Alastair Chisholm reflects on the life of the Cathedral in the early 1970s

12th January 2018

As there have been one or two rather confusing references on Facebook, to events at the College and Cathedral on Cumbrae during the period 1970-75, I thought I could clarify the chronology. Because I was a local school teacher and Cathedral organist resident in the College from 1969-74, I was in a unique position to witness at first hand the often traumatic events of those years.

Essentially this was the period of change between the régime of Dean George Douglas, who lived in the College from 1949 to 1973, and the period of ten years ,1975 to 1985, when the Community of Celebration occupied the buildings. Three distinctly different groups were involved, though the distinctions were not obvious to most locals, as all three sounded American.

1970 was the last ordinary year for Dean Douglas. As usual he ministered to local needs, especially to the members of St. Andrew’s Episcopal congregation, a small local body, who had worshipped in the Cathedral for many years, though they didn’t own it. He also organised the maintenance and the use of the Cathedral, the two Colleges, and the Annexe. As money was desperately short , most of the buildings lay empty most of the year. Two or three times each summer, a visiting congregation came on retreat, or a choir came for a summer school. Dean Douglas also had Diocesan responsibilities, as the “deputy” for the Bishop of Argyll and The Isles. By 1970 he was 82 years old, though in vigorous good health. He lived alone in the South College. Mr. and Mrs. McBay ( who helped as part-time groundsman and housekeeper respectively) lived in one North College flat, while I , as organist, lived in another.

At the beginning of 1971 brothers of the Fraternity of the Transfiguration came to live in the Cathedral grounds. In a secluded area, near the College, they had five wooden huts erected – a central hut chapel, surrounded by four smaller huts, each allocated to a brother, as living space. They maintained daily worship in their Chapel and helped at Sunday services in the Cathedral. Accompanying the monks were a group of “hippies”, who were allowed to stay in the Annexe. I had the impression that the monks were attempting to wean the hippies from their drug addiction to a more productive lifestyle. Horticulture was attempted – unsuccessfully, but I’m not sure what else. I do remember local church members, as they passed the Annexe on their way to the Cathedral, being aghast at the appearance and behaviour of this group of young men, women and children. And I also remember with amusement their absence on Census Day (April 25) 1971. They were not “establishment” people! That summer, the Cumbrae Trustees decided that this hippy experiment had failed, and that they should be asked to leave. When the hippies resisted attempts to have them evicted, Michael Hollingshead came to the fore as their spokesman. He treated Dean Douglas with arrogant contempt, and the whole affair was published in the Daily Express. I was not aware of the Brothers doing anything to alleviate the situation that they had caused. Eventually the hippies left, and I remember working with two brothers to clean up the mess they had left in the Annexe.

1972 was a year of recovery. The hippies had gone, and the monks kept a low profile. It was at that time, I think, that they bought a little cottage in George Street , for cooking and eating, and also as a bunkhouse for visitors .( One of their long-term visitors was Randolph, Lord Garlies, son of the Earl of Galloway, who had psychological problems.) Meantime Dean Douglas had periods of ill-health that year, and for a time he was forbidden to travel by his GP. By the autumn when he was in better form, a new scheme of Bishop Wimbush greatly perturbed him. The proposal was to invite an evangelical, fundamentalist group called Youth With A Mission (YWAM) to make the College their Scottish base. David Brett, a leader of this organisation visited the Dean in December, and after this the Dean began to talk of leaving the College.

1973 was another year of great change. On January 7th Dean Douglas died amid general regret. He had been universally admired on the island. Mr and Mrs McBay were asked to leave in the spring, and their flat was taken over by YWAM, as was the whole South College and the Annexe. I continued to stay in my North College flat, and to use the upstairs bedrooms in that building to accommodate visiting choirs. YWAM invited various young people to train in the College, but their ethos was strongly fundamentalist. I remember posters hung in the Cloisters- “There will be no criticism – no complaining” Inevitably there were tensions between YWAM and me. I remember services led by the brothers, which include the local congregation, YWAM trainees and English choristers expecting Cathedral worship. It was not an easy mixture!

1974 began with a continuation of the tensions between YWAM and the rest of us. In the course of the summer, it became clear that Bishop Wimbush had decided to hand over the whole establishment to an American body – the Community of Celebration – a charismatic Anglican group from Texas. By way of justification Bishop Wimbush said “But Alastair, they’re very musical”! YWAM and I were given our marching orders, and I moved to Largs in November 1974.

1975. The Community of Celebration arrived. They were to remain for ten years.