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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
The Minister and his Work


IN Dr Macculloch's "Tour to the Highlands of Scotland," we have the most perfect and eloquent descriptions of scenery; but in Dr Johnson's, the truest yet most complimentary delineation of the character and manners of the people. The physical features of the country are, no doubt, abiding, while its social condition is constantly changing; so that we can now-a-days more easily recognise the truth of the sketches by the former than by the latter tourist. But the minister of whom I write, and the manners of his time, belonged to the era of Johnson, and not to that of Macculloch.

There is something, by the way, peculiarly touching in that same tour of the old Doctor's, when we remember the tastes and habits of the man, with the state of the country at the time in which he visited it. Unaccustomed to physical exercise, obese in person and short-sighted in vision, he rode along execrable roads, cautiously felt his way across interminable morasses, on a Highland shelty. He had no means of navigating those stormy seas but an open boat, pulled by sturdy rowers, against wetting spray, or tacking from morning till night amidst squalls, rain, and turbulent tideways. He had to put up in wretched pot-houses, sleeping, as he did at Glenelg, "on a bundle of hay, in his riding-coat; while Mr Boswell, being more delicate, laid himself in sheets, with hay over and above him, and lay in linen like a gentleman." In some of the houses, he found but clay floors below and peat-reek around, and nowhere did he find the luxuries of his own favourite London. Yet he never growls or expresses one word of discontent or peevishness. Whether this was owing to his having for the first time escaped the conventionalities of city life; or to the fact of the Highlands being then the last stronghold of Jacobitism; or to the honour and respect which was everywhere shown towards himself; or, what is more probable, to the genial influence of fresh air and exercise upon his phlegmatic constitution, banishing its "bad humours,"—in whatever way we may account for it, so it was, that he encountered every difficulty and discomfort with the greatest cheerfulness ; partook of the fare given him and the hospitality afforded to him with hearty gratitude; and has written about every class of the people with the generous courtesy of a. well-bred English gentleman.

His opinion of the Highland clergy is not the least remarkable of his "testimonies," considering his intense love of Episcopacy, and its forms of public worship, with his sincere dislike of Presbyterianism. "I saw," he says, writing of the clergy, "not one in the Islands whom I had reason to think either deficient in learning or irregular in life, but found several with whom I could not converse without wishing, as my respect increased, that they had not been Presbyterians." Moreover, in each of the distant islands which the Doctor visited, he met ministers with whom even he was able to have genial and scholarly conversation. "They had attained," he says, "a knowledge as may be justly admired in men who have no motive to study but generous curiosity, or, what is still better, desire of usefulness ; with such politeness as no measure or circle of converse could ever have supplied, but to minds naturally disposed to elegance." When in Skye, he remarks of one of those clergymen, Mr M'Queen, who had been his guide, that he was "courteous, candid, sensible, well-informed, very learned ;" and at parting, he said to him, "I shall ever retain a great regard for you. Do not forget me." In another island, the small island of Coll, he paid a visit to Mr Maclean, who was living in a small, straw-thatched, mud-walled hut, "a fine old man," as the Doctor observed to Boswell, "well dressed, with as much dignity in his appearance as the Dean of a cathedral!" Mr Maclean had "a valuable library," which he was obliged, "from want of accommodation, to keep in large chests;" and this solitary, shut up "in a green isle amidst the ocean's waves, argued with the awful Southern Don about Leibnitz, Bayle, etc., and though the Doctor displayed a little of the bear, owing to the old man's deafness, yet he acknowledged that he "liked his firmness and orthodoxy." In the island of Mull, again, Johnson spent a night under the roof of another clergyman, whom he calls, by mistake, Mr Maclean, but whose name was Macleod, [The grandfather of the present, and the father of the late Rev. Dr Macleod of New York, U.S., both distinguished clergymen.] and of whom he says that he was "a minister whose elegance of conversation, and strength of judgment, would make him conspicuous in places of greater celerity." It is pleasant to know, on such good authority, that there lived at that time, in these wild and distant parts, ministers of such character, manners, and learning.

The minister of our Highland parish was a man of similar culture and character with those of his brethren, two of whom mentioned by the Doctor were his intimate friends. He had the good fortune, let me mention in passing, to meet the famous traveller at Dunvegan Castle; and he used to tell, with great glee, how he found him alone in the drawing-room before dinner, poring over some volume on the sofa, and how the Doctor, before rising to greet him kindly, dashed to the ground the book he had been reading, exclaiming, in a loud and angry voice, "The author is an ass!"

When the minister came to his parish, the people were but emerging from those old patriarchal times of clanship, with its loyal feelings and friendships, yet with its violent prejudices and intense clinging to the past, and to all that was bad as well as good in it. Many of his parishioners had been "out in the '45," and were Prince Charlie men to the core. [The minister himself was a loyal "Hanoverian." This was caused by his very decided Protestantism, and also, no doubt, by his devotion to the Dunvegan family, which, through the influence chiefly of President Forbes, had opposed Prince Charles. The minister, on a memorable occasion, had his Highland and loyal feeling rather severely tried. It happened thus:—When King William IV., like our noble Prince Alfred, was a midshipman in the royal navy, his ship, the Caesar, visited the western Isles. The minister, along with the other public men in the district, went to pay his respects to his Royal Highness. He was most graciously received, and while conversing with the prince on the quarter-deck, a galley manned with six rowers pulled alongside. The prince asked him to whom it belonged. On being informed that it belonged to a neighbouring proprietor, the additional remark was made, with a kind smile, "He was out, no doubt, in the '45? Of course he was! Ah, doctor, all you Highlanders were rebels, every one of you! H a—ha—ha!" "Please your Royal Highness," said the minister, with a low bow, "I am thankful to say all the Highlanders were not rebels, for had they been so, we might not have had the honour and happiness of seeing your Royal Highness among us now." The prince laughed heartily, and complimented the minister on the felicity of his reply.] These were not characterised by much religion—one of the predecessors of our minister had been commanded by this party not to dare in their hearing to pray for King George in church, or they would shoot him dead. He did, nevertheless, pray, at least in words, but not, we fear, in pure faith. He took a brace of pistols with him to the pulpit, and cocking them before his prayer began, he laid them down before him, and for once at least offered up his petitions with his eyes open.

There was no law-officer of the crown, not even a justice of the peace at that time in the whole parish. The people were therefore obliged to take the law to some extent into their own hands. Shortly after our minister came to the parish, he wrote stating that "no fewer than thirty persons have been expelled for theft, not by sentence of the magistrate, but by the united efforts of the better sort of the inhabitants. The good effects of this expulsion have been sensibly felt; but a court of law having been established since then in the neighbourhood, the necessity for such violent means is in a great measure obviated."

The minister was too far removed from the big world of church politics, General Assembly debates, controversial meetings and pamphlets, to be a party man. It satisfied him to be a part of the great Catholic Church, and of that small section of it in which he had been born. The business of his Presbytery [It may interest some of our southern readers to know that the government of the Established Church of Scotland is conducted as follows:—(1.) Over a single parish is the court called the Kirk-Session, composed of lay members, who are ordained for the office as Elders and as Deacons, (to attend to the poor,) but always presided over by the minister. The number of this court varies according to the size and circumstances of the congregation and parish. (2.) Over a number of parishes is the Presbytery, composed of all the clergy within a certain district, and a representative Elder from each Session. (3.) Over the Presbyteries of a Province is the Synod, composed of all the members of the several Presbyteries; and, finally, over the whole Church is the General Assembly, presided over by a nobleman, representing the Sovereign, and a "moderator" or chairman, elected by the Church, and composed of representatives, lay and clerical, from every presbytery, and also of laymen from the Royal Burghs and Universities. These several courts have many privileges conferred upon them by Act of Parliament. Beyond Scotland, they are no more "established" than the Church of England is beyond England. Both Churches are, by the Act of Union, placed on an equal footing as regards the State in the Colonies. The government of the Church of Scotland is very similar to that of all the Established Protestant Churches on the Continent.] was chiefly local, and his work was confined mainly to his parish.

After having studied eight years at a university, he entered on his charge with a stipend of £40, which was afterwards raised to £80. He ministered to 2000 souls, all of whom—with the exception of perhaps a dozen families of Episcopalians and Roman Catholics—acknowledged him as their pastor. His charge was scattered over 130 square miles, with a sea-board of 100! This is his own description of the ecclesiastical edifices of the parish at the beginning of his ministry:—"There are two churches so called, but with respect to decency of accommodation, they might as properly be called sheds or barns. The dimensions of each is no more than forty by sixteen feet, and without seats or bells. It is much to be regretted that since the Reformation little or no attention has been paid to the seating of churches in this country." No such churches can now be found. How the congregation managed to arrange themselves during service in those "sheds," I know not. Did they stand ? sit on stones or bunches of heather? or recline on the earthen floor? Fortunately the minister was an eloquent and earnest preacher, and he may have made them forget their discomfort. But the picture is not pleasing of a congregation dripping wet, huddled together in a shed, without seats, after a long walk across the mountains. Sleeping, at all events, was impossible.

It is worth noticing, as characteristic of the times, that during the first period of his ministry the Scriptures had not been translated into Gaelic. The clergy translated what they read to the people from the English version, with such assistance as could be derived from Bedell's Irish Bible. The Highlanders owed much to Gaelic hymns, composed by some of their own poets, and also to metrical translations of the Psalms, [It is just as strange that the eldest son of "the manse" was the first to prepare a metrical translation of the Psalms in Irish, for the use of the Irish Protestant Churches. He also was the chief means of obtaining a new edition of the Gaelic Scriptures for his own countrymen, and of originating and helping on the Education Scheme of the Church of Scotland, which now instructs 20,000 children in the Highlands. In order to supply the hunger for knowledge which these additional means of education would create, he prepared admirable Gaelic school-books, and conducted a monthly magazine in Gaelic for several years, which, it is not too much to say, was, in point of talent, interest, usefulness, and genius, the most precious literary boon ever conferred on the Highlands. I hope this allusion to one so recently departed may be kindly interpreted.] by Mr Kirke, minister of Balquhidder, and by the Synod of Argyle. But even if there had been Bibles, many of the people had not the means of education. What could one or two schools avail in so extensive a parish? To meet the wants of the people, a school would require to be in almost every glen.

But preaching on Sunday, even on a stormy winter's day, was the easiest of the minister's duties. There was not a road in the parish. Along the coast indeed for a few miles there was what was charitably called a road, and, as compared with those slender sheep-tracks which wormed their way through the glens, and across some of the wilder passes, it perhaps deserved the name. By this said road country carts, introduced during his days, [His brother introduced the first-cart into the Isle of Skye.] could toil, pitching, jolting, tossing, in deep ruts, over stones, and through the burns, like waggons in South Africa, and with all the irregular motion of boats in a storm. But for twenty miles inland the hills and glens were as the Danes had left them.

The paths which traversed those wilds were journeyed generally on foot, but in some instances by "the minister's brown horse," one of those sagacious creatures which, with wonderful instinct, seemed to be able, as Rory used to say, "to smell out the road" in the dark. The minister used to boast how the brave animal had, on an emergency, carried him for seventy-two miles, the greater part of which was over the roughest bridle paths in the country. It is hardly possible to convey a just impression, except to those acquainted with Highland paths and wildernesses, of what the ordinary labours of such a minister was. Let us select one day out of many of a Highland pastor's work.

Immediately after service, a Highlander salutes him, with bonnet off and a low bow, saying, "John Macdonald in the Black Glen is dying, and would like to see you, sir." After some inquiry, and telling his wife not to be anxious if he is late in returning home, he strides off at "a killing pace" to see his parishioner. The hut is distant sixteen Highland miles; but what miles! Not such as are travelled by the Lowland or Southern parson, with steps solemn and regular, as if prescribed by law. But this journey is over bogs, along rough paths, across rapid streams without bridges, and where there is no better shelter than can be found in a Swiss chalet. After a long and patient pastoral visit to his dying parishioner, the minister strikes for home across the hills. But he is soon met by a shepherd, who tells him of a sudden death which has occurred but a few hours before in a hamlet not far off; and to visit the afflicted widow will take him only a few miles out of his course. So be it, quoth the parson, and he forthwith proceeds to the other glen, and mingles his prayers with those of the widow and her children. But the longest day must have an end, and the last rays of the sun are gilding the mountain-tops, and leaving the valleys in darkness. And so our minister, with less elastic step, ascends towards the steep ridge, which rises for z000 feet, with great abruptness, from a chain of lakes up past the "Righi" I have already described. As he nears the summit, down comes thick, palpable, impenetrable mist. He is confident that he knows the road nearly as well as the brown horse, and so he proceeds with caution over deep moor-hags until he is lost in utter bewilderment. Well, he has before now spent the night under a rock, and waited until break of day; but having eaten only a little bread and cheese since morning, he longs for home. The moon is out, but the light reveals only driving mist, and the mountain begins to feel cold, damp, and terribly lonely. He walks on, feeling his way with his staff, when suddenly the mist clears off, and he finds himself on the slope of a precipice. Throwing himself on his back on the ground, and digging his feet into the soil, he recovers his footing, and with thanksgiving changes his course. Down comes the mist again, thick as before. He has reached a wood—where is he? Ah ! he knows the wood right well, and has passed through it a hundred times, so he tries to do so now, and in a few minutes has fallen down a bank into a pool of water. But now he has the track, and following it he reaches the spot in the valley from where he had started two hours before! He rouses a shepherd, and they journey together to a ferry by which he can return home by a circuitous route. The boat is there, but the tide is out, for it ebbs far to seaward at this spot, and so he has to wait patiently for the return of the tide. The tide turns, taking its own time to do so. Half wading, half rowing, they at last cross the strait. It is now daybreak, and the minister journeys homeward, and reaches the manse about five in the morning.

Such land journeys were frequently undertaken, (with adventures more or less trying,) not merely to visit the sick, but for every kind of parochial duty—sometimes to baptize, and sometimes to marry. These services were occasionally performed in most primitive fashion at one of those green spots among the hills. Corrie Borrodale, among the old "siiielings," was a sort of halfway house between the opposite sides of the parish. There, beside a clear well, children have been baptized; and there, among "the bonnie blooming heather," the Highland shepherd has been married to his bonnie blooming bride. There were also in different districts preaching and "catechising," as it was called. The catechising consisted in examining on the Catechism and Scriptures every parishioner whe was disposed to attend the meeting, and all did so with few exceptions. It constituted an important part of the minister's regular work. Every farm and hamlet was thus visited in rotation; notes were generally kept of the progress made by each individual in religious knowledge, and he who was sluggish and careless was put to shame before his neighbours. Many presbyteries, at the time we speak of, took yearly account of the diligence of each member in the discharge of this branch of his pastoral office: a reckoning and a superintendence which, we humbly think, might, with mutual benefit to people and pastor, be revived in the present day. This "exercise" was generally followed by preaching, both of course in the open air, when weather permitted. And no sight could be more beautiful than that of the venerable minister, seated on the side of a green and sheltered knoll, surrounded by the inhabitants of the neighbouring hamlets, each, as his turn came, answering, or attempting to answer, the questions propounded with gravity and simplicity. A simple discourse followed from the same rural pulpit, to the simple but thoughtful and intelligent congregation. Most touching was it then to hear the Psalms rise from among the moorlands, disturbing "the sleep that is among the lonely hills;" the pauses filled by the piping of the plover or some mountain bird, and by the echoes of the streams and water-falls from the rocky precipices. It was a peasant's choir, rude and uncultivated by art, but heard, I doubt not, with sympathy by the mighty angels who sung their own noblest song in the hearing of shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem.

An essential, an important, and a very laborious part of the parish minister's work was the providing for the wants of the poor and the needy. He and his session were intrusted, under powers clearly defined by law, with the administration of the very considerable funds contributed by charity at the church door every Sabbath. The half-yearly, or quarterly apportionment of this fund, however, formed a small portion of the labours implied in providing for the poor. They were carefully visited by minister and elders : their circumstances accurately ascertained; and in cases of sickness, or of any special trial, where the session allowance was insufficient, there was an ample supply provided by an appeal to the kindness of the more prosperous in the neighbourhood; and whether food, or clothing, or cordials were needed, they were readily granted to an appeal thus made.

[It is a noteworthy fact, which ought not to be forgotten, that, until the passing of the new Poor-Law Act, twenty-two years ago, the ministers and elders of the Church of Scotland conducted the whole business connected with the support of the poor, without fee or reward, without a farthing's cost to the public—large towns alone excepted, where there was a legal assessment laid on, as is the case now throughout the country generally. The number of publicly paid officials employed in this management in the present day approaches two thousand, each, as a matter of course, drawing a considerable salary.

And it is still more noteworthy, that, during the gratuitous administration of the sessions, the cost of all the poor in Scotland—including the large towns—went little beyond £170,000 a-year; while under the present system, with rentals largely increased, with wages rising rapidly, the poor cost the country annually upwards of £750,000—that the expense is steadily rising, and that the discontent of the poor is rising as steadily. We do not mean to discuss questions of political economy; but these facts are nevertheless worth recording.

It may be added, also, that in our minister's earlier days there were no law courts established within the parish, and consequently the settling of many of the disputes which will arise among neighbours fell to him and to his elders; but even after such establishment, he and his assessors continued to be the administrators of justice in scores of cases similar to those where the disputants now invariably taste the luxury of law.]

Our minister's work was thus devoted and unwearied for half a century. And there is something peculiarly pleasing and cheering to think of him and of others of the same calling and character in every church, who from year to year pursue their quiet course of holy, self-denying labour, educating the ignorant; bringing life and blessing into the homes of disease and poverty; sharing the burden of sorrow with the afflicted, the widow, and the fatherless; reproving and admonishing, by life and word, the selfish and ungodly; and with a heart ever open to all the fair humanities of our nature;—a true "divine," yet every inch a man! Such men, in one sense, have never been alone; for each could say with his Master, "I am not alone, for the Father is with me." Yet what knew or cared the great, bustling, religious world about them? Where were their public meetings, with reports, speeches, addresses, "resolutions," or motions about their work? Where their committees and associations of ardent philanthropists, rich supporters, and zealous followers? Where their "religious" papers, so called, to parade them before the world, and to crown them with the laurels of puffs and leading articles? Alone, he, and thousands like him, laboured, the very salt of the earth, the noblest of their race!


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