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Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands in Olden Times and Other Papers
Chapter II. Ministers of the parish of Alvie.


1. JAMES SPENCE, Exhorter, 1572—.

2. John Ross, 1579--.—Mr Ross was a son of John Ross, Provost of Inverness, and was presented to Alvie by James VI. 31st March 1579, but does not appear to have been settled.

3. William Makintosche, 1580-85.—Demitted prior to 19th August 1585. Soverane Makpherlene or M‘Phail, 1585-9-.—Mr M'Phail was presented by James VI. 19th August 1585 and 6th April 1586. Continued in 1594.

5. Robert Leslie, 1595-9-.—Continued in 1597.

6. Roderick Sutherland, 1599-16-.—Continued in 1601.

7. James Lyle, 16—26. — Formerly of Ruthven. Mr Lyle was minister of Alvie “ long before 12th October 1624 ”—Laggan being also under his care. He is said not to have understood the Irish language. “ Being of verie great age and infirm,” he demitted his charge in 1626 on condition of getting ij. li. (3s. 4d.) yearly.

9. Thomas Macpherson, 1662-1708.—Mr Macpherson was of the family of the Macphersons of Invereshie, and was for some time schoolmaster in Lochaber. Having entered to preach without having passed his trials, he expressed his sorrow to the Presbytery of Lorn 12th September 1660, and was licensed by that presbytery nth April 1661. He was ordained before 21st October 1662. During his incumbency the parish of Alvie was (in 1672) united with the parish of Laggan. He died in 1708.

10. Alexander Fraser, A.M., 1713-21.—Mr Fraser was an alumnus of the University of King’s College, Aberdeen, where he obtained his degree in 1706. He was “Highland Bursar” to the Presbytery of Haddington, was licensed by that presbytery 10th March 1713, and ordained 13th September same year. Mr Fraser was minister of Alvie during the Rising of 1715, and in the minute of the kirk-session of date 13th May 1716, it is declared that “there was no possibility of keeping Session in this Paroch all the last Session until the Rebellion was quelled ”—Mr Fraser, it is added, “ being often oblidged to look for his own safety.” Mr Fraser was translated to Inveravon on 26th April 1721.

11. Ludowick (or Lewis) Chapman, 1728-38.—Mr Chapman had a bursary at the University of Glasgow on the Duchess of Hamilton’s Foundation. He studied afterwards at Edinburgh and Leyden, and was licensed at the latter place, 2d March 1728. Called to Alvie by the Presbytery of Abernethy, jure devoluto, he was ordained, 25th September same year. Here is the reference in the minutes of the kirk-session of Alvie in 1730 to an apparently well-merited snubbing administered by the General Assembly of that year to the Synod of Moray and Presbytery of Elgin in connection with “a malicious process,” raised against Mr Chapman—the sentence being read from the Alvie pulpit by Lachlan Shaw, the historian of Moray: “This day, according to the General Assembly’s orders, Mr Lach. Shaw, Minister of Calder, did read from the Pulpit the General Assembly’s sentence against the Sinnod of Moray and Presbytery of Elgin for their unjust procedure against the Presbytery of Abernethy, and for raising a malicious process against Mr Lewis Chapman, minister of Alvie.” Mr Chapman was translated to Petty, 30th March 1738.

12. William Gordon, 1739-87.—Mr Gordon was for some time schoolmaster in Kingussie, and subsequently catechist in Laggan. Ordained and admitted as minister of Urquhart and Glenmoriston 24th December 1730, he was called to Alvie 30th January, and admitted 20th September, 1739. Mr Gordon was well and favourably known in connection with the ’45. Remarkably enough, in view of the prominent part the Highlanders of Badenoch took in that rising, there is no reference thereto either in the session records of Kingussie or in those of Alvie. From other sources of information, however, we learn of an event connected with the ’45 reflecting the greatest credit on Mr Gordon. For the capture of “the devoted Ewen of Clunie,” who held such powerful sway in Badenoch, and had, at the head of the Macphersons, been among the first to join the standard of Prince Charlie, a reward of 1000 was offered. Burnt out of hearth and home, Cluny was, subsequent to the battle of Culloden, hunted in the mountain fastnesses of Badenoch for the long period of nine years, ultimately—after many hair-breadth escapes and enduring the most terrible hardships—making his way beyond the reach of his relentless pursuers only to die in exile. He and his clan had been proscribed, and Mr Gordon was employed by “the bloody Duke of Cumberland” with the view of inducing them to lay down their arms on the assurance that, if they did so, they would be restored to their name and countenanced by the Government, or if they joined the royal army, “that their commanders would have similar rank and be cared for by the commander-in-chief.” This offer, however, was firmly rejected. Reduced to the greatest privation after the sad disaster on “bleak Culloden Moor,” many of their number applied to Mr Gordon for relief, and were hospitably received at his manse. The fact having been communicated to the Duke of Cumberland, then at Inverness, Mr Gordon was summoned to headquarters, and required to answer for himself. With a feeling of conscious integrity, he said: “May it please your Royal Highness, I am exceedingly straitened between two contrary commands, both coming from very high authority. My heavenly King’s Son commands me to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to give meat and drink to my very enemies, and to relieve, to the very utmost of my power indiscriminately all objects of distress that come in my way. My earthly King’s son commands me to drive the homeless wanderer from my door, to shut my bowels of compassion against the cries of the needy, and to withhold from my fellow-mortals in distress the relief which it is in my power to afford. Pray which of these commands am I to obey?” Inhumanly cruel and bloodthirsty as he proved to the poor houseless wandering followers of ill-fated Prince Charlie—the “King of the Highlanders”—the Duke, it is narrated, was so impressed with the humane feelings and noble sentiments of the worthy minister, that he felt constrained to reply: “By all means obey the commands of your heavenly King’s Son.”

Mr Gordon died on 2d April 1787, in the one hundred and first year of his age and fifty-seventh of his ministry, discharging, we are told, the duties of his sacred office until within six months of his death. All honour to his memory!

13. John Gordon, A.M., 1788-1805. — Mr Gordon was a native of Ross, and studied at the University and King’s College, Aberdeen, where he took his degree in 1770. Ordained by the Presbytery of Abertarff 8th May 1779, he acted for some time as missionary at Fort-William. Presented by Alexander, Duke of Gordon, he was admitted as minister of Alvie 8th May 1788. Mr Gordon got a new church built in 1798. He died 6th October 1805, in the fifty-fifth year of his age and twenty-seventh of his ministry. His descendants were tenants of Easter Lynwilg, on the estate of the Duke of Richmond, for a period of about sixty years after his death in 1805.

14. John Macdonald, A.M., 1806-54.—Mr Macdonald, who was a native of the county, obtained his degree from the University and King’s College, Aberdeen, in 1797. He acted for some time as schoolmaster of Dornoch, and was licensed by the Presbytery of Dornoch, 4th February 1802. Ordained by the Presbytery of Abernethy in December 1803, he acted for a time as assistant to the Rev. John Anderson, Kingussie. Presented to the parish of Alvie by Alexander Duke of Gordon, in March, he was admitted 24th July 1806. Mr Macdonald was long familiarly known by the cognomen of “Bishop John.” There are some interesting reminiscences of Mr Macdonald as schoolmaster of Dornoch given in ‘Memorabilia Domestica; or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland,’ by the late Rev. Donald Sage, minister of Resolis, recently published by Mr W. Rae of Wick.

“The school at Dornoch, in the beginning of the present century, was,” says Mr Sage, “taught by Mr John Macdonald, A.M. (King’s Coll.), who in 1806 was ordained minister of Alvie in Badenoch. The school was laid out in its whole length with wide pews or desks running across, while the master’s desk stood nearly in the centre, so as to command a view of the whole. There were three windows in front, and at each of them a bench fitted up for reading and writing. The school was crowded, Mr Macdonald being a very popular teacher. To my father’s salutation he replied gruffly, and after being informed of the progress we had already made, he prescribed some books; then, according to his usual custom on any important accession to the number of his scholars, he gave holiday till next morning to the entire school. . . .

“Our teacher, Mr Macdonald, was an excellent classical scholar, and highly qualified to teach all the ordinary branches. But his method was defective. He was a merciless disciplinarian, inflicting punishment for the slightest offences. . . . A grammatical study of the English language was at that time utterly unknown in the schools of the north, the rudiments of Latin being substituted in its place. To the school hours of attendance we were summoned by the blowing of a post-horn, which the pauper, or janitor, standing at the outer porch, blew lustily. It was also the duty of the pauper, early in the morning, and especially in w inter, while it was yet dark, to perambulate the town, and, horn in hand, to proceed to the doors or windows of every house in which scholars resided, and blow up the sleepers. After this he proceeded to the schoolhouse to arrange it for our reception, by sweeping the floor and lighting the fire. For all this drudgery the only remuneration he received was a gratis education—whence his designation of the pauper, or ‘poor scholar.’ Macdonald had instituted a system of disgrace, for the better regulation of the idle or disorderly among his scholars, which was, however, not judicious. The method was this : the first who blundered in his lesson was ordered out of his class and ‘ sent to Coventry,’ which was the back seat, and there ordered to clap on his head an old ragged hat, the sight and smell of which were alone no little punishment. Under the hat he was ordered to sit at the upper end of the seat, and, as the leader of ‘the Dunciad,’ styled General Morgan. If a succession of fellows equally bright were sent to keep him company, they held the next rank, were accommodated with headpieces equally ornamental, and were named in order, Captain Rattler, then Sergeant More, and the next was a fiddler, who, besides his head-gear, was furnished with a broken wool-card and a stick, wherewith to exercise his gifts in the line of his vocation. When lessons were done, these unfortunate fellows were ordered out to go through their exercise. This consisted in a dance of the dignitaries of the squad, to the melody of him of the wool-card. On boys of keen sensibility, and on others, the first sight of this awkward exhibition, accompanied by shouts of laughter from their companions, produced some salutary effect; but custom soon made it lose its edge. The only premiums which he gave were confined to beginners for good writing. They consisted of three quills, given publicly on Saturday to the boy who during the week had kept ahead of his class by writing the best and most accurate copies. . . .

“Among our amusements was our pancake-cooking on Pasch Sunday (or, Di-domhnaich caisg), and in February the ‘cock-fight.’ This last took precedence over all our other amusements. About the beginning of this century there was perhaps not a single parochial school in Scotland in which, at its season, the cockfight ’ was not strictly observed. Our teacher entered with all the keenness of a Highlander, and with all the method of a pedagogue, into this barbarous pastime. The method observed at Dornoch was as follows : The set time being well known (dm cluiche nan coileach), there was a universal scrambling for cocks all over the parish; and we applied at every door, and pleaded hard for them. In those primitive times people never thought of demanding any pecuniary recompense for the birds for which we dunned them. When the important day arrived, the courtroom itself, in which was administered municipal rule, and where good Sheriff MacCulloch ordinarily held his legal tribunal, was surrendered to the occasion. With universal approval the chamber of justice was converted into a battle-field, where the feathered brood might, by their bills and claws, decide who among the juvenile throng should be king and queen. The council-board was made a stage, and the sheriffs bench was occupied by the schoolmaster and a select party of his friends, who sat there to give judgment. Highest honours were awarded to the youth whose bird had gained the greatest victories; he was declared king, while he who came next to him, by the prowess of his feathered representative, was associated in the dignity under the title of queen. Any bird that would not fight when placed on the stage was called a ‘fugie,’ and became the property of the master. A day was appointed for the coronation, and the ladies in the town applied their elegant imaginations to devise, and their fair fingers to construct, crowns for the royal pair. When the coronation-day arrived, its ceremonies commenced by our assembling in the schoolhouse. The master sat in his desk with the two crowns placed before him, the seats beside him being occupied by the ‘beauty and fashion’ of the town. The king and queen of cocks were then called out of their seats, along with those whom their majesties had nominated as their life-guards. Mr Macdonald now rose, took a crown in his right hand, and after addressing the king in a short Latin speech, placed it upon his head. Turning to the queen and addressing her in the same learned language, he crowned her likewise. Then the life-guards received suitable exhortations in Latin in regard to the onerous duties that devolved upon them in the high place which they occupied, the address concluding with the words ‘itaque diligentissime attendite.’ A procession then began at the door of the schoolhouse, where we were all ranged by the master in our several ranks, their majesties first, their life-guards next, and then the Trojan throng two and two, and arm in arm. The town drummer and fifer marched before us and gave note of our advance in strains which were intended to be both military and melodious. After the procession was ended the proceedings were closed by a ball and supper in the evening. This was duly attended by the master and all the ‘Montagues and Capulets of Dornoch.”

It is related that after hearing an eloquent and impressive sermon from Mr Macdonald, one of his co-Presbyters exclaimed in the native vernacular, “Mata, Iain ! ’nuair theid sibh do’n chubaid, is meirge leigidh as sibh ; agus ’nuair bhitheas sibh as, is meirge leigidh ann sibh.” (Well, John ! when you enter the pulpit, pity it is to let you out; and when you are out, pity it is to let you in.)

For the following particulars regarding Mr Macdonald I am indebted to the Rev. Mr Anderson, the present minister of the parish.

The current volume of the session records begins with Mr Macdonald’s incumbency. It has been well kept, and the penmanship and fulness and clearness of its minutes are admirable. Mr Macdonald was for many years the Clerk of the Presbytery of Abernethy. He was a very able and popular preacher both in English and Gaelic, and took great interest in the education of the young. Apart from the parish school, he established, in the early part of his ministry, three other schools—one of these being wholly confined to instruction in Gaelic. Besides preaching at Alvie, he officiated every third Sunday at Insh, and frequently had services on Sunday evenings in outlying parts of the parish. Thus the early and greater part of his ministry was abundant in labours.

Pre-eminent intellectually among the Highland ministers of the time, Mr Macdonald was no less distinguished for his physical strength, a well-known instance of which may be appropriately related. On one occasion he was waiting in the churchyard for a funeral announced to take place. After waiting for two hours beyond the time appointed, he started to meet the funeral, which was coming from the west end of the parish. On reaching the Moor of Alvie, about a mile and a half from the church, he found the bier laid at the side of the road and the whole of the funeral company engaged in a free fight. Boldly going into the midst of the combatants, he sought by word and hand to separate them. Among their number was a well-known bully, who made a rush at the minister and attempted to trip him. The minister, however, seized his antagonist and threw him with such force to the ground that he lay stunned for some minutes. This incident brought all the combatants to their senses, and the bier was immediately raised and carried in silence to the churchyard. The minister further punished the company by ordering them away as soon as the grave was closed, without allowing them to partake of the customary refreshments in the churchyard. “ Here,” adds Mr Anderson, “ reference may be made in passing to the use of whisky at funerals in the Highlands. This use has, in times past, been turned too often into abuse. But in many houses of mourning other suitable refreshments cannot be conveniently given, and as people often come long distances on foot to funerals, and the bier has frequently to be carried many miles, there can be no doubt that in such cases some refreshments are required, and probably whisky with bread and cheese is the most available. Those who condemn its use do not keep this in view. The use of whisky at funerals cannot, I fear, be stopped until a hearse is provided for every parish. With such a vehicle in common use, the partaking of whisky at funerals in the Highlands would, I believe, be as rare as it is in towns, and the custom, old as it is, thus become more honoured in the breach than in the observance.”

Mr Macdonald was married in 1841 for the fourth time—his fourth wife predeceasing him in 1845. He died in 1854 at the advanced age of ninety-four years. Now that the intensely bitter and unchristian spirit to which the catastrophe of 1843 so unhappily gave rise, has in a measure subsided, many old persons still living in the parish who joined the Free Church may be heard speaking of Mr Macdonald with affection, and of his long ministry with admiration.

15. Donald Macdonald, 1854-79.—Macdonald was presented by the Duke of Richmond and Lennox, translated from the parliamentary parish of Trumisgarry, and admitted as minister of Alvie 29th November 1854. He died 6th November 1879.

16. James Anderson, 1880.—Mr Anderson, the present energetic and much respected minister, was for some years a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. Called by the congregation, he was admitted as minister of Alvie 22d April 1880. Through Mr Anderson’s instrumentality, great improvements have within the last few years been effected in connection with the church and parish. Since his appointment the church has been almost entirely renewed, and so much improved that it is now one of the neatest and most attractive edifices of the kind in the Highlands. Through his unwearied efforts, a commodious and comfortable hall has also been erected at Kincraig, which has been found most useful for parish purposes.

For some time after 1843, only a lay missionary was employed in connection with the Free Church in Alvie and Rothiemurchus—namely, Mr Donald Duff, Lynchat, long a catechist in the district down to 1853 or 1854. He acted subsequently as catechist for some years at Dingwall under the late well-known Dr Kennedy, and afterwards at Stratherrick.

The Free Church of Alvie was built in 1852. Mr James Grant, who was ordained as minister of that church in Rothiemurchus and Alvie on 17th March 1856, was a man of superior mental power, with a decided turn for languages and mathematics. He is said to have known a little of sixteen languages, and to have excelled in Hebrew. In devotion to his books, in primitive simplicity of character and habits, and in firm attachment to the “fundamentals,” he reminded one very much of Dominie Sampson. As a preacher, Mr Grant never wrote his sermons, nor did they pretend to much culture; but, intimately acquainted as he was with the habits and modes of thinking of the people, he was often pointed and graphic, frequently upsetting the gravity even of “grave and reverend seigniors.”

Mr Norman Macdonald, the present incumbent, was ordained as minister of the Free Church in Alvie on 27th October 1868. Mr Macdonald possesses excellent attainments, and writes with ease and vigour. His subjects are always arranged with great clearness, and handled with more than ordinary ability. He has now ministered with untiring zeal and devotion to his attached flock in Alvie for a period of fully twenty years.


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