In a misty Thurso, with the soft rain brushing your face, it is hard to tell where the grey sea meets the grey sky. And the buildings – uniformly pebble-dashed against the weather - are just a more concrete, angular form of greyness. So it’s only the smudge of blue or green as people hurry, head down, for Mass at St Anne’s that brings any colour to the scene.
But inside the most northerly Catholic church on the British mainland, with its bright white paint and warm pine panelling, things are decidedly more welcoming.
After Friday morning mass Fr John Allen invites the small congregation next door to the parish house, for coffee and biscuits.
We carry yellow plastic boxes packed with nativity figures that will be taken to Our Lady and St Joseph’s church at Kirkwall on Orkney, which suffered a flood last year.
A handsome pipe organ is squeezed into the hall of the parish house, and the living room is dominated by a second – plus a grand piano. We sit and chat in the conservatory, while a hefty gull gazes at us hungrily from the patio as we munch our biscuits.
“The organs are a project of mine,” says Fr John. “You need a winter project and I brought these with me with the idea of installing them in two of the churches. But there is no tradition of organ music here - the fiddle and accordion are the traditional instruments - so I decided to put them together in the house. I did organ building for five years after school.”
Fr John is actually a priest of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton. “I came here for four weeks, just to help out,” he says. “That was 10 years ago!”
He stayed because he is very much needed. Priests are in short supply in the region – a problem for all denominations.
The move happened by chance. Fr John, in the area visiting family, was invited to a dinner to mark the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the Diocese of Aberdeen’s Bishop Mario Conti – whose parish this once was, and who is now Archbishop of Glasgow. After dinner they spoke and the bishop mentioned the difficulty of finding priests, and of how he had had the loan of one from another diocese. “I said talk to Cormac, [Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor was then Bishop of Arundel and Brighton] he might lend you a priest.
“When I got home the phone was ringing and it was Cormac: ‘I understand you want to go to Scotland’ he said. I believe that vocation is not up to the individual; that you should go where you are needed, so I came.”
Thurso is only half of this seaside parish. The mother church, St Joachim’s, is at Wick, 20 miles around the north eastern peak of the mainland. Both churches – which between them venerate the mother and father of the Virgin Mary - were built in response to the arrival of industry, and with it an influx of Catholics in this overwhelmingly Protestant area.
St Joachim, which dates from 1836, was built because of an annual invasion of many hundreds for the six-week herring harvest. But the herrings are long gone, and so is the need for labourers to gut and cure them.
St Anne’s was dedicated in 1960, shortly after the commissioning of the UK’s first nuclear reactor at Dounreay, eight miles to the west of Thurso. With its congregation outnumbering Wick’s three to one, the priest moved here, to a house and parish church built on one of the new estates put up for Dounreay workers.
But the decision was taken in 2001 to close Dounreay, and all that goes on there now is the long process of decommissioning.
Not that Fr John’s work is diminishing. He is also looking after the Orkneys, which we can see from his living room window once the morning mist begins to clear.
He has overseen the 15 months of work it has taken to restore Our Lady and St Joseph’s in the Orcadian capital of Kirkwall which, together with the parish house, was flooded in 2007. Also in his care is the Italian Chapel, on the island of Lamb Holm, built by Italian prisoners captured in North Africa in 1942 and brought to the Orkneys to work building causeways between the islands. They fashioned their camp chapel from a Nissen hut, but ornately embellished and decorated it.
So a weekend timetable for Fr John begins in Thurso with vigil mass at 6.30 on Saturday, followed by a 9am Mass on Sunday. Then it is over to Wick for Mass at 11, followed by a ferry ride to Orkney.
“On Orkney I have a 3.30 mass at the Italian Chapel during the tourist season, and then mass at St Magnus’s Cathedral – I’ve been saying Mass there while the church at Kirkwall is being repaired. St Magnus’s is now run by Orkney Islands Council and all denominations can use it.
“Then, not every Sunday, but I have regular masses at the three out of four chapels that are still used on other islands.”
A retired priest, Fr Ronnie Walls, will say a Sunday morning mass at Kirkwall once the church is reopened.
Fr John travels some 170 miles each Sunday, and must stay on Orkney overnight. If the weather turns bad he can be stuck on the islands. “I was once stranded on Orkney for four days, and there have been seven occasions in the past year I’ve been there at least two days.”
Once a month there is also a Mass at Talmine near Tongue, an outpost two thirds of the way along Scotland’s northern coast.
As we leave the day has brightened, the sun is out and the closest Orkney island, Hoy, can be seen clearly across the sparkling waters.
We take a leisurely route from Thurso to Wick, along the coast of this stunning seaside parish, taking in Dunstan Head, the most northerly point on the British mainland, and Castle Mey, once the holiday home of the Queen Mother, now run as a trust by Prince Charles, who visits each August.
In Wick we step inside St Joachim’s, which has the constraint of a non-conformist chapel. The story of St Joachim's is a remarkable one, told in a booklet on sale at the church.
The site was donated to Fr Walter Lovi for his help during a Cholera epidemic. Fr Lovi arrived in the town in 1832 and found “a kind of latent dread of old popery” which meant no one would rent him a place for Mass.
Many of the casual workers who formed Fr Lovi’s congregations came from Ireland and the West coast of Scotland, and had trekked for 15 days across the country.
He found much need of his presence, reporting: “The herring fishing has increased wealth but also wickedness. No care is taken of the 10,000 young strangers of both sexes who are crowded together with the inhabitants in the narrow streets of Wick during the six weeks of the fishing, when they are exposed to drink and every kind of temptation.”
When cholera struck, many workers fled, and the curers faced ruin. But Fr Lovi persuaded all the Catholics to remain. He was at the hospital constantly, helping the few nurses who had been bribed to stay.
Suddenly the town’s view of him changed radically: “I am blessed and caressed and even kissed by the people as I go along the streets – I am called more often than the doctors.”
He was given the choice of every vacant plot in the town on which to build a church, and in four years had achieved his goal. But outside the fishing season there were no parishioners, and until 1860 the church was only used for six weeks each summer.
Then came a period of great optimism, when St Joachim became the administrative centre of the Arctic Missions, which included Iceland, the Faroes, Greenland, Lapland and part of Hudson Bay. An imposing school was built adjoining the church, and a Belgian order of nuns was to come to run it. But the nuns never arrived, the school never opened and, after six years, the centre of the Arctic Mission was transferred to Denmark.
Since then the tale of Catholic fortunes in the parish has continued to be tied to waves of immigration.
After the town went dry in 1924, Italians came to open cafes and ice cream parlours to replace the many pubs, and made up the bulk of the congregation. During the Second World War, RAF fighter bases along Scotland’s northern coast brought another wave of Catholics, and some married locals and settled.
Now, with Dounreay winding down, you might forgive Fr John if he senses a struggle ahead. Not a bit of it. He has over 200 at Mass, between Wick and Thurso, is very positive about the future, and sees opportunities in the common shortage of clergy. “Ecumenism in Thurso is very active,” he says. “A number of the churches are without ministers and I’ve offered to take services, and to carry out funerals for non-Catholics if the family doesn’t object.” The Mission continues.