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Community / Church artefacts salvaged by museum

As the Church of Scotland continues to sell of some of its kirks in Shetland, the museum is taking on items of historical interest

The historic gravestone taken from the Olnafirth church which is now in the museum collection. Photo: Shetland Amenity Trust

A NUMBER of historic artefacts from church buildings being sold off around the isles are being taken under the wing of the Shetland Museum and Archives.

There is also a hope to hold a temporary exhibition of some of the saved items in the future.

It comes as the Church of Scotland continues its phased disposal of buildings in Shetland.

It announced in 2018 that it would be closing 20 of its kirks in the isles.

The most significant item taken on by the museum so far is a historic gravestone from the Olnafirth church which is unusually well preserved.

Museum curator Dr Ian Tait said: “The slab is the memorial to the Rev. Alexander Dunbar, who died in 1708. The stone was removed twice before, and wasn’t originally part of where it had been latterly.

“Therefore the Church agreed that it be moved for its long-term preservation. There are not many gravestones in Shetland from the beginning of the 18th century, and those that have survived are in graveyards and have invariably weathered.

“This particular stone, however, has always been kept inside and so the condition is remarkably good.

“Removal was far from straightforward, but getting three quarters of a ton safely onto the floor and out a narrow doorway went without a hitch.

“Any moves in future will be a lot easier and we look forward to working with the Church of Scotland into next year on this project.”

Another notable item recovered was a church bell which includes the name of the foundry and its date.

Some of the church buildings being sold are 200 years old, meaning they contain items of historical significance to Shetland.

Some other artefacts which have been selected include general worship items such as collection boxes and hymn boards.

Explaining the process of selecting the artefacts, Dr Tait said: “We can be quite sparing in what we select on behalf of the museum.

“Primarily we are interested in obtaining ‘moveable’ objects that either show us what church life was like centuries ago or are unique to the relevant church.

“For hundreds of years the Church of Scotland have been unofficial custodians of church history, and with the closures, they were mindful that they wanted the church heritage to be saved for the future.”

A spokesperson for the Church of Scotland said the organisation was “delighted” to work with museum operator Shetland Amenity Trust to ensure to “ensure that artefacts that tell the story of Shetland’s people are preserved”.

“The Olnafirth memorial stone is special because so few gravestones from the early 18th century have survived in good condition,” they added.

“We hope that through preserving these historic items we will learn more about the life and times of Rev Alexander Dunbar and his congregation.

“We are pleased that future generations can appreciate this artefact in the Shetland Museum.”

Meanwhile the church at Olnafirth had a closing date of 29 November. Churches at Bigton, Cunningsburgh and Sandness remain under offer.