Lerwick - Bressay Parish Church   Lerwick - Bressay Parish Church
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Parish History

The parish of Lerwick & Bressay dates from a formal union in 1955 between the two Church of Scotland congregations in Lerwick, one of which (St Olaf & St Ringan's) had united ten years earlier with the ancient parish of Bressay, in existence from before the Reformation. There are three church buildings in the parish - St Columba's in Lerwick (known locally as the 'Big Kirk'), Bressay Kirk on the island of Bressay and Gulberwick Kirk in the nearest community south of the town.

St Columba's Church, Lerwick

St Columba’s Church is the third building to have served as the parish church in Lerwick, and was built between 1825 and 1829, at a cost of £2881 - a large sum of money at that time . It is a listed building and is the largest church in Shetland. It is affectionately known as "the Big Kirk". The church organ, which was originally installed in 1871, was said to be the second organ in the whole of the Church of Scotland. It was only in 1866 that the General Assembly agreed to allow the use of instrumental music in churches.In 1895 the building was extended with the addition of the apse at the south end and the organ, which had originally been installed in 1871, was moved to its present position and a second manual was added to it. The original organ is still in use.

During the summer of 1895 the building was extended with the addition of the apse at the south end, flanked by two rooms - a vestry on the west side and a session room (now used as a choir room) on the east side of the apse. On completion of this extension, a new pulpit was built, the organ was moved to its present position in the apse and a second manual added to it. A heating system was installed, improved seating was provided and the church redecorated - all for the cost of £2080. Most of this was raised by holding bazaars in Lerwick and Glasgow. At this same time several people generously donated individual items to the church. These include the baptismal font, the communion table and chairs and the two stained glass windows. The font is carved from white limestone from Caen in northern France which is used in many English churches including Henry VIII's chapel in Westminster Abbey. Around the sides are four red marble pillars.


The communion table was gifted by Robert P. Gilbertson, a native of Lerwick, who left home at nineteen to become a merchant in Africa. He also gave the Gilbertson Park to the people of Lerwick as a sports ground. The chairs which stand behind the communion table were gifted by Captain George Allison, an elder of the church and Lerwick's first harbourmaster.
The two stained glass windows were also donated at this time. The one on the left was the gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Spence of Lerwick and illustrates the text " Come unto me, all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" [Matthew Chapt. 11, verse 28]. The figure depicted in the window was based on a statue by the Danish sculptor, Thorvaldsen. The right-hand window was paid for by various members of the congregation of the time and is a reproduction of Holman Hunt's famous painting, "The Light of the World". It illustrates the text "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" [Revelations Chapt. 3, verse 20].

In 2008 it was decided to sell the church hall and undertake remodelling of the interior of St Columba's which involved the removal of the downstairs pews to create a modern multi-functional sanctuary, whilst retaining the original horseshoe gallery which was recognised as an important architectural feature of the building. The re-modelling also allowed the creation of a meeting room, a new kitchen and toilets, and a greatly enlarged vestibule. After redecoration the church was rededicated by The Very Reverend Sandy McDonald on 15th January 2009.

Gulberwick Church

Gulberwick Kirk has been a centre of worship since 1898. It is a handsome and simple church built with Orkney stone facings. The windows behind the pulpit are filled with cathedral squares. It is picturesquely situated in the village of Gulberwick with a graveyard overlooking the sea. Over the years members of the congregation have been active in the community, and establishing a local action group "Gulberwick Together" which arose out of ideas the church had for serving the growing community in which it is set.

Bressay Church

Bressay's present church dates back to 1814, though it replaced an earlier church on the same site built in 1722. It lies at Mail, close to the pier used by the small ferry to Lerwick until the introduction of car ferries in 1975.

Externally, the church is a fairly plain grey-harled box, with a bellcote at the top of the west gable. The bell in residence dates back to 1858. It seems likely that the material it was cast from, in London's Whitechapel, came in part from an earlier Bressay bell dating back to 1723.

The focal point of the interior is the pulpit mid way along the south wall. There was a major rework of the interior in 1895. The two stained glass windows, one either side of the pulpit were installed at this point. They commemorate John Ross, who was a local schoolmaster from 1843 to 1878, and Sir Robert Hamilton, 1836-1895.

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