Religion and worship
Visitors to Scotland are sometimes surprised by the number of churches that have been repurposed to anything from a museum or visitors centre to a library, climbing wall or even a pub/nightclub. Sometimes in rural areas you will see a succession of churches abandoned or repurposed including to houses, occasionally even barns.
Scotland is a master of schism – and to be fair mergers. This from the Church of Scotland gives a brief summary of the history, both of the separation into Catholic and Protestant stands and the various protestant strands : http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/about_us/how_we_are_organised/history
In addition to the normal ebb and flow of populations and religious fervour, schisms also tended to result in periods of church building. At Loch Lee there is a ruin of the kirk of Droustie ruined by fire in 1645 (built on an earlier church that may date back to the early 600s) , an intact and rarely open Glenlee Parish Kirk built in 1801 a kilometre away, the functioning Maule Memorial Church holding services further down the valley and St Drostan’s Church representing the Episcopalians. In the 1840s, that would have been three churches serving a population of just over 600. That’s not an uncommon pattern (but is a glorious example). The Maule Church was the result of the 1843 Disruption in the Church of Scotland, with the two congregations of Lochlee and Maule rejoining under a single minister in the 1930s.
The reality is that Scotland is increasingly a secular society with religious observance declining : the most recent survey put regular church attendance at less than 400,000 – just 7.2% of the population. If you decide to attend a service of any denomination, you will be welcomed and there is often a small social gathering with tea and cakes after the service : you will be invited.
The Church of Scotland is the mainstream presbyterian church and most of the major religious buildings, such as St.Giles Cathedral, belong to the Church of Scotland. The Anglican Church operates in Scotland and is usually referred to as the Episcopalian church. Especially on the west, there is a body of Catholic Churches with a centre of Catholicism in Argyll and the south of the Western Isles. By contrast, the north of the Western Isles is the stronghold of the Free Kirk (and its variants). There is a cluster of smaller sects in the north east of Scotland with some presence of closed Brethren churches.
Alongside all these are Synagogues, Mosques, Sikh Tempkes, Buddhist communities, etc as well as a range of other Christian denominations. . In general faiths rub alongside each other very well with interfaith events common.
One indicator of the social trend is that since Humanist marriages became legal in 2014, the numbers of couples opting for this form of non religious marriage has overtaken those opting for the Church of Scotland. The majority of marriages are however civil, conducted by registrars.
Sadly Protestant/Catholic antagonisms persist, mainly around Glasgow. I’d be cautious about dressing in green, associated with (catholic) Celtic if there was a Rangers-Celtic football match on in Glasgow and you do get the occasional Orange March.
The Free Kirks are Calvinistic, with austere buildings, no instruments to accompany singing, and strict sabbatarian views. Visitors to Lewis/Harris should expect a limited range of places to be open on a Sunday and should be discreet about visiting attractions etc. A few decades ago, the advice would be to leave the island before Sunday but while the Free Kirk is influential, it no longer dictates everyone’s lifestyle. Weddings might still take place on a Friday so that the celebrations do not extend into the Sabbath.
Over the rest of Scotland (unlike England), there are few restrictions on Sunday trading (except you can’t buy alcohol in shops before noon) with many cities fully embracing the 7 day economy and tourist focused enterprises open on Sundays throughout Scotland. It is however a business decision so off season, few cafes, restaurants, etc will open on Sundays in remoter rural areas.
Obviously some of the most famous churches are themselves tourist attractions. This can create tensions with Orkney’s St Magnus having particular difficulties with visitors on a tight schedule reported as trying to visit the church even during a funeral. The rule if a service is taking place is to either participate or wait outside. That’s simple courtesy to all involved.