I’ve been asked many times recently if I have any holiday plans, and the truth is I find myself in a bit of a quandary. For many years now I’ve taken the two weeks of the Glasgow Fair to come home and stay with my brother Patrick, who would also take those same two weeks off work, and I would use it as a time to relax and rest and catch up on family. Now that I’m living back in Glasgow, I am able to see the family much more often, and so there is not the same need to take those two weeks at home. So, what I am going to do is not yet decided. I was thinking back to past holidays. I have never been one for too much sun, and the idea of lying on a beach for two weeks horrifies me. I much prefer a city with churches, galleries and museums to visit, nice places to sit and have a coffee and watch the world go by during the day, and simple restaurants to enjoy the local cuisine in the evening. I also enjoy quiet places where I can walk in the hills or by the sea, and read, and leave the world behind for a while.
Before I joined the Passionists, I went for 5 years in a row to the Isle of Barra. I went with a group of friends whom I had got to know through the young adult retreats at Coodham, the Passionist Retreat House in Ayrshire, now sadly closed, that had such in influence on my life. We went to Barra because there were two other people we had got to know through Coodham who were teaching there and they had told us how beautiful it was. Our first visit started disastrously as, immediately after depositing our bags in the guest house in Castlebay, we went for a drink in the local pub. We decided to have a game of darts and, full of the holiday spirit, we got a little bit boisterous. The owner of the pub, perhaps fearing that these six lowlanders were going to be troublemakers, decided to bar us, and when we said that we would just go to the Castlebay Hotel instead, he said that we couldn’t, because he owned that as well. So, there we were, first day of the holidays, and barred from the only two pubs on the island. Fortunately, when the pub owner saw us all at Mass together on Sunday morning, he decided that we might not be such bad guys after all, and so he relented, after which we were on our very best angelic behaviour. But our friends were right, Barra is a stunningly beautiful place, and we fell in love with it, and so we returned to it again and again.
During my lengthy formation years with the Passionists I had never gone back to Barra, but shortly after I was ordained I was asked by the parish priest in Barra’s North Bay, whom I had met during my diaconate year in Rome, if I could cover for him for a few weeks while he returned to Rome to defend his doctoral thesis. I got the necessary permission and gratefully agreed. It was a totally different experience from those previously. Firstly, because I flew instead of going by ferry, and so I had my first experience of circling the island while the cows were cleared from the beach so that the plane could land; secondly, it was winter time and not high summer, and it was at times bitterly cold; and thirdly, North Bay was much more remote than Castlebay, so it was quite a solitary experience. But for all that, and perhaps because of it, it was a wonderful experience, and one that I will treasure always. I looked after three churches and at one stage I had to do the burial of a man whose body had been brought from the mainland. The cemetery was out on the tip of the island at a place called St. Brendan’s Point. We could only take the cars so far and walk over fields the rest of the way. It was so cold my hands were turning blue holding the book for the burial prayers. When I finished the prayers, the grave was filled in, and people knelt down on the ground to recite lengthy litanies in Gaelic. When I got back to the car I had to spend some time rubbing my hands together to get some feeling back, so as to be able to put my hand in my pocket to retrieve the car keys. But still I remain thankful for such a unique and abiding memory.
My thoughts returned to Barra recently with the tragedy at Manchester Arena when Eilidh Macleod from Barra was among the dead and her friend Laura Macintyre was seriously injured. May Eilidh rest in peace Laura know healing, in body, mind and spirit. Amen.