Old Ballachulish Bibles reveal their secret messages after decades

Andy and Marjory Thornton with some of the ‘decorated’ bibles. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos NO F48 Ballachulish bibles 02
Andy and Marjory Thornton with some of the ‘decorated’ bibles. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos NO F48 Ballachulish bibles 02

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A hand-written record of the lives of Ballachulish residents – births, deaths, secret meetings and shinty scores spanning 100 years – was discovered when a group of local volunteers opened St John’s Scottish Episcopal Church to visitors this summer.

Stored safely away in the upper gallery of the historic building was a box of Gaelic Bibles, inside the covers of which were found dozens of notes by parishioners, dating from the mid-1800s until the end of the Second World War.

The notes include births, deaths, weddings and weather reports, some scribbled in pencil, some blue-inked and written in precise copperplate: ‘Mary McColl, Died on the 18th of May 1847, Aged 27 years’, ‘Hughie Christie, Willie MacIntyre and Ian MacColl visited the Gallery  on 2nd June 1935. Evening Service. Warm morning, very hot – but bracing.’

Among the sombre and serious are silly poems, drawings of animals and cowboys, secret messages – ‘Darling, I will meet you tonight at the Arches’ – and notes of reassurance from returning soldiers from both world wars: ‘Archie MacInnes, 55 years, OK Christmas Day 1918’ and ‘Stewart MacInnes,  204th Anti Tank Battery 51st Highland Division, On leave 1939-40, New Year’.

One priest attempted to communicate his disapproval through the same means, writing in dark pencil ‘Dear boys, I give you a warning that any boy I see writing on a book I shall put them out of the Church’.  Though many notes were written anonymously, such as ‘My name is Mr. Nobody’, some were more brazen.  One response reads, ‘Donald Lawrie is my name. Ballachulish my native village.  1 Lorn Buildings is my home and West End Slate quarry is where I work’.  Whether the latter is a confession or a clype we will never know.

The notes are a physical link from the families of Ballachulish’s past to those who live in the village today. Andy Thornton, from Ballachulish, was one of the volunteers who found the Bibles.  He said the most noticeable thread running through all the pages is the shinty. From scores and commentary – ‘1931 Ballachulish 3 Inveraray 5, first time the skunks ever beat Ballachulish’ – to banter and diagrams, with a drawing of a shinty pitch and a goalkeeper surrounded by eight black dots subtitled, ‘Do you remember this Teddy? 8 goals let in’.

Mr Thornton said: ‘I showed the notes to one of the shinty team who immediately recognised a name as one of his ancestors. Shinty is still really important in the village – it forms a part of its history, so these notes are fantastic to see.’

The Bibles were initially discovered by Mr Thornton’s wife Marjorie, who took photos of the pages to record them. However, both agreed that what they contained was very special and more could be done to share them.

Mr Thornton, a member of the Lochaber Writers’ Group, has begun working on a play that shares the notes as a dialogue between priest and parishioners, entitled The Boys in the Gallery.  He said: ‘These notes are a vital record of the village’s past. Along with the Vestry of St John’s Church, we hope to organise an event in the future that will bring people into the building to share these memories as part of Ballachulish’s history.’

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Andy and Marjory Thornton with some of the ‘decorated’ bibles. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos

NO F48 Ballachulish bibles 02

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