17 January 2024, The Tablet

Written in stone

Written in stone

Lamb by Philip Chatfield (inset), the stone carver and sculptor


Pluscarden Abbey, deep in north Scotland, is home to a Benedictine community with a remarkable artist-in-residence. Joanna Moorhead visits sculptor Philip Chatfield

Pluscarden Abbey, home to a community of Benedictine monks who arrived here first in the thirteenth century, and then again in the twentieth, sits cupped in a valley near the Moray Firth. It’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive north of Edinburgh, and today that journey is a foray across a winter wonderland: past the snow-sprinkled mountains of the Cairngorms, alongside trees transformed by the heaviest of frosts into giant sticks of white candyfloss, beside fields with coat-clad horses, their breath visible in the mellow morning sunshine.

Pluscarden itself, four miles or so from the main road, looks beautiful in that amber light: and light is precious here at this time of year, with only a scant few hours of it between a late dawn and a dusk that descends soon after lunch. Summer is the opposite: in May and June there is hardly any night-time here, and visitors to the abbey might still be sitting outside enjoying their cup of tea or glass of wine long after Compline.

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