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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part II.—Inhabitants of Gairloch

Chapter IV.—Religion and Religious Observances


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 pious.

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.

The present 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.

The 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 :—

"Our people 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 remain.

"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!

"Close 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!"

Every 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.

The 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.

If anything 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.


 


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