Morvern Lines – 19.11.20

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Unless you have a member of the clergy visiting or staying with you and it comes to meal times, the chances are you are not likely to hear a grace or a blessing being said these days, although I know there are exceptions to this rule in some parts of the country.

I always feel there is something more than just quaint hearing Grace in a private house and perhaps, for that reason, it is always the more interesting. Even better if you are asked to give one and can!

If invited to do so there are some general rules to be observed. 1. This is not the opportunity to demonstrate your skills in the creation of rhyming doggerel; 2. It is not an opportunity to poke fun at colleagues or make ‘in’ comments about whatever concerns you and your friends outside the dining room or away from the table; 3. It is not the place to perform some hideous kowtowing or other ingratiating homage to the guest of honour; 4. You are not at a stand up comedy club.

Why say Grace or listen to a blessing? It is an occasion for the person saying it to lead those present into a place of thanks and reflection for the fare that is being placed before them. It is an opportunity to give thanks for the fellowship about to be had, and for those with whom it will be had. It is a chance, especially in a military or veterans setting, to remember those who are serving: a place to remember those who have served and to give thanks for service and commitment. At the right time and in the right place, it is an opportunity to give people the space to remember those who would once have been at table with you but are no longer here. It’s a space for reflection – not eulogies. Do this wrong and you can destroy the whole thing.

The Grace can be delivered with humour and also be topical, but it is not the light entertainment before the meal. Some are awful. A good example of this being: ‘May we not be like porridge, cold and stodgy, but like cornflakes, crisp and ready to serve!’ And, of course, there’s that wonderful Grace so favoured by travellers: ‘God of goodness, bless our food, keep us in a pleasant mood. Bless the chef and all who serve us, and from indigestion, Lord, preserve us. Amen.’ Or another old chestnut, ‘For well-filled plate and brimming cup, and freedom from the washing up. We thank you, Lord. Amen.’

Length is often critical in Scripture and well summed up by Robert Leighton (1611-1684) Bishop of Dunblane and Principal of Edinburgh University, who used to say to his curates: ‘So much the better the longer the text be, and the shorter the sermon be; for it is greatly to be suspected that our usual way of very short texts and very long sermons is apt to weary people more, and profit them less.’

The Rev Horace Newton (1844-1920) who owned Glencripesdale Estate, Morvern, was deeply religious. A canon in the Church of England, his prayers before meals were so long that the glass bowl of the coffee percolator would often over-heat and burst before he drew breath. John, the butler, would be summoned to deal with the mess bringing the rant to a close. One of the canon’s great nieces told me that she and her sisters always prayed for an early explosion, especially on a fine morning when they wanted away to the hill or the river.

The Highlander’s Grace was another marathon. I do not know who wrote it but it has the touch of Harry Lauder about it: ‘Lord of the glens and the bens, and the hills and the stills and the gills and half-mutchkins – hear our prayers. Bless all the big Floras and the wee Floras, and the big Archies and the wee Archies, and the Ranalds and Donalds and Dugalds and the rest of us, moreover. Bless all our wee cows and we sows and our brave policemen, especially and send them blessings too. And Lord don’t forget to send us some whisky, and after that, some more whisky; and send us hills of joy, and mountains of love, and rivers of prose, and oceans of whisky more especially. And Lord bless all our bonnie bagpipers too, moreover; and send them wind, Lord, gales of wind to fill their pipes. Lord, bless our big cows and our wee cows, and our big sows and our we sows, and our policemen in particular. Make them brave, Lord, and always ready with their batons to knock ‘tamnation’ out of the Lowlanders. And don’t forget, bless us all today and tomorrow, and the morning before, and Lord, do not forget the whisky, and the glory be thine for evermore. Amen.’

Hearing that, it would be a relief to turn to the Naval Grace, said to be one of the shortest. The captain asks, ‘Is there a padre aboard? No Sir, thank God’ – ministers and coffins being considered bad luck at sea.

Four years ago Catriona Monro, a daughter of the manse, whose maternal family have lived in Ardgour for many centuries, published a lovely book called, We’ll Say the Blessing, which was a gathering of illustrated Graces. Ranging from the quaint to the light hearted, it caught the imagination of all ages and before long readers and friends were clamouring for more and offering suggestions. Inspired by its popularity Catriona has now produced a second volume with the same title and, like the first, is a pictorial kaleidoscope of Graces and memories.

In her introduction Catriona tells how it was based on her mother’s grace book which she started after her husband Ronald Torrie died in 1996. Ronald, a minister in the Church of Scotland, served in several parishes, from Kilchoman and Bruichladdish on Islay to Birnie and Pluscarden in Morayshire, with Gibraltar in between. Grace was always said before, or after, meals wherever the family went.

Ardgour House – the ancestral home of the Macleans of Ardgour. Photograph: Iain Thornber.

Catriona’s dedication is doubly appropriate. It is her Aunt Riona (1919-1988) after whom she is named. Miss Catriona Maclean, 17th Laird of Ardgour, was an enormous presence in the Highlands through a lifetime of public service and in 1966 she became the first woman to be ordained an elder in the history of the Church of Scotland.

We’ll Say The Blessing II can be purchased at: The Highland Bookshop, High Street, Fort William; The Mallaig Heritage Centre, Mallaig; Land sea & Island Centre, Arisaig; Yeadons Book Sellers, Elgin, or direct from the author: catrionamonro@gmail.com for £17 inc p&p.

With Christmas going to be unusual this year with less shoppers out on the High Street, We’ll Say The Blessing II makes an ideal present and one that can be ordered from the comfort and safety of your home.