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Gaelic Prayer Meetings in Portsmouth

Gaelic Prayer Meetings in Portsmouth

Written by Kenneth John Smith, 1 Earshader for "The Eilean an Fhraoich " annual


IN the summer of 1939 the dark clouds of the threat of war were causing a lot of silent anxiety in many homes in Lewis and Harris, especially due to the fact that in most homes they had many sons eithers in the RNR or the other branches of the Armed Forces.
The rural postmen came as usual with their mail, when lo and behold, mobilisation papers were delivered to a limited number of RNR's in every parish. Some of them left that night, the Thursday night of the Stornoway Communion, the remainder of the draft leaving the following night.
It was however on Sunday that the main body of over 200 left and the departure scene on Stornoway pier is worth recording.

The pier was packed with people who had come to see the RNR's leaving and to give them their blessing. Tense silence prevailed as the RNR's picked up their kit bags and silently went aboard the Lochness. This tense silence was broken when the late Mr Peter Macdonald (Padraig Beag), of *Mor Monadh', Matheson Road, Stornoway, who was a native of Bernera, raised his voice and started singing the 46th Psalm to the tune of 'Stroud Water'. Everyone on the pier joined in the singing which has been described by many who were present as carrying unusual solemnity. Before the singing concluded, the Lochness, with its valuable load of passengers, slowly moved out and there has always been a question in many minds, did any branch of the Armed Forces in any place in Britain leave their homes under such prayerful and solemn influences as the Lewis RNR were privileged to have on that Sabbath night?

All the RNR's in the general service were drafted either to Chatham, Portsmouth or Devonport, while those in the Patrol Service were drafted to Lowestoft. Once they got into barracks, they were immediately drafted to Armed Merchant Cruisers and to other ships which were to be commissioned to full complement.

As I was a Portsmouth rating, I shall discuss the start of the Gaelic church services in Portsmouth and how they continued till the end of the war.

In May 1940, the first move was made to hold Gaelic meetings in Portsmouth as by that date some men who were church members had been drafted from the Northern Patrol to Portsmouth and likewise some from various ships sunk by enemy action. Quite unknown to us, both the Free Church Presbytery and the Church of Scotland Presbytery had made an agreement that jointly they would send a minister from both denominations in turn to give Gaelic services to seamen in their respective depots.

Balallan Minister in Portsmouth

It was our very good fortune in Portsmouth to have the late Rev. Murdo Macleod, of the Church of Scotland, Kilmuir, Skye. He was a native of Balallan and we had him for one month. He was given permission to use a small church building at the far end of the parade ground near the signal school for holding his services.

Every evening there was a Gaelic service and two services on Sunday. The following who were very able Gaelic precentors and who were church members used to lead the singing, Murdo Martin, of Aridhabhruaich, Lochs, now Rev. Murdo Martin (retired), Donald Mackenzie, of Grimshader, Lochs (Domhnuill lain Rob), William Maclean, of Shawbost (Uilliam lain Domhnaill lain), John Macdonald, of Portnaguran, Point (lain an t-Saighdear). All the normal tunes sung at home were sung, Bangor, Wallsal, Torwood, Coleshill, Kilmarnock, etc., not fogetting Stornoway.
The singing was always very good. When the above mentioned were on duty and unable to attend, Donald Macleod, of Doune, Carloway, Domhnaill Neill Coilich, deceased, Neil Macleod, of Doune, Carloway, and Kenneth John Smith, of Earshader, used to lead the singing. They were not church members at that time.

The other church members who were in constant attendance were as follows: Norman Morrison, of Scalpay, latterly the Rev. Norman Morrison, of Duirinish, Skye, Angus Macaulay, of Breasclete, Roderick Montgomery, of Ranish, Angus Macleod, of Calbost (Boydie), John Mackenzie, of Point (Cox), John Matheson, of Portnaguran, Donald Maciver, of Carloway, John MacNaughton, of Bernera, latterly the Rev. John MacNaughton, of Barvas and Portnalong, Skye, Donald Mackenzie, of Laxay (Domhnaill Chalum Ruaidh), Donald Matheson, of Bernera, Alexander Macleod, of Sheshader, Point, Murdo Nicolson, of Uig, and Angus Mackay, of Ness, latterly the Rev. A. Mackay, of P.P. Manse, Tarbert, Harris, and Roderick Mackay, of Tolsta Chaolais.

Murdo Macleod gave us one month of very valued service and before he left (as we now had permission to use the church in which the services were held), he made an appeal that we should continue meeting until we got another minister to supply.

He left the church members in charge to continue the work. It was again our very good fortune to have the services of the late Rev. Murdo Campbell, of Partick Highland, Glasgow, and his services were very much appreciated. After the Rev. Mr CampbelPs departure, we were for some time without a minister but the Gaelic prayer meetings were regularly held by members and adherents from all denominations were praiseworthy in their attendance.

Air Raid after Gaelic Service

It was most wonderful that during the late summer, antumn and winter of 1940, when were continually bombed, nothing ever interferred with us during the evening church service. It happened on a few occasions that an air raid would be in the Portsmouth area shortly after the Gaelic service ended.

Our next minister was the Rev. Mr Macaulay from Sutherlandshire and we had him for the autumn of 1940. After his departure the church members continued to hold the evening service and it was very evident that there was a real sense of liberty present among the brethren. In 1941, the late Rev. Murdo MacSween, of Church of Scotland, Kinloch, was settled in Portsmouth with the rank of Naval Chaplain and was there for two years or more. On once occasion he held a 'Coinneamh Cheist' and it was Norman Morrison, of Scalpay, latterly the Rev. Norman Morrison, of Diminish, Skye, who gave the text for discussion. It was Colossians, Chapter 2, Verse 2, "Uime sin ar a ghab sibh dour ionnsuidh an tighearna losa Criosd, gluaisibh ann". Mr MacSween opened the Question and the following were called on to speak. Donald Matheson, of Bernera, John Macdonald, of Portnaguran, William Maclean, of Shawbost, and Angus Macaulay, of Breasclete. Rev. Mr MacSween closed the Question, and after the end of the war he mentioned that the Gaelic 'Coinneamh Cheist' in Portsmouth was one of the most enjoyable services he ever conducted.

As Portsmouth was a depot, some church members could only be in Barracks for a very short period, but that small church opened for Gaelic services in May 1940 was never without an evening service by the Gaelic speaking RNR's until the end of the war.
It can be put on record that there were odd times when there were not enough church members to hold the prayer meeting, but in the event of this happening, converted adherents who were not communicant members used to assist in public prayer.

Among them were John Macdonald, of Crossbost, and Alexander Macleod, of Sheshader. By the end of the war it was the Rev. Mr Macaulay from Uist who was appointed chaplain and his services were appreciated. The Gaelic services in Portsmouth are still very fragrant in the memory of those who attended and took part, and although dark and cloudy were these days still we had evidence that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was uplifting our hearts and leading us on.

Many and varied were the Christian experiences of these praying men in Portsmouth and many were the refreshing moments we had in that church. The comment of two unconverted young men who had come out of the Gaelic prayer meeting was, "Tha iad a cheart cho math ris na bodaich aig an tigh".

The attendance of all those who were not church members was very good and we do not remember anyone who did not attend either from Lewis or Harris. We regret to say that many districts in Lewis and Harris nowadays could do with the attendance.



Title: Gaelic Prayer Meetings in Portsmouth
Record Type: Stories, Reports and Traditions
Type: Story
Record Maintained By: CEBL
Subject Id: 1178