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With acknowledgements to the compilers of Martin’s Centenary Booklet 1875-1975

Our Story - Part 1

After the separation of the majority of the people of the Isle of Lewis from the Established Church of Scotland in 1843 they formed themselves into congregations of the Free Church of Scotland. One Free Church served the town of Stornoway and the surrounding villages, and consisted of about 4,000 adherents with a single Minister. For the next 30 years or so, this largely Gaelic-speaking congregation continued to worship as one, with the majority of services being conducted in Gaelic. . However, Stornoway itself was rapidly becoming a cosmopolitan town, especially in the fishing season when hundreds of boats and their crews of 5,000 or more made Stornoway their headquarters. Very few of these new arrivals understood Gaelic and it was in response to the desire for religious services in English to meet their needs that a petition was presented to the Stornoway Kirk Session asking for an English Preaching Station to be opened in the town. The petition was supported by the Lewis Presbytery and was approved by the General Assembly of 1875.

The Kirk Session of the new English Preaching Station met for the first time on 23rd June 1875 and that evening, at a meeting of members and adherents of the new congregation, a Committee was elected, to be succeeded four years later by a Deacon’s Court. The congregation met on Sundays in the Masonic Hall and worship was led by a succession of visiting ministers and students. At the first Communion Service on the last Sunday of August 1875 there were 35 members listed on the Roll.

In 1876, after the General Assembly approved the change of status of the congregation from a Preaching Station to a Ministerial Charge, the Session met on 14th June as the Kirk Session of the Free English Church Congregation. The following Tuesday the congregation met to discuss the election of a Minister, subsequently choosing Donald John Martin, a qualified probationer, who by his lectures and fine glowing sermons in the period since the previous December, had won the enthusiastic affection of the worshipers. He was ordained and inducted on 11th September 1876.


Donald John Martin, a native of Arisaig who was brought up in Skye, was 29 years old at the time of his induction, and led the congregation for the next 20 years, in a very fruitful ministry in which he founded its traditions, and in due course gave the congregation its name. He was a fearless preacher with a special gift for prayer, the effect of which was demonstrated in the Great Revival of 1880, which developed from meetings held in the Church for East Coast fisherman and eventually swept through the whole town. He was a strong advocate of Temperance, spent £1,000 to buy a property in the town in order to close the ‘two dram shops’ it contained, and also opened a Temperance Restaurant with rooms for reading, writing and parlour games. He held special Services for the East coast Fisher Girls during their annual stays in Stornoway (commemorated in a statue on South Beach Quay), set up another Coffee House for these girls, and arranged regular visits to them by ladies of his congregation. He also encouraged young people of his congregation to come forward as members to take communion, in an era when this sacrament was generally regarded as the prerogative of older members of a congregation. At the 1880 Revival 60 new members, mostly young, were admitted to the congregation.

Our Story - Part 2

In 1876 the new congregation purchased, at the cost of £250, a site at the corner of Francis Street and Kenneth Street for the building of a Church. This site was the location of the birthplace of the Canadian Explorer, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, ‘the first white man to cross the Canadian Continent from east to west’, and a blue plaque recording this can still be seen on the Francis Street wall of the Church.  The foundation stone was laid at the end of 1876 and the building was completed in time to be opened for worship on Friday 18th October 1878. In three years the congregation raised over £3,000 towards the cost, with further fundraising efforts in 1878 and 1879 which, with grants from the church and manse building funds, cleared the debt by 1882. Constructed from red Torridon sandstone with white stone corners and window dressings, the building was designed by the Glasgow Architect W R A Bryden and constructed mainly by local contractors. The baptismal font presented by the architect is still in use today.

Further building projects followed, with the original Manse, Rosebank’ (recently vacated by BBC Alba and now occupied by Robert Doig Ltd, Optometrists) at the corner of Church Street and Matheson Road being completed by 1883, and the Church Hall beside the main building, built about 1890. (The current Manse on Matheson Road was completed in the 1960s.) The spire was added in February 1911 at a cost of £1,189.15.00 and serves as a major Stornoway landmark for visitors approaching the island by ferry.

Our Story - Part 3

Three services were held each Sunday, and the Church premises were also the location for meetings of the Sunday School, Band of Hope, Girl Guides, YMCA, YWCA, the Women’s Work Party – later re-constituted as the Woman’s Guild – the Young Wives and Mothers Group, Badminton Club, Thespians Club and other outside organisations. After a serious fire at the Town Hall in 1918 it became for 5 years the Library and Reading Room for the town. During the Second World War it was briefly requisitioned by the RAF for billeting purposes and immediately after being de-requisitioned it opened as a Church of Scotland Canteen served by ladies of all three Stornoway Church of Scotland congregations.


Rev Donald John Martin left Stornoway in 1897, much to the regret of his congregation, following a call from the Argyll Square Free Church in Oban. In 1899 the Church Hymnary was adopted for use and in 1908 the suggestion that instrumental music be provided for services was agreed and a harmonium was purchased. The current Harrison Pipe Organ, purchased at a cost of £2,600 as a memorial to a former Choirmaster, Mr Hugh Matheson, was dedicated on 20th November 1949.


In 1913 the congregation of the James Street United Presbyterian Church (the building known as ‘Church House’ today) united with the Free English Church, and its building and manse were sold, with the proceeds of the sale passing to the latter, renamed as the United Free English Church. Two stained glass windows, one commemorating the Church’s first Minister, Rev D J Martin, and the other the founders of the Church, with a third circular window donated anonymously, were installed in the Church in 1926,  and unveiled by the widow of Rev D J Martin and by the grand-daughter of one of the founders. Three years later, in 1929, the congregation unanimously voted for the adoption of a new name for the United Free English Congregation, which then became Martin’s Memorial Church.

Our Story - Part 4

Since its establishment in 1875 Martin’s Memorial Church has been served by a total of 16 Ministers including the present one – Rev Tommy MacNeil, who came to Martin’s from the Church of Scotland, Barvas, in  August 2006, succeeding Rev Thomas S Sinclair who had served the congregation for more than 25 years. Over the years the congregation increased from a total of 40 original members to 158 in 1888 and 204 before the end of Rev D J Martin’s ministry in 1897. There are currently approximately 280 members and about 100 adherents, with a high percentage of young people in regular attendance. Special provision for all ages in the congregation includes the Crèche for under 4s (Kingdom Minis), Kingdom Tots for the 4-5 age group, Kingdom Kids for P1-P7, and Impact for all secondary school age groups. Martins for Men, the Young Women’s Bible Study, the Mosaic Group for Women, the Young at Heart Bible Study Group and regular Young at Heart Lunches with visiting speakers ensure that all members of the congregation can find fellowship, friendship and growth in their Christian walk at Martin’s. The Guild also survives, now linked with the Guild of St Columba’s Church in Stornoway.


Six years ago the sanctuary was completely refurbished at a cost of £300,000, with the aim of making it a more flexible location for a range of congregational purposes. The original pews and choir stalls were replaced with comfortable individual seats, with a raised platform for the Communion table area. Underfloor heating and new lighting were installed, a media-centre area was created and the work was completed in 16 weeks with complete re-decoration and re-carpeting of the whole area. The Sunday morning Services retain their traditional Church of Scotland format with hymns, Bible readings, sermon and prayers, and a Children’s Address and children’s praise with guitar accompaniment. Evening Services are accompanied by a congregational group with guitars, flute, drum kit, keyboard and voices, and a mid-week Praise and Prayer Meeting is also a key part of Martin’s worship. To further encourage outreach to the local community and to provide an external venue for young people connected with the congregation and their friends, ‘The Shed’ was completed in 2014 on land adjacent to the Church, which had been gifted to the congregation. It was officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of Wessex in May 2014.


Rev Tommy MacNeil

Minister – Martin’s Memorial Church of Scotland, Stornoway                   September 2015

Registered Charity In Scotland No: SC000753.

© 2024 Martin's Memorial Church. 

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