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Pluscarden: from ‘bare ruin’d choirs’ to restoration

The Wolf of Badenoch, enraged by land and marital disputes with the Bishop of Moray, set Pluscarden Priory alight in the late 14th century. Scorch marks at the now-Abbey, which lies in a secluded valley outside of Elgin and is home to a community of white-habited Benedictine monks, are said to be remnants of the assault.

The incident with the Wolf of Badenoch is but one strand in the fascinating history of Pluscarden. The Abbey’s story interacts with Kings and nobles, French and Anglican monastics, the nadir of the Reformation, and modern-day aristocratic patronage and restoration. The monks are live-streaming the Divine Office during the current Covid restrictions. Listening to Sunday Vespers recently, I thought of my (pre-Covid) visits to Pluscarden and mused upon the position that the Abbey holds in the history of the Scottish Church.

The original monastic foundation, in 1230, was granted by Alexander II to a now-defunct French order called the Valliscaulians (its few remaining members combined with the Cistercians in the 18th century). Relatively normal monastic life proceeded until the Reformation, excluding the incident with Alexander Stewart (the Wolf of Badenoch) and some collateral damage suffered when the soldiers of Edward I stormed through Moray.

At the Reformation, as with ecclesial property across the land, the Priory passed into lay hands. Various aristocrats, including the Seton and Duff families, owned the land and property. By the 19th century the Priory buildings had fallen into disrepair. Paintings of the dilapidated buildings, while full of gothic romance, put one in mind of Shakespeare’s melancholic line regarding ‘bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.’

Thankfully (or, perhaps, providentially) the land and property came into the hands of the Third Marquess of Bute, that great patron of Catholic art and architecture in 19th-century Britain. His son, Lord Colum Chrichton-Stuart, then gave it in 1943 to the Benedictine monks of Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire. Some work had been completed on the Priory buildings under Bute, although most restoration work was to happen over the following years, and the Prinknash community were able to move in in 1948. There is a fascinating extant video from 8th September of that year, showing the first Mass at Pluscarden as a re-established monastic house. The great interest the restoration attracted is clear, with a crowd observing the celebration of Mass for the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Lady.

The rhythms of traditional monastic life at Pluscarden offer stability and rootedness in a world of flux. Following the Rule of Saint Benedict, the monks spend their days in prayer and work - ora et labora. Prayer is centred around the eight services of the Divine Office (from Vigils to Compline) and the Sacrifice of the Mass. Labour includes work in the gardens, house and guest-house work, and crafts. The community is concerned with the eternal and permanent things, with a vocation that embodies a radical and beautiful devotion to Christ. The differences to modern life outside the Abbey walls are striking, to say the least.

The modern-day monks of Pluscarden are distinctively attired in white habits. Benedictines usually wear black, and from the point when the Priory was integrated with the Benedictine Urquhart in 1414 black was worn. White, however, has been the monk’s colour since the restoration in 1948 and there was no change when Pluscarden became an Abbey in 1974. The community at Prinknash stems from the former Anglican monastic community on Caldey Island, where the monks controversially (to the Anglican authorities) started wearing white habits in order to consecrate themselves to Our Lady and to associate themselves aesthetically with contemplative Christian tradition (the Carthusians, for instance, wear white). The Caldey community crossed the Tiber in 1913. With Pluscarden reliant on Prinknash until 1966, the wearing of white was continued. This was also done to honour the Pluscarden community’s monastic descendants in Moray, as the Valliscaulians also wore white, and to honour Our Lady (to whom the Abbey is dedicated).

Time spent at the Abbey is a reminder of the great cultural importance of the monasteries. Until the plunder of the Dissolution such places were centres of beauty, learning, and charity. Pluscarden has done well in resurrecting this ideal. The monks retain the use of Gregorian chant in the liturgy, and the hours of the Divine Office are sung in Latin with a pure and melancholic beauty. The final office of the day, Compline, is one of my favourites (if that is an appropriate term). While one of the shorter offices, the prayers of the hour are exceedingly beautiful, as is the Marian hymn to close. The office is sung in near-darkness over winter. The Great Silence is observed in the monastery after this office, and the stillness and quietness can seem quite shocking at first to those unused to it.

The splendour of the Church’s musical heritage is certainly honoured at the Abbey, as is made evident by the several recordings and broadcasts of Pluscarden’s liturgical chant. As with the Office, the Mass is also sung in Latin (using the Novus Ordo rather than Tridentine form of the Roman rite) with readings in English. The use of the ancient language of the Church centres the liturgy in Catholic tradition, and assists with prayer and raising one’s heart and mind to God.

The Rule of Saint Benedict details how guests should be welcomed, and at Pluscarden hospitality is not in short supply. Guests are invited to enter into the monk’s daily schedule. They can attend as many services as they desire, and have the option for confession and spiritual direction. One can assist with work in the gardens and the Abbey shop, and (male) retreatants are able to join the monks for lunch and dinner if they wish. As is traditional, meals are taken in silence with one brother reading to the community. On my last visit, over a hearty broth at lunch in the Refectory, I was treated to readings on the intrigues of 19th-century Anglo-Irish politics and Saint Maria Faustina.

We are fortunate indeed to have Pluscarden on our shores. While the Abbey’s history is fascinating in its own right, we must also consider the influence it holds upon the present. The monks have restored not only the physical buildings of the Abbey, but also traditional Benedictine life, and this has led Pluscarden to become a beacon for the Faith in this country.

Chris Akers | Edinburgh

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