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Friday 6 September 2013

The Big Priest of Lochaber: Maighstir Iain Mòr

The following historical anecdote was taken down by Calum Maclean on the 16th of January 1951 from the recitation of Archibald MacInnes of Achluachrach in Brae Lochaber:
Bha seo mun chiad sagart a bh’ ann am Bràigh Loch Abar an deaghaidh an Reformation, a bha a’ fuireach ann anns a’ pharaist, Iain Mòr mac Dhughaill, an sagart, Mgr. Iain Mòr mac Dhùghaill – Dòmhnallach a bh’ ann. Agus cha robh e uamhraidh toilichte san àite idir leis bha iad cho fada gun sagart. Agus bha iad car a-mach à cìos. Ged a chum iad an creideamh bha iad rim moladh gun do chum iad e. Ach, co-dhiù, fhuair e fios gun robh boireannach tinn ann an Achadh na Fras, air talamh Innse, taobh deas Spèathain. Is ràinig e is bha i sgeadaichte gu math anns an dòigh a b’ fheàrr a bhiodh i le cuid de h-uile nitheann a bha aice a chuireadh i uimpe agus mun cuairt dhith air a h-uile dòigh. Thuirt e rithe nach bu droll an sgeadachadh a bha a bha i ma bha i a’ faighinn a’ bhàis.
“O!” thuirt i, “cùin’ a bhithinn sgeadaichte mar bithinn sgeadaichte a’ dol mu choinneamh mo Chruthadair?”
Cha do ghabh e beachd sam bith gun robh am Bàs oirre. Ach co-dhiù fhuair i dleasdnas. Agus dh’ fhalbh e agus thadhaill e ann am fear eile dhe na taighean leis bha gràinnean thaighean còmhla. Cha robh e fada a-staigh as an taigh, nuair a thàinig teachdaire bhon taigh eile, anns an robh e, gun robh am boireannach marbh. Thuirt e:
“Cha do shaoil leam gun robh uiread de chreideamh ann an Loch Abar,” thuirt e. “Chan fhalbh mi idir.”
Bha e am beachd falbh roimhe sin is falbh às uile gu lèir. Ach thuirt e:
“Chan fhalbh mi às idir a-nise.”
Is thug e dà fhichead bliadhna ann gus an do dh’fhalbh e às le aois, nach robh e comasach air an còrr a dhèanadh anns an dùthaich, nach robh e comasach air an àite a chumail na b’ fhaide.
And the translation goes something like the following:
This concerns the first priest in Brae Lochaber following the Reformation who stayed in the parish: Big John MacDougal, the priest, Father Big John MacDougal, who was a MacDonald. And he was not terribly happy to be in this place at all for they had been without a priest for so long. They were a little out of way of religious observance. Although they kept the faith they had to be praised in maintaining it. But, in any case, he got word that a woman was ill in Achadh na Fras, on the grounds of Inch, south of the River Spean. When he arrived he saw that she was dressed well in her best finery with all the finest things she possessed and she had clad herself in every possible way. He said to her that it was rather droll she should be dressed like that if she was going to die.
“Oh!” she said, “when should I be dressed if I cannot be dressed like this when I go to meet my Creator?”
He had no idea that she was about to die. But, in any case, she had done her duty. He left and visited another house for there were many houses grouped together [in this place]. He had not been long in the house when a messenger came from the other house in which he had been to say that the woman had died. He said:
“I didn’t know there was such faith in Lochaber,” he said. “I mean not to leave at all.”
Before this he had thought that he would leave all together. And he said:
“Now, I mean not to leave.”
He spent forty years [attending his parish] until old age took him, until he wasn’t able to do any more in this locality, and that he was unable to keep the place going. 
The crux of the story is that the woman’s faith in the face of meeting her creator gave resolve to the priest to stay and minister to the people. It is an uplifting story in the way in which Roman Catholicism was helped to be maintained in this part of the West Highlands. A fuller account of the tradition is given in the first volume of Dom. Odo Blundell’s The Catholic Highlands of Scotland where it is stated that John MacDonald was referred to as Maighstir Iain Mòr and was himself descended from the Clanranald MacDonalds on his paternal side and from Bohuntin MacDonald (Sliochd an Taigh) on his maternal side:
Having, according to the prevalent opinion, received Holy Orders in Rome, he made his way to his native country, where he arrived about the year 1721, and entered immediately upon his pastoral duties. It is said, and also believed as a fact, that upon his arrival in the district of Lochaber he found amongst the whole inhabitants only three families that practiced the duties of the Catholic religion; not indeed that they ever lapsed into Protestantism, for they were in reality more ignorant than heretical, but they had in a manner become quite indifferent to the profession of any kind of religion whatsoever…Mr Macdonald’s prospects at the commencement of his missionary career were far from being encouraging, for the portion of the vineyard committed to his charge had grown wild and unproductive…He laboured incessantly, in season and out of season, to stem the torrent of iniquity that flowed over the land. He sowed the seed, but still the soil seemed barren and unproductive. After having given to his wayward flock what he considered a fair trial, he was doomed to experience the most bitter disappointment.
After sketching the background to the moment of truth, Blundell then details the narrative of the Big Priest’s decision to remain where he was:
The consequence was that he resolved to abandon the mission of Lochaber, and to transfer his services to some other more congenial spot, where his labours might prove more productive. He had even fixed on the day of his departure; but ere that day came round, a sick call was sent to him. It was to attend a woman at Insch. Without loss of time he obeyed the summons; but on arriving at the residence of the sick person, to his great surprise he found her not only in an apparently good state of health, but also decked out like a bride in her best and gayest attire. He was much astonished, and began on the spot to rebuke her roundly with having sought to impose upon him; “for, judging,” said he, “by your present appearance, there is not the most distant danger of death; besides, why are you so gaudily dressed on such an occasion?” To this she answered: “I have frequently during my life adorned myself thus with the desire of making myself agreeable in the eyes of the world; and if I acted so from silly vanity, how much the more ought I now to present myself, in the most becoming manner I am able, to receive so great and august a guest you have brought with you to my humble dwelling─my Lord and Saviour in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. As to the hour of my departure from this world, I feel it is now near at hand; be pleased, therefore, Priest of the Living God, to receive without loss of time my confession─to give me absolution and to administer the other Sacraments appointed by my Redeemer to aid the dying Christian to appear with confidence before the tribunal of God.” Persuaded at length by her entreaties, he did as he was desired, and scarcely had he finished, when she calmly expired without the least appearance of sickness or pain.
Such a remarkable event gave the priest pause and so he resolved to continue with his missionary work (which lasted forty years) in Brae Lochaber. He himself passed away in 1761 and his last pastoral act was to baptise, three days before his death, Donald MacDonell, son of Angus of Keppoch.
Dom. Odo Blundell, The Catholic Highlands of Scotland, 2 vols. (Edinburgh; London, Sands & Co., 1909–17)
SSS NB 8, pp. 746–47
Cille Choirill, Brae Lochaber. Licensed through Creative Commons

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