By Alasdair Roberts:
St Mary’s Arisaig dates from 1849. The Rev. William McIntosh was determined to make a statement in stone and built high from a low site. The tower of St Mary’s dwarfed that of the former chapel in the village. It was only erected thanks to the intervention of Angus MacDonald of Glenaladale who wrote to Bishop Scott: ‘I merely beg to suggest to your Lordship that you will have the goodness to allow carry thro’ the plan as at present fixed on. To do away with the Tower would completely destroy the appearance of the whole Edifice.’ The vicar general planned to add a lead-covered wooden spire with a gilt cross above it. That never happened, but the apex cross finial at the east end of the steep-roofed church was the first of its kind in the Highlands. The clock came later. Another first in the west was the ten hundredweight bell high up in the tower. St Margaret’s chapel in Huntly had led the way with legal peals following Catholic Emancipation.
Inside St Mary’s the impression of height is still more powerful, with lancet windows above eight-foot wood panelling, an organ gallery in the tower, and - most striking of all - a very tall triplet window behind the altar. At the top was placed an eight-paned roundel of stained glass by Augustus Welby Pugin. As well as building high William McIntosh aimed high in the experts that were recruited, his eloquence in pulpits raising sufficient money to pay them. William Burn who designed the church was the son of an Edinburgh architect, his ecclesiastical work in the city including reconstruction of the exterior of St Giles Cathedral for the Church of Scotland and St John’s Episcopal Church in Princes Street. Burn was at the height of his career when McIntosh made contact and had just moved to London.
At the start of the twentieth century the interior of the church was renovated and a carved wooden reredos or altar screen was added. Above it a striking stained-glass crucifixion scene was put in, designed by Horatio Walpole Lonsdale and made by the firm of W. Gualbert Saunders at Covent Garden. The quality of work produced there was notable for its flesh colour: ‘This is unique, had no precedents and has had no imitators.’ The window was paid for by the Dowager Marchioness of Bute who is shown praying at the foot of the left hand window.
As in all Catholic churches world-wide, further changes followed the second Vatican Council. Parishioner Allan MacDonald recalls the contribution of Canon Iain Gillies: ‘When he arrived in Arisaig St Mary’s was in urgent need of refurbishment and he set about the task with his usual good cheer, convincing the congregation that it could be done. With fund-raising and planning, he oversaw the whole operation to its completion. He was an excellent carpenter, as was his father before him, and he built church furniture in his workshop.’ Not the least of the Canon’s work in wood was the creation of table altars for the new ‘vernacular’ Mass (no longer in Latin) with priests facing the people.