A View from St Kilda – June 2024

‘What did you teach?‘ is a question that I am often asked, when people find out that I was a secondary school teacher. I leave them to guess, but it really should be obvious that my subject was Religious Education.

Before I purchased a car, from Monday to Friday I got off the train at Craigendoran and walked to the school. This was the last part of a mammoth journey: from my flat in Paisley; a bus to Paisley Town Centre; another bus to the Renfrew Ferry; the ferry across to catch a bus that would drop me off at Dalmuir, so that I would get on the Helensburgh train. The advantage of this train was, that since I was up before the birds, if I nodded off on the said train, the last stop was Helensburgh and then it returned the way it had come!

The school where I was (and Don Swanson) has been rebuilt elsewhere but I was thinking about its name recently, for it was called ‘Hermitage Academy.’

It was Richard Lovelace, writing in ‘To Althea, from Prison’ in 1649 who penned these words:

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage:
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.

Some of my colleagues, later this month, are organising a day’s walking around the Hermitage of Dunkeld, a National Trust for Scotland protected site on the river Braan, a tributary of the river Tay in Perthshire. Though this hermitage is a relatively modern 18th century creation in honour of the blind bard, Ossian, in the estate of John Murray, the third duke of Atholl, the idea of a hermitage is an ancient one.

It refers to a place where a hermit, or a group of like-minded people, lived in isolated seclusion from the world.

In the 18th century, many prestigious landowners and lairds adorned their gardens or estates with a hermitage, often as a Gothic style ruin and in one location the laird actually recruited a hermit to live there.

Whilst we may smile at the romanticism, and even the folly of wasting money, there is a serious point to ponder here. It could have been more than just ostentatious showmanship and a display of wealth, but also a symbol of the need to retreat from busyness, appreciate solitude, commune with nature, give yourself to thoughts and reflections that weren’t about money and prestige.

I don’t really know why the school I taught in was called Hermitage, and I am quite sure that many of my fellow teachers did not find their classrooms a place of solitude, until the bell rang and the pupils were bussed back around the Helensburgh area, or when these long holidays in the middle of the year arrived and the school was ‘out for summer’.

Nonetheless, in a different place, spending time in silence or away from the norm, communing with nature and finding what the hermits were seeking of a spiritual dimension, can lead to a renewal of body, mind and spirit.

I am writing this message on a wonderfully hot day in May, as the General Assembly is meeting, and probably perspiring, on the Mound, deliberating on where God is leading us. I hope there is a lot of silence, so that God can be heard.

And to you all, in this summer edition, wherever, or whatever you do, may you be a little like a hermit on your holidays, and come back refreshed, revitalised and restored to move forward into the second part of the year, led by that Holy Spirit who does just that!

Your friend and minister,

George C Mackay