St Columba’ legacy in Morvern

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Well done drawing attention to St Columba and his Christian legacy in the article of how his 1,500th birthday was remembered and celebrated in Ireland and Scotland (ObanTimes, December 9, 2021).

There was a time when his name was a household word in Morvern and legends of his ministry were taught in every one of the parishes’ nine primary  and innumerable little side schools. Today the emphasis seems to be less on Gaelic and local history and more on computers and European politics.

Of course teachers are seldom local and curriculums have altered out of all recognition, so how can it be otherwise? Gone are the posse of stalwarts who could teach any subject to all ages (and frequently did) and could hold their own in the finest educational institutions from Inverness to Oxford and every Highland and Islands village school in between – no matter how isolated.

Teachers such as Jessie Robertson  (Claggan and Kinlochteacuis) Donald B Fletcher and his wife (Lochaline and Fiunary) Samuel Cameron (Kiel) Sarah Macmillan (Bunavalluin) Tooie Mackenzie (Dorlin) Jay MacDonald (Claggan) Annabel MacGregor (Lochaline) Katie MacVicar (Liddesdale) Kate Cruickshanks (Lochaline) and Mary MacDiarmid (Glencripesdale) – to name just a few.   Many of them have crossed the Great Divide but their names and dedication are still recalled with affection and gratitude.

St Columba is commemorated in the church and its adjacent graveyard, lying a little way above Lochaline village known as Kiel – an abbreviation of Cille Choluimchille (The cell of St Columba of the Church), given to one of two of Morvern’s Medieval parishes and still in use to this day. Local tradition says that Columba crossed Loch Linnhe with St Moluag from the island of Lismore, and that, landing together, they climbed the Garbh Shlios. From the summit of Glass Bheinn,  with its commanding views of Morvern, St Columba planted his foot on a flat rock, and, pointing to a green knoll, where Kiel now stands, said to his companion: ‘There is the place where we will build our next church’. It is recorded the indelible footprint  is still to be seen on Glas Bhein, similar to that found on a rock at Southend on the Kintyre peninsula. Further reference to the famous saint is also to be found in the name of an incised cross lying beside the ancient hill track leading from Mungosdale to Barr. Here, according to legend, St Columba looked down on Ardnamurchan and selected a sheltered bay, hard-by the lovely little peninsula of Ardslignish and Torr na Moine, in which to build his next church, which is why it got the name Camus nan Gall -The Bay of the Stranger – the stranger of course being St Columba – although some experts say it should be Camus na Ceall meaning Bay of the Churches.

Returning  to Morvern,  there is St Columba’s Chapel half a mile below Drimnin House built in 1838 by local landowner Sir Charles Gordon on the site of old Drimnin Castle which he demolished to make way for it.

After Sir Charles died in 1845 the chapel gradually fell into disuse and was supplanted by one in Drimnin House.  It was here that Saint Mary McKillop, whose parents came from Roy Bridge and who is Australia’s first saint, worshipped on her visit to the UK in the late 19th century.  When the Gordon family sold the estate to Miss Alice Horsman  in 1943, the chapel became a total ruin but was given a Grade B listing to protect its historical and scenic importance. Following acquisition of Drimnin Estate by its current owners, Mr and Mrs Derek Lewis, in 2002, plans were drawn up to restore the chapel as a place of non-denominational Christian worship and to make it a centre for music and the arts.  For this purpose a charity, St Columba’s Drimnin Trust, was formed and so this historic local landmark with its association with St Columba was given a new life.

To coincide with the anniversary of St Columba’s death in 597 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ordained that a Thanksgiving service for the introduction of Christianity to the region should be held on Iona in June 1897 in or near the site of Columba’s original monastery.

A number of pilgrims travelled from Morvern led by their minister, the charismatic Rev Donald Macfarlane (1882 to 1907). On their return journey they took advantage of the fine weather and landed on Staffa to visit Fingal’s Cave. As they stood inside marvelling at its vertical basalt columns and melodious acoustics Mr Macfarlane suddenly suggested they sing Psalm 103 to the traditional tune of Coleshill (Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless His Holy name). He had a beautiful voice and had led the singing at the Gaelic services on Iona earlier in the day; the rest of the party joined heartily. Later an eye witness wrote: ‘The effect of the voices, men’s voices predominating, ringing through the arches of that natural cathedral, was wonderfully striking. It touched a sympathetic chord in every heart’.

Donald Macfarlane was a son, grandson and great-great-grandson of the Manse; he  preached and followed the teachings of St Columba and was adored by the parishioners of Morvern, Gigha and Cara when he moved there from Fiunary in 1907. His piety, humility and genius for friendship came through enduring him to all walks of life and every denomination of all ages; young and old flocked to Kiel and Ferinish churches every Sunday where it was standing room only.

Donald Macfarlane put great store in visiting throughout the parish, which he did regularly, no matter how remote or inclement the weather. I  remember in 1977 Mrs Jessie Cameron (nee Mackinnon, Rhemore in Morvern, then living in Carradale, Kintyre) telling me she had been baptised by Macfarlane. She described him as a very fine man who would never leave a house without going on both knees to pray for the occupants and that when he came back from Gigha to unveil the war memorial at Fernish to those who fell in the Great War, he was in tears reading the names of the young men whom he had Christened.

Macfarlane’s successor did things differently  and although a very fine minister he did not possess MacFarlane’s gifts. Mrs Cameron recalled that on the death of her sister at Salachan, above Fiunary, from scarlet fever, the new minister came to console her mother. He did his best but after he left she remarked that Donald Macfarlane had more in his little finger than all he could ever give.

Someone said something to Donald Macfarlane which caused him to leave Morvern.

St Columba is commemorated in a stained glass window in Kiel church close to a granite memorial to the Rev Donald Macfarlane which bears the inscription, ‘ A man shall be as an hiding place from the wind; as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land’ (Isaiah 32; 2).