Christopher Whall at Sorbie

Sorbie Parish Church, also known as Millisle Church, is a modest building that is easily missed, hidden on a rise among trees on the road from Sorbie to Garlieston. What is surprising is that this small church contains one of the finest Arts and Craft stained glass windows in Scotland.

Constructed in 1876,  the Gothic style church is by David Thomson (1831-1910) an architect from Glasgow who had previously worked on additions to Galloway House. The land on which the church was built was gifted by the 9th Earl of Galloway. Unfortunately, the 11th Earl squandered much of the family’s wealth. To pay his debts in 1907 he was forced to sell Galloway House and the extensive estate which covered most of the Machars.

The following year the house was purchased by Sir Malcolm Donald McEacharn (1852 – 1910). Born in London to parents from the Isle of Islay, McEacharn rose to become an Australian shipping magnate and Mayor of Melbourne from 1897 to 1900. His second wife was Mary Ann Watson, daughter of a mining millionaire. After being defeated in an election for the Australian parliament, McEacharn decided to abandon politics and return to Britain. After buying Galloway House it is not clear how much time McEacharn spent there as he died suddenly while on holiday at Cannes in 1910 but Sorbie Church was where the family worshiped.

Watercolour design by Christopher Whall for Sorbie Church, Victoria and Albert Museum

Dame Mary Ann McEacharn choice of the designer of a memorial window dedicated to her husband in Sorbie Church was Christopher Whitworth Whall (1849 -1924). Following his first success in 1989, Whall was in demand gaining a number of commissions for churches throughout Britain, notably from Scotland. His studio was in London where he also taught for ten years at the Central School of Art and Crafts. Whall’s style is imaginative, finding new ways to express ideas first developed by the Pre-Raphaelites. His beautifully drawn figures are set in bold leading patters filled with sumptuous, strong colours that often use ‘slab’ glass to gain effect. Whall is regarded as one of the most important stained glass artist of the time.

Whall based his Sorbie commission on the story of Scotland’s early saints. On the reverse of a photograph of the cartoons for the windows, Whall wrote, “Window in Sorbie… The spot where St. Ninian built his first church of Candida Casa. The window shows the history of Scottish Saints, Ninian, Columba and Margaret. Behind St Ninian (in the central light) is the building of Candida Casa. The golden doors of which show a bas-relief of St martin dividing his Cloak with the Beggar.(St. Martin having been the Master and instructor of S. Ninian).”

At the top of the window is a gothic six foil opening where the Dove of the Holy Spirit hovers in a dark, stormy sky above four angels representing the winds. Whall’s attention to the smallest detail is apparent as the angel of the north wind has wings flecked with snow. Below the angels, rays of light shine down catching the waves of a troubled sea. Here is one of the themes that Whall develops throughout his design. As Sorbie sits on a peninsular, the sea, ships and the sense of arrival is utterly appropriate. The inscription talks of another arrival.

“DIXITQUE DEUS: FIAT LUX. ET FACTA EXT LUX”.

 Translated it is “And god said let there be light, and there was light.” This is a window of light telling the story of the light of Christianity coming to Whithorn and Scotland. In Gothic tracery the separate vertical or circular panels of stained glass are also called ‘lights’.

Below, in the left light, Whall depicts the landing in Scotland of St Margaret from a ship with a dragon-shaped prow. She is welcomed by her future husband, Malcom Canmore.

The central light is devoted to St Ninian.

He is shown examining the plan for Whithorn’s first church. Standing on his right is a Roman master builder and to his left, natives of Galloway, perhaps warriors from a local tribe as they carry spears. The inscription below the group reads:

“SANCTUS NINIAN AEDIFICAT TEMPLUM CANDIDAM CASAM”

Above St. Ninian is a Norman arched doorway of a new church, still being built with a workman climbing scaffolding. On the golden doorway, flanked by The Tree of Life, is the miracle of St Martin on horseback giving his cloak to a naked beggar. As Whall noted, St Martin of Tours was said to be St Ninian’s teacher. In the archway above this is a small figure of Christ displaying the cloak.

The window to the right depicts another arrival, the landing of St Columba on the Isle of Iona.

“SANCTUS COLUMBA IN IONAM ASCENDIT”

(Staint Columba arrives at Iona.)

His ship has the figure head of a pelican symbolising love and self-sacrifice. Figures are shown praising and welcoming the saint; some clambering over rocks to meet him.

The lower lights, on either side of St. Ninian, narrate two of his miracles. A young monk who tried to flee in a coracle, was only rescued when St Ninian’s staff turned into a mast and sail that carried him to land where he planted the staff in the ground and it turned into a tree.

“JUVENIS & NAUFRAGIO EREPTUS BACULUM QUO SERVATUS IN TERRAM IMPONIT”

To the right, a young monk sent out in winter to the monastery garden to gather food for guests of St. Ninian, finds it suddenly yielding an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

“HORTUS MIRABILITER NINIA ROGANTE FRUCTUM EFFUNDIT”

Both miracles are beautifully imagined with a wealth of fine detail, from the seaweed on the shore to the leeks, onions, cauliflower and apples in the garden. After Whall’s death, his daughter Veonica, who was also a stained glass artist, visited Sobie and declared this to be one of his finest works. The window is also a fine gift to Sorbie from Dame Mary Ann McEacharn in memory of her husband.

One of Whall’s pupils was Douglas Strachan. In 1922 Strachan was commissioned to create the stained glass for the windows of St Margaret’s Chapel in Edinburgh Castle. His aged figure of St Ninian is quite different from Whall’s but the deep colour and wealth of detail clearly show his teacher’s influence. A fine copy of this window was made by the stained glass artist Richard Leclerc for the Whithorn Story Exhibition.

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