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Friday July 16 2021

Looking Back: A Cry from the Skerries

From July 1967, the local minister delivers an update from 'a real outpost of the Church'.

David Harbison - a minister - speaks for Skerries: a part of his parish.

CROSS the bridge from East Isle to West Isle, pass the nurse’s cottage, then the Post Office; and right at the end of the road, high on the crest, is the church.

Round about Aberdeen is “The Far North” to many people. Travelling 190 miles farther you reach Lerwick on the Shetland mainland. Take another journey by fishing boat 23 miles to the north-east and you come presently to the Out Skerries: inhabited and linked by a bridge. This is a real outpost of the Church. It is served by a missionary-school teacher, appointed jointly by the Church of Scotland Home Board, and the Zetland Education Committee.

The parish minister lives on the Island of Whalsay five miles away, visiting Skerries three times a year for the Sacrament of Communion.

In 1965, the Education Committee opened a fine modern school building. This was the moment the people of the Skerries had been waiting for, because up till then the Church had served the dual role of school and church. Now the impedimenta of education, the blackboard, the desks, the chalk and pencils, books and cupboards, could be removed, and the building renewed as a place of worship.

Lord MacLeod made the journey recently into Skerries to officiate at the reopening. He can rarely have reopened a church which is so much part of the community. There were 78 people at the service. On the following Sunday 65 attended in the morning, and 68 at night. This is the rule rather than the exception. The total population of the Skerries is just under one hundred. A new church is a lovely thing, but a living church is lovelier still!

The old stone dyke outside has been removed, and a new concrete wall built with a cattle grid. A new gate has been erected. Adorning the top of the building is a bronze cross in memory of an elder. Everything inside has been made new. In the vestibule, parquet flooring made from the wood of the desks marks the last link with the old school. Ceiling and walls have been re-lined and nicely decorated. New lighting and heating have been installed. New pews stand, carpeting is laid, modern windows fitted, and every last item of work done by the people of Skerries with their own hands. The materials cost over a thousand pounds, but labour was free.

Fishing is a hard life, but no sooner did the boats come ashore at night, than the lights went on in the kirk and the work continued. Men ashore gave much of their free time.

The only thing not new were the chancel chairs, previously purchased in thanks for the service of various members to their church; and the pulpit, lectern and communion table made by a local craftsman, who also made the new oak doors, now hung in memory of an elder.

After eight years as teacher-missionary Mr. James Marchbank had left with his wife for Glasgow, but his quiet leadership, while the Skerries people planned and saved, had been an inspiration. Perhaps the one regret was that they were not there to share in this reopening.

Alas! When they left, the people lost in Mrs. Marchbank their nurse.

Doctor and minister alike live in Whalsaw. The Country Council has been advertising for a nurse for months. Not a single soul has applied. For the Skerries folk the situation is therefore serious.

Isolated as we are, we have to be independent. Skerries folk don’t ask for grants. They saved and gladly accepted gifts from such as know and love Skerries.

This remote place is often battered by gales; but its isolation is more than counterbalanced by the warm friendship of its people. It is a community which has served and which still serves its church. Some other servant of this same great Church of Scotland may read these words and be moved to come and live, serving God far from the city lights, among the people of Skerries.

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