Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Historic homecoming for the Knights of Malta

by Gerald Warner

West Lothian witnessed an historic event as the Knights of Malta returned after 450 years to Torphichen Preceptory, their mediaeval headquarters in Scotland lost at the Reformation, to celebrate the Latin Mass.

The occasion was presided over by Fra' Fredrik Crichton-Stuart, Grand Prior of England of the Order of Malta, accompanied by knights and dames of the order (above).

The traditional Mass was arranged by Una Voce Scotland, the Scottish branch of the International Latin Mass Federation. Una Voce has been conducting Masses in the extraordinary form in different historic venues in Scotland and at the end of October they celebrated an Old Rite Mass at Cambuskenneth Abbey [Stirling].

The celebrant was Mgr Hugh Boyle; Fr John Emerson, of the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, was seated in the sanctuary beside the Grand Prior. The splendid vestment worn by Mgr Boyle, which attracted much attention, were 19th-century French cloth of gold.

Fred Stone of Una Voce explained that when they were taken to the Burrell Collection for expert assessment the museum was anxious to acquire them, but they are still very much in service and far from becoming museum.

Torphichen Preceptory near Bathgate in West Lothian was granted to the Knights Hospitaller by King David I in the 1140s, but there had been a church there from very ancient times, allegedly established by St Ninian around 400AD and said to have been visited by King Arthur a century later.

Torphichen was the Scottish Commandery of the Knights of Hospitaller of St John (known from 1530 as the Knights of Malta, after they took possession of that island.) Before and after the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, it was visited respectively by William Wallace and Edward I Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots.

After the Reformation the building was partly demolished; only the foundations of the knight's cloister remain. The nave of the cross-shaped church became the parish kirk, but that too was demolished in 1756 and replaced by the present parish church.

Of the original commandery building all that remains is the central tower and transepts of the mediaeval church. These portions only surive because they were for a time used as a courthouse. The tower was at one point ruinous, but was re-roofed in 1947.

The building, now in the care of Historic Scotland, is still impressive. The vaulted ceiling is fine example of mediaeval craftmanship and, as the Una Schola schola discovered, provides excellent acoustic for Gregorian plainsong. They sang the Mass and then Te Deum, concluding with the Salve Regina.

In his homily Mgr Boyle invoked the historic nature of the occasion and the ancient link that Torphichen represented with the Order of Malta and Scottish Catholicism. At the end of Mass, Fra' Freddy Crichton-Stuart led the knights in reciting the prayer of the Order of Malta.

(photo © Martin Gardner;
reproduced from The Scottish Catholic Observer, 27.11.09)

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