WHO knew how badly Hoolet would miss the sound of church bells on a Sunday morning? During lockdown, their silence was one of the pandemic’s quiet losses. So to hear them ringing out once more, as church-goers hurry over the bridge and up the hill before the service starts, is to feel a sense of order being restored.
Whenever we have visitors who are new to the village, we take a stroll around the church. On its steep roof, the black cast-iron bell hangs in its open belfry. The headstones that circle the building date back centuries, with worn skulls and crossbones, or the sort of curlicued script in which Robert Burns filled his customs and excise reports. Moss and grass are kept tidily within bounds, but with tall and heavy trees overhanging the walls, there is a lushness and tranquillity around the old graves that is the opposite of morbid.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the tiny rural parish of Spott, in East Lothian, where my parents are buried. It has a fond place in my memory, not only because of our family connection, but as a place where as a youngster I would cycle when I needed an afternoon to myself. The door was always open, and I could slip inside, into the musty cool and quiet of its whitewashed walls, to play its wheezing organ.
The Spott organ in those days was an ancient relic, with pedals as basic as bellows; the only real effort was getting them pumped sufficiently to keep the music going. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones used to say that drummers in a rock band do all the hard work, but to watch a performer on a full-sized pipe organ is to see their hands working across three keyboards, pulling dozens of stops, and their feet labouring a fiendish set of pedals. It’s a full-body workout, and how I imagine it would look if an octopus decided to play.
A few days after my last visit to Spott kirk, an old schoolfriend got in touch to tell me that its future is now in doubt. With Church of Scotland finances in a dire state, and a dearth of ministers, plans are being drawn up to close hundreds of churches in the next few years. Spott, a bijou, hill-foot kirk, with a devoted congregation, is now on a list: out on bail but awaiting trial and sentencing. Its history reaches back to the early middle ages, but the fear is that soon it too could be consigned to the past.
The thought of its doors closing forever is upsetting. If that happens, the village will lose part of its personality or soul, while those of us connected with it will feel something has been wrenched from us. And it’s not just Spott that will suffer. As the church shrinks, countless other countryside churches will also be axed, being the most obvious and least vociferous targets.
Without them, rural communities will be diminished. In Hoolet, there is a regular, committed congregation. Most – perhaps all – are believers, but it’s possible that some attend because they like what the church represents, its role in the village, and the community and comfort it offers.
As far back as the 18th century poets have found inspiration and solace in rustic churches. Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard (1751) could have been composed while sitting among the headstones in Hoolet: “Beneath whose rugged Elms, that Yew-Tree’s Shade,/ Where heaves the Turf in many a mould’ring Heap,/ Each in his narrow Cell forever Laid,/ The rude Forefathers of the Hamlet sleep.”
Gray highlighted the churchyard’s levelling power, where ordinary people were as important as the rich: “Let not Ambition mock their useful Toil,/ Their homely Joys and Destiny obscure;/ Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful Smile,/ The short and simple Annals of the Poor.”
Hoolet’s gravestones are a memorial to farmers and agricultural workers, tradesfolk, mill-owners, weavers, teachers, gentry, people of all lines of work and none, along with their wives, sons and daughters, and far too many young children. It offers a glimpse of how the village worked, and those who helped make it what it is today. The church itself, open all hours until Covid, is so picturesque it could feature as the backdrop to an Anthony Trollope adaptation.
But this is not a plea for country churches to be preserved for their aesthetic charms. They could be built from recycled plastic and their significance and value would remain unaltered. The function of the village church in the past – and today – is captured nostalgically in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1770). Here the village preacher’s door is always open, for vagrants and those who are benighted or broken. Even in the pulpit, this humble man changed people’s lives: “Truth from his lips prevailed with double sway,/ And fools, who came to scoff, remained to pray.”
There is no denying the Church of Scotland is in a parlous position, with tough decisions to make if it is to survive. But without their churches, villages will be bereft. I am no longer a church-goer, but nowhere makes me question my own lack of faith more than a church embedded in fields and trees, whose peace and timelessness offer a perspective no town can provide.
Philip Larkin wrote one of his finest poems, Church Going, about an empty suburban church: “Hatless, I take off/ My Cycle-clips in awkward reverence”. He is wondering why he bothered to stop, and why he always does. “Wondering, too,/ When churches fall completely out of use/ What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep/ A few cathedrals chronically on show…/ And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.”
With the fate of Spott and other churches lying in the kirk authorities’ hands, Larkin’s is a poem to turn to: “And what remains when disbelief has gone?” he writes, acknowledging that closing these buildings would leave a void for believer and agnostic alike. If and when Spott and its ilk are sold off, to become community centres, converted into hostels or houses, or simply locked up and left, their meaning will be lost. As will be something only a writer such as Larkin can put into words: “It pleases me to stand in silence here;/ A serious house on serious earth it is.”
Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.