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Portrait of Lauchlan MacLean Watt
Portrait of Lauchlan MacLean Watt

The Piping Padre

Wednesday July 25 2018




Andrew G Ralston reflects on the life of a Church of Scotland minister and former Moderator of the General Assembly who served as a First World War padre.

ON Christmas Eve 1914 the troopship SS City of Benares set sail from Southampton to Le Havre. Embarking alongside the crowds of good-natured Tommies from London was a Church of Scotland minister, the Rev Lauchlan MacLean Watt (1867-1957). He already enjoyed a considerable reputation as a preacher, lecturer, poet, novelist and literary critic - ‘words seem to come from him as if from a magician’ said one admiring (and possibly rather envious) clerical colleague - but it was the two books he wrote about his wartime experiences and his subsequent public addresses that would make him a household name on both sides of the Atlantic.

Born in 1867, MacLean Watt was the only son of a Schools Inspector. His mother came from Skye and passed on to her son a lifelong passion for all things Celtic. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh and ordained to the charge of Turriff in 1897, moving four years later to Alloa and, in 1901, to St Stephen’s, Edinburgh, a congregation which sent nearly 900 men on active service during the First World War. He was later called to Glasgow Cathedral and his career culminated in his appointment as Moderator of the General Assembly in 1933.

MacLean Watt spent two periods working closely with the troops: initially at the Base Camps with the YMCA and later, in 1916-17, as an Army Chaplain with the Gordon Highlanders at the Somme and with the Black Watch at Ypres. At the Base Camps, where he described his role as ‘a roving missioner, with my bagpipes for companion’, he would keep up men’s morale on a long dreary march by playing familiar Scottish tunes. He organised sing-songs and camp concerts where he found that ‘the more doleful the songs, the more popular they were’. He spent hours helping men with letters home: some found it difficult to get beyond writing the address, while others let their imagination run away with them, like the man who wrote ‘I am standing up to my knees in seven feet of mud’.

A fellow officer noted that ‘he knows exactly how to handle the men’ – and that included fellow clerics, too. On one occasion, his Roman Catholic colleague complained that the padre had conducted the funeral of one of his flock. MacLean Watt put his hand on the shoulder of the priest and said, ‘Well, Christ will have sorted that out by now.’ In general, though, the Presbyterian got on so well with his Catholic counterpart that the tent they shared was often referred to as ‘the Incorporated Society of St. Peter and St. Andrew’ – a fact, he said, which would ‘amaze our domestic bigots’.

Aside from the humour and camaraderie, MacLean Watt found he had much to learn in ‘the school of suffering in the Land of War’. For all his eloquence, when sitting by the bedside of dying men he discovered that ‘we do not need to pray in uttered words, in such a moment on the verge of night. Pulpits are cold places, spoken words seem empty, after that. Phrases would falter into tears if one tried to speak’.   Communion services were particularly moving experiences. One service, held in the courtyard of a small farm, was punctuated throughout by the cry of the guns; there, he said, the words of the twenty-third Psalm took on ‘a meaning as deep as eternity’.

MacLean Watt’s written accounts of his stint at the Front, ‘In Time of War’ (1915) and ‘In France and Flanders’ (1917), soon became best sellers and on his return he threw himself into speaking at a round of recruitment meetings. In February 1918 he undertook a tour to the US and Canada to rally support for the war effort via subscriptions to a bond scheme known as the Liberty Loan fund and between then and July he travelled thousands of miles, addressing some 200 meetings in fifteen States and in half of Canada. One particularly memorable gathering resulted in pledges of over £25,000 being received. On another occasion, the organisers, not fully understanding his previous role with the Gordon Highlanders and Black Watch, billed him as ‘Major Watt of the Black Death Department of the Gordon Highlanders’.

The far-travelled speaker eventually returned to his Edinburgh pulpit but the sudden death of the Rev James McGibbon in 1922 created a vacancy at Glasgow Cathedral and MacLean Watt accepted the call, though he admitted he knew little of Glasgow and had only visited the city a few times. This was the period when the Established and United Free Churches were coming closer to reunion, a process which he strongly supported and he was the natural choice as first moderator of the newly merged Glasgow presbytery after the 1929 Union.

It was inevitable, too, that such a prominent figure would in due course become Moderator of the General Assembly, a role he performed in 1934. In these days, larger than life pulpit personalities could draw huge crowds. Such was the appetite to listen to MacLean Watt during his moderatorial tour that it was standing room only when 1350 people crowded into one Falkirk Church. Even more remarkably, the service had been arranged at a later hour so that people could attend the normal evening services at their own churches first! The preacher took his text from Proverbs: ‘where there is no vision, the people perish’ and this extract gives some idea of his rhetorical style:

‘Out of the vision of the soul springs the sense of divine purpose . . . The soul has sight, the heart hearing as well as the eyes and ears and the darkness is filled with fragrant messages of God, for vision is the light of God. Take it away and life is a mere body hunger; poetry a meaningless thing; the grave but a cul-de-sac. This could never be the destiny of a soul which the Master took infinite trouble in the making of, infinite sorrow and wounds in the saving of.’

Much of Lauchlan MacLean Watt’s theological thinking was coloured by his wartime experiences. Like many of his generation, he tended to equate service to King and country with service to Christ: ‘God does not forget the soul that has gone through its Calvary upon the Cross of Duty’. If such an outlook has dated, the same is true of the sentiments expressed in many of his poems which today would be dismissed as a combination of jingoism and dreamy Celtic romanticism. As far as the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid was concerned, MacLean Watt amounted to little more than a ‘voluminous versifier’ to be classed with figures like Harry Lauder and Will Fyffe whom MacDiarmid held responsible for perpetuating a false and sentimental view of Scottish culture and nationhood. No wonder MacDiarmid had the reputation of being a ‘prickly controversialist’! But there was more to MacLean Watt than a mere defender of the status quo. He regularly lambasted fellow ministers for ‘squabbling, separation and ecclesiastical pomposities’ and it was during his tenure at Glasgow Cathedral that, for the first time in its history, a sermon was preached by a woman, Dr. Maude Royden of London, an early advocate of women’s ordination.

Though his writings are largely forgotten today, the name of Lauchlan MacLean Watt lives on as the author of a hymn still to be found in CH4:


‘I bind my heart this tide

         To the Galilean’s side,

         To the wounds of Calvary,

         To the Christ who died for me’.

This, wrote one reviewer when it was first published in 1910, represented ‘a better confession of faith than some elaborate ones that we have seen.’

MacLean Watt rarely hinted at the private grief that lay behind his busy public persona: he lost his wife Jennie in 1925 following a long illness and his only son Hector in 1943. After a serious heart attack, a preaching tour of Australia and a strenuous moderatorial year, he knew he needed a rest and when he left Glasgow Cathedral in May 1934 he retired permanently to the solitude of his beloved Highlands. There he died in 1957, having perhaps found on the shores of Lochcarron the tranquillity for which he so often expressed a longing in his verses.   

“It’s away and away o’er the waves I’d be

         With the gull in her flight.

         For a little lone isle in the Western Sea

         Is calling to me tonight.”




A new book entitled ‘Lauchlan MacLean Watt: Preacher, Poet and Piping Padre’ by Andrew G. Ralstonwas published in May. See for details.