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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Among Scots at Malta

Looking Back

Friday August 21

Looking Back: Among Scots at Malta

From the August 1915 Record of the United Free Church of Scotland, a description of an impromptu Gaelic service on board an ammunition ship.


Chaplains' Work on board passing Ships

By Rev. Albert G. Mackinnon, M.A., of Greenock

A CHAPLAIN’S work is full of variety and opportunity if he is quick to seize it. As an illustration of this let me give a glimpse of the last two days.

Mr. Campbell (of Greenock) and myself started in the morning in our dghaisa to visit a fortress and hospital some distance away. As we crossed the harbour my friend’s quick eye detected the presence of a new steamer lying at anchor. She was a carrier of ammunition.

“Let us see if there are any Scots on board,” remarked my indefatigable companion.

Passes are demanded for almost everything here, and certainly for boarding a Government ship. But those who know Mr. Campbell will agree that he carries his certificate in his open kindly face, and when that is united with a strong will, it will be readily understood that the officer at the deck end of the rope ladder yielded to our sudden assault.

Mr. Campbell’s heart was delighted when he heard that there were eighteen Gaelic-speaking sailors on board. They were at a meal in the fo’c’sle at that moment, and thither we went in a blazing heat that made the iron deck seem like burning coals under our soles.

I never saw such a look of astonishment on men’s faces before as when we put our heads into the close mess-room. But it was intensified when Mr. Campbell muttered some magic words in Gaelic. The knives and forks literally dropped out of the crew’s hands in their amazement, and I saw a wondering smile break over their bearded and begrimed faces.

Of course I could only be a spectator, but I saw that my friend held them from the start. The ship was sailing at 4 p.m. but we promised to be back again at 3 p.m. and hold a service.

After lunch, again we boarded the vessel and were received most courteously by the captain and chief officer. Seats were arranged on the bridge deck, and the Highlanders were called there.

I have been at many impressive religious meetings but few have equalled this in strangeness or feeling. All about sounded the creaking of the cranes and the puffing of donkey engines with the confused noises of a ship preparing to get underway.

Suddenly an unaccustomed sound in such a place began to penetrate the din and rise above it. It was the melody of a Gaelic psalm to the tune of “Kilmarnock.” I saw the “Sassenachs” on the deck stop in their work and look up in amazement, and well they might as they listened to those eighteen men singing praise to God in their mother tongue. A very rough-looking lot a casual spectator might say. They had just been summoned from their work and came as they were. Some were bare-footed, all were perspiring and begrimed; but to Him who searcheth the heart there must have been something heavenly in that song, that wafted its message of faith from the very midst of death-dealing explosives.

Then came the prayer. I noticed that most of the men stood during it, betokening the land from which they came – Lewis. It seemed to me that as the pastor led those men near to God in their mother tongue a hush crept over the ship. Certainly the hoarse shouting and coarse words appeared to lessen. Somehow men felt that God was being worshipped there. The minister told me the text of his address; it dealt with the sheepfold and the gate. I saw its impression in the glistening of more than one eye and the moistening of more than one cheek.

The captain and chief officer showed us every kindness. Perhaps the secret of it was in the way the commander spoke of his men. “They are a splendid set of good living fellows,” he said, and maybe that was why even at a busy moment he was willing to let them have that short time of spiritual strengthening.

Previous: August 1935, 'At Home in the World'

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