Churches, abbeys and chapels,  History

A little chapel in Ballachulish

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.”

Glen Coe
Glen Coe

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.”

Chapel, Ballachulish 2

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


Bluebells 1 (2)More features to interest you….


No Comments

  • CW

    Those bluebells are so beautiful!! Is there any information as to why he preached from just the doorway? As I read I was thinking perhaps they held services within the store room.

    • Jo Woolf

      I imagine that, on this occasion, the congregation was so big that they wouldn’t all fit in the chapel – everyone would have come to hear such an important minister, so there could well have been hundreds! Yes, the bluebells were beautiful, they are just coming into flower now and the scent is lovely.

  • blosslyn

    Thats interesting what happened to the ‘Scottish Episcopal Church’, I have found that they always have such nice little churches and they always seem to be open. I have never seen St Johns, so will have to have a look next time we are that way. Lovely photos, we have seen so many bluebells on the way today, even along the motorways 🙂

    • Jo Woolf

      The Scottish Episcopal Church is still very much alive and well, and one of the main churches in Scotland. The history of the Christian church as it developed in Scotland is quite complicated! I was scratching my head over this when I was researching the chapel. Although it’s not that old, I think St John’s in Ballachulish would be well worth exploring, and it contains some relics that were used for worship before the Battle of Culloden. Next time I will stop and look inside, too! 🙂

      • blosslyn

        Oh yes, even though they are not that old you do find some quite unusual items inside them. Sometimes even the odd grave slab, always worth a quick look. I have trouble understanding the development of the churches in Scotland, so I just enjoy their churches 🙂

      • Jo Woolf

        I had very little idea of how they all evolved, and you tend to get drawn into the history of Scotland as a whole, so there’s the question of where to stop! But you’re right, they are all worth looking inside – I tend to see a ‘Victorian-era’ church and think that I won’t bother, but I am learning my lesson! 🙂

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you, Lorna. No, the door looked as if it had a padlock on it. We didn’t have time to check, but next time I will, because I want to go inside the church as well!

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you very much, Colin! Glencoe was stunning that morning, and the bluebells were fantastic. It’s tempting to just jump in the car and go back there!

  • Anny

    Oh I love Glencoe – such dramatic scenery and history to match – I can’t drive through the mountains without thinking of the massacre and the people fleeing into those hills – one day I will stop and walk instead!

  • Debbie

    My partner and I where married in St Johns this year by the priest of the Scottish Episcopal Church. We had an amazing day in such a beautiful place, 6 years previous when we where driving by after staying in Fort William for the weekend we stopped at the church and just where in awe of the Chapel and the scenery and that stayed in my heart, then 6 years later that’s where we decided to elope and get married.

    • Jo Woolf

      How lovely, Debbie! What a beautiful place to get married. That is such a romantic story, and I can understand why you picked this place to get married. Thanks so much for sharing with us! 🙂

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