The beautiful Nigg Old Church can trace its origins back to 1296 and the present structure was built in 1626.It contains the internationally renowned Nigg Pictish Cross-Slab, recently re-displayed with new lighting and interpretation.
The date of the original building is not known but the earliest reference to the church of Nigg is in 1296 when the parson, John of Dunbretan, swore loyalty to King Edward of England.
The parish system was introduced to Scotland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, from which time all landowners paid a tenth of their crop (known as a teind) for the upkeep of the church. The revenue from the parish of Nigg went directly to the Bishop of Ross. He would have appointed a priest to care for the parish in his place – a vicar (meaning someone who stands in for another).
The Bishop’s property at Nigg included a mansion house, orchard, garden, moothill (where courts were held), fish ponds and a granary. Behind the church in the 1790s were remains of the foundation of ‘a house above 90ft in length’, possibly the remains of the Bishop’s house. Nigg House, which is now on the site, incorporates a date stone of 1702 and the belt of trees which used to run from the church down to the shore is still known as the Bishop’s Walk.
There is at least one other remnant of the medieval church, a fourteenth century gravestone in the kirkyard.
The original church ran from east to west, with the altar at the east end. At the Reformation (1560) the altar was removed and the focus of the church became the pulpit. The church was substantially rebuilt in 1626 and the north aisle was probably added then.
The church bell was cast in the Netherlands in 1624 and is inscribed with the words ‘Michael Burgerhuys, m.e.f. 1624 Soli deo Gloria’.
Standing in the church, you might like to imagine the scene on 13th April 1633 when Master William Ross was given charge of the parish in a ceremony in which he was led into the church and was presented with ‘the book of God callit the Bible . . . the key of the kirk door and earth and stone of the churchyard’ in the presence of Donald MacHomas Mor of Pitcalean, Magnus Ferne of Pitcalean, Magnus Davidson in Nig and Walter MacCulloch in Shandwick.
There were further alterations to the church in 1729. Burials inside church were stopped, a bell tower was erected and, to increase accommodation, three lofts (galleries) were built. In churches in Scotland the space within the church belonged to the landowners of the parish. It was they who built the lofts – the North Loft belonged to the lairds of Cadboll and Invercassley, and the east to Pitcalnie and Kindeace. The West Loft was built with money from the Poor Fund and the pews in it were rented out to provide a continuing income for the Fund.
It was in this church in 1739 that a religious revival began which was eventually to influence much of the north of Scotland. Under the influence of the Rev John Balfour large numbers of people met for weekly prayer meetings and a prominent part was taken by leading lay preachers known as ‘The Men’. Some of these were thought to have supernatural powers, prophesying and seeing visions. The most prominent of The Men was Donald Roy who died in 1774 at the age of 105.
Those who took part in the religious revival were particularly opposed to the fact that the power to appoint ministers lay with the landowners and not with the congregation. When Mr Balfour died, the landowners attempted to replace him with a minister who did not meet with the approval of the congregation. At his induction, which would normally have attracted a large crowd, the church was deserted and silent.
Once again, imagine the scene. Only four people, all ministers, were present. Two of them were opposed to the induction. Suddenly, the door burst open and a man named McKeddie entered, walked up to where they were sitting and told them: ‘The blood of the parish of Nigg will be required of you if you presume to settle a man to the walls of the kirk.’
Almost the whole of the parish broke away to form their own congregation, and built a church at Ankerville which was ‘exactly of the same form and dimensions as those of the parish church’.
Further alterations to the parish church were made in 1853. The North Loft was removed and the other two lofts were hidden by thin partition walls, which remain today. It is now possible for visitors to see the ‘hidden’ West Loft.
The Nigg Cross Slab: Inside the church in a room at the West End is the Nigg Cross Slab – a great Pictish carving of the late eighth or early ninth century with a richly ornamented cross and scenes from the Bible and Lives of the Saints. It stood in the graveyard at Nigg for many centuries until it was blown down in a gale and broken. (A full description can be found inside the church and on the display board at the entrance to the Kirkyard.)