|Righteous and revered|
|Friday, 08 March 2013|
College Chaplain The Very Reverend Gilleasbuig Macmillan speaks with Aoife O’Sullivan about his role at one of Scotland’s oldest churches and its links with the RCSEd
In the left corner of St Giles Cathedral on Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile, lies a plaque dedicated to The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, stating that “the first examinations for the ‘Surregianis Craft were held here in St Giles.’”
The plaque was unveiled in 2005 as part of the College’s Quincentenary, but the relationship RCSEd holds with St Giles Cathedral goes beyond the simple fact that examinations once took place at the Edinburgh cathedral. The first record of the relationship goes back as far as April 1504, when the Act of the Council of Edinburgh appointed the Kirkmaster of the Barbercraft of Edinburgh to hold their divine service at St Mungo’s altar of St Bryde in St Giles Kirk and to have St Mungo as their patron.
Clarifying more about the historic relationship, The Very Reverend Gilleasbuig Macmillan FRCSEd (Hon) explains, “Clearly, the very beginnings of the gatherings of the Barber Surgeons involved maintaining an altar at St Giles, and there is some evidence that the early meetings were held at St Giles, certainly in the early days of the College coming into being. The College would have been quite a different sort of body to what it is today, but there were definitely strong connections back then.
“In the 1500s, St Giles would have been the main public building of Edinburgh – as was any parish church in a town or village back then. Churches for many years were the public building for all sorts of purposes. People would go to their parish church to strike bargains, or sell furniture, hire farm workers – it was very different to what it is today. All sorts of things happened in the church because it was the only public building and I believe that St Giles is probably the most central public building in Scotland for the longest period. St Giles has been the parish church of the capital of Scotland for an extremely long time.”
Mr Macmillan is the third RCSEd Chaplain, a role he was invited to take in 1973 when he became Minister of St Giles Cathedral. Looking back on coming to Edinburgh from his previous parish in Portree on the Isle of Skye, he reflects, “Being invited to come to St Giles in Edinburgh from a Portree island Parish at the age of 29 was probably regarded by some as quite a leap. The role at times can be demanding, but it’s been great, I’ve never regretted coming here.”
Having grown up in west coast village of Appin, educated in Oban and the University of Edinburgh, and with previous parishes in Linlithgow and the Isle of Skye, Mr Macmillan takes a pragmatic viewpoint when questioned on whether he’s experienced any differences in pastoral care between a rural village and a city; “People are people – in moving churches and locations, I don’t think I left one form of life for a totally different form of life. I was asked on a radio interview when I first began working at St Giles how I would find living in a city compared to a small country place where ‘time doesn’t matter’. I said I can assure you that if the plumber in Portree says he will be there by 9.30 in the morning and he doesn’t come, you would be just as annoyed as if you were living in Edinburgh!”
Despite the College’s long historical connection with the Church of Scotland, the role of College Chaplain is, surprisingly, fairly recent, having only been established in 1952 when the College Council deemed it appropriate to appoint a Chaplain in view of the long association with St Giles. The College Prayer, however, which the Chaplain reads out at Diploma Ceremonies and RCSEd dinners, dates back to 1581, when it was recorded within the first book of the Records of the Incorporation of Barber Chirurgeons, and is believed to be attributed to leader of the Protestant Reformation, John Knox.
In recent years, the historic custom of reading the College Prayer at ceremonial occasions has been subject to some discussion, as Mr Macmillan comments, “There has been some debate over the years whether the College Prayer should be used at all and whether it is inclusive enough, so on occasion I will modify it slightly – for example, by leaving out reference to Christ Jesus – so it is appropriate to our many followers of Islam, Hinduism and other religions. So far, no new permanent revision of the historic College Prayer has been made and I’ve been given freedom to decide when it is appropriate to read it out differently.”
Being flexible with prayer and service is something the Chaplain is not afraid to exercise. He is quite humble when questioned about what is perhaps an unusual award for a Church of Scotland Minister; a Muslim News Award for Excellence. Explaining how he came to receive such an accolade, “In 1991, at the end of the first Iraq War we held a repentant service at St Giles to pray for all victims of the war and to pray for future peace in the Middle East and peace amongst religions in this country.
“We initially had difficulty discussing this with any Muslim leaders in Scotland as to whether they would take part, and when it was eventually suggested it would clash with Muslim evening prayer on a Sunday, I suggested we put Muslim evening prayer into the service, so we had an interval so Muslims could put out prayer mats and kneel as part of the service. It was very moving. “It’s not as unusual nowadays for the city cathedral to occasionally host prayers of other faiths, for example the Kirking of the Scottish Parliament that takes place at St Giles invites Jewish readings in Hebrew, and Islamic readings in Arabic, amongst other faiths.”
Now in his fortieth year as Minister of St Giles and as RCSEd Chaplain, Mr Macmillan’s profession has not only seen him conducting numerous prayer services, weddings, funerals and commemorative occasions, as well as maintaining the conservation and restoration of the long-standing Cathedral, he has also frequently been invited to preach and lecture at Harvard University, USA, and has achieved many varied honours, including being Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland since 1979, Honorary Chaplain of the Royal Scottish Academy and Dean of the Order of the Thistle since 1989.
In his long serving role as chaplain, Mr Macmillan has worked alongside 15 RCSEd Presidents, starting with Sir Donald Douglas in 1973 to the current President, Mr Ian Ritchie. Within that time period, the College’s membership has grown significantly, from approximately 6,600 in 1973, to a membership figure of close to 20,000 today.
Asked what he has enjoyed most about his many years’ service, the Chaplain reflects, “I suppose the two answers are Sunday mornings and people. I enjoy my principal activity, which is leading services on Sunday morning, and parallel to that is the people I have known and liked and worked with over the years.
“It seems like a long time ago now that I first became Chaplain of RCSEd. Although the role itself hasn’t changed very much over the years, the Office Bearers of the College change and you meet different Presidents, and Vice Presidents and Secretaries and their partners; when I first became Chaplain at 29, they were all much older than me, and now they are much younger than me! I’m very grateful for the friendship, particularly of the Office Bearers at the College I have come to know over the years. I have greatly enjoyed the company.”