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'Padre, Can I Have a Word?'

'Padre, Can I Have a Word?'

Monday November 12

Jackie Macadam interviews the Rev Dr David Coulter, outgoing Chaplain General to HM Land Forces.


“The Kirk has a very long and proud history within the forces. As Chaplain General I am very conscious that I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

The Rev Dr David Coulter, Chaplain General to HM Land Forces, is talking about his feelings as he ‘represents’ the Church of Scotland at the highest levels of the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department.

“Since 1796 there have only been 23 Chaplain Generals and I have the enormous privilege to be the 24th. I am also only the second Church of Scotland minister to hold this position after the Very Rev Dr James Harkness. I became the Chaplain General on September 17 2014, and received the blessing of the Church of Scotland by the Very Rev Dr John Chalmers in a wonderful service in St Giles’ Cathedral.”

Born in Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’, David had a happy childhood. His father was a policeman, so the idea of service but also security was drilled into David and his (late) brother constantly.

“At school I played a lot of sport, especially rugby, and so decided to try and join one of the services in search of a more active lifestyle.

“I looked at the Police Force and the RAF but the Army held most attraction for me so I applied and was fortunate to earn a Commission as a Regular Officer in the Royal Irish Rangers. I loved being a Ranger and having command of soldiers,” he says, “But I was aware of a niggling call from God to enter the ministry and it would not go away.”

David started to ask around about it, and received advice from many people. Thanks to a number of chaplain colleagues, especially Padre Neil Cameron, an Irish Presbyterian, he was urged to apply to ministry with the Church of Scotland.

David was, by this time, married to Grace (now, 37 years and 17 house moves later, they have two grown-up sons).

David’s decision to go into the ministry was not initially met with overwhelming approval by his whole family.

“My father, despite being very religious, thought I was being irresponsible, as I had a wife, a mortgage and a successful career. My friends in the regiment thought I was committing financial suicide.”

His new career brought him to Scotland in search of a place to study.

“As I was already a graduate, the advice 121 was to go and look at all the Scottish theological facilities and see which one felt best. I was stationed in Dover at the time and we drove up to Scotland for a recce. We had decided that Aberdeen was too far north and didn’t really know Glasgow, so it was either Edinburgh or St Andrews. We completely fell in love with St Andrews and the welcome we received from Maisie Blackwood, the secretary at St Mary’s College. We made some wonderful friends at St Andrews and I relished studying under Professor J K Cameron while Grace worked as a teacher in Glenrothes.

“She still reminds me that I was a kept man for the four years I was in training and that the mortgage was in her name,” he laughs.

“In the end it was neither financial suicide nor disappointing – anything but – it was, I suppose, meant to be.”

But David wasn’t finished with the army.

“I always felt I had a calling in becoming an army chaplain.

“Returning to the army as a chaplain for me was a blessing. I was in an environment I knew, serving alongside people I understood and where I felt God had placed me but also where I felt I could make a difference.

“We were extremely fortunate to be posted to the Queen’s Own Highlanders in Munster in West Germany for our first three years. Being a Church of Scotland minister with a Scottish Infantry Battalion was fantastic! It was three hectic years in which our first son Andrew was born and I went with the Battalion to Northern Ireland and a tour of duty in West Belfast and deployed with the regiment and 2nd Field Regiment RA to the first Gulf War.”

But it wasn’t all fun and good times.

“It was in NI that my first soldier died on operations, and another three were killed in the Gulf War following a friendly fire incident,” he remembers.

“It was there I guess that I first earned my spurs and the enormous privilege of being in the frontline with soldiers on operational duty. To be with soldiers in barracks but most especially on operations leaves an indelible mark upon us all.”

It was work David loved.

“To be in a position to minister to soldiers and their families in good times and in bad; in peacetime and in war; is unforgettable and life changing.

“I have served alongside soldiers on six operational tours of duty including NI; Cyprus; Bosnia and Iraq. I have baptised some; married a few and buried too many.

“As a chaplain you are effectively embedded with your parish – where they go – you go. On a daily basis you provide pastoral care, spiritual support and moral guidance. The greatest compliment any chaplain is ever paid is when a soldier or an officer says: “Padre, can I have a word?”

David is a great advocate for ministers who might be thinking about a career with the military.

“I still hope and pray that more Church of Scotland ministers will feel called by God to serve alongside our soldiers and their families and that as a national church we would all seek to being the love of God to all people in our communities most notable to the veterans.”


David retired from the Chaplaincy Service shortly after this interview.

Chaplains' Letters, 1918.

A longer version of this feature appears in November's Life and Work. Subscribe or download.