Scotland’s Outer Hebrides aren’t a well known destination for architectural connoisseurs.
So I was surprised the other day, driving along the narrow lane that comprises the main road in the southernmost quadrant of South Uist, to be confronted by a plain, white, building; that rather resembled a pre-multiplex-single screen-cinema.
Rather than being an unlikely north westerly outlet of the Rank Organisation, the structure, sited just across the road from the crofting hamlet of Garrynamonie-upon closer inspection-turned out to be a Roman Catholic church: Our Lady of Sorrows.
South Uist (population 1,818); along with the smaller neighbouring islands of Benbecula, Eriskay and Barra, are described, with complete justification, as being “the part of Scotland that the reformation didn’t reach”. This small chain of incredibly isolated islands are an example-unique in Britain outside of Ireland-of a surviving pre-reformation Roman Catholic community.
And they are, at least in outward expression, intensely Catholic communities at that. In a manner akin to Ireland, Brittany or further south in Europe the islands are watched over by a litany of carefully tended, colourful, alabasta saints statues situated in whitewashed grottos.
The islands; like North Uist their Calvinist neighbour, despite a low (and still shrinking) population are home to a large number of small chapels and churches, with each hamlet of more than a dozen houses seemingly served by some kind of place of worship. Very few of them, a quick scan of their outside notice boards reveals, have mass said their especially frequently. Yet still, like the saints statues, the communities within which they are situated, continue to diligently attend to their upkeep. A few church structures stand roofless, long ruined, but unlike in Wales or the parts of the far south-west there are no or few signs of churches being converted into residential properties.
Our Lady of Sorrows is no exception in this regard. Large by South Uist standards it is as unusual in its modernity, on a island where most churches are small, modest traditional structures, as it is striking in appearance.
Designed by Richard J. McCarron (then newly qualified, it was his first commission) the church was built between 1964-5 replacing an earlier, dilapidated, structure. Due to the church’s remote location most of the building work was conducted by the parishioners themselves: a striking act of faith in of itself.
In terms of appearance Our Lady of Sorrows is stark, possibly even harsh, and angular. Despite the similarities between its form and a mid-20th Century cinema and its obvious architectural debts to the modernist movement, Our Lady of Sorrows harks back as well as forwards. It is whitewashed like so many of the other local churches and its alcoves, even its angularity, recall early Christian sites, like Celtic monasteries built in the 6-7th Centuries, as much as anything constructed during the space age. In this way it’s incredibly simple form, almost like a slab of rock growing out the landscape, connotes thousands of years of Christian tradition, whilst also serving to inject a note of modernity into a landscape and a community that can seem ancient and unchanging.
Except this is not really the case. For all of South Uist’s remoteness, and the sheer proximity to nature inherent in life there, the island’s landscape, almost entirely deforested, subjected to horticulture, quarrying, fish farming and (admittedly light) demands from the tourism industry is as much of a manmade environment as anything on the mainland.
Only incorporated into Scotland in 1266, islands have always been plugged into wider networks of cultural exchange and commercial dealing. In many ways our Lady of Sorrows reflects this. Its construction indicates ways in which mid-20th Century Catholicism attempted to negotiate the demands that modernity placed upon the faith of its communicants.
Read this way Our Lady of Sorrows is a physical expression of how one small community attempted engaged with the movement for reform within Roman Catholicism that gathered pace around the time of the Second Vatican Council. This is expressed in the simplicity and lightness of the church’s form, it is as open in design as it is large and imposing. This speaks to the democratising impulses that animated Roman Catholic theological and liturgical thought at the time. It is also an impulse which finds its way into the church’s interior which is also plain and incorporates local slate and local timber.
What decoration there is, is largely locally inspired, taking on a rugged, naturalistic, Celtic, yet modern expression.
The Stations of the Cross are expressionistic in form, arrayed abstractly and were rendered on slate from South Uist by Canon Calum McNeil, who was the priest of a neighbouring parish.
The ceramic mural of the Sacred Heart produced by the artist David Harding is similar. Harding’s rendition of Jesus is abstract and colourful, recalling the tumult of the sea and the drama of the landscape within which the church and it community are situated.
In terms of layout the front of the church is also open, the pews arrayed relatively informally in short rows. The fittings are equally simple and shorn of ostentation, the worship space as a whole is bathed with sunlight by two, unobtrusive, floor-ceiling height plain glass windows.
In these regards Our Lady of Sorrows is rather like hundreds of other post-war Roman Catholic churches across Britain. Churches often built to serve new estates or in slum clearance areas, part of the wide spread modernising imperative that prevailed in the middle of the 20th Century. Here’s another example (there are many more) on the excellent Sacred Suburbs website.
This said, thanks to South Uists remote location, low population density and unusual cultural and confessional history Our Lady of Sorrows is striking as an expression of how one particular and distinctive community partook in debates about modernisation and the future of religious expression. Given the number of abandoned crofts that litter the island and the modernity of the houses that most islanders live in today, it is clear that South Uist was undergoing its own form of development and modernisation at the time the church was built. The arrival of a large military base in 1958, the opening of causeways to neighbouring islands in 1961 and the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 brought new contacts and new opportunities to the island.
Just as the islanders upgraded their own homes and living arrangements so they chose to update the house of their God. The years since have not been kind to Our Lady of Sorrows, like so many flat roofed buildings of its era its roof is leaking and the damp is not proving kind to its internal structure. The Islands to, have had mixed fortunes. Increased incomes, better services, rising incomes and improving transport connections, giving today’s islanders a standard of living comparable to that of mainland Scots, but conversely also making it far easier to leave and not return.
This said, the Outer Hebrides appear to be in the midst of a series of interesting experiments that raise questions for everyone interested in how people can live better, more sustainable lives, in the 21st Century. For the church’s part, Our Lady of Sorrows was listed in 2009 as part of a major exercise to recognise, record and preserve Scotland’s modernist heritage, perhaps restoration will be on the cards? The community of South Uist remains as much on the fringes of civilisation and at the centre of debate as ever.