Monday, July 20, 2009

Ur Beatha Dhan Dùthaich - A Highland Homecoming

Ever since I became a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, in the early ‘70s, I’ve been aware that it is regarded by many native Scots as The English Church. “What do you want to go to a church like that for? You’re Scottish!” In Dunoon, it helps the visitor to tell the taxi driver to go to the English church, and in Mid-Argyll certainly you’ll hear at least as many English accents as native Scots ones.

But yesterday was different, and for the first time in my church-going life I felt that I was in a truly native church, with a history and an ethos that was entirely Scottish – and Highland at that. Not the fakery of the dressing-up-for-a-wedding tartanry, but the deep-seated faith of an area which had survived persecution and emerged somehow in the 21st century with much of its tradition intact. The occasion might have been dismissed as mere tartan-for-tourists. But “A Highland Homecoming”, part of the government’s Homecoming Scotland programme, took the form of a celebration of the Eucharist in Gaelic, in St John’s Church, Ballachulish, in the presence of the assembled, international ranks of the Clan McInnes. And from the opening words - Ann an ainm an Athar, agus a'Mhic agus an Spiorad Naoimh - I was hooked.

So why was I there? And why did I feel the power of this mass, given that I have about 4 words of Gaelic and none of them were used yesterday? The first is easy: the mass setting was John’s Kilbride Mass, in Gaelic, and he was playing the organ for the service. And the music suddenly sounded as if it had been written for the Gaelic words - A Thighearna, dèan tròcair oirnn. A Chriosda, dèan tròcair oirnn. A Thighearna, dèan tròcair oirnn. The second? Was it the resonance of Emsley Nimmo’s Gaelic, or the haunting beauty of the final music from the choirs – Gleann Bhaile Chaoil? Or was it because Mr B pulled out all the stops (you might say) from his distant roots and moved the entire congregation with his playing of traditional airs á la McIntosh? or the wonderful strangeness of hearing a mass setting I know by heart to words which were completely unfamiliar?

Actually I think it was a mixture of all these things, and more. And the more was symbolised, I realise, by the presence on the altar of the Appin Banner, a replica of the pale blue and gold flag which was rescued from the carnage after Culloden and returned to the area of Portnacrois and St John’s, the only banner not to be taken and burned. And the chalice used was the Appin Chalice, reputed to have been carried by the Appin Stewart Regiment in the uprising of 1745. How could I not feel the tie to the past, the essential roots of our church?

Afterwards, there was an incredible bun-fight. I don’t know how we managed it, but despite the teeming rain outside and the two portaloos in the grounds it was accomplished that people got tea and scones and cakes – and the most wonderful clootie dumpling I’ve ever tasted. The politicians – Mike Russell, Culture Minister in the Scottish Parliament and Charles Kennedy, the local Westminster MP – posed for photos and chatted amiably; Bishop Martin was interviewed for the telly – a camera had woven in and out throughout – and the Dean of Aberdeen & Orkney, Emsley Nimmo, fortified himself with a scone.

This, I realise, reads like a mixture of piece for the magazine and personal blog post. This is because my last blog on a diocesan event was transplanted wholesale into the diocesan mag, and must have confused anyone who didn’t know of its provenance. So here’s the wee blogger’s coda…

When we emerged into the rain which had been gathering in malevolence during the service, we were both shaking with knackerdom. We still had the drive home to Dunoon, through the looming and more or less drowned Glencoe, and I had a picture of us sleeping by the roadside. I even thought longingly of sailing into a hotel and ignoring the lack of a toothbrush. But whether it was the adrenaline of a successful gig which kept Mr B at the wheel, or the recounting of the interesting contacts I’d made during the afternoon, we kept going and made it in 2 hours flat.

Personally, I think it was the clootie dumpling …

Note: Photos from the event can now be seen here


  1. Can I use this in my Parish Mag? Can I? Can I? Please, can I???

  2. Could I refuse you anything? But could you at least point out that it originated as a blog post? ;-)

  3. What a wonder-filled time this must have been! I could almost feel the sense of anticipation by your fabulous description!

    Of course, I did need to resort to that modern innovation (Google) to discover what, exactly, clootie dumpling is! Sounds very interesting!

  4. Julie Gamble1:08 PM

    We can only say MORAN TAING to Christine for her comprehensive description of the SEIRBHIS GHAIDHLIG - we know from different people that different parts of the afternoon were very special to them.

    CLANN MHICAONGHAIS, through Norman MacInnis, International President of the Clan, indicated that the group were overwhelmed with the emotion of the music, poetry & service.

    For Marsaili & Sileas, Friends of St John's, Ballachulish, John played (with improvision) the most beautiful calming Gaelic airs, as we processed from the West Door: Muile Nam Fuar-Bheann Mor agus An T-Eilean Aluinn.

  5. Rev Peter Rice4:46 PM

    Thank you for that haunting memory of Sunday. It captured the essence of that very thin place twixt heaven and earth that is St Johns and its Churchyard.

  6. John Mcintosh (NZ)5:52 AM

    Enjoyed reading the article.

  7. A namesake! Great! Did you go looking for yourself?

  8. Beneath Beinn Bheitheir

    Balvicar (15 miles south of Oban), Sunday 19th July, 11a.m. – the car loaded with home baking, but still concerns about whether or not there will be enough cups for the increasing numbers who appear to be planning to attend this memorable occasion.
    Arriving at Ballachulish, the car park is already full to bursting, as are the clouds, but as an endless stream of visiting MacInnes’ disgorge from their coach, it is very apparent that this is a very special event for so many.
    In the days after, many amazing memories would show themselves.
    Top of the list has to be the leading in of the Appin Banner, its placing on the altar alongside the Appin Chalice, a hugely symbolic, almost historic, act in itself. And one that fired the emotions of many in the congregation – especially as it was carried in by Mhairi Ross, a descendant of the Livingstones who liberated Seumas A’Ghlinne’s body from the gibbet.
    And in case we were to forget one of the main reasons we were at St.John’s, how symbolic was it that at the very moment that Iain MacKenzie rang the bell to signal the Banner’s entry into the church, a small piece of wood fell from the roof timbers, as if to signify the urgency with which the deteriorating fabric of the building needs to be addressed?
    And then there was the singing of the choirs – a sound that must have caused many a tear to well up and overflow. Psalm 65, sung by Oban Gaelic Choir was so true to the Gaelic tradition, while Gleann Baile Chaoil was the final showstopper.
    Allan MacInnes’ talk on the Appin Murder was enlightening, even for those who already had a broad understanding of the tragic events. And of course, we cannot forget the actual Gaelic service itself – the second organized by the Friends of St.John’s in recent times. So good to hear the indigenous language spoken in the mother church.
    A day when things just fell into place – despite the weather – starting with the arrival of Mike Russell, Minister of Culture, along with the rain, in time to formally open the cairn the Campbell’s built.
    Piper John MacCallum on the spot to play at just the right times. As was Mrs Charles Kennedy to hand out the sweets at the conclusion of the Service.
    Suffice to say that there were enough cups (just!) and there was enough baking, and the Balvicar clootie dumpling is now achieving global fame.

  9. John McIntosh12:20 PM

    Did I go looking for myself? In a way, my Grandfather was living in Dunoon before he came out to NZ. I am interested in what goes on there these days. I was intrigued by your blog and the comments of Andy above. I did not think James Stewart would be remembered with such passion but I'm pleased to see he is. He was defended by Robert McIntosh but I suppose it was a hopeless case in the circumstances.

  10. John, it's great to have you visit - though I keep thinking that Mr B has posted a comment instead of simply speaking to me!

  11. This was so very interesting and joyful to find this from the YouTube link of the Gaelic choirs of Taynuilt and Oban singing `Gleann Bhaile Chaoil' as a descendant from MacKenzies who emigrated from the area in 1843. :-) Tha mi taingeal airson sin. Tapadh leat, Christine.

  12. Glad you found me, Martin!

  13. Justin6:10 PM

    Great Blog post. I would love to hear this Eucharistic celebration. I'm a seminarian of the Episcopal Church in the USA and was once a failing student of Scots Gaelic. Some one must have made an audio recording of this event. In one of my classes our semester wide topic has been about contextualized theology in the post-colonial situation. I have often brought up the struggles of the Gaelic people (even in the diaspora like my fore-bearers) and have often hoped to learn more about the SEC in Gaelic especially to hear the old sounds of "Eden" as they say.
    Is there a place to find the recording of this liturgy?

  14. Justin, we've not been able to find anyone with a recording! BBC Alba (not called that now, but same organisation) were there, but the only clips they showed were not of the actual liturgy. You'd need to send a request to the Taynuilt Gaelic choir to make a tape of it or something...
    Thanks for the comment!