Johnshaven “Chaplie” destroyed by devastating morning fire

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One of Johnshaven’s most historic and treasured buildings, St John’s Chapel of Ease, was ravaged and completely gutted by a devastating fire which broke out in the early hours of Friday morning.

Known affectionately as the “Chaplie”, the simple landmark structure, only a few yards from the harbour, was gifted by Hercules Scott of Brotherton Castle to Benholm Parish Church in 1851, seven years after the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843 out of which emerged the Free Church of Scotland. At that time the parish church was in Benholm, a walk of some two miles away, and to ward off the threat from the Free Kirk which had built a new church and school at Braehead, there was a need to make it easier for the established Church of Sotland congregation to attend Sunday worship.

And so for almost a hundred years the “Chaplie”, while continuing to fulfil this purpose, was also the place where baptisms and weddings took place and there will still be many, both within the village and far beyond, who retain fond memories of attending Sunday School there.

Although the Church of Scotland and the Free Kirk merged in 1929, it was not until the retiral of the Rev Everett Walker and the Rev David Greenfield in 1947 that this happened in Benholm and the “Chaplie”, now redundant, was closed before some years later being bought by boat builder, Richard McBay who continued to operate there until Friday’s disastrous events.

At around half past midnight a loud explosion was heard and eye witnesses later described smoke billowing from the roof as, in the darkness, flames ripped through the interior and fire engines arrived to deal with the blaze and, as a safety precaution, residents in The Square were evacuated. Two hours later the fire was extinguished and following damping down operations after dawn had broken, the full extent of the damage became clear: the roof was completely gone exposing only the charred remains of boat building apparatus. The walls remained intact, however, and, amazingly, the bell tower, which was restored and the bell replaced in time for the Millenium, survived the blaze as did the boat which Mr McBay had under construction outside his premises.

Both as a place of worship and a place of work the “Chaplie” has been a significant part of Johnshaven’s heritage for 160 years. In recent years, as crowds gathered round, its bell has rung in the New Year. Will it ever be heard again?