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Praying for quick solutions

Not in decades had so many people crossed its threshold - but then it seems Kiera Knightley is a bigger name than Jesus Christ when it come to filling pews.

'Churches which no longer have congregations have real commercial value' Victoria Collison

More than 1000 visitors flocked to Bangour Village Hospital Memorial Church after Hollywood had been and gone, but left its trail of silver screen dust behind it. Used as a scenic prop in George Clooney's movie The Jacket, starring Knightley and Oscar winner Adrien Brody, the church had lain disused until its role in the film - which then attracted the tourists to come on Doors Open Day.

Since then the church has again been left to its own devices, one of hundreds in Scotland which without a congregation are classed as "redundant". The problem has become such that the Scottish Civic Trust, which compiles the Buildings At Risk register, has carried out a year-long research project assessing the state of the nation's religious buildings and believes at least 300 churches are at risk.

It's not hard to pinpoint why. Congregations have been falling at traditional churches for years while shopping malls have become the place for Sunday worship. Three years ago the Church of Scotland warned it may cease to exist in 30 years if falling numbers continue and more recently the Catholic Church in Edinburgh has drafted a plan which would see the establishment of five super-parishes across the city as congregations fall along with the number of priests.

The Romanesque-style church at Bangour, which has a distinctive lead-clad spire, has seen a similar story - although one exacerbated by the closure of the hospital in whose grounds it was built back in the late 1920s by Harold Tarbolton.

Built in commemoration of the role Bangour hospital and its staff played during the First World War, it's an A-listed inter-denominational church in the grounds of the old psychiatric hospital, and while it is still in reasonable condition, it's been prone to vandalism in the three years it's lain empty. In April two youths were arrested and charged with a break-in when three leaded windows were smashed, causing an estimated £3000 of damage.

As a result the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust is now looking at taking Bangour into the care of its organisation, to ensure it's not left to rot. The SRCT has already undertaken a feasibility study to do just that - funded by the Architectural Heritage Fund and the hospital village's prospective developers.

Director of the SRCT, Victoria Collison, says: "Both the church and the wider village are of tremendous significance, not just within Scotland but in Europe. The village was the first of its kind in Scotland to break away from earlier designs of asylums which were based on prisons and workhouses, and so culturally Bangour is a milestone in the development of social attitudes towards mental health care.

"Its use as Scotland's principal military hospital throughout two world wars also marks it out as unique, and the church is fundamental to the commemoration of this important period in the village's history.

"The developers had hoped to convert the church for housing or into a kind of leisure centre but because of its A listed status, Historic Scotland have said that can't happen. Really we'd like to see the principal church space to remain intact, and to be used for shared religious worship by a number of congregations, and for the celebration of weddings.

"In addition, it could become a performance and exhibition venue, a place for the public to visit, and a home for a permanent exhibition telling 'The Bangour Story'.

"There are other additional parts though which could be sensitively adapted for use as offices, or even a creche to generate income towards annual running and maintenance costs."

Bangour is still owned by NHS Lothian, and John Jack, the organisation's director of facilities, says: "We are currently negotiating with our preferred bidder about the future of the hospital site and the beautiful church that forms part of it. All the parties involved are well-aware of the historic and architectural importance of the church and we are very keen to see that it is properly maintained for the future."

Victoria adds: "Bangour is really the only redundant church in the Lothians at the moment, because in and around the Edinburgh area churches which no longer have congregations have real commercial value and are snapped up and used for other things."

Certainly the fishermen who built St Andrew's some 150 years ago would never have guessed what would lie in the future for the Newhaven church - today it's Edinburgh's indoor climbing centre, Alien Rock.

From the outside it does still look like a church, but inside new walls have been built, lined with ropes and covered with pockets and blocks. When the sunlight is right and the lights are switched-off, though, the colour from stained-glass windows hidden behind the new climbing walls streams through bolt holes.

The decline in fishing fleets had seen numbers at St Andrew's dwindle and the congregation merged with another up the road in the 1970s. Then it became a gym. By the time Malcolm Davies, Ruben Welch and Stephen Irvine arrived in 1993, it had been gutted and planning permission for recreational use gained.

"Because it is a listed building we had to agree not to change the outside," recalls Malcolm. "All the climbing structures are built on a steel frame which we constructed inside the church.

"We think it's a great use of an old church and we like to joke we have the largest congregation of any church in Scotland."

Another success story is that of Mansfield Place Church, the former Catholic Apostolic Church, in Bellvue. Back in 1998 a report by Edinburgh City Council said that the church was "suffering from long-term neglect, vandalism and extensive water damage".

Yet these days - after nine years of work and the raising and spending of £5.5 million by the Mansfield Traquair Trust - it is one of Edinburgh's architectural and artistic gems, and home to the famous Phoebe Traquair murals.

The 19th century church built in the Norman style by architect Robert Rowand Anderson is, like Bangour, A-listed, thanks mainly to the priceless murals painted on its walls by Traquair which have led to the church being christened Edinburgh's Sistine Chapel.

Now fully restored the building - which housed the Fringe venue Cafe Graffiti until 2000 - has been converted into two levels to make way for offices for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, which has a 21-year lease on the building.

Another which is a cause for concern though is the Lauriston United Presbyterian Church, on Lauriston Place. Built by Archibald Scott in 1859, it has galleries on three sides, a central pulpit and a Victorian organ, but the Gothic-style listed building has fallen victim to vandals and the elements since being bought by the Arab Social League of Edinburgh in 1982. The group hoped to turn it into a community centre, but a lack of cash meant the 146-year-old building fell into disuse.

On the Buildings At Risk register since 2001, it has been hit by fireraising and vandalism over the years and even had squatters. A survey five years ago put the cost of refurbishing the church at between £83,000 and £103,000, the price is expected to have risen since then.

Last year a spokesman for the Arab Social League of Edinburgh said they had hoped to rent out the B-listed church to fund repairs. Abdul Algader said: "We are a charity. We are not in a position to pay. But it is a nice building. We have not given up yet."

Yet nothing much has changed. Victoria Collison adds: "This is part of the problem with redundant churches. They are expensive to maintain unless you have grants and funding. That's why our organisation exists, to take them into care and make sure they are still around for future generations to enjoy in whatever way they can."

Source: Gina Davidson, Evening News, 16th August, 2006


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