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Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands in Olden Times and Other Papers
Chapter I. The Planting of the Church - St Columba-Muriach, Parson of Kingussie - Charter by William the Lion and other Writs, etc.


“Weep, thou father of Morar! Weep; but thy son heareth thee not. Deep is the sleep of the dead; low their pillow of dust. No more shall he hear thy voice, no more awake at thy call. When shall it be morn in the grave, to bid the slumberer awake? Farewell, thou bravest of men.” — Ossian’s Lament at the Tombs of Heroes.

TO voices of heroes long vanished,
Ye live, overcoming the tomb,
While lingers the music of Ossian
Rund hills where the heather doth bloom.”

—Nicolson.

IN giving a few gleanings and traditions gathered from various sources regarding the old church and churchyard of Kingussie, it may not be out of place, by way of introduction, to give a glimpse or two of the great missionary saint and Highland apostle, by whom, according to popular tradition, the church was planted, and to whom it was dedicated.

In the very interesting Life of St Columba by the elder Dr Norman Macleod—the large-hearted, Highlander-loving minister for so many years of St Columba’s Gaelic Church in Glasgow—it is related that Columba, with twelve of his favourite disciples, left Ireland 563 a.d. in a little curach built of wicker-work covered with hide, arriving on Whitsun Eve in that year at the “ lonely, beautiful, and soft-aired Iona,” which subsequently remained his home down to the date of his death in 597 a.d. The Highlands—indeed the whole country north of the Forth and Clyde —were at that time, we are told, like a vast wilderness, without way or road through the thick dark woods-—the hills extensive and full of wild beasts. But in spite of all this Columba persevered. During four-and-thirty years he never rested nor wearied in the work of founding churches and spreading the Gospel of Christ. In his day he established three hundred churches, besides founding one hundred monasteries ; and as he penetrated in the course of his mission so far north as Inverness, the probability undoubtedly is that the old church of Kingussie was one of the number thus planted by him.

No traces remain of the buildings which he thus raised, but some particulars of their general character have come down to us. “ There was an earthen rampart which enclosed all the settlement. There was a mill-stream, a kiln, a barn, a refectory. The church, with its sacristy, was of oak. The cells of the brethren were surrounded by walls of clay held together by wattles. Columba had his special cell in which he wrote and read; two brethren stationed at the door waited his orders. He slept on the bare ground, with a stone for his pillow. The members of the community were bound by solemn vows. . . . Their dress was a white tunic, over which was worn a rough mantle and hood of wool left its natural colour. They were shod with sandals, which they took off at meals. Their food was simple, consisting commonly of barley-bread, milk, fish, and eggs.” According to the evidence of Adamnan, his successor and biographer, the foundation of Columba’s preaching, and his great instrument in the conversion of the rude Highland people of that early time, was the Word of God. “No fact,” says Dr MacGregor of St Cuthbert’s, “could be more significant or prophetic. It was the pure unadulterated religion of Jesus that was first offered to our forefathers, and broke in upon the gloom of our ancient forests. The first strong foundations of the Scottish Church were laid broad and deep, where they rest to-day, on the solid rock of Scripture. It was with the Book that Columba fought and won the battle with Paganism, Knox the battle with Popery, Melville the first battle of Presbytery with Episcopacy —the three great struggles which shaped the form and determined the fortunes of the Scottish Church.”

The picture of the closing scene in the life of St Columba on 9th June 597 a.d., as given by Dr Boyd of St Andrews—the well-known “A. K. H. B.”—in his eloquent lecture on “Early Christian Scotland,” is so beautiful and touching that I cannot refrain from quoting it:—

“On Sunday, June 2, he was celebrating the Communion as usual, when the face of the venerable man, as his eyes were raised to heaven, suddenly appeared suffused with a ruddy glow. He had seen an angel hovering above the church, and blessing it: an angel sent to bear away his soul. Columba knew that the next Saturday was to be his last. The day came, and along with his attendant, Diormit, he went to bless the barn. He blest it, and two heaps of winnowed corn in it; saying thankfully that he rejoiced for his beloved monks, for that, if he were obliged to depart from them, they would have provision enough for the year. His attendant said, ‘ This year, at this time, father, thou often vexest us, by so frequently making mention of thy leaving us.’ For, like humbler folk drawing near to the great change, St Columba could not but allude to it, more or less directly. Then, having bound his attendant not to reveal to any before he should die what he now said, he went on to speak more freely of his departure. ‘ This day,’ he said, ‘ in the Holy Scriptures is called the Sabbath, which means Rest. And this day is indeed a Sabbath to me, for it is the last day of my present laborious life, and on it I rest after the fatigues of my labours; and this night at midnight, which commenceth the solemn Lord’s Day, I shall go the way of our fathers. For already my Lord Jesus Christ deigneth to invite me; and to Him in the middle of this night I shall depart at His invitation. For so it hath been revealed to me by the Lord Himself.’

“Diormit wept bitterly; and they two returned towards the monastery. Halfway the aged saint sat down to rest at a spot afterwards marked with a cross; and while here, a white pack-horse, that used to carry the milk-vessels from the cowshed to the monastery, came to the saint, and laying its head on his breast, began to shed human tears of distress. The good man, we are told, blest his humble fellow-creature, and bade it farewell. Then ascending the hill hard by he looked upon the monastery, and holding up both his hands, breathed his last benediction upon the place he had ruled so well; prophesying that Iona should be held in honour far and near. He went down to his little hut, and pushed on at his task of transcribing the Psalter. The last lines he wrote are very familiar in those of our churches where God’s praise has its proper place; they contain the words of the beautiful anthem which begins, ‘O taste and see how gracious the Lord is.’ He finished the page; he wrote the words with which the anthem ends, ‘ They that seek the Lord shall want no manner of thing that is good’; and laying down his pen for the last time, he said, ‘Here at the end of the page I must stop; let Baithene write what comes after.’

“Having written the words, he went into the church to the last service of Saturday evening. When this was over, he returned to his chamber and lay down on his bed. It was a bare flag, and his pillow was a stone, which was afterwards set up beside his grave. Lying here he gave his last counsels to his brethren, but only Diormit heard him. ‘These, O my children, are the last words I say to you: that ye be at peace, and have unfeigned charity among yourselves; and if, then, you follow the example of the holy fathers, God, the Comforter of the good, will be your Helper: and I, abiding with Him, will intercede for you, and He will not only give you sufficient to supply the wants of this present life, but will also bestow on you the good and eternal rewards which are laid up for those that keep His commandments.’ The hour of his departure drew near, and the saint was silent; but when the bell rang at midnight, and the Lord’s Day began, he rose hastily and hurried into the church faster than any could follow him. He entered alone, and knelt before the altar. His attendant following, saw the whole church blaze with a heavenly light; others of the brethren saw it also ; but as they entered the light vanished, and the church was dark. When lights were brought, the saint was lying before the altar : he was departing. The brethren burst into lamentations. Columba could not speak; but he looked eagerly to right and left with a countenance of wonderful joy and gladness, seeing doubtless the shining ones that had come to bear him away. As well as he was able he moved his right hand in blessing on his brethren, and thus blessing them the wearied saint passed to his rest: St Columba was gone from Iona. . . . There is but one account of his wonderful voice—wonderful for power and sweetness. In church it did not sound louder than other voices; but it could be heard perfectly a mile away. Diormit heard its last words j the beautiful voice could not more worthily have ended its occupation. With kindly thought of those he was leaving, with earnest care for them, with simple promise to help them if he could where he was going, it was fit that good St Columba should die.”

To quote the beautiful lines of the late Principal Shairp of St Andrews —another warm-hearted friend, by the way, of the Highlands and Highland people:—

“Centuries gone the saint from Erin
Hither came on Christ’s behest,
Taught and toiled, and when was ended
Life’s long labour, here found rest;
And all ages since have followed
To the ground his grave hath blessed.”

Little or no reliable information regarding the old church of Kingussie earlier than the twelfth century has come down to us. About the middle of that century Muriach, the historical parson of Kingussie, on the death of his brother without issue, became head of his family, and succeeded to the chiefship of Clan Chattan. Of Muriach and his five sons the following account is given in ‘ Douglas’s Baronage of Scotland’:—

"Muriach or Murdoch, who being born a younger brother, was bred to the Church, and was parson of Kingussie, then a large and honourable benefice; but, upon the death of his elder brother without issue, he became head of his family, and captain of the Clan Chattan.

“He thereupon obtained a dispensation from the Pope, anno 1173, and married a daughter of the Thane of Calder, by whom he had five sons.

“1. Gillicattan, his heir.

“2. Eivan or Eugine Baan, of whom the present Duncan Macpherson, now of Clunie, Esq., is lineally descended, as will be shown hereafter.

“3. Neill Cromb, so called from his stooping and round shoulders. He had a rare mechanical genius, applied himself to the business of a smith, and made and contrived several utensils of iron, of very curious workmanship ; is said to have taken his surname from his trade, and was progenitor of all the Smiths in Scotland.

“4. Ferquhard Gilliriach, or the Swift, of whom the Macgillivrays of Drum-naglash in Inverness-shire, and those of Pennygoit in the Isle of Mull, &c., &c., are descended.

“5. David Dow, or the Black, from his swarthy complexion. Of him the old Davidsons of Invernahaven, &c., &c., are said to be descended.

“Muriach died in the end of the reign of King William the Lion, and was succeeded by his eldest son.”

Surnames about this time having become hereditary, Macpherson— that is, “Son of the Parson”—became the distinguishing Clan appellation of the descendants of Muriach’s second son, who, in consequence of the death of the eldest son without issue, became the senior or principal branch of Muriach’s posterity. Were the famous parson to appear again in the flesh, he would doubtless be lost in utter amazement to find that the descendants of his third son, Neill Cromb, had “multiplied and replenished the earth ” to such an extent that all of the name of Smith in Scotland alone might now be reckoned almost as the sands on the seashore in multitude.

A charter by William the Lion, of date 25th August 1203, concerning the church of Kingussie, is in the following terms:—

“W., by the Grace of God, King of the Scots, to all good men throughout his land greeting: Know that I have granted, and by this Charter confirmed, that presentation which Gilbert de Kathern made to Bricius, Bishop of Moray, of the Church of Kynguscy, with the Chapel of Benchory and all the other rights appertaining thereto, to be held as liberally, peacefully, in munificence and honour, as the Charter of the aforesaid Bricius testifies.”

A concession of Bishop Andrew de Moravia (who succeeded Bishop Bricius) anent the prebends of Kingusy and Inche, dated in 1226, is in these terms :—

“In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen : I, Andrew, Bishop of Moray, with the consent of the Chapter of Moray, in order to amplify divine worship in our Cathedral Church—to wit, the Church of the Holy Trinity at Elgin —appoint two prebends, and these I assign to the same Church for ever, lawfully to be held and possessed as prebends or canonries—one, namely, of the Churches of Kingusy and Inche with their manses; the other of the Churches of Croyn and Lunyn with their manses. And I will that whoever for the time being is my vicar in the Cathedral Church should have these, and that he become the Canon of the same Church, to make his abode in the same as my vicar,” &c.

Bishop Andrew “confirmed the gift of Bishop Bricius for eight canonries, and to them he added the kirks of Rhynie, Dunbenan, Kynor, Inverkethny, Elethin (now Elchies), and Buchary (now Botary), Crom-dale and Advyn, Kingusy and Inch, Croyn and Lunyn (probably now Croy and Lundichty or Dunlichtie).”

An agreement between the same Bishop and Walter Cumyn, between the years 1224-33, runs as follows:—

“Let all who are likely to see or hear of this writing know that this is the final peace and agreement made between Andrew, Bishop of Moray, on the one side, and Walter Cumyn on the other—viz., that the aforesaid Bishop, with the common consent of all his Chapter, renounced for himself and his successors for all time, all those things which the bishops of Moray were wont to receive or exact from the land of Badenoch yearly—viz., 4 marts, 6 pigs, 8 cogs of cheese, and 2^ chalders [of corn], and twenty shillings, which the same Walter was bound to give to the bishops of Moray, for one davach of land at Logykenny, and 12 pence, which the same paid for Inverdrummyn. ... In consideration of which, the same Walter gave and granted to the bishops of Moray for ever a davach of land in which the Church of Logykenny is situated, and another davach at the Inch in which is situated the Church of Inch, and 6 acres of land near the Church of Kingusy, in which that Church is situated. Moreover, all the bishops of Moray shall hold in pure and perpetual charity all these lands, with all privileges justly appertaining to them—in forest and plain, in meadows and pastures, in moors and marshes, in water-pools and grinding-mills, in wild beasts and birds, in waters and fishes.”

By an ordination order of Bishop Andrew, between the Chapter of Moray and the Prebendary of Kinguscy, of date 10th December 1253, it is declared that—

“To all the sons of the Holy Mother Church who may see or hear this writing, Archibald], by divine permission Bishop of Moray, gives eternal greeting in the Lord. Since the Chapter of the Church of Moray, on account of divers causes and matters pertaining to the same Church, has been burdened with debt, and for as much as, for the apparent advantage of the Church itself, it has freely granted 10 marks annually to Master Mathew, a writer from the City of our Lord the Pope —we, being anxious to provide for the alleviation and security of the same, with the express wish and consent of William of Elgin, Prebendary of Kinguscy, who has bound himself by oath to observe this order of ours for himself and his successors, grant and ordain that the aforesaid Chapter shall acquire and have every year at the feast of St John the Baptist, during the whole life of the said Master Mathew, 20 marks from the tithes of the crops of Kinguscy and the Inche, to be received through the hands of the said William, or whoever is appointed prebendary in the same prebend, or the agents of the same ; and also that the said William, and prebendaries of Kinguscy succeeding the same, shall pay every year at the above feast to the Procurator of the Chapter one mark sterling for expenses incurred in connection with the sending of the said money to Berwick.”

In 1380, Alexander Stewart, the notorious Wolf of Badenoch, cited the Bishop of Moray of the time (Alexander Bur) to appear before him at the Standing Stones of the Rathe of Easter Kingussie (“apud le standand stanys de le Rathe de Kyngucy estir”), on the 10th October, to show his titles to the lands held in the Wolfs lordship of Badenoch—viz., the lands of Logachnacheny (Laggan), Ardinche (Balnespick, &c.), Kingucy, the lands of the chapels of Rate and Nachtan, Kyncardyn, and also Gartinengally. The bishop had protested, at a court held at Inverness, against the citation, and urged that the said lands were held of the king direct. But the Wolf held his court of the 10th October, and the bishop standing “extra curiam”—outside the court, i.e., the Standing Stones— renewed his protest, but to no purpose. But upon the next day before dinner, and in the great chamber behind the hall in the castle of Ruthven, the Wolf annulled the proceedings of the previous day, and gave the rolls of court to the bishop’s notary, who certified that he put them in a large fire lighted in the said chamber, which consumed them.2 In 1381 the Wolf formally quits claims on the above-mentioned church-lands; but in *383 the bishop granted him the wide domain of Rothiemurchus—

“Ratmorchus—viz., sex davatas terre quas habemus in Strathspe et le Badenach.”

“The Priory of Kingussie in Badenoch,” says Shaw, “was founded by George, Earl of Huntly, about the year 1490. Of what Order the monks were, or what were the revenues of the Priory, I have not learned. The Prior’s house and the Cloysters of the Monks stood near the Church, where some remains of them are to be seen. The few lands belonging to it were the donation of the family of Huntley, and at the Reformation were justly reassumed by that family.” That priory is supposed to have been built on the site of the old church of St Columba, and the village of Kingussie is said to occupy its precincts. In course of the improvements recently made in the churchyard a portion of one of the gables was distinctly traced.

In the ‘Register of Moray’ the name of Gavin Lesly is mentioned as “Prebendary of Kyngusy” in 1547, that of George Hepburne as prebendary in 1560, and that of Archibald Lyndesay as prebendary in 1567.

Mr Sinton, the esteemed minister of Dores, so well known as a collector of the old folk-lore and songs of Badenoch, thus relates one of the most ancient traditions which has survived in Badenoch in connection with St Columba :—

“St Columba’s Fair, Feill Challiim-Chille, was held at midsummer, and to it resorted great numbers of people from the surrounding parishes, and some from distant towns who went to dispose of their wares in exchange for the produce of the country. Once upon a time the plague or Black Death which used to ravage Europe broke out among those who were assembled at Feill Challum-Chille. Now this fair was held partly within the precincts consecrated to St Callum and partly without, and so it happened that no one who had the good fortune to be within was affected by the plague, while among those without the sacred bounds it made terrible havoc. At the Reformation a plank of bog-fir was fixed into St Columba’s Church from wall to wall, and so divided the church. In the end which contained the altar the priest was allowed to officiate, while the Protestant preacher occupied the farther extremity.”

The example thus shown in such troublous times of the “unfeigned charity” so touchingly inculcated by the good St Columba with his dying breath more than a thousand years previously, reflects no little credit upon Badenoch, and it does not appear that the cause of the Reformation suffered in that wide district or was retarded in any way in consequence. “The sockets of the plank,” adds Mr Sinton, “were long pointed out in the remains of the masonry of the old church.” Unfortunately, when part of the north wall of the churchyard was repaired nearly thirty years ago, these remains appear to have been incorporated with the wall and almost entirely obliterated.

Here are some further reminiscences received from the late Mr MacRae, the Procurator-fiscal at Kirkwall, a worthy and much-respected native of Badenoch :—

“One of my earliest—indeed I may say my earliest recollection,” says Mr MacRae, “is connected with this churchyard. I remember one hot summer Sabbath afternoon—it must, I think, have been in the year 1845—sitting with my father upon a tombstone in the churchyard listening, along with a crowd of others, to a minister preaching from a tent. I cannot say who the minister was, but I was at the time much impressed with his earnestness, and with what, on reflection, I must now think was a most unusual command of the Gaelic language and Gaelic idioms. In one of his most earnest and eloquent periods he and the large congregation listening to him were startled by seeing the head of a stag looking down over the dyke separating the churchyard from the hill-road, which was used as a peat road, and which used to be the short-cut by pedestrians to Inverness. The stag was tossing his head about, evidently bellicose. The bulk of the congregation were from the uplands of the parish—Strone, Newtonmore, Glen-banchor, &c.—and they by its movements recognised the stag as a young stag that the worthy and much-respected occupants of Ballachroan attempted to domesticate. They were not in this attempt more successful than others; for the stag’s great amusement was to watch from the uplands persons passing along the public road, and then giving them, especially if they were females, a hot chase. That Sabbath he had, as I subsequently learned, been in the west Kingussie Moss amusing himself by overturning erections of peat set up to dry. Those of the congregation who knew his dangerous propensities became very uneasy, and in consequence the service was interrupted; but some of those present managed to get him away, after which the service was proceeded with.

“I used to be very often in the churchyard. It had a great attraction for all the youths in the west end of Kingussie. The ruins of the old church engrossed our attention next to witnessing funerals. The walls of the church were, when I first remember them, more perfect than they are at present. The church consisted of a nave, rectangular, without a chancel. The east and south walls were almost perfect. The west gable was away. The stones of the north wall were partially removed, and used for repairing the north dyke of the churchyard. There were traces of windows in the south wall, but whether these windows were round, pointed, or square, could not be inferred from the state of the walls.

“In the remains of the north wall there was—about 2 yards, I should say, westward from the east gable—an aperture with a circular arch, which interested us boys at the time very much. It was about 18 inches in length, 12 in height, and 5 in depth. We had many discussions in regard to it, some of us contending that it was a receptacle for the Bible, others that it was a canopy for a cross or an image; but it undoubtedly was a piscina where the consecrated vessels—paten, chalice, &c.—used in celebrating Mass were kept when not used during the celebration. The piscina is generally in the south gable, and has a pipe for receiving the water used in cleaning the sacred vessels. I will be able to show you a perfect piscina in one of the side chapels of St Magnus Cathedral when you are next here. It was, however, not unusual in northern or cisalpine churches, especially in those of an early date, to have the piscina in the north gable without a pipe. You may depend upon it that the church was of a very early date, probably of the earliest type of Latin rural church architecture in Scotland. It may have been built upon the site of an earlier Celtic church. You might probably ascertain this by directing the workmen you have employed in putting the churchyard in order to dig about 5 feet inwards from the eastern gable. If they should find there any remains of the foundations of a cross gable, between the north and south gables, you may safely conclude that there was a Celtic church there, and that the Christian religion was taught in Badenoch before the close of the tenth century.”


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