Our Lady of the Isles
To give honour to the Blessed Virgin Mary is as natural to the people of the Gaeltachd as breathing the air. As well as being expressed in the personal and community prayer of the people, it is also expressed in their language and in their description of everyday things. The Gael sees no boundary between the world of faith and the secular world – every thing and every event may be pervaded by the grace of God which in practice is principally obtained through the intercession and protection of Mary, the Mother of God. Especially in times of trouble or threat the Gael places special reliance on her power of intercession and looks to her for safety and refuge.
In Scots Gaelic there is a special name for the Virgin Mary which is used for her alone – “Moire” (Mary). The ordinary word for Mary is “Mairi” but this word is never used to denote the Virgin Mary. Her special place in the lives and culture of the people demands a special name. On the lips of many Gaelic speakers today can be regularly heard the phrase “A Mhoire” (By Mary).
Innumerable blessings, hymns, religious songs, legends, and pious customs relating to “Moire Mhin Mhathar” (Sweet Mother Mary) form the great majority of all the collected material of Gaelic folklore in the Isles. Mary’s name is to be found in connection with plants, nuts, birds, and the sea itself, called “cuilidh Moire” (Mary’s Treasury). All of life was permeated by devotion to the Blessed Virgin: “safe delivery” into the world was attributed to her protection as was “safe passage” to the world to come.
The relatively modern hymns of Donald John MacDonald, mostly composed in the late 1970s, beautifully and powerfully express the depth of devotion of the island people to Our Lady:
A Mhoire mhìn-gheal, a mhéinn nan gràsan,
Do dh’aona Mhac Dhè bu tu fhèin a mhàthair:
Stiuir mo cheum-sa tro rè mo làithean
Air sligh’ an dòchais gu sòlas Phàrrais.
Fair gentle Mary, rich source of grace,
You were the mother of God’s only begotten Son:
Guide my footsteps throughout my days
On the journey of hope to the joy of Paradise.
(translation: John Campbell)
Fishermen marked their devotion to the Mother of God, and their unswerving belief in her power to protect them from danger, in the names that they gave to their fishing boats: Morning Star, Reul na Mara, and Ocean Star.
But on land there was little tangible evidence of the peoples’ devotion other than the naming of churches. The Rosary was recited both privately and publicly but there was no need to “declare tangibly” for all to see what had been previously held in the bosom of the faith and the culture.
This all changed after the Second World War. In the late 1940s the Ministry of Defence announced its intention to establish a RocketRange on the island of South Uist. Initially, the proposal was welcomed as it would bring much need jobs to the island but this stance changed when it was realised what the scale of the establishment was intended to be. There was to be a new military town, along with facilities for the construction of missiles. The development was to extend from Sollas in North Uist to Bornish in South Uist with its centre in the parish of Ardkenneth. It was to be something similar to the army training centre at Salisbury Plain. People and their activities were to be ‘removed’ from the military area.
Resistance to the proposal was led by Canon John Morrison (“Father Rocket”), the energetic Parish Priest of Ardkenneth. He realised that if the development on the scale anticipated went ahead, not only would his parish be effectively destroyed, but a distinctive way of life, language, and culture would be in serious jeopardy. He mustered political support and ran a highly effective campaign in the national media opposing the intended development. At the same time, he supervised the building of the wayside shrines to the Blessed Virgin Mary which are a unique feature of Ardkenneth Parish to this day. These are not just expressions of the devotion of the people but they were deliberately placed alongside the intended military roads to remind ‘strangers’ that they were now in a ‘different’ place.
The perceived threat to the distinctive faith, language, and culture of the people which the proposal for the militarization of large tracts of South Uist would be prompted a tide of prayer of intercession for the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In conjunction with the Marian Year of 1954, the statue of Our Lady went round the houses and villages of Ardkenneth and Bornish parishes where neighbours would come together for the recitation of the rosary.
It was during the same Marian Year of 1954 that permission to use the title ‘Our Lady of the Isles’ (Moire ro Naomh nan Eilean; Ban -Tighearna nan Eilean) was obtained from Archbishop William Godfrey, Apostolic Delegate to Great Britain.
Then Canon Morrison began his final and his most ambitious project – a shrine was to be built to Our Lady of the Isles on the island of South Uist. The site for the statue was selected deliberately – the hill of Rueval. There it would overlook much of the island and, in particular, it would overlook the proposed military facility. He commissioned one of the foremost sculptors of the day, Hew Lorimer, to carry out the work. The statue was intended to be both an expression of the devotion of the people of the parishes of South Uist to the Blessed Virgin Mary but was also intended to be a public and permanent reminder to ‘strangers’ that they were entering a ‘different’ world. People of all denominations supported the project through fundraising and the giving of their labour to construct the road and the foundations for the forty ton statue. The first work of Hew Lorimer stands in the grounds of St Michael’s, Ardkenneth. It was then ‘scaled up’ to the 25ft height that the statue on Rueval has today.
The project was completed in 1957 and the statue was dedicated on the Feast of the Assumption 1958. On the day of dedication there was an honour guard of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders through which passed the visiting clergy, an Archbishop, two Bishops, Canons and Monsignors, a choir of schoolchildren sang, and it rained almost incessantly.
Eight months later, in April 1959, the announcement was made by the Ministry of Defence that the rocket range development proposal was to be much scaled down. It was to be a missile testing and firing range with mostly visiting military personnel. There was to be no ‘new‘ town and no removal of people.
For the past fifty years ‘the Range’, as it is popularly known locally, has been an undoubted blessing for the people of these islands. It has brought much needed, well-paid employment and far from ‘destroying’ the distinctive faith, language, and culture of the people, the process of assimilation has led to many service personnel choosing to make their home here when their time of military service was over. The Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Isles, has protected her people and brought them great blessings.
The portable statues of Our Lady still go round the houses and villages of Ardkenneth and Bornish Parishes and the Rosary is still recited. The wayside shrines of Ardkenneth parish are still lovingly cared for. ‘Statue Rueval’ stands against the backdrop of radar domes: Our Lady of the Isles, with her beloved Son’s hand raised in blessing for the people of these islands. Through her intercession, she protects us, delivers us from threat, and enables the blessings of her Son to be bestowed upon us. Perhaps, too, her presence on the hill of Rueval reminds another generation of ‘strangers’ that they are entering a distinctive world of faith, language, and culture, where deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is still as natural to the people as breathing the air.