Kenny I: The privileged life of a preacher

Social media can sometimes be quite revealing. When there is an enormous number of “likes” on Facebook, for example, it probably indicates some very widely held consensus.

Friday, 13th August 2021, 12:44 pm
Kenny I and his wife Dolly as retirement beckons

That happened last week to mark the retirement of Rev. Kenny I. MacLeod as assistant minister to the Stornoway Free Church congregation. Kenny isn’t even on Facebook but he thinks he might join, now he’s retired – though not, I’m sure, to catch up on the praise heaped upon him.

His mother used to tell him that he had three failings – he wouldn’t study, hated visiting and dressed scruffily. Entering the ministry required him to address all three issues. Retirement may at least allow him to revert to his more natural dress sense.

It is not uncommon for ministers to have had previous occupations and to have seen the world. By any standards, however, Kenny arrived at the ministry by a circuitous route – teaching, Arnish, swimming pool attendant, more teaching and eventually, perhaps, a pre-ordained destination.

From the family album - Kenny as a child alongside Rev Kenneth MacRae

His Free Church pedigree is impeccable. Kenny’s grandfather, on his mother’s side, was Rev. Kenneth MacRae, who ministered to Stornoway’s Free Church congregation for 33 years and whose name is still revered in church circles. He died in 1964, only as old as the century.

“To a child, he was a strange mix of stern and gentle. I remember him as being great fun which is very different from his austere image or what comes through in his diaries”, recalls Kenny. The ‘Diaries of Kenneth MacRae’ are still in print and important as a record of their times.

Kenny says: “Even from a non-religious point of view, his diaries are one of the few records of the war years on Lewis that have been kept here”. Kenneth MacRae had left instructions for them to be burned on his death but his widow over-ruled this in what she believed to be the wider interest of them being read.

Ministers move from place to place, according to the call. Rev. Kenneth MacRae’s background was in Kintail and indeed he wrote a song, The Scattered Children of Kintail. Then he had charges in Skye and Lochgilphead before landing in Stornoway and becoming closely identified with Lewis. His grandson, born in Lochalsh and schooled on Skye, eventually followed a curiously similar path.

Kenny’s father was a seaman from Borriston, Carloway. “He was converted in the Carloway revival prior to the Second World War. He wanted to go into the ministry then but thought that if he applied, people would say that he was doing it to avoid the war. So it was after the war he applied and became a minister in 1950”.

Norman MacLeod had a tough war, sailing on the Arctic Convoys. “Like so many people, he then had to come back into normal, civic life. My mother used to say that he shouted and cried out through the night. Occasionally he would say that he never wanted to talk about what he had seen.

“For the rest of his life, he would meet with the men he had been with in the war. It didn’t matter if they were religious or not. As the years went by, the bonds grew stronger. Eventually, there were only two of them left, himself and Donald Smith (Dodelan) in Tolsta. They would give each other haircuts that would last about three and a half hours”.

RUNRIG CONNECTION

Rev Norman MacLeod’s first charge was in Ardelve which is where Kenny was born, starting school at Auchtertyre. When he was six, the call to his father came from Portree Free Church and he remained the minister there until 1973 – virtually the entire length of Kenny’s school career at Portree High.

The manse was on Staffin Road and within a small radius lived his school contemporaries, Donnie Munro, the brothers Rory and Calum MacDonald, and Malcolm Jones – most of the future Runrig. Lifetime friendships were formed. When Kenny, in 1989, married Dolly MacSween from Scalpay, Calum was his best man.

“They never changed,” he says of the Runrig boys. “They took their work very seriously but they never took themselves very seriously. That is the way I would describe myself too”. He loved Portree but then, he reflects, he has loved everywhere that life has taken him. “In the main, folk are good”.

Kenny was into sport and had planned, along with Calum MacDonald, to go to college to become a PE teacher. Then he injured an Achilles tendon and that was off the agenda. “To be honest, I didn’t want to become a teacher. I thought for a while of becoming a bus driver in Glasgow like another school friend but ended up going to Jordanhill to do primary teaching”.

He says that he was “not at all bright” particularly when it came to maths and failed an exam, re-sat it and was pretty sure he had failed again, which would have brought his teaching prospects to a premature conclusion. Then the hand of fate – or who knows what – intervened.

Kenny was working that summer as a salmon fisherman for the Tongadale Hotel in Portree which held the netting rights around that part of the island. One day, Kenny and his team were off Braes bag-netting salmon when the weather turned fierece and they saw a dinghy apparently getting into trouble with a single individual on board.

They detoured to make sure he was safe and it turned out to be the late, great Jake MacDonald, who was head of the Celtic Studies department at Jordanhill. His safety secured, Jake asked Kenny how he was getting on with his course at Jordanhill. Kenny explained his problem with maths, to which Jake replied: “Count it as a pass, a’bhalaich”.

By then, his father had been called to the Free Church charge in Callanish and Breasclete so Lewis, for the first time in Kenny’s life, become the family’s home. These are still, he says, places very close to his heart. When it came to appointing teachers, the system was more informal in these days and Kenny found himself in demand.

He was still not too keen on the idea of teaching but a phone call from Alasdair MacDonald, the head teacher at Aird School and a very active community figure – “probably one of the most influential men in my life” – left him with an offer he couldn’t refuse. He taught for five years at Aird before the grass on the other side became greener.

This took the form of the Arnish yard, which was then enjoying one of itis boom periods. He lasted 18 months there and then a couple of years as a swimming pool attendant in Stornoway before he was persuaded back into a spell of teaching in Uig. “I just loved it there – the kids were so good”.

His next move was to Stornoway Primary School and a turning point in his life. Until then, the ministry had never featured among his eclectic career choices.

He had seen the pressures it placed on his father “and didn’t feel I had the qualities or qualifications. But then I came to faith and my whole perspective changed. That’s what faith does”.

Kenny spent four years at the Free Church College in Edinburgh. At first, it was very difficult to adapt to the academic environment which surrounded him on The Mound.

“As time went on I realised how privileged we were to be taught by probably the best in their fields anywhere in the world, including America – John L. MacKay on the Old Testament; Donnie Foot (MacLeod) on theology; Douglas MacMillan, one of the great pastors, doing history…”.

In 1989, he returned to Lewis as assistant to Rev. Murdo Alex MacLeod at Stornoway Free Church. “He was a top guy and I learned so much from him”.

After two years, he was called by the Muir of Ord congregation and found himself in a very different environment but one for which he and Dolly developed a deep and lasting affection – as did their children, Marie, Norman and Abigail.

“I was asked to come back to Stornoway in 1999. It took me a long time to decide. The Free Church was in turmoil which really upset me.

"If there’s one place there shouldn’t be division it is the church but there is a history of it which goes against its first principles – and mine too”.

His personality helped him to navigate these difficulties and become a much-loved minister to the substantial Stornoway flock.

The “Runrig principle” of taking the job very seriously but himself rather less seriously has served him well. Of the congregation he has retired from, he reflects: “I would say it is a very happy church”.

It isn’t just Kenny his congregation will lose. Kenny says his grandson Joshua (son of Marie and her husband Ewan) has become a constant source of illustrative material for the pulpit on Sundays. “Most of the people who stop me in the street say – ‘we’ll miss you, especially your Joshua stories’. I think they’ll miss him more than they’ll miss me”.

A PRIVILGED CALLING

On top of their preaching and other clerical duties, clergy of all denominations have to act as counsellors and social workers without any training in these capacities. That can be a very tough shift and has probably become much more so over the past 40 years as society’s problems have multiplied.

However, Kenny balances that by pointing to the “privilege” of the job.

“We share in people’s joys and in their sorrows. These get to be very personal. We get insights into aspects of people’s lives from a unique perspective. We become part of them.

“The part I find most difficult to deal with is death but I suppose it is a privilege to be with people who are dealing with that too.

"My greatest sense has been of unfitness for the position I hold. I’ve never felt that I am equipped for it”.

It is a severe self-assessment with which many would clearly disagree – and if you doubt that, just check out Facebook. If he joins, he won’t be short of friends.