Ardkenneth: ‘Head and Mother of the Churches’

Ardkenneth Church 2012

The title ‘Caput et Mater Ecclesiae’ -Head and Mother of the churches of the Western Isles is reserved for Ardkenneth. St Michael’s is the oldest church in continuous use in the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles and, naturally, is the oldest church in the islands still in continuous use. In the friendly competitive spirit which often characterises relationships between different islands, parishes, and communities in the islands (as elsewhere), it is quite often claimed that this ‘honour’ should belong to the church at Craigston on Barra. But the church which is presently in use there was built in 1850, granted, on the same site as an earlier church opened in 1805. Ardkenneth, though, is the oldest, built, as it was, in 1829 and it is Ardkenneth that we are going to look at in some detail during the course of this presentation.

In 1828 the old church at Gearradh Fluich, which had been built nearly one hundred years earlier, had been burned down by the agents of the Trustees of MacDonald of Clanranald during the course of the first ‘clearance’ work when twelve townships on Clanranald Estate were ‘cleared’ of their people to make way for sheep. The last priest to have served the north of these islands from Gearradh Fluich, Fr Roderick MacDonald, a nephew of MacDonald of Gearradh Fluich, had died there in the same year. The Catholic Church in the southern isles could no longer rely for protection and support on the clan chiefs and their tacksmen. Almost all of the tacksmen had left the islands to seek a better life abroad. MacDonald of Clanranald and MacNeil of Barra had become Protestants as had MacDonald of Boisdale.

The Catholic Church in the islands was at a crossroad. It could not look back to the old certainties of protection and patronage from catholic clan chiefs supportive of the Church and whose clergy, for the greater part, were closely related to them. In 1760, for instance, all the priests serving in the Highland District were MacDonalds. The Bishop, too, was a MacDonald. So conscious was he of the possible adverse effect of these connections in the changing climate of the post Culloden world of the Highlands and Islands that he requested that the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith should send two Irish priests to work in the District because all the priests had the same surname.

The Church could not look back – that ‘ship had sailed never to return’. It had to look forward. Innovative and enterprising ways had to be found to support the parishes and the priests.

In 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed through the Houses of Parliament. This, and its predecessor Catholic Relief Act of 1792, meant that Catholics were now formally free from persecution because of their religion but, although the parishes of Ardkenneth and Bornish were established in 1829, they did not exist as recognised civil corporate bodies. They could not take out loans because, as far as the civil law was concerned, they did not exist. The priest, though, could take out personal loans and pay them back from his own income.

The new parishes established on South Uist in 1828 had distinct boundaries which, incidentally, are not those of the parishes today. The parish of Ardkenneth took in the island of Benbecula and the north part of South Uist – as far south as Howbeg. Bornish parish went from Howbeg to Eriskay. Each was served by a parish priest, Fr James MacGregor at Ardkenneth and Fr John Chisholm at Bornish. Both had been students at the seminary on the island of Lismore and had taught there for a short while after ordination. Chisholm, who came from Strathglass, was appointed to Bornish in 1819. MacGregor, who was born at the Spittal of Glenshee (Perthshire) in 1790, entered the seminary at Lismore in 1808, was ordained there in 1816, taught there for three years and then became the priest at the expanding mission of Fort William. While at Fort William he enlisted the help of the soldiers at the Fort to build a dry stone wall around the little church in Middle Street. In 1828 he was appointed to the mission at Ardkenneth. What did he inherit?

The answer to that question is ‘nothing’. There was no church (it had been burned down and was now part of a sheep farm); there was no source of income. At 38 years of age, though, he was young, energetic, and enterprising: he also had his considerable talents and expertise and the support of his people.

He began by paying the rent arrears on four crofts at Ardkenneth which had been tenanted by people who had been evicted for falling behind in their payments. He formed them into one unit and began the process of agricultural improvement which was to turn Ardkenneth into a modern farm. He drained the land and built the dry stone dykes which are such a feature of the place. It is said that he arrived at Ardkenneth with dynamite and started to ‘pot blast’ the rock from the land, using the rock for the building of the church and house.

The church and house were built over a three year period (1829 -1832). It was three years before there were windows in the church. The interior of the church was very different from what it is today. The floor was cobbled and the walls were bare stone. The windows were not opposite one another but were offset to provide the maximum light. This feature is what makes Ardkenneth the light and bright church that it still is today. The cladding and the ‘v-lined’ ceiling appear to have been added to the church some forty years after the church was opened as were the prominent yellow pine pillars on the sanctuary. These are reputed to have been flotsam which landed on the shore and were ‘tooled’ by different ‘hands’. Close attention to the dimensions of the pillars shows that that is the case. The lime for the building was manufactured at the lime kiln which is still to be found at the end of the car park – the only surviving lime kiln in the Southern Isles! There were no porches on either the church or the house – these were much later additions.

Fr MacGregor went on an eighteen month long fund-raising trip to Ireland and England from late 1836 to May 1838 trying to seek donations to pay for the church which he had already built through the personal loans that he had taken out and by the organised efforts of the people. That was the way things were in those days! The parish was looked after in his absence by the assistant in both South Uist parishes, Fr Donald MacDonald, a native of Roy Bridge.

A letter survives from March 1838 in which a detailed description of MacGregor is given when he visited one of the Catholic ‘gentry’ houses in England seeking funds. The writer describes him as a ‘well looking dark man, rather low and large, about 40, speaking evidently with the difficulty of a man translating from the language in which he is thinking to that in which he must speak – not hesitating but queerly, not ungrammatically but uncolloquially’. He is described as a fervent Jacobite but is also recognised as a man who had read a ‘wonderful number of modern books and had a great admiration for Sir Walter Scot’. He is further described as ‘sympathising with all rebels’ and of ‘speaking with the greatest feeling of Lord Edward Fitzgerald’(one of the members of the United Irishmen who took part in the rebellion of 1798 led by Wolfe Tone). His host proclaimed herself to be ‘delighted beyond anything with so entirely rude (in the sense of rustic) and unsophisticated a person’. This letter tells us perhaps as much, if not more, about the people who were hosting him as it does about MacGregor himself!

The new church and house at Ardkenneth must have been truly impressive against the landscape and were, in a sense, a miraculous achievement given the social conditions which applied in South Uist at the time. It was easily the largest building that could be seen in the area and marked a resurgence of Catholic confidence.

The people of Barra, seeing the miserable state of the church at Craigston, and seeking the financial help of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, were looking for something akin to the ‘great edifice’ lately built at Ardkenneth on neighbouring South Uist.

Not all, though, shared in the enthusiasm for churches as large as Ardkenneth. Bishop Scott, writing to Father John Chisholm of Bornish, asked him to give up on the old church and to build a new one: ‘It would, in my opinion, be madness to build the chapel on the stance 60 feet by 20 which you call your own, but to which I fear you have no better claim than to any other spot on Bornish. Do not think of building it there or on so small a scale, but I think you ought not to make it as large as Mr MacGregor’s.’ (25th March 1836) St Mary’s, Bornish, built in 1838, turned out to be a replica of Ardkenneth, although on a smaller scale.

These churches, with the priest’s house as part of the building and on the same roof line, are referred to as ‘Bishop Scott churches’. He built six or seven of them in the Highlands and Islands but Ardkenneth is not one of them. It was built before Bishop Scott took charge of the Highland and Island part of the Western District and it may be more true to say that all these churches are ‘MacGregor churches’ following on from the design of Ardkenneth. The only one of them left in use as church and house is Ardkenneth although Glencoe church is still the original ‘Bishop Scott church’ opened in 1837.

Ardkenneth continued to develop. Iron gates were placed across the road up to the church and house at the points where the dry stone walls intersect the road. The stone pillars were erected at the intersection of the third set of walls giving the impression of entry to a farm and building of some consequence. The boundaries of the farm were marked by lines of stones and, somewhat unusually, these go from one headland to another out into Loch Bee.

In some ways, MacGregor can be seen as a gentleman farmer, an agricultural improver, but he was also a committed priest serving a large area. He performed over 100 baptisms a year – a figure that was halved after the clearances of 1849 – 1851. He journeyed everywhere on horseback in all weathers – from the villages on the east side, behind Beinn Mor, to the townships of Benbecula and beyond. He served a second chapel, a ‘tigh phopuill’ at Balivanich, but the centre was Ardkenneth and he and his work were maintained by the income from the farm.

Four priests of Ardkenneth

After 1836 he had a number of priests to assist him. These also assisted the priest at Bornish. The first, as we have already seen, was Donald MacDonald. He was followed in 1839 by Allan MacLean (Sagart beag na Spainne). A native of Arisaig, he had been removed as priest in charge of the mission of Barra due to complaints of excessive drinking. He was placed under the care of the Vicar General for the Isles, Fr John Chisholm, of Bornish. MacGregor didn’t think that there was any problem and MacLean seems to have worked very effectively for the twelve years that he was in Uist. In 1852 he became priest in charge at Fort Augustus but there the ‘wheels came off’! He was suspended for drink and was given leave to go to Nova Scotia. He worked in Judique, Nova Scotia, without any complaint from anyone, until his death in 1877. William MacDonnell, a nephew of John Chisholm, Bornish, helped at Ardkenneth between 1852 and 1855 and Colin MacPherson, a native of Inverness, from 1856 until his untimely death on Uist at 41 years of age in 1863. Donald MacColl, from Ardgour, came to help out in the Uist parishes from 1862 until 1867 and was to return to Ardkenneth as parish priest ten years later.

During Mac Gregor’s time there would have been a significantly large number of people working at Ardkenneth. In addition to the house staff of housekeeper and, at least, one maid, there would have been a number of people employed on the farm itself – a cattle man and plough man and other farm workers. There is evidence of lazy beds being cultivated at Ardkenneth; a large byre was built, and there was a farm workers cottage, the ruins of which are still to be seen.

James MacGregor, priest, farmer, vet, doctor, and midwife, died on 15th February 1867. The story is that he died after a fall from his horse. But, if that is the case, then the fall must have taken place sometime before that because he carried out his last recorded baptism 14 months before his death. He had served the people of Ardkenneth parish (from the north ford to Howbeg) for almost 40 years. His remains are buried at Howmore.

Not long afterwards, Fr John Chisholm, who had served the people of the south end of Uist for 48 years, died. These two priests, one from Highland Perthshire, the other from Strathglass, who had been born in the same year, 1790, had been in the seminary at Lismore together, and who served side-by-side in Uist for nearly forty years, died within months of each other.

Fr Donald MacKintosh, who had been an assistant at Bornish from 1861, succeeded Fr MacGregor as priest in charge of the Mission of Ardkenneth in 1867. It appears that he appointed farm managers or grieves to run the farm allowing himself to concentrate on the pastoral work in the vast area that he covered. We know who a couple of these early grieves were: John MacDonald (Iain Beag mac Ghillesbuig Alasdair) and Ranald MacEachen (mac Raoghaill Aonghais Raoghaill).

Donald MacKintosh was a native of Glenfinnan who had received his education in theology in Ratisbon in Germany. Ten years after arriving at Ardkenneth he moved to Benbecula and established the new parish there building first the house and then the church at Cnoc Fraoich.

The agricultural holdings belonging to the priest at Ardkenneth were expanding. In addition to Ardkenneth, he took on the tenancy of Holmar and what is now known as the Priest’s croft at Benbecula. Further expansion came about when the tenancy of a number of islands at Loch Carnan was added to Ardkenneth.

We have to remember that all this was held in the name of the priest and not in the name of the parish, far less the Diocese. Disputes were common between a priest who moved to a new parish and his successor as to what level of re-imbursement there would be for the cattle or furniture that the first one had paid for but which he couldn’t take with him. Frequently, the priest in charge of the Mission would hold a ‘roup’ before his successor arrived leaving him with nothing. The priest, too, could ‘hire and fire’ those who worked for him. Correspondence exists which shows that there was a particularly fierce squabble between MacKintosh and his successor, Donald MacColl, over the compensation that the former was due for the cattle that he had left at Ardkenneth.

Donald MacColl, another priest who did his studies in Germany, succeeded MacKintosh. He had served in Ardkenneth with MacGregor for the last five years of his life. In 1883 he presented the petition to the Napier Commission on behalf of the crofters of Eochar District. This petition contains much valuable information on the state of crofting in the district at that time and, while much of this information is common to other evidence laid before the Commissioners, some of it is quite particular to the Eochar district. MacColl says that the biggest grievance of the crofters is the number of cottars who are squatting on the crofts, who keep two or three cows, twenty sheep. These people pay neither rates nor school fees and do not even pay his own fees. He tells the panel that there are 880 Catholics living in the district and 250 Protestants. There are 250-300 cottars who pay nothing at all to anyone. Asked what he pays for rent, he replies £16 a year (modern equivalent is £1,406.00)

As part of recrimination of the Estate on the priests on South Uist, MacColl was threatened with eviction after giving evidence to the Commission. He survived the threat but it was a very serious matter. The church and house sat on the croft and without the croft, the church and house could be re-possessed by the Estate.

In 1887 MacColl was transferred to the Mission at Drimnin. He may have been ‘too hot too handle’, even for the Church. He, in turn, was succeeded by Fr Angus MacRae, who remained at Ardkenneth until 1903. In the re-organisation of the machair and the Hill Common, the priest at Ardkenneth held four shares in each, reflecting the four crofts originally held at Ardkenneth, but, perhaps more so, because the whole agricultural enterprise was seen as supporting the priest in his work in the parish.

MacRae, who came from Strathglass, seems to have had a rather uneventful time at Ardkenneth. He only ever served in two parishes in what was now the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, the other being Morar.

First Holy Communion, Ardkenneth 1920s

Fr Donald Walker arrived at Ardkenneth in 1903 and was priest there until his retirement in 1915. A native of Boisdale, he had previously served at Morar and Eigg. His sister, Marion, married Calum Morrison of Boisdale, the parents of two priests, Frs Padraig and Donald Morrison, and grandparents of Mgr Calum Morrison, Bornish, who was the uncle of Peggy Lexie. They had another son, Angus, (Peggy’s great uncle) who became grieve at Ardkenneth during the incumbency of his uncle. He married Kirsty MacMillan, who had inherited the croft at the bottom of Ardkenneth road, now tenanted by Ewen MacPhee. He and his wife emigrated to Canada after Fr Walker retired. The tenancy of Holmar was relinquished in Fr Walker’s time. In 1907 Holmar was turned into three crofts for ‘crofter-fishermen’. Fr Donald Walker was the first priest native to the island to have been appointed to the charge of Ardkenneth since the death of ‘Mgr Ruaraidh Gearradh Fluich’ in 1828.

Fr Willie Gillies was the priest at Ardkenneth throughout almost the whole of the First World War and into the period of the emigrations to Canada of 1924. This was a time of great sadness for the parish with over 30 men lost in the one action at the battle of Loos in 1915. After the War came the emigrations to Canada under Fr Andrew MacDonnell. Fr Willie Gillies trenchantly criticised the whole emigration scheme as ill organised with nothing but broken promises. 49 people from St Michael’s, Ardkenneth, having sold everything, had no choice but to go on the scheme despite the reservations of many.

Fr Willie Gillies at Ardivachar 1922

It is a pity that the priests of this time have such a reputation for severity and reserve in relation to their people. Willie Gillies, for instance, who came from Fort William, used to go around with a stick whacking children who were misbehaving, if he caught them. Yet he was also a great intellect and well known wit but amongst the clergy alone. He won a competition in Punch magazine for composing a limerick but had entered under another name.

Things were changing on the diocesan front. A new Bishop, Donald Martin, was appointed in 1919. He made Fr Hugh Cameron, the parish priest of Rothesay, his Vicar General. The Trusts (Scotland) Act was passed in 1921 which enabled the Diocese to become a Trust. Its corporate identity was recognised in law. Debts on parishes, which had become unpayable, were cancelled altogether by converting loans into grants. The churches and priests’ houses which were part of crofts were still in a very precarious position. If the croft was lost so, too, was the church and house!

Bishop Martin moved to purchase the ‘garden’ area of all the priests’ crofts in the Diocese. Ardkenneth church and house was amongst these and a feu was granted by Lady Gordon Cathcart in the early 1920s.

Fr James Galbraith succeeded Fr Willie Gillies in 1925 and remained at Ardkenneth until 1941 when he moved to Mingarry. He moved to Corpach in 1951, and then was in Morar before retiring. He died in 1979 in Prestwick.

Angus MacPhee was grieve at Ardkenneth during Fr Galbraith’s time and there seems to have been a fairly substantial staff during the 20s and 30s. But, as a parish, Ardkenneth diminished somewhat in status, at least, in relation to Benbecula and, especially, Daliburgh. In a church world which was marked by the promotion of priests from the smaller to the larger parishes, Ardkenneth was the place to which priests were sent on their first appointment. Daliburgh, in contrast, was seen as a promoted post whose parish priest could only be changed with the consent of Rome!

Ardkenneth continued to be worked as a ‘mixed’ farm – cattle; sheep on the hill; horses; and arable land. The farm income ‘supported’ the work of the priest but the number of people in the parish had declined rather dramatically from the reported 850 in 1885. War deaths, emigration, and migration had taken adversely affected the population level – a trend which continued throughout the twentieth century until today where there are no more than 250 registered parishioners.

This is priest-of-ardkennethperhaps a good place to stop our little historical journey because we are now entering the territory of ‘living memory’ and ‘living memory’ is no longer history.

A line of priests have followed Fr Galbraith: Fr Angus MacSween (1941–1946): Fr John Morrison (1946–1962); Fr John MacLean (1962 – 1974); Fr Colin MacInnes (1974 – 1979); Fr Roderick Wright (1979 – 1986); Fr Joseph Toal (1986 – 1991); Fr Roddy MacNeil (1991–2001); Fr Michael MacDonald (2001- ).

The farm has ‘moved’ exclusively to sheep. We no longer have a farm staff or, even, a housekeeper. The parish priest of Ardkenneth is also the parish priest of Bornish – a situation that is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future! We no longer have promoted posts for parish priests and no longer have, what one might call, ‘prestige parishes’. We no longer have the obligatory cart load of peat being delivered to Ardkenneth to support the priest. The priest, for the most part, runs his own domestic life. He cooks and buys his own food. But he has someone who handles all the parish financial and material administration – something that would have been unheard of in the past! The priest continues to work for the welfare of the broader community, perhaps not as vet and midwife as James MacGregor did, or fighting for the rights of crofters as Donald MacColl did, but by opening a co-operative or helping with the community buy-out of South Uist Estate. At Ardkenneth, the various priests have placed their gifts, time, and talents at the disposal of the people of the parish and of the wider community and Ardkenneth church itself remains, even today, an imposing structure on the landscape – the head and mother of the churches in the Western Isles.

Paper given by Fr. Michael MacDonald, Ceolas Symposium, 2014

Interior, Ardkenneth Church