Scottish Gaelic religious services in London
In 1567, the Rt Revd. John Carswell, who had been appointed to the Bishopric of the Isles by Mary Queen of Scots in 1565, translated Knox’s Liturgy into Gaelic. His residence was Carnasserie Castle, near Kilmartin, Argyll, and he was known to the Highlanders as “An Carsallach Mor”, ie., The Great Carswell. His labour in translating this important work gains for him the grand distinction of being the author of the first printed book in either Scottish or Irish Gaelic.
Bishop Carswell died in 1572. Contemporary religious figures, who knew the Gaelic tongue in those times and who were educated pastors serving the Highland folk, would have been acquainted with Bishop Carswell’s “Foirm na h-urnuigheadh” i.e.; modes of prayer.
Thirty years after Carswell’s death the Irish New Testament, which was translated by Archbishop William O’Donnell of Tuam, was printed, and owing to the common etymological roots of the Celtic languages, this translation was used by the scholarly clergy as an aid to public worship in Scotland, thus assisting their fellow, and often illiterate, Gaels with their pious devotions. It pre-dates by nine years the Authorised Version of the Scriptures in English, published in 1611, by order of King James the 6th of Scotland ( James the 1st of England.)
Considering the difficulties experienced by Gaelic speaking Highland Scots in the 17th Century, e.g., geographical remoteness, lack of financial resources, the passing of an anti-Gaelic Education Act in 1616, etc., the next few decades were quite productive ones for the stature and progression of Gaelic spiritual literature . For instance, in 1630 Calvin’s Catechism was printed in Gaelic followed by the Shorter Catechism in 1651; the first 50 Gaelic Psalms were printed in metrical form in 1651; the whole Psalter in 1684; the Charteris Catechism in 1688, the very year when Bedell’s Irish Gaelic Bible was being distributed in the Highlands. The Rt Revd. William Bedell [1571-1642], Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, with the help of native Irish speakers, had helped to translate the Old Testament into Classical Irish. Thus, both the Old and New Testaments were now translated into Irish Gaelic, and could be published together as a complete Bible.
It was the Honourable Robert Boyle [1626-1692], son of the 1st Earl of Cork, and one of the Founders of the Royal Society, who financed the printing of Bedell’s Bible (it was always referred to as “Bedell’s Bible”), which he did in partnership with the Revd James Kirkwood, who arranged and paid for the distribution of 207 copies of Bedell’s Bible throughout the Highlands. Robert Boyle was born in Lismore, Co Waterford, Eire and during his useful and interesting life repeatedly refused the dignities of the State, having been several times offered a peerage. A man of keen intellectual acuteness, particularly in the fields of chemistry and science, he left a legacy of written works, and when he died in 1691 was interred under the Chancel of the original St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, London (not the present building, which was built on the same site in 1742, long after his death.)
His earnest collaborator in the distribution of the Scriptures to the Highlanders, the Revd James Kirkwood, was born in Dunbar in 1650 and, while a Chaplain to the 1st Earl of Breadalbane in Perthshire, he became aware of the lack of available spiritual material, particularly Bibles, for the Gaelic speaking population, and immediately sought to remedy the situation. He found a willing helper in the Revd Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle, and a generous patron in Robert Boyle, to accomplish this task. The Revd James Kirkwood died in 1709, but the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) founded in Edinburgh in the same year, continued with his work of spreading ‘The Word’. Initially sceptical but in a short period it opened schools in various Highland areas, using the Bible to increase literacy among the population. By this means, Knowledge of the Scriptures, and written Gaelic, both became highly valued in themselves.
A complete Bible written in standard Scottish, rather than Irish, Gaelic form was eventually published in 1807.
No sooner was the complete Bible available, than the Gaelic speaking exiles in London sought to worship in their own language. Members of the Gaelic Society of London, which had been formed in 1777 and still exists to this day, had been much taken up with contemporary debates surrounding the Ossianic Poems in Gaelic that were published by James Macpherson in the 1760s, being largely convinced of their authenticity.
Following publication of the Scottish Gaelic Bible, London Highlanders began a subscription to have their own Chapel in Central London, where services would be held in the “mother tongue”. The subscription list was patronised by HRH. The Duke of Sussex and other Scottish nobles, and the preamble to the subscription list makes it clear that service in the Chapel should be Presbyterian.
On 30th May 1813 the Gaelic Chapel was opened in Cross Street, Hatton Garden, London. One or two ministers were appointed before it’s most famous, and celebrated incumbent the Revd Edward Irving, accepted the call to be minister in 1822. He did so on the understanding that his fluency in Gaelic should be improved, as he was not a native speaker of the language.
However, Irving had more ambitious plans. He held services in English which drew massive crowds, but the small Gaelic Chapel could not accommodate the ever-growing number of attendees. So he resolved that a new national church should be acquired for his swelling congregation. The new building at Regent Square, Kings Cross, was dedicated in 1827, when a link was made with the nearby Royal Caledonian Schools, whose children could attend its services. Owing to his strange and heretical views, Irving was eventually deposed as a Church of Scotland minister in 1832, and went on to found his own Catholic Apostolic Church.
Evidently, Gaelic services were largely sidelined during those turbulent times, and the upheaval when Irving left, taking many of the congregation with him, did not help their survival. Fortunately for the Gaelic speaking diaspora, the Revd Dr John Lees, a native of Stornoway, who was a schoolmaster and chaplain at the Caledonian Schools, faithfully “preached the Gaelic” at the Chapel each Sunday for the Highlanders, until he left London and returned to his native Isle of Lewis in 1846.
Post 1846, there were no regular Gaelic services held in London, although occasional services were held in a variety of churches throughout the metropolis, usually in the afternoon. Furthermore, the 1843 disruption of the Church of Scotland, which led Dr Thomas Chalmers and his followers to form The Free Church, created a similar division for the continuity of Highland worship in London during the decades thereafter, with separate services being held under the auspices of the respective churches.
However, by 1885 there was a positive feeling among some of the resident London Gaels who attended all Gaelic Services, irrespective of denominational ‘labels’, that steps should be taken to unite under one ‘umbrella’. Many expressed the view that such a project could only succeed by being held out with the authority of denominational Kirk-sessions. Accordingly, in due course, an independent committee was formed, with members drawn from each Presbyterian denomination, to superintend all Gaelic Services that would be held in London thereafter.
Ultimately, the committee decided to concentrate all future services in one central London church building, which it would rent for each ensuing occasion. Gaelic speaking Ministers would be invited down from the Highlands, on and ‘ad hoc’ rota from each of the Presbyterian Churches, to conduct these services. Crown Court Church of Scotland in Russell Street, Covent Garden, was chosen as the most suitable venue in which to hold them, being central and conveniently accessible by public transport for the Gaelic speaking expatriates that are now scattered throughout the Greater London metropolis.
Thus it has continued up to the present day, with London Gaels continuing to worship at Crown Court in their own language, and in their accustomed manner, with prayers when congregants stand, and sit during the singing of psalms to the hauntingly ancient melodies that are unique to their own Gaelic Presbyterian tradition. Visiting Gaels, descendents and family members of former worshippers, even casual visitors wishing to experience our mode of worship that remains rooted to the Highlands of Scotland, will be made very welcome at our quarterly services. These are usually held on the second Sunday of March, May, September, and December. They commence at 3.30 in the afternoon; last for about an hour, and are followed by a light supper in the church hall afterwards mainly to socialise for the exchange of Highland and Island news.