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Rev. John M'Donald, of the Gaelic Chapel


Mr. M'Donald, son of a small farmer at Rae, in Caithness, was born there on the 12th of November, 1779. Having acquired the rudiments of education at the parish school, he commenced his theological studies at King's College, Aberdeen, in 1797, and was licensed to preach in 1805. For some time thereafter he was employed as a missionary in his native district; and in 1807, was chosen successor to the Rev. Mr. M'Lachlan, in the Gaelic Chapel, Edinburgh. Here he continued about six years and was greatly esteemed by his congregation as a sound preacher and an amiable man.

In July, 1813, he was translated to the parish of Urquhart, where he still continues to discharge the duties of the pastoral office. In his zeal for the cause of the gospel, Mr. M'Donald was in the habit of making occasional excursions into adjacent parishes, omitting an opportunity of preaching to a widely-scattered and ill-supplied people. In doing so, he probably had not calculated on the danger to which he exposed himself, by exciting the displeasure of the Church. The Presbyteries of Strathbogie and Aberlour took up the matter; but refusing to bow to their decision, or to acknowledge his error, an appeal was of course made to a higher court. The case, which was brought before the General Assembly in 1818, created an unusual interest in the public mind. After a protracted discussion, a motion to the following effect was made and carried :—

"That having considered the reference [from the Presbyteries of Strathbogie and Aberlour], the Assembly declare, as it is hereby declared, that the performance of divine service, or any part of public worship or service, by members of this Church, in meeting-houses of Dissenters, is irregular and unconstitutional, and ought on no occasion to take place, except in cases in which, from the peculiar circumstances of the parish, its minister may occasionally find it necessary for conducting the ordinary religious instruction of his people; and the Assembly farther declare, that the conduct of any minister of the Church who exercises his pastoral functions in a vagrant manner, preaching during his journeys from place to place, in the open air, in other parishes than his own, or officiating in any meeting for religions exercises, without the special invitation of the minister in whose parish it shall be held, and by whom such meeting shall be called, is disorderly, and unbecoming the character of a minister of this Church, and calculated to weaken the hands of the minister of the parish, and to injure the interests of sound religion; and the Assembly enjoin Presbyteries to take order, that no countenance be given by ministers within their bounds to such occasional meetings, proposed to be held for divine service, or other pious purposes, as many, under the pretext of promoting religion, injure its interests, and so disturb the peace and order of the Church ; and in case such meetings take place, the Presbyteries within whose bounds they are held, are enjoined to report the same to the Assembly next ensuing."

Not discouraged by the reproof conveyed in the decision of the Assembly, Mr. M'Donald is known in the religious world for his praiseworthy exertions in various parts of the Highlands, and particularly in behalf of the previously much-neglected inhabitants of St. Kilda—the most distant and isolated of all the islands of Scotland. Commissioned by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, his first visit was undertaken in 1822, for the purpose of ascertaining the religious and moral condition of the inhabitants. In his journal, Mr. M'Donald gives an interesting account of his reception by the natives. He was accompanied by Mr. M'Lellan, the tacksman of the island; and not being able to effect a landing on the eastern coast, in consequence of the boisterous state of the weather, the boat veered round to the leeward, where shelter was found in an arm of the sea. Upon landing. he and Mr. M'Lellan walked towards the village, a distance of nearly two miles. "When descending the brow of the hill above the village," says the journal, "we observed some person standing without; and. on a sudden, in consequence, as we afterwards learned, of his sounding the alarm, all the souls in the village appeared at once—at first flaying in different directions, until they discovered from what quarter the strangers were coming, when they made towards us in a body, shook hands with their tacksman, and welcomed him to the place. After these salutations were over, he introduced me to them as a minister who had come to visit them, and was sent by the Society. Upon this they immediately shook hands with me, as if we had been many years acquainted; and, 'God bless the Society which sent him, and God bless him for coming,' was the general exclamation."

Mr. M-Donald remained nearly a fortnight on the island, during which he embraced ever}'- opportunity of preaching to them ; and in his private conversations entered so warmly into their affairs and interests, that when the day of departure came, he had much difficulty in sustaining the emotions with which the scene overpowered him. Mr. M'Lellan and lie were accompanied by the inhabitants to the beach, where they assisted in launching the boat, took an affecting farewell, and long after the party had bid adieu to the shores of St. Kilda, they could still see the group of islanders clustering round the gentle rising ground, gazing as if unwilling to lose sight of their recent visitors.

The report which Mr. Macdonald submitted to the Society on his return contains some interesting particulars regarding St. Kilda and its inhabitants. We need offer no apology for the following extract:— "The length of the island appears to be about three miles from the westernmost point to that on the north side of the eastern bay, and its breadth nearly two miles from north to south. It is surrounded with high and almost perpendicular rocks, except on the N.W. and S.E. sides, in each of which there is a small bay, or arm of the sea; of which the latter alone affords any harbouring place for vessels. The land is in general rather elevated; and there are three hills of considerable height. Of these, by far the highest is Cougar, on the north side, supposed to be upwards of 1400 feet above the level of the sea; the next, Orwall-hill, on the east; and the third, Buavcil (Gaelic, Rwadh-mheall), on the south-west side of the island.

"I could discover no old edifices on this island, except that called Christ's Church, near the village, and situated in the burying-ground; and St. Brianan's, a little above the bay, on the south-west side—both of which are in ruins.

"There are two small islands besides the main one, which are serviceable to the people for pasture, as well as for the fowls which frequent them. The one is called Sony, situate on the west side of St. Kilda, and separated from it by a narrow channel. It is about a quarter of a mile long, and scarcely half as broad. The other is Boreray, about four miles in a direct line to the north, and a little larger than Soay.

"The ground is used chiefly for pasture, and the islanders keep a stock of sheep and black cattle on it, from which they are supplied with articles of clothing, milk, butter, cheese, &c. There is no rnoss on the island, and the only fuel consists of turf cut on the hills, and carried home as it is needed. The group of houses in which the people reside, for it scarcely deserves the name of a village, is situate a little above the eastern bay, and is composed of twenty small huts, built of stone, and thatched with turf and straw. Being surrounded with hills on all sides, except the south and south-east, it is pretty well sheltered, unless when the wind blows from these quarters.

"All the cultivated lands lie around the village in scattered and irregular patches, of which each family in the island, about twenty in number, has nearly an equal quantity—what they call a farthing-land, or something about two acres. This sows about five firlots of barley and six of oats, which, with potatoes, are the only crops they raise. Though the soil is naturally rich, yet, owing to want of good management, it seldom yields above three returns. Hence they cannot conveniently dispose of much of their grain ; and of late years, indeed, I believe they have done but very little in this way. Besides, every three years, these lands pass by lot from one hand to another; a practice which evidently militates greatly against real improvement. The grain, also, as might be expected, is rather of an inferior quality. In making it into meal, they grind it in querns, or little hand-mill, there being neither windmills nor water-mills in the island.

"Their houses, or huts, are all exactly of the same form and dimensions, and in internal appearance also completely alike. They consist of but one apartment, in which the family is accommodated, at one end, and the cattle at the other. The walls contain their beds and places for their stores, for which purpose they are generally six or seven feet thick. No chairs or tables are to be seen; wooden stools and even stones being made to supply their place. The ashes are never carried out of the house, nor even removed to the part of the room appropriated to the cattle, but are spread every morning under the feet of the inmates, in order, as they call it, to help the manure. The floor thus raised in the course of the season to a considerable height, is reduced to its proper level only once a year, when the whole matter so accumulated is conveyed to the fields. I reasoned with the people on the impropriety of this habit, chiefly on the ground of its being injurious to their health and comfort, but to little effect, long custom having reconciled them to it. As might be expected also, their habits in other respects, and particularly iu point of cleanliness and dress, are much of a piece with the interior of their houses, their persons being extremely dirty, and seeming to undergo no sort of purification, except once a-week; while their clothes are iu general coarse and ragged, though, on Sunday, both the young men and women dress a little more decently. I was somewhat surprised at not finding the kilt and hose among them, instead of which the men commonly wear a jacket or short coat, with trousers or pantaloons. There is scarcely anything like division of labour among them, every man being his own tailor, shoemaker, and, in most cases, weaver, there being no thorough-bred workman of any kind iu the island.

" Notwithstanding these habits, it is not a little remarkable that they enjoy such a degree of health and longevity. During my residence among them, there was not a single individual in the island sick or ailing; and the oldest of them, a man of seventy-two, was pretty healthy and vigorous. A number of their children, however, perhaps two out of three, die in infancy. This is ascribed to a peculiar disease, with which they are seized a few days after their birth; but it may be as much owing to bad management as to anything else. Hence also many of the mothers die in childbed, from want of proper persons to attend them. The population of the island, which is at present 108, has been rather stationary for a considerable period—a circumstance sufficiently accounted for by the mortality of the children and mothers.

"The chief employment of the men consists in bird-catching; and the fulmar and solan goose, which frequent their rocks in immense numbers, are peculiarly serviceable to them, both as to the payment of their rents, which they generally do with the oil and feathers, and as to affording them provision; for they salt the carcasses, and lay them up for winter store. Their mode of killing these birds is attended with considerable danger; but long practice has inured them to it, and they seem to be quite fearless in their enterprises. In some cases they let down each other by ropes, along a steep rock, two or three hundred feet, while others at the top are holding the ropes fast, ready to haul up their comrade, loaded with his prey, whenever he gives them a signal. In most cases, however, they get at the solan geese without being obliged to have recourse to so dangerous an experiment. They are fondest of the young ones, as being the fattest, and generally lodging on the top of the rocks; in consequence of which, especially before their wings are fully grown, they are easily taken with the hands, or struck down with bludgeons. So great is the execution in this way done among them, that on one of the days I was on the island, the people, in the course of a few hours, brought home their boats deeply laden with 1200 of them, and left 400 more on the field of action, to be sent for afterwards. When the booty was brought on shore, it was immediately divided, by lot, into twenty equal parts, according to the number of the families—a method of dividing almost every kind of property, to which they have frequent recourse.

"While their rents are paid chiefly in feathers, they present to the tacksman of the island all other articles of produce which it affords, and with which they can conveniently dispense—such as beef, mutton, cheese, oil, etc.; and for any overplus that remains, after the amount of the rent is deducted, he gives them value in other articles which they need—such as printed cloths, handkerchiefs, hats, indigo, etc., of which he takes with him an annual assortment for their supply. Hence, a native of St. Kilda can never be rich ; neither, while he can work, need he ever be poor, or in total want. Money is of little use to them, except when the tacksman comes round; yet they do not object to receiving a present of that kind from a friend, when it is put into their offer.

"The people of St. Kilda have scarcely any tradition among them relative to their origin or history, further than that their forefathers came originally from the Western Isles, particularly Uist and Harris ; that they were Roman Catholics till upwards of a century ago (I suppose about the Revolution 1688), when the Protestant religion was introduced among them, and has ever since been the religion of the island ; that down from that period they had a succession of ministers or missionaries connected with the Church of Scotland, but of whom, with the exception of the two last, the late missionary and his father, they now know nothing but the name; that of old the population was much larger than it has been of late years; that the decrease has been occasioned chiefly by the ravages of the smallpox, which, many years ago, had been brought into the island by some foreign vessel, and had swept away at once the whole population, excepting four families ; and that though some from the neighbouring isles, who had come to live among them, have made an accession to their number, yet this catastrophe had given a death-blow to the population which it has not yet fully recovered. This is at least a rational account of the matter.

"Their tradition also regarding their origin is extremely probable; for in language, customs, and manners, and indeed in every other respect, they bear so complete a resemblance to their neighbours in the Western Isles, as to leave no room to doubt that they have originally sprung from them. Besides, the very names which are most prevalent in these isles—as M'Leod, M'Donald, M'Kinnon, Morrison, &c—hold the same predominance in St. Kilda, a circumstance which strongly confirms the supposition. The language they speak is pure Gaelic, and the dialect that of Uist and Harris. There is, however, a rapidity, and an indistinctness, if not a degree of lisp, in their utterance, which makes it rather difficult at first for a stranger to understand them; but, in the course of a short time, he gets over this difficulty. Their peculiar employments (as has been already stated) consist in attending to their little farms, their cattle and sheep, and preparing a certain quantity of feathers annually for the tacksman, which may be considered the most arduous and enterprising part of their work. But I fear they cannot be exempted from the charge of almost habitual indolence. They are seldom wholly idle ; but when they are at any work, one would think that they are more anxious to fill up than to occupy the time. How desirable on this, as well as on many other accounts, that they might become savingly acquainted with that gospel, which teaches its true subjects to be diligent in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord !' In this, as in many other respects, they admit of much improvement; and I have no doubt that, without interfering with the prerogative of a landlord or tacksman, a prudent missionary, by his advice and example, might effect much in this way, as well as in more important respects. If he has a sensible, judicious wife, too, who would take an interest in the females, it would be of vast advantage to them ; and such a companion in St. Kilda, I need scarcely say, would in every respect be an acquisition to his own comfort."

As anticipated, Mr. M'Donald found the islanders extremely destitute of religions instruction. They had no place of worship; and when he addressed them in a body, they assembled in the barn—an uncomfortable shed which belonged to all in common. But, although few of them were capable of reading, and consequently entertained an imperfect notion of the nature of a religions faith, he admits that in morality of conduct they were at least equal to their neighbours of the Hebrides; and he found that several vices prevalent in more refined society were unknown amongst this primitive and secluded people.

In consequence of the statements furnished by Mr. M'Donald, a subscription was entered into to erect a place of worship on St. Kilda, together with a suitable house or manse. While this design was in contemplation, and before its completion, Mr. M'Donald took other three journeys to St. Kilda, in the welfare of whose inhabitants he felt an interest which overcame every fatigue or inconvenience. On one of these occasions he had the pleasure of laying the foundation stone of the church destined for their use, and of laying off two acres of ground as a small glebe, attached to the house of the missionary; and on the last of his visits he had the peculiar satisfaction to be accompanied by the Rev. Mr. Neil M'Kenzie and his family, who had been sent out by the Society, and whom he introduced to the grateful islanders as their future pastor.

In thus witnessing the accomplishment of au object so dear to his heart, and the gratitude with which the boon was received, the joy experienced by Mr. M'Donald may be more easily conceived thau described. In his journal he thus closes his remarks:—"I have only to say, in conclusion, that my mind is now relieved from a burden regarding St. Kilda. The inhabitants are provided with a pastor, who will dispense the word of life to them, and guide their feet in the paths of peace. And in this I have got my wish accomplished. I may never see them; but I shall never cease to pray for them. And may He who ' holds the seven stars in his right hand, and walks among the golden candlesticks,' preserve pastor and people, walk among them, and render them permanent blessings to each other."

Since the translation of Mr. M'Donald to Ross-shire, he generally revisits Edinburgh at least once a year, on the sacramental occasion, where he is eagerly welcomed by those who sat under his ministrations while he officiated as pastor of the Gaelic Chapel, thus affording an honourable testimony to his worth. He was twice married—first to Miss Georgina Ross, of Gladneld, Ross-shire, who died in 1814, and by whom he had two sons and a daughter; secondly, to Miss Jauet M'Kenzie, daughter to Kenneth M'Kenzie, Esq., of Millbank, Ross-shire, by whom he has five children alive, two daughters and three sons. His eldest son, by the first marriage, was sometime pastor of Chadwell Scots Church, London; but, devoting himself to the conversion of the heathen, he has since gone to India as a missionary, on the General Assembly's Scheme.


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