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The Long Glen
Chapter XXX - The Burnside Communion


THE Free Kirk communion services, held on Do'ull Uilleam's cow pasture, on the other side of the burn, just opposite the deserted church, commenced at eleven instead of twelve o'clock, which was the usual worship hour, on account of the long distances intervening between the place of worship and the scattered abodes of the outlying sheep-farming and sheep-herding parishioners.

This morning the outlying people were early on their way, and so were large detachments from neighbouring parishes that came riding on horseback, driving in carts, or spanking bare-footed, through the heather, best brogues, or boots with stockings to suit, being carried in hand until a customary " sitting place" near the church was reached.

The visitors were expected, and warmly welcomed. Their horses were stabled, or hobbled and let out on good pasture. They were themselves supplied with as much milk as they liked to drink. Before communion more substantial hospitality would not be according to rule. Abstinence before communion was perhaps due to the Roman Catholic habit of fasting before Mass ; for in the Highlands, although the people were never at any time very submissive to Papal authority, the older Church left many marks on the fervid Presbyterianism which succeeded, and which revived in a large measure the earnest mysticism of the Culdee Church of the early centuries.

Among other visitors, the neighbouring parishes sent elders and leading men, who, although not formally commissioned, possessed a representative character. They came to encourage the pastorless Glen Free Kirkers in well-doing, by giving them the right hand of fellowship, and reporting how the good cause was thriving everywhere, and how the Residuary Kirk was everywhere desolated, except in just a few backward parishes, found here and there as black spots in a generally well-illuminated land. It was of course assumed that in the black parishes the Sun of Righteousness had never shone forth with real healing under its wings. This language, although bearing the stamp of a vivid imagination which shaped what the heart desired, was not the cant of hypocrisy. Not a few of those who used it spoke naturally, as the great reality, of a power which they had seen changing others, or felt working in themselves. A Lourdes Pilgrimage, a Methodist Camp Meeting, and a Presbyterian Revival, may be equally the power of God unto salvation, for those who can enter into the spirit of them heart and soul; while to others, who are in their way not less pious, they are all equally condemnable as grovelling superstitions or deceitful animal magnetism.

It was assumed generally by the Seceders of 1843 that God had once and for ever abandoned the Residuary Kirk and its cold morality, and had miraculously raised up the Free Kirk to put down Popery, Prelacy, and Paganism, and to gather up the nations into its own bosom as the only true Church, conquering and to conquer until the Lord came. Some few tares and other weeds might remain mixed up with the wheat until the harvest. There might be a few brands fit for the burning in the new Israel, as there were mutineers and unbelievers in the Wilderness despite continual miracles, and as there was a Judas among the twelve; but to all whose eyes were opened, it was supposed that God had manifestly raised up the Free Church to be his Holy Priesthood and Peculiar People in the latter days ; and that the light of the Millennial era was already dawning upon the earth. Results differed from expectations ; but after all this was a nobler faith than the material gospel of the Manchester School.

The tent on the heath-pasture was placed with its back to the vacant church, which stood up in the sunshine like a whited sepulchre of desolation. Still the swallows twittered about its eaves, busied in feeding their young, which importunately cried for rations from snug mud-and-straw-built abodes. The Free Church gathering, numbering more than a thousand, arranged itself for a long sitting, in bands and sections, with faintly marked lanes following the hollows of the ground between, on a series of small mounds which formed a sort of double crescent in front of the tent. The heath-pasture had once been covered by a shallow bay of the primeval Glen lake, and the duns or mounds now clothed with heath just bursting into purple bloom, were at first heaps of gravel and sand beneath the water, which the burn washed down from the hills, long before it cut for itself on the level the deep channel through which it afterwards made its way, brawling and struggling with angled rocks and big boulders, to the river below. Fragrant thyme, graceful alchemilla, yellow saxifrage, modest eyebright, and trailing arbutus mixed with the deep fringes of heather on this mountain stream's banks ; and a few large beech trees near the church and the old stone bridge over the burn broke up the background panorama of deep valley, weird conies, and towering bens, into many picturesque and fantastic scenes.

Warm was the sun, very still the air. The distant song of the river, the nearer brawl of the burn, the voice of the grouse from the leacain,1 the lowing of cattle and neighing of horses from the pastures, and the buzz of the busy bee gathering his honey close at hand, and even making daring incursions among the crowd, were sounds which mingled with the psalm, and came as responses in the pauses of the fervent prayer.

Accessories of worship go far. The Free Church worshippers, with the proof of having followed their leaders into the wilderness, so manifest to all eyes, felt that they were verily worshipping in the temple not made with hands, and that God was with them.

Although mainly the work of an Englishman, the rugged metrical version of the Psalms, which the Covenanters amended and adopted, and which the Scotch Churches still use, must have suited the requirements of the hill conventicles rarely well in the hard persecution times. At the Disruption period the old feeling came back, and the psalm tunes chiefly in vogue retained the undertone of wail and suffering, swelling occasionally into prophetic bursts of triumphant joy for ultimate victory, which best harmonised with the sentiments of a deeply religious people, when persecution had driven them into wild fanaticism.

This day all the services at the burnside communion were in Gaelic, and the Gaelic version of the Psalms, although notagreat poetic glory to the authorsof it, is, thanks to the genius of the language, infinitely more musical than the English one. The religious leaders of the Glen had for a quarter of a century fought foolishly hard to extinguish fiddling, piping, and song-singing. They only countenanced psalm and hymn music; but the teaching of music to the young in classes only took place whenever it suited blind Duncan Macdiarmid to come and keep an evening music school in winter; and as Duncan reasonably wished to make a good thing of it when he came, and his Slope of the hill. teaching circuit was wide, he only visited the Glen once every three or four years. But in spite of these drawbacks, the musical legacy of former times was not yet exhausted. The voices of the Glen girls were still sweet and flexible, and there was still the bardic and warrior ring in the modulated notes from men's throats. They did not lack ear, although they lacked training. This day by the burn-side, when a great occasion stirred their hearts and fired their imagination, their singing, with its vocal nature accompaniments and scenic surroundings, was more impressive than a grand cathedral choir performance.


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