Once deeply Catholic, modern Scotland needs a theological revival

From Saints Mungo and Margaret to writer George Mackay Brown, the Catholic roots of Scotland run deep, despite post-Reformation neglect.

On a recent trip to Scotland Bishop Gilbert of Aberdeen asked me whether I was familiar with the Scottish writer George Mackay Brown. I had to confess that I had never heard of him. A few days later I was rummaging through second-hand book stores searching for everything and anything by Mackay Brown.

Bishop Gilbert had got me hooked by suggesting I read Mackay Brown’s essay “The Treading of Grapes,” which takes the form of three homilies on the Wedding Feast of Cana. One is delivered in 1788 by a classically Calvinist Presbyterian minister, down on every kind of human enjoyment from wine to party dresses. He uses the story of Cana to berate his flock about spending too much money on their wives’ wardrobes, and drinking too much at weddings. He compared their enjoyment of ale to piglets sucking on the teats of a sow. 

The second homily is delivered in the 20th century by a modern liberal Protestant minister, who uses the homily to explain that Jesus didn’t really turn water into wine. There was no miracle. Jesus was simply a good organizer who saw to it behind the scenes that supplies were sufficient.  

Finally, one is treated to a homily by a Catholic priest delivered in 1548. Rather than berating people as piglets, or denying the reality of miracles, the priest tells his congregation that at the wedding feast of the Lamb they will all be princes. Therefore, he says, I will call you Olaf the Fisherman and Jock the Crofter no longer, but I will call you by the name the Creator will call you on the last day—princes! Prince Olaf! Prince Jock!, et cetera.

If anyone wants to explain the difference between Calvinism and Catholicism to a class of students of any age, I would suggest handing them a copy of “The Treading of Grapes.” The contrast between the piglets and the princes is dramatic.

For those who, like me, get addicted to Mackay Brown I would strongly recommend the recently published book by Alison Gray: George Mackay Brown: No Separation (Gracewing: London, 2016).

Gray observes that one of the many literary gifts of Mackay Brown was that he opened up the pre-Reformation Catholicism of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. He gave his readers a window into a culture which has been suppressed and scorned since the Reformation. Brown “glides seamlessly from the natural to the supernatural worlds. There is no separation between the profane and the sacred.”  Brown reads the world sacramentally.

Speaking of that separation, Gray writes:

The splitting of faith and reason had come from the Reformation, where the fides quae, the religious facts about God, were separated from the fides qua, the way these facts are lived; the cognitive separated from the non-cognitive, the propositional is separated from the non-propositional, and this ultimately leads to the separation of faith and reason that are inseparable in Catholicism. (p. 44)

Mackay Brown was a convert who had rejected Scottish Presbyterianism and all its dualisms and dour drabness. His gift was that he was able to write in such a way that the reader is drawn back into a pre-Reformation world of pristine Orcadian Catholic culture. Again, to quote Gray:

The contemplative attitude finds a “quarry of images” in a pre-Reformation sensorium within which Mackay Brown embraces not only a wild beauty but also vanished communities; “the old wals of Churches and Monasteries, the defaced ruines of altars, images, and crosses do cry with a loud voice, that the Romain Catholique faith of Jesus Christ did tread this way.” (p. 5)

The feeling that “the Romain Catholique faith of Jesus Christ did tread this way” is an emotion with which I am quite familiar. I have experienced it before in places that were once deeply Catholic, such as Paris, but I have never experienced it so strongly as when in Scotland.

In the Scottish cities the centuries-old cathedrals were once places of Catholic worship. Now they are under different management, mostly Calvinist in inspiration, and the faith that caused them to be built is marginalized as something “foreign.”

The University of Glasgow is a typical example. It was founded before the Reformation in 1451 by Bishop William Turnbull. Not only is its chapel now used for Protestant services, but the “space” also doubles as a venue for student dances.  

The student handbook of the university contains a long list of chaplains representing different faiths, including “paganism.” There is something quite incongruent about the university’s motto—“The Way, the Truth, and the Life”—and a pagan chaplain.

As if this were not surreal enough, I decided to take a taxi through the fog and rain to see something which calls itself the “St. Mungo Museum of Religious Art and Life,” located near the necropolis in Glasgow. The museum had nothing at all having to do with St. Mungo. Apart from a few pieces of stained glass and pictures of angels, there was little in the place that was Christian.  

I tracked back to the receptionist and asked if they had any exhibits on St. Mungo. The receptionist looked surprised by the question, as if no one had asked this before. He politely explained that the name “St. Mungo’s Museum” was just a name—it signified nothing except the museum’s location near St. Mungo’s Cathedral. 

Prior to the Reformation, St. Mungo’s Cathedral was a major pilgrimage center, but now it is a lonely place sandwiched between a Victorian-era infirmary and the necropolis, behind the misnamed St. Mungo’s Museum. Almost everything about this precinct was dark and creepy.

The Catholic cathedral, called St. Andrew’s, is a much newer building on the edge of the major shopping mall and the north bank of the River Clyde. When I Googled “Catholic cathedral Glasgow,” the first hit I read was a self-righteous article from the Guardian claiming that the place is an eyesore, too Italian, and a waste of money that should have been given to the poor. 

I expected to find lots of pink cherubs in blue clouds at the cathedral, but instead the decoration is quite minimalist and uncluttered. The space is suffused with natural light and the pillars have been painted with ribbons of blue and white flowers, edged with gold leaf, evocative of Our Lady. There were no fat cherubs, no plump Madonnas, nothing that to me screamed “Italian.” There was, however, a painting of St. John Ogilvie, which seemed appropriate given that he is a local martyr.

Interior of St. Andrew's Cathedral, Glasgow. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I went to Mass at St. Andrew’s on three occasions and each time heard a seriously good homily. The priest saying the Mass could also sing. He warmed the place up with his voice.

A not-so-warm experience was my visit to Pluscarden Abbey near the village of Elgin in the Diocese of Aberdeen. Bishop Gilbert kindly took me on a day trip to his old home. He had been the abbot of Pluscarden before becoming the bishop of Aberdeen. The weather app on my iPhone said it was 5 degrees below zero. Even if it had been 10 degrees below zero, the Sunday High Mass was worth the discomfort. Bishop Gilbert preached a homily in which he said that we all have a choice between two fires: the fire of hell’s lonely anguish and the fire of the Sacred Heart. The choice defines every human life. 

The monks chanted the Mass and the Office in Latin and during their breaks from prayer they asked after a number of my Australian friends. They were right up-to-date with what is happening in other parts of the British Commonwealth, even though they live tucked away on an estate not far from the North Sea. 

An unanticipated surprise was my discovery of Baxter, the monastery cat, who is named after the soup factory in the nearby town. He is famous. Baxter memorabilia brings in more money at the gift shop than sales of any other item, including Rosary beads, books, soap, and medicinal products. Baxter cards, calendars, and coffee-table booklets outsell everything. He is at his best with the many families who visit during the summer months. He meets and greets and plays with the children. Even though he has only half a tail, he is not shy or self-conscious.

I was pleased to hear that the monastery had a pro-cat policy. I said that I thought Pope Benedict would strongly approve, and I was told that Pope Benedict knows about Baxter.

As we drove back to Aberdeen through the twilight and as village after village went by, I thought how sad it was that in many of these little hamlets there is not a single Catholic church. I told Bishop Gilbert about St. John Vianney’s remark to Archbishop Ullathorne—that he truly believed that one day the Church in the United Kingdom would be restored to her former glory. I got the impression that Bishop Gilbert thought that if this prophecy was true it was not about to be fulfilled any time soon.

Since I was in Scotland to deliver the Cardinal Winning Memorial Lecture I also had the privilege of being introduced to Cardinal Winning’s successor, Archbishop Tartaglia. As his surname suggests, Tartaglia is from an Italian migrant family. To me he combined Italian human warmth and the gift for friendship with Scottish no-nonsense practicality. In one of the best homilies I have heard on Catholic education, delivered at the University of Glasgow’s Turnbull Hall, he exhorted Catholic educators to understand that their mission must be Christocentric. 

When I told Archbishop Tartaglia how impressed I was with the quality of his student chaplains he spoke of his young priests with deep paternal affection, but lamented that he did not have more of them. Again there was a sense that the harvest is there for the taking if only there were more priests on the ground. 

It can’t be all that difficult to compete with liberal Calvinism and garden-variety New Age paganism when one has the full treasury of a sacramental Catholicism—a faith for which there is “no separation,” no iron curtain standing between the sacred and the profane, no unbridgeable gulf between heaven and the Highlands and the valley of the River Clyde. 

Perhaps the works of Mackay Brown can provide, as Alison Gray suggests, the forecourt of a Catholic theological revival in the land of Mungo, Magnus, and Margaret.

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About Tracey Rowland 15 Articles
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a past Member of the International Theological Commission. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of several books, including Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), Catholic Theology (2017), The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (2017), Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (Angelico Press, 2019), and Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (T&T Clark, 2021).