Collected by Michael T.R.B. Turnbull (1991) and now held in the Scottish Catholic Archives GD52/1/2
My memories go back before the second world war. I just remember the crownings of the May Queen and a band all in white parading for the national Coronation in 1937, class parties, our window Christmas tree which used to mystify all passersby then. St Martin’s School was very good for us – we met children from Prestonpans and boys from St Joseph’s and enlarged our views in conversation and quarrels. Then came the war, blackout and shabbiness. I became an altar boy, had to go to secondary school in Edinburgh and a little later joined the Army Cadets, where in Tranent ‘A’ Company I defended the town in mock battles against invasion from Prestonpans and Haddington and [we] probably made a great nuisance of ourselves. One story I do remember at a function in our dance hall (at the foot of the school playingfield), at the Eighth Army boxing final a lad from you know where, climbing into the ring, was heartened to hear a voice from the crowd ‘Lie Forrit, Tranent’. I thought it wonderful that our cry sounded out – in Cairo!
As an altar boy I came under the influence of Canon Murphy. He was very blunt and liturgically minded, ahead of his time and disappointed that we couldn’t perform the services in the grand style. I remember the two of us singing all the Holy Week services, in Latin, together. He used to have me read the Passion on Palm Sundays from very early days, significantly perhaps not asking adults who would have done it better. He urged me to join an Order though he didn’t mean the Dominicans, he said, when I did.
We were also much more ‘ecumenical’ then than is realised now. Mr Bulloch, the parish minister, was one of many visitors to our house. Most of my friends were Protestants, neighbours where we lived or school children in the bus going into Edinburgh together. In fact I think it was a sense of confusion and uncertainty that frightened me and helped me decide to ‘take on’ religion and become a priest. Dominicans were often in our house as chaplains to the Teachers Guild of St John Bosco, which my father had helped to found and although I knew the Passionists and had visited Nunraw from its opening many times, I found the Dominicans very ‘brotherly’ as well as ‘fatherly’. They ran a very free and easy chaplaincy for the then mostly ex-service students at the University. I think Father Francis Moncrieff (RIP) thought it might be just a bit too free and easy for me and so hurried me into the Order at 17. They gave me the name ‘Duncan’ and when I said it wasn’t a saint’s name, told me I had a wonderful chance to add a new name to the list of saints. I’m afraid I haven’t done so, so far.
I did the long course of novitiate, philosophy and theology and was at last ordained in 1956 at Oxford. We weren’t allowed to have it at home then. I said Mass in St Martin’s in front of a large congregation. Canon Murphy was very upset at the Dominican rite – I had to argue my own way through it.
My mother (RIP) was very impressed with the sight of all the visiting priests ‘following’ me in their ‘Missals’. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that they were all taking the chance in busy lives to recite the prayer of the church we all have to.
As I mention my mother I must mention a thing that used to amuse us mightily. She used to arrange parish outings for the Women’s Guild and we thought it so funny that our little Mum could have such a line of large coaches awaiting her orders.
Ecumenical again – at the parish dance after my ordination many couples swirled up to me and sank on their knees for a blesing. The local papers reported this and that many were Protestants and I blessed them all the same. I should confess now that I didn’t see any difference and did it all in blessed ignorance.
Since ordination I have certainly ‘seen the world’. I began as a curate in Woodchester, a parish in south-west England, then was sent out to Grenada in the West Indies where I was cathedral administrator for five years, then after a year teaching at a boys’ boarding school run by the Dominicans, Laxton, in England, back to Scotland where I was chaplain to overseas students in Edinburgh. There once I celebrated a Chinese wedding and went to the reception in North Berwick and never had thought when I joined the Dominicans that I would drive through Tranent with a pretty girl from Honolulu. More parish work, in Newcastle, then Leicester; back to the missions, Barbados, as chaplain to university and schools. To Scotland a second time, in Glasgow, as university Chaplain (and present for my mother’s death) but then sent back to England to run the St Martin de Porres Centre in Rugeley and go all over England and Wales preaching Mission Awareness which I still do, from Leicester where I was moved when Hawkesyard was closed down.
I come to Scotland usually twice a year to stay with my father in his old home town in the west, Dumbarton, and see other members of the family and old friends. I often drive through Tranent and used to stop off and see my Holy Cross school friend Mr (Frank) Rourke when he was headmaster. He told me once that he was listening to the Cardinal pleading with the children about vocations and saying that there had been only one priest from the town since the Reformation. Frank wondered who that could be, then he realised.
I feel like a ghost when I walk about and see familiar faces but not ones I knew, family resemblances, I suppose. I don’t think I am recognised – a neighbour I did meet and greet mistook me for my youngest brother, Colin, very flattering (to me) but making me feel more ghostly than ever.
Congratulations on the new church. What happened to the old wooden one? It could have been rebuilt somewhere else. I thought the school children look very smart in the grey uniforms and felt it a pity we couldn’t have a secondary school. Does mixing the older children lead to better feelings and more commitment, I wonder.
I hope the celebrations will make the whole town feel better, lead to more Christian life and even provoke a vocation or two. Priests and brothers and monks and sisters and nuns are by no means old fashioned or outdated but are needed more than ever to help people grow and know much more about Christian life and follow the advice in the old school motto – QUAE SURSUM QUAERITE – look for the things that are in heaven.
Reproduced by kind permission of M.T.R.B. Turnbull