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St Michael's Church — how it was restored

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st-michaels-interiorTHE restoration of the Episcopal Church of St Michael and All Angels in Helensburgh was an eight year project successfully completed in the autumn of 2009.

The historical basis of the church's decoration is a subject not always appreciated, and is described in this article.

The Scottish Episcopal Church emerged from the Reformation as an independent body retaining much of its catholic liturgy, but not the Latin, and was under the patronage and control of the local laird and thus very different from the new Scottish Presbyterian church with its congregation and presbytery.

The Scottish Episcopal Church never came under the control of the English Church and to this day the bishops are not created by the Crown or Downing Street. Because the church supported the Jacobites it was held down in the aftermath of 1745 and indeed, during the next 50 years, English Chapels were allowed to be founded.

With a liturgy more akin to medieval practice, Scottish Episcopalians were always attracted to traditional rituals and in the 1840s were influenced by the Oxford movement.

In the next decades, new churches were increasingly built and one of the first of the new generation of architects was Rowand Anderson — a pupil of Gilbert Scott. St Michael's was the fifth of his executed works out of an oeuvre of 167 including Mount Stuart, Govan Parish Church and in Edinburgh the National Portrait Gallery and the McEwan Hall.

He ended his life as Sir Robert Rowand Anderson and had many important pupils including Sir Robert Lorimer. St Michael's Church was designed in French Gothic style possibly because of his 'Gap Year' in France, taken at the suggestion of Gilbert Scott.

Rowand Anderson gave detailed instructions on the interior, particularly of the contrasting red and white sandstone, much of which is now cleaned and restored.

He kept a close association with St Michael's over many years, being involved with the design of much of the decoration including the chancel screen, the choir stalls and the pulpit. He also sketched the design for the mosaic in the reredos.

When working on the plans for the church he had carefully drawn the gargoyles for the roof — not those on the other side of the street! He was also consulted on many of the stained glass windows that were later installed.

The result is an outstanding church which is now designated Grade A, a listing which helped in gaining grants from Historic Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund as well as a number of private charitable trusts. The listing also enabled much of the VAT to be reclaimed through the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme.

The present church of St Michael and All Angels is the second church to be built on this site. The building itself was erected in 1868 with many of its outstanding features and hall being added later. The tower with its full carillon of eight bells was not added until 1930.

The restoration

The deterioration of the building so alarmed Norman Purdy, the fabric convener of St Michael's, that he easily convinced the Rector, the Rev Canon Alex Laing, that unless a major programme of restoration was started immediately, the building would disintegrate.

Encouraged by the progress of the work being carried out at St Augustine's Church in Dumbarton, Alex appointed a committee of five from his flock to oversee the restoration of St Michaels. Throughout the restoration, the only change was occasioned by the sad death of Norman himself.

As a first step, professional help was needed and after a careful search, John Sanders of Simpson & Brown, Architects from Edinburgh was appointed. It was quickly established that the biggest problems of the building had been caused quite unwittingly by the use of cement for re-pointing on the outside and impervious paint on the inside.

However, before work could start, the money had to be found — all £750,000 of it. As the building was A-listed, the prospect of help from both Historic Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund was soon established, but as raising the total was not going to be easy a 10 year plan was drawn up to carry out the restoration in five phases.

The most urgent need was to stop the water getting in to the building so that the inside could dry out. As fundraising began, the generosity of the congregation soon became apparent and when Historic Scotland gave a very clear indication of support the congregation knew they would soon be on their way.

They encountered a few disappointments but the enthusiasm of the fundraisers allowed the first phase at a cost of just over £170,000 to start in October 2004. What a time to start!

The roof was stripped and the walls 'raked out' just when the winter gales began. The tarpaulins were ripped off the roof and the weathervane sent crashing to the ground whilst the church echoed to a thousand drips — but services and even a concert kept going. After a fairly rough winter the scaffolding was finally removed just in time for Easter.

By the spring of 2005 phase one was complete — the refurbishment of the south nave and south aisle roofs and the south and west walls and windows.

With continuing deterioration, it became necessary to combine the second and third phases and thus restore the north nave and aisle roofs and walls and the tower because some large stones were becoming unsafe.

Supported by both Historic Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund, together with the Scottish Episcopal Church and others, and armed with the experience of phase one, it was hoped to do the work before the winter.

But administrative delays of nearly three months prevented work from starting until August 2006 and again we finished not long before the following Easter. Despite another winter of work, the weather was much kinder and restoring the north side walls roofs and tower cost just over £230,000.

By early 2007 there was increasing pressure to complete the project as soon as possible, so it was decided to combine phases four and five, the remaining external work and the whole of the interior.

In May 2007 a special appeal was made to the congregation to help raise the extra funds needed and the fantastic response enabled approaches to both Historic Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund for one last time to seek further grants to finish the project. They responded in full to the application, and the £250,000 plus project got underway in May 2009.

Throughout the summer, and with hospitality from the United Reformed Church, members of the congregation were able to vacate St Michael's so that the contractor and his specialist and skilled workst-michaels-cross-wmen were able to set about the final phase of restoration to both the inside and outside.

This final phase produced some exciting moments. On the roofs was found an abundance of plant life including an ash tree growing undetected with roots over 10 feet long, and worrying cracks that emanated from the blocked-off chimney flue from the original boiler system.

Because of the incorrect use of materials, much of the inside of the church had become ugly. Once the walls had been stripped of their plaster and allowed to dry, new plaster was applied and painted in a colour slightly lighter, but similar to the original.

With the cleaning of the stonework, the original colours of the arches and window surrounds can now be fully appreciated.

The architects were Simpson and Brown, quantity surveyors KLM Partnership, and the main contractor Hunter & Clark. The ten year programme was completed in under nine years and within budget by October 2009.

Last Updated ( Monday, 26 April 2010 09:34 )  

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2014-15 Winter Talks

The 2014-15 series of Winter Talks begins on Wednesday September 24 2014 at 7.30pm in the upstairs meeting room at Helensburgh Tennis Club with a talk by Peter McCaughey on setting up of the CHORD Open Air Museum in Colquhoun Square, Helensburgh.

Non-members are always welcome, and tea and coffee is served at the end of the meeting.

Winter Talks 2014-15

  • Wednesday September 24 2014 — Peter McCaughey: Establishing Helensburgh's Open Air Museum
  • Wednesday October 29 — AGM at 7pm; Robert Layden: The 9th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in World War One
  • Wednesday November 26 — Ian McKellar: Parkhead and the Garden, Rosneath       

  • Wednesday January 28 2015 — Michael Gallagher: Reinventing Ruins — stories from Kilmahew and St Peter's Seminary
  • Wednesday February 25 — Tam Ward: Recent Discoveries by the North Clyde Archaelogical Society
  • Wednesday March 25 — Michael Davis: Curious Interconnections of the Mansions of Cowal

All meetings are in the upstairs meeting room at Helensburgh Tennis Club, Suffolk Street, at 7.30pm

Charity Number

Scottish Charity
SC024603