Verity Walker was the project development manager for the Kirkmichael Trust until last month

Q&A with Verity Walker

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 01.03.2017
How a church restoration in the Highlands evolved into a new visitor attraction
A long-term project to restore a ruined medieval church and its mausloea in the Scottish Highlands has unexpectedly grown into something much more, after Historic Environment Scotland gave exceptional consent for eight historic tombstones from the site and several nearby burial grounds to be raised from the earth to protect them from damage.

Located in the parish of Resolis on the remote Black Isle peninsula, Kirkmichael Church will now display the stones, meaning that what started out as a straightforward church restoration evolved midway through into a project to curate a rare collection and set up a new exhibition space.

The restored Kirkmichael is due to be opened as a public attraction next month by a member of the royal family. Ahead of its opening, we spoke to Verity Walker, who was the project development manager for the Kirkmichael Trust between February 2016-17 and still volunteers at the site, about the unusual genesis of the project and the impact she hopes it will have on the local area.

Can you tell us a bit about the background to the project?

Very few community projects coming to fruition today can claim to have started more than 20 years previously. The repair and restoration of the four ruined mausolea at Kirkmichael has been a long journey for the tiny Kirkmichael Trust.  

When Kirkmichael finally reopens next month, the restored nave and chancel mausolea will showcase the Resolis Stones, some of the most extraordinary early pre- and post-Reformation tombstones in Scotland.

What were the main challenges you faced while undertaking the project?

During my year’s contract, the project shifted away from being purely a repair and restoration of the mausolea to becoming an exhibition space for the beautiful and moving Resolis Stones (i.e. stones originating from either Old Cullicudden or Kirkmichael burial grounds or elsewhere in the parish). It was like commissioning an empty museum and then suddenly acquiring a collection mid-build, with all the complications that entails.

At the outset, consent to remove these stones from the Scheduled Ancient Monument burial grounds was far from certain – the trust saw it initially in terms of “wouldn’t it be great if…”.  

A timely photographic survey by Historic Environment Scotland’s carved stones expert John Borland revealed that many of the rarer Resolis Stones were indeed, as the trust’s own team feared, at severe risk of damage from weather erosion, footfall and delamination caused by heavy maintenance machinery.

As a result, Historic Environment Scotland granted exceptional consent to move eight unique stones and suddenly the project expanded massively in terms of both scope and duration.

To what extent has the local community been involved?

Any project taking place within an active burial ground has to be handled with sensitivity (we have not permitted Sunday working, for example). Carrying community goodwill along with you is essential and people are constantly watching our progress on site. 

The trust’s membership may be small but its supporters are legion, and many have given of their time or skills freely to help the project forwards. And this is a true community project: many members of the Kirkmichael Trust have family members buried in Resolis burial grounds.
The community engagement element of the project as required by funders was on an epic scale for a very small organisation without the dense population of an urban area.  Events both large and small aimed to engage as many people within our community and beyond it as we could. All our output targets to date have been exceeded.  

My personal favourites were a session with tiny Tore Primary school, where we decorated our project hard hats and made clay memento mori tiles inspired by the carved skulls and crossbones, hour-glasses and dead-bells we had seen on site visits to the Old Cullicudden and Kirkmichael burial grounds, and our Naturally Kirkmichael day, where we learnt about the rare and beautiful moths present in our burial ground. 

Theming was vital to keeping people coming back to the same little site, time after time. Our local media have also been unfailingly supportive, giving us a generous amount of high-quality free editorial.

What impact are you hoping the new attraction will have on the area?

The Black Isle is already rich in heritage but this tends to be concentrated in the Cromarty, Rosemarkie and Fortrose areas. It is majorly significant to have a new attraction in the little-known but beautiful and historic Resolis as it will encourage visitors to drive a full circuit around the Black Isle. Our Kirkmichael project has already prompted huge interest in our activities (which we share liberally online). 

We know our success has already triggered similar ambitions in communities with ruined church buildings in Easter Ross and Fortrose Cathedral.

It has also revealed that the Black Isle is the best place in the Highlands to visit for an experience of the early life and culture here in the Middle Ages, ranging from Pictish times (the recent discovery of a Pictish-era skeleton in a Black Isle cave reinforces this) right through to the astonishingly fine pre-Reformation calvary-based wheel crosses of our Resolis Stones at Kirkmichael. 

How was the project funded and who carried out the work?

The Kirkmichael Trust, led by its multi-talented and indefatigable chairman Jim Mackay, has assembled over £850,000 of funding from large agencies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Environment Scotland plus larger charities such as the Monuments Trust and the Robertson Trust, but also from local landowners and diaspora organisations with family ties to the burial ground, and many generous individuals.

The main contractor was Laing Traditional Masonry Ltd, and the architect was Chris Bowes of McGregor Bowes in Edinburgh.

What could other museums and heritage organisations learn from your experiences?
Complex community projects of this kind require the flexibility, good humour, tact and patience of all involved. 

The financial side can often prove particularly stressful for small and voluntary community groups and sometimes the larger funders could be more aware of the need for support and encouragement. Most of the Kirkmichael Trust team work full-time and were often dealing with essential and taxing aspects of the project in the wee small hours of the morning.

It is also essential to build in contingency for over-run both on staffing costs and building costs if the project changes shape and duration, as this one has.

In the winter of 2012 Jim Mackay was awoken by a phone call telling him that the roof of the old ruin had collapsed under the weight of snow. Nothing daunted, the Kirkmichael Trust volunteers quickly assembled and came up with an action plan to protect the fragile remaining gables and prevent further decline.  

Today the shaky ruin is now solid again, complete and roofed, its internal monuments beautifully restored, and the final interpretive touches being made prior to its opening at the end of April. 

And so the final lesson is - however tough it gets, never give up.