A major project to restore the historic stained glass windows at St Columba’s Church in Stornoway was completed last week, following years of dedicated fundraising by the congregation. 

The work was made possible by a £50,000 pledge from community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust, to allow the project to finally go ahead after seven years of church fundraising.

Stained glass artisans began work on the £150,000 project back in May and did it in three phases. The final window was installed on Thursday, making a significant difference to the appearance of the Parish Church. The project also meant the more recent secondary glazing, which was supposed to protect the stained glass but caused as many problems as it solved, could be taken down, allowing more light to flood into the church. 

Rev William Heenan, the minister at St Columba’s, said he hoped that would be a metaphor for light going out to the community from within the church.

He said: “It’s a project that was long overdue. We’ve been saving money the whole seven years I’ve been here, putting it aside because we knew it was a job we were going to have to do, sooner rather than later. The big window was assessed as ‘critical’ in 2008 but they hadn’t managed to get onto it.

“Once we started the ball rolling, it’s been a long drawn-out process, dealing with the General Trustees, dealing with the architectural people, and the fact it’s a listed building means everything had to be replaced as was. But when you see the finished product, back to its original, I think it speaks for itself. I couldn’t believe the difference.”

He added: “There was secondary glazing on the outside, supposedly to protect the stained glass, but it was part of the problem because there wasn’t sufficient ventilation, hence the condensation corroded the stay bars, which were cast iron, and then they expanded and cracked some of the stone work which meant we had to get the stone masons. That meant it was a bigger budget than we had originally anticipated and had budgeted for.”

The windows were taken out and transported to Rainbow Glass Studios in Prestwick, where they were restored to their former glory. 

It is a happy ending to St Columba’s campaign to raise the money for the windows. They had been holding ‘days of giving’ twice a year, which had consistently been raising nearly £20,000 a year. They were also been awarded a £30,000 grant and £90,000 loan from The Church of Scotland General Trustees towards the work. Point and Sandwick Trust, which runs the Beinn Ghrideag wind farm, will be giving the church £50,000 over five years, to help with their repayments.

The condition of the windows has been assessed as “poor” to “critical” and Point and Sandwick agreed to support the restoration project because of the unique position St Columba’s occupies in the community as the Parish Church.

Point and Sandwick Trust board member Gordon Mackay, also a member of St Columba’s Church, said: “The island has benefited from ongoing donations given by the Trust for a variety of different causes. The workmanship carried out on the windows is excellent and has been finished to an extremely high standard, and will hopefully be enjoyed for many more years to come. Also I would like to say on behalf of the congregation a very big thank you to PST.”

Graham Morrison, St Columba’s Session Clerk, said the windows were “lovely”, adding: “They are all I expected and more.”

St Columba’s Church – a commission for Francis Humberson Mackenzie of Seaforth – was finished around 1794, with the stained glass windows installed during refurbishment in 1885, which also included the addition of the transept.

All the windows, with the exception of the big west window which was severely damaged during in a storm in 1946, had stood strong. But, as the Clerk said: “Leaded windows, like all other structures have a finite lifetime, and these have served well but are now in sore need of refurbishment.”

This west window, the one upstairs at the back of the church, had been assessed as being in the poorest state, ‘critical’, and was restored in the first phase of work, along with the south-facing windows. 

Collectively, the windows displayed two ecclesiastical roundels, which were alternated and repeated around the church. The west window was the only one which did not match, as it had been repaired with materials available in 1946. Now, though, it is perfectly in keeping and benefitting from most of the sunlight.

As well as restoring the windows to their 1885 state, the project also involved a stone mason from Aberdeen repairing broken sections of sandstone around the windows. 

The Clerk said: “The congregation have been saving hard and they are making a big commitment into the future to repay the loan. The Point and Sandwick grant will be a big help to us.”

Rev Heenan said it was “a building we’ve been entrusted with to look after for future generations”. However, he also added: “But at the end of the day, it’s still only a building. A church is not stones and mortar and glass – it’s people. And hopefully the physically renovation of the windows will be symbolic for God’s doing in people’s hearts and lives and in building relationships with himself and with one another wishing the congregation.

“The fact that there’s more physical light coming into the building, hopefully there will be more spiritual light going out into the community. From the inside out, as well as the outside in.”

St Columba’s have received a number of other significant donations towards the project, namely £10,000 from Third Sector Hebrides and £3,000 from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s development fund in addition to the grant and loan from the General Trustees.

The congregation will be repaying the loan and Point and Sandwick Trust will give £10,000 a year to help with the repayments.

“That will meet just under half of our repayments,” said the Clerk. “This grant from Point and Sandwick will be a significant help to the congregation.” 

As they admired the artisans’ work, Rev Heenan remarked: “To think of the technology today… that they managed to do these windows on the island in 1885…”

The church was originally built to replace St Columba’s Ui Church at Aignish and St Lennan’s in the old centre of Stornoway. St Lennan’s once stood on a site between Point Street and North Beach Street, extending from where the Crown Hotel now stands towards Bank Street.

At the time St Columba’s was built, there were no streets around it and the church stood alone on the hill outside the village of Stornoway.