Hugh Kay reflects on the history of the Scottish Catholic Observer and recalls his time as editor
THE STORY of Catholic life in Scotland for the past 100 years is chronicled in the pages of the Scottish Catholic Observer which celebrates its centenary this week with a civic reception in Glasgow's City Chambers.
It used to appear in two editions called the Glasgow Observer in the West and the Scottish Catholic Herald in the East. Its major role throughout
the years has been to mirror the growth of Scottish Catholic society from the days when is readers struggled for survival in poverty and a distrustful climate to a strong and successful maturity in the ecumenical age.
The paper has been owned since before the second world
war by the Catholic Herald
group, but its first proprietor was the tempestuous Charles Diamond, an Irish nationalist, who came to England as a young man and ran 40 publications here, was always active in Irish politics, and went to jail for six months for an article he wrote on the ethics of tyrranicide shorlty after a bid to assassinate the Irish Viceroy, Field Marshal French.
The arrival of waves of Irish immigrants to Scotland in the 19th century marked the second Spring of the Catholic Church north of the border, For the Catholics of Scotland this was a phase of intense struggle, pursued with enormous energy, vigour and creative innovation.
Great churches were built with the pennies of the poor. Craggy parish priests, sturdily built in body and spirit, were the natural leaders of a community with little to its name apart from a matchless power of love and a flat refusal to accept defeat.
The Observer of those days was a voice of tribal aspiration, not to say tribal warfare, notable for its passionate obsession with the fortunes of
Celtic, the Catholic football team. It recorded the heroic determination of an underprivileged people to care for its own in charity bodies and Catholic schools. Its attitude to the Protestant community was, inevitably perhaps, one of confrontation. It was a long time before anyone wrote about separated brethren.
Those were the days of the struggle for Irish Home Rule and then, between the wars, of a fierce depression and the razor gangs of 'No Mean City'. The folklore is endless, from the priest who rode a horse and was jailed for refusing to break the
seal of confession to the silkhatted pastor who led the demonstrations that clashed with the Protestant rallies at Bridgeton Cross. In other parts of Scotland there was a different tale to tell, but the Observer was, after all, based in Glasgow.
By the time 1 went there to edit the paper in 1956 the picture was very different. Catholics had made their way into public life and the professions, and done so with distinction. They were judges scholars and brilliant trade union leaders. The young Archbishop Gray, of St Andrews and Edinburgh, had begun to lead the Church into the world of the new theology and the ecumenical age long before the Second Vatican Council.
One the paper's more distinguished contributors was Fr James Quinn, S.1, who, together with Professor Tom Torrance, startled Scotland with an outstanding ecumenical exchange on the highest levels of scholarship in the columns of The Scotsman, while one of the most influential centres of dialogue was the Cistercian Abbey of Nunraw under the tiny figure and luminous mind of Abbot Mulcahy.
The vigour of the immigrant Irish had blended more and more with the grandeur of the older Scottish tradition. Strange to,think of the tremors, and the pride, with which I gave the front page one week in 1959 to the proceedings of the Church of
Scotland's General Assembly. For some of the older traditions of Church life were not at ease with the tentative liberalism emerging with trepidation in the shadow of authority. In all this, priests and even bishops were not at one, and some of my own tentative plys had to withstand the odd painful phone call from chilly voiced prelates on Friday mornings after the paper was published.
It was a time of pilgrimage, at times unnerving but always exhilarating. Throughout it all, nothing could quench those special qualities of Scottish Catholicism: fierce loyalties, large and closely knit families, churches packed to the doors for novenas, and the spread of a new intellectual adventure.
Never in my life have I known the joys of brilliant conversion than in Lauder's Bar in Sauchiehall Street on Saturday mornings with a group of Catholic teachers and journalists. And never have I forged such friendships, Sassenach though I was — and at first more than a little suspect. For if there is one thing a Scot will not stand, it is having an Englishman tell him what to do.
I left Scotland before the Vatican Council and it fell to my successors to record the Second Vatican Council, and the vigorous search for fellowship and theological dialogue with our sister Churches.
Like many another popular paper, the Observer was often the paper its readers loved to hate, especially with the struggle within its columns between the parish pump tradition and the modern attempt to span the skyline of the universal Church.• I recall the struggle to save reports of major papal statements from encroaching columns of the classified columns of births, marriages and deaths, festooned with outrageous verses.
The Observer, in journalistic terms, has never been one of the 'greats'. But it has served the Church and its readership, and has always had personality. The days when the great industrial relations battles of Clydeside were fought in its columns have passed. Its record of campaigns for Third World causes has yielded many thousands of pounds and remains intact.
If one may express a hope for its future, it is that it will, while retaining its local interest, open up to the wider world and the universal Church anew.