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One of the great characters in Inveraray’s rich history is Niven MacVicar.
There have been many MacVicars by that forename over the centuries, but this particular gentleman was serving as Parson of Inveraray at the time of the Reformation.
The mid 16th century was a time of great political and religious upheaval in Scotland, mirroring the situation elsewhere in Europe. In August 1560 the Reformation formally arrived in Scotland, signifying a break with the Catholic Church – with figures such as John Knox at the vanguard of the reformed church.
The old town of Inveraray, nestled close to the present-day castle, would feel the impact.
When Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll, became a Protestant Niven MacVicar, known as the Parson of Kilmalieu, did likewise.
Among his flock there remained many who, albeit secretly, clung to the old faith. Perhaps the Parson’s true affections also lay there, but – ever the pragmatist – he found a solution by carving out a new basin on the underside of the church’s baptismal font. This would be used for the Protestant children, with the original reserved for offspring of the Catholic faith.
When accused of blasphemy by purists, the Parson is said to have declared that as the Gate of Heaven was so narrow, it was no more than a Christian charity to open it a little wider.
The Parson’s font now sits in All Saints Episcopal Church in Inveraray. It is a well-worn octagonal block of granite and, true enough, the underside of the font has been chiselled out to form a second basin.
But the Parson of Kilmalieu was more than a simple clergyman; he was said to have the second sight and the gift of prophesy.
The Campbell chieftains would fall, he foretold, when enemies hid in a wood behind the Crooked Dyke, which was not built for another 200 years, bordering common grazings around Inveraray. They would rush from the wood down to the ford on the River Shira, where a bloody battle would ensue. A man born with only one hand would hold three kings horses. After the battle, all that was left of the Argyll family would be carried on an old white horse over the ridge at Tyndrum.
After this, the Parson prophesied, a traveller would be able to pass 40 miles in Argyllshire and not hear a cock crow or see a chimney smoke.
The story also goes that the elderly Parson was talking to the Earl one day when he suddenly cried out: ‘I see my Lord’s head and shoulders all covered with blood.’ The nobleman enquired what this meant and the Parson replied that he would be beheaded.
‘If you know so much how, then, will you die?’ asked the Earl.
‘I shall be drowned,’ said the Parson.
To save him from such a fate, the Earl sent him to Stirling, well away from the sea.
But, as fate would have it, a cry of ‘fire!’ at his new home one day sent the Parson hobbling on to an outside stair. He stumbled and fell head-first into a butt of water where he drowned.
Parson Niven MacVicar’s remains were taken back to be interred at Kilmalieu cemetery, where his headstone is in the form of a cross bearing an effigy of Christ.