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Everything in life is a bonus to me

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Canon John Lewis MacWilliam put his hand to the plough 65 years ago and has never looked back. Even as his 90th birthday approaches this down-to-earth-priest labours in the Lord’s field.

From his base at St Margaret’s,Huntly, north of Royal Deeside, he tends the scattered sheep. He is Scotland’s oldest parish priest — a distinction he is typically unfussed about.

"My great philosophy in life is very simple —take everything in moderation and not to worry unduly about things.

"The future is in the lap of the gods and the bishop," he smiles wryly, drawing on another Embassy filter. "The bishop hasn’t said a word about retirement and providence will take care of the rest."

Born at the turn of the century in the small north-east fishing port of Buckie, Lewis — as he prefers to be called —believes his life has always been mapped out --for him.

"I came into the world to go out of it," he said. "I was baptised in emergency at birth. I cheated death, so everything in life is a bonus and you have to enjoy it."

The death of his twin brother at the age of 10 confirmed his faith in divine providence.

"I never asked why or blamed God. I accepted it as part of life. Anyway, I like to tell people my better half is in heaven?

The death of his cousin, while students together in Valladolid, proved another test of faith shortly before ordination. He kept going.

"My faith is very natural and simple. I don’t ask too many questions of it. I sometimes have doubts but they are nothing serious."

His unruffled approach belies deep-rooted convictions. "My parents provided me with a good example of Catholic life," he said.

"There were firm roots to the faith in the Enzie — the area where I was brought up."

There are few Catholics there today. But in the 18th and 19th centuries this tiny corner of Scotland provided the bulk of the country’s priests;

Many of them were Canon Lewis’ relations. The decline in the Catholic population, and the drift away from the land, saddens him. But he stands his ground.

Even in friendly discussions with ministers — a welcome development — he’ll not budge an inch.

His faith is mirrored in his life as a priest. Happy to be counted among the old school, he retains a youthful enthusiasm for ministry.

"There is a nostalgia for the old days. I miss the Latin Mass. But you get accustomed to the changes of Vatican II," he said, quite matter-of-factly.

The Mass, which he has offered almost every day for 65 years, remains central to his vocation. The words are familiar, but he still approaches it with almost mystical reverence.

Daily prayer and meditation — on top of a healthy bowl of porridge — provides ample nourishment, and the wonderfully ornate 160-year-old church of St Margaret cannot fail to raise the spirits.

In 1977, at the age of 73, Canon Lewis took up the reigns of the parish. Soon after, dry rot was discovered in the church.

Not only did he oversee the 250,000 restoration of its striking cupola roof. But, amid the hard graft, he found time for a piece of devilish fun — and found a niche for ‘St Louis’ among the noble band adorning the ceiling.

A cultivator of souls, his childhood dream was to become a ploughman. Priesthood in a rural land, he admits, can be a lonely furrow but is never humdrum. Being close to nature gives him the strength to keep going.

"If I was in a city parish I’d have retired long before now," he muses.

His favourite parish was Tomintoul, home of his grandmother, where he spent 15 years. The highest village in the Highlands, it is cut off for months in the winter.

"In these parts, small congregations are just like a big family. You can share everything with them. I’m a great believer in visiting the flock—even when it is scattered for miles."

He adds: "In your vestments you are seen as somebody apart. But in your ‘civvies’ there is not the same aura which helps you to get more closely involved in people’s lives."

Dressed in his ermine robes, the canon cuts a stern, remote figure. His civvies—old suit, collar and a couple of jumpers — reveal an hospitable, cheery, even canny pastor.

He will be 90 in October. For this ‘old’ railway buff it is full steam ahead.


@ Interview by Vincent Toal

St Ninian,s Tynet Graveyard