A  Brief  History of the Parish of St Mary and St Finnan, Glenfinnan

By John Watts

Glenfinnan is a younger parish than its neighbours. Despite its strategic position – standing sentinel at the eastern boundary of the Catholic lands of Clanranald – it had not been chosen as the site for a Mission in the Penal years of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, as the Church recovered and consolidated in the West Highlands following the Reformation. Perhaps it was precisely its position on the boundary that went against it – not surrounded by friends, and too exposed to its enemies.

By the nineteenth century, with the Church no longer outlawed and with no priest nearer than Mingarry, Arisaig or Fort William, the case for its having its own Mission was strong. It was conveniently placed not only for the immediate neighbourhood but for the communities beside Lochailort to the west, Loch Shiel to the south and Lochiel to the east. It was in fact a natural gathering place, as the ’45 had shown, and since that ‘Year of the Prince’ it had become a focal point also in the minds and hearts of the people.

Yet there were no arrangements even for Mass in Glenfinnan until 1844, when the Scottish Catholic Directory reported that Mr Chisholm of Fort William was now visiting “occasionally”, using an upstairs room in a private house for the services. A chapel was “much wanted”, the report added, for the room was not only too small for the “considerable” congregation, but insecure.

For twenty years the position remained much the same, and it was not until 1863 that the people were given their own priest, Rev. Donald MacDonald. It was an apt appointment, for Fr Donald was the brother of the Laird of Glenaladale, on whose land Glenfinnan lay, and one of seven priests (three of whom became bishops) to spring from that loyal Catholic family. Like the lairds themselves he was a most generous benefactor to Catholicism in the West Highlands, and it was entirely through his personal generosity that the people finally got their own church ten years later.

It had been worth the wait. The handsome building was designed by Edward Welby Pugin in the ‘late Early English’ style, its beauty enhanced by the use of a variety of stone – blue native granite marbled with quartz for the ashlar work, cream granite for the buttresses, and light pink Elgin freestone for the edging of the doors and windows. Its striking appearance matched its stunning setting, high above Loch Shiel.

It was formally dedicated by Archbishop Eyre, Administrator of the Church’s  Western District, assisted by two English bishops, on 19 August 1873, in the presence of a gathering that included MacDonald of Glenaladale, at whose seat, Glenfinnan House, many of the visitors were accommodated. By coincidence, the date was the anniversary of the Raising of the Standard, and the pipes used were the same set in the possession of the Glenaladale family that had been played at that gathering 128 years before.

The dedication marked the birth of the parish of SS Mary and Finnan. Its bounds extended on the Inverness-shire side from Fassfern in the east to Rannachan on Loch Eilt in the west, including Glenaladale; and in Argyllshire, from Achaphubail on Loch Eil to Polloch on the southern shore of Loch Shiel.

Five years after the erection of the parish the Scottish Catholic Hierarchy was restored and the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles created. Its first bishop was Angus MacDonald, another Glenaladale and Fr Donald’s nephew.

Fr Donald cost the diocese nothing, for he arranged his own accommodation and maintenance. He served Glenfinnan for over thirty years in all – seventeen as a diocesan priest – but with his death in April 1895 care of the parish returned to Fort William. Only when a chapel-house was built in 1903 was it possible to bring in a resident priest again.

Henceforth all expenses, including the cost of housing and maintaining the priest, fell to the parish. The annual returns sent in by the new priest Fr William MacDonald in 1906-7 reveal that it ran at a loss from the outset. The congregation was only fifty-strong, and the offertory collections brought in a mere £5 a year. The bulk of the income came from local endowments topped up by grants from the diocese’s Friendly Society and Quota funds, but it fell a good way short of expenditure.  The problem of debt was already looming – a problem that would continue to trouble the parish and pose questions as to its viability for bishops down the years.

Fr William remained as parish priest until the end of the Great War. But after him the parish had a succession of priests: no less than eight came and went in seventeen years. Most were getting on in years, several were in indifferent health, and two were even recruited from outside the diocese.  It seems that the bishop thought of SS Mary and Finnan as a small backwater and a not-too-taxing charge.

But in 1936 he brought in Fr Angus MacSween, a young man just two years ordained. Though the congregation had been rising it was still only counted in double figures. But what the people lacked in numbers they made up for in piety, as they always had, and Fr Angus was able to report close to 100% attendance at Easter Mass and Communion.

In 1940 he was succeeded by an Irishman, Fr Patrick O’Regan, who had spent the previous eight years in Griminish. Fr O’Regan was to serve Glenfinnan until 1962, the longest of any priest in the life of the diocese before or since, despite Bishop Grant’s twice seeking to transfer him during that time.

In almost every one of his twenty-two years the parish recorded a financial loss, sometimes a major one. To break even would have been difficult for any priest, but the matter was exacerbated by Fr O’Regan’s liberal spending on desirable but prohibitive improvements to church and house – including a protracted attempt to render the church watertight and to dry out the walls – and his undaunted optimism that funding would become available.

Apart from monies he had invested in War Savings and small sums raised at whist drives and socials, his main hope of funding was through selling trees from the church’s seventeen acres of land. And in fact the diocese finally secured a major contract for the sale of timber in 1952, the annual interest on which went some way to paying off the parish’s debt.

About half of the congregation lived to the east of Glenfinnan, by the shores of Loch Eil and on the road to Sunnart.  It was Fr O’Regan’s hope to offer them weekly Mass closer to home, and in autumn 1949 he sought the help of Mr Francis Cameron-Head of Inverailort Castle to provide a building for the purpose. Mr Cameron-Head was happy to offer a large prefabricated wooden hut, especially as it would be sited in the Cameron country of his family, but he set two conditions – that the parishioners undertake to dismantle, transport and re-assemble it, and that it be ready for use by the following 9 June, the feast of St Columba.

Crofter Joseph MacLeod generously offered a site on his land at Alltdarroch, which was cleared and prepared by volunteers. With Oban’s help Fr O’Regan overcame the legal hurdles in record time, and managed to meet the deadline. The new church was formally dedicated on 23 July, and where before Mass had only been possible occasionally in Kinlochiel Public School, it could now be celebrated every Sunday. It was a great benefit to the people, continuing in use after Fr O’Regan left in 1962 and standing as his chief legacy to the parish.

His successor, Fr Joseph Campbell, found himself facing the usual problems. The congregation was holding up at around 85, but it was ageing. There was a dearth of children: in the one Public School that remained within the parish boundaries the number of Catholic pupils had dwindled to five.  The church fabric remained in urgent need of remedial work, and the sacristy was described by the new bishop Stephen McGill as the worst in the diocese.

But Fr Campbell had in his possession something that he thought could help make the needed repairs possible. During his time as priest of the Small Isles in the ’30s the proprietrix of the Canna estate had gifted him a gold-domed antique clock that had been brought to the island in the 1720s. His plan was to have it valued and auctioned at Christie’s. As a news columnist wrote at the time, with only slight and pardonable exaggeration, “it was his most treasured possession, but he was to part with it to save his chapel”.

In the event, it remained unsold. But another source of income came his way unexpectedly. The city of Montreal was full of MacDonalds – there were over 800 listed in the ’phone book – and one of them had visited Glenfinnan and seen the woeful state of the church. From his report a group of them founded the Glenfinnan Association in 1964 in order to raise funds for its renovation and upkeep. Through their contributions Fr Campbell was able to make repairs to the roof and interior and install electric lighting. Within three years they had donated over $2000 Canadian.  A plaque in the church records their generosity.

But Fr Campbell was now a very sick man, having suffered several strokes, and any further projects had to be put on hold. The bishop did not retire him, for he knew that to take him from his beloved Glenfinnan would only hasten his death. In October 1967, after a final stroke, this “good, simple, humble priest, full of faith” died and was laid to rest in the cemetery at Morar.

Bishop McGill replaced him with Fr Patrick Kennedy. He would have preferred to give the young man a larger parish, and promised to move him as soon as one became available. Meantime, because he knew that Fr Kennedy would have time and energy to spare he gave him the post of diocesan Religious Adviser to Schools, a key apostolate in the post-Vatican II era, supporting and guiding teachers and fellow priests with the new Catechetics. He also asked him, in consultation with Canon Iain Gillies (who was a skilled carpenter, and the Diocese’s guru in these matters) to turn the Glenfinnan chapel-house into a comfortable residence. He had it in mind that the parish might later be given to older priests “wishing semi-retirement”.  This arrangement has in fact been put into practice from time to time since.

True to his word the bishop moved Fr Kennedy within a year, replacing him with Fr Joseph McShane, another young priest who was to remain in SS Mary and Finnan for seven years. Thereafter the parish saw a succession of brief appointments – Fr Cameron for three years, Frs John A. MacNeil and Iain MacMaster for a year each, and Fr Calum MacNeil for less than four, before Canon Joseph Terry took over in 1985.

The Canon served Glenfinnan for five years, for part of this time also providing Mass for the tiny Catholic congregation in Portree, as Fr Calum had done before him. But he was actually only parish priest of SS Mary and Finnan between 1985 and 1988, for in that year he moved to Mingarry in Moidart, continuing to serve Glenfinnan from a distance.

Canon Terry had been ordained in 1949 and was thus already well advanced in his priestly career when given SS Mary and Finnan. But his successor Mgr Provost Ewen MacInnes was far more so, for when he arrived in 1991 he was already in his eighties and in the fifty-ninth year of his priesthood. He left Glenfinnan after two years, not to retire but to take on the parish of Morar and Mallaig.

For the next decade SS Mary and Finnan was served from St John’s Caol, for six years by Fr Michael MacDonald and latterly by Fr Roddy Johnston. By now the congregation had dwindled to a mere fifty-three.

In 2004 Fr Donald Ewen Campbell came to live in the chapel-house, and looked after the parish. He remained until his final retirement in 2010, since when SS Mary and Finnan has been served from Arisaig.

The last two generations have seen great changes in the area. Where in Fr O’Regan’s day there were three Primary Schools within the parish, today there are none. Huge improvements to the A 830, the Road to the Isles, have made travel east to Fort William and west to Inverailort, Arisaig and beyond far quicker and easier, whether by bus or for the growing number of families who now own cars. This has transformed the situation of SS Mary and Finnan in relation to its neighbouring parishes. It has brought them far ‘nearer’.

At the same time, the parish’s problems have remained – it cannot pay its way (not with a resident priest, certainly), and its church is in constant, and now drastic, need of repair against the elements. In short, the parish poses a conundrum: the difficulty of keeping it open, yet the importance of doing so.

For the arguments for its continuing are strong. First and most importance, of course, is the argument of the spiritual needs of the local Catholic people (and of summer visitors). But beyond this, the iconic and listed church, standing in a place of beauty forever associated with stirring events in Highland history, urges a more general argument. For the thousands who come by – whether the casual tourist or those with long family roots in the West Highlands – it exerts a powerful attraction, and offers a quiet witness to an ancient and abiding Faith.

It is hoped that now with sufficient funding  the Parish will at last be available to really tackle the seemingly endless problem of damp within the church. And with the continued help of its many friends, local and far-flung, this much-loved building and the small but devout community that it serves will enjoy a long and thriving history yet.