Hugh MacDonald: Highlander, Jacobite, Bishop

Hugh MacDonald: Highlander, Jacobite, Bishop

Hugh MacDonald: Highlander, Jacobite, Bishop

Hugh MacDonald: Highlander, Jacobite, Bishop


This is the story of a man who belonged to one of the most important families of the West Highlands - the MacDdonalds of Morar - and who played a part in the '45 (blessing the prince's standard at Glenfinnan) and who, as the first Roman Catholic bishop of the Highlands, played a crucial role in the development of the Church, both in Scotland and the New World. The book explores the connections and tensions between the three worlds of Highlander, bishop and Jacobite. As the first Scottish trained Roman Catholic priest and the first Highland bishop since the Reformation, Hugh MacDonald was forced to run his diocese from a number of different places and using a number of different aliases. For 40 years he led his congregation through events that were to change the Highlands for ever - the first emigration to the New World, the first Clearances, the appalling aftermath of the Jacobite rebellions - and which were played out against a background of the seismic shifts that were taking place in Highland society. Hugh MacDonald's life began and ended amidst devastating famines, and took him from the remotest Hebrides to the Jacobite court in Paris and brought him into contact with cardinals and fellow bishops, chiefs and bards, saints and traitors.


If you take the Road to the Isles almost to its end, and have reached the west coast, with the dark saw-toothed mountains of Skye already in sight, and reaching the village of Morar, beside the level-crossing, you mount the 137 steps that climb among bushes to the vantage point, and emerge breathless on the bald top of the knoll, there standing before you is a huge cross.

Beside it is a brass map set upon a stone stand, shaped like a wheel with spokes radiating out, pointing to the landmarks visible in every direction. With powerful symbolism the cross stands at the centre of a circle, with the lands spread out beneath it.

Here we are in a part of Scotland where the Christian faith is still at the centre of most people’s lives; one that was in fact entirely Catholic until a hundred years ago, when the railway, that snakes in a broad ‘S’ bend beneath our feet, opened up the fishing port of Mallaig, and opened up Morar to the world.

This was, in Penal times, one of the fastnesses of the Old Religion, that had remained unbroken and essentially unchanged since the time of Columba. There are other places, certainly, and sites elsewhere that have survived to recall that faith. But if any one place in the West may be called the lieu de mémoire of the Penal Church in Scotland, it is surely this.

It was here that Hugh MacDonald’s story began some three hundred years ago, and here that much of it took place. Inland, where Loch Morar bends, is the mouth of Glen Meoble, where he was born. Closer to hand lies Eilean Bàn, the island in the loch where he began his training for the priesthood, and where later he trained others. To the west, beyond the golden estuary and out across the sea is Uist, the furthest extent of his authority as bishop – so far away is it that its two highest hills seem to be separate islands on the horizon. To the north, the grey peaks of Knoydart, and to the south, hidden by Morar’s own hills, Arisaig and the high round mass of Roshven in Moidart, heartlands all of the Church he served. And on the eastern horizon Gaor Bheinn above Loch Arkaig, pointing onwards to Aberchalder beside Loch Oich, where he spent his . . .

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