The Scottish archipelago where most people are Catholic


The southern islands of the Outer Hebrides archipelago were a stronghold of pre-Reformation Scottish Catholicism.

When one thinks of the British Isles and Catholicism, Ireland surely comes to mind. Yet few of us may know that Scotland is home to an archipelago where, on some islands, the majority of the population is Catholic: the Hebrides Islands.

A panoramic view of Barra, an island in the southern part of the Outer Hebrides archipelago where most people are Catholic. (Credit: Public domain.)

Located off the west coast of Scotland, these islands, split between the 36 islands that make up the Outer Hebrides and the 100 islands of the Inner Hebrides, have been inhabited since Mesolithic times and their inhabitants have strong Celtic, Norse roots. and Scottish. Although most of the inhabitants of these islands are Protestant, there is one notable exception. The southern islands of the Outer Hebrides have been inhabited by Catholics for centuries. They are considered by historians to be the last strongholds of “native pre-Reformation Scottish Catholicism” with the Isle of Barra known as “the island which the Reformation did not reach”. Prior to the Reformation, which occurred in the 1560s, Scotland was indeed devoutly Catholic. The reformist action of preachers like George Wishart and John Knox succeeded in converting most Scots. But on the southern islands of the Outer Hebrides, people did not abandon their Catholic faith. It is estimated that today the vast majority of the inhabitants of the islands of South Uist, Barra, Eriskay and Vatersay are Catholic.

A view of the white sandy beaches of Vatersay, an island in the Outer Hebrides where Catholicism is the main religion. (Credit: Public domain)

Indeed, life on these beautiful islands seems frozen in time. The people live a simple, communal lifestyle centered on fishing, farming, trade and religion. Visitors are often drawn to the restful and peaceful atmosphere that can be enjoyed among the rocky cliffs, lush green fields and white sandy beaches.

Due to the long history of Catholicism in these islands, they are home to unique cultural expressions, such as the chanting of Gaelic psalms. This very moving style of singing, performed only by singers without instruments, works in a technique called “lining out”, where the leader of the performance sings a line and is then followed by all the other singers singing the same line but with their own take the melody. The end result is beautiful sound reflecting the different ways each believer expresses their faith through song. A strong tradition of fishing, along with crofting, is what makes up most of the economic life of the Hebrides. Fishing is so central to the identity of these islanders that each year they hold a

fishermen’s mass

where they bless the fishing boats.

A view of Barra, an island known for its centuries-old Catholic traditions, such as the singing of psalms in the Gaelic language. (Credit: Public domain)

The presence of Catholicism is felt in every town in the Southern Hebrides, but it is perhaps when visiting the island of South Uist that the Catholic faith is most evident. Atop the island’s tallest peak, a 30-foot-tall white granite statue of the Virgin Mary towers over the emerald and blue waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. The statue, called “Bana Thighearna nan Eilean” (“Our Lady of the Islands”), was built in 1957 as a symbol of the islanders’ opposition to the construction of a missile construction facility in the area. Locals believed that building a military operations complex on South Uist would have destroyed much of the islands’ centuries-old way of life. Canon John Morrison led the protest against the move and commissioned the construction of ‘Our Lady of the Isles’, whose features were modeled on those of local women, positioned to face the future construction facility of missiles.

This statue, called ‘Bana Thighearna nan Eilean’ (‘Our Lady of the Islands’), was built on the island of South Uist as a symbol of the islanders’ opposition to the construction of a missile construction facility in the region in the late 1950s. (Credit: Public domain)

The Southern Hebrides are best enjoyed between late April and late June, when the days get very long and rain is scarce. Summer is the time when most festivals, including Gaelic music festivals, take place. While the islands’ remoteness is what keeps their authentic culture alive, visitors will be delighted to know that with a little planning, they are easily accessible from the Scottish mainland. Some islands, such as Islay, Tiree and Colonsay, are accessible by air, while others are easily accessible via the iconic black and red ferry boats by Caledonian MacBraynealso known as Calmac.

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