- Mission to the Gaels: Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Ulster and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland 1560–1760
Christianity among the ‘Gaels’ in the age of Reformation is the kind of subject which might worry the thinking of all manner of historians. Big, bold Reformation-era questions about the role of vernacular languages, whether in preaching, printing or Bible translation, take on a very particular colouring confronted with a language (or languages) with limited access to print, distinctive literary traditions, and facing awkward, if not downright hostile, attitudes on the part of states, or state-sponsored churches, in Scotland and in Ireland. Or there are the questions which arise concerning the interaction of patterns of faith and the particular social structures and political order within Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland in turbulent times, even the matter of the existence, nature and perhaps collapse of a common ‘Gaeldom’ stretching across the North Channel. In Mission to the Gaels, Fiona A. Macdonald has before her a broad canvas – covering two centuries and two kingdoms – but she sensibly renders her investigations more manageable by focusing on ‘how Scottish and Irish Gaels had a profound effect on each other’s religious development in the century and a half after the Reformation’ (p. 265), and specifically upon the efforts of Irish Catholic priests in the western highlands and islands and of ‘Scottish Gaelic-speaking presbyterians’ (p. 4) in Ulster to promote and sustain their respective faiths. This allows for a treatment of these topics in unprecedented detail, while also sustaining comparisons between the two ‘missions’.
Macdonald’s researches have been wide-ranging. She has drawn extensively on Scottish archival sources, both those of the Protestant church and those generated by the Catholic missioners and has an enviable familiarity with secondary works (though with some surprising gaps in terms of the Irish material, primary and secondary). Her opening chapter considers ‘Gaelic attitudes to religion, 1560–c.1619’ but the bulk of the book concerns the century or so from the 1620s to the 1720s, and this is refreshing, given the comparatively greater consideration generally accorded to religious developments in the Elizabethan (in Ireland) and Jacobean (in both kingdoms) years. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the book is the demonstration of the [End Page 339] importance of Irish priestly endeavours in sustaining ‘pockets’ of catholic belief in some of the islands and mainland coastal areas of western Scotland. These enclaves are delineated with skill, across three of the book’s six chapters, for the author is very alert to geographical considerations, and one may track the provision of priestly support not only through the text, but by means of the maps helpfully provided. The commitment, and sometimes the ‘dynamism’, of these clerical labourers in often extraordinarily adverse circumstances is evident from this account, though the human failings of missioners are not neglected either, nor the significance of elite support, notably from various branches of the MacDonald kin. The two chapters directed principally towards developments in Ulster attend to the Gaelic or Irish-language dimension to Protestantism, and more especially Presbyterianism. A telling point of comparison, and a neat end point for the book, is the demonstration that within both Scottish Highland Catholicism and Ulster Presbyterianism there was a shift towards native-born clergy in the third and fourth decades of the eighteenth century; if not quite the end of the story of interaction, this is at least the closing of a particular, and defining, phase in the history of both communions.
Macdonald’s achievement rests upon the wealth of incident which she presents, unearthing plenty of telling hidden histories, though at times the detail can clog the momentum of the narrative, or hamper clear exposition. At times, too, more might have been done to clarify how matters construed as ‘Gaelic’ might be fitted into the wider history of Scottish Catholicism or of Presbyterianism (or Protestantism generally) in Ireland. The intensity of focus raises the danger...