ESKADALE - a place fit for would-be kings
Few places can match the uniqueness of rural Highland churches -oases of tranquillity where mans spiritual need is complemented by the beauty of nature. For a visit that is both aesthetically and spiritually rewarding take the low road to Struy - a narrow winding road that seems to lead into a time-lock where the clear, sweeping river Beauly flows ribbon-like between banks of birches and plantations of firs. Beautiful Strathglass, incomparable in its ever-changing vistas and gentle melancholy. Suddenly, on top of a hillock, a building appears, dazzling in its white-washed harling, set with many-faceted windows: St Marys of Eskadale, built on a scale of grandeur hitherto unknown in the Highlands.
That the chapel was considered grand for its time betrays its denomination. All around, gravestones of its erstwhile priests, parishioners and benefactors tell of the faith of the dead. For St Marys stands in one of the few districts in the Highlands where the inhabitants adhered to their Catholic faith, long after their Chief, The Chisholm, changed his allegiance. It is hard to believe that so large a Roman Catholic chapel was built as far back as 1827, only 34 years after the passing of the Catholic Relief Act which gave freedom of worship to Roman Catholics. Built by another Chief of the area, the 12th Lord Lovat, St Marys is quite different from the few Catholic churches in existence at that time throughout the Highlands - usually barn-like structures, with no windows and a mud floor. No barn this, its windows filling the nave with a light that must have been a revelation to the tenants of the nineteenth century, the traceried rose window being added in the east gable in 1881: a constant source of wonder for the congregation of Eskadale who, at the turn of the century, numbered over 800.
That the people of the Strath stuck to their faith so stubbornly over the centuries says much for their strength of character, although resistance to change must have been partly due to the lack of means of communication in their remote glens. Nevertheless, a determined effort to destroy Catholicism led to the area being without any priests for almost 100 years - the Chisholms of Strathglass having no active defender of their ancient Faith. The latter part of the seventeenth century, however, saw the arrival of the apostle of Strathglass, Mr Robert Munro, a secular priest. A report of 1681 states: The Chief (of the Chisholms) is a most zealous Catholic and so are practically all his vassals, having been reconciled to the Church by the missionary Munro. The reconciliation did not last long; in 1704 the missionary Munro was to be taken prisoner, thrown into Invergarry Castle where he died a few days later as a result of the harsh treatment he received.
The lot of Catholic priests did not improve during the eighteenth century. J. Cameron Lees in County Histories of Scotland (Inverness) relates: Roman Catholic priests after 45 had a very hard time. They were treated as rebels and their offices proscribed. Many in Inverness-shire underwent great hardships. He mentions in particular a certain Mr John Farquharson (secular priests used to be addressed as Mr until about 1880). A Jesuit missionary, greatly loved by the people of Strathglass, John Farquharson came into the area from Braemar knowing no Gaelic but eager to learn. According to James Brownes History of the Highlands he was the first person to make a collection of Gaelic poetry. having become himself a competent composer of Gaelic verses. When Simon Lord Lovat of the 45 imprisoned the priests clerk for poaching salmon in the River Glass and refused to release him, Farquharsons lengthy poem was anything but complimentary - despite his Lordship being a Catholic. The words were also prophetic:
Though sprightly your step, and pompous your gait, Albeit bold and courageous you he; Though cunning as the fox that slyly does wait, Thine enemy will find you, though fast you may flee.
By aged Seer it has been said, Though unavenged your herds will go, Your body will be without its head, Your children sad and full of woe.
At the time of Culloden the priest was imprisoned twice but the indomitable Jesuit eventually came back, under the penalty of death, to serve his people until 1753. The rude baptismal Font he used - a cup-stone formed by some freak of nature - can still be seen today on top of a stone-column outside the Church at Marydale, Cannich.
The latter part of the seventeenth century saw a member of the Chisholms of Knockfin family, founded by Colin, second son of the 17th Chief, become the first native priest of Strathglass since the Reformation. From then on, Strathglass was known as a nursery of priests, five bishops and at least 25 of its priests being directly or indirectly descended from Colin of Knockfin. Little wonder then at the recurring name on the tombstones.
One stone, however, bears a foreign name. In this unlikely place mystery and romance lie buried, perhaps forever, under a large Celtic cross, covered in lichen, with an epitaph composed in Latin. An obituary appeared in The Inverness Courier on February 22, 1872: The Chevalier John Stuart Sobieski: the papers announce the death, at the age of 73 or 74, of one of the brothers, reputed descendants of Prince Charles Edward, who were known in the North thirty years since... The gentlemen dress in Highland costume, which they wore in an attractive, picturesque manner, and had long flowing black hair... Their assumption of royalty was believed by some, though it was well known to readers of history and geneology that Charles Edward (the Young Pretender) left no progeny, but one daughter, by his mistress, Jane Walkinshaw.
What is certain is that the two brothers bore a striking resemblance to the later Stuart kings and when in Edinburgh, in 1837, they were known as the Princes. They certainly had the Stuart love of finery and ceremony. They learned to speak Gaelic, specialised in clan history and costume, after which they published books, on the chivalry of Highland lairds. It is not surprising, therefore, that they were feted by men of rank in Scotland. The public library in Inverness has their book,Vestiarium Scoticum -denounced as a forgery by Professor George Skene of Glasgow University. This accusation - now seriously questioned - discredited them, which may explain why they heft to live in Prague for many years.
When they came North their benefactor, the 13th Lord Lovat, had built for them in 1838 the house on Eilean Aigas - a 60-acre wooded island of idyllic beauty. Imagine the effect in isolated Strathglass of these colourful characters as, banner flying, they were rowed up the river to Eskadale. At the church door the local gentry would kiss their hands, the ladies would curtsey, and all would back away from them. For a little while John and Charles Sobieski were indeed kings of all they surveyed - be it only the island kingdom of Eilean Aigas. Looking at the old tombstone in its peaceful setting it is comforting to believe that these flamboyant con-men of the nineteenth century may have been the last descendants of the Stuarts, who in the end, came home to rest.
Leaving the mystery of the graveyard, turn now to the spaciousness of the chapel, where the prayerful are invited to enter and worship. Believers and non-believers alike cannot but be struck by the simple architecture of the interior that is belied by a white sculptured altarpiece outlined against a blue back-drop. To add to the colour - unexpected in a secluded Highland kirk - pillars and arches of sparkling white support a red ceiling that complements the greeny-blue hue of those of the side aisles. No greyness of colour or spirit here.
To the left of the altar is a wall-painting depicting John the Baptist baptising Christ - a colourful momento left by an itinerant Irish artist who passed through the glen in the Sixties leaving his work unfinished and unsigned. And to left and right are memorials to those who once loved the chapel: to its founder, the 12th Lord Lovat, and to John Sobieski who sought its tranquil solace in death.
Outside in the graveyard another tombstone adds to the the mystery of Eskadale. In January 1856 the congregation must have been in a state of shock when they learned of the death by poisoning of their Parish Priest, Mr Angus Mackenzie, a native of Strathglass and a descendant of Colin Chisholm I of Knockfin. He and two other Highland priests died during a dinner in Dingwall where they had congregated to discuss the building of a church there. Becoming violently ill during the meal, they died almost on the spot. There was no doubt but that they had been poisoned, so rumour was rife that it had been done on purpose. In fact, it turned out that a servant, having been sent out to pick some radishes from the garden to make a sauce for the roast-beef, had mistakenly pulled up the root of aconitum - the beautiful dark blue herbaceous plant, monkshood, every part of which is deadly poisonous. A likely story, thought the Catholics of the day, especially when they had to wait another 50 years for a church to be built in Dingwall!
The chapel of Eskadale from its very foundation has been used to the unexpected, used to seeing strangers in its midst. It welcomed the descendants of the evicted tenants from the Chisholms lands of Upper Strathglass who had been allowed to settle on those of Lord Lovat - Of all Highland chiefs, none dispersed his people more thoroughly than the Macdonells of Glengarry or the Chisholms of Strathglass; it was graced by the ostentatious Sobieskis and their entourage; it comforted the underprivileged boarded-out children of the Thirties who were sent from Glasgow to be housed and to be of assistance in the crofts of Strathglass; it was a reminder of home to the navvies who came from Ireland to build the Hydro-Electric dams after the Second World War.
And outside in a private burial ground can be traced the tragedy of the fall of the house of Fraser. Look for the grave of handsome Shimi, the 24th clan chief of the Lovat Frasers and legendary war hero of the Second World War, whose exploits during the D-Day invasion were portrayed in the film The Longest Day. And beside his grave are those of two of his sons who died almost exactly a year before him, both within ten days of each other. The Master of Lovat was one of them and to pay off his debts Beaufort Castle and estate had to be sold - so putting an end after more than 500 years to the importance of the most influential Catholic family in the North of Scotland.
The call of Eskadale extends far and wide, especially to Nova Scotia where the Chisholms landed after being forced to emigrate in their thousands. But roots are not to be denied and many a descendant can be seen every year wandering round the resting-place of princes, peers and priests. Perhaps this explains the ambivalent atmosphere of Eskadale, its catholic embrace and secluded melancholy being unlike any other kirk in the Highlands.