I HAD occasion to spend last weekend in the highlands of Scotland which I much enjoyed. It is exhilarating to make so: effortless a transition from London at breakfast time (fly/driving via Inverness) to arrive at a delightful loch-side fishing hotel in time for lunch in breath-taking scenery barely a hundred miles from the northern Scottish coast. It takes a little time to realise how truly you are in "another world".
Sutherland is one of Britain's least populous counties, a sad legacy even now of the ruthless Highland clearances of nearly 200 years ago.
Though Catholic highlanders held on to the ancient faith for longer than people in most of the rest of Britain, there were parts of that remote and romantic area where even the stoutest of spirits were broken.
Even before the highlands began to be denuded of human beings to make way for more profitable inhabitants — sheep — the Catholic Macdonells of Glengarry were gradually forced from their homes, and within a century there were 20,000 of them in Upper Canada and practically none in Glengarry. There were many others who suffered a similar fate.
Today there are only about 180 Massgoing Catholics in the whole of Sutherland, a county of 2,000 square miles. There is only one Catholic church in the whole county, Christ the King at Broara on the east coast, 25 years old last year.
The parish priest is the immensely friendly and likeable Fr James O'Neill who, along with eight other Jesuits from further afield, help to keep going the scattered parishes and Mass-centres of the northern highlands.
Fr O'Neill also says Mass every Sunday afternoon in Dornoch at the church belonging to the Episcopalian (locally known as "Picky") Church of Scotland. The church is dedicated to St Finbarr, or Barr, the sixth century disciple of St Ninian who ordained St Columba as a deacon. He is thought to have preached along the east coast of Scotland and Dornoch's oldest sacred edifice, a small church, was associated with his name.
Near to the ruins of this church rose a splendid cathedral on a site chosen by the great thirteenth century Bishop (eventually Saint) Gilbert of Moravia.
The cathedral today belongs to the official or Presbyterian (locally "Presby") Church of Scotland and has been described as "the finest example of a mediaeval church building still in use in Scotland".
Much, however, has to be left to the imagination, for in 1570 the cathedral was almost totally destroyed in a bitter clan feud between the Murrays of Dornoch and the Mackays of Strathnaver. The roof disappeared but the tower, steeple and much of the walls survived.
The quire and transepts were restored early in the next century and a complete renovation took place between 1835 and 1837.
But as the present Minister, James Simpson puts it, "if the Cathedral had the good fortune to be built when ecclesiastical architecture was in the zenith of its glory, it had the misfortune to be restored at a time when it was at its lowest ebb".
A decision was thus made in 1924, the seven hundredth anniversary of the cathedral's founding, for a new restoration which succeeded in revealing much of the great building's ancient glory. It is a sort of miracle, worth travelling miles to see.
In a manor of speaking
THIS week will be brought to an end by a rare event in an unusual house. The house in question is Hendred, an attractive small Manor in South Oxfordshire.
Tomorrow Lady Agnes Eyston and her son, the present squire of Hendred, Thomas More Eyston, are opening their home to the public, something that hardly every happens. It is certainly worth visiting if possible. It is some years now since I stayed there myself but I remember it vividly, particularly the beautiful 13th century chapel and the splendid Great Hall.
Through the many vicissitudes of history Hendred has always belonged to a Catholic family. In 1256 it was owned by the de Turbevilles.
They obtained .special permission from Rome to build the chapel, which has been in continual use for over 700 years and where Mass is still said daily.
Hendred, indeed, is famous for the fact that the tabernacle light never went out even in the darkest days after the Reformation.
The house has twice changed hands through marriage. It went from the de Turbevilles to the de Arche family (when it was known as "The Arches Manor") and then to the Eystons.
Tom Eyston received his Christian and middle names because of the family's direct descent from Thomas More. Like that most famous of Lord Chancellors, the Eystons, too, remained Catholic even under severe persecution.
On display tomorrow at Hendred will be many objects of particular interest including Thomas More's drinking cup, a copy of the famous family group of More and his relatives, and an original double portrait showing Thomas More as he was before his imprisonment in the Tower and afterwards. An astonishing and shocking transformation.
All profits from tomorrow's opening will go to the funds of the nearby parish of St Mary's, East Hendred (near Wantage) presided over by the highly popular Fr Anthony Fagan.
Tom Eyston's brother Jack, incidentally, owns another Catholic stronghold, namely the fabulous Mapledurham House near Reading. Within its lovely grounds, running down to the Thames, is a 15th century watermill, restored and in full working use.
Unlike Hendred, Mapledurham is open to the public every weekend from Easter to September.
CONGRATULATIONS to Debrett's for their publication this week of a book called Royal Engagement, by Jean Goodman and David Williamson.
Its inception was based on a calculated gamble and reliable advance information that Prince Andrew would soon be announcing his engagement to Miss Sarah Ferguson, generally known as Fergie.
It gives a short biography of each of them, with a mass of very good photographs, some 80 in colour and more than 100 black and white.
More spectacularly it provides a table of Sarah's ancestry going back for ten generations. The list contains some surprising names including a lot of Fitzherberts and four Noels, three female and one male.
The latter was Wriothesley Noel, second Earl of Gainsborough, who died in 1690. He was also, it appears, an ancestor of Prince Andrew. Which only goes to show that practically everyone is related to practically everyone else if you go back far enough.
Fergie, like her old friend and cousin the Princess of Wales, is twice descended, through two of his mistresses, from Charles II who was not, however, an ancestor of Princes Charles and Andrew.
Sarah's great grandfather, I was curious to note, was married to a certain Kate MacNamara in the Catholic church of St George's, just before its consecration as the cathedral for Southwark.
But their children do not appear to have been brought up Catholics, as often happened in Victorian England where the obligations of the Catholic partner to a mixed marriage were not so strict as they became after the decree of Ne Temere of 1907.
The Andrew-Fergie wedding will be on July 23. My only suggestion concerns background music en route or at some other convenient location: it should feature airs From Pinafore, or "The girl who loved a sailor"..
Draft of the century
NOTHING could have been more heartening than to read of the "literary find of the century" suddenly turning up in the archives of Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire.
It couldn't have happened to a nicer person since Melbourne is, of course, owned by Peter Lothian and, as reported in detail elsewhere, a three-page working draft of a play dating from the age of Shakespeare has been discovered in the house.
It could fetch something approaching £500,000 when
auctioned in June in aid of the endowment fund for Melbourne's uniquely beautiful gardens which were created in 1700 in the style of Versailles but might, but for this stroke of luck, have had to be sacrificed along with the house because of the immense cost of their upkeep.
The house was once the home of Lord Melbourne and later of Lady Palmerston. It was inherited by the Kerrs (Marquesses of Lothian) at the turn of the century.
There is no more popular couple in England than Peter Lothian and his wife "Tony", chairman of the Order of Christian Unity.
Good luck at the auction.