Priests of South Uist

Isle of South Uist

I begin this public lecture by thanking Bishop Toal for inviting me to give it. I know of his own interest in church history and of the many years that he has given in support of a variety of historical societies. I would like to thank the priests of the islands and those who have come here for the Diocesan Priests’ Council.

" I want to point out that I am not an historian, merely someone who ‘dabbles’ in history as a pastime. Consequently, I am indebted to those who have recorded the information upon which this lecture is largely based: the late Mgr Roddy Macdonald, the late Mgr Duncan MacLean, and the late Mgr Hugh Cameron; Roger Hutchison with whom I have collaborated on a soon-to-be-published biography of Fr Allan MacDonald; and, finally, Alasdair Roberts of Morar on whose published and unpublished work I have drawn.

 I am indebted, too, to the people of South Uist into whose community I came some years ago although I have been associated with it through relationship and cultural ties from birth. I am particularly indebted to my own parishioners in Ardkenneth and Bornish parishes.

 This lecture is part of our activities as a Diocese to bring to a close the Year of the Priest. So I intend to look at the lives of some of the priests who served in South Uist in the period from 1732 to 1900. Why these dates? The first date, 1732, marks the formation of what was called the Highland Vicariate and the arrival in Uist of a remarkable priest, Fr Alexander Forrester, and the second date, 1900, marks the beginning of the twentieth century – a suitable place to stop, at least for the present!

 Through my remarks I hope to show the constant features of the lives of these priests – their loyalty and commitment to the priesthood and to the communities they were asked to serve. But I also hope to show the differences amongst them; differences of character, background, and training, and how each of them in differing historical situations became the natural leaders of their people. These were men who took often extraordinary, calculated risks for the benefit of their communities and none of the lives of the priests who I am going to sketch can be described as ‘comfortable’. Personal suffering which, if it was not always present, was never far away.

 In case it may be thought that this judgment is ‘partisan’, Roger Hutchison in his forthcoming biography of Fr Allan MacDonald says:

 'The generation of mainland men who became island priests in the early 1880s made a template for their successors throughout the 20th century……

 They felt themselves to be, if not independent, slightly apart from the hierarchies of Britain and Rome. That distinction, that uniqueness, was as much a product of history, language and culture as of geography. It anchored them in their Hebridean islands; it gave them a security and even a boldness which Catholic priests elsewhere in Britain were not always able to share.

They represented their flocks politically, partly because they could and partly because nobody else would.

They identified - rightly or wrongly - that cultural tenacity with the stubborn cohesion of Catholic faith in the islands, and they involved themselves as deeply as possible in the everyday work and play of their communities.'

 This true and highly complimentary judgment of the island priests of the 1880s, made by someone who is not a Catholic, can also be made of all the priests that we are going to look at.

 They came from a variety of places - Easter Ross, Inverness, Perthshire, Strathglass, above all Lochaber - very few of them came from Uist or the other islands but they were all characterised by loyalty to their people; deep involvement in their daily lives; unswerving commitment to fight for the rights of the people, and, at times, by their preparedness to suffer with their people and for their people.

 They took risks.

These, I would suggest, are some of the characteristics of the good and effective secular or diocesan priest which are applicable in all places and circumstances.

Comments (3)

neil mac innes
Said this on 29-08-2010 At 07:48 pm
fantastic article about our local heroes of yesteryears. also enjoyed your article about Father Allan MacDonald of Eriskay.
Darryl Stout
Said this on 14-06-2011 At 03:33 pm

Great article! Thanks!

Do you know where the 12 priestd were in 1731 and in 1764? I am interested in Tiree and Coll.

Callum Beck
Said this on 24-06-2011 At 02:51 am

You can find a list of priests in Gordon's Scotochronicon, in an Appendix, which can be found on Open Library

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