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Durness from Earliest Times
From the Transactions of the Gaelic Society


The story I have resolved to tell you is a long one, and it has never been told consecutively before. I am free therefore to choose my own method in telling the tale ; and I intend, above all, that the method will be simple.

Like everything else in this world, the beginning is surrounded with darkness, and the end is not yet; and the value of all attempts of this kind is measured by the success with which the clouds of antiquity are removed, and the past is made to yield its hidden story. Whether we have, or have not, as yet entered upon the latter days I know not; but certain it is, that in no period in our world’s history were such attempts made to become acquainted with the early days as in ours. In almost every branch of scientific inquiry, there are two sets of workers—one eagerly surveying the future in quest of new discoveries, another laboriously sifting the past for the sake of eliminating the golden grains of truth which lie buried in the rubbish. The early history of our native land is being subjected to the most thorough and minute analysis; the geologist is busy with pick and hammer in giving our rocks and mountain-chains a tongue; the topographist,

with a livelier imagination and a more sanguine hope of success, learns the history of the past in the place-names of the present; while the archaeologist furnishes his quota from the archives of Universities and the charter-chests of kings. Surely when all the sciences are thus in travail, it is not too much to expect that the product of the future will be something marvellous; that we are on the eve of some great discovery which will change our ways of life and raise us yet another stage in the scale of being.

I.—THE ABORIGINES.

As yet indeed the past history of our own land is made to tell its tale but stubbornly; for a dense cloud hangs over the early movements of man everywhere. Far back as we can go with any degree of certainty we find a race in our island-home anterior to our Celtic forefathers; a small-boned, black-haired, puny race of men who lived in the winter months in caves, and in wattled huts in summer. These were not our ancestors, though I should hesitate to say that we are altogether free from all traces of this pigmy race. They are made to speak a language which philologists in the main identify as Iberian ; and the student of place-names finds this language often a convenience by relegating to this unknown tongue any word which he cannot otherwise decipher. The part they played in our early history is hidden from our view by the mists of antiquity ; for they possessed the land at a time when the lion and tiger prowled in jungles over spots where stately domes now rear their heads. Their ways of life were rude and primitive; without flocks or herds, without skill or union, theirs was the pure barbaric life which is content with the present fare, and is careless of the future. They made little impression upon the wildness of nature around them; for they knew not how to “subdue the earth and make it fruitful,” and by the working of that inexorable law, the survival of the fittest, they were destined soon to give way to a healthier, braver, stouter race. But have they left any traces behind them—any footprints to show the way by which they have travelled? Traces of their occupation indeed are few; besides one or two idioms in the Celtic language which are not of Aryan origin, and some half-dozen words which may find their explanation in this old tongue, we have no literary remains of this pre-historic race. There are, however, other monuments of antiquity in our midst which may, very possibly, be the work of this early tribe. These are the underground dwellings scattered over the land from the southernmost country in Scotland to Maeshow, in Orkney. These abodes are sometimes large and roomy; and the probable theory is that they were made to accommodate, during the storms of winter or the dangers of war, the leading families of these wandering savages. It is interesting to note that one of the largest in the land is in this Parish—on the western shore of Loch Eriboll, the demensions of which, as given in the Old Statistical Account, are 40 feet long, 6 feet high by 6 feet wide.

But there is another witness which may be cited in discussing questions of antiquity to whose evidence the greatest weight is due—I mean superstition. Highland superstition is in itself a subject of profound interest; and a thorough examination of its contents is being made to yield astonishing results. In this field of inquiry a foremost place is taken by a prominent member of your own Society; and to us in the far North it is satisfactory to observe that a large amount of material is contributed by Sutherlandshire. Now of all the superstitions which our ancestors have bequeathed to us, none holds its ground so firmly as our belief in the existence of fairies; and I feel sure that our conceptions regarding them are due in a great measure to the character of the race we are now discussing. Take for example the leading characteristics of Highland fairies. We find them, all in all, a rather harmless race of beings—small men, dwelling in cavities of the earth, much inclined to music and feasting, and taking very little interest in what passes above ground. How and why have our ancestors come to believe in the existence of such beings. There must have been some reason for it, for beliefs of this kind do not me spontaneously in the human mind. Now, it is something to know, in view of this belief, that once upon a time there were actually little men prowling in our forests who neither toiled nor spun ; who lived upon roots of the earth, fish of the stream, and product of the chase. When the large-limbed, warrior Celts poured in hordes across the Channel, centuries before the Christian era, these insignificant tribes retreated before them into the denser parts of the forest, hiding themselves by day in their underground dwellings, and appearing only at night to secure the necessaries of life. It is no wonder that our heathen ancestors should look upon them as supernatural beings. Their movements were of the most uncertain kind ; their ways of life mysterious. When the ancient Caledonian had chased the prey too far into the forest, and found himself unable to retrace his steps, we may suppose him looking out for a resting-place for the night, on some green knoll where he might stretch his weary limbs in safety till the break of day. But no sooner has he laid his head ou the. greensward pillow, than he is startled to hear the sounds of music, issuing he knows not whence. He strains both eyes and ears to ascertain the cause; and, at last, pressing his head closer to the ground, he finds to his dismay that it proceeds from the bowels of the earth. For him there is no more rest that night. In the early morning he narrates his tale to a group of awe-struck listeners, and it loses none of its weirdness in the telling. In some such scene as this may we find the little stream arising, which during the roll of centuries has expanded into a broad majestic river.

We are not, however, to suppose that our ancient Caledonian escaped on all occasions so happily. There is a wide spread belief in the deadly efficacy of the saighead-sithich (fairy arrow), which seems to point to an opposite conclusion. Numbers of these are to be found embedded in our Highland moors; and in quarters where the fairies yet hold a precarious footing, they prove as deadly as ever. Thus it is that when a cow or horse drops dead suddenly, ft is the work of some envious fairy, bent upon destruction. There can be no doubt that once upon a time human life was far from safe in the heart of a Caledonian forest, and to ascribe the work of death to beings of another order was only natural, when the hand that drew the bow was invisible.

II.—THE CULDEE MISSIONARIES.

How long this early tribe managed to preserve their separate existence in the presence of the ever-increasing Celt, history does not record. It is the way with all aborigines to die a natural death; and if we were to cast about for a stage of civilisation representing them in the zenith of their power, we should find it in the pigmies of Central Africa, while the Australian Maori would furnish us with a parallel of their gradual decay. It is very probable that not a trace of them could be found when our northern shores began to be threatened by the Norse invaders.

But before the Norse invasion took place, strangers of a gentler mien found their way to far Cape Wrath. These were the Culdee missionaries from the monastery of Iona. Fired with apostolic zeal, they carried the truths of Christianity far and wide, And effected settlements among the islands and on the western sea-board at a very early date. Nor did they rest content here. Some of these early pioneers sailed in their wattle-curraghs to the Orkney Isles; while others, crossing the mainland, found their way to the Continent, and became the scribes of the Continental monasteries. In this way it happens that for the literary remains of the Culdee Missionaries we must look rather to the records of the religious houses on the Continent than to those of our own land. Their chief work there was that of transcribing the Gospels in the Latin tongue; but a gloss here, and a marginal entry there, in the Gaelic language, reveal the nationality of the scribe. There is every reason to believe that each monastery in our own land took care to possess a written record of its history, although hardly a trace of these can now be found. The Norsemen made it a special part of their mission to desecrate and destroy the religious houses.

But there was one record which it defied them to efface. That is the topographical; and by means of it we can form a good idea of the movements of these Christian pioneers. About two years after landing in Iona Columba. found himself face to face with King Brude on the banks of the Ness. The object of his visit was political—to secure leave to preach the Gospel among the Northern Picts. This was granted; and under royal auspices the work of propaganda was fairly begun. Their method seems to have been as follows :—They first of all selected a suitable spot for an establishment, on which they built their bee-hive cells. They next turned their attention to agriculture, for the monastery must be self-supporting; and judging from the sites still discernible it is clear that in the work of selection they manifested considerable skill. They were in this way a colonising as well as a Christianising power. Some years would thus be spent in settling themselves in their new quarters—gradually gaining a knowledge of the surrounding country, and, in the extreme North at any rate, a knowledge of the language. With regard to the south-western part of Scotland, where the Dalriadic colony had previously settled, it is likely that the Culdees would not require an interpreter. But in the North it was different; and Columba required the services of an interpreter both in his negotiations with King Brude, and in the conversion of the Skye Chieftain Artbrannan. The chief opposition they had to encounter came from the Druid, wliose power waned in exact proportion to their success. The chieftain would soon discover that he had nothing to fear, but a good deal to gain from the residence and influence of those holy men of God (Ceile-De); and as a rule he left them unmolested. Not so, however, the Druid. It was to him a matter of life or death; and there can be no doubt that ancient Caledonia was once the scene of that cruelty, treachery and bloodshed which we find described in the graphic pages of Paton, Hannington, and Maokay of Uganda. In the Parish of Durness Bainacille was selected for the site of the monastery, and from thence derives its name. It is a beautiful land-locked bay with Farrid Head stretching out to the East, and the bold cliffs of Cape Wrath sheltering it from the gales of the Atlantic. For purposes of agriculture no spot in the Parish can compete with it—a fact which is sufficiently vouched for when it is stated that in modern times it has been converted into a sheep farm. No small part of its beauty is due to a long stretch of pearly white sands which, in the glow of sunset, combine with the blue and green on either side to make a lovely landscape.

This of Bainacille was one of the earliest Culdee settlements in Sutherland. No place was better adapted for a centre from which to evangelize the surrounding country. In their light skiffs of wattle and cow-hide, they could visit in a few hours their brethren on the Eilean-nan-naomh, to the east, or penetrate for miles into the interior, along the banks of Loch Eriboll. The tribes they came to Christianise paid little attention to the arts of peace. Their hands were more accustomed to the use of the bow and spear than to that of the plough and mattock. But a change soon began to make itself evident. In the course of time the young became educated, and old Christianised. A reign of peace ensued, and the face of the country showed signs of civilisation. For two hundred years Bainacille was the centre of light and learning; hamlets grew and multiplied in the vicinity of the Monastery, and the cultivation of the soil took the place of the excitement of the chase. Hoary-headed warriors laid by the spear and battle-axe, and took up the spelling-book; while the village maiden forbore to sing the war-like odes of Ossian when they were introduced to the gentler productions of the Christian muse in the hymns of St Patrick and the Amra of Columcille.

III.—THE NORSE INVASION.

But a change was at hand. That scourge of early Celtic Christianity—the Norse invaders—broke loose upon our Scottish shores, and for three centuries enveloped the land in heathen darkness. At first they came in quest of booty and plunder, and seized upon the treasures of the religious establishments with avidity. Nothing escaped their ravages; three times in succession was the lamp of Iona extinguished, and the lesser monasteries of the sea-coast shared the same fate.

The shores of Caithness and Sutherland, from their proximity to the Orkney Isles, were early infested with these ruthless pirates. Pagans themselves, they had no scruples in making the monasteries their prey, and what they could not carry away with them they subjected to the fire and sword. In this way the labour of years was undone, and the history of the early Celtic Church abruptly closed.

At first these raids were only occasional and of short duration, but after a time they became more frequent, until at last permanent settlements were effected in convenient situations. The place-names of our parish show the completeness of its subjugation to the foreign power; and the traditional tales so common about a century ago about the “fleets of Lochlin” preserved almost to our own time the records of their invasion. With the single exception of Bainacille, all the principal place-names are Scandinavian, such as Eriboll (township of the pebble), Sango (sand-goe), Keoldale (kyle and dale), Smoo, Kerwick, Cape Wrath (Horaf), and the latter part at any rate of the parish name, Durness. In connection with the nomenclature, it is a noticeable and significant fact that the most fertile places generally bear a Scandinavian name, while the more rugged and least accessible portions preserve the old Celtic..

We may rest assured that settlements were not effected without a severe struggle with the native population. The many tumuli which are met with so frequently on the north coast are ascribed by tradition to this period, and point out the battle-fields of the contending parties/ If we look upon the ninth century as the inchanting period of the Norse invasion, we are left with the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries as the period of occupation. During this period active hostilities would cease, and a certain

fusion of the hostile races would take place. We read that on one occasion a peace was concluded at Camrigh, an eminence overlooking Durness, between Sweyn, King of Norway, and Malcolm II. of Scotland.

The effects of this occupation are traceable in the place-names, in the language, and in the moral and physical characteristics of the people. I have on a former occasion tried to estimate the influence of the Norse language upon the Gaelic of Sutherland, and already referred to its effect on the topographical record. What we owe to the Norseman in the physical and moral spheres can never be ascertained with certainty; but that a blending of the races took place is absolutely certain. To them are due the light, sandy hair, the blue eye, and the powerful imagination which characterise the native population of the North Coast; and judging from the adventurous spirit, ready tact, and sanguine temperament of the people of this Parish it would seem as if they could lay claim to a more than average share of the blood of the Vikings.

It would bo interesting to know the conditions of life which obtained in Sutherlandshire under Norse rule. We may gather a few facts bearing on this from the pages of Torfaeus, but they arc exceedingly meagre. Reference has already been made to the peace established in Ard-Dumess—which is by mistake located in Strath-Naver; and we further learn from the same source that Alexander, King of Scotland, took Sutherland from Magnus II., Earl of Orkney in 1231, which until then was reckoned part of the Orkney Earldom. It is likely that along the sea-coast a bi-lingual race would spring up; but it does not appear that a complete fusion ever took place. The dominant Norseman imposed tribute upon the vanquished population; and claimed for himself the richest parts of the soil. But in everything save military power, the conquered were superior to their conquerors. They were superior in point of numbers and civilisation; and the presence of the Norwegian fleet alone accounts for the quiet submission of the Celt to the foreign power. When this received a check at Largs, and the storms of the North Coast completed the destruction of the fleet, Norwegian rule may be said to have ceased in Scotland. Thereafter a process of evacuation set in; and the more determined and adventurous spirits, who would not submit to the new order of things, looked about for new lands and eventually settled in j Iceland. They carried with them there the principles of civilisation and the truths of Christianity.

IV.—THE CLAN PERIOD.

The last encounter between the Norsemen and the native population took place towards the close of the 13th century. In 1263 Haco, King of Norway, made vast preparations to go to the rescue of his countrymen in the Hebrides. Three of his captains, Erling, Ivarson, and Andrew Nicolson had got the start of the main fleet, and resolved to while away the time by making a descent upon Durness. They sailed their galleys up the Eriboll Loch, and then disembarked, probably on the Eriboll side. Thence “they went up the country, burnt twenty hamlets, and destroyed a castle.” From the description given it is clear that this descent was made upon the villages lying to the south-east of Loch Eriboll, and that the Castle referred to is the far-famed Dornadilla. But the fortunes of war are variable. When Haco returned from the West, and his fleet lay becalmed in the Gia-fiord (Loch Eriboll) after rounding Cape Wrath, some of his men, in ignorance of what had taken place, landed to secure a supply of water. They were immediately surrounded “ by the Scots” and slain, and their graves are pointed out to this day.

In order to provide against such inroads as the preceding, a certain amount of organisation became necessary, and in this way a beginning was made of what is known as the Clan system. The Kings of Scotland were willing to recognise the services of the most successful leaders against those invaders, and portions of land were freely granted in return for such services. There can be no doubt that this was the origin of the two leading clans in Sutherlandshire—the Sutherlands and Mackays. And not only were lands given for military services, but for other purposes as well. Sir Alexander Stewart had granted a charter to Farchard, the King’s physician, of certain portions of Durness, and we find under the date 1379 this charter duly confirmed by King Robert II., giving the lands of Melness and two parts of Hope to the same Farquar, and nine years subsequently giving, in addition, a large number of islands on the North Coast, including Eilean Hoan and Eilean Choery, in Loch Eriboll.

This this connection it is curious to observe how traditions come down through the generations. There jet lives in Durness an old man (great-grandson of Rob Donn the poe») who is thoroughly convinced he could make good his claim to all these islands, on the ground of direct descent from the famous physician; According to his version, his renowned ancestor effected the cure of the King by the timely discovery of a white serpent, and the words of the charter ran :—

“Na h-uile h-eilean tha’s a’ mhuir Eadar Storr is Stroma ’n t-sruth.” which substantially agrees with the islands named in the charter of 1386.

What is now embraced in the parish of Durness frequently changed hands during the clan period. At one time it would seem to have formed part of the possessions of the House of Sutherland ; at another time we find it in possession of the Mackays, while the Macleods of Assynt, who gradually developed into the leading power in the west of Sutherland, also claimed a connection. From about the year 1500 till its recent absorption into the Sutherland estates, it remained in the possession of the Lords of Reay. The following notes serve to show the uncertain character of its tenure about this period :—

In 1499, for the good service of Odo Mackay, James IV. granted him in heritage certain lands, including Davoch Eriboll, which had been forfeited by Alexander Sutherland for treason.

In 1511, by a deed at Inverane, Donald MacCorrachie resigned the lands of Melness, Mussel, and Hope, in favour of Y Mackay and his son John.

In 1530, James V. gave Hope, Huinleam, Amaboll, Eriboll, Mussel, Kin tail, and Westmoine, in heritage to William Sutherland of Duffus—the dues of said lands.

In 1539 the same King gave to Sir Donald Mackay of Strathnaver, in heritage, the free barony of Farr created anew, including Davoch Eriboll, Hoan, and the lands of Hope.

This last gift brought about a dispute between the Sutherlands and Mackays, in the settlement of which we find the Earl of Moray arbiter in 1542.

During this period, a formidable chieftain obtained considerable power in Durness. This was Donald MacMurrach-mac-Ian-mhor. He was a Macleod, and originally hailed from Lewis. It is likely that owing to some misdeeds he had to flee his native island, and he was harboured for some time by Macleod of Assynt. We next find him as chief of the Macleods of Durness, and holding in life-rent the lands of Westmoin. This was conferred upon him by Hugh Mackay of Far, father of Donald, first Lord Reay. At this period what is now known as the Reay country was held as follows:—From Cape Wrath to Assynt, by Donald, brother of said Hugh, or as he is better known in history, “Huistean Dubh nan tuagh” (Black Hugh of axes); Durness, by Donald Mac-Murchon in life-rent; Strathhalladale, by Niel Mackay, a near kinsman of the Chief; and the remainder of the Mackay country by Hugh himself. When Donald, first Lord Reay, succeeded to the property and title, he succeeded in gaining possession and charter rights to the whole of the Reay country; and ever since, the Master of Reay. always resided in Balnakil, Durness, in the present Mansion House, which up to that date was the Bishop’s, residence.

Donald Macmurrachadh was the Rob Roy of Sutherland. It was to secure his friendship that Hugh Mackay granted him possession of the lands of Westmoin. In those days it was necessary to carry out many plots which would not bear strict investigation, and for such purposes Donald could always be relied upon by his master. He had a very easy conscience, great personal strength, and was a man of unlimited resources. Fact and legend are so mixed in regard to his career that it is impossible now to sift the false from the true; and innumerable stories circulate round his name. In a recess in the wall of the old church at Balnakil, his stone coffin may yet be seen; the inscription reads as follows:—

Donald Mac-Murchon Hier lyis lo:
Vas il to his freend Var to his fo:
True to his Maister In wierd or wo:
1623.

It would appear that he had a presentiment that those whom he had wronged when in life would wreak their vengeance upon his remains, and it was to prevent this that he gave 1000 merks to the Master of Reay, when building the Church, for the purpose of securing within it the right of sepulchre.

In the Justiciary Records, under the date of 10th December 1668, mention is made of another Durness warrior of some note in his day. This was William Mackay or Maccomash, who had his floruit in the time of John, Lord Reay. This latter nobleman, possessed the lands of Spittal in Caithness, but found it difficult to secure their rents. So he took the law into his own hands; made a raid upon Caithness and carried off a great booty. The Earl of Caithness naturally resented this, and criminal letters were lodged against the raiders, “making mention that the said William M‘Comash, in Durness, and others, in the year 1649, under the command of Niel Mackay, kinsman of Lord Reay, robbed and. spoiled the said country of Caithness,” but the diet was deserted, and the proceedings terminated.

The most important local family at this time was that of Hurley, near Balnakil. This family Was connected with the Scoury branch of the Mackays; and furnished some of the ablest men that ever bore the name. Donald of Borley was second eon of Scourie, and brother of General Mackay who fought against Dundee. He had a son who succeeded him in the lands of Borley, Captain William Mackay; and under date 18th May, 1675, he obtains a charter from Lord Reay of the Scourie district. He led a company of Mackays at the battle of Worcester, on the side of Charles II. His brothers also were men of note. Donald, who took a leading part in what is known as the Darien Scheme, and which ended in failure; and the Rev. John Mackay, who was educated at St Andrews and on the Continent, and became minister first of Durness, and afterwards of Lairg. He was succeeded there by his son, Rev. Thomas Mackay, whose family also was distinguished. It was a son of this clergyman of Lairg that wrote the “Shipwreck of the Juno,” to whom Byron owes so much in “Don Juan.”

All through this period, the eldest son of the chief resided at Balnakiel. It was impossible to estimate the value of such an arrangement in civilising a region which until then was so isolated. Owing to this it happened that the natives of the most inaccessable portion in the north were brought into personal contact with men of wealth and culture, and the effect made itself manifest in their general bearing. They became more intelligent, sprightly, and chivalrous than their neighbours, and there is a valid foundation in fact, as well as evidence of caustic Celtic humour, for the name by which they are known in a neighbouring parish—uaislean Dhuirina&h (Durness gentry).

V.—ECCLESIASTICAL RECORDS.

Perhaps in no way was the beneficial effect of the Balnakil Mansion House more apparent than in securing for the natives from time to time the services of the ablest and most cultured clergymen. It may at first sight appear strange that such an outlandish parish as Durness could command such men ; men who not only had brilliant careers at our Scotch Universities, but who also drank deeply at the Continental seats of learning. The reason was twofold. In the first place the parish of Durness, until recent times, was a very large one—including the three parishes of Tongue, Durness, and Eddrachillis. In the second place, the Reay family was among the first to adopt the Protestant religion, and took a special pride in securing the services of the ablest men. One of the Lord Reays made it a boast, that for praying, preaching, and singing, “he would back the Presbyteiy of Tongue against any other Presbytery in Scotland.” The clergyman to whom he referred as so proficient in singing was Mr ' Murdo Macdonald, A.M., minister of Durness, of whom more in the sequel.

The story of the ecclesiastical history of Durness would, of itself, form no inconsiderable essay. It begins, as we have seen, with the Culdee Missionaries settling in Balnakil, who underwent the same kind of usage from the warlike sons of Lochlin as their Iona brethren. But they did not give up the struggle in despair, for we find that the Church of Durness, between the years 1223 and 1245, was assigned by Bishop Gilbert to find light and incense for the Cathedral Church at Dornoch.” It would be unreasonable to expect a connected history of the fortunes of this monastery, for such does not exist, but, judging from the subsequent history of the north coast, it would appear that while the influence of the Celtic Church waned in proportion to the aggressions of Rome, Balnakil Monastery would have been among the last to come under such influence. In England, which had been Christianised mainly by Papal emissaries, it was but natural that they should acknowledge the supremacy of the Roman See. But it was quite otherwise in Scotland, and down to the 14th century, the Scottish Kings on the one hand, and the Scottish clergy on the other, resented with all their might the foreign influence. But it was a losing battle in which they were engaged; the Scottish clergy retired gradually before the representatives of Rome, first from England, and latterly from the south of Scotland. But as late as 1320, eight earls and thirty-one barons of Scotland sent a spirited remonstrance to the Pope, asserting their determination to preserve their ancient freedom alike in State and Church, declaring at the same time their spiritual obedience to Rome. The Culdees continued until the fourteenth century, when they were finally superseded by a regular order of clergy owing allegiance in worship and ritual to Rome. But in the more inaccessible districts there is no question that they held out against the innovations of Rome much longer; and the same century which saw the decline of the Scottish Church, saw the rise of the Lollards and the Wickliffites. Considering the slower pace of events in our northern peninsula, it is not too much to say that the influence of the Culdees remained until the fifteenth century, and this accounts for the almost entire absence of traditions relating to Roman Catholic priests in the north coast.

In no part of Scotland was the Reformation earlier launched and more effectually carried out than in the Reay country, where the soil, had been favourable for its reception, through the labours of the Culdees. Roman Catholicism flourished but a short time here, and was looked upon by the people as an exotic plant. The only tradition which the writer heard, which owes its origin to this influence, is that about a certain priest called the “Sagart Ruadh,” and the curious thing in connection with him is that almost every parish in the North Coast preserves very much the same traditions concerning him, and claims his grave. In Durness, a spot is pointed out where he had a chapel; in Strathnaver again, forty miles distant, his grave is to be seen in the valley of the Naver. When the river will have removed his bones (and it is now within a few yards of it) the tradition is that "the Cheviot sheep will give way again to men.” In one way the scantiness of materials dating from this period is very natural, when we consider that the chief, Hugh Mackay of Far, and father of 1st Lord Reay, adopted with his clansmen the principles of the Reformation. He flourished between 1571 and 1614. So attached was the family to the cause of religious freedom that his son, Sir Donald, mentioned above, served on the Continent under Gustavus Adolphus, and drew so largely upon the resources of his estate to equip him in this undertaking that it never afterwards recovered financially.

I shall bring the ecclesiastical record of the parish to a close by subjoining a number of notices, gathered from many sources in the Advocates’ and Free Library, Edinburgh, adding, where possible, further information from local tradition.

1541.—James V. presented the vicarage of Ard-Dumess to Mr John Jackson, vacant by the death of Sir Gilbert Dynocht. He resided in Balnakil House.

1544.—Mr John Jackson was still vicar.

1551.—On a letter from -Queen Mary to the Bishop Elect of Caithness, the latter received Robert, Bishop of Orkney, as tenant of the lands of Durness and teinds of the parish. In 1559 the same Bishop granted the same lands in heritage to John, Earl of Sutherland.

Between 1561 and 1566, the teinds of the parish continued to be leased with the lands and Barony of Ard-Dumess.

In 1567, John Reid is appointed exhorter there. At this time the parish extended for fifty miles from east to west.

1576.—King James VI. presented the vicarage to George Mernes.

1580.—(Date of National Covenant—directed against Popery) the said George Mernes “is placid conform to warrant.” He is said to have demitted before 8th March 1580, when William Mernes was presented to the vicarage by James VI.

16—. — Mr Alexander Munro was appointed to the benefice in the first half of the 17th century. He is styled in Macrae’s MS. “catechist of Stratlmaver”—which at the time formed part of the parish of Durness. He found the natives in a state of heathenism almost, so far as religion was concerned, which demonstrates what many a writer has affirmed concerning the religion of Scotland in the centuries between the decline of the Celtic Church and the Information, that for its influence on the moral and intellectual life of the people, it may be said to have had no existence. The labours of Sandy Munro, as he is called by tradition, were greatly blessed. He was no mean poet, and translated or paraphrased portions of Scripture for the benefit of his parishioners. Some of these are preserved in Macrae’s MS., and are of much interest as showing the northern dialect of Gaelic as it existed about two or nearly three centuries ago—being written phonetically. He was converted under the preaching of Mr Robert Bruce, second son of Bruce of Airth, one of the barons of Scotland, and a connection of the Royal Bruces. This took place while the latter wras prisoner at Inverness, on account of resisting the Episcopal designs of James the Sixth. Soon after he believed he heard a voice from heaven calling him to the ministry, and informing him of this his future settlement. He studied for the Church, and was duly licensed and ordained for this remote parish, through the influence of the Reay family, whose leanings were with the evangelical party. His son, Hew Munro, succeeded to the benefice, and his daughter Christian married John Mackay of Achness, chieftain of the Clan Abrach branch of the Mackays.

For some years, since the death of the preceding incumbent in 1653, the parish was vacant, and the Presbytery Record of Caithness shows, under date 5th Dec., 1659, that Mr Alexander Clerk, minister at Latheron, was sent to officiate in Strathnaver, “according to the Lord of Rhaes desire to supplie them.” The same Record contains also the following:—“Wick, 4 Dec., 1660.—All brethren present, except David Munro, absent in Strathnaver.”

“Thurso, Jan. 1st, 1661.—Letter presented showing that Mr David Munro had come the length of Strathie, but was detained there by tempestuous weather. Excuse admitted.”

Thurso, Sept. 26, 1662.—The said my Lord Bishop, and the brethren of ye Presbytery present, Mr He we Munro (son of Sandy Munro above) had his populare sermon on Math. xiii. 24, as a part of his trial, in order to his call to the Church of Durines, in Strathnaverne, and being removed was approven. This was the first meeting after Prelacy was restored.

1663,- Ordained said Hew Munro to Durness. From this date forward there are many references in the Presbytery Record complaining of his non-attendance at the meetings. He excused himself on the grounds of distance, and difficulty of the journey, but was sharply admonished. He did not take the test in 1681, but on petitioning the Privy Council, he was allowed to do so before his Ordinary on 16th March, 1682. He died in possession of his benefice in 1698, aged 59 years, in the 36th year of his ministery. A daughter, Isabella, married Robert Mackay of Achness.

A vacancy again occurs between 1700 and 1707, and we find the General Assembly of -1704 directing to send “a probationer having Irish (Gaelic) to Caithness, with a special eye to Durness.”

1707.—John Mackay, A.M., 3rd son of Captain Wm. af Borley, referred to above, was ordained minister of the parish. It was on a distinct understanding that the parish should be divided, and another minister placed in it. This promise was set aside by George, Lord Reay, the heritor. A lawsuit followed, and the minister failed in his endeavour to secure justice, with the result that a call to another charge was procured for him, and he was transferred to Lairg in 1713, after a ministry of about seven years in his native parish. This lawsuit preyed alike on his health and resources, but at Lairg he proved of great service in civilising the rude inhabitants, the Earl of Sutherland conferring upon him power to inflict corporeal punishment where necessary. He was educated first at St Andrews, and then on the Continent and connected as he was with the Reay family, was a man of culture as well as education. He was of great physical strength, which was much required in those days, when moral suasion failed; and tradition points to an island in Loch Shin, where this worthy divine imprisoned for a time his more lawless parishioners. Left alone there during the night, there is no question but the method, acting in concert with their fears and superstitions, would have a salutary effect.

1715.—George Brodie appointed to the parish by the Presbytery, jure devolvio. It was in his time that the parish was divided by the Commissioners of Teinds (1724), and he betook himself on its erection to the newly-created parish of Eddrachilis.

The next incumbent was Mr Murdo Macdonald, A.M., who was inducted in 1726. An account of the diary kept by him was furnished some years ago to your Society by Mr Hew Morrison, now of the Free Library, Edinburgh. He was minister of the parish for nearly 40 years, and was succeeded by Mr Thomson, whose daughter married the pre-Disruption minister of Durness, Rev. Mr Finlater. But as my paper has already exceeded the length usually granted to such contributions, I must reserve for a future occasion the events in Church and State during this most interesting period. It was during Mr Murdo’s ministry that Rob Donn, the Reay country bard, and native of Durness, flourished; and in justice to this interesting period of our parochial history, I must draw this paper to a close.


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