Caught by the River

A Postcard From the Outer Hebrides: Father Rocket and 1960s Brutalism

John Maher | 11th September 2018

In his latest photo-column, John Maher tells the tale of South Uist’s roadside shrines, Brutalist churches and rocket-averse priest.

Canon John Morrison was a parish priest in South Uist between 1946 and 1962. In the aftermath of World War Two, the Ministry of Defence announced plans to build a huge rocket range on the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist. The MOD’s plans included the compulsory eviction of residents from the proposed military zone. Canon Morrison feared the MOD’s plans would destroy the island’s way of life, culture and language. He embarked on a highly effective campaign in both the local and national media opposing the intended development, gaining the nickname “Father Rocket” in the process.

One of his first aims was to remind ‘strangers’ they were entering a ‘different’ world. He did this by organising the construction of several roadside shrines. Sure enough, the first time I ever visited South Uist, I did indeed feel I was somewhere ‘different’.

With the prospect of a vast area of South Uist being turned into a rocket range, Canon John Morrison commissioned one of the foremost sculptors of the day, Hew Lorimer, to design and create a nine metre tall statue, Our Lady of the Isles. A site was chosen where the granite Madonna and Child would overlook much of the island – in particular the proposed military base. People of all denominations supported the project through fund-raising and donating their labour to construct the road and the foundations for the 40-tonne statue. Our Lady of the Isles was completed in 1957 and dedicated in 1958. I visited the site one night last year to check out what the Madonna and Child have been watching over for the past 60 years. It’s an impressive sight.

In April 1959 the Ministry of Defence announced their rocket range proposal had been drastically scaled down. It was to be a missile testing and firing range with mostly visiting military personnel. There would be no ‘new’ town and no removal of people. There’s a small military presence on the island to this day. Who knows how things might have turned out if Father Rocket hadn’t been around?

Although I’ve been a devout non-believer since my mid-teens, I’m an admirer of much of the religious architecture and imagery created during the last half of the 20th century. That’s probably influenced by my Catholic upbringing: both my parents were Southern Irish Roman Catholics. I also attended a Catholic grammar school. Half the teachers were priests.

Heading south from Our Lady of the Isles, you’ll eventually encounter Our Lady of Sorrows in the village of Garrynamonie. The first time I saw it I could hardly believe something like this existed in the Hebrides! Mary Miers describes it perfectly in her book Western Seaboard: An Illustrated Architectural Guide: ‘It rises incongruously from the treeless landscape, a wedge-shaped bookend, spectacularly discordant in its setting.’

Work on Our Lady of Sorrows started in 1964 and was completed the following year. Due to the remote location, most of the building work was carried out by parishioners.

The local parish priest at the time was considered to be a traditionalist. Many were surprised when he commissioned the new design. It was an era when the Catholic church were responsible for many Modernist designs. Maybe he was swept up in the concrete/brutalist movement of the day? I’d never describe it as a pretty building but I always look forward to seeing it come into view whenever I’m driving along the B888. I usually stop to take yet another picture – it’s such a weirdly constructed building. I’ve always found it difficult to photograph. Next time I’m there I’ll give it another shot (or two).

I first visited Our Lady of Sorrows in the mid-nineties. It reminded me of a family outing in 1969 when dad took us to see the newly opened Paddy’s Wigwam (aka Liverpool Metropolitan cathedral). Our Lady of Sorrows is its very distant, downsized, Hebridean cousin. But in these surroundings the initial reaction felt just as epic!

Indoors there’s a striking ceramic mosaic above a side altar. Impressive and very of its time.

The southern wall also has an interesting set of carved slates serving as the fourteen stations of the cross – very different to the more traditional stations I remember from my youth.

Heading back outside, the neon Latin cross on the roof is switched on at night. It was originally intended to serve as a beacon for fishing boats. This is how it looked when I was passing one night back in February 2017.

I dropped in again recently. The roof has had a major renovation since my last visit. Most will admit the unusual design isn’t best suited to the harsh Hebridean weather. The leaking roof has been a continual problem. Hopefully that’s now fixed. Work is about to start on renewing the floor tiles, necessitated by water seeping into the floor as a result of the leaking roof. In the next few weeks Our Lady of Sorrows should be fighting fit again.