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a soon-to-be-published biography of Fr Allan MacDonald; and, finally, Alasdair Roberts of Morar on whose published and unpublished work I have drawn.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.

In 1731 the Scottish Mission was divided into two parts – the Highland and the Lowland Vicariates. The Highland Vicariate had a new Bishop – Hugh MacDonald from Morar. The geographical dividing line between the two Districts was from Dumbarton to Elgin with a ‘bulge’ to take in the district around Braemar. The basis of the division was language: the Highland Vicariate was Gaelic speaking. It contained 85% of the Catholic population of Scotland, around 14,000 people, but had only twelve priests out of a total of thirty six in the whole country.

The previous forty years (1690-1730) had seen a period of sustained, peaceful growth in the Church In the Highlands and Islands largely through the efforts of Bishop Gordon and, although the small seminary at Morar had been destroyed after the failure of the 1715 Jacobite rising, there was little persecution or destruction of the way of life of the Catholic population until the aftermath of the 1745 rising.

Alexander Forrester was the first priest appointed to the Uist Mission after the formation of the Highland Vicariate. He was born in 1701 of Protestant parents, Alexander Forrester and Christina MacKenzie, at Cuil nan Allt in Cromarty in the county of Ross. As a young man he studied law in Edinburgh and while there he came into contact with a group of Catholics. Influenced by them, he decided to become a Catholic himself and was received into the Church in Paris in 1726. He became a student for the priesthood and studied at the Scots College, Rome, where he was ordained on 23rd April 1732.

On arrival in Scotland he went to Scalan and there he received his appointment to South Uist and reached there in November 1732. In the popular history of the island, his arrival was heralded by mysterious portents. He established himself at the Garradhfluich, Gerinish, and from there he ministered to all of the people in Benbecula and South Uist. The population of his parish was around 2,500. There were no churches as such, merely a few ‘tigh popuill’ and there is evidence that Mass would often be celebrated outside at fixed places. These sites are still evident today.

His ministry was largely an itinerant one. He was often the only priest on the islands. Others who came did so intermittently and remained for only a short time. For the first fourteen years his life was peaceful, fulfilling his pastoral duties. He was visited once by a sister but that appears to have been the only occasion that his relatives took anything to do with him.

The church at Garraghfluich,South Uist.
Probably established in the early part of the 18th century
and the home of Fr. Alexander Forrester from 1732 – 1780.
It remained the centre for the priests at the north of the island
until the area was cleared in 1827
His peaceful existence was shattered in the summer of 1746 along with that of so many others.
The Jacobite uprising of 1745 was in many ways a much more serious threat to the security of the United Kingdom than its predecessors had been. The aftermath of the defeat at Culloden saw the systematic attempt to dismantle the clan system once and for all. Estates were sequestrated, various elements of Gaelic life were outlawed, and the laws against priests were re-applied with rigour. Opportunists took advantage of the situation and gained a great deal for themselves. The Isles were not spared. Although very few islesmen had taken part in the uprising, nevertheless, the isles were deemed to be guilty by association.On July 5th 1746 Fr Forrester, along with Fr Allan MacDonald, the son of MacDonald of Stoneybridge, were taken prisoner by Allan MacDonald of Knock. Fr Allan MacDonald, who held the rank of Captain in the Jacobite army and bore arms at Culloden, was robbed of sixty guineas by his captors. From Benbecula, the priests were taken to Barra then to Loch Bracadale in Skye. Eventually, they ended up on a prison ship at Tilbury. Both were tried and were banished for life. An English vessel landed them in Holland. Robbed and destitute of everything, they made their way to the Scots College in Paris.They were looked after in the College but in August 1748 Forrester was making his way back to Scotland. George Innes, the Scottish agent in Paris, wrote:‘Tuesday last parted Mr Forrester from this to Scotland being to go aboard of a Scotch ship from Havre de Grace to Air. We were forced to give him monie here, and not a small amount, considering the difficulties he has had to pass through in such bad times especially for one of his coat, who had been in the Government’s clutches before and is still in danger to be discovered. We consider him to be an excellent subject’.In September of the same year Fr Forrester is in Edinburgh, operating under the name of Dunbar. But he was eager to get back to South Uist. He arrived there during the next month but found that it was too dangerous to stay because, had he been caught as someone under the sentence of perpetual banishment, he would have suffered the death penalty. Soldiers were everywhere.

He escaped to Ireland but returned to Edinburgh in 1754. In a letter to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, dated 17th July 1754, he recounts the history of his seizure in 1746, of his banishment in 1747, and of his return to Scotland in 1748. He relates that since then he has been pursued twice. He had fled to the hills, had taken shelter in caves. He had made his escape to Ireland and had not attempted to reach the continent because such a journey was too risky. He writes that he is now in Edinburgh and hopes to return to his mission as soon as possible. It appears that he may have been in Edinburgh for some time prior to this letter being written.

In 1754 he makes his way north and arrives at Enzie, near Buckie. All that he has with him is his oils. Provided with utensils, he then heads west and is in Moidart in 1756 but is still fearful of returning to South Uist. By now his health is suffering and his psychological condition is poor. He is described as ‘extremely timid and cannot bear to be in a country where redcoats reside’.

Sometime before 1760 Alexander Forrester returned to Uist. He is described in a letter of Bishop Hugh MacDonald in that year ‘as an innocent man who has been upwards of thirty years in our trade and is now so infirm by labour, imprisonment, banishment, sickness, and old age that he would never be able for the present purpose for want of health and strength even though he had all the other necessary qualities’.

One of the effects of the government actions after the ’45 was the dramatic decline in the number of priests operating in the Highlands and Islands. In 1731 there were twelve priests working in the area. In 1764 there are only four priests listed as working in the entire Highland Vicariate and one of these is Alexander Forrester.

Two years later, in 1768, a Dominican priest, Fr Wynne, is appointed to help Alexander Forrester in Uist. It appears that he took on responsibility for the south end of the island but it wasn’t long before both of them were involved in the defence of the people from the onslaught of MacDonald of Boisdale.

Boisdale was essentially a separate Estate from that of Clanranald. The chief, Alasdair Mor na Mart, and his son, Colin, had become Protestants. The background to the story of the Boisdale persecution was the development of the kelp industry. Tenants were forced to work at kelp during times that had previously been religious feasts. Colin MacDonald’s autocratic manner, allied to his desire to procure larger and larger profits from kelp, meant that the religious traditions of the people were no longer being observed and that they were being made slaves.

The tensions between Boisdale and his tenants came to a head on the Feast of Michaelmas 1770 when Boisdale ordered his tenants to work on one of the most important feasts of the year. Boisdale was thrown out of the church by Wynne. Boisdale then retaliated. In the words of Bishop Hugh MacDonald,

‘he summoned his tenants to the number of 1000 souls to inform that unless they renounced their religion and swore an oath never to communicate with a priest again, they would lose their houses on the Island, and those who did not eat meat in Lent were scourged.’

There was mass resistance from the tenants – they withdrew their labour, which was a powerful threat to a man who was making a considerable fortune from kelp. Both Forrester and Wynne were ordered by Boisdale to leave the island or else he would call the militia to have them arrested.

Finally, although the threatened removal of his entire workforce made Boisdale recant, nevertheless, he raised their rents and victimised them and he appointed a Protestant schoolmaster with the express intention of converting the children of the area to Presbyterianism. In reaction, the people removed their children from the school.

This episode is referred to as ‘the belief of the yellow stick’ recalling a similar episode a century or more before where the Laird of Coll had attempted to force his catholic tenants to attend the Presbyterian Church. The people in Boisdale’s Estate had also threatened to join the Glenaladale emigration to Prince Edward Isle, Canada, in 1772 but things began to settle down into an uneasy peace and, in the event, only about 100 people went on that emigration from the south end of Uist.  Fr Wynne was removed and was replaced by Fr Alexander MacDonald.

In 1776 Bishop John MacDonald wrote to Bishop Hay: ‘Mr Forrester, Uist, by an issue in one of his legs, is quite confined and shall probably come to his end by it.’ But the Bishop was to die first. Fr Forrester cast his vote in favour of his successor as bishop, Alexander MacDonald. Bishop MacDonald made a visitation of the District in the latter part of 1780. He came to Uist only in time to attend Fr Forrester’s funeral. On 13th January 1781 he wrote to Bishop Hay:

‘When lately in the Long Island (Uist) I had the mortification to be present at worthy Fr Forrester’s internment. He made his exit out of this life very much and deservedly regretted, his whole life being uniform and exemplar in the highest degree. He continued upwards of six months before this period very infirm, labouring under several indispositions, and a slight fever of a few days put an end to his life. Fr Alexander MacDonald, Uist, who attended him on his deathbed found no more of all he ever possessed than what was thought necessary for his funeral charges. If any were to remain over and above this he ordered to the poor’.

We on South Uist, Eriskay and Benbecula owe an immense debt of gratitude to the convert from Ross-shire, Alexander Forrester, who left behind his family ties and spent the whole of his priesthood serving the people of the Uists – forty eight years altogether. He had a deserved reputation for holiness but perhaps most striking of all was his dogged determination to provide for the spiritual needs of his people in even the most difficult of circumstances.

Alexander Forrester was succeeded first at Garradhfluich by Ronald MacEachen (1782 – 1803) and then by Roderick MacDonald (1803 – 1828), the son of MacDonald of Garradhfluich, tacksman of Clanranald. Alexander MacDonald (Mgr Alasdair Dubh) who had arrived in the south end of Uist in 1775, and had attended to Fr Forrester, left in disgrace six years later.

Fr Alexander MacDonald (Mgr Alasdair Mor a Chlianaig), from Spean Bridge, succeeded him in 1781. He established himself on the independent Estate of MacDonald of Bornish at ‘Tobhta n’uraigh’. The remnants of his church and house can be seen to the east of the present chapel house at Bornish. He followed the emigrants to Nova Scotia and became the first parish priest of Arisaig. When he died in Halifax, 160 miles from Arisaig, during the winter of 1816, his body was interred there but when word of his death reached Arisaig four of his parishioners set out and brought the body home  – a round trip of 320 miles!

The period of forty years straddling the beginning of the 19th century was a period of great social change in South Uist, following a pattern that characterised many of the other highland and island estates which belonged to the old chiefs.

Seeing no prospect of betterment at home, the tacksman class emigrated to the New World. These were not ‘forced’ emigrations, rather those who could afford to go went. At the same time, the clan chiefs’ affairs were run by trustees. The chiefs were becoming increasingly indebted and were mortgaging their Estates against gambling debts! The effects in Uist were that the traditional tacksmen of Clanranald, often blood relations, left the island and were replaced by tenant farmers.

The Clanranald Estates were placed under trusteeship and the trustees were lawyers and bankers. It was they who appointed the factor and the ground officers for the Estate and leased the previous tacks to tenant farmers. There was no security of tenure for crofters who were simply ‘tenants -at -will’. This was the period which marked the beginning of a process of attempted ‘protestantisation’ of the community of South Uist with the deliberate granting of crofts on the Estate to people from North Uist, Benbecula, Berneray, and Skye.

One should not take offence at the term ‘protestantisation’ to describe what went on in South Uist from 1770 onwards. The new owners and managers simply brought in people that they could depend on and trust. This had been repeated many times in highland and island history and is not exclusive to South Uist. For instance, when the MacLeods of Harris were replaced by the MacKenzies of Seaforth, they brought their own people in to manage affairs. Similarly, when the MacDonalds lost Kintyre and were replaced by the Campbells of Argyll, they brought with them their own people, granted lands to them and removed the previous tenantry to poorer land.

From the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars until the 1820s vast amounts of money were made by the trustees and by the tenant farmers from the kelp industry. But the value of this industry collapsed almost completely when these wars ended with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. These tenant farmers were also agricultural improvers. The drainage schemes began then and the old system of runrig farming came to an end. Farming and the pasturing of animals, which had previously been principally a vehicle for feeding the population, came to be valued for the economic return which it could produce.

Crofting was established on South Uist in 1817 with Benbecula preceding by a few years. The Trustees always hoped that the boom times of the kelp industry would return but that was never to be the case.  Faced with this stark reality, the Factor of the Estate, Duncan Shaw, opted for another course. He decided to ‘clear’ the people from huge swathes of South Uist and to turn these areas into sheep farms. People were ‘forced’ off the land for the first time in large numbers to seek their fortune in the Lowlands of Scotland or in America. Others were ‘pushed’ Into already congested areas. In 1827 the following areas were ‘cleared’: Gerinish, Drimore, Grogarry, Stilligarry, Snishival, Pennynerine, Stoneybridge, Kildonan, Aridh Mhuillin, Askernish, Daliburgh, and Kilpheder.

I mention all this to help to explain the social background in which the Church operated at that time and to explain the context for the next change in the development of the Church in Uist.

John Chisholm was appointed to Bornish in 1819. Along with James MacGregor, he had studied at the seminary on Lismore under Fr Ewen MacEachen, the compiler of the famous Gaelic dictionary and the translator of a number of spiritual works into Gaelic.

While Chisholm came from Strathglass, MacGregor came from the Spittle of Glenshee in Perthshire. After ordination, both Chisholm and MacGregor had served on the staff of the seminary, though not together. Chisholm was advised by his predecessor at Bornish, the now Bishop Ranald MacDonald:

‘If you choose, as I wish you to do, having some acquaintance with the routine of business from your management of the Seminary affairs, to take the management of the Bornish property for which you will have an adequate salary. It will subject you to some drudgery and loss of time, but at the same time it gives you additional weight not only on that property but in the country in general’.

This quotation refers to the ‘Bornish property’ which is the Estate of Upper Bornish, held by MacDonald of Bornish on an independent feu, which Ranald MacDonald had ‘factored’ during his incumbency of eighteen years. Chisholm was being encouraged to take on this role not only to provide him with an income but also to give him a ‘status’ in the country.

Reference is made in Bishop MacDonald’s letters to a church at Bornish which measures 60’x20’ which he considers to be his own. However, although the attempt to prove that it belonged to the Church was to continue for almost twenty years, it was ultimately a futile exercise. Bishop MacDonald had thought that he had a valid title but in fact it had never been ‘registered’, as Chisholm was to realise only after he had taken out large loans against the value of the church and house.

In the north, we have already heard that the Garradhfluich was the home to the priest from 1731 – 1827, just less than one hundred years. But MacDonald of Garradhfluich, who had granted patronage to the priest on his land during that time, was no longer there and church and house were abandoned in 1827 when the Garraghfluich was turned into a sheep farm and the people evicted. The ever-resourceful James MacGregor paid the arrears on four crofts at Ardkenneth and took possession of them in 1828. He turned them into a farm. His obituary states that he loved the sound of dynamite and that when he died there was more stone underground in rubble drains at Ardkenneth than there was above ground in drystone walls! In addition to being the priest, MacGregor was also the vet and the midwife in the area!

It is difficult for us now to understand that at that time the priest took on debt as his own personal debt. If a church was to be built, it was the priest himself who took on the debt and it was he who paid it off. MacGregor engaged in several fund raising tours of Ireland and England as well as trying to fund raise in Scotland. He built Ardkenneth church in a little over a year in 1828 but it was to be three years before there were windows in it!


St Michael’s, Ardkenneth, built by Fr James MacGregor in 1828.
The house and church were parts of the same building set in a relatively
large farm which was tenanted by the priests at Ardkenneth.

There is a fascinating description of MacGregor which survives. He was still trying to ‘raise’ money for the church in 1838, ten years after it was built! He visits an English country house and is described as

‘a well looking dark man rather low and large about 40 – speaking evidently with the difficulty of a person translating from the language in which he is thinking to that in which he must speak – not hesitating but queerly, not ungrammatically but uncolloquially’.

The author of the letter comments at the end that ‘Maria was delighted beyond anything with so entirely rude and unsophisticated a person’! – a comment which perhaps tells us more about the one who made the remark than about the priest himself!

Meanwhile, in Bornish, John Chisholm built the church and house in 1838 and took on the tenancy of what is known now as ‘the Priest’s Croft’.


The Church and House at Bornish, South Uist, as built by Fr John Chisholm in 1838.

He and his successors
were tenants of the
Priest’s Croft at Bornish.

There was a change to the division of the Scottish mission which took place in 1828. The previous Highland and Lowland Districts were ‘scrapped’ to be replaced with the Northern District, the Western District, and the Eastern District. This was a change that the Highland and Island priests were not consulted about but it doesn’t seem that the change affected things much on the ground, at least as far as the priests of Uist were concerned. John Chisholm became Vicar General for the Isles under Bishop Scott of the Western District.

The pastoral life of the priests was certainly busy. In 1835 a total of 86 baptisms were celebrated between Eochar and Benbecula while in the south of the island 96 were celebrated almost totally by John Chisholm himself. The priests travelled from village to village baptising babies as they went and conducting marriages. Daily Mass was rarely, if ever, celebrated. Around the same time, Fr William MacIntosh at Arisaig prides himself that he is now saying daily Mass twice a week on Wednesday and Friday! The villages were largely self sufficient when it came to practising their spiritual life as they also were in relation to the celebration of the rites of burial. As far as one can judge, the priest’s role within the Catholic community was sacramental while also engaging in the support of his people through practical help.  They were men of ‘status’, one a tenant farmer, the other the factor of a small Estate –  at least for a while!

The relations between the priests and the ministers of the established Church of Scotland were generally good. The same cannot be said of their relations with the Estate factors. MacGregor was saved from the threat of eviction by the intervention of the parish minister while it is recorded that the factor was so annoyed with Chisholm on one occasion that he shook his fist at him!

But it is the poverty of the people which is most striking during this period. Writing to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in 1839, Bishop Scott says that there are ‘13,000 Catholics in the Highlands and Islands, 90% of whom are living at the point of starvation while, at the same time, there are 100,000 Catholics living in he Lowlands, 25% of whom lived by begging, scarcely 200 independent, and not one rich’.

A succession of assistants helped out in both parishes between 1832 and 1867. Mostly, they served for a short time before moving on to a permanent post elsewhere. The exception to that rule was Fr Allan Maclean (Sagart beag na Spainne) who served over the whole of Uist for eleven years from 1839 – 1850.

His is an interesting case! He was a native of Arisaig and was ordained in Valladollid in 1834. He was parish priest of Barra from 1837 – 1839 then he was demoted to become assistant priest in Bornish. His problem was alleged excessive drinking. His predecessor in Barra, William MacIntosh, a native of Braemar, had been a whisky smuggler before he became a priest. The sentence of outlawry on him was only revoked in 1830 – one year before he was ordained! MacIntosh was the leader of the Temperance movement and stories had reached him of Maclean’s conduct in Barra. MacIntosh reported Maclean to the Bishop and the Bishop appointed Maclean to Bornish under the tutelage of John Chisholm. Incidentally, MacGregor at Ardkenneth didn’t think that there was any problem!

Maclean served in Bornish quietly and well for the next eleven years so much so that he was appointed to a parish on his own. He was sent to Fort Augustus but in 1851 Bishop Kyle reports that there is trouble with MacLean and three years later he is given permission to leave the Scottish Mission. He became parish priest of Judique, Canada, and died there in 1877. There were no reported incidents during his time in Canada!

It isn’t wise to assess the conduct of priests like Allan Maclean against today’s standards. Certainly, there were excessive amounts of alcohol taken by people at Baptisms, Marriages, and Funerals, and indeed, MacIntosh complained on one occasion that people were even drinking outside church before the Sunday Mass! But MacIntosh was a zealot on the subject of the abuse of drink. Bishop Scott, on the other hand, considered that £3 a year was an appropriate amount of money for a priest to spend on whisky – enough to allow him to purchase two bottles a week!

Colonel John Gordon of Cluny bought South Uist Estate in 1838. It was a speculative land deal and he hoped to get a significant return from his investment. At first, he seemed to be a rather benevolent landlord. However, by 1849 it was clear than his crofting tenants were nothing but an encumbrance. There was hunger as a result of the repeated failure of the potato crop. The landlord exercised no obligation to feed the starving, rather opting for forced eviction or ‘clearance’, as it is more commonly known.

The people of South Uist benefitted from the massive effort made by the Free Church to help to feed the starving and Fr John Chisholm organised the relief of the poor throughout the area. Not only were there large-scale forced evictions – the population of South Uist which had been 5093 in 1841 had dropped to 3406 twenty years later – but the surviving population was forcibly moved to increasingly congested areas. People were removed from the east side of the island to Eriskay and to other parts of Uist to make way for more sheep walks. Bornish Estate, which had been independent, first of all became almost a refugee centre but was sold at the end of the 1850s to Colonel Gordon. Shortly afterwards, the people were ‘cleared’ from Bornish and a farm was established there.

Perhaps some indication of the effect on the Church of this social movement in the middle of the nineteenth century can be given by showing that the number of baptisms in the respective parishes of Ardkenneth and Bornish halved in a ten year period from 1846 -1855; in the north from 88 in 1846 to 42 in 1855 and in the south from 100 in 1846 to 51 in 1855.

John Chisholm, who had effectively been the factor of Bornish Estate when he arrived there in 1819, who had supervised the building of the present church and house in 1838, from which he could see the houses of four hundred people, who had fed the poor when the potato crop failed in 1846 and who had looked after the refugees who had come to Bornish between 1849 and 1851, by the end of the 1850s looked out on a barren landscape.

There were now none of his parishioners living within three miles of the church. The number of baptisms was barely half of what it had when he came. Although he had built a small thatched church at Daliburgh, the centre of his large parish had been Bornish.

James MacGregor and John Chisholm died within two years of one another – MacGregor in 1865 and Chisholm in 1867. One had been parish priest of Ardkenneth for thirty seven years, the other the parish priest of Bornish for forty eight years. There is little doubt that these two diverse characters, through their commitment to building up the Church on the Uists and through what they did to alleviate poverty and starvation, left an indelible imprint on the life of the community and in times of crisis they suffered with their people.

Fr Donald MacKintosh, a native of Glenfinnan, succeeded James MacGregor at Ardkenneth while Fr Alastair Campbell, from South Uist, succeeded John Chisholm at Bornish. This latter was a great repository of Gaelic language, culture, and tradition, and had a strong influence on Fr Allan MacDonald when he lived with him in retirement at Daliburgh. He should be remembered for all that but also for his shrewd comment to Fr Allan:

“There are two kinds of priests that don’t get on well with the Islesmen. Those who make themselves too friendly, and those who don’t make themselves friendly enough.”

Daliburgh and Benbecula were established as separate parishes in 1877, although the present church at Daliburgh had been built ten years earlier.

In 1878 the independent Diocese of Argyll and the Isles was founded and its first Bishop was Angus MacDonald. He was thirty four years of age when he took over. He was one of the MacDonalds of Glenaladale and had been for a short while previously the parish priest of Arisaig.


Bishop Angus MacDonald,
Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, 1878 – 1892.
Archbishop of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh, 1892 – 1900.

When the diocese was founded there were sixteen priests: four were involved in scandal and two of these had been dismissed; one had abandoned his post; two were over seventy; two are described as being ‘beyond their best’; only seven were fit and able. In 1892, fourteen years later, when Bishop MacDonald left Argyll and the Isles to become Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, there were twenty three priests, all of whom are described as being ‘fit and able’.

The challenges facing the new Bishop and the infant diocese were severe. Financially, it was very poor and, indeed, the level of indebtedness made Bishop MacDonald wonder at one time if the Diocese would not be better off being amalgamated with Glasgow! He held four diocesan synods where he insisted on such ‘novelties’ as sanctuary lamps in the churches, wax candles at Mass, and regular catechetical instruction.

At his first synod, in his address to the clergy, Bishop MacDonald had said: ‘It appears to us to content ourselves at present with doing a little………..but what little we take in hand should be done thoroughly’ – advice which, even today, is worthwhile following! However, it has to be said that, while Bishop MacDonald may have considered that he was only doing a little, in retrospect, it is clear that his support for his priests and people in their struggles was hugely influential.

In agreement with Roger Hutchison, Uist was blessed in the period from 1878 – 1900 with a group of priests whose dedication and courage was in some respects ‘heroic’, not just in their application to the specific pastoral work that they were engaged in but also because of the manner in which they led their people in the greatest social change to affect the Highlands and Islands in half a century. In this they received the unswerving support of their Bishop. But there was also something else which enabled them to do what they did. They seem to have been as fond of Bishop MacDonald as he was of them. They recognised that he shared their hardships and was firm in his support of them.

 This group of priests comprised: Donald MacKintosh (Bornish 1861-67; Ardkenneth 1867-1877; Benbecula 1877-1900), a native of Glenfinnan who had studied at Ratisbon; Donald MacColl (Eochar 1862-1867; Bornish 1867-1874; Eochar 1877-1887) who came from Ardgour and was born in 1835; Alasdair Campbell (who after serving for twenty three years in Badenoch, was in Bornish from 1870-1883) a native of South Uist; Alasdair MacDougall (Benbecula 1890 – 1903);  John MacKintosh (‘Sagart Mor nan Each’ Bornish 1882-1900), a native of Roy Bridge who had studied in Spain, and who died in Campbeltown in 1903 at forty four years of age; Sandy MacKintosh ( Daliburgh 1880-1884) who was born in Arisaig, was a first cousin of Allan MacDonald, and was parish priest of Fort William from 1884 – 1922; Allan MacDonald (Daliburgh 1884-1894; Eriskay 1894- 1905), a native of Fort William and an eminent poet and folklorist; George Rigg (Daliburgh 1894-97) born in Stornoway and died, after contracting typhus fever, in 1897 at thirty seven years of age.

Fr Sandy MacKintosh, Daliburgh, 1880 – 1884,
who represented the Daliburgh crofters before the Napier Commission

Fr Alexander MacDougall,
Benbecula, 1890 – 1903

Fr Donald MacKintosh,
Bornish 1861 – 1867; Ardkenneth 1867 – 1877; Benbecula 1877 – 1890;
Eriskay 1890 – 1892.

Fr Allan MacDonald, Daliburgh 1884 – 1894; Eriskay 1894 – 1905

Fr George Rigg, Daliburgh 1894 – 1897

Fr John MacKintosh, Bornish 1882 – 1900
While it would be tempting in this talk to ‘cover old ground’ by looking in detail at the lives and influence of Allan MacDonald and George Rigg, this has been extensively covered by others and, therefore, I am going to resist the temptation. Rather, I am going to look at them collectively in relation to their inluence on Land Reform and the evidence which they offered to the Napier Commission and  to dwell more specifically on some of the other priests who have been mentioned in that list.

There were two great questions at the beginning of the 1880s which pre-occupied the priests of Uist and also pre-occupied the Bishop. The role that the priests in the Isles played in resolving these questions was very important – the first was land reform and fighting to legally establish rights for the crofters and the second was the establishment of the right to Catholic education.

All the priests in Uist gave testimony to the Napier Commission in 1883. The older ones, Donald MacColl, Donald MacKintosh, and Alastair Campbell, remembered people telling them of how things were at the time of the evictions, and even prior to that, while the youngest of them, Sandy MacKintosh of Daliburgh, only twenty nine at the time, was the articulate voice calling for radical change.

When questioned whether or not nineteen year leases would satisfy the crofters, he stated that ‘he believed that more radical change was required before they would be satisfied’.  When asked whether or not he would like to have some large farms still in the country, he stated that ‘he didn’t believe in the good of the few at the expense of the many’. When Sandy MacKintosh was asked about the present composition of the School Board, he replied that the Board was made up of the Parish Minister, two priests, the factor, three farmers, and the doctor. All the teachers in the three District Schools in the parish were Protestant and when asked why the people didn’t do something about this situation when the remedy is in their own hands, he stated that it was fear of the power of the Factor and being removed from their crofts that prevented the Catholic ratepayers from exercising their power.

Bishop MacDonald wrote the following to the Commission:

‘Besides this specific grievance(Protestant teachers for schools largely attended by Catholic children)  I believe a statement of this case will tend to show the existence of a widespread evil, in the dependent and degrading position in which tenants are apt to be placed – with no security of tenure, no guarantee of removal at will, and with the fear constantly hanging over them, that if they venture to assert their rights they may be made to suffer for it, without having power to obtain redress. Nothing could be conceived more certain than this position to foster a low and cringing disposition, or more opposed to the formation of a manly, independent, enterprising spirit’.

For the Bishop and for his priests in the Uists, the questions of the right to Catholic education and the right to land reform were inextricably linked. The two went together.

In 1886 the Crofters Act was passed and Sandy MacKintosh and the other priests in Uist got everything that they had agitated for. They had led their people to achieve the basic human rights of the crofter: security of tenure; fair and fixed rent; the right to assign and bequeath to a family member; and the right to compensation for improvements. In fact, it was Sandy MacKintosh who spelt out these rights in a letter which he submitted to the Napier Commission.

With security of tenure established by law and the fear of recrimination removed, the School Board elections of 1888 were eagerly anticipated. But the Catholic voting population of Uist did something which to the ‘outsider’ might seem surprising – they returned three Protestant and four Catholic members to the Board where previously there had been five Protestants and two Catholics. The Catholic population had not used their newly acquired powers in a vindictive manner! Shortly, thereafter, the first Catholic headteacher in South Uist, Frederick Rea, was appointed but in the schools, while Catholic religious education was established, there was no attempt to interfere with rights of the Protestant pupils and Protestant teachers were not replaced until their post became vacant naturally.

The priests, who had played such a public role before the Napier Commission, were to suffer. Donald MacColl at Ardkenneth was threatened with eviction from the farm, with the consequent loss of church and house, while Sandy MacKintosh was accused by the proprietrix, Lady Gordon Cathcart, of deliberately fostering religious division amongst the people – a common and predictable ‘accusation’  against the most effective priests!

As I have said already, it would be tempting to say something of the life of either Fr Allan MacDonald or Fr George Rigg but I am going to avoid that temptation not because they are not interesting or inspiring – quite the opposite – but because the stories of both these men have been extensively covered elsewhere. Less well known is the story of Fr John MacKintosh – Sagart Mor nan Each – but it is a story which is no less interesting and inspiring.

John MacKintosh was born in Roy Bridge and was educated for the priesthood at Blairs, France, and Spain, where he was a contemporary of Allan MacDonald. Ordained in 1882, he came to Bornish in 1883 in succession to Fr Alistair Campbell, who had retired to Daliburgh with Allan MacDonald. He was physically tall and strong but was also a ‘larger than life’ character. According to Allan MacDonald and to Frederick Rea, he was renowned with the gun and the rod. He also played the violin. We certainly know that he became the vice captain of the Askernish Golf Club and played in the opening tournament in 1895.

Rea tells in his book ‘A School in South Uist’ of how he went to visit John MacKintosh at Bornish. He had to make his way through guns and rods and then was confronted by a large black dog! MacKintosh asked Rea if he played chess and when Rea replied that he did, they played chess together for three days!

MacKintosh, along with the other priests, was a highly educated man who had come to serve the people of Bornish. There were, though, no parishioners living within three miles of the church and house. His immediate neighbour was the farmer, Donald Ferguson, who, it has to be said, kept up a war of attrition against the priest. But his life must have been lonely. Allan MacDonald, his friend, complains that, while he tries to keep up his spiritual life and attends to his pastoral duties, he finds himself talking with people about the subjects that they want to talk about and only very rarely talking about subjects that he would like to speak about!

The priests, though, would meet together from time to time both socially and to have retreats. They enjoyed one another’s company however rarely they would be together. Chronic illness and exhaustion seemed to have been features of the lives of some of them: Allan MacDonald suffered from a weak heart brought on by physical exhaustion while John MacKintosh seems to have suffered from what was known as Bright’s disease, an inflamation of the kidneys – a common cause of death in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.

They were often in debt. In 1892 the priests of the 7 island parishes petitioned the new Bishop, Bishop Smith, saying that the total income of the parishes was £267 a year while, in their view, £100 per year per priest was necessary just to live on. They could not ask for more from the people as they were already deeply in debt to the merchants. Still they kept on – trying to improve things.

John MacKintosh and Allan MacDonald were the inspiration behind the establishment of the Bute Hospital at Daliburgh.

I have already described how the crofters received security of tenure with the passing of the Crofting Act of 1886. But that was not the end of the difficulties for the people of South Uist. Most were living in very congested areas while the bulk of the land area was split into various farms. Donald Ferguson had the farms of Drimsdale, Ormiclate, and Bornish, while the people, albeit with security of tenure, were living in very congested areas such as Howbeg and Stoneybridge.

The Congested Districts Board was established in 1897 with the purpose of paying compensation to landowners if their land was taken over for crofting. John MacKintosh petitioned the Board on behalf of the people living in Stoneybridge that part of Ormiclate Farm should be broken up into crofts and allocated to them. This put him into a situation of direct confrontation with the farmer, with the Estate establishment and the owner, Lady Gordon Cathcart. His petition was ultimately successful but at a considerable cost to John MacKintosh. In 1898 he was caught ‘poaching’ on Bornish loch. It appears that he was fishing on the loch not with a net but with a rod. Nevertheless, it was a breach of the rules. He was threatened with eviction. Allan MacDonald considered that John MacKintosh’s action had been rash not just because he had risked losing the croft for himself but that it would have been lost to the maintenance of the priest at Bornish forever!

A ‘compromise’ was worked out between Bishop Smith and Lady Gordon Cathcart: the eviction notice was ‘lifted’ by the Estate but Bishop Smith promised that John MacKintosh would never serve as a Parish Priest anywhere in the Diocese! There is no evidence that the Bishop fulfilled his part of the agreement!

Nevertheless, John MacKintosh left Bornish for Campbeltown in 1900. It may have been his own wish to go since he appears to have been incapacitated for hard work by recurrent bouts of ill health. He died in Campbeltown three years later on 16th March 1903. The tribute to him in the Catholic Directory of 1904 says:

‘Fr MacKintosh will be affectionately remembered by his flock, more particularly the people of Bornish amongst whom he laboured so long and so devotedly. His memory will be cherished especially by the poorer crofters of the district, who have always found in him a champion and a friend, and for whose sake he made so many brave sacrifices’.

Fr Allan MacDonald wrote a poem in tribute to Fr John MacKintosh when he left Bornish in 1900.

Thàinigesan an-sin a dh’Uibhist
Far am buidhicheadh an t-eòrna,
Is do nochd e n’-sin dhan t-saoghal
Nach bu duine faoin fear Bhòrnis
Ach gaisgeach a mhìre na cruadhach
Choisneadh buiadh ás gach còmhraig
‘S b’e mhiann bhith riamh a’ gléidheadh
A threud bho innleachd luchd fòirneirt.
Se thug dha an-diugh an t-urram
Seach a h’uile fear dhe chòta
Gun robh e gun eismeil sna blàraibh
Seasamh nan ànrach, mar bu chòir dha.

After that he came to Uist
Where each year the barley ripened,
And he revealed then to the world
That he of Bornish was no lightweight
But a hero truly forged from steel
Who would win every battle he fought
And always sought to defend his flock
From the devious wiles of oppressors.
What has brought him honour today
Beyond all other men of his cloth
Is his independence in the struggles
Defending the weak, as was right for him to do

I thought for a while that it may be appropriate to have a monument erected to these ‘champions of South Uist’ but, on reflection, the best monument that we can erect is to continue to tell their story, to be inspired by their example, and to remember them in our prayers: Alexander Forrester, John Chisholm, James MacGregor, John MacKintosh and all the others – faithful and committed priests, who came from afar and gave their lives to the people of South Uist.