Saturday, 13 August 2011

A remarkable priest

James Chisholm first appeared on my radar when I transcribed the Napier Commission's Report for Castlebay. I was not able to find much on him in the censuses, apart from the one for 1901. I therefore enlisted the help of Sandy Stephens in South Uist, who kindly unearthed the following information on Canon James. I summarise from "Catholic Highlands of Scotland", by Frederick Blundell, originally published in 1917.

He was priest in Barra and environs between 1883 and 1903, during which he built a chapel in Mingulay. His main work is the building of the new church, the present-day edifice, in Castlebay. He appealed for its construction in 1887 on the grounds that the previous building could not accommodate the numbers of parishioners (between 2,200 and 2,600), which in fact were spread over eight different islands. It needs to be borne in mind that in the 1880s, the Bishops Isles (Barra Head, Mingulay, Pabbay and Sandray) were still inhabited with sizeable populations.

The new church was opened in Castlebay in 1889, and Rev Chisholm was gushing with pride when he said: "The church is beautiful in design, and the workmanship is substantial enough to withstand the Hebridean gales for a century or two to come. The site is extremely well chosen, resting on the crest of a rugged and steep crag, overlooking the village of Castlebay, and the historiccastle of the warlike MacNeils. It will be a landmark for the daring fishermen of Barra, as they venture to and from their deep-sea excursions ... the church even now, in its unfinished state can fairly claim to be second to no edifice erected for divine worship from the Butt of Lewis to the wave-worn cliffs of Barrahead."

Canon James was moved to a new parish at Arisaig, on the mainland, where remained for the rest of his life. James Chisholm died in 1948 at the age of 94, just outside Morar, near Arisaig.

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