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Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands in Olden Times and Other Papers
Chapter VI. Old Church Life in the Parish of Alvie


THE existing records of the parish of Alvie date back to the ordination of the Rev. Alexander Fraser as minister of the parish in 1713, and for a considerable number of years subsequently were kept with singular neatness and regularity. There is a gap of eight years in the minutes from August 1721 to February 1729, in consequence of what is termed “the vacancie twixt Mr Fraser’s transportation and Mr Lewes Chapman’s admittion.” As regards the earlier records, it is stated in the first existing minute, of date 6th September 1713, that “after inquiring for the Records of Session, it was told that if there were any they must be among Mr Thomas Macpherson, late minister in this paroch, his books, lying at Inveressie. Therefore the minister is appointed to search for them when he goes thither.” This Thomas Macpherson was, I find, at one time a schoolmaster in Lochaber, and appears to have been minister of Alvie from 1662 down to his death in 1708—a period of nearly fifty years.

It does not appear whether the contemplated search for the records prior to 1713 was ever made. It would be very gratifying if these could still be traced among the papers of the old family of Invereshie, now, it is presumed, in the possession of Sir George Macpherson-Grant, the present representative of that family. In the first minute the sad intimation is made “that there was no bason for holding baptismal water nor anything like church utensils in the Paroch.” It is remarkable that the elders of the Alvie Church at the time, as appearing from the minutes, were all lairds of good family and substance—namely, “Robert Macpherson of Dalraddie,” an ancestor of Sir George Macpherson-Grant; “George Macpherson of Dalifure, Donald Macpherson of Pitchirn, Donald Macpherson of Pitourie, and William Mackintosh of Balnespick.” It is a thousand pities that so many of the Highland as well as Lowland lairds of later times should have got so much out of touch with the people, and grievously lessened to such an extent their own influence for good, by quitting the grand old historical Presbyterian Church of Knox, of Melville, and of Chalmers, to which, with all her failings, past and present, Scotland owes so much. Let it be sorrowfully confessed that not a few of their number may have been driven away by the strife and disputations to which Presbyterian tongues are, alas! so prone. But surely the more patriotic course would have been to have patiently stayed and helped to the utmost of their power in the way of making the National Church of Scotland better and more effective for good. In recently addressing some weighty and well-timed words of warning to the Presbyterians of Scotland, the Duke of Argyll with true patriotism confesses to have a strong and an insuperable bias in favour of that institution of his country “which, historically speaking, has been the most peculiar and certainly the most powerful of them all on the national character.”

“Unlike,” says the Duke, “the great majority of the class to which I belong, I have never been alienated from what is good and true in the Presbyterian system by education either in the schools or in the universities of England. I know how much in other ways I have lost by this, but at least I have escaped the unfortunate prejudices and the extraordinary ignorances which I have seen too often entailed on others by early estrangement—at the most susceptible age—from the habits and feelings of my Presbyterian fellow-countrymen. Apart altogether from specialities of doctrine or of government or of worship — on all of which it is possible to keep a wise openness of mind—I am never able to forget those passages in our history when the spirit of constitutional liberty—faint or dead in the Parliaments of Scotland—was alive and strong in the Assemblies of her Church. Neither can I forget the broad popular basis on which that Church rested in the full association of the laity in the duties and functions of ecclesiastical government. But, above all, the most matured judgment and the most unprejudiced reasoning may well be proud of the contributions made by Scottish Presbyterianism to the great subject of the possible conditions of a healthy connection between Church and State. That contribution was, so far as I know, absolutely unique in the history of Christendom. By the great statute of 1592 Cavour’s modern idea of ‘libera chiesa in libero stato’—a free Church in a free State—was reconciled almost perfectly with all that was good in the older idea of identity or of a confused connection. No such statute, embodying so grand an idea, and one so practical, has ever before or since adorned the legislation of any country. Scotchmen may well be proud of it, to whatever section of the Presbyterian Church they may belong. It is only accident and external interference which have divided it. The common inheritance of that Church in all its branches is the same; and my bias is nothing else than this, that they should all be co-heirs in its descent. I do not value the Scotch Establishment on account of anything which distinguishes it from its sister Churches. But, besides some other reasons, such as the right of the poor in the religious services of the Church, and the value I still place on the public recognition of our common Christianity, I value specially the Establishment in Scotland as the formal and guaranteed homage of the State to the national Presbyterianism of her people. Now, this is precisely the aspect in which it is most obnoxious to Anglican High Churchism, and, above all, to those Scotchmen who have imbibed through Anglican education the spirit of that school in its most aggressive form. There are thousands, indeed, of Scotchmen who are Episcopalians by descent or by preference for the English services, but who have none of this spirit, and who have been accustomed in their own districts to co-operation, and even to ‘occasional conformity,’ with the Church of the people. But Scotchmen, who are what is now called in England ‘Churchmen,’ by some exclusive and special right, are very apt to be men to whom the establishment of Presbyterianism in their native country is a perpetual offence. Courtesy or .reserve or anxiety about the English Establishment, or mere conservative politics, may mask this feeling more or less, or even neutralise it altogether. But where we have the combination of Scotch birth, Anglican High Churchism, and the temptations of secular politics, there the bias is at its maximum which leads men to dislike and to despise the Established Presbyterianism of Scotland.”

In contrast to this High Anglican sectarianism, not a few English as well as Scottish Episcopalians would do well to take to heart the wise and thoughtful words of Dean Stanley. If, says the Dean, the Scottish Episcopal Church “were so ill-advised as to make use of this its new situation” (i.e., its closer connection with the Church of England) “to claim in Scotland an exclusive and national position—if it were to affect to disdain and ignore the Church of Scotland, by the side of which it has been allowed freely to expand itself—if it were to employ its relations towards England to divide the Scottish rich from the Scottish poor, the past from the present history of Scottish religion— if it were to lend itself as a field for the eccentricities of disaffected English clergy, then, indeed, we might look back with regret to the time when the greatest of its members rejoiced to think that it was ‘but the shadow of a shade.’ But if, following the counsels of its most venerable and most gifted leaders, it were to regard itself as a supplement to the needs of the National Church—if it should be willing to interchange with that Church all good offices, whether of charity or religion, without compromise of its own principles—if it should aid the generous efforts of the National Church to promote that intercourse—if it should thus encourage in Scotland the knowledge that Christianity can exist outside of the Presbyterian Church as well as within it—if it can keep alive in Scotland, by its own example, a sense of English art, of English toleration, and of English literature—if it continued to discharge the duty which from time to time it has fulfilled during its simpler and humbler days of presenting Christian life and Christian truth under that softer, gentler, more refined aspect, which its native Gaelic and its foreign English elements have alike conspired to produce, — then the Church of Scotland may hail in it a not unimportant auxiliary for the transmission of the same beneficent influences from our southern civilisation that were once conveyed by Queen Margaret and her three sons, that were eagerly cherished by John Knox, and that were desired, and in great measure obtained, by the eminent statesmen who cemented the union of the two kingdoms.”

Would that more of the lairds of the present day were to be found in our Highland kirk-sessions associating themselves in the true spirit of Christian co-operation, as children of a common Father, with their tenants and humbler neighbours, for the good of the people! It is gratifying in this connection to find that the distinguished philosopher, Sir David Brewster (the son-in-law of James Macpherson, the translator of Ossian), during the greater portion of his residence at Belleville, from 1833 to 1836, acted as an elder in the church of Alvie. Here is the minute recording his admission:—

“At Baldoiu, 16th December 1834.—The Kirk-Session of Alvie being met and constituted, compeared Sir David Brewster at Belleville, who having produced satisfactory evidence of being an ordained elder of the Church of Scotland, and member of the Kirk-Session of Melrose, was admitted as a member of the Kirk-Session of Alvie, and his name ordered to be added to the roll.”

But to return to the old records of Alvie, here is a singular indication of the punishment to which the erring sheep of the Alvie flock were sometimes subjected for the convenience of the general body of the parishioners:—

“June 20th, 1714.—Gregor M‘Gregor cited, appeared and confessed that he had been guilty with the foresaid Nin Ian Buiy, both being exhorted to repentence, and appointed to satisfie descepline next Lord’s day, and the said Gregor appointed to build a bridge of fea charbad on the high way bewixt the Church and Kintacher for his penalty.”

In a minute of the same year it is recorded that a “John M'Intire in Pitowrie did appear before the Session, and presented an obligation which was granted in time of the vacancy for sixteen pounds Scots for thatching broken pieces of the roof of the Church. The Minister enquired the elders thereanent, and they owned that the obligation was given by the Session’s order, upon which the Session appointed William M‘Tallar and John Brodie to pay eight pounds Scots each to the sd. John M'Itire, being the penalties due by them for their uncleanness.”

The next extract goes to show the importunity to which in days of yore (although, as a rule, for a good cause) persons of substance unable to go to kirk or market, and labouring under the disease of which they died, were frequently subjected:—

“June 20th, 1714.—The Minister informs that he had been at pains with Donald MTherson of Pitowrie at his death to mortifie something to the Poor of the Paroch of Alvy, and accordingly did loan to the Poor of the said Paroch an hundred merks Scots, and appointed that the yearly rent thereof should be put in the Poors box to be distributed yearly with the collections.”

The two following extracts give some indication of the extent to which the people of Badenoch took part in the Rising of 1715, and of the unfortunate results:—

“November 27th, 1715.—The country being in an uproar of a designed rebellion against the King and Government, and there not being so much as the face of a congregation much less a Session, the minister took upon himself to report an account of such collections as there were, and to distribute what was in the box.”

“May 11th, 1716.—There was no possibility of keeping Session in this paroch all the last season until the Rebellion was quelled, the minister being often obliged to look for his own safety.”

The next extract discloses such an obstacle in the way of the compliance of a delinquent with a sessional citation that the session, with all their burning zeal to get at him, could not apparently contrive to overcome:—

“June 3rd, 1716.—Donald M'Hoirle being cited did not compeare, it was told that he was kept prisoner in England because of his being taken among the rebels at Preston, and was not to be expected on haste, if ever.”

Poor ill-fated Donald! Not a grain of pity is expressed by the session for the sad fate which had overtaken him, fighting for the cause which, like so many other Highlanders of the time, he doubtless regarded as that of his rightful earthly king. There is no further reference to him in the Alvie records, and the probability is that never more was he permitted to gaze upon his native hills. By the same minute, a Janet M'Callum Choir in Laggan Lia is “declared scandalous in not finding a father to her former child.” In place of the unfortunate Janet’s fruitless efforts “in search of a father” enlisting any sympathy on the part of the session, that pitiless body, we are told, “put it on the Minister to apply the Judge to banish her out of the country.”

On 10th June 1716 it is recorded that a collection took place on June 7th, “it being a day of thanksgiving appointed because of the Rebellion being quelled.” There are frequent entries bearing that lectures were given “in Irish.” On 16th December 1716, in stating that a lecture was given in “Irish,” it is added that “the storminess of the day, and there being but few who understood inglish, hindered preaching in that language.” In the following year the session “delated Katherine M'Intosh, spouse to John M'Intosh, Croftcarnoch, alledged to have brought forth a child in adultry, her husband being in America, and transported thither because of his being taken among the rebels at Preston.” In the same year a Marion Macdonald “was told that she would not be absolved until she repaired to Lochaber and bring back a testimony that Macdonald in Anat was formerly guilty with her, and father to her child.” The session records are silent on the subject, but let us hope that “Marion’s” long weary tramp of 120 miles to Lochaber and back was attended with the desired result. In the same year the minister also reports “that he had brought in Christian M'Intire, her deserting the country, before the Presbyterie, and that it was appointed she should be declared fugitive from all the Pulpits in the bounds of the Presbyterie.”

The Alvie session had apparently got into trouble by lending their ears too readily — a failing not, perhaps, altogether extinct among ministers and elders of the present day—to the Alvie gossip-mongers of the time. Here is the resolution which the Alvie session in consequence wisely adopted :—

“February 16th, 1718.—It was also advised in the Session to be very cautious anent delating persons, and not bring in every trifling tale that is told in the country, founded very oft on ill will, lest the Session be unnecessarily involved in trouble.”

Woe betide any parishioner in those days daring to malign the pastor of the flock! The following extract records the punishment to which a parishioner, “so far lost of God as to abuse the Minister,” was subjected:—

11 March 16th, 1718.—Mr Alexander Fraser informed that the Bailif of the County had kept Court sometime after the raising of the Session by a dispensation, and having found James Down guilty of abusing him by opprobrious language, fined him in forty pounds Scots, also ordered him to satisfie the discipline of the Church when appointed by any Judicatory thereof, the sd. James Down was called in, who confessed that he had been so far lost of God as to abuse the minister, for which he begged forgiveness of God, and submitted himself to the censures of the Church, and after rebuke and serious exhortation he is appointed to appear before the congregation.”

Here is the record of the dealing of the session with a “son of the Parson” guilty of carrying a load of malt on his horse on the Sabbath-day:—

“April 6th, 1718.—Elias Macpherson, in Pitourie, cited, did appear, and being inquired if he carried a load of malt upon his horse on the Lord’s Day, answered that he had been coming from Murray some time ago with a boll of malt, and had been seized with a storm of snow, had stayed in the Nest of Strathspey Saturday’s night and the most of the Lord’s Day until divine worship was over; provisions for beasts being scarce with them, and they unwilling to lodge him another night, was obliged to come home that night.”

Poor, trembling Elias! In daring to wend his way homewards and to escape on the Sabbath-day from the fury of the storm which had “seized” him in such an inhospitable region, little had he seemed to realise the fate in store for him at the hands of the Alvie session. Better for him had he and his four-footed “Jehu” remained over the Sabbath night unfed and uncared for, even on the cold, bleak moor, beside the closed doors of his selfish and hard-hearted neighbours in the “Nest of Strathspey.” “Son of the Parson” though he was, the session did not pay the slightest regard to Elias’s plain unvarnished tale. We are told that, “finding him guilty in not keeping the whole Sabbath day holy, and judging his excuse to be none other than a subterfuge, he was rebuked and appointed to satisfie discipline.”

Under date 9th November 1718, it is recorded that John Down, in Gorton Chroa, and John Wilson, in Kintachar, having been cited, “compeared and confessed that they had been killing the blackfish on the Lord’s night, and being exhorted, were appointed to satisfie the discipline.”

The following extract gives a sad picture of the state to which the kirk-officer of the time, “labouring long under a pain in his legg,” was reduced in consequence of the non-payment of his fees:—

“January 24th, 1720.—David Noble, Kirk Officer, complained that he could not obtain sentence from the Judges against the Delinquents assigned him for payment of his fees, and that labouring long under a pain in his legg by which he was almost incapacitated from business, and almost in a starving state, craved that the Session might compassionate his case. Ordered that two pounds Scots for his present relief might be given him out of the Box.”

One would have never expected to find in the Alvie records an instance of unparalleled and unblushing “cheek” on the part of the good folk of Nairn, of which, let us hope, they have long since repented. Few if any Badenoch men of the time in all probability ever set foot on the bridge of Nairn. Here, notwithstanding, is the gracious and considerate response made by the Alvie session to the appeal made to them for assistance in repairing the bridge:—

“May 1st, 1720.—There was a sixpence given for repairing the bridge of Nairn, the inhabitants there petitioning for a general collection in the bounds of the Synod of Murray.”

In the same year it is recorded that “there was given of the collections for maintaining James Alvy the fundlin two merks and a half merk,” and that “there was given to Mr William Dockery, Chaplin to an Inglish-man man-of-war, an old infirm man long detained Prisoner by the Spaniards and disabled by shot, Eighteenpence.” In another minute it is recorded that the pity of the session was excited to the extent of sixpence for the relief of a poor “wandering Jew” having an “extraordinary excrescence upon his nose."

Here is an indication of the useful purposes to which the penalties so rigorously exacted by the session from the black sheep of the Alvie flock were from time to time applied:—

“November 20th, 1720.—The sd. Anna M'Donald payd into the Session Three pounds six shillings and eight pence Scots as a part of her penalty, whereof there was given for a Session-Book two pounds and eight shillings Scots and eighteen shillings Scots for registrating the Factory given to collect the vacant stipends.”

The following are but a few out of many similar entries narrating “grievous breaches of the Sabbath,” and furnishing examples of the unceasing activity displayed by the ministers and elders of the time as ecclesiastical detectives :—

11 March 12th, 1721.—The minister informed that last Lord’s Day some of the parochiners—viz., Ewen M'Bain, Ewen M'Lean, William Lamb, and John M'Lean, inhabitants in the dauch of Dalraddy—had been drinking in a change-house too late, and he had appointed the officer to summond them to this dyet, who, after citation, appeared and confessed that they had sitten somewhat late in the ale-house, but had done no other offence, they not drinking to excess, and acknowledged that it was a sin in them to do so. The Session, considering how ingenious they were in their confession, and that they had been honest men, regular in their conversation heretofore, appointed that they should be sessionally rebuked, that they and others may take warning in time to come, which being done, they were dismissed.”

“September 20th, 1729.—Delated this day Ann Down and Kate Fraser, in Kannachil, for prophanation of the Lord’s Day in going to the wood for pulling nuts.”

“September 11th, 1730.—Delated John Meldrum and Alexander M‘Intyre, in Dalnavert, for prophaning the Lord’s Day by fishing upon the watter of Feshie.”

“October 25th, 1730.—Delated this day David M‘Bain and his wife, in Linwilg, for prophaning the Lord’s Day by weighing and selling chees to John Stewart, in Aviemore, his wife. Delated Mary M'Kenzie and Isabell MTherson, in Linwilg, for bakeing bread upon the Sabbath.”

Another minute bears that the session “being informed that some of the tenants in Dellyfour did profane the Lord’s Day some time about the end Septr. last by going or sending in the morning of the Sabbath to the Glen of Dallovaich and brought from thence swine they had feeding there to the Strath that very day, the session did therefore appoint to summon them against this day fortnight, as sermon is to be next Sabbath at Insh.”

It would appear the session were of opinion that on the Sabbath-day the “piggies” should have been left to wander over hill and dale according to their “own sweet will.”

The following extract gives a sad picture of the educational state of the parish at the time:—

"November 19th, 1732.—This day Mr Arthur Gregory represented to the Session that he had now officiated for a year as parish schoolmaster, and that he had no scollars all summer and harvest over, and that it was evident that there was no further use for him, upon which account the said Mr Arthur craved payment of his salary and demitted his offices. The Session, taking the premises to their consideration, appoints the moderator to write a receipt on Castallhill at Inverness to pay Mr Gregory fifty merks Scots for the two years bygon annual rents of the money lodged in his hands for behoof of the schoolmaster of the parish of Alvie.”

The worthy “Mr Arthur” was not new to scholastic work, having been previously schoolmaster at “Ruthven of Badenoch,” and the absence of “scollars” was apparently not attributable to any want of zeal or efficiency on his part. The candid statement volunteered by the honest man that “there was no further use for him,” and his voluntary resignation in consequence of the sinecure offices in Alvie, were certainly therefore highly commendable. For some time after Mr Gregory left, the parish was without any schoolmaster. Struggling as we have to do even in the present day with hard times, we have reason to be thankful that the blessing of a good plain education is now within the reach of the very humblest and poorest in our midst.

The Alvie session did not hesitate to entertain even cases for “breach of promise.” Here is their deliverance in the case of a promise-breaking degenerate “son of the Parson”:—

“October 19th, 1733.—This day Alexander Mitherson in Pitowrie was sessionally rebuked for breach of promise had with Christina M'Phaill in Dunagh-town, but refers his penalty for further consideration.”

In the same minute it is recorded that Isobell M'Intosh, spouse to Alexander Cameron, and Janet, spouse to Gregor More, were “delated for profaning the Lord’s day by slandering and scolding.”

With all the multiplication of our churches and clergy, it is to be feared that “slanderers ” and “scolders” are not yet quite extinct in the Highlands, and it might not be amiss if our kirk-sessions still had the power of subjecting them to the discipline of standing in the “publick place of repentance” and being solemnly rebuked like the viragoes of bygone times in the parish of Alvie.

Isolated as the people of Badenoch comparatively were before the days of stage-coaches or railways, it would seem that they did not escape from the terrible scourge of smallpox. Here is an entry bringing home to us—living as we do in a happier era—how much Highlanders and Lowlanders alike owe to the great vaccination discovery made by the famous Dr Jenner fully half a century later:—

“August 25th, 1734.—Appoints a shilling sterling to be given to the poor woman in Dellifure having four small children in the smallpox.”

Not a single case of the kind has, I believe, been known or heard of in the district for many years.


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