Scotland Is My Cup of Tea: Of Sisters, Shortbread and Scions
COMMENTARY: An overseas journey, complete with stone abbeys, peaceful prayer, breathtaking views and time with family
Cheering on my hometown parade in the Philadelphia suburbs is how I often spend July 4th. But this year I boarded an airplane, my heartstrings being tugged overseas by five sweet grandkids. Their mom — my daughter — met her husband years ago in St. Andrews, Scotland, the town where famous golfers tee up on the Old Course and the Prince and Princess of Wales’ love story began.
Before departing, I watched EWTN’s Catholic Scotland, which shows historic Pluscarden Abbey, a working monastery, and Greyfriars Convent in the nearby town of Elgin, now occupied by four American Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. Both holy sites originated in the Middle Ages but fell from sacred use until Lord John Crichton-Stuart assumed ownership circa 1898, prompting eventual restoration. Realizing that both Pluscarden and Greyfriars were near my daughter’s home in northeastern Scotland, I planned a visit to each spot and was invited to tea by Sister Mary Gianna Klein at Greyfriars Convent.
Leaving Philly at 11pm, I flew overnight to London and then Aberdeen. A train bound for Elgin chugged amidst Aberdeenshire’s hamlets, farms, rivers and cooperages boasting mountains of stacked barrels — evidence of a thriving whiskey industry.
It was 10:30pm, yet light outside, when my cab approached the women’s building of Pluscarden Abbey. I found my lodging down the hall, a cell containing a single bed, sink, mirror and closet with makeshift desk. The Holy Bible sat on a shelf alongside St. Augustine’s Confessions and several pamphlets, including “On Prayer,” which was filled with quotes from early Church Fathers.
In the morning, I readied for 9am “Prime, Conventual Mass, Terce,” on the liturgy timetable, the third of seven liturgies during weekdays. Walking up the deserted road and rounding a bend, I gasped at first sight of Pluscarden Abbey’s medieval magnificence.
Pathway signage showed photos of a roofless edifice with towering ivy-covered walls, abandoned following the Reformation. Benedictine monks began restoration in 1948, making Pluscarden the only medieval monastery in the U.K. currently used for its original purpose.
In the cavernous stone transepts, a monk tolled the bell. I slipped into a hallowed side chapel where Gregorian chant soon ascended the stone archways as it had centuries earlier. The Benedictines’ ivory-hooded cloaks reached their ankles, and a brown leather belt hung visibly within the fabric folds at each monk’s waist. Many wore shoes apropos for hours spent daily in manual labor.
After Mass, I visited the gift shop, choosing a lovely tea towel and delicate mug with etchings of the abbey’s buildings, remitting payment via the self-service honor system. Then ambling back down the road as doves cooed continuously from abbey eves, I returned to the women’s quarters and enjoyed tea with another guest, Susan, from Aberdeen. A lifelong devotee of Pluscarden, Susan is becoming an Oblate — a lay Benedictine who strives to live according to the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict, namely pax (peace) and ora et labora (pray and work).
For 24 hours, I assumed the rhythm — walking to liturgy, Gregorian chant in Latin, walking back, silence and reflection, more liturgy, and retiring early in order to rise for the 4:30am vigil.
After morning Lauds, I encountered salt-of-the-earth Father Giles Conacher, Pluscarden’s guestmaster and peppered him with questions. What was it like when he arrived 50 years ago? “There was no main electricity, no main water, no drainage … no central heating, holes in the roof and floors. Our group of monasteries was called, ‘of the Primitive Observance,’ a name which in our case was well-deserved. All the brothers that were with me have gone on to heaven. I’m the oldest one here.” What was his family’s reaction to his decision? “I think it was quite hard for them, but over time, they’ve come to see it as a blessing.” Why the leather belt? “Well, John the Baptist wore a belt of leather; it is symbolic, also representing chastity.” What was the hardest thing about being a monk? “Myself,” he commented wryly. “I haven’t regretted it, which must mean it was the right decision.”
My last service at Pluscarden arrived too soon. In the opposite chapel were two Dominican sisters who subsequently drove me, luggage-laden, to Greyfriars Convent. The sisters minister to their parish and diocese through programs like Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for children, teen youth ministry, adult faith formation, retreats and pilgrimages, and by offering various talks and prayer opportunities.
Upon arrival at Greyfriars, Dominican Sister Mary Gianna Klein welcomed me into the front parlor and served tea with a side of Scottish shortbread.
The eldest of four children, from Missouri, she has been at Greyfriars six years and serves as local superior. Dominican Sister Bernadette Marie Donze arrived one year ago after teaching second grade in Nashville. Tennessee. She indicated her surprise at being asked to go to Scotland. Dominican Sister Imelda Ann DuPuis, from Minnesota, came to Greyfriars with the community in 2013. The day of my visit, she was helping at the parish church, St. Sylvester’s, with an event welcoming recent refugees and asylum seekers. I didn’t meet the fourth Dominican, Sister Angela Marie Russell from Pittsburgh, as she was away in the United States.
“One way we describe our Dominican charism is ‘to praise, to bless, to preach’; and so our first duty is to sing the praises of God and contemplate him in prayer,” explained Sister Mary Gianna. “Prayer is the powerhouse of our life and ministry here. And Dominicans are the Order of Preachers, so we proclaim the truth of Christ here in Scotland.” She continued, “I didn’t know how beautiful this country is! I have also learned so much about the richness of the Catholic heritage here, which makes me desire to see a new awakening of faith here.”
As teatime ended, my son-in-law David McHutchon arrived at Greyfriars and joined us for a tour of the convent. He leads a Scottish political party, Sovereignty, which is uniquely pro-life. Sister Mary Gianna led us through historic hallways surrounding a rose garden to the inner chapel with its magnificent window depicting Christ the Bridegroom in heaven being followed by the company of holy virgins. Above an intricately carved rood screen, we saw Christ depicted gazing down from the San Damiano Cross. We then toured the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium. I presented the sisters with gifts, in case they missed home: a stars-and-stripes tablecloth, napkins, and tea towel with fireworks pattern. Photos were followed by farewell hugs, and I left with the gift of joy.
My son-in-law loaded my luggage into his “people carrier,” aka. minivan, and we headed off to the Lower Cabrach valley, where he and my daughter GlenFern live with their five young children plus one on the way. As we drove, I reflected upon Sister Mary Gianna’s sincere appreciation of meeting David and the social values espoused by his political party. David expounded:
“At Sovereignty, we share the sisters’ compassion for women and unborn children. Sovereignty has enshrined the principle of the sanctity of life into our party’s Constitution, unlike the current leader of the devolved administration of Scotland, Humza Yousaf, who has openly advocated for abortion to be legal to birth, a position shared by only 1% of women in the U.K., according to recent polling. Our hope and prayer is that an independent Scotland will do a better job of protecting the most vulnerable, and our young party is attracting growing support and interest from across Scotland and beyond as we work towards this end.
“We are also very supportive of confessional and home education, a good example of the former being provided by the sisters’ Catechesis of the Good Shepherd curriculum. On election, our representatives will seek to protect their prerogatives in this regard.”
Scotland’s home-schooling movement is young, with interested parents amazed to learn that my daughter is a home-school graduate who now home educates her own children.
We pulled into the driveway of David and GlenFern’s house, an historic manse that sits high atop a hill, where I was greeted by backyard chickens along with grandchild adulation and a bedroom offering breathtaking views. Wisps of smoke arose from chimney on yonder rise, sheep and more sheep grazed in dale below, and wings flashed as birds crested by the windows. In the night, I heard a calling owl.
During the visit, I reminded my posterity of their American citizenship with a July 4th celebration that included patriotic songs, talking about the Boston Tea Party, and devouring hot dogs, baked beans and corn on the cob. Three-year-old Becky kept repeating in her Scottish lilt, “We’re having an American dinner!” Afterwards, Iael, Mairi, Samuel, Becky and Donny ran about waving American flag glow sticks. It was a grand olde time.
On my last day in Scotland, my granddaughters led me alongside a gurgling stream with woodlands reminiscent of Bilbo’s shire. We headed upwards towards the old whiskey distillery that whispered of ancient spirits. Active restoration was underway to both the building and its vintage brew, promising some 20,000 visitors annually. Further along appeared a stone monument which read: “In memory of those from the Cabrach lost in the Great War 1914-18 and in all subsequent conflicts.” The valley’s population was decimated by the war, but a century later is poised for revival.
I breathed in the moist Scottish country air and reviewed my trip.
Liturgy alongside the monks made me thirsty to return to Pluscarden Abbey for a longer stay. The Benedictine’s magnificent restoration work and ongoing projects prove that even the most neglected, ivy-covered earthen vessel can be transformed into something remarkable through prayer, self-sacrifice and work. Tea time with the Dominican sisters, steeped in history at Greyfriars Convent, showed me that joy pours forth from individuals consecrated to God and his work. And, finally, the delight of infusing an American celebration into my grandchildren’s lives in the Cabrach valley reminded me that openness to life, albeit quite labor-intensive, produces bright young stars of all different stripes.
Sweet as honey, my grandkids will draw me back to these parts soon, but historic and present-day Catholic Scotland now beckon me, as well.
Writer Lisa Livezey has found the beauty, truth and goodness of the Catholic Church via the Anglican Ordinariate. She publishes a weekly photo devotion at lisalivezey.com/olivetree.