A beacon of spiritual light

Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s greatest living historian, tells John Patrick Mallon the remarkable story of the founding of Carfin Grotto, one of Scotland’s holiest sites.

Sir Tom Devine has a personal stake in the story of Carfin Grotto. Growing up in Motherwell, he recalls participating ‘in the regular feast day processions and saw the Mass celebrated in the old glass chapel, and the martial ranks of school children from all over Scotland’.

It left a strong impression, and he believes the story of the shrine, and its founding, is a deeply revealing chapter of Scottish Catholic history.

“In the years before World War One, the great increase of Irish immigration to Scotland had fallen to a trickle and it never really recovered,” he explains. “In the early 1920s, overwhelmingly, the Catholic people of Lanarkshire belonged to the working classes.”

Then the ‘great catastrophe’ of World War One savaged these communities, followed by the Great Depression.

“We now know that Scotland had the greatest mortality rate as a consequence of combat of all the combatant nations, in relation to the base size of the Scottish population,” he said. “Then after a brief boom in 1919-1920, the beginnings of the long drawn-out trauma of economic depression and un- employment began to hit the area.”

Lanarkshire was hard hit as ‘one of the heartlands of the Scottish industrial machine, a satellite area of Glasgow, but very important for ironmaking, and coal mining’.


These economic challenges were accompanied by an ‘insidious growth of sectarian attitudes’.

“Before 1914 the Catholic Irish, or the Scottish Irish as they started to be called, were never loved by their Protestant neighbors,” Professor Devine said.

“But there really had not been very much in the way of outbursts of militant sectarian attitudes. That began to change after the war, the great symbol of that new growth in anti-Catholicism, and especially anti-Irish racism, was the publication by the Church of Scotland in 1924, of ‘the menace of the Irish race to our Scottish nationality’.

“If you look at the first few pages of that notorious pamphlet, you’ll read that that enemy is not indigenous, Catholic Scots, mainly at that time living in the Highlands. The enemy is Irish Catholics. So, there was a blend of anti-Catholic bigotry, with a powerful dose of anti-Irish racism.

“This was the broad economic, social, and religious background to the founding of Carfin Grotto.”

However, the 1920s were also a growth period for the Catholic community in Scotland, with the Professor highlighting ‘a new intensity of devotion. “It’s in that period the Legion of Mary was founded, in Dublin, but it quickly became popular in Scotland.

“The Pioneer Association, the temperance movement, appeared in the same period. Outdoor processions proclaiming the Faith were very popular and indeed eventually attacked by the then Orange Member of Parliament for Motherwell, Mr. Ferguson.”

The historian suggests that ‘Carfin Grotto didn’t come out of the blue: it came out of the sometimes serious emotional and economic difficulties that people were going through in the early 1920s.’

“Perhaps they were looking for some form of spiritual comfort, some form of spiritual renewal and support in those in those dark days,” he mused. “This extraordinary development at Carfin was almost a beacon of spiritual light in that milieu of darkness.”


As for Canon Taylor, the founder of the Grotto, and what drove him, Devine suggests ‘one of the difficulties of history is getting inside the minds of individuals in the past’.

“My suspicion is that Taylor’s motivations were varied and complex,” he goes on. “I think the fundamental motivation was spiritual, an attempt to ensure through Marian oratory and other means, the appeal of the Virgin Mary in order to establish a much stronger spirituality among his people.”

However, he also highlights that ‘there’s no doubt about the fact that for the Scottish hierarchy, and maybe Taylor had the same vision, the great menace to the faith at that time was the haemorrhage of young Catholic men to the Communist Party and to materialistic atheism’.

“In Glasgow, there was a whole variety of famous names from the community who did become com munists, at least for a period,” the professor said.

“That was a reflection of the crisis that was going on in capitalism. It’s not surprising that communism’s call for the workers to establish a fairer and better world had such appeal to some Catholics at that time. They were at the bottom of the social heap.”

Whatever the motivations, the new Grotto quickly pulled in huge crowds.

“Between the foundation of the Chapel in 1922 and 1924 there was probably about 300,000 pilgrims who visited a coffin grotto,” he said.

“And therefore, it was not simply a local attraction, but it clearly had national attraction. I suspect that for priests and bishops elsewhere in Scotland, it was remarkable that this little corner of Lanarkshire had generated something so potent.”

Canon Taylor

Thomas Taylor was born at Greenock on December 16, 1873, where his father, James, was head teacher at St Lawrence’s Primary School. Ordained for the priesthood in 1896, in 1915 he was made parish priest of St Francis Xavier’s, Carfin. In 1893, he had made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, and this was the beginning of his extraordinary love for the shrine in the Pyrenees.

Encouraged by a group of parishioners, he planned and built the Lourdes Grotto at Carfin in the early 1920’s with the assistance of many local men during a time of strikes and mass unemployment. The Grotto was formally opened on October 1, 1922, and through it he was able to promote devotion not only to Our Lady of Lourdes but also to St Thérèse of Lisieux.

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