Fr Hugh Cameron

I first came in contact, in a sort of way, with Fr Hugh Cameron on 2nd November, 1972 – All Souls Day. I had arrived in Rome as a student at the Scots College early in the previous September, not yet eighteen years of age, and this was my first visit to the College grave at the cemetery of Campo Verano next to the Basilica of San Lorenzo. I knew that my mother’s uncle, Neil Maclellan, from Eigg, had been buried there. He had come out to study for the priesthood in October 1919 after service in the First World War but had died in January 1920 from complications associated with the Spanish ‘Flu. I noticed on the opposite side of the memorial that also buried in that tomb was Monsignor Hugh Cameron of the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles. I prayed for him along with the others entombed there as I did each time I visited the cemetery over the next seven years.

I next came in contact with him, in a sense, when I was appointed to Rothesay in 1982. The old people could still remember him for his kindness, one, a Mrs Brown, telling me that he paid for piano lessons for her because her family was too poor to afford to pay for them.

So, who was he and what did he do that makes him so special, at least in my eyes?

He was born at Inver-roy, Roybridge, on 20th April 1876, son of Ewen Cameron and Janet Campbell. In 1890 he went to Blairs along with Donald MacKintosh (the future Rector of the Scots College, Rome, and Archbishop of Glasgow) and James Barry (the future parish priest of Glencoe). In 1894 he went to Rome, not to study at the Scots College but to study at the College of Propaganda Fidei, where the future Bishop MacPherson was to study.

In 1898 he had to return home due to ill health and spent a number of months at home before going to St Peter’s College, Bearsden, at Easter 1899 and then to Saint Sulpice in Paris in October of that same year. In his obituary in the Tablet the author wisely comments: ‘This varied college career was an indication of a somewhat delicate constitution; and during the thirty years of his priesthood Monsignor Cameron, in his work for souls, was perhaps too often tempted to measure his strength by his zeal and to forget the limited nature of his resisting powers.’

He was ordained at Oban on 29th June, 1900, the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul. After ordination, he was in Fort William for a year as assistant to Canon Sandy MacKintosh and then was parish priest in Laggan (1902-1903); Benbecula(1903-1908); Castlebay (1908-1921). His time at Castlebay was interrupted by his war service (1914-1919). Then he became parish priest in Rothesay (1921-1929) and, finally, he went back to Laggan (1929-31)

While in Castlebay he was notable for his support for the crofters in their land struggles and particularly for his support for the ‘Vatersay raiders’. He celebrated the first Mass on Vatersay after they had occupied the island. While parish priest of Castlebay he volunteered to serve in the Army as chaplain to the Lovat Scouts. He joined on 3rd December 1914 and served overseas from July 1915 until December 1918. The Catholic chaplains always served on the front lines, often as stretcher bearers. Hugh Cameron left a diary of his time at Gallipoli which was published a few years ago and he is mentioned in Fergie MacDonald’s biography of his father where his father describes how one day, under heavy shelling, the chaplain sought shelter alongside him in a foxhole. Fr Cameron saw service also in Egypt, Salonika, and Palestine.

He was nominated as Bishop of Argyll and the Isles in November 1917 and, as I mentioned yesterday, he declined the appointment.

When he left the Army in 1919, he was appointed parish priest of St Andrew’s, Rothesay, a position which he held until 1929. During his time at Rothesay the Marquess of Bute decided he wanted to build a new church and chapel house and to gift them to the parish. Fr Cameron opposed the whole idea saying that the burden of repairs and renewals would fall on the parish. How right he was! As far as he was concerned, there was nothing wrong with the old church which, incidentally, is still in use today as ‘Bute Looms’. The new church, built in the design of a Byzantine Basilica, was opened in 1925.

In 1919 Fr Cameron was appointed Vicar General by Bishop Martin and took charge of putting the diocesan administration and finances in good order. This he achieved very quickly.

His relationship with the Marquess of Bute was strained and he resigned as Vicar General in 1925. A few years later, he left Rothesay to return to his first parish, Laggan. Although he was meant to take things easier, he set about building a new church and house at Kingussie, moving the centre of the parish away from the remote and exposed position at Laggan. The church at Kingussie was nearly finished and was due to open in the summer of 1931. One of its most significant benefactors, a Mrs Stephens, was in Italy in the late winter of 1931. Monsignor Cameron went on holiday in February 1931, intending to visit her at Fiesole.

After journeying to Rome, she was suddenly taken ill and died in the ‘Blue Nuns’ hospital in the city on 4th March. As the Tablet announcement states: ‘By a melancholy coincidence, the death of Mrs. Stephens was followed, on Sunday last (8th March), in the same hospital, by that of her great friend Monsignor Hugh Cameron, Provost of the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles.’ He was 55 years of age.

I have attached a number of pictures to this post: Fr Cameron in military uniform; Monsignor Cameron as parish priest of Rothesay; First Communions in Rothesay in 1923 or 1924; two pictures of the opening of St Andrew’s, Rothesay, in 1925.

So, there he is – Hugh Cameron! Definitely in my top ten of the priests of the Highlands and Islands, maybe even in my top five just because as his Tablet obituary says: ‘during the thirty years of his priesthood Monsignor Cameron, in his work for souls, was perhaps too often tempted to measure his strength by his zeal and to forget the limited nature of his resisting powers.

Fr Hugh Cameron in military uniform. This is a posed studio photograph which would have been sent to his relatives prior to his embarkation overseas in case they never saw him again.

Article by Fr. Michael J. MacDonald