I have been at pains, of late, to discover a more erudite and faithful exposition on chapter 2 of St John’s Gospel – on the wedding at Cana – than that preached by the Rev. Dr Thomas Fortheringhame, who served as minister of the parish church of St. Peter’s which stands at one end of a sandy bay on the west coast of Orkney. Of course, the current House of the Lord there is a small square stone utilitarian structure built in the year 1826 by the freely-given labour of all the parishioners; women are said to have carried the stones from the quarry three miles away on their backs, a slow, holy, winter-long procession. But there were churches there before the present church was erected. The inscribed tombs in the churchyard go back to the seventeenth century, and there are older anonymous stones.
The good reverend doctor was the author of two volumes of sermons published in Edinburgh, not half a mile from The Mound. He complained in a written account of the parish that ‘the Kirk roof is full of leakings and dribblings in the winter time, and of draughts at all seasons of the year, whereby the parishioners are like to catch their death of cold, and often my discourses are broken by reason of their hoastings and coughings. The masonry is much delapidated’. It was soon after this that plans were drawn up by the laird for the building of the present church on the same site. But there were other churches there even before Dr Fortheringhame’s wet and draughty edifice. Among the clustering tombstones is a piece of a wall with a weathered hole in it that looks as though it might have been an arched window, and slightly to one side an abrupt squat arrangement of dressed stones that suggests an altar. The Rev. Dr Fortheringhame – O what a gentleman of such magnificent faith! – says curtly, ‘There is in the vicinity of the Kirk remnants of a popish chapel, where the ignorant yet resort in time of sickness and dearth to leave offerings, in the vain hope that such superstition will alleviate their sufferings; the which Romish embers I have exerted myself to stamp out with all severity during the period of my ministry’. Anyway, without further ado, I commend to your learning and most earnest meditation Dr Fortheringhame’s sermon, dated August 1788, on the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee:
‘Brethren, some of you might be thinking that the piece of gospel I read out just this minute anent the Lord Christ’s turning of water into wine at Cana of Galilee is divine permission to you to make drunken beasts of yourselves at every wedding that takes place within the bounds of this parish this coming winter; ay, and not only at every wedding but at every christening forby and every funeral and harvest supper. It is the devil of hell that has put such a thought into your minds. It never says in holy writ that any wedding guest was drunk at Cana of Galilee.
‘Magnus Learmonth, you in the second pew from the back, at the wedding you made for your third lass Deborah at Skolness at the back end of Lammas, all the guests lay at the ale-kirn like piglets about the teats of a sow till morning, to the neglect even of dancing; and two women in this same district came to themselves next morning in the ditch of Graygyres. Bella Simison, you do well to hang your head there at the back of the Kirk – it argues a small peck of grace. Andrina of Breck, you were the other defaulter – don’t look at me like that, woman! – you have a brazen outstaring impudence commensurate with your debauchery. Well I know you and your runnings back and fore between Breck and the alehouse with your bit flask under your shawl. Things are told privily into my lug.
‘What this text argues, brethren, is that the host at the wedding, the bridegroom’s good-father, was a careful and a prudent man with his bawbees. No doubt this provident man said to himself the day the marriage bids were sent about the countryside with a hired horseman, “If I order too few pigs of drink, they’ll say I keep the purse-strings drawn over tight, and if I order too muckle they’ll say I’m a spendthrift. And so I find myself between devil and deep. What is the right quantity of drink for a celebration such as this?” … Being a prudent man, I say, he ordered too few pigs of drink (only it wasn’t pigs of usquebaugh, whisky, in that foreign place, nor yet ale; it was jars of wine). The which when the Lord came he corrected, he set to right, as he will beyond a doubt set to right all our exaggerations and our deficiencies, since only he kens what is stinted and what is overblown in the nature of every man born. He adds and he takes from. The stringent economy of the host drew no rebuke from him. He accomplished the miracle. Then there was dancing, then there was fiddling, then no doubt near midnight bride and groom were carried into the ben room with roughness and sly jokes and a fiddle and five lanterns.
‘Nor was this the end of meat and drink as far as the Lord was concerned. You ken all about the multiplication of the five bannocks and the two cod-fish, concerning which I preached to you for an hour and more last Sabbath. There came a night at the supper-board when he suddenly took an oat-cake and broke it and raised his jug of drink and leaned across and said to them who were no doubt wanting to fill their bellies without any palaver, “This is my body,” he said, and then, “This is my blood” – a most strange and mystifying comparison indeed, that the papists would have us believe to be a literal and real and wholly breath-taking change of substance effected by a form of words. Whatever it means, brethren – and our General Assembly has not and doubtless will not bind you to any infallible conclusions as to the significance of these utterances – whatever it means, it teaches us a terrible reverence for the things we put in our mouths to nourish us, whether it is the laird’s grouse and claret or the limpets that Sam of the Shore eats with cold water out of the well in the lean days of March.
‘You will not go home, therefore, and hog down your brose like swine in a sty or like cuddies at a trough. The common things you put in your mouths are holy mysteries indeed, beyond the taste and the texture. Therefore, brethren, with reverence you will make them a part of your body and your life.
‘Prudence, my brethren, a proper proportioning of our goods, estimation, forethought – so much to the King, so much to the laird, so much to the Kirk, so much for the maintainance [sic] of ourselves and them that belong to us, so much to the poor – that is doubtless the meaning of this text; and for the things we lack, that we should ask the Lord to supply them, and so rest content in our estate.
‘John Sweynson, I observe that you bought a new shawl to your wife’s head at the Kirkwall Market, with what looks to be silken lacing round the edge of it, a thing of vanity, and new black lace gloves to her hands. She will not darken this kirk door again, no nor you either, with these Babylonish things on her body.
‘Samuel Firth, of the operations of your farm, Dale in the district of Kirkbister, naturally I ken nothing, nor does it concern me. But you have seven black cows on the hill if you have one, and fifty sheep forby, and a hundred geese. Is it a proper and a godly thing, think you, that your three small bairns sit in the front pew there under the precentor blue and channering with the cold, they having no right sarks to their backs nor boots to their feet? Have a care of this, look to it, as you call yourself a Christian. Amen.
‘Concluding, I have two announcements to make. John Omand, on account of the bastard child he fathered on Maria Riddoch at Michelmas, appeared before the Kirk session on Wednesday and being duly constrained answered Yea to the accusation, wherefore he will suffer public rebuke three sequent Sabbaths in this Kirk on the stool of penitence, beginning next Sabbath.
‘I hear that the French brig Merle, Monsieur Claude Devereux, master, discharged some cargo at the Bay of Ostray in the darkness of Friday night. The gentlemen of the excise were at Kirkwall, playing at cartes. Will you, therefore, James Drever, deliver as usual a keg of best brandy at the Manse tomorrow morning, when Mistress Skea my serving woman will see that you are recompensed for your pains’.
[Note: The ‘sermon’ appears in George Mackay Brown’s delightful book, A Time to Keep: And Other Stories.]