‘Scotland’s Lourdes’ and a long view on Scottish nationalism

‘Scotland’s Lourdes’ and a long view on Scottish nationalism

This week, Dr Alana Harris (King’s College London) argues that a ‘four nations’ approach is needed to understand the interplay of Scottish, Irish and Unionist loyalties among Scottish Catholics in the inter-war period.

In the wake of its near total annihilation in this year’s election, it is clear that the huge swing of Scottish Catholics away from their traditional support for Labour has played a key part in the installation of an unprecedented number of SNP representatives in Westminster. Roman Catholicism and Scottish Nationalism are not now, it seems, deemed incongruous or incompatible. But it was not always thus. As historian Sir Tom Devine recently reflected on this sea change, for Catholic voters in the 1960s the SNP was a ‘toxic brand’, with devolution perceived as a plot to shore up, amongst other things, the power of the Church of Scotland. And this was a view of longstanding – publications such as the Kirk’s highly controversial report The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality (1923) or the eugenist agenda of Andrew Dewar Gibb’s Scotland in Eclipse (1930) had inclined Scottish Catholics towards the left-wing progressivism of Labour, as well as inculcating ‘British’ sympathies and continental (Catholic) affiliations. In this short piece, I intend to sketch the multifaceted political, patriotic and spiritual commitments of such interwar Scottish Catholics. For such an exploration, a ‘four nations’ approach is imperative in framing and interrogating the interplay of Scottish, Irish and Unionist loyalties amongst this constituency. Yet it can also be limiting, for as this case study of the establishment of a ‘Scottish Lourdes’ in Lanarkshire illustrates, transnational affiliations and European devotional practices offered creative alternatives to restricting ethnic identifications and polarising nationalist sentiments.

In 1922 a dynamic and charismatic parish priest, Thomas T. N. Taylor, conceived of the idea of harnessing what he called the ‘enforced leisure’ of around 300 parishioner-colliers – mostly Irish migrants and some Lithuanian émigrés – during the protracted mining strikes of the period. Thirteen miles outside Glasgow the construction of the Carfin shrine made, as he expressed it, ‘a long cherished dream a reality, the building in Scotland of an open-air Basilica to the Mother of God’. [1] Replicating the grotto apparition site at Lourdes in France, complete with Carrara marble statues of Our Lady of Lourdes and St Bernadette – the gift of a local bookmaker – the creation of ‘an artificial streamlet flow[ing] through a flower-clad rockery of Westmorland stone’ was designed to remind the pilgrim of ‘the famous miraculous spring at the rock of Massabielle.’[2] In the first three months of its establishment, over 250,000 pilgrims travelled to the shrine, to partake in recitation of the rosary, torchlight processions, veneration of the Host and, it was believed, to experience miraculous healing. The shrine quickly captured a wide local constituency. For example, a large group of Italians from Holytown arrived on the Feast of the Assumption with national banners, and the rosary was said in Italian.

Two Goanese torch bearers and four miners in overalls and mining hats, carrying the statue of St Barbara, c. 1931. Reproduced with permission of Carfin Shrine Archive, Motherwell.

FIGURE 1: Two Goanese torch bearers and four miners in overalls and mining hats, carrying the statue of St Barbara, c. 1931. Reproduced with permission of Carfin Shrine Archive, Motherwell.

Goanese sailors carried large torches in procession (Figure 1), displaced WWII Polish soldiers prayed for their assailed motherland, and photos from the archive show an Asian girl pushed in a wheelchair by her family (Figure 2).

An Asian pilgrim in a wheelchair with her family, partaking in a Feast day procession at the shrine, c.1937. Reproduced with permission of Carfin Shrine Archive, Motherwell.

FIGURE 2: An Asian pilgrim in a wheelchair with her family, partaking in a Feast day procession at the shrine, c.1937. Reproduced with permission of Carfin Shrine Archive, Motherwell.

Attracting at the height of its popularity over 200,000 pilgrims annually,[3] these numbers were sustained not only by the Catholic community across Scotland but also by visitors from ‘across the border’ – initially from Manchester, Tyneside and Liverpool, and then from further afield such as Sunderland, Hull, Durham, London and even New York.

This tiny Lanarkshire village was propelled to further national notoriety in June 1924 when a group of 60,000 pilgrims, gathered for the annual Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Motherwell, was prohibited from proceeding under the terms of the Catholic Relief Act 1829. It was later discovered that the local MP, Hugh Ferguson – an Orangeman and Protestant Party member – had requested police intervention to stop the procession. Two months later, the Honourable member for Ormskirk and a prominent Catholic layman, Captain Francis N. Blundell, introduced a private member’s bill for repeal of these punitive prohibitions against outdoor processions and the carrying of the Host in public. Following protracted, and sometimes acrimonious debate, it took Parliament two years to expunge these last vestiges of the Penal laws. And yet the dust from this sectarian squabble did not easily settle. In his 1928 rallying call to ‘nativist’ sentiment and Protestant revival, Leith-born journalist and polemist George Malcolm Thomson identified the ‘miracle working’ Grotto of Carfin as ‘a landmark of the religious and racial revolution . . . changing the spiritual face of [our country] . . . situated in . . . the very heart of industrial Scotland.’[4] As I have explored in more detail elsewhere, Carfin became a cipher for interwar Scottish Presbyterian (and classed) anxieties, but also functioned as symbol for Catholic counter-assertions of a pluralist ‘Scottish’ – but also Unionist and European – identity.[5] While heated sectarian tensions would continue well into the 1930s, culminating in the violent anti-Catholic riots in 1935 that marred the Edinburgh Eucharistic Congress, the ‘spiritual face’ of Scotland was changing and through political means (such as the Labour Party), or confidence in a secure and rooted faith, Scottish Catholics were becoming equal participants in the reshaping of Scottish society. The election results of May 2015, and the defection of a large swathe of the Catholic vote from Labour to the SNP,[6] is just the most recent testament to this profound social and political transformation.

[1] T. N. Taylor, The Carfin Grotto (Glasgow, 1952), 9.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] See Canon T. N. Taylor, The Carfin Grotto: The First Fifteen Years (London, 1938).

[4] George Malcolm Thomson, The Rediscovery of Scotland, 53–4 cited in Tom Gallagher, Glasgow: the Uneasy Peace (Manchester, 1987), 169.

[5] Alana Harris, ‘Astonishing scenes at the Scottish Lourdes: masculinity, the miraculous and sectarian strife at Carfin, 1922-45’, The Innes Review 66(1)(2015), 102-29.

[6] IPSOS MORI poll (2005) – 53% Catholics voted Labour, cf YouGov survey (2015) 48% intended to vote SNP and 38% Labour – Paul Wilkinson and Christopher Lamb, ‘Scottish Faithful desert Labour’, The Tablet, 16 May 2015, 51.

Dr Alana Harris teaches modern British history at King’s College London. She is the author of Faith in the Family: A Lived Religious History of English Catholicism, 1946-82 (Manchester University Press, 2013) and a co-editor (with Timothy Willem Jones) of Love and Romance in Britain, 1918-1970 (Palgrave, 2014). You can find out more about her work on her academia.edu page or follow her on twitter @DrAlanaGHarris

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