The Faith in Scotland’s Western Highlands

When Dr John Watts was asked if he would write a history of the Diocese of Argyle and the Isles since its restoration as a Catholic diocese in 1878, he quickly realised that to make full sense, to extract the fullness of the history of the Faith in the highlands and islands, he would have to begin at the beginning by going right back to about 500AD and the establishment of Christianity in Scotland.

He refers to St Ninian and the mission from the south, as one must, even if the saint is now a figure of controversy. But surely, at least from an Irish perspective, the mission of St Columcille coming across the sea from Ireland was far more important. Indeed along this shore the sea was the road by which all things from the outside reached the people, down indeed to the 1870s in some places.

The Celtic influence of the early Church was transformed as in Ireland by the effect of imported Norman culture, thanks to St Margaret. However, the Reformation, the civil war and the restoration of the Crown, all these had their serious effects on Catholic life. However it survived, survived too the two Jacobite risings, to become an accepted and settled part of life.

From 1878 onwards, Dr Watts relates the story through the lives of the bishops of the diocese. This is an effective way, of course, of providing the institutional history. But it is rather like telling the history of a school or college through its headmasters – it does not relate to the actual experiences of the student, or here to the experiences of the faithful. Leaders are important but they are not the be all and end all of any story.

In recent times the special problems of Glasgow and Edinburgh have not affected the Highlands and islands so much. For an Irish people it is still remarkable to come upon the Catholic communities of Morar or of Barra, and find them familiar yet different.

The area went through remarkable changes over this time. One thinks of the Scottish land war, the continued creation of deer forests, the giving over of large ranges of land to shooting rather than cultivation. On the coast there were the interrelated problems of the fishing industry and the crofters as well.

Yet a way of life survived, inspired by an abiding faith, and there are now real signs of growth and change for the good, even in the islands. Readers will recall the comic Highland novels of Compton Mackenzie – an eminent Catholic writer not mentioned in this history – in which the interactions of the Presbyterian minister and the Catholic priest on the islands of Great and Little Toddy. Comic, but very true to life, for the Highlands lack, in my experience, the raw sectarianism so often found in the cities.

For Irish readers this is a book with many local echoes, but also one where the course of history took a different turn. For this reason alone it is well worth reading. But aside from that Dr Watts tells over the whole length of his period a truly wonderful story.  

It is not one free of controversy though. In June 1996 Ulster-born Keith O’Brien, then an archbishop of another diocese, was appointed  Apostolic Administrator of the  Diocese of Argyll and the Isles. He resigned the post in October 1999. The later scandals attaching to Cardinal O’Brien left the diocese unaffected in some ways, though involved in the general crisis of conscience involved in the affair. Perhaps that unhappy controversy, which is not yet over, is a sign of the times, with troubling issues for the Highlands and Islands as much as elsewhere.

First seminary

But life always goes in the parish, hopefully. A Mass to celebrate the 300th anniversary of founding of first seminary in Scotland on Eilean Bán, Loch Morar (a key event in the history of the diocese), was held at Morar on August 6.

Here perhaps is a reminder of a need that affects both Scotland and the Church in Europe generally, the lack of priests to keep rural parishes going in the future. Dr Watts’ successor in another 300 years will doubtless have to devote much space to how this problem will have been solved by then.