A History of the Church in Rogart

by Rev J. L. Goskirk

The Christian Gospel was first preached in what was to become the parish of Rogart in the 7th Century.  During that period missionaries from those areas of Scotland in which the Faith was already established – and also from Ireland – reached the district.  One of these was Callan (Latin – Cucalinus) who appears to have made Strathfleet and the area stretching up towards Strathbrora the sphere of his work. The site of a Chapel of St Callan lies on the bank of the River Fleet near Kinnauld and there was also a chapel at Rovie with a burial ground which remained in use for many centuries.

The parish of Rogart takes its name from the place where the present St Callan’s church is situated.  In earlier days this was often referred to as Rogartmore or Big Rogart (also Muckle Rogart) and, of course, the township of Little Rogart lies opposite.  The meaning of the name may now be impossible to define and experts vary in their suggestions.  In the First Statistical Account, 1780, it was stated that the original name was Roghard, meaning in Gaelic “very high”.  The Second Statistical Account, 1835, suggested Rhidheard – from two Gaelic words – Rhide – an inclined plain, and Ard – high.  The author of ‘Sutherland and the Reay Country’ says “early characters give Rothgorthe, known in highland topography – Rothe, a circle, and Gorthe, a cultivated land”.  When we stand at St. Callan’s Church and face west we are certainly looking down on a rough circle of land bounded by the hills behind us and those beyond Little Rogart and Rheidchalmie. It seems a very reasonable description of the vicinity – the low lying area of marshy ground with the hills encircling it on all sides, but any of the theories would fit.

Foundation of the Church

Here it would seem, Callan, or his successors, built a church which eventually became the principal place of worship for the district.  The now obsolete place-name Balintemple or Templetown (Gaelic – Baile-an-Teampull) for a township which was in close proximity to the Church confirms that this is a very old religious site.  The Gaelic word ‘Teampull‘ was used for church buildings in the time of Callan and before. The church was by no means centrally situated in the parish, being for centuries even nearer the boundary between Rogart and Dornoch than it is today, for Kinnauld was, until comparatively recently, in the latter parish.  According to an ancient legend the site was chosen by somewhat unorthodox means.  Two white horses, each drawing sledges, one bearing a heavy stone and the other a Bible, were set loose from a given point. The course covered by the first horse marked the boundaries of the glebe, while the place where the second horse halted was where the Church was erected. However, the choice was made, the fact that it is easily accessible from every part of the parish with roads leading in from Langwell, Morness, Rhilochan, the western end of Strath Fleet by way of Pitfure and Little Rogart, and from Pittentrail.  Indeed it is noteworthy that the Church is actually visible from Milton Muie – about five miles away as the crow flies.  Originally, and for many generations the church would have been a simple stone building with a roof of heather thatch and only the simplest of furnishings.  A common idea that Scottish mediaeval parish kirks were miniature reproductions of the Cathedral and monastic ones is completely at variance with fact.  As George Hay states in ‘The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches’, “From the 13th Century onward the most common type of church plan was a simple aisleless rectangle often of rather attenuated proportions.”

Over the years repairs and alterations must have been required but there is no record of any of these.  The Highlands were primitive and unsettled places in the mediaeval period.  What records do survive relate to the Cathedrals and Monasteries and not to the humble parish churches.  We know however that in the diocese of Caithness, fourteen of the parish churches were assigned for the maintenance of the Canons.  One of these was the Chancellor to whom was given the Church of Rogart. 

The Reformation in Scotland 1560

The Reformation came slowly to the Highlands and without, it seems, very much of the upheaval experienced in the South of Scotland and other countries.  In many cases apparently the parish priests simply threw in their lot with the Reformed Church and continued to serve their people.  Some became ministers, others, perhaps lacking the standard of education required by the kirk – the low standard of education of the clergy in the pre-Reformation Church was notorious – became Readers, who as the name implies, read the service from the Book of Common Order and often, in the absence of the minister qualified to preach, read to the congregation from a book of homilies.

It is virtually certain then that St.Callan’s continued in use, being altered only to suit it as a place of Protestant, rather than Roman Catholic, worship. But again it must simply be said that we have no record of any of these alterations or of any repairs or improvements until the first decades of the 18th Century.  By then the Kirk of Rogart, as it was now known, was in a very bad state of repair – a condition it shared with almost every other parish church in the county.  It was the responsibility of the Heritors – the landowners of the parish – to provide and maintain churches and manses, but this they were often unwilling to do.

By this period however, the Presbyterian system was firmly established and the Presbytery (of Dornoch) began to make itself heard in the matter.

In 1736, the minister of Rogart, the Rev John Munro, reported to the Presbytery that despite an official visitation which had taken place some years before, the Heritors had done nothing.

“Said Church is turned quite ruinous”, he said. Apparently it could no longer be repaired for the sum originally estimated. The Presbytery paid another visit and this time ordered that 8 feet should be added to the length of the building. Estimates for the work included masonwork, wrightwork with glazing, wiring, thatching and a new pulpit and ironwork, totalling £81 sterling.

A New Church

Within forty years however, the situation was worse than ever, for in 1775 it was agreed that both church and the manse were so ruinous that they must be entirely rebuilt. The manse had been erected in 1733.

The plan of the new building was to be the same as the recently built churches of Clyne and Loth. Whether or not the old church was completely demolished is not known – one record states that it was completely rebuilt from the foundations – but we may assume that the original stones would have been re-used as far as possible. In 1783 when the new out-buildings were erected at the manse the minister commented that:-
“there was no quarry in the place that could be regularly wrought but round bowls here and there that could be dug out of the earth with much labour and difficulty… and that all the stones would need to be carried by day-labourers as there were no carts or cart-roads”. Presbytery Records Vol 4.

Timber used in the construction was shipped from Speyside to within a mile or two of the church. At that time – forty years before the construction of the causeway, The Mound, across Loch Fleet, boats used to come in on the tide which flowed as far as Pittentrail. The timber is said to have been unloaded at Kinnauld and transported over the hill to the building site on the backs of ponies.

When completed in 1777 – the date is carved above the east door – the church conformed to the plan then much favoured for parish churches in Scotland. The doors and windows in the south wall were as they are today, but the pulpit stood against the middle of that wall between the two windows. Previously it was the ‘lattron’ with the Precentor’s box and seating for the elders. The communion table (or the space in which it was set up) ran for much of the length of the church in the centre. A gallery occupied the east, west and north sides with access by means of doors and external stairs in the gables and north wall. These galleries were lit by sky-lights or dormers. The cost was £300 – £20 more than Clyne.

In view of the notorious unwillingness of the Heritors to spend any more than was absolutely essential on church buildings it is at least possible that the pulpit made in 1736 would have been reused.

Without doubt the new church must have been a great improvement on the old, yet by modern standards it lacked many refinements. Some of these were provided in 1816 when the door to the north gallery was closed up and the stair removed. The doorstep and the hooks on which the hinges swung are still visible. This left access to the galleries only by the gable doors. At the same time the ceiling and side walls were lathed and plastered, and the passages in the lower area we are paved.

The Disruption

In 1843 the disruption brought into being the Free Church. The minister, the Rev John McKenzie, remained in the Established Church unlike many of his colleagues in the Presbytery but, as was the case in most Highland parishes, the majority of the people supported the Free Church. They built their new church and manse at Pitfure and so for the first time in history there were two denominations in the parish. The departure of so many of the people now meant that there was no need to accommodate very large congregations in the parish church. No doubt by the middle of the century further repairs were necessary and eventually a complete renovation was carried out. The galleries were removed altogether, the pulpit was placed against the east wall and the church was laid out in its present form. In 1915 or 1916 the plaster ceiling was removed and replaced by the timber boarding of the present day.

By the 1950s it was obvious that thorough repairs were again becoming necessary. In 1955 a complete renovation was carried out under the leadership of the late Rev John Imrie. The roof was re-slated, electric lighting and heating were installed, and the church was completely redecorated. New carpeting was laid and the pulpit hangings were renewed. It was at this time that the date 1777, carved up of the east door, was discovered beneath the harling and restored to view.

This restoration which cost in the region of £1250, is commemorated by a plaque which records the reopening of the church on the 14th October, 1956, by the late Rev William Sutherland, then minister of Sefton Park Church, Liverpool, who was a native of Rogart.

A further commemoration is the beautifully bound and illuminated book which tells the story of the restoration and records the names of the office-bearers in the congregation at that time. Inter-leaved with most appropriate texts chosen by the late Mrs Elizabeth Imrie, the minister’s mother, are the names of all those in the parish who contributed to the cost of the undertaking. This unique volume which must be counted among the treasures of the church is the work of Mr William Imrie, brother of the late Rev JB Imrie.

Despite these improvements the church remained deficient in one very important particular – the existing vestry, an addition at the rear of the building, was small, dark, damp and cold, and there were no toilet facilities whatever.

The Congregational Board was looking into the possibility of adding a toilet to the existing vestry and when it became known that the late John Watson of Ivy Cottage, Pittentrail, had most generously made a bequest to the congregation to provide this facility at Saint Callan’s. The architect’s advice was that it would not be practical to extend the old vestry for this purpose and that a new wing containing vestry and toilet should be erected in its place.

For some months Saint Callan’s was closed, the congregation worshipping in Pitfure Church each Sunday, while the new project was under construction. In July 1984 worship was resumed and the new vestry wing, which cost approximately £18,500 was dedicated to the glory of God. A spacious vestry and cloakrooms, a large vestibule, ample storage and cleaners’ store make this bequest a most useful addition to the church. Its simple design and high quality of workmanship blend admirably with the ancient building.

In 1988 it was discovered that woodworm was affecting pews and other parts of Saint Callan’s. Treatment was carried out early in 1989 when all the wooden furniture and fittings were revarnished. The pulpit hangings, which had been gifted by the Women’s Guild in 1956, were renewed and a new inner glazed door was fitted at the main entrance. The inner doors had previously been covered in blue baize. When this was stripped off, one door carried a heartfelt message from the past, proving that stress is not a modern occupational hazard. That door which has been rehung at another entrance, with the inscriptions varnished over to preserve them, simply but vividly links the labours of past and present. Pencil notes on natural wood still echo worthy pride in a job well done: –

Angus Ross, painter, Dingwall 1875;

Kenneth Ross, Caledonian Bank, Dingwall 1875

Sergeant Major Thos Ross Rogart.

“A terrible push on a Saturday to get to the pulpit and doors covered and ready for preaching on Sunday.“ Charles John Fearnside

More enigmatic, since it seems an odd place for such a record, is the following note –

In the year of the Lord 1875

Rev Mr McDonald

Married July 1874 to Miss Hale of Calusie

Actually the Rev Colin McDonald was married to Miss Isabella Janet Hall of Calrossie on 30 March 1874 – not July.

The two beautiful stained glass windows on either side of the pulpit were given in their memory by their only son, Andrew Hall McDonald.


Reference has already been made to the to the Disruption in the Church of Scotland which resulted in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843.

At that period the choice of parish ministers was the responsibility of the local landowners – the Patrons. Increasingly, congregations were demanding the right to choose their own ministers and strife sometimes ensued when unpopular clergymen were forced upon them.

On this, amongst other principles, 451 ministers, mainly from the evangelical wing of the Church, withdrew from the general assembly and, joined by many other ministers and elders, constituted themselves the first General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Free.

“In the Highlands especially… practically the entire population forsook the parish churches.“ Burleigh: A Church History of Scotland

Rogart Free Church and manse were built at Pitfure where the majority of the population worshipped for almost sixty years.

The overwhelming majority of the Free Church congregation in Rogart over the Parish Church congregation is illustrated by the fact that when in 1854, the Duke of Sutherland as Patron, presented the Rev Gregor Stuart to be minister of the parish, the Call was signed by ‘1 Heritor and 14 members and parishioners’.

By 1871 the number signing the call to the Rev Colin McDonald had increased to 38 members and adherents and 1 Heritor. But the free Church in 1875 calculated their members and adherents over the age of 14 to be 686, i.e. very nearly 17 times as many.

In the latter decades of the 19th century discussions were taking place with a view to uniting the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church (a denomination confined almost entirely to the south of Scotland). There was by no means complete agreement on the union within the Free Church, but eventually in 1900, the majority united the whole UP church to form the United Free Church of Scotland. This national pattern was repeated at the local level in Rogart where, although there was no United Presbyterian Church at all, those in favour of the union formed a United Free congregation.

For some years ownership of the ecclesiastical properties were disputed, but in 1906 the church and manse were allocated to the continuing Free Church congregation. At first the United Free Church people worshipped in the former Free Church School buildings at Torbreck and Culdrain, which had been allocated to them. In 1907 a site at Pitfure was selected; “… between Pitfure Lodge and D Sutherland‘s house“, on which to erect a new church and manse. The latter was completed in 1909 and the church the following year.

The Jubilee of the opening of Pitfure Church was celebrated in June 1960, with special services which included a Children’s Praise service on the afternoon of 5th June, and an open air service held on the hill slope above the manse, where a congregation of over 200 was present. The Praise consisted of Psalms only on the guest preacher was the Rev William Sutherland, Liverpool, a native of Rogart.

At the morning service that day, a baptismal font, given by the congregation in memory of the Rev Ewan Alexander MacDonald, minister from 1927 to 1947, was presented for dedication by his widow, Mrs Dora MacDonald.

A matching lectern, given in memory of the Rev John Bowie Imrie, minister from 1954 to 1970, was dedicated on 12 April, 1981 in the presence of Mrs Elizabeth Imrie, who gave the lectern Bible (Good News version) and markers.

Both the font and lectern are the work of Mr Alexander W MacKenzie Dornoch, who is a native of Morness. It is believed that the Communion Table was made by his father, Mr Donald MacKenzie, Morness.

Mr Colin Maclean, session clerk, gave one of the praise boards, while the other was gifted in 1983 in memory of Nathaniel and Annie Murray, by their family. Mr Murray, who was ordained to the eldership in 1946, was honoured by the congregation in 1959, having served the Church as precentor for 62 years – 39 in Rosehall and 23 in Rogart.

The new church, seating 250, was opened for worship in June 1910 with services in Gaelic and English to which the congregation was summoned by the bell, the gift of three brothers, natives of Rogart, Neil Gordon, who lived in Golspie, and John and Alexander of Toronto, Canada.

In 1929, with the problem of Patronage long a thing of the past (it had been abolished in 1874), the United Free Church of Scotland united with the Church of Scotland (although again, a minority declined to enter the union). As a result there were now two congregations of the Church of Scotland in the parish of Rogart. The old parish church was re-named Saint Callan’s Church and the former UF Church was known as Pitfure Church. These congregations were united in 1948 and since then the two churches have continued in use on alternate Sundays, much loved by those who worship in them.


From the time of the Reformation

1568 William Gray – Gaelic exhorter in Rogart, Lairg and Golspie.

Annual stipend £45.11.1½ Scots – about £4.50 sterling.

George Sinclair – Minister – admitted during the time of the above.
1590 Thomas Pape or Pope – translated to Cullicudden, 1614.
1614 John Sutherland
George Sutherland – member of General Assembly, 1639.
Thomas Ross MA – succeeded prior to August, 1656.
The parish was vacant in June 1658.

William Mackay, admitted prior to October 1662. Translated to Lairg 1668

Walter Ross, admitted prior to 1683.

Summoned before Privy Council for praying for dethroned King James VII and II. Continued minister until about 1720.

1725 John Munro – died 1753.
1753 Hugh Sutherland, translated from Kildonan. Died 1773.
1774 Aeneas McLeod MA, ordained 1774. Died 1794.
1795 Alexander Urquhart MA, missionary to Farr. Admitted 1795. Died 1812.
1813 George Urquhart MA (his son), admitted 1813. Died 1821.
1822 Donald Ross MA translated from Kilmuir, Skye. Translated to Loth 1823.
1823 John MacKenzie MA, missionary to Glenmoriston admitted 1823. Translated to Resolis 1843.
1844 Duncan MacArthur, ordained 1844. Died 1853.
1854 Gregor Stuart, translated from Kinlochluichart 1854. Translated to Kingussie 1857.
1858 John MacDonald MA translated from Croick 1858. Died 1872.
1873 Colin MacDonald, translated from Knock, Lewis 1873. Died 1918.
1919 Alan McKenzie, translated from Uig 1919. Translated to Tiree 1925.
1926 William Caird Taylor, translated from Berriedale 1926. Died 1935.
1939 Angus MacLeod, ordained and inducted 1939. Translated to Erchless 1946.

Free Church 1843 to 1900

1846 Alexander MacLeod, translated from Lochalsh. Died 1869.
1873 Alexander Mackay, ordained and inducted 1874. Translated to Dores 1887.
1889 William Logan, ordained and inducted 1889. Translated to Turriff 1896.
1897 Donald Campbell Mackintosh, ordained and inducted 1897 translated to Ardeonaig 1907.

 United Free Church 1900 to 1929

Donald Campbell Mackintosh as above.
1908 Dugald Macmillan, translated from Lismore and inducted 1908. Translated to Tarbert (Loch Fyne) 1919.
1919 Alexander MacKay Macleod MA, translated from Croy and inducted 1919. Translated to Tarbert Ross-shire 1926
1927 Ewan Alexander MacDonald MA, ordained and inducted 1927.

Pitfure Church (Church of Scotland) 1929 to 48

1929 Ewan Alexander MacDonald MA, died 1947.

Church of Scotland – Rogart
(United Congregation)

1948 Murdo M MacSween, translated from Sandwick (Orkney) 1948. Translated to Lochalsh and Strome Ferry 1954.
1954 Rev John Bowie Imrie, translated from Kinimonth and New Leeds 1954. Retired 1970. Died 1974.

Congregation linked with Lairg 1970.

1970 Rev John Leslie Goskirk (ordained and inducted to Lairg 1968) inducted to Rogart 1970.