SCOTLAND: THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE HEBRIDES - 1560-1760
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE HEBRIDES: . 1560-1760 By J. L.
CAMPBFLY, Controversy over the proposal that a guided missile range should be built on the Island of South Uist has drawn the attention of the public to the Catholic Hebrides and their traditions. This article, which is written with grateful acknowledgment to the researches of the late Rt. Rev. Mgr. H. Cameron and the Rev. Cathaldus Giblin, 0.F.M., describes the historical background of the Catholicism of the islands.
SINCE the time of Dr. Johnson, visitors to the Hebrides have noted and commented on the fact that the majority of the inhabitants of South Uist, Benbecula, Barra, Eriskay, Eigg and Canna have preserved the Faith in a country where penal legislation against Catholicism was more rigorously enforced than any other.
There is some argument about the continuity of this survival. The full story of the Church in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland has still to be written ; but there is sufficient evidence to refute the notion that Catholicism disappeared completely from the Hebrides after the Reformation and was reintroduced there by the Lazarists in the 1650s.
After the Scottish Reformation, the Calvinists had for many years great difficulty in finding ministers for Highland and Hebridean parishes, apart from Argyllshire south of Loch Etive. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, was unable to replace the old pre-Reformation parish priests as these died out. By the end of the sixteenth century the greater part of Gaelic-speaking Scotland had become a spiritual vacuum. An idea of the kind of religion that survived there under such conditions can be obtained from Martin Martin's account of a visit to St. Kilda along with the first Protestant minister to go to the island, in 1697. For more than 150 years after 1600 the Highlands and Islands were to be regarded as a mission field by both Catholics and Protestants alike, the one seeking to revive an old tradition and the other to overthrow it.
Absence of the restraint of religion during the two generations that followed the Reformation has no doubt a great deal to do with the barbarity with which clan feuds were conducted in the Highlands and Islands in the second half of the sixteenth century, and with the moral laxity that led to bitter struggles between legitimate and illegitimate offspring of certain chiefs such as the MacLeods of Lewis and the MacNeils of Barra. But even during this period, the memories of the great Catholic saints of the Gaelic people, particularly that of St. Columba, never grew dim ; indeed the Irish Franciscan missionaries who visited the Hebrides in the 1620s describe the veneration accorded to St. Columba in some districts as tending to be excessive.
Community with Ireland in language and traditions fostered the survival of Catholicism in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. From a statement made by Bingham to Burghley in 1593 it appears that the Hebrideans, particularly the Barramen, were in the habit of going by sea on pilgrimages to Croagh Patrick in Mayo.1 The Scottish Government was well aware of the proclivities of many of the Hebridean chiefs, and in 1609 most of these were coerced into accepting—with the example of the downfall of Ulster before their eyes—the Statutes of Iona which embodied, amongst other conditions, formal acceptance of the established. Protestant religion and the obligation to have their children educated as English-speaking Protestants outside the Highlands and Islands and in places where they could easily serve as hostages for their parents' political behaviour.
Nine island chiefs, Angus MacDonald of Dunyveg, MacLean of Duart, MacLean of Lochbuie, Donald Gorm MacDonald of Sleat, MacLeod of Harris, MacKinnon of Mackinnon, MacLean of Coll, MacDonald of Clanranald, MacQuarrie, signed the Statutes, and it is interesting to note how they or their descendants acted when the opportunity came to reveal their true convictions. Angus of Dunyveg was an old man by 1609, and died in 1614, shortly after which Islay was lost to the MacDonalds for ever. Its inhabitants are explicitly stated to be Catholics in an account sent by Sir John Campbell of Calder to Lord Somerset in 1615.2 Calder and the Earl of Argyll, who expropriated the MacDonalds of Islay, both ended their days as converts to Catholicism and in exile. MacLean of Lochbuie, MacLeod of Harris, and the heir and successor of Clanranald were both reconciled to the Church by the Irish Franciscans in 1624; and the MacDonalds of Sleat and later MacLeods of Harris, although not declaring themselves openly, allowed the Catholic missionaries to work in Skye and North Uist throughout the seventeenth century.
It is significant that in several cases the earliest recorded appointments of Protestant ministers to Hebridean parishes date from the year of the Statutes of Iona, 1609. But even then few could be found. In 1626 the Protestant bishop of the Isles drew up a report of the state of his diocese, showing that Lewis had then only two ministers, Skye, Raasay and the Small Isles three together, Harris one supposedly serving also Barra—sixty miles away ! North and South Uist one, Mull, Coll and Tiree two, Jura, Gigha and Colonsay together one. Placed in charge of such vast areas, having only primitive means of transportation in a roadless country, living amongst an apathetic or hostile people, the Island ministers could have done little even in the way of normal ministrations to the whole population, even if all the inhabitants had been favourably disposed.
As proximity to Ireland counted for much, it is not surprising that at the beginning of the seventeenth century Catholicism was strongest in the Southern Isles, Islay, Jura, Colonsay and in Kintyre, though when an Irish Jesuit, Father Gallwey, was sent on a mission to these districts. around 1618, he found people in Islay and Colonsay who had never seen a priest before. This Jesuit mission was followed shortly after by that of the Irish Franciscans, Brothers Cornelius Ward (Conchobhair Mac an Bhaird), Patrick Haggarty, Paul O'Neill and Patrick Brady in 1624-1626. The Irish Franciscans had their headquarters at Bunmargy in County Antrim, and crossed over to Scotland by the short sea passage between Antrim and Kintyre, and worked in Kintyre and the Southern Isles of Islay, Jura, Gigha and Colonsay, in Iona and the Ross of Mull, in western Invernesshire, Skye, the Small Isles, the Uists and Barra.
In most of these places they encountered (a) a small number of practising Catholics ; (b) very few convinced Calvinists ; (c) a large number of persons, some conforming outwardly to Protestantism, but all cherishing in varying degrees of ignorance an attachment to the Catholic traditions of their ancestors. "It is possible to find very many places there, in which neither priest not heretic minister has been seen since the overthrow of religion in Scotland. And so some have vivid memory of Catholic worship not depraved by the error of heresy," wrote Father Cornelius Ward in 1624. It is obvious from their reports that the missionaries were welcomed nearly . everywhere they went, and indeed their success in reviving Catholicism and reconciling waverers and even enemies was little short of sensational. Within two years 862 persons had been reconciled in Kintyre, 677 in Islay, 212 in Jura, 306 (the whole population) in Colonsay, where the laird, the famous Coll Ciotach Macdonald, was already a Catholic, 278 and more in Mull, including MacLaine of Lochbuie and the brother of MacLean of Duart, chief of the clan, himself a Protestant ; many in Moidart including John MacDonald of Clanranald (lain Muideartach), chief of that branch of the clan, and his family ; 198 on Eigg, 18 on Rum, 8 on Canna, 622 in South Uist, including the laird of Benbecula and the newly appointed minister, whom Father Ward took with him to be trained at Louvain for the priesthood ; 768 on North Uist (leaving the minister with only 14), 220 in Barra, to which Father Ward was invited to go, including the heir to the estate, and many in Harris and Skye. In Muckairn, Father Ward (who was a member of the famous Gaelic bardic family from Donegal) composed a Gaelic panegyric to, and, disguised as an Irish bard, obtained access to Sir John Campbell of Calder, and in three days won him over, and not long afterwards Calder himself, with his family and fifty retainers was received into the Church as was Campbell of Barbreck. This was an outstanding event, for Calder had been Earl of Argyll's right hand man in advancing the Earl's interests in Islay against the Catholic MacDonalds. Calder, Barbreck, MacLeod of Harris, Coll Ciotach, Clanranald and Lochbuie sent back letters with Ward to Rome. It is possible that some reconciliations were not all permanent. Many of the islanders who gathered to hear Father Ward and the other Franciscan friars expound the faith of their fathers and grandfathers and who gave their assent to Catholic teaching and received the sacraments, may never or seldom have seen a priest again in their lives. Paucity of clergy was to be a perpetual handicap to the Hebridean mission in the seventeenth century.
Bitter persecution followed against the Catholics of the Southern Isles and Kintyre, at the hands of the Earl of Argyll and the Synod of Argyll and the Government ; but not until after the suppression of Montrose's rising (1644-5) (during which many of the Argyllshire ministers had to take refuge in the Lowlands) was much progress made by Protestantism in these places. This persecution was particularly directed against Calder and Lochbuie : Calder was exiled, and Lochbuie was forced in 16313 to promise attendance at the local Protestant church with all his retainers and tenants under penalty of forfeiture of a bond of £100 for every failure to do so. In 1650 his heir submitted finally to the Synod of Argyll.* In the Northern Islands matters were different. John MacDonald of Clanranald remained constant in the Faith until his death in 1670. His neighbours, the MacLeods of Dunvegan and Harris and the MacDonalds of Sleat, although conforming to Protestantism 'outwardly, remained secret sympathisers and did nothing to assist the enforcement of the penal laws. Clanranald was connected with the MacLeods of Dunvegan by marriage and with the MacDonalds of Sleat by feudal and clan ties. Neither of these chiefs had any interest in enforcing the edicts of the Synod of Argyll or advancing the interests of the Earls of Argyll against their Catholic relatives and neighbours. Under the influence of Clanranald, the MacNeils of Barra also remained constant. It is therefore not surprising that by 1755, 5,979, or 36 per cent, of the 16,490 Catholics then in Scotland were living on the Clanranald and MacNeil of Barra estates.
The Franciscan mission to the Isles had great possibilities. It was, however, most inadequately supported, indeed its very success led to both jealousy and scepticism at Rome. After returning to the Continent on behalf of the Mission in 1626, Father Cornelius Ward was taken prisoner in London on his way back to Scotland, and kept for two years. He refused an offer of liberty and £1,000 a year to preach Protestantism in the same districts where he had preached Catholicism. He was eventually liberated at the intercession of the Polish ambassador and expelled from the country, but he found his way back to Scotland and was working in Skye, Uist and Glengarry in 1636 and 1637. This devoted and courageous missionary is most certainly deserving of a greater recognition than he has received from Scottish historians. During the time this mission was active, the project of reviving the Bishopric of the Isles-was seriously considered, but unfortunately nothing came of it.
After 1640, the Franciscan mission -dwindled. In 1651, apparently at the request of MacDonell of Glengarry, St. Vincent dePaul sent two priests, Father Dermit Dugan and Father White, to the Highlands. Father Dugan worked in the Outer Hebrides, where he is still well remembered in local tradition, and in Skye, and Father White in Glengarry. The Lazarists had the advantage of being able to stay in Scotland without having to make exhausting trips to the continent to beg for aid, and of having to cover a smaller area than the Franciscans, for they did not attempt to work in the Southern Islands. In his reports to St. Vincent de Paul, Father Dugan shows rather bare appreciation of the labours of the Franciscans without whose efforts the Faith would probably have vanished entirely from the Hebrides before the Lazarists got there at all, and the fact that he implied that Clanranald, who had been indisputably reconciled to the Church in 1624 by the Franciscans, and whose letter, written in 1626, asking help from Pope Urban VIII is still extant, was a convert of his own, throws an interesting light on the loose usage of this term by the missionaries, who included under it anyone brought to the Sacraments, from a non-practising Catholic to a professed Calvinist. Father Dugan, a devoted missionary but a man very different in temperament and outlook from Father Ward, who was essentially a man of the Middle Ages, died prematurely in 1657 on the eve of what seems to have been a projected visit to St. Kilda, which was then still unreached by Protestant ministers. His early death was a great loss to the Church in the Hebrides.
It is clear from Father Dugan's letters that the Lazarists worked in Skye with no interference from MacLeod of Harris or MacDonald of Sleat ; neither was the latter expected to oppose a projected visit to North Uist. There were still Catholics in Skye at the end of the seventeenth century. Martin Martin's account of the Western Isles is not to be relied on for their numbers ; but it is interesting to see the extent to which the Catholic festivals of Christmas, Easter and St. Michael's Day—supposedly banned by Calvinism in Scotland—were observed on the Protestant islands. Skye was slowly lost through the paucity of Catholic missionaries and the increasing desire of MacLeod and Sleat to stand in well with the Government and the increase, after 1700, in the number of ministers and of the S.P.C.K. Schools. Similarly North Uist, which belonged to MacDonald of Sleat, was also lost. The inhabitants of the Isle of Rum were won over by coercion in 1725, a few women alone remaining Catholics. But under the Clanranalds, the last protectors of the old order in the Highlands and Islands, South Uist, Benbecula, Eigg and Canna remained constant, and likewise Barra under the MacNeils. How little the Government and the Established Church felt they could rely on the Highlands and Islands as late as the first half of the eighteenth century is shown by the desperate attempts to get S.P.C.K. schools set up in all Gaelic-speaking districts. The failure of the '45 settled the issue as far as all the doubtful areas were concerned, but black as the outlook then appeared for Highland Catholics, toleration was by then nearer at hand than anyone could have hoped for. The fact that the Catholic tradition survived in Uist and Barra and the Small Isles and mainland of Invernesshire is due to the seventeenth-century missions of the Franciscans and Lazarists. Had these missions, especially the first, been better supported with men and money there is every reason to suppose that much greater areas, including Skye, Harris, North Uist, Mull, Ardnamurchan and Morvern, would still be largely Catholic today. Long after these and other districts had been officially won for Protestantism, Catholic prayers, invocations and customs survived amongst the Gaelicspeaking people, as is proved by such a collection as the late Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica.
I am a consecrated Christian solitary brother (CCC 920-921), serving the church in fraternal community with the Order of Preachers (Rom 11:17).
Please pray for us in our call and mission to serve God and His church. / The monks here depicted are of the eremitic Order of St. Jerome (Hieronymites) to whom I was introduced in Lisbon, Portugal through the 'Mosteiro dos Jeronimos' world heritage site.
The blog title page features an image of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne who gave their lives for the peace of God's people during the French Revolution's reign of terror.
Holy Carmelite Saints & Martyrs please pray for us +