Fr George Rigg, “Maighstir Seòras” (1860-1897)
Born in Lewis in 1860, George Rigg was the son of a farmer from the Lowlands and his English wife. Although his parents were not Gaels, he learned Gaelic in his early years in Lewis and subsequent upbringing in Morvern. After being ordained a priest in Paris in 1891, he first served in Knoydart and then was appointed parish priest of Daliburgh, South Uist, in 1894. Known in Gaelic as “Maighstir Seòras,” he was a well-regarded priest with a gentle manner and an interest in football: he was recorded as having organised the first football match ever held in South Uist.
Before the advent of modern antibiotics and vaccines, outbreaks of serious, contagious diseases were not uncommon among the people of the Highlands and Islands. In the summer of 1897, there was an outbreak of typhus in South Uist. According to local memory, neighbours were too frightened of contagion to enter the house of a stricken family in Fr Rigg’s parish and therefore it was left to Fr Rigg to see to their needs. Fr Rigg soon came down with typhus himself and died within a week of falling ill, at the age of 37. Fr Rigg’s death was seen as an example of the unselfish devotion of a priest to his charge and the story of his death was widely reported in newspapers of the time, as far abroad as New Zealand. One report compared him to Fr Damien De Veuster, the Belgian priest who served the leper colony of Molokai, Hawaii from 1873 until his death from the disease in 1889. While Fr Damien was canonised in 2009, Fr Rigg’s story is today little-known outside South Uist. He was memorialised in the local community through Gaelic laments composed in his honour, including one by his friend and better-known contemporary, Fr Allan MacDonald of Eriskay (1858-1905) and another by a Protestant neighbour, a testament to the recognition of his self-sacrifice across religious boundaries. In addition, “Seòras” became a common given name for boys in South Uist. Fr Allan MacDonald saw Fr Rigg’s heroic service as an example for his own priestly life and after his friend’s death, noted in his diary, “May his sincere holiness and the clear perception of the duties and dignity of the priesthood that he had teach me to think of what I ought to be and strive to be what I should be.” He described his Fr Rigg’s sacrifice more poetically in the lament he composed for his friend: Cha tillte le sgràth thu Bho shaothair do Shlànair, Is chìte gach là nad leum thu Thoirt sòlas dhan fhàrdraich ’N robh còmhnaidh na plàighe, Taigh brònach gun bhlàths, gun chèilidh. Thu ’d ghaisgeach nad ònar, Gun neach rachadh còmh’ riut, Air faiche na tròcair ’s feum air Gun d' fhuair thu trom-leònadh, ’S bàs cruaidh mar bu deòin leat, ’S breith bhuadhach na glòir na èirig.
Fear would not deter you from the work of your Saviour, Every day you would be seen active; Giving consolation to the household Where the plague was dwelling, A cold house without warmth or company. You were a hero, all alone, Without anyone who would go with you On the path of mercy when needed; You were sorely stricken, And earned the martyr's death you desired, And the triumphant judgment of Glory as its recompense.*
* English translation by J.L. Campbell, Fr Allan MacDonald of Eriskay, 1954.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Fr Rigg’s example was brought to the attention of Scottish Catholics by one of our bishops. In March 2020, Bishop Joseph Toal of Motherwell related the story of Fr Rigg in a pastoral letter concerning priests administering the sacraments to those stricken with Covid 19. Bishop Toal had learned the story of Fr Rigg during his time as a young priest in South Uist. While urging caution to be taken when visiting the sick, Bishop Toal also noted that Fr Rigg’s acts were remembered in South Uist as an example of heroic priestly service.
The events of the past year have provided a fitting context to make Fr Rigg’s story more well known in Scotland. In our own time of pandemic and isolation, may Fr George Rigg’s self-sacrifice remind us of Christ’s declaration: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
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[Accessed 8 April 2021].