WITH the Free Church of Scotland being so much in the news in the past week I am utterly amazed that no one has mentioned the last time that a similar kirk, the Free Presbyterian Church, known as the “wee wee frees” made huge news in the political arena by disciplining the Lord Chancellor of the UK, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, for attending two Catholic funerals.

Regular readers will know that I do not write often about recent history, ie: events that occurred in the last 50 years, but given the developments with Kate Forbes in this past week, I feel it is only right and proper to mention the most famous, or infamous, political matter involving a Scottish Presbyterian Church in the latter half of the 20th century.

It is important to note that the Mackay case did not concern the Free Church of Scotland – nicknamed the “Wee Free” – of which Kate Forbes is a a member. Rather it was the Free Presbyterian Church, which preaches a more fundamentalist Calvinist doctrine than either the Free Church or the Church of Scotland itself.

It was an issue which was very divisive in Scottish society at the time in the late 1980s. If nothing else I will show that adherence to faith and an individual’s right to have a conscience and act accordingly are nothing new in Scottish politics. In other words, here’s a lesson from history that has resonance today…

It all happened in 1988-89. Lord Mackay of Clashfern was already acclaimed as one of the finest legal minds of his day when in 1987 he was appointed Lord Chancellor by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Born the son of a railway worker in Edinburgh in 1927, James Peter Hymers Mackay won a scholarship to George Heriot’s School and from there he studied at Edinburgh University achieving a joint MA in mathematics and physics.

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He taught maths at St Andrews University before gaining a BA in mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. A chance court visit in Cambridge saw him switch to studying law and he graduated LLB with distinction from Edinburgh University in 1955 when he was elected to the Faculty of Advocates. One of his cases as junior counsel was the Margaret, Duchess of Argyll divorce case.

Appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1965, he was a Sheriff for Renfrew and Argyll before becoming Dean of the Faculty of Advocates in 1976. When the Tories came to power in 1979 he was appointed Lord Advocate and created a life peer, taking his title from the area of the Highlands from where his father hailed.

His appointment as Lord Chancellor by Thatcher was a rare, but not unprecedented, honour for a Scottish lawyer and brought him into the Cabinet in charge of the judiciary of England and Wales. In his nearly 10 years in office, he was most noted for the reform of divorce laws and widening access to the courts by non-barristers.

In 1986, Mackay attended the requiem mass and funeral of his friend and colleague, the Northern Irish judge Lord Charles Ritchie Russell.

Two years later, he attended the requiem mass and funeral of another Catholic friend, the Scottish judge Lord John Wheatley. Mackay’s lifelong adherence to the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and that fact that he was an elder of the church had rarely been mentioned to that point, but all of a sudden he found himself on the front pages when complaints were made by fundamentalist members that he had attended Catholic masses – an activity forbidden to Free Presbyterian Church members.

The fact that the vast majority of Catholic funerals involve requiem masses seemed to make no difference to the complainers. The case made headlines around the world. Here was the holder of one of the great legal offices of the United Kingdom being subjected to disciplinary procedure by a church that to many people was obscure.

Called before the church synod, Mackay defended himself by saying: “I consider what I did was perfectly consistent with my position as an elder. I went purely for the purpose of paying respect to my dead colleague and to give a public expression of sympathy to his relatives.

“There are duties in the office which I held before and the duties of the office I hold now which I regard as duties incumbent on me to publicly express my respect for the deceased judge and publicly express in that way my sympathy for his relatives.”

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Such reasonability which was supported by the public was to no avail. He was suspended from his eldership and banned from taking communion for six months – effectively removing him from the Free Presbyterian Church which had its origins in the Great Disruption, the 1843 schism in the Church of Scotland in which conscience and individuality were matters of massive debate.

Many church members signed a petition urging the reinstatement of Mackay, but his appeal against the findings was dismissed in May, 1989. He resigned from the church, as did several congregations who then formed the Associated Presbyterian Church.

Mackay retired from active service in the Lords last year after more than 40 years in the House, and heartfelt tributes from all sides were paid to the man considered by many as the last great Lord Chancellor – he was certainly the longest-serving holder of the office in the 20th century and when you consider that his successors have included Michael Gove, Liz Truss and current incumbent Dominic Raab there’s really no comparison.

Now Mackay is still with us at the age of 95 and I am sure he has views on the current issues regarding Forbes, so you may say why don’t I just call him up and ask him what he’s thinking?

I won’t because I am assured he remains a strict Sabbatarian and will not give an interview to a Sunday newspaper as that might involve people in not keeping holy the Sabbath day.

That is his belief and he is clearly entitled to it.