The Church of the Immaculate Conception, Whitebridge

by Marion Ruscoe (NOSAS)

During a recent NOSAS field trip to archaeological sites on the east of Loch Ness, our attention was drawn to the Roman Catholic Chapel near Whitebridge (NH 49496 17045 – HER ID MHG47419) which is situated close to the Pictish Cemetery there (see separate Blog Post). The architectural style is deceptively simple, suggesting an earlier building date than was actually the case, and perhaps also reflecting a continuity with the croft buildings which must have preceded it. The following is the result of my research into the history of the site and its architecture.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception,

By the middle of the 19th Century there was perceived a need for a chapel to serve the small number of Roman Catholics who lived in Stratherrick.  Lord Lovat offered a site for this purpose at the croft at Bridge of Loin and a collection, which raised £49, was undertaken to pay for the new building.  Alexander McDonell, a native of Fort Augustus, who had recently returned to Scotland from Australia, contributed a further £391 and in March 1859 there was a call for estimates from masons, carpenters, slaters, plasterers and plumbers for work on the new Roman Catholic Chapel and Clergyman’s House to be built at Dalcraig (Dalcrag) in Stratherrick. The chapel, seating 130, was consecrated in December 1859 and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.

At a time when other denominations in Stratherrick were building substantial churches in a traditional style and in prominent positions, the Roman Catholic church at Whitebridge is simple, rather modest and set back from the road, so that it is not immediately obvious to passing traffic.  It is a single storey building which resembles a croft house.  The door is in the west gable and only the lancet windows betray its religious purpose.   At the east end there appears to be domestic quarters and this may have been the original clergyman’s house which was superseded by a more substantial dwelling house at a later date.  In A Country called Stratherrick Alan Lawson suggests that this larger house was built around 1900.  However, although the two buildings are very different in style, the 1st edition 6” OS map shows the footprint of a building which is very like the present one in its entirety so it’s more likely that they were designed and built together.

Another building – the ‘Steading’ – is in the grounds of the chapel.   This, too, has the look of a croft building and appears on the early OS maps.   An account in the Catholic Directory (1861) of the dedication of the chapel suggests the need for ‘a few office-houses’ and requests around £80 or £90 from some ‘charitable soul’ for this purpose, so perhaps this building is slightly later than the chapel and priest’s house.  The croft land donated by Lord Lovat provided a glebe for the clergyman.  The architects responsible for the design were Ross and Joass of Dingwall.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception,

Before this chapel was built the Roman Catholic community in Stratherrick was served by the priest in Glenmoriston who conducted services in Dalcrag once a month.   However, since accommodation was provided for the priest at Whitebridge, it would appear that this pattern was reversed after 1859 and the priest subsequently held services once every three weeks in Invermoriston.  To do this he would have taken the ferry across Loch Ness from Foyers Pier to Ruskich Inn, midway between Drumnadrochit and Invermoriston (see the ROCAS Walkover Survey Report of the area).  Whether he would then walk or ride is unclear, but the Roman Catholic Chapel in Glen Moriston (HER Ref MHG 22993) was near the Torgyle Inn between Dundreggan and Dalreichart and some distance from the ferry.

Alexander McDonell, without whose generosity the church could not have been built, was born at Bunoich, Fort Augustus, and shortly after his marriage in 1838 he and his wife took advantage of the opportunity to emigrate to New South Wales where they were joined by Alexander’s brother and sister, Roderick and Mary, and Roderick’s three children.  The family group eventually moved to greener pastures in the Murray River area in Victoria where they made a great success of their venture.  In 1854 Alexander and Jessie sold up and returned to Scotland.  On the journey home the ship was caught in a violent storm and Alexander promised that if he and his wife were safely delivered from the storm, he would build a church as a sign of gratitude.   Having leased the Garthbeg estate in Stratherrick, the collateral being a £30,000 note, his opportunity to keep his vow arose when the local Catholic community expressed a desire to build a church and Alexander donated sufficient funds to make this possible, leaving a further £100 in his will in 1876 to the chapel.

Situated near the remains of the Pictish cemetery and close to a late 19th Century graveyard it’s tempting to assume that there was some residual religious association in the area of the Bridge of Loin.  However, there’s no suggestion in any of the accounts that this was held to be the case at the time of construction of the chapel and since in 1886 the site of the Pictish Cemetery was referred to as ‘the ruins of a camp of soldiers’ it’s unlikely that this was a factor in the choice of land donated by Lord Lovat.  However, it could be seen as a happy coincidence that the religious significance of this little corner has been preserved.

I’d like to acknowledge the help of George Ritchie in preparing this account.  George is descended  from a nephew of  Alexander McDonell, also called Alexander McDonell,  and was able to provide some very useful information about both the church and his ancestor.

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