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Looking Back: Model Ships In Churches

August 1932

The Rev. D.T Robertson, M.A., of Ashiho, Manchuria, writes:

“In a recent issue of Life and Work you ask if some reader can throw any light on the presence of models of ships in Scottish churches.

“An ancestor of mine was a sea-captain, sailing out of Saltcoats – at a that time Saltcoats was a seaport of importance. During the Napoleonic wars, he was pressed into the navy, and became gunners-mate in a man-of-war. The ship was eventually captured by the French, and he had to remain a captive till peace arrived. To while away the hours of captivity, he constructed a model of a full-sized British frigate. When released, he was allowed to carry his handiwork away with him.

“On returning to Saltcoats he felt grateful for his preservation throughout the various risks which he had encountered. His gratitude took the form of presenting the frigate to his church. The session were, it seems, pleased with the gift. The model was fixed to the ceiling of the church, and a front seat in the gallery was set aside for my forebear and his family. I have been told that a medal was graved to commemorate the occasion of the gift, and was hung at the pew on the front of the gallery.

“The old church is now in disuse, but the model has been given a similarly prominent position in the new church.

“The devoting of models of ships is a practice of days as early as ancient Rome. Seamen returning from perilous voyages presented such models. A stone one has been recovered and stands to-day at the front door of that ancient church in Rome which was supposed to be concerned with the protecting of those who had occasion to go down to the sea.

“I should be glad if a list of such models in Scotland were published. One hangs in the oldest Parish Church of Greenock.”

Another correspondent gives similar details to the above, and adds an extract from reminiscences by Captain John Smith in which it is stated: “In the Parish Church at Saltcoats – as in other seaport towns – there hung from the centre of the roof a model of a man-o’-war. Once a year the sailors assembled in the gallery of the church to claim their rights as heritors of the gallery, and it was a sight to see about two hundred able-bodied men in their best navy blue seated in the church on these occasions.”

A third correspondent writes: “In the old days seats were allocated to the lairds and farmers in the parish, and in a seaport town there was a ‘sailors’ laft’ in which a model ship was hung from the roof. I have seen these ships in old Parish Churches in Ayr, Irvine and Greenock."

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