Church Life on Mingulay

Mingulay from sea.jpg



Permanence and change

 At the outset of this talk, I want to thank the Islands Book Trust for giving me the opportunity to say something about the Church and Mingulay, part of the Barra mission. These days, I suppose, it is relatively rare for the aspect of Church history to be considered important enough for it to be included in such a conference: Church history often being perceived to be the story of clergymen and Church structures and, therefore, slightly esoteric. But, in the case of the island of Mingulay and its people, and, indeed, this would be true of anywhere in the Western Isles and many other communities world wide, the faith life or the Church Life of the people of the community was a determinant factor in the way in which they lived their lives and in their personal and social consciousness, and influenced the way in which the community changed and adapted to change.

A Definition of ‘Church Life’

 I would like to begin this presentation by outlining what we mean by ‘Church life’. ‘Church’ life or ‘religious’ life is a part of the identity of a people which, although partly constant, evolves and changes according to time and circumstance.  This general description is true of the group of people who lived over the centuries on the island of Mingulay. From the time of the first Christian missionaries, they have been a Catholic people but, while the central elements of that Catholic faith remained constant, its manner of expression evolved.

Some of these constant features in Catholic ‘Church life’ would be: adherence to the scriptures; adherence to the main tenets and doctrines of the faith; a devotional prayer life; adherence to the sacramental life of the Church with particular emphasis on the central importance of the Eucharist; adherence to the hierarchical structure of the Church and adherence to an appropriate moral life both as individuals and as a community.

Features which might be considered to be distinctive or which can change according to time and circumstance would be: a distinctive prayer and devotional life; methods of handing on the faith; ways in which the believing community reacts to changing social circumstances; church discipline.

The ‘Church’ life of any community, then,  which can be described as part of the Catholic Church will have features which it shares in common with the universal Church while, at the same time, it will, indeed, ‘rejoice’ in many distinctive features.

Awareness of this principle of how the Catholic Church understands itself is essential, I believe, for understanding and appreciating how we can meaningfully describe the ‘Church’ life of a community and for appreciating what influence, if any, the life of faith has on the way in which a community acts and reacts in relation to its own social circumstances.

Next page: the visit of Fr. Allan MacDonald 1898

The Visit of Fr Allan MacDonald 1898


As we turn to the specific case of ‘Church life’ on the island of Mingulay, I want to stapic8.jpgrt our reflection by  sharing with you the content of Fr Allan MacDonald of Eriskay’s visit to Mingulay from 13th to 20th June 1898 as described in his unpublished diary which covers the period from September 1897 to July 1898.

June 13th Monday. Got to bed at 2am and wakened at 5.30 by Mingulay man. Boat didn’t leave till 7.30. Day glorious and calm with hardly a breaker. Falling asleep on boat. Arrived about midday. Fog overtook us between Mingulay and Pabbay. Stayed at Finlayson’s for food, but slept in Chapel on improvised bedstead.

June 14th Tuesday Boilingly hot. Finlayson returned. Teacher who has been 39 years on the island – most entertaining and sociable. He belongs to Lochcarron. His grandmother was a Catholic. Story of his great-uncle who was guarding the prince in the mountain and had a dog. He saw the soldiers coming and cut the dog’s throat before it could bark. The Prince thought this mad but he pointed to the soldiers below. He takes an interest in plants and ornithology. He says there are six flowering plants in Mingulay. Has been in correspondence with Harvey Brown.

June 15th Wednesday Still hot. Searching for remnant of old cross at Crois an t-Suidheachain but failed to find a trace. Measured the remains of what appeared to be monastic cells at this spot. Michael Macneil later on informed me that there was a leabaidh cràbhaidh. ‘a bed of devotion’ (probably a cell) at this spot. Hearing confessions. Examining ashpits of old village that existed before the plague killed off all the inhabitants – found a broken spoon of bone and lots of rough clay pots.

June 16th Thursday Said Mass in the schoolhouse. H.M.S Vigilant arrived with Piers Commissioners. Didn’t see them as I didn’t know who they were. Day beautiful. Climbed up to see the big precipice. Boiling hot. Picked up wild flowers. Fr Chisholm arrived. Bishop hopeless. Sr R again just as everything was about settled. Two entirely different things. What times we live in. Fr Chisholm disgusted and I no less so. Hopelessness is so dreadful. Confessions about 40 and Instruction as usual.

June 17th Friday Sacred Heart. Mass and Confessions and scouring of house superintended. About 40. Weather hot.

June 18th Saturday Confessions. Chapel scoured. Slept tonight in kitchen of new house. Kept pretty busy.

 June 19th Sunday Said the first Mass said in St Columba’s, Mingulay. Altar and chapel decorated with wild flowers. Natives pleased and no wonder. House and chapel so appropriate. Communicated infirm woman and heard Confirmandis’ confessions till 10.30. Quite tired. Evening wet.

 June 20th Monday Mass and Communion. Communicated 2 infirm old women. Wet and wildish.  Bishop, Fr Chisholm, MacKenzie, and company arrived per puffer about 1pm. Confirmation preceded by a clerical rendering of the Veni Creator and an English Instruction by the Bishop. 44 confirmed – more than one third of them Campbell’s. Took down Mingulay place names previously. Luncheon and sail off. Bishop gets word of his brother’s death. I tackled him about res Uistiae (Uists matters) – but find him hopeless. He promises an enquiry and that’s all – but if that same be carried out!

 June 21st Tuesday At Castlebay. Seedy. Wet.

 June 22nd Wednesday Ditto. Fr Saville and Mackenzie came and sit up till 2.30am with them. He and Bishop depart shortly after 3.

 June 23rd Thursday Seedy of course. Didn’t go out all day. Reading about Hebridean missionaries and taking notes from Scotochronicon with Fr Chisholm.

 June 24th Friday Had a walk to Craigston. Calm dull moist day. Fr Mackenzie in good form.

 June 25th Saturday Sailed from Castlebay per Eriskay fishing boat at 10.30am and arrived in Eriskay at 7pm. Very tired. Calm and head winds and finally a stiff breeze and wet. A pile of letters – about a dozen.

 A fortnight after he had left Eriskay, Fr Allan finally returned.

As readers of this account, we may find ourselves being struck by the difficulty of travel, or by his references to his own weakness, or that he records a visit of the Piers’ Commissioners to the island. The ‘hopelessness of the Bishop’ might be considered to be a commonly voiced complaint amongst priests were it not for the seriousness of the situation that he refers to. The nuns at the Bute Hospital in Daliburgh had held a reception for the First Communion children in the Hospital which had been set up as a non-denominational facility. The priests were concerned that the Lady Gordon Cathcart would view this incident as a breach of agreement and the people would lose the hospital. It was a case of recklessness and insensitivity. However interesting that story might be, it isn’t directly connected to Mingulay although there is an indirect connection. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the ‘Church life’ on Mingulay and it is on those elements of Fr Allan’s account that I would like to concentrate.

He records the celebration of the sacrament of Confirmation on Monday, 21st June. He records  also his own personal pride at being the first person to say Mass in the new church the day before. He records, too, the number of Confessions and the preparation of the Priest’s House. He also states: ‘Natives pleased and no wonder. House and chapel so appropriate’.

Next page: St. Columba

St Columba

The new church has a dedication – to St Columba – a name redolent of an earlier age of faith and also redolent of the continuing devotion to the saint who had become the Patron of the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, which had been re-formed in 1878.  It was also the name of the saint particularly associated with Mingulay.

This does not mean that St Columba ever visited Mingulay. There is no evidence that he did. The evangelisation of the Western seaboard of Scotland was carried out by a large number of Celtic missionaries who were initially established at Iona, Lismore, Eigg, and other centres. The cult of Columba superseded all the others largely due to the fact that he had a biographer – Adamnan, the fourth Abbot of Iona.

Evidently, in the consciousness of the priests and the people the opening of the new church was the high point of the development of ‘Church life’ on Mingulay. An event which, as Fr Allan puts it, the ‘natives’ have a right to be proud of. They are pleased with what they have achieved.  Yet within fourteen years of this happy and proud event, the whole population had left the island.


Next page: Awareness of the ancient  distinctive spirituality – ‘clash’ of methods of catechesis

Awareness of the Ancient – Distinctive Spirituality – ‘Clash’ of Methods of Catechesis


Fr Allan records in his account that he has the sites of the physical remains of a more ancient faith community pointed out to him and it is clear that there is a strong awareness within the community of their connection to this earlier community of faith. He searches for monastic cells but can’t find any. He and other collectors (especially Carmichael) had gone to considerable lengths to preserve the prayers and devotions of the people, which were both thoroughly Catholic although distinctive. Their spirituality was characterised by the infusion of prayers into every area of life – work, daily chores, scared places and times. They had a profound and distinctive devotion to the Trinity, to Our Lady, St Bride, St Michael, and St Columba.Iona cross2.jpg

The Gaelic community’s method of handing on the faith was principally through story and myth. Fr Allan remarks that while on Mingulay he had given ‘Instruction’ to those preparing to receive the sacrament of Confirmation. These ‘instructions’ were routinely given to all the faith communities in the Church at this time and for many years afterwards. They were formal in nature and a fixed content had to be delivered mostly from the catechism of Bishop Hay, which had been published a hundred years before. Fr Allan himself was conscious of the limitation of this method of helping people to be informed about the content of their faith. He says in another part of his diary that he wishes he could weave a good story to hold the people’s attention like the catechist dancer master, MacLaughlin, was able to do and doesn’t blame his own people when they fall asleep during instruction!

There is, therefore, strong evidence of a ‘clash’ at this time between different methods of handing on the faith – a clash which is not one of language, nor of intelligence, but one of method and different ways of thinking. Within the Catholic Church in the Highlands and Islands one, perhaps more anglicised or Latinised, method of instruction began to replace the other Gaelic method. The weakening of the awareness of the value of the distinctive prayers and the distinctive spirituality of the Gaelic speaking parts of Diocese can, I believe, be traced to the perceived superiority of essentially continental devotions and, shall I describe them as, English-thinking methods of teaching. Fr Allan’s diary entries show this ‘clash’. On the one hand, he is taken to the places which are associated with the earlier Christian communities and this is done with evident pride in association while, on the other hand, he records that he gives instruction to the people; the clergy sing the Veni Creator at the beginning of the Confirmations; and he celebrates the Feast of the Sacred Heart with due solemnity. Yet what essentially links this community both to its predecessors and to its contemporaries in other parts of the world is consistent – the celebration of the sacraments; confession, confirmation, the Eucharist; the preaching of the Word; apostolic authority in the person of the Bishop.

Next page: the School

The ‘Church Life’ of Mingulay and the School

 This process of the replacement of one way of perceiving what was important and what not, or what was valuable and what not, with another way of perceiving things is also to be found in the history of the school.

The school opened as a Board School on 16th November 1875. This school replaced the previous school, opened by the Ladies Highland Association in 1851. John Finlayson, from Lochcarron, who had trained for the ministry in the Free Church, was the teacher. This Free Church school was one of many which had been opened by the Free Church after its split from the Church of Scotland in 1843. The Free Church’s motivation for setting up schools was to provide education but also to open centres of evangelisation. In attempting to achieve this second aim, the Free Church schools in the Catholic communities of the Highlands and Islands failed. As a vehicle of evangelisation, the school certainly failed on Mingulay. John Finlayson, the highly regarded headteacher, married a local person in a Catholic ceremony in 1871 shortly after the Free Church school closed. Finlayson had gone ‘native’! Fr Allan, interestingly, refers in his diary entry to Finlayson’s grandmother being Catholic.


Remains of Mingulay Schoolhouse

While education was provided at the Free Church school, there is evidence that the community did not always fall into line with what was expected of them. For instance, on Feast days, the children would all be kept away from school. This practice continued even after the Board School was established after the passage of the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872. John Finlayson remarks in the School Log Book in December of 1875 that ‘a holiday occurred on Thursday, the population in this locality being entirely Roman Catholic’. While there were many different social reasons for children not attending school (e.g. a tragic death within the community), the reason, in this instance, for the complete absence of pupils would have been the new feast of the Immaculate Conception, instituted in 1854.


The 1872 Act established Board Schools throughout Scotland. One of the provisions of the Act was that school attendance was compulsory for those aged 5 – 13. Religious instruction could be given outside school hours but in the school building. The Boards, which ran the schools, were elected from amongst the ratepayers of the area and the Board had powers to place the cost of running the schools on the local rates.


The Catholic Church in Scotland, which had been running its own schools as private schools, opted to remain outside the system. However, in the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles the response was more equivocal. Where private Catholic schools had been previously established, these remained outwith the national system until the passage of the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act which permitted faith schools to be maintained through taxes. This was not possible under the 1872 Act. In Catholic areas of the mainland of the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, School Boards appointed Catholic teachers to the schools. This was not the case, though, on the Long Island estate of Lady Gordon Cathcart, which took in the islands of Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra, and the Barra Islands. From the beginning of the establishment of Board Schools on these islands, the Administrative Boards appointed solely Protestant teachers.


A number of devices were used to achieve this end, all of them disreputable. On Barra, the School Board was made up of the Estate factor, the parish minister, the doctor, one of the priests (in this instance Fr John MacDonald, parish priest of Craigston, who came originally from South Uist). In other words – an inbuilt Protestant majority who were determined to appoint only Protestant teachers. There was a ‘head-on’ collision between Fr MacDonald and the Estate factor, Ranald MacDonald. The correspondence between the two became increasingly acrimonious with the Factor finally accusing Fr John MacDonald of seeking to promote religious division. The Bishop, Angus MacDonald, intervened on the side of Fr MacDonald and wrote what can only be described as a masterpiece of a letter to the Factor, arguing persuasively that the Factor was the one who was encouraging religious division by denying to the Catholics of the Long Island their rights that were enshrined in law and which the government permitted elsewhere in the country.

Next page: the Napier Commission

The Napier Commission – securing crofters rights in the land question and securing the peoples’ rights in education provision.

Lady Gordon Cathcart had determined that she wanted to develop Castlebay as a fishing port, along with Loch Skipport and Lochboisdale on South Uist, as her first steps in attempting to turn her Estate into a replica of Cluny Estate in Aberdeenshire with its planned fishing towns and its tenant farming population. She ploughed a large amount of money into developing these facilities on South Uist and Barra.

Everything came to a head with the visit of the Napier Commission to the islands in 1883. Crofters and priests made their submissions. The priests concentrated on the schools question and on what should be done to rectify the plight of the crofters and to deal with the problem of the large numbers of cottars living rent free on crofts.

The Bishop set out the guidelines for his people in his Pastoral Letter of 1883. They were always to act within the law and were to avoid any association with agitators. The Bishop was fearful that a link might be established between what the Church was fighting for and the Land League movement with its links to the Irish Land League, and, thereby give credence to the establishment claim that the pressure for reform was all the work of agitators. The Bishop urged his people to stay within the law and to follow the advice of their priests. He himself submitted all his correspondence with the Factor to the Commission.

frsandymackintosh.bmpThe most articulate of those who made submission to the Napier Commission (both verbal and written) was the 26 year old parish priest of Daliburgh, Fr Sandy MacIntosh (pictured left). A native of Arisaig and a first cousin of Fr Allan’s, Fr Sandy argued before the Commission that crofters should be given security of tenure, fair rents should be established, and that crofters should be paid compensation for improvements made to their crofts. He also argued that the large farms should be broken up and that each crofter should be given an adequate amount of land.

The reaction of Lady Cathcart and her Factor to the public ‘shaming’ of Estate practices was swift. Fr Sandy MacIntosh (taken to be the ringleader) was accused of fomenting religious division. Lady Gordon Cathcart refused to spend any more money improving the lot of her people on the Long Island Estate and she began to encourage emigration and she herself sponsored emigration schemes. Fr Donald MacColl at Ardkenneth was threatened with eviction. Fr John MacIntosh, parish priest of Bornish, the redoubtable defender of the crofters and scourge of the farmers, was also threatened with eviction in 1898.



Fr James Chisholm, from Strathglass originally and another contemporary of Fr Allan’s at the Scots College in Spain, built the new church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in Castlebay in 1888, anticipating the development of the village as a fishing port. He took over reponsibility for Mingulay from Fr John MacDonald.

As members of the School Board they are recorded as visiting the school fairly regularly. In the School Board elections after the Napier Commission hearings Catholics were returned and held the majority on all the School Boards within the Estate area. But they did something which was both wise and unexpected. They kept all the Protestant teachers in place and only replaced them with Catholic teachers when they retired or when they left.

Next page: the school becomes a Catholic school in all but name

Mingulay School becomes a Catholic School in all but name

Returning to the specifics of the island of Mingulay, the comment in the Log Book of Mingulay School at its opening as a Board School is indicative –’30 children – all beginners, not one knowing the alphabet but willing to learn’. In March, Fr John MacDonald, priest on Barra and the only Catholic member of the School Board expresses ‘great astonishment at the progress of the children, placed under so many disadvantages and whose average appearances at school does not extend beyond 180 attendances’.

While secular education began to improve in its scope and relevance – navigation was introduced as a specific subject, as was Gaelic – the priests on the School Board visited the school regularly. The sub-school on Berneray closed in 1888.

From the school log it can be ascertained that there was an inconsistent use of Gaelic in the school. Even the inspectors themselves moved from recommending in 1882 that ‘constant use should be made of the Gaelic language in cultivating an intelligent comprehension of the reading lessons’ to remarking in 1887 ‘that the Gaelic language is judiciously and successfully used to promote an intelligent comprehension of English and there is much in the oral examination which merits great praise’ to the inspector stating in 1898 that the teacher should ‘never talk Gaelic except when absolutely necessary’.

Finlayson, who was held in very high esteem, resigned his post in May 1897 after a bout of illness which had lasted a fortnight. The School Board, by this time predominantly Catholic in composition, notes in the Minutes of its Meeting: ‘The Board accepts Mr Finlayson’s resignation with great regret and wish to record the high estimation entertained by them for his valuable services and their great appreciation of the increasing care and assiduity with which he applied himself to the duties of his position’.


The Board found a Catholic teacher in 1901 who lasted for two years and was replaced by the redoubtable Mrs Margaret McShane. She, incidentally, was the great aunt of Fr Joe Mc Shane, a retired priest of the present Diocese of Argyll and the Isles.  She remained teacher until the school closed on 30th April 1910. For the last 9 years of the existence of the school, Catholic education had been established on Mingulay and one of the aims of Bishop MacDonald and his priests in the 1880s had been achieved.

Some of the children at the school did very well. John MacNeil received a merit certificate in 1900. The Inspectors reported in 1906 that ‘the general condition of the school continues to reflect much credit on the teacher’.

But then comes the note of melancholy. From July 1st 1907 she reports that ‘some scholars have gone to reside in a neighbouring island (Vatersay)’. From then until the closure of the school she regularly records that children are leaving and occasionally coming back only to leave again.

But there is no doubt that education over the years had increased the aspirations of the people of Mingulay, had made them more aware of what was going on in the world outside the island. People, too, were moving away for paid work to return when they were needed – a common enough feature of the lives of the island people.

Next page: the opening of the church

The Opening of the Church – Optimism ‘masking’ the root causes of decline

But the optimism which characterised the opening of the Church in 1908 masked the root causes of the eventual abandonment of the island. The newly opened Church had been built due to the generosity of a Castlebay merchant. Fr Allan and Fr James Chisholm had even discussed the appointment of a resident priest on Mingulay. But we recall that Lady Gordon Cathcart had stated that after the shaming of the Estate at the Napier Commission she was spending no more money on improvements. She had developed Castlebay, Lochboisdale, and Loch Skipport as fishing ports – there was to be no place for Mingulay. Mingulay was economically squeezed. In addition, Mingulay had a very bad reputation for not paying croft rents, even after rents had been significantly reduced by the Crofters Commission. No sympathy then could be expected from that quarter.

The Congested Districts Board, which had been set up in 1897, built a jetty and slip on St Kilda, after being petitioned by the people, between 1899 and 1901, using local labour. The people of Mingulay had petitioned the Secretary of State for Scotland in 1896 for a pier. The most that Mingulay got was a crane to lift supplies from boats. I suspect that the Estate was not going to permit the establishment of a pier, which would have been in competition with Castlebay and for which no revenue would have come to the Estate.

Land reform was supported by the Church at the time of the Napier Commission. Congestion in certain areas of the Long Island estate had been an issue raised before the Napier Commission by the priests. Bishop MacDonald had instructed that his people were to remain within the law and were not to associate themselves with agitators for fear that they would be connected to Fenianism or would be exposed to alien ideologies. This instruction continued to form the opinions and actions of both clergy and people for many years afterwards. Fr Allan MacDonald admits in his diary to being a supporter of John Murdoch, the great Highland land reformer. We recall that Fr Sandy MacIntosh had called for the break-up of the farms in his evidence to the Napier Commission in 1883. Lady Gordon Cathcart proposed emigration as the solution for overcrowding and poverty – a ‘solution’ which the clergy trenchantly opposed.

Land raiding broke out across the Long Island estate toward the end of the 19th century and became endemic after the return of the Liberal government in the landslide election victory in 1906. While raiding was motivated by the awareness of congestion, poverty, and lack of economic opportunity, there was also a very strong sense amongst the raiders that they were claiming what was their own. On the Long Island Estate the raiding was characterised by non-violence. There was no need for troops or gunships as had happened in other areas of the Highlands and Islands not many years before. This was a position with which the clergy were entirely sympathetic.

Early on the government had made the decision that land raiding was to be treated as a civil offence and not as a criminal offence. The response of the Estate was to serve interdicts on the raiders. But this was a costly business from Lady Gordon Cathcart’s point of view.

The landless cottars of Mingulay eventually took part in the raids on the neighbouring islands of Sandray and Vatersay perhaps inspired by what had been going on elsewhere and certainly aware of the poverty, lack of resources, isolation, and inaccessibility of Mingulay. Fr Allan remarked that he himself had been ‘trapped’ on Mingulay for seven weeks. There was also the incentive of successes which occurred elsewhere – the establishment of the new settlement of Gerinish under the Congested Districts Board in 1907 and the break-up of Northbay Farm, also under the Congested Districts Board.


That the clergy of Barra supported the raiders is clear. Fr Donald Martin, the future Bishop, at this time parish priest in Castlebay, allowed the meetings of

the raiders to take place after Sunday Mass. Fr Hugh Cam

eron, the newly appointed parish priest of Castlebay, and the future war hero of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, celebrated Mass for the Vatersay raiders in 1906

on a hill called ‘Beannachan’. The Vatersay raiders built the church on that site in 1913 and included in the church the altar rails from the church of St Columba’s on Mingulay. They were all aware of their connectedness to a holy place, to Mingulay, and to their faith.


Mingulay church ruin.JPG

Remains of the church at the turn of the century.

Following many severe gales, the building is

now no more than a pile of stones.
Next page: concluding thoughts


‘Church life’ on Mingulay, then, is a crucial component in understanding the values of a community; in understanding what for them was of permanent value and what was, in the end, ephemeral. It determined their identity, the way in which they related to one another, to their past, present, and future. It coped with new ideas and new methods of transmitting the faith and yet held on to what was permanent and essential. It was one of the inspirations which made them strive for justice and determined the dignity of the people, even in poverty and isolation, and the manner in which they conducted themselves.


mingulay bay.jpg

Mingulay is a sacred island because of the remnants that remain there of the lives and deaths of its inhabitants, ancient and more modern. But Mingulay in its present state is a reminder, too, that the faith life of a people is not ultimately attached to buildings or even places, no matter how remarkable. ‘Church life’ is embedded in people, in the living community, which travels through time and circumstance, adapting and changing, and clinging to the essentials which in reality are few but decisive. In that sense, Mingulay lives on.