THE progress of religion among the people of
Gairloch cannot readily be traced beyond the incumbency of the Rev. Daniel
Mackintosh, minister of the parish from 1773 t0 1802. Superstition of the
grossest kind usurped the place of religion in ancient days. The Rev.
James Smith, minister of Gairloch from 1721 to 1732, appears to have been
the first Presbyterian clergyman who made a general impression on the
people; in the time of Mr Mackintosh they had become, as he tells us in
the Old Statistical Account (1792), sober, regular, industrious, and
We have no records of the comparatively elaborate observances
and ritual which undoubtedly attended the ministrations of the Church in
Gairloch, with its fasts, festivals, and saints' days, before the
Reformation. Some of the natives long clung to Episcopalianism, but the
bald simplicity of Presbyterian worship was gradually adopted by the
parish, and is the only form now known, except indeed an occasional
Episcopal service for visitors at the Gairloch Hotel.
observances of the Presbyterian churches in the parish appear to have
undergone little or no modification since the commencement of the
nineteenth century, except by the secession of the Free Church in 1843,
and that did not alter the articles of faith or the manner of worship.
As a rule the Sunday services are held -at twelve o'clock, and are mostly
in Gaelic. A short English service follows at two, and in some cases there
is also a meeting at six.
Both the Established and Free churches hold to
the doctrines laid down in the Confession of Faith and the Shorter
Catechism of the Westminster Divines.
The sacrament of baptism is
generally administered at the close of a Sunday service; the father is
required to declare his adherence to the doctrines of the Christian faith
before the congregation ; there are of course no other sponsors.
sacrament of the Lord's supper is "dispensed" at the Gairloch and Aultbea
Free churches twice a year, and these are great occasions in the parish.
There are three days of preparation before the Sacrament Sunday, and one
day of thanksgiving after it. The first day is called the " Fast-day," and
is observed as a Sunday.
Dr Mackenzie, who is an earnest Free Churchman,
gives the following graphic and interesting account of the church
attendance and religious observances in Gairloch prior to the
"Disruption," in fact about 1820. The mode he describes of holding the
communion services in the Leabaidh na Ba Baine, or "Bed of the white cow,"
is nearly the same now as it was in the days he writes of sixty or seventy
years ago, with one exception of importance, viz., that the sort of "Aunt
Sally" game he mentions is now quite unknown. He says :—
then thought nothing of a ten mile walk to and from church. Many came by
boat from the coast townships, and in fine weather the well dressed and
mutched people filling the boats scattered over the bay en route to the
different townships gave things quite a regatta-like look, that we shall
never see again owing to the roads now everywhere. One of our largest
tenants took his son to church for the first time, a mite of a man, who on
being asked in the hand-shaking crowd after church, 'Well, Johnnie, what
saw you in church?' replied, 'I saw a man bawling bawling in a box, and no
man would let him oot.' Mr Russell made up for want of matter in his
sermons by needless vigour in his manner. The said Johnnie is now risen to
be a large wise landed proprietor in his old age in the Western Islands.
"Between difficult access for helpers to our pastor at communion times,
and other causes, that ordinance used when I was young to be celebrated
only about every third year in our Elysium of the west. Perhaps
consequently the whole western world seemed to us to congregate to the
occasion, from all parts of the country, over roadless 'muirs and mosses
many O.' I doubt if the reasons [why they came] of the vast majority would
sound well at the confessional, or look well in religious print; and it
seems singular that only in the Scotch Presbyterian Church are Christians
ever invited to devote five days to the communion services, while in every
other church the Sabbath day alone is considered sufficient for the
ordinance. Many earnest Christians think, that while on some particular
and unlooked for occasion it may be right to hold religious services on
week days/as a rule Christians are expected to work six days weekly, which
they cannot do if they belong to the Scotch Presbyterian Church. It would
appear as if an idea prevailed, that it required many clergymen to
assemble at communion seasons, or else that there could be no anxious
inquirers about eternity, so many accept invitations to attend; and
probably on this account, instead of there being only one communion table
at which there can be no difficulty in all meeting and partaking together,
there are always (except in one church where I helped to improve matters)
many tables, each one generally having its own clergyman in charge; the
services being thus greatly protracted, probably in hopes of this causing
a ' revival/ as it is termed.
"So in our west parish (Gairloch), with
the communion only every third year, the crowd that attended was probably
nearer four than three thousand, of whom perhaps two hundred might be
communicants. Of the rest who seemed so devoted to religion (though of
course very many did not pretend to such anxiety), the reply, when asked
why they were not communicants, would in almost every case be, 'They were
not yet worthy.' So they generally remain—refusing to obey their Saviour's
dying request-unworthy, till they die,—not yet sinless! I once received as
a reason for an excellent man's shrinking from the communion table, that '
his father and mother also shrank from it;' and this given by a man of
good education, the secretary to a bank! But till the Presbyterian clergy
grow wiser, the same sad disobeying our Redeemer's dying command will
"But anent our western communion, every hole and corner within
reach of our church was cleared out where straw or heather or ferns could
offer a night's quarters to the crowd of communion visitors, for about a
week; and such a bad time as every living eatable animal had then
preparing for the visitors, who took 'neither scrip nor purse' with them
on such occasions, was wonderful; and such baking, boiling, roasting, and
stores of cold food, as made our kitchen a mere meat manufactory for the
sacrament week; and on the Sabbath there was such a spread of cold food in
the house, to which the clergymen, at a lull in their duty, and all the
upper crust of the parish, were invited to attend, as was quite a marvel,
involving such labour to every servant all day long as quite rendered
their attending church at this holy fair absurd to be thought of!
beside our parish church was a most wonderful hollow (the Leabaidh na Ba
Baine) in the sandy-soiled prairie. It was naturally formed, beyond memory
of man, and, as we knew well, by Fingal, for a bed where his white cow was
to calve. It had a complete coat of beautiful inch-long benty grass, and a
thousand spades could not have formed a more perfectly egg-shaped cup, in
the bottom of which was placed the wooden preaching box, and in front of
it long narrow tables and benches for the communion. A few 'shuparior
pershons' sent before them stools, &c, on which to sit, see, and listen,
but ninety-nine of the hundred of us sat on the nicely sloping banks all
around the ' bed,' till they overflowed on to the level of the equally
grassed ground outside. The 'bed* was estimated to hold two thousand
persons seated, and perhaps three thousand were often gathered in all to
the services, packed tight to one another, as was the popular fashion at
these times. A more orderly and seriously conducted congregation than that
in FingaPs white cow's bed I am sure has never been seen anywhere, or more
polite young men towards the women, who, often thirsty from the shadeless
situation and the crush, &c, I have often seen kindly supplied with a
sJwefull of water from the well close to the burial ground! We often hear
of grand public rooms of bad quality for hearing the speaker, but the
faintest word from the bottom of Fingal's bed was heard as clearly as if
in a closet. And I should be very much surprised if any one who once heard
an old Gaelic psalm floating in the air, from the thousands of worshippers
in the ' bed/ could forget it in a hundred years. The finest organ ever
made was trash to that solemn sound.
"On the plea that so many people
far from home might starve, a sort of commissariat regiment used to attend
on the shore of the bay with booths for bread, cheese, and gingerbread,
goodies, &c.; and I fear the report that the feeders, rather than carry
away uneaten stock at nights, used to have, say, a loaf set on a stick for
a shy at it with another from a set distance for a small sum, hit or lose,
that same is owre true a tale, though of course it must have been the
ungodly of the crowd who attended that holy fair!
"Ah! dear, dear! Who
could approve of such wild arrangements at a communion season, compared
with every clergyman having the communion in his own church for his own
people, monthly or quarterly or so, quietly and solemnly, without a crowd
of ministers and people from neighbouring parishes to injure and confuse
every solemn thought with the fuss and bustle of a crowd. May God send us
more wisdom than Scotland can at present shew on these occasions!"
visitor to Gairloch should see and hear one of the out-door communion
services in the Leabaidh na Ba Baine, if he have the opportunity.
Gairloch people are still a church-going race, though not so regular
to-day as even ten years ago. Nearly the whole population adheres to the
Free Church. Some characteristics of the Free Church services may be
noted. Children are generally conspicuous by their absence. The people
take no part whatever, except in the very primitive singing; and some few
appear to compose themselves deliberately to sleep. The Christian
festivals are entirely ignored; and the sermons, usually extempore, are on
some occasions bare statements of doctrine. The Free Church organisation
watches. closely the religious conduct of the people. It is said there is
not a crofter's house in the parish of Gairloch where family worship is
not conducted every day; and the Sabbath is very strictly observed.
There is an air of settled gloom on the faces of many of the
people,—intensified on the Sabbath day. It seems to partake of a religious
character. The ministers, catechists, and elders nearly all oppose
dancing, and every kind of music. Surely they are shortsighted! A sort of
fatalism is the most apparent result of the religion of the natives of
Gairloch. It has a depressing effect when illness comes.
here stated is calculated to convey the idea that the religious thought
and religious observances of the Gairloch Highlanders are unreal or
perverted, let me correct it by adding, that as a rule their piety is
genuine and practical.