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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
The Manse


THERE lived in the Island of Skye, more than a century ago, a small farmer or "gentleman tacksman." Some of his admirably-written letters are now before me; but I know little of his history beyond the fact revealed in his correspondence, and preserved in the affectionate traditions of his descendants, that he was "a good man," and among the first, if not the very first, in the district where he lived who introduced the worship of God in his family.

One great object of his ambition was to give his sons the best education that could be obtained for them, and in particular to train his first-born for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. His wishes were fully realised, for that noble institution, the parochial school, provided in the remotest districts teaching of a very high order, and produced admirable classical scholars—such as even Dr Johnson talks of with respect.

And in addition to the school teaching there was an excellent custom then existing among the tenantry in Skye, of associating themselves to obtain a tutor for their sons. The tutor resided alternately at different farms, and the boys from the other farms in the neighbourhood came daily to him. In this way the burden of supporting the teacher, and the difficulties of travelling on the part of the boys, were divided among the several families in the district. In autumn the-tutor, accompanied by his more advanced pupils, journeyed on foot to Aberdeen to attend the University. He superintended their studies during the winter, and returned in spring with them to their Highland homes to pursue the same routine. The then Chief of Macleod was one who took a pride in being surrounded by a tenantry who possessed so much culture. It was his custom to introduce all the sons of his tenants who were studying at Aberdeen to their respective professors, and to entertain both professors and students at his hotel. On one such occasion, when a professor remarked with surprise, "Why, sir, these are all gentlemen!" Macleod replied, "Gentlemen I found them, as gentlemen I wish to see them educated, and as gentlemen I hope to leave them behind me." ["At dinner I expressed to Macleod the joy which I had in seeing him on such cordial feelings with his clan. `Government,' said he, `has deprived us of our ancient power; but it cannot deprive us of our domestic satisfactions. I would rather drink punch in one of their houses, (meaning the houses of the people,) than be enabled by their hardships to have claret in my own.'"—Boswell's "Life of Johnson," vol. iv., p. 275.]

The "gentleman tacksman's" eldest son acted as a tutor for some time, then as parochial teacher, and finally became minister of "the Highland Parish." It was said of him that "a prettier man never left his native island." He was upwards of six feet in height, with a noble countenance which age only made nobler.

He was accompanied from Skye by a servant-lad, whom he had known from his boyhood, called "Ruari Beg," or Little Rory. Rory was rather a contrast to his master in outward appearance. One of his eyes was blind, but the other seemed to have stolen the sight from its extinguished neighbour to intensify its own. That gray eye gleamed and scintillated with the peculiar sagacity and reflection which one sees in the eye of a Skye terrier, but with such intervals of feeling as human love of the most genuine kind could alone have expressed. One leg, too, was slightly shorter than the other, and the manner in which he rose on the longer or sunk on, the shorter, and the frequency or rapidity with which the alternate ups and downs in his life were practised, became a telegraph of his thoughts when words, out of respect to his master, were withheld. "So you don't agree with me, Rory?" "What's wrong?" "You think it dangerous to put to sea to-day?" "Yes; the mountain-pass also would be dangerous?" "Exactly so. Then we must consider what is to be done." Such were the remarks which a series of slow or rapid movements of Rory's limbs would draw forth from his master, though no other token were afforded of his inner doubt or opposition. A better boatman, a truer genius at the helm, never took a tiller in his hand; a more enduring traveller never trod the heather; a better singer of a boat-song never cheered the rowers, nor kept them as one man to their stroke; a more devoted, Ioyal, and affectionate "minister's man" and friend never lived than Rory—first called "Little Rory," but as long as I can remember, "Old Rory." More of him anon, however. The minister and his servant arrived in the Highland parish nearly ninety years ago, almost total strangers to its inhabitants, and alone they entered the manse to see what it was like.

I ought to inform my readers in the south, some of whom—can they pardon the suspicion if it be unjust?—are more ignorant of Scotland and its Church than they are of France or Italy and the Church of Rome,—I ought to inform them that the Presbyterian Church is established in Scotland and that the landed proprietors in each parish are bound by Iaw to build and keep in repair a church, suitable school, and parsonage or "manse," and also to secure a portion of land, or "glebe," for the minister. Both manses and churches have of late years improved immensely in Scotland, so that in many cases they are now far superior to those in some of the rural parishes of England. But much still remains to be accomplished in this department of architecture and taste. Yet even at the time I speak of, the manse was in its structure rather above than below the houses occupied by the ordinary gentry, with the exception of "the big house" of the chief. It has been replaced by one more worthy of the times; but it was nevertheless respectable, as the sketch of , it on the title-page shows.

The glebe was the glory of the manse! It was among the largest in the county, consisting of about sixty acres, and containing a wonderful combination of Highland beauty. It was bounded on one side by a "burn," whose torrent rushed far down between lofty steep banks clothed with natural wood, ash, birch, hazel, oak, and rowan-tree, and which poured its dark moss-water over a series of falls, and through deep pools, "with beaded bubbles winking at the brim." It was never tracked along its margin by any human being, except herd-boys and their companions, who swam the pools and clambered up the banks, holding by the roots of trees, starting the kingfisher from his rock, or the, wild cat from his den. On the other side of the glebe was the sea, with here a sandy beach, and there steep rocks and deep water, and small gray islets beyond ; while many birds, curlews, cranes, divers, and gulls of all sorts, gave life to the rocks and shore. Along the margin of the sea there stretched a flat of green grass which suggested the name it bore, namely, " the Duke of Argyle's walk." And pacing along that green margin at evening, what sounds and wild cries were heard of piping seabirds, chafing waves, the roll of oars, and the song from fishing-boats, telling of their return home. The green terrace-walk which fringed the sea, was but the outer border of a flat that was hemmed in by the low precipice of the old upraised beach of Scotland. Higher still was a second story of green fields and emerald pastures, broken by a lovely rocky knoll, called Fingal's hill, whose gray head, rising out of green grass, bent towards the burn. and looked down into its own image reflected in the deep pools which slept at its feet. On that upper table-land, and beside a clear stream, stood the manse and garden sheltered by trees. Beyond the glebe began the dark moor, which swept higher and higher, until crowned by the mountain-top looking away to the Western Islands and the peaks of Skye.

The minister, like most of his brethren, soon took to himself a wife, the daughter of a neighbouring "gentleman tacksman," and the granddaughter of a minister, well born and well bred and never did man find a help more meet for him In that manse they lived for nearly fifty years, and there were born to them sixteen children; yet neither father nor mother could ever lay hand on a child and say, "We wish this one had not been." They were all a source of unmingled joy.

A small farm was added to the glebe, for it was found that the plant required to work sixty acres of arable and pasture land could work more without additional expense. Besides, John, Duke of Argyle, made it a rule at that time to give farms at less than their value to the ministers on his estates; and why, therefore; should not our minister, with his sensible, active, thrifty wife, and growing sons and daughters, have a small one, and thus secure for his large household abundance of food, including milk and butter, cheese, potatoes, and meal, with the excellent addition of mutton, and sometimes beef too? And the good man did not attend to his parish less that his living was thus bettered; nor was he less cheerful or earnest in duty because in his house " there was bread enough and to spare."

The manse and glebe of that Highland parish were a colony which ever preached sermons, on week days as well as Sundays, of industry and frugality, of courteous hospitality and bountiful charity, and of the domestic peace, contentment. and cheerfulness of a holy Christian home.

Several cottages were built by the minister in sheltered nooks near his dwelling. One or two were inhabited by labourers and shepherds; another by the weaver, who made all the carpets, blankets, plaids, and finer webs of linen and woollen cloths required for the household; and another by old Jenny, the henwife, herself an old hen, waddling about and chucking among her numerous family of poultry. Old Rory, with his wife and family, was located near the shore, to attend at spare hours to fishing, as well as to be ready with the boat for the use of the minister in his pastoral work. Two or three cottages besides were inhabited by objects of charity, whose claims upon the family it was difficult to trace. An old sailor—Seoras nan Long, "George of the Ships," was his sole designation — had settled down in one, but no person could tell anything about him, except that he had been born. in Skye, had served in the navy, had fought at the Nile, had no end of stories for winter evenings, and span yarns about the wars and "foreign parts." He had come long ago in distress to the manse, from whence he had passed after a time into the cottage, and there lived—very much as a dependent on the family—until he died twenty years afterwards. A poor decayed gentle-woman, connected with one of the old families of the county, and a tenth cousin of the minister's wife, had also cast herself in her utter loneliness, on the glebe. She had only intended to remain a few days--she did not like to be troublesome —hut she knew she could rely on a blood relation, and she found it hard to leave, for whither could she go? And those who had taken her in never thought of bidding this sister "depart in peace, saying, Be ye clothed;" and so she became a neighbour to the sailor, and was always called "Mrs" Stewart, and was treated with the utmost delicacy and respect, being fed, clothed, and warmed in her cottage with the best which the manse could afford. And when she died, she was dressed in a shroud fit for a lady, while tall candles, made for the occasion according to the old custom, were kept lighted round her body. Her funeral was becoming the gentle blood that flowed in her veins; and no one was glad in their heart when she departed, but all sincerely wept, and thanked God she had lived in plenty and died in peace.

Within the manse the large family of sons and daughters managed, somehow or other, to find accommodation not only for themselves, but also for a tutor and governess. And such a thing as turning any one away for want of room was never dreamt of. When hospitality demanded such a small sacrifice, the boys would all go to the barn, and the girls to the chairs and sofas of par- lour and dining-room, with fun and laughter, joke and song, rather than not make the friend or stranger welcome. And seldom was the house without either. The "kitchen-end," or lower house, with all its indoor crannies of closets and lofts, and outdoor additions of cottages, barns, and stables, was a little world of its own, to which wandering pipers, parish fools, and beggars, with all sorts of odd-and-end characters came, and where they ate, drank, and rested. As a matter of course, the "upper house" had its own set of guests to attend to. The traveller by sea, whom adverse winds and tides drove into the harbour for refuge, or the traveller by land; or any minister passing that way, or friends on a visit; or, lastly and but rarely, some foreign "Sassanach" from the Lowlands of Scotland or England, who dared then to explore the unknown and remote Highlands as one now does Montenegro or the Ural Mountains—all these found a hearty reception.

One of the most welcome visitors was the packman. His arrival was eagerly longed for by all, except the minister, who trembled for his small purse in presence of the prolific pack. For this same pack often required a horse for its conveyance. It contained a choice selection of everything which a family was likely to require from the lowland shops. The haberdasher and linen-draper, the watchmaker and jeweller, the cutler and hairdresser, with sundry other crafts in the useful and fancy line, were all fully represented in the endless repositories of the pack. What a solemn affair was the opening up of that peripatetic warehouse! It took a few days to gratify the inhabitants of manse and glebe, and to enable them to decide how their money should be invested. The boys held sundry councils about knives, and the men about razors, silk handkerchiefs, or, it may be, about the final choice of a silver watch. The female servants were in nervous agitation about some bit of dress. Ribbons, like rainbows, were unrolled; prints held up in graceful folds before the light; cheap shawls were displayed on the back of some handsome lass, who served as a model. There never were seen such new fashions or such cheap bargains! And . then how "dear papa" was coaxed by mamma; and mamma again by her daughters. Each thing was so beautiful, so tempting, and was discovered to be so necessary! All this time the packman was treated as a friend. He almost always carried pipe or violin, with which he set the youngsters a-dancing, and was generally of the stamp of him whom Wordsworth has made illustrious. The news gathered on his travels was as welcome to the minister as his goods were to the minister's family. No one•in the upper house was so vulgar as to screwy him down, but felt it due to his respectability to give him his own price, which, in justice to those worthy old merchants, I should state was generally reasonable.

The manse was the grand centre to which all the: inhabitants of the parish gravitated for help and comfort. Medicines for the sick were weighed out from the chest yearly replenished in Edinburgh or Glasgow. They were not given in homoeopathic doses, for Highlanders, accustomed to things on a large scale, would have had no faith in globules, and faith was half their cure. Common sense and common medicines were found helpful to health. The poor, as a matter of course, visited the manse, not for an order on public charity, but for aid from private charity, and it was never refused in kind, such as meal, wool, or potatoes. There being no lawyers in the parish, lawsuits were adjusted in the manse; and so were marriages not a few. The distressed came there for comfort, and the perplexed for advice; and there was always something material as well as spiritual to share with them all. No one went away empty in body or soul. Yet the barrel of meal failed not, nor did the cruse of oil waste. A "wise" neighbour once remarked, "That minister with his large family will ruin himself, and if he dies they will be beggars." Yet there has never been .a beggar among them to the fourth generation. No saying was more common in the mouth of this servant than the saying of his Master, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."

A striking characteristic of the manse life was its constant cheerfulness. One cottager could play the bagpipe, another the fiddle. The minister was an excellent performer on the latter, and to have his children dancing in the evening was his delight. If strangers were present, so much the better. He had not an atom of that proud fanaticism which connects religion with suffering, as suffering, apart from its cause. [A minister in a remote island parish once informed me that, "on religious grounds," he had broken the only fiddle in the island! His notion of religion, I fear, is not rare among his brethren in the far west and north. We are informed by Mr Campbell, in his admirable volumes on the "Tales of the Highlands," that the old songs and tales are also being put under the clerical ban in some districts, as being too secular and profane for the pious inhabitants. What next? Are the singing-birds to be shot by the kirk-sessions?]

Here is an extract from a letter written by the minister in his old age, some fifty years ago, which gives a very beautiful picture of the secluded manse and its ongoings. It is written at the beginning of a new year, in reply to one which he had received from his first-born son, then a minister in a distant parish:-

"What you say about the beginning of another year is quite true., But, after all, may not the same observations apply equally well to every new day? Ought not daily mercies to be acknowledged, and God's favour and protection asked for every new day? and are we not as ignorant of what a new day as of what a new year may bring forth ? There is nothing in nature to make this day in itself more worthy of attention than any other. The sun rises and sets on it as on other days, and the sea ebbs and flows. Some come into the world and some leave it, as they did yesterday and will do to-morrow. On what day may not one say, 'I am a year older than I was this day last year?' Still I must own that the first of the year speaks to me in a more commanding and serious language than any other common day; and the great clock of time, which announced the first hour of this year, did not strike unnoticed by us.

"The sound was too loud to be unheard, and too solemn to pass away unheeded. `Non obtusa adeogestamus pcctora Poeni.' We in the manse did not mark the day by any unreasonable merriment. We were alone, and did eat and drink with our usual innocent and cheerful moderation. I began the year by gathering all in the house and on the glebe to prayer. Our souls were stirred up to bless and to praise the Lord: for what more reasonable, what more delightful duty than to show forth our gratitude and thankfulness to that great and bountiful God from whom we have our years, and days, and all our comforts and enjoyments? Our lives have been spared till now; our state and conditions in life have been blessed; our temporal concerns have been favoured; the blessing of God has cooperated with our honest industry; our spiritual advantages have been great and numberless; we have had the means of grace and the hope: of glory; in a word, we have had all that was requisite, for the good of our body and soul; and shall not our souls and all that is within us, all our powers and faculties, be stirred up to bless and praise His name?

"But to return. This pleasant duty being gone through, refreshments were brought in, and had any of your clergy seen the crowd, (say thirty, great and small, besides the family of the manse,) they would pity the man who, under God, had to support them all! This little congregation being dismissed, they went to enjoy themselves. They entertained each other by turns: In the evening, I gave them one end of the house, where they danced and sang with great glee and good manners till near day. We enjoyed ourselves in a different manner in the other end. Had you popped in unnoticed, you would have seen us all grave, quiet, and studious. You would see your father reading The Seasons;' your mother, 'Porteus' Lectures;' your sister Anne, `The Lady of the Lake;' and Archy, ''Tom Thumb!'

"Your wee son was a new and great treat to you in those bonny days of rational mirth and joy, but not a whit more so than you were to me at his time of life, nor can he be more so during the years to come. May the young gentleman long live to bless and comfort you! May he be to you what you have been and are to me! I am the last that can honestly recommend to you not to allow him get too strong a hold of your heart, or rather not to allow yourself deal too much upon him. This was a peculiar weakness of my own, and of which I had cause more than once to repent with much grief and sore affliction. But your mother's creed always was, (and truly she has acted up to it,) to enjoy and delight in the blessings of the Almighty, while they were spared to her, with a thankful and grateful heart, and to part with them when it was the will of the gracious Giver to remove them, with humble submission and meek resignation."

I will have something more to say afterwards about this pastor and his work in the parish.


 


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