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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter X


"A mighty good sort of man.”—Bonnel Thornton.

The Episcopalian minister of Cromarty was a Mr. Bernard Mackenzie, a quiet, timid sort of man, with little force of character, but with what served his turn equally well, a good deal of cunning. He came to the parish in the full expectation of being tom to pieces, and with an aspect so wobegone and miserable—for his very countenance told how unambitious he was of being a martyr—that the people pitied instead of insulting him; and, in the course of a few weeks, he had not an ill-wisher among them, however disaffected some of them were to his Church. No one could be more conversant than the curate with the policy of submission, or could become all things to all men with happier effect. The people, who, like the great bulk of the people everywhere, were better acquainted with the duties of ministers than with their own, were liberal in giving advices, and no person could be more submissive in listening to these than the curate. Some of them, too, had found out the knack of being religious without being moral, and the curate was by much too polite to hint to them that the knack was a bad one. And thus he went on, suiting himself to every event, and borrowing the tone of his character from those whom it was his duty rather to lead than to follow, until the great event of the Revolution, which he also surmounted by taking the oath of allegiance that recognised William as king both in fact and in law. With all his policy, however, he could not help dying a few years after, when he was succeeded by the old ejected minister, Hugh Anderson.

The curate of the neighbouring parish of Nigg, a Mr. James Mackenzie, was in some respects a different sort of person. He was nearly as quiet and submissive as his namesake of Cromarty, and he was not much more religious; for when, one Sunday morning, he chanced to meet the girls of a fishing village returning home laden with shellfish, he only told them that they should strive to divide the day so as to avail themselves both of the church and the ebb. He was, however, a simple, benevolent sort of man, who had no harm in him, and never suspected it in others; and so little was he given to notice what was passing around him, as to be ignorant, it was said, of the exact number of his children, though it was known to every one else in the parish that they amounted to twenty. They were all sent out to nurse, as was customary at the period; and when the usual term had expired, and they were returned to the manse, it proved a sad puzzle to the poor curate to recollect their names. On one occasion, when the whole twenty had gathered round his table, there was a little red-cheeked girl among them, who having succeeded in climbing to his knee, delighted him so much with her prattle, that he told her, after half smothering her with kisses, that “ gin she were a bairn o’ his, he would gie her a tocher o’ three hunder merk mair nor ony o’ the lave.” “Then haud ye, gudeman,” said his wife; “for as sure as ye’re sitting there, it’s yer ain Jenny.” The descendants of the curate, as might be anticipated from the number of his children, are widely spread over the country, and exhibit almost every variety of fortune and cast of mind. One of them, a poor pauper, died a few years ago in the last extreme of destitution and wretchedness; another, an eminent Scottish lawyer, now sits on the Bench as one of the Lords of Session. One of his elder sons was grandfather to the celebrated Henry Mackenzie of Edinburgh, and the great-great-grandchild of the little prattling Jenny is the writer of these chapters.

The bulk of the people of Nigg had just as little religion as their pastor. Every Sunday forenoon they attended church, but the evening of the day was devoted to the common athletic games of the country. A robust active young fellow, named Donald Roy, was deemed their best club-player; and, as the game was a popular one, his Sabbath evenings were usually spent at the club. He was a farmer, and the owner of a small herd of black cattle. On returning home one Sabbath evening, after vanquishing the most skilful of his competitors, he found the carcase of one of his best cattle lying across the threshold, where she had dropt down a few minutes before. Next Sabbath he headed the club-players as usual, and on returning at the same hour, he found the dead body of a second cow lying in exactly the same place. “Can it be possible,” thought he, “ that the Whigs are in the right after all?” A challenge, however, had been given to the club-players of a neighbouring parish, and, as the game was to be played out on the following Sabbath, he could not bring himself to resolve the question. "When the day came, Donald played beyond all praise, and, elated by the victory which his exertions had at length secured to his parish, he was striding homeward through a green lane, when a fine cow, which he had purchased only a few days before came pressing through the fence, and flinging herself down before him, expired at his feet with a deep horrible bellow. “ This is God’s judgment!” exclaimed Donald, “the Whigamores are in the right; —I have taken His day, and he takes my cattle.” He never after played at the club; and, such was the change effected on his character, that shortly after the Revolution he was ordained an elder of the church, and he became afterwards one of the most notable worthies of the North. There are several stories still extant regarding him, which show that he must have latterly belonged to that extraordinary class of men (now extinct) who, living, as it were, on the extreme verge of the natural world, and seeing far into the world of spirits, had in their times of darkness to do battle with the worst inmates of the latter, and saw in their seasons of light the extreme bounds of the distant and the future. This class comprised at one time some of the stanchest champions of the Covenant, and we find at its head the celebrated Donald Cargill and Alexander Peden.

Some of the stories told of Donald Roy, which serve to identify him with this class, are worthy of being preserved. On one occasion, it is said, that when walking after nightfall on a solitary road, he was distressed by a series of blasphemous thoughts, which came pouring into his mind despite of all his exertions to exclude them. Still, however, he struggled manfully, and was gradually working himself into a better frame, when looking downwards he saw what seemed to be a black dog trotting by his side. “Ah! ” he exclaimed, “and so I have got company; I might have guessed so sooner.” . The thing growled as he spoke, and bounding a few yards before‘him, emitted an intensely bright jet of flame, which came streaming along the road until it seemed to hiss and crackle beneath his feet. On he went, however, without turning to the right hand or to the left, and the thing bounding away as before, stood and emitted a second jet. “Jest na, it winna do,” said the imperturbable Donald : “ye first tried to loose my haud o’ my Master, and ye would now fain gie me a fleg; but I ken baith him and you ower weel for that.” The appearance, however, went on bounding and emitting flame by turns, until he had reached the outer limits of his farm, when it vanished.

About seventy years after the Revolution, he was engaged in what is termed proofing the stacks of a com-yard, on the hilly farm of Castle-Craig. There were other two men with him employed in handing down and threshing the sheaves. The day was exceedingly boisterous, and towards evening there came on a heavy snow-storm. “ Our elder,” said one of the men to his companion, “ will hae deep stepping home through the snaw thraves; he would better stay at the Craig—will you no ask him?” “Man, look,” said the other, “what is he about?—look—look!” At a little distance, in a waste comer of the bam, sat the elder, his broad blue bonnet drawn over his brow, his eyes fixed on the wall; and ever and anon would he raise his hands and then clasp them together, as if witnessing some scene of intense and terrible interest. At times, too, he would mutter to himself like a deranged person; and the men, who had dropped their flails and stood looking at him, could hear him exclaiming in a rapid but subdued tone of voice, “ Let her drive—let her drive!—Dinna haud her side to the sea.” Then striking his palms together, he shouted out, “ She’s o’er—she’s o’er!—0 the puir widows o’ Dunskaith!—but God’s will be done.” “Elder,” said one of the men, “are ye no weel?—ye wald better gang in till the house.” “ No,” said Donald, “ let’s awa to the bum o’ Nigg;—there has been ill enough come o’ this sad night already—let’s awa to the burn, or there’ll be more.” And rising from his seat with the alacrity of his club-playing days, though he was now turned of ninety, he strode out into the storm, followed by the two men. “What’s that?” asked one of the men, pointing, as he reached the burn, to a piece of red tartan which projected from the edge of an immense wreath, “ Od! but it’s our Jenny’s brottie sticking out thro’ the snaw:—An’ oh! but here’s Jenny hersel’.” The poor woman, who had been visiting a friend at the other end of the parish, had set out for Castle-Craig at the beginning of the storm, and exhausted with cold and fatigue, had sunk at the side of the stream a few minutes before. She was carried to the nearest cottage, and soon recovered. And the following morning afforded a sad explanation of the darker vision—the wreck of a Dunskaith boat, and the dead bodies of some of the crew being found on the beach below the Craig.

A grand-daughter of the elder who was married to a respectable Cromarty tradesman, was seized in her thirtieth year by a dangerous fever, and her life despaired of. At the very crisis of the disease her husband was called by urgent business to the parish of Tarbat. On passing through Nigg he waited on Donald, and, informing him of her illness, expressed his fears that he would not again see her in life. “ Step in on your coming back,” said the elder, “ and dinna tine heart—for she’s in gude hands.” The husband’s journey was a hurried one, and in less than three hours after he had returned to the cottage of Donald, who came out to meet him. “ Come in, Robert,” he said, “ and cool yoursel’ ; ye hae travelled ower hard ;— come in, and dinna be sae distressed, for there’s nae cause. Kettie will get o’er this, and live to see the youngest o’ her bairns settled in the world, and doing for themselves.” And his prediction was accomplished to the very letter. The husband, on his return, found that the fever had abated in a very remarkable manner a few hours before; and in less than a week after, his wife had perfectly recovered. More than forty years from this time, when the writer was a little kilted urchin of five summers, he has stood by her knee listening to her stories of Donald Roy. “And now,” has she said, after narrating the one in which she herself was so specially concerned, “all my bairns are doing for themselves, as the good man prophesied ; and I have lived to tell of him to you, my little curious boy, the. bairn of my youngest bairn.” I have little of the pride of family in my disposition ; and, indeed, cannot plume myself much on the score of descent, for, for the last two hundred years, my ancestors have been merely shrewd honest people, who loved their country too well to do it any discredit; but I am unable to resist the temptation of showing that I can claim kindred with the good old seer of Nigg, and the Addison of Scotland.

There is a still more wonderful story told of Donald Roy than any of these. On one of the days of preparation set apart by the Scottish Church previous to the dispensation of the sacrament, it is still customary in the north of Scotland for the ciders to address the people on what may be termed the internal evidences of religion, tested by their own experience. The day dedicated to this purpose is termed the day of the men; and so popular are its duties, that there are none of the other days which the clergyman might not more safely set aside. When there is a lack of necessary talent among the elders of a parish, they are called dumb elders, and their places are supplied on the day of the men by the more gifted worthies of the parishes adjoining. Such a lack occurred about a century ago in the eldership of Urray, a semi-Highland parish, near Dingwall;—and at the request of the minister to the Session of Nigg, that some of the Nigg elders, who at that time were the most famous in the country, should come and officiate in the room of his own, Donald Roy and three other men were despatched to Urray. They reached the confines of the parish towards evening, and when passing the house of a gentleman, one of the heritors, they were greeted by the housekeeper, a woman of Nigg, who insisted on their turning aside and spending the evening with her. Her mistress, she said, was a stanch Roman Catholic, but one of the best creatures that ever lived, and, if the thing was possible, a Christian; — her master was a kind, good-natured man, of no religion at all; she was a great favourite with both, and was very sure that any of her friends would be made heartily welcome to the best their hall afforded. Donald’s companions would have declined the invitation, as beneath the dignity of men of independence and elders of the Church ; but he himself, though quite as much a Whig as any of them, joined with the woman in urging them to accept of it. “I am sure,” he said, “ we have been sent here for some special end, and let us not suffer a silly pride to turn us back without our errand.”

There was one of the closets of the house converted by the lady into a kind of chapel or oratory. A small altar was placed in the centre ; and the walls were hollowed into twelve niches, occupied by little brass images of the apostles. The lady was on the eve of retiring to this place to her evening devotions, when the housekeeper came to inform her of her guests, and to request that they should be permitted to worship together, after the manner of their Church, in one of the out-houses. Leave was granted, and the lady retired to her room. Instead, however, of kneeling before the altar as usual, she seated herself at a window. And first there rose from the out-house a low mellow strain of music, swelling and sinking alternately, like the murmurs of the night wind echoing through the apartments of an old castle. When it had ceased she could hear the fainter and more monotonous sounds of reading. Anon there was a short pause, and then a scarcely audible whisper, which heightened, however, as the speaker proceeded. Donald Roy was engaged in prayer. There were two wax tapers burning on the altar, and as the prayer waxed louder the flames began to stream from the wicks, as if exposed to a strong current of air, and the saints to tremble in their niches. The lady turned hastily from the window, and as she turned, one of the images toppling over, fell upon the floor; another and another succeeded, until the whole twelve were overthrown. When the prayer had ceased, the elders were summoned to attend the lady. “ Let us take our Bibles with us,” said Donald ; “Dagon has fallen, and the ark o’ the Bible is to be set up in his place.” And so it was ;—they found the lady prepared to become a willing convert to its doctrines ; and on the following morning the twelve images were flung into the Conan. Rather more than twenty years ago a fisherman, when dragging for salmon in a pool of the river in the immediate neighbourhood of Urray, drew ashore a little brass figure, so richly gilt, that for some time it was supposed to be of gold ; and the incident was deemed by the country people an indubitable proof of the truth of the story.

Donald Roy, after he had been for full sixty years an elder of the Church, was compelled by one of those high-handed acts of ecclesiastical intrusion, which were unfortunately so common in Scotland about the middle of the last century, to quit it for ever; and all the people of the parish following him as their leader, they built for themselves a meeting-house, and joined the ranks of the Secession. Such, however, was their attachment to the National Church, that for nearly ten years after the outrage had been perpetrated, they continued to worship in its communion, encouraged by the occasional ministrations of the most distinguished divine of the north of Scotland in that age, Mr. Fraser of Alness, the author of a volume on Sanctification, still regarded as a standard work by our Scottish theologians. The presbytery, however, refusing to tolerate the irregularity, the people were at length lost to the Established Church; and the dissenting congregation which they formed still exists as one of the most numerous and respectable in that part of the kingdom. We find it recorded by Dr. Hetherington in his admirable Church History, that “great opposition was made by the pious parishioners to the settlement of the obnoxious presentee, and equal reluctance manifested by the majority of the presbytery to perpetrate the outrage commanded by the superior courts. But the fate of Gillespie was before their eyes ; and, under a strong feeling of sorrow and regret, four of the presbytery repaired to the church at Nigg to discharge the painful duty. The church was empty ; not a single member of the congregation was to be seen. While in a state of perplexity what to do in such a strange condition, one man appeared who had it in charge to tell them. 4 That the blood of the people of Nigg would be required of them if they should settle a man to the walls of the kirk.’ Having delivered solemnly this appalling message, he departed, leaving the presbytery astonished and paralysed. And proceeding no further at the time, they reported the case to the General Assembly of the following year; by whom, however, the intrusion of the obnoxious presentee was ultimately compelled.” I need scarce say, that the one man who on this occasion paralysed the presbytery and arrested the work of intrusion for the day, was the venerable patriarch of Nigg, at this time considerably turned of eighty. He died in the month of January 1774, in the 109th year of his age and the 84th of his eldership, and his death and character were recorded in the newspapers of the time.

In bearing Donald company into an age so recent, I have wandered far from the era of the curates, and must now return. Their time-serving dogmas seem to have had no very heightening effect on the morals of the burghers of Cromarty. Prior to the year 1670, the town was a royal burgh, and sent its commissioner to the Convention, and its representative to Parliament. For the ten years previous, however, its provost and bailies had set themselves with the most perfect unanimity to convert its revenues into gin and brandy, the favourite liquors of the period; and then to contract heavy debts on its various properties, that they might carry on the process on a more extensive scale. And in this year, when the whole was absorbed, they made over their lands to Sir John Urquhart, the proprietor, “ in consideration,” says the document in which the transaction is recorded, “ of his having instantly advanced, paid, and delivered to them 5000 merks Scots, for outredding them of their necessary and most urgent affairs.” The burgh was disfranchised shortly after by an act of the Privy Council, in answer to a petition from Sir John and the burghers. There is a tradition, that in the previous ten years of license, in which the leading men of Cromarty were so successful in imitating the leading men of the kingdom, the council met regularly once a day in the little vaulted cell beneath the cross, to discuss the affairs of the burgh; and so sorely would they be exhausted, it is said, by a press of business and the brandy, that it was generally found necessary to carry them home at night. But it was all for the good of the place; and so perseveringly were they devoted to its welfare, that their last meeting was prolonged for three days together.

Sir John did not long enjoy this accession to his property, destroying himself in a fit of melancholy, as has been already related, three years after. He was succeeded by his son Jonathan, the last of the Urquharts of Cromarty; for, finding the revenues of his house much dilapidated by the misfortunes of Sir Thomas, and perceiving that all his father’s exertions had failed to improve them, he brought the estate to sale, when it was purchased by Sir George Mackenzie of Tarbat. This accomplished courtier and able man was the scion of a family that, in little more than a century, had buoyed itself up, by mere dint of talent, from a state of comparative obscurity into affluence and eminence. The founder, Roderick Mackenzie, was second son of, Colin of Kin-tail, a Highland chief of the sixteenth century, whose eldest son, Kenneth, carried on the line of Seaforth. Roderick, who, says Douglas in his Scottish Peerage, was a man of singular prudence and courage, and highly instrumental in civilizing the northern parts of the kingdom, was knighted by James VI., and left two sons, John and Kenneth. John, the elder, was created a baronet in the succeeding reign, and bequeathed at his death his lands to his son George of Tarbat, the purchaser of the lands of Cromarty. Sir George was born in the castle of Loch-Slin, near Tain, in the year 1630, and devoted a long life to the study of human affairs, and the laws and antiquities of the kingdom. He was one of those wary politicians who, according to Dryden, neither love nor hate, but are honest as far as honesty is expedient, and never glaringly vicious, because it is impolitic to be wicked over-much. And never was there a man more thoroughly conversant with the intrigues of a court, or more skilful in availing himself of every chance combination of circumstances. Despite of the various changes which took place in the government of the country, he rose gradually into eminence and power during the reigns of Charles and James, and reached, in the reign of Anne, when he was made secretary of state and Earl of Cromartie, the apex of his ambition. He found leisure, in the course of a very busy life, to write two historical dissertations of great research—the one a vindication of Robert III. of Scotland from the charge of bastardy, the other an account of the Gowrie conspiracy. He wrote, besides, a Synopsis Apocalyptica, and recorded several interesting facts regarding the formation of peat-moss, which we find quoted by Mr. Rennie of Kilsyth in his elaborate essay. He is the writer, too, of a curious letter on the second sight, addressed to the Honourable Robert Boyle, which may be found in an appendix attached to the fifth volume of Pepys’ Memoirs. On his death, which took place in 1714, his eldest son John succeeded to his titles and the lands of Tarbat, and his second son Sir Kenneth to the estate of Cromarty.

Some time ago, when on a journey in Easter Ross, I had to take shelter from a sudden shower in an old ruinous building, which had once been the dwelling-house of Lord Cromartie’s chamberlain. The roof was not yet gone, but the floors had fallen, and the windows were divested of the frames. Miscellaneous heaps of rubbish were spread over the pavement; and in one of the corners there was a pile of tattered papers, partially glued to the floor and to each other by the rain, which pattered upon them through the crevices of the roof. The first I examined was written in a cramp old hand, and bore date 1682. At the bottom was the name of the writer, George Mackenzie. The next, which was dated nineteen years later, was in the same hand, but still more cramp. It was signed Tarbat. The third was scarcely legible, but I could decipher the word Cromartie, appended to it as a signature. Alas ! I exclaimed, for the sagacious statesman. He was, I perceive, becoming old as he was growing great; and I doubt much whether the honours of his age, when united to its infirmities, were half so productive of happiness as the hopes and high spirits of his youth. And what now is the result of all his busy hours, if they were not completely satisfactory then? Here are a few sybilline-like leaves, the sole records, perhaps, of his common everyday affairs; his literary labours fill a few inches of the shelves of our older libraries; and a few unnoticed pages in the more prolix histories of our country tell all the rest. Life would not be worth one’s acceptance if it led to nothing better; and yet of all the mere men of the world who ever designed sagaciously, and laboured indefatigably, how very few have been so fortunate as the Earl of Cromartie!

There was no very immediate effect produced by the Revolution in the parish of Cromarty, and indeed but little in the north of Scotland. The Episcopalian clergymen in this quarter were quite as unwilling to relinquish their livings, as the Presbyterians had been twenty-eight years before; and setting themselves to reconcile, as they best could, their interest with what they deemed their duty, they professed their willingness to recognise William as their king in fact, though not in law. To meet this sophism, William demanded, in what was termed the Assurance Oath, a recognition of his authority as not only actual but legitimate; and a hundred Episcopal ministers, who complied by taking the oath, were allowed to retain their livings without being restricted to the jurisdiction of courts of Presbytery. So large a proportion of these fell to the share of the northern counties, that in that part of the kingdom which extends from the Firth of Beauly to John o’ Groat’s, and from sea to sea, there was only one presbytery, consisting, for several years after the Revolution, of only eight clergymen.

The next political event of importance which agitated the kingdom was the Union. And there was at least one of the people of Cromarty who regarded it with no very complacent feeling. He was a Mr. William Morrison, the parish schoolmaster. I have seen a manuscript of 230 pages, written by this person between the years 1710 and 1713, containing a full detail of his religious experience ; and as a good deal of his religion consisted in finding fault, and a .good deal more in the vagaries of a wild imagination, though the residue seems to have been sincere, he has introduced into his pages much foreign matter, of a kind interesting to the local antiquary. He was one of that class who read the Bible in a way it can be made to prove anything; and he deemed it directly opposed not only to the Union and the Abjuration Oath of the succeeding reign, but to the very Act of Toleration, which secured to the poor curates the privilege of being, like himself, the open opponents of both. “ May we not truly account,” says he, “ for the deadness and carnality of the Church at this present time (1712), by the great hand many of its members had in carrying on the late Union, of sorrowful memory, whereby our country’s power to act for herself, both as to religion and libertie, is hung under the belt of idolatrous England? Woe unto thee, Scotland, for thou hast sold thy birth-right! Woe unto thee for the too too much Erastian-like obedience of the most part of thy Church to the laws of the men of this generation—men who, having established a tolleration for all sorts of wickedness, have set up Baal’s altars beside the altars of the Lord ! Woe unto thee for that Shibboleth, the oath of abjuration, which the Lord hath permitted to try thy pulse to see how it did beat towards him ! Alreadie hath thy Church, through its unvaliant, faint, cowardly, and, I am bold to say, ungodly spirit, suffered woful encroachments to be made on Christ’s truths in this kingdom, and yet all under a biassing pretence of witt and policy—leaving not only hoofs in Egypt, but also many of the best of the flock of God’s revealed injunctions. Art thou not discouraged and beaten back, 0 Church ! from thy duty, by the sounding of the shaking leaf of a parliament of the worms of the earth, that creep, peep, and cry, appearing out of their holes and dens in this time in Scotland’s dark night, when only such creatures come abroad in their native shapes and colours. For if the sun did now as clearly shine on the land as at former times, they would not so appear. It is in the night-time that evil spirits and wild beasts seize on folk, and cry in the streets to fleg and flichter them ; and such as they find most feared and apprehensive they haunt most. And so, O Scotland ! is thy Church affeared and flichtered with the scriekings and worryings of an evil Parliament.”


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