Iona - Thomas Telford Designed Church

Thomas Telford Churches on Scottish Islands


Thomas Telford was born in Westerkirk, Scotland in 1757. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a stonemason. He worked for a time in Edinburgh and in 1792 he moved to London where he was involved in building additions to Somerset House.

During his later years, Telford was responsible for the design and erection of what has come to be known as the Parliamentary Churches. An Act of Parliament in 1823 provided a grant of £50,000 for the building of up to 40 churches and manses in communities without any church buildings (hence the alternative name: ‘Parliamentary Church’ or ‘Parliamentary Kirk’). The total cost was not to exceed £1500 on any site and Telford was commissioned to undertake the design. He developed a simple church of T-shaped plan and two manse designs – a single-storey and a two-storey, adaptable to site and ground conditions, and to brick or stone construction, at £750 each. Of the 43 churches originally planned, 32 were eventually built around the Scottish highlands and islands (the other 11 were achieved by redoing existing buildings). The last of these churches was built in 1830.


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The layout of each church was a simple T-plan. There were two doors and windows in the front wall, which if the terrain allowed, faced south. This was the longest wall of the building being 52′ 6″. On the left-hand gable there was a small belfry consisting of four plain pillars supporting a pyramidial top. At each side of the building there were two windows, one in the end and one on each side of the rear wing. The exterior was plain and undecorated while the interior was equally austere with the pulpit against the front wall between the front windows and hexagonal in shape.


Without doubt the design of these churches is the least known of all Telford’s feats of construction. Of the churches built on the scottish islands, there are surviving examples at:

Isle of Ulva

Isle of Iona

Isle of Islay – Portnahaven


Islay - Portnahaven Church

Islay – Portnahaven Church


Isle of Berneray – made famous on the TV series ‘Restoration Man’

Isle of Mull – Kinlochspelve. There was also a church built in Tobermory, but this was replaced in 1897.

Isle of Skye – Staffin and Waternish

Mainland Shetland – Quarff


Churches at Crossand Knock in Lewis have been demolished. Also, churches at Trumisgarry on North Uist and at the Oa on Islay are in ruins.

There is also a Church at Ullapool (where you can catch the ferry to Stornoway on the isle of Lewis). This has been turned into a Museum, but preserves the communion table.


Ullapool Museum

Ullapool Museum


The churches are simple but beautiful. I hope that these churches can be preserved for the nation for many years to come


Lee Allen


About the author: Lee Allen

I started travelling around the Scottish Islands around 15 years ago. I have travelled to just under 60 Scottish Islands and I aim to visit as many of these beautiful Islands as possible.

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