A house built on love
Frances -land Kydd, mother of the Princess of Wales, is an expert in stonewalling unwelcome enquiries about her daughter. she is also unbelievably good at selling bricks to bind a Catholic House of Prayer earl Iona. JOE JENKINS BEMIG THE MOTHER Of the Princess of Wales does not make for a quiet life. A reporter from a national newspaper recently arrived unannounced at Frances Shand Kydd's Fife home not too far from the splendour of Falkland Palace. Pictures of her grandchildren adorn her sitting room and a sloping croquet lawn rounds off what is rather a lovely family house. Lovely, that is, in between visits by newshounds.
"I said 'I don't know why you come here. Obviously your editor sends you to ask these cheeky questions, but in 16 years I haven't answered them'. He said 'We come and we'll keep on coming because we know one day one of us will break you'. I quite liked that remark because it toughened my resolve that no one's going to win."
I took this to be a warning. I had intended to raise the issue of whether the Princess of Wales might embrace Catholicism, as rumoured after her mother's reception into the Church in 1994. As if in anticipation of this, Mrs Shand Kydd interjects: "Keep going. I can stonewall very happily. You just keep going." She is a tough lady.
At her other home on the Isle of Seil, near Oban, where she has lived for 24 years, Mrs Shand Kydd is as susceptible as her daughter to the prying paparazzi lenses. "I know how to get through the back in all the shops in Oban. I'm a good alley-cat. They aren't," she says, laughing loudly, as if in scorn at the efforts of the press to track her every move.
"There's only one of me and there's a hell of a lot of them. It's my personal choice that I don't talk about family. If I let it get to me there's only one person who will get the ulcers, it'll be me. Not them."
Her family ties, however, have been of tremendous value to the appeal she runs for the Colmcille Trust, which aims to have a Catholic House of Prayer math an oratory and accommodation open to the public in time for next year's 1,400th anniversary of the death of St Columba, the Irish monk who founded Iona as a sacred place of pilgrimage and devotion for Christians everywhere. Her appointment in 1994 as secretary of the fundraising appeal, which has so far accumulated £92,000, largely through its Buy A Brick Campaign (at £.5 a brick), was inspired.
"People seemed to think it was my idea. It's not. I'm just
the secretary. But I think it helps a little bit. It certainly does in getting publicity. You do tend to get in the national press: 'Di's Mum Builds Church On Iona'. It makes me wince a bit but if it brings in money I suppose I should
just keep quiet."
She agreed to run the appeal because of the "vision and generosity" of Mary Burn-Murdoch, whose visits as a child to Iona left an indeli
ble impression, and she set up the Trust, with the Diocese of Argyll and The Isles, in 1991.
IONA ABBEY HOLDS numerous ecumenical services, but is considered too busy a place for reflection and peaceful prayer. "It's quite difficult to be quiet there," she says. "Last time I was there I heard four different languages and all around was an enormous number of people with video cameras, backing into each other. So I think that it's accepted that to have a quiet place on Iona is a need." The Trust is in the process of converting a house, where visitors will stay at a similar rate to local accommodation on the island. It is prayer and breakfast.
"People write and say that they have prayed for years for a Catholic presence on Iona. It's a place for prayer rather than the celebration of Mass. The furnishings are going to be very simple, hopefully creating an atmosphere where people of all faiths would be quite happy to he. The donations for the renovations have come from just about every faith, including one man who wrote to me and said 'I am quite definitely an agnostic but admire what you're doing so
can I buy some bricks?'
"It's very much in the spirit of Iona ecumenical. We wanted a small, permanent, Catholic presence on the island along with all the others, in a way that is not competitive or separatist. If it was either, I wouldn't be involved. I'm not a denominational person at all. I respect all the faiths."
Another £20,000 is needed to complete the work. Most support but not exclusively has come from Scotland and Northern Ireland, which the appeal has specifically targeted, "The campaign has been absolutely tremendous. Every brick is given by someone, or for someone, for a fee. The biggest number are in memory of someone such as for the celebration of the birth of twin grandsons, for a love of Scotland, fox all kinds of beautiful reasons and they're going to be recorded in a book. About
4,500 bricks have been given and they all write and say we're comig next summer and planning to stay. The numbers are so great that the trustees are thinking that to be fair to all we probably wouldn't let anyone stay more than two to three nights."
Is she surprised by the response? "Very. I'm a great believer in thanking people personally so I get up at six o'clock each morning and do two hours on this at least. I think I've now addressed appeal letters to up to 7,500. I think if I'd known what I was setting out to do I'd have had neither the courage nor the confidence. It's something that's just happened.
‘ E LETTERS I'VE
had accompanying the donations arc so prayerful, it almost makes it prayerful before it's consecrated. I've had some unbelievably moving letters from people just aching with unhappiness and loneliness. There's a huge number of sudden deaths, car crashes, children dying of cancer and cot deaths, and they write very simply and very movingly that it would be lovely to know that she or he is specially remembered that it would be a joy to go and visit, to be together again.
"I've been surprised by the unbelievable honesty of people and their trusting me... well that's well-placed as I am like a zipped-up oyster. But it's really a confession to a stranger and I can't help feeling that in some way that's really quite healing in itself. You're not family, you're not parish, you're not a friend, but in a way you're an extra friend. I find it a huge privilege, sometimes very emotional, very humbling, very special.
"I answer quite a lot of them. I write back and say I'm sorry you're having a sad time and I hope you'll know kinder, gentler days. It seems to be greatly appreciated. I think that if a church is built by an enormous family, it's something rather special. It's practical, but clearly heartfelt."
She is certainly committed. "I really don't do much else at the moment," she says, overlooking the other ten charities and causes in which she is involved. She is patron of a
local Fishermen's Association. "I enjoy that it's 500 men and I'm the only girl on the team."
Stre mum LOURDES in July with clergy from the Diocese of Dunkeld and a group of elderly Dundonians. It was her second visit and she is already "hooked and booked for next year". "I'm not alone, I know, in finding it very difficult to be articulate about Lourdes. It's a huge privilege to fly out with the disabled. You're responsible all day long for them. If there are enough helpers you can take them on a one-to-one basis. It's rather nice for someone to say to them What do you want to do this afternoon?' and to do it. It's a very sustaining experi
ence, it lasts long after you're back."
She says that she dislikes the word "conversion" and says that it sounds like a sort of disease. She worshipped in the Catholic Church for six years before becoming a member.
"I thought that this was an ideal opportunity to give something back to the Church that is, and has been, very good to me. I moved to Scotland and was looking for a spiritual kennel and felt very comfy in the Catholic Church
and enjoyed the warm humanity. There comes a Lime when you don't want to be a welcome guest any more, you want to be a member."
I ask if the ongoing debates within the Church ever dismay her. "1 think it means that the Church is healthy. There is room in the Church for everyone. In all huge international families you are bound to have very diverse opinions. It's a strength, not a weakness.
"We're all human beings. The only thing important in life is to be true to yourself. You see so many people presenting themselves as they think other people want them to be."
The Colmcille Trust Buy A Brick Campaign: Callanish, Isle of Seil, by Oban, Argyll PA34 4TN