One of the joys of church-going up here on the north coast of Scotland is the sheer beauty that surrounds me on the way to and from every service. As I've mentioned before, the church buildings I've known and loved in my life all matter hugely to me, but here the journey to worship itself can be as unique and awe-inspiring as any beautiful and ancient building.
I think a bit of background is probably needed to begin with, to show just why Holy Week and Easter here are so busy and yet so very special for me. The history of church life in Scotland since the reformation is very different from that south of the border. Here the parish churches found in every town and village belong to the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian. Anglicans such as myself are always made very welcome at their services, but if I want to attend worship in my own tradition, I have to find a congregation of the Scottish Episcopal Church and these are few and far between in this remote and sparsely-populated area.
Two years ago a new Episcopal congregation was inaugurated here in Tongue and we meet once a month on a Friday at a local retreat house, almost in the shadow of Ben Loyal, for a Eucharist followed by a very enjoyable shared lunch. People travel from a wide area to get here, with only a minority of people actually living in the immediate locality, and they need to be fed and watered before they make the journey home.
|The view from the retreat house|
We are part of what is known as the Northwest Charge, which covers the whole of the top left corner of the Highlands as far south as Ullapool. Our Rector lives 60 miles away and has 5 very scattered congregations in his care. I hate to think what his monthly mileage total must be! If we want to attend a Eucharist more than once a month, we too have to be prepared to travel.
Holy Week began of course with Palm Sunday and the Church of Scotland parish service was held across the Kyle on the Melness peninsula, in the most northerly church building on the British mainland.
|The view across the Kyle of Tongue to the Melness peninsula|
|Melness church, built by local men for local people|
Later in the week, on Maundy Thursday I went with 3 friends to an Episcopal Eucharist being held in one of the most unusual places of worship I’ve ever experienced. Once a month on a Thursday at mid-day, people gather from across an apparently empty landscape at the Crask Inn, about 20 miles south of here, and one of the most remote hostelries in the British Isles. As in Tongue, the service is followed by a shared lunch and the chance for a good chat to catch up with everyone’s news. Sadly the weather that day was so bad, with strong gales and driving sleet, that none of the photos in this section were taken by me. However the service was so moving that the battle against the elements faded into complete insignificance and only the experience of worship remains.
Thankfully that was the last kick of winter and Good Friday dawned bright and sunny, as did the rest of the Easter weekend. On Easter Day I walked happily along the road, under a totally cloudless sky, to the parish church for a packed and joyful morning service.
Later that day, still in glorious sunshine, I drove with the same three friends along 50 miles of mainly single-track road across the hills and around the coast to the council day centre in the little fishing port of Kinlochbervie to make my Easter communion at a wonderful service, which was followed by an equally wonderful Highland tea. The drive home at sunset, with tendrils of mist beginning to curl up from the surface of the lochs, and the deer coming down from the hills to the water to drink, was so beautiful that it brought me close to tears at times.
|The Pentland Firth, not the Mediterranean|
|Along the shore of the Kyle of Durness|
|Don't wake the sleeping dragon|
|Loch Sheigra and Loch Inchard at sunset|
Yesterday a very special Easter celebration was rounded off by our monthly Eucharist at the retreat house. The sun may have disappeared behind a layer of thick, grey cloud, but nothing dims the warmth of the fellowship we enjoy and the significance we attach to the worship we travel so far to attend. And there isn't a pew or a stained-glass window to be seen anywhere….