Anti-Catholicism in Caithness

Dr. Eric Kaufmann, a reader in politics and sociology at Birkbeck, UCL mentions Caithness in his recent publication, Rethinking Ethnicity: Majority Groups and Dominant Minorities. This relates to the 1918 Munro (Education) Act which had aimed to appease/mollify objections to privately run Roman Catholic (and Episcopal) schools at the imposition of state control by permitting the respective church structures to retain full influence over staffing and curricular issues whilst the local authorities provided the finance.

(A state of affairs I strongly suspect the one-eyed trouser snake and jacobite jihadi, Osama Saeed, is attempting to re-create with generous funding from the SNP-controlled minority administration at the Scottish Executive. Is sectarianism not wonderful?)

Kauffman reports that the only local education authority in Scotland which petitioned against the Act was Caithness, which had no Roman Catholic schools to be transferred. This was described as “a theological dislike for Romanism was not tempered by any significant social contact with catholics or with any public policy need to accommodate”. I can see his point, as I believe this was a scant two decades after an active Roman Catholic church on Shore Street, Wick had been demolished ostensibly on planning grounds, and another 42 years were to pass before a second permanent church was consecrated in Caithness.

Roman Catholicism had been successfully expunged from Caithness as well as the Northern Isles over two hundred years previously, and remained this way until the turn of 19th Century. The print edition of this week’s John o’Groat Journal includes a brief aside by Noel Donaldson, author of the Wicker’s World column on the re-establishment in post-Reformation Caithness. With the herring boon and other itinerent work, the population of Wick and Pulteneytown by the 1830s was estimated at 10,000. This would inevitably have included Roman Catholics from elsewhere in Scotland and Ireland.

One of the first priests to be dispatched was Father Walter Lovi, whose role in managing the cholera epidemic of 1832 is discussed by Donaldson. 

 cholera riots

Punch cartoon of Court of King Cholera.

Being thought to have been introduced to the British Isles from ports such as Wick, with their regular contact with Scandinavian and North American sources, as many as 32,000 people died that year. That year, what have been termed the Cholera Riots took place in Merseyside; although judging by the attacks on surgeons and anatomy schools, I suspect a large cause was due to the fear of Burking (i.e. grave-robbery to provide cadavers for dissection) and the 1832 Anatomy Act which legislated for the seizure of the corpse of anyone dying in a poor-house for use in anatomy schools.   This monstrous act of state-endorsed terrorism against the underclass is detailed in Dr. Ruth Richardson’s masterful Death, Dissection and the Destitute.

The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn, about the herring industry, featured an outbreak of a disease which is assumed to be cholera in his fictionalized Dunbeath.

Having checked at the local libraries, I have found very little on the epidemic of 1832 on Caithness.  One firebrand preacher, Reverend Alexander Ewing, who flitted between Thurso and Wick published a pamphlet entitled “The perculiar obligations to devotedness to God arising from the preservation of life in the midst of His terrible judements: a discourse in reference to the recent visitation of cholera”.  Peter Reid, who went on to found the John o’Groat Journal, also printed a daily bulletin which aimed to inform the fearful populous, and itinerent workforce considering relocating to Peterhead, of the daily change to case number and deaths or recoveries.  My source of that information was Frank Foden’s Wick of the North, which makes no reference to Lovi.

I am sorely missing an Athens log-in or access to well-stocked university libraries, so have to make do with the often poorly referenced local history books or tantilizing glimpses on Google.

At this point, Wick was the administrative centre for the Vicariate to the North Pole (which appears to have been superceded by the Catholic Mission to Inuit). One Father Walter Lovi is mentioned by the Scanlan Trail as being originally from Edinburgh, and in 1832 recently having established St. Thomas’ Roman Catholic Church in Keith. It seems safe to assume this was the same man.

A cleric of this name is also mentioned on the history section for St. Joseph’s at Darlaston in the West Midlands, although he was the Rector at St Mary’s The Mount Walsall (presumably based around the contemporary Roman Catholic primary school of the same name). This Lovi was reported as having retired in 1868, which would be about right for a young priest in 1832.

Donaldson recounts that, after starting in Thurso, the cholera soon reached the much more crowded Wick where it affected all religious confessionals with perfect equanimity.  With Jews being thin on the ground up here, Roman Catholics appear to have been blamed.  Lovi, however, presumably acting with Reid and others, braved the fear of infection and personally treated the sick or laid out the dead.  According to Donaldson, during three months, 300 fell ill but only 66 died.  I do not have breakdowns for elsewhere in the country, but this appears very favourable against the 32,000 dead across the country.

In Wick of the North, Foden also cites the 1848 epidemic, by which time Lovi had departed, in which only two residents of Wick died (two middle-aged women), whilst the survivors included a good few young children and very elderly residents. It should be remembered, though, that although Wick and Pulteneytown were quite densely populated, they were immediately adjacent to open countryside and exposed to the sea-breezes beloved of 19th Century physicians; unlike dank inner cities in the above Punch cartoon. Looking across the North Sea, however, one can see Bergen severly affected at the same time. In 1848, some one thousand infections occurred with over 60% mortality (contrasted to 20% at Wick in 1832) in a conurbation of comparable size and economic activity to the Wick area.

Donaldson paints a picture of Lovi being carried aloft by adoring crowds. Whilst this may well be guilding the lily, it is without doubt that, whereas previously his attempts to establish a church site had been frustrated by the municipal leaders, he was now rewarded with at Breadalbane Terrace where St Joaquim’s continues to be located today (if I have any local readers, I understand there is a booklet on Lovi in the lobby). 

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(© Copyright Bill Henderson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

Donaldson argues that if the upcoming Wick Harbour Fest celebrations intend to crown a Herring Queen, so should they remember Lovi’s work in maintaining confidence in Wick as a herring centre.

I agree.

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5 Responses to “Anti-Catholicism in Caithness”

  1. e Saint Joachim and Saint Anne Parish « Thurso and the Hyperborean North Says:

    […] 16 June, on my other truly awful blog, I have discussed the founding of this parish in 1832. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Parish of St. […]

  2. Inverness Public Library « Thurso and the Hyperborean North Says:

    […] Elgin (who was also responsible for the first post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church for Caithness, St. Joaquim’s in Wick), commenced in 1839 and was completed in 1842 after Robertson’s […]

  3. Caithness religious | BlessingMagazine Says:

    […] Anti-Catholicism in Caithness « A Rabbit’s Eye View of the …Oct 24, 2010 … Localised identities in Caithness; religious homogamy and the inter-generational ‘transmission’ of religious identities; national identities … […]

  4. Mike Loynd Says:

    Fr. Lovi was active in Wick long before the “Arctic Pole Mission” which was only founded by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and established a base in Alta (north Norway) in the summer of 1855. It never was a Vicariate, it’s correct English title was “Apostolic Prefecture of the Arctic Pole”. The original remit did not include Caithness, Orkney or Shetland which were added in1860/61 by the Vatican at the request of the first Prefect, Stefan (Etienne) Djunkovskoy ( or Djunkowski) and with the backing of the local senior clergy. See Newby, Edinburgh UP.

    • efrafandays Says:

      Thank you for the correction. There’s very little even in the local archives.

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