iron floating church that could be moored offshore in areas where sites were refused. And not only one, for he set no limit on the number that might be produced. But for now Speirs had placed a contract with the Port Glasgow yard of John Reid & Co for an iron church capable of containing 700 sitters. The destination for the floating church had not been fixed on at that stage, though it seemed certain that it would be deployed somewhere in the Highlands.

Speirs concluded his speech to the church commission of assembly thus:

‘We have only ordered one, because it is an experiment. I sincerely trust, and I am sure the Commission will unite with me in prayer to God, that this vessel, to be launched to preserve His testimony, may be preserved, that this ark, for the preservation of His own Word among our distant congregations, may be kept safe on the bosom of the deep, until the waters of bitterness have subsided, and peace be restored, when the congregations, returning each to his own sequestered vale or hillside, may then be permitted to erect their own tabernacle, and to send forth their praises to Him who, through much suffering and tribulation, has brought them to see His great salvation’.

In July 1846 the steamer Conqueror towed the floating church to Loch Sunart. Departing the Clyde on a Wednesday evening the church was taken around the Mull of Kintyre in fine weather, reaching her destination on Friday morning.

The most obvious mooring place for the church would have been in view of Sir James Riddell’s mansion house, but it was decided not to risk provoking the proprietor any further. Instead she was moored about a mile from Strontian and 150 yards offshore.

By Sunday she was ready for public worship, flying a large blue flag, bearing (in Gaelic) the Free Church. The congregation was ferried out between the hours of ten and twelve. One attender on that day described the church as:

‘…not only commodious, but in every respect most comfortable; and one could almost imagine himself, when seated therein, as listening to the ministrations of the gospel in one of the neater churches of the metropolis. The peculiarity, however, of the mode of ingress and egress brought vividly but sadly before my mind the melancholy fact, that an otherwise humane Scottish proprietor should so little sympathise with the religious feeling of his tenantry, as to compel them, after worshipping for three years on the shelterless hillside, to seek at last, for conscience sake, a place of refuge on the sea’.

The Rev Finlay Macpherson, one of the ministers who preached in the floating church left this account:

‘It is exceedingly neat and comfortable – fit to accommodate 1,000 hearers, and has been constructed and moored in its present station at a very great expense to the Free Church. No one can scarcely enter it without feeling a peculiar solemnity remembering the cause for which this devoted and interesting congregation have been compelled thus to assemble there and to worship their God on the bosom of the deep. In stormy weather it is rather inconvenient and it is always tedious for such a large congregation to get on board and afterwards to get ashore. When I preached there the day was very short so that the darkness of night was coming on before we could leave the Floating Church and notwithstanding the provision made by having good boats in attendance and strong cables fixed to the shore the passage tho’ short was rather unpleasant, the boats being much crowded and the shore so rocky and rough and slippery as a landing place.’

Dr Alexander Beith was another Free Church luminary who took his turn in supplying the Floating Church. This is his account:

‘About 750 hearers could be comfortably accommodated. Too large the church was for the neighbouring population, but sometimes it was quite filled, even crowded. A little experience taught the method of judging the number present by the gauge provided at the bow-post. One number sank the church to a depth which was marked by the index. Another sank it to a different depth. So it became a simple question in arithmetic to determine whether the number present at worship was two or four, five, or seven hundred.
Here I preached thrice on the Sabbath – twice in Gaelic, once in English – to a very interesting congregation of Morvern and Argyllshire Highlanders. When we arrived at the ship by boat, and took our places about twelve o’clock, the day was fine, scarcely a breath of wind, the floating leviathan heading up loch, and looking to the east…During the service I became conscious of some unaccountable change, from the altered position of the sun’s shadow, and from the sound of water striking the outside of our place of worship with the swashy noise so familiar to one’s ears on shipboard. By-and-by I fancied I felt some slight motion, as of heaving and rolling. It was very slight and disturbed nobody. By half-past three o’clock the three services had been brought to a close. Meanwhile the sunshine had disappeared, and a rather deep shadow prevailed in our church notwithstanding the numerous and large “skylights” overhead. When we emerged from our under-water condition we found that the wind had quite changed, and that it now blew up the loch from the south-west – somewhat sharply too – quite enough to expose the boats and their occupants, as they made their very frequent trips to and from the shore, to considerable showers of spray. All, however, got safe to land, after much time was consumed- no casualty, and no discomfort even, of any kind occurring to cause aught that was unpleasant.
I was thanked by the office-bearers, and told that their church had never been so deep down in the water before.’

The fleet of floating churches envisaged by Speirs never materialised. As time went by, the need to confound site refusers was gradually being removed as sites were granted. This was a slow process and the sites committee was not finally discharged until 1854.

The disposal of the Breadalbane left only the flagship of the Free Church Navy and even then she was not afloat for all that long. After her arrival, Sir James was more flexible in his attitude and it appears that when the church was driven ashore in a storm, it was agreed to leave her there. After all, even the Ark reached dry land eventually. The only difference was that, this time, instead coming to rest on Ararat; it was Ardnamurchan.

The no-longer floating church remained the Free Church’s accommodation at Strontian throughout the ministry of their first minister, John Macqueen. His successor determined on a proper building. By 1873 this was ready and the floating church was cannibalised for a number of local purposes.

As Noah would have been the first to admit, things have to get pretty serious on land before it seems like a good idea to entrust yourself entirely to the sea. That was the situation that faced the Free Church of Scotland in 1843.

Scattered congregations, the want of clergy (especially Gaelic speakers) and the hostility of landed proprietors forced them to improvise solutions that were as ingenious as they were unusual. Their adoption of what I have termed a ‘naval policy’ was a temporary one designed to rectify a particular situation.

The Betsey, the Breadalbane, the Floating Church; it wasn’t much of a fleet, but it served its purpose, just as the Ark did, to preserve the Free Church until the day when it could return to land.


  1. John M MacAulay says:

    I am researching the history of the Free Church yacht ‘BREADALBANE’ in connection with the part played by John Morison, the Harris Blacksmith, through a voyage to the Firth of Clyde to raise funds to complete the new church and manse at Manish, Isle of Harris. Alex Ritchie refers to an image of the BREADALBANE on the cover page of a contemporary Gaelic periodical.
    Could you please give me the name and date of this publication, since to date, I have been unable to find any photo/drawing of this vessel, apart from one as yet unverified.
    Many thanks, John M.

    1. Liz Bryant (Admin) says:

      Hi John,

      Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately we can’t answer research requests on Archives Media Player.

      As you are interested in Scottish history, you may find it helpful to contact National Records of Scotland – you can find their details at

      Best of luck with your research.


  2. Kathy Evans says:

    Very interesting! Thanks!!

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