New group hopes to turn Highland capital church into tourist draw

The Rev Peter Nimmo of Old High St Stephen's Church, Inverness.

A new organisation has been set up to try and turn an historic church in the Highlands with links with the Irish missionary who brought Christianity to Scotland into a major tourist attraction.

The group, titled Friends of the Old High St Stephen's Church, hopes to raise money to fund ongoing improvements to the Grade A-listed building in Inverness and also promote it as a local cultural destination.

It has been endorsed by minister the Rev Peter Nimmo and his Kirk Session, although they have no official connection with it apart from joining as individual members because it will be a separate entity from the congregation.

Church members, people associated with other religious denominations and none are being invited to join the group.

The building stands on St Michael's Mount overlooking the River Ness – an area described by some as the cradle of Christianity in the Highlands.

Here, according to local tradition, St Columba first preached in 565, and converted the Pictish King Brude to Christianity.

There has been a church on the site since shortly after that date and while most of the present building dates largely to 1772, the tower dates back to the 14th century.

Elder Christina Cameron, who led the bid to establish the group and is its first chairwoman, said: "The oldest church in Inverness is a vital part of the city's heritage.

"It's a gem of a building which was for centuries the only church in the town.

"It is like an old lady that needs some tender loving care and like all historic buildings, it's very costly to maintain.

"The task of the friends' group is to ensure that the building will be secured for future generations and continue to contribute to the spiritual, cultural and social life of the city."

One of the early priorities for the church building is to keep it open for several hours each day between Easter and autumn to give visitors to the Highland capital the opportunity to have a look round .

In recent years there have been many visitors from all over the world but regular opening has sometimes been curtailed by lack of volunteers to welcome and supervise them, despite appeals to congregation members.

Ms Cameron and her colleagues are anxious to ensure that tourists from cruise ships visiting Invergordon, as well as those staying locally, are made aware of the church's significance, and enjoy easy access to it, particularly given plans to turn Inverness Castle into a tourist attraction.

Mr Nimmo said: "If people would like to be involved in activities like being guides in the church, or in stewarding events organised by the Friends, they'll be very welcome."

Plans are underway to organise an official Friends' launch in the church on Tuesday, 12th January – Scotland's "Old New Year's Day".

Fellow elder and author of the informative booklet Tales of the Old High, Ross Martin, is expected to speak.

Organisers hope that the launch will include music from the Old High's splendid Willis organ, one of the best in Scotland.

The group also intends to set up its own website, separate from, but loosely linked to, the official website of Old High St Stephen's congregation and its sister church on Southside Road.

While the congregation is responsible for financing the general maintenance of the church, the group believe there is much that a strong, secular supporters' group could achieve to enhance it.

Planned upgrades in the future include improvement to the building's toilet facilities because there is currently only one in the vestry.