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Home Life of the Highlanders 1400 - 1746
Religion in the Clachan
By Lauchlan MacLean Watt


IT could scarcely be expected that the life of the clachan should keep pace with the big movements of the outside world. It is only in times of great stress and storm that the backwater feels the impulse of the ocean far away. For the most part its waters drowse the long year through. So the life of the clachan, secluded and remote from the influence of passing change, remained unmoved, untouched by episodes and spasms of history which involved, for many, issues of life and death.

The clan system meant for the clachan dwellers a narrower limitation than even mere parochialism. The warrior, inured to hardship from his boyhood, his courage ripened by experience, and guaranteed by the scars of many fights, could venture out through the passes, and across the environing hills; but to the clansfolk generally, and especially to the weak and the women, there was a danger-limit, to cross which meant unspeakable risk of running up against the edge of ancient feud. The stream that trickled with soft murmur down from the corrie where the grey mists came creeping morn and even, had known the salt tang of life’s blood of brave men in days of battle. There were stories told by the peat fire in the cot, which served to keep memory from sleeping, and at the same time lived as a warning of the shadow which lay waiting behind the sunshine of the glens.

There were other shadows besides the shadow of ancient feud,—the sh&lows of innumerable fears which moved through the daylight and the dark. In the deep pools beside the stepping-stones, or in the ford, lay the formless, unseen foe, upon which no soul had looked, save the soul that was in its last agony, clutched and dragged away to death, in the mirk hour of lonely night and dread. Up in the mist-veiled hollows and ravines, the pale ghosts moved and mourned; the echoes of their complaining filled the night with sound. Along the lonely tracks worn by the girls with the cattle, those homeless spirits moved, step for step with you, and would not leave your side. And, while you lay in the quiet clachan, sleep far from your bed of heath and bracken, the peat blinking on the hearth, you knew that, up the glen, under the flashing stars, the phosphorescent hosts of fairyland were guiding the magic mazes of their elvish dances. There were some linking madly in the reel, whose faces would be familiar to any who dared to look upon the revel, secure, perhaps, through the mystic spell of a nail of iron, the sign of the Cross, or some traditional formula before whose pattering verse demons and agencies of evil cowered in fear. Michael Archangel, who, in yon great day of wonder, put Satan under his feet,—he would protect you, if you knew his runes. But it were safer in your plaid, under the thatch, lest, like the unforgotten, unreturning ones, your curious inquisitiveness led you into perils inextricable.

The poets and the girls in the clachan fell asleep to dream of the jingling bridle-chains, the courtly pomp, the laughter and the joy of faerie. But the old folks lay brooding of the shadowland through whose low door their shades so soon should pass.

The religion of the clachan meant, thus, a remarkable legacy of residuary superstitious fears and rites, arrested, as if at the church door, in their pilgrimage out of the ages of paganism; and frequently baptised with Christian names, colouring the garment of Faith with hues of magic evanescence.

In olden days, so long ago that none could remember in what year it happened, men out of the Islands of the West had moved everywhere, north and eastward, climbing the mountain walls, leaving, sometimes, their bones in places that grew holy in the hearts of the people, telling~ of the White Christ who hated feud and rapine, and to whose body, bruised from Calvary, the hate of men in angry conflicts added bleeding wounds. They had healed and helped the stricken and the poor; and great chiefs, and fierce leaders of tribes that grappled for power against each other, had bowed down before them, overcome by the majesty of the Cross. But those days were long since faded into the past; and, by the sixteenth century, out in the world beyond the narrow limit of the glens, the shaven monks had grown careless, and forgetful of the heritage which the noble ones, now asleep, had purchased in the land, for Christ. The temptations of possessions, the lure of money and ease, had weakened the foundations of the Cross. Yet, in the clachans and quiet places behind the blue line of the hills, lovingly still dwelt holy men, who gave their lives, in true fidelity, to Christ, serving the sorrows and necessities of the lowly, rather than hanging about the tables of chiefs, and flattering the pride and greed of lairds. Their faith was simple as their wants were few, and the love of the poor was their richest reward.

The year 1560 marked the death-blow of the old régime. But in reality it needed little violence to thrust over an ancient church whose stability had been sapped by those who had ceased long since to live truly in the old traditions. The year just mentioned was the year of Edinburgh, when popery was forbidden in the land, and the celebration of the mass had punishments attached to it. For the first offence the officiating priest was to have his goods confiscated; for the second, he was to be banished from the realm, and the reward ~of a third time’s lapse was death itself. It was a movement that appealed with tremendous force to the lords and lairds of Scotland, hungry for the lands of the churchmen; and throwing themselves with all their strength into the upheaval, taking care of their own safety, remembering the accident which happened to Samson of old, they emerged, some of them with fair abbeys to dwell in, or to quarry hewn material from, for the building of walls and outhouses; all of them, at any rate, much helped towards enlargement of domain.

The influence of this movement was felt, most naturally, first by the clachans in the vicinity of ecclesiastical establishments, but it penetrated along the straths and glens till it touched the lives of the simple folks in the clachans there. The chiefs varied much in their relation to the new Protestant faith. MacLean had been abroad, and was convinced of ancient error; and by his immediate influence made his clan probably the earliest Presbyterians of the West. Mackintosh and Lovat also turned their backs on Romanism, the latter securing Beauly by the change. But Glengarry, Chisholm of Strathglass, and Huntly remained steadfast. The greatest Presbyterian of them all, however, was Argyll.

The relations between the people and the chiefs in this matter of faith presented frequently peculiar features. In some clans it required only the expression of the feudal lord’s will, and the docile clansmen obeyed. It is told of more than one community, that the chief, having built a little wattled chapel on the side of the way opposite to the old Catholic structure, performed the work of reformation by standing in the space between, and, as the quiet clachan people came slowly out to worship, herded them into the new place with his long walking-cane; while like one man they obeyed. It gave those of the old faith an excuse for laughter, and to this day in the West, the Church of Knox and the Reformers is spoken of as " the church of the yellow stick."

Such implicit obedience was not, however, the rule. For instance, Lovat’s people remained Catholic, for the most part, though their chief had changed. Nor did the bond of a common faith bind rival chieftains together, teaching them to forget and to bury ancient feud. Argyll was always one of the best-hated of the Highland leaders; and it was awkward for Protestantism that he was its most influential representative in the north; for certain of the strongly Presbyterian clans, remembering lands reft from them, and power and position diminished and blighted through the political economy of the great head of the Campbells, waited, in movements affecting perhaps the most vital interests of the faith, apparently to see on which side Argyll would declare his adherence, when they immediately threw all their weight upon the other. A close study of the history of the Western Presbyterian clans in the Covenanting period will be illuminating in this connection.

In some ways the great reforming upheaval hardly made itself felt at all in the clachans. It never thoroughly broke its way through the mountain barrier into Strathglass, Lochaber, Moidart, Knoydart, Banffshire and Braemar, which are still to-day haunts of the ancient worship, the district of Morar being especially marked out in this respect from others, being Morar beannachte, "blessed Morar," because till recent times the voice of Protestantism had not been heard within its boundaries. It is even now a truly Catholic country. The wave of Protestantism, which submerged everything in the low country, broke along the inviolable outposts of the mountains, and rolled back in a long ebb of centuries. Had John Knox and his coadjutors known the Gaelic language, the story of the north might have long since been written in terms of another creed. For many a year after Edinburgh had settled its forms of faith, the simple Catholicism of the clachan, with faith beyond the forms of faith, moved about the glens. The hearts of the folks in places remote from the scenes of strife were loath to move from familiar moorings. In 1563 Mr. Robert Pont was sent to "plant kirks" in the district of Inverness. But he laboured in unresponsive fields; for, five years later, he was removed to another territory, "where his efforts might have a better chance than they had in the province of Moray." Again, in 1597 a Commission of the Kirk met to confer regarding the securing of ministers, and the establishment of ecclesiastical stations in the same territory; but the clachan was contented with the path the feet of the fathers had been wearing Godwards, and so, even till this day, the Kirk is knocking, in many places, at the same doors which opened not to it over three hundred years ago. It was not till 1658 that a minister was appointed to Kilmallie; it was not till 1726 that Eneas Sage was appointed the first Presbyterian minister of Lochcarron, nor until 1720 did similar appointments touch Kilmonivaig and Glengarry.

The priests who were driven out at the Reformation were not all worthless time-servers. With a pathetic devotion they clung to their people in the remote places, and were supported by their poor adherents with a loyal fidelity which frequently brought much suffering to the clachan. Indeed, those who did adhere to the old faith through the risks and persecutions which beset them, became more firmly-rooted in Catholicism, and their resolute abidingness the more deeply grounded by the necessity of dogged resistance against oppression. Half the doors which have been barred against the advance of Reformation principles through the glens owe their continued invincibility to the need that brave and simple hearts felt for holding them firm, and building them sturdily in the days of old.

But the Protestant preachers had their hard times too, ~1though they represented the party of victory. The people in some districts would not recognise their claims; in others, would not enter the churches; and, in many places, did not hesitate to show their disapproval by open and secret manifestations of violent hate. Some were actuated to such procedure by resentment of interference with ancient custom; but in many clachans the people had in reality sunk into a condition approaching paganism. Thus in Lochcarron, and in Reay, and frequently enough elsewhere, while the minister was in the Church the people were in the graveyard tossing the caber, throwing the hammer, leaping and wrestling in competition with one another. Sage, who was a gigantic man, of huge strength, won their respect by showing that, though be was a preacher of the Gospel of peace, be could hold his own in such things with the manliest of them all; and, though attempts were made to hustle him from his purposes, and once an incendiary, caught in his flight and shaken into abject humility of repentance by the strong hand of the preacher, tried to burn the miserable shanty that was the manse, yet time was on the side of the man whose soul was strong, and he won the victory in the conflict between brute strength and moral greatness.

Mr. Pope of Reay, - contemporary with his better-known namesake, the poet, to whom the northern minister paid a visit at Twickenham, riding the long journey on his little Highland pony,—was such another. Failing continually to reach his cateran environment, he at last touched their pride, and so won them to something higher; for he made the novel, if somewhat risky, experiment of making the very worst and most violent characters of his parish elders; and the conceit of importance in the district among their fellows lifted them. The "expulsive force of a new affection" changed them to law-abiding parishioners, while the reputation of their past strong-handed masterfulness kept minor recalcitrants in a state of becoming submission to them.

An influence which was not unfelt by the clachan was one which came forward into notice in the times of conflict between the Church in the south and the arrogant spiritual pretensions of King James the Sixth. Ministers like Robert Bruce, men of strong personality and restlessly assiduous devotion to duty, were banished north of the Tay, and we may be sure their presence was not without effect upon the quiet and earnest communities amongst whom they lived. Along-ride of these was, all the time, the influence of the priests who moved about disguised as peasants, and hiding from prying inquisitiveness in caves and barns.

With all the superstitious reverence which attached to the priestly office, there yet was frequently a very curious absence of sacrosanct respect for both the persons and the property of churchmen. When the fury of the vendetta prompted, it was nothing for the clansmen to burn rival clansmen in church, at the very act of worship. In 1603, in Glengarry’s foray into Ross, he set torch to a church, and while the wretched victims perished in the flames, the Macdonald piper marched about the walls, mocking the shrieks of the dying with the savage strains of an impromptu pibroch. The clergy seemed to have little power in repressing angry passions in the foray, and what consolations religion could give must have had little effect on the children and the women left behind in the clachan, from which all who could carry a clayrnore had followed the summons of the chief.

In 1647 the Kirk was busy waking up ministers in the quiet places to the diligent in seeking out witchcraft of every kind; but it is striking to see them at the same time also passing Acts about the planting of schools. The poison and its antidote grow frequently in the same field. Yet for many a day the poor old crone, left lonely in her dripping hovel, cursing the teasing children as they followed her with gibes, had the risk of torture and death dogging her steps wherever she moved.

Before the Reformation the clergy taught Highland lads who were destined for the Church, at Beauly, Rosmarkie, Fearn, Kinloss and Ardchattan; but after the Reformation, whether the boy were church-infected or no, Knox and his coadjutors had him in their thought, though the suggestion of a school for every parish was hopelessly inadequate, some of the Highland parishes being as large as many a Lowland county.

Public religion fell into terrible straits, and faith was only kept alive at such firesides as remembered her, though they fed her often on strangest foods. The Lords at the Reformation appropriated the noblest revenues of the church, but enacted that every established minister of the Church should receive from the parishioners to maintain their families and to enable them to perform the duties of the ministry "with comfort and ease," a sum equal to five pounds sterling. In 1725 an application was made to the king for a grant of £1000 for the encouragement of itinerant preachers and catechists to assist the ministers in the Highlands, "especially in parishes where popery and ignorance prevail." Their task was heavy. They had to walk round the heads of estuaries which were too stormy to cross,—to ford dangerous rivers, to press through desert places, to get over ferries, paying often exorbitant fares, especially if the ferrymen were Catholics, while all the time they had neither comfortable dwellings nor places suitable for preaching in, though in the furthest districts the Romanists had both.

Cromwell’s conquest, when he planted garrisons from Inverness to Stornoway, had great influence, of an abiding kind, upon the religion of the people. The Puritan soldiers deemed laughter a sit’, music and dancing things born of the evil one; and set in the forefront such tokens of grace as the long-jawed visage, and the holy groan. These remained, in certain phases of religion, in the clachans, long after Cromwell’s visitation was forgotten.

Scarcity of ministers who had the Gaelic tongue, and want of Bibles for the people, in the vernacular, make their existence very evident in the Acts of Assembly. No preacher who had Gaelic was to be allowed to settle south of the Tay; some were sent north, among them twenty probationers, in 1698, on pain of losing their license if they delayed obedience. Highland boys were to be kept at the universities as bursars of the Northern Presbyteries, and the college authorities were to aid the project of the vernacular conversion of the Gael by selecting suitable young men, of pious tendencies and eloquent gifts.

In 1690 the Privy Council was asked for a thousand pounds Scots for the purchase of Irish Bibles for the Highlands. Three thousand Bibles, a hundred New Testaments, and three thousand catechisms from London were distributed. But it was not till 1826 that the Scottish Gad got ready access to the whole Scriptures in his own dialect of the Celtic tongues.

Thus, in the clachan you find echoes of advancing education, the cripple old soldier, or the man who could not be a tailor, spelling out the Gospels from the page in the Irish alphabet, and, till the door of modern times, the day opened and the night began with invocations of saints and virgins, even from the lips of those who called themselves Protestant in worship.

The risings of the Fifteen and the Forty-five, especially the latter, thrilled the glens. And then with a crash all the old fell down to rise no more. Into the clachan burst the agonies of blood and slaughter; and the premonitions of those days that were to be, when the glens would be bare of people and the bleat of sheep would be heard where the cry and the laughter of children should have been; and only the old and the weary be left, with scarce a man to carry them to their graves.


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