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Special services in the little kirk

The first time I visited my great-grandfather’s birthplace of North Roe, I walked into the little Methodist church, still standing after all these years. The sea lay just steps from the door, and the chilly building smelled of damp. There was a curtain across the chapel doorway, and the chapel housed wooden pews looking towards a simple carved altar. Windows on the side and at the end let in the muted northern daylight, giving a cheery hue to the otherwise austere furnishings. Here, the Inkster family would have sat each Sunday, listening to the resident minister as he preached from the Good Book. On the altar was a large tattered large Bible: “Wesleyan Chapel North Röe 1884” written in fine copperplate handwriting.

Wesleyan Church at North Roe, c. 1900s

Wesleyan Church 1884 Bible, taken May 2006 | Karen Inkster Vance

The Sabbath Day was strictly observed in the small village of North Roe, Shetland, where Peter Inkster, was born in 1879. Each Sunday the bell on the local Wesleyan Church would ring an hour and a quarter before the start of church. Folk had a long way to walk across peat and over burns, and the bell ringing signalled whether church services were being held, especially during stormy weather.

Methodist ministers who had arrived in the 1820s found North Roe a receptive community and established a large congregation there. The nearest Presbyterian Church was too far to walk, and its designation as State Church and association with the local landlords, made it unappealing to some of the local crofters. They chafed at a system which kept them in bondage to the landlord. The Inksters were early Methodist converts and maintained their faith for several generations.

The two religions lived well side-by-side at North Roe. Sunday services were attended by almost everyone – regardless of denomination, and the church building was used as a communal gathering place for concerts and teas. Religious teachings carried on into the weekdays; Mr. Bremner, the schoolteacher recited from the Bible every day, and sacrilege was punished.

North Roe Presbyterian 'North Kirk', c. 1900s. | Miss Amy Nicolson glass plate collection, courtesy Alex Williamson

In 1872 a small mission Presbyterian Church was built at North Roe, but within twenty years this ‘North Kirk’ was in a state of disrepair – the perfect setting for youthful schoolboys to conduct their own worship services, as recalled by my great-grandfather, Peter Inkster (1879-1948), in his diary:

August 19, 1948. This morning… I met one of my old schoolmates and we relived some of our experiences in the long ago. We talked about the time when we held “special services” in the little kirk. This was a small Presbyterian Mission church conveniently near the school which was in disrepair at that particular time though it was renovated shortly after, and during the noon recess from twelve to one, we boys would repair to this building to put in the spare time (after our meager lunch) as best we could. Of course, it being a sacred edifice we had due regard for the fitness of things to generally put someone in the pulpit to conduct the service. It did not always follow that the scriptures had much to do with it, but often we would take off our teacher’s method of reading us the Old Testament lesson of that day. At other times, it might be a recitation of any description; while, again, it might be just a sort of Quaker’s gathering to act as the spirit moved one.

Inside the North Roe Presbyterian 'North Kirk', c. 1900s. | Miss Amy Nicolson glass plate collection, courtesy Alex Williamson

It always moved us. Some way or t’other. With our bare feet like eagles’ claws, we would walk across the joists studded with rusty nails, in a test of balance to ascertain who could maintain equilibrium from end to end. And woe betide the boy who made a false step or had to use his hands for balance! Our reputations were at stake and we could not afford to go down in disgrace.

Well! we became so interested in our church services that one day we didn’t even hear the teacher’s whistle at one o’clock calling us back. Bremner (the teacher) whistled and whistled, and got madder and madder, his big whiskers getting curlier and curlier (they always curled up when he was angry) until he figured he should come over to find out what was going on. He came, and was close up to the kirk when someone—who had not been asleep during service—shouted, “Here’s Bremner”.

We all dived for it; through the windows, or doors, or any other aperture big enough to hold a boy, scattering like sheep and taking to our heels like jack-rabbits. Robert Winchester’s [1876-1955] predicament saved the rest of us. He got caught in a window—half in, half out. Bremner got him, but by the time he had him disentangled from the window frame none of the rest of us could be found—we had just vanished; and, on being questioned, Robbie—good scout that he was—didn’t just know who had been with him, didn’t even know if ever he had seen them before or not.

It didn’t save us, though. When Teacher got back to school, (we were all safely seated now and studying away as if our very lives depended on it) he just called on all the “youthful worshippers” to come forward and line up on the floor. We did, and paid the price—six with the tawse on each hand. But as there were lots of us we didn’t feel so bad.

We took pride, after that, in recounting the sacrifices Christians had to make, and the terrible price we had to pay for our religion.

More stories about North Roe and excerpts from Peter's diary can be found in Voices from the Past: Stories of North Roe by Karen Inkster Vance (2023).


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