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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XXVIII. - The Broken Walls of the National Zion


FROM the Tweed to John o' Groat's, the Church of Scotland was left in a very dilapidated condition by the sweeping "beam sleibh" or deluge burst of the Disruption; but it ravaged the Highlands a hundred times worse than the Lowlands, although a few ministers of high reputation and force of character, and consistency of conduct, firmly kept their footing and the majorities of their congregations. The most popular ministers of the day left the Church, shaking the dust off their feet; and with anything but farewell words of blessing on their lips. Among the Moderate ministers left behind were scholarly, cultured men, who were excellent parish workers, and, in their sober style, excellent preachers also. The least active among them attended decently to their set duties, and few, if any of them, unless sarcastically, would use the words of the minister who, when told that many of his people were going off to the Free Church, is reported to have asked his informant, "Did you see them carrying away the stipend on their heads?" The Cook Moderates, who had now the majority, were resolute defenders of the Church's broken walls, although their ecclesiastical policy was too much akin to, and too closely connected with, the Toryism of the new set of landlords, who separated themselves from their people and thought of driving them instead of leading them, to be ever really reconstructive, since it could never be made acceptable to the people of either Highlands or Lowlands. The redeeming hope and recuperative power depended chiefly on the party of the "Forty Thieves," and particularly on the younger and bolder men who widened their policy. Cookites themselves saw that the legal decisions had imposed undue restrictions on the exercise of spiritual functions, so relief had to be sought from legislation, and as the Peel Government hearkened to the cry for relief, and perchance felt remorseful for previous inflexibility, the worst of the grievances were removed. But the Peel Government and private patrons had no thought of capitulating to those who went out protesting on the 18th of May. The seriousness of the secession took them completely by surprise, but they still believed that in the rural districts at least it would be found impossible to uphold a Free Church equipment in every parish for any length of time. That happy inspiration of Dr Chalmers the Sustentation Fund did what had never been done before, and gave an establishment stability to a non - established church. But it could not give the equality demanded by the Presbyterian theory. Nothing could do that but its own perpetual separate endowment for every parish. However, that was lost sight of in the enthusiastic years during which the rich were giving of their wealth and the poor of their poverty, like very brethren, to cover all Scotland with Free Churches and to provide their ministers with in- comes. A full generation had to pass by ere Time the Revealer made astonished Highlanders aware of their dependent position, and of the patronage and control which went with the holding of the purse. In truth the spirit in which the Free Church was founded had to give place to a different spirit before that revelation came. But to return to the Broken Walls. Government and private patrons made haste to find qualified men to present to vacant charges. They had difficulty in finding a sufficient number of them for filling up all the vacancies in six months, but they managed to do so. They mustered what, without irreverence, might be called a motley host of returned colonials, schoolmasters with probationer qualifications, and not a few old probationers who, hopeless of getting charges, had fallen back into secular work and habits. The young probationers and the divinity students who were nearly ready for being licensed were unfortunately few, the larger number of them having joined the Free Church. In the motley host there were undesirables who, for the next dozen years or so, gave the Church Courts trouble with scandal cases, libel prosecutions, and depositions. But these undesirables were far fewer than might well have been expected when there had been no opportunity for selection. Most of the men who received promotion after they had given up hope and had become worthy teachers or had fallen back into secular life, comported themselves with ministerial dignity, and preached to shadowy congregations with conscientious regularity. They suffered social boycotting, which amounted to moral persecution in many Highland parishes, where, how- ever, they performed the useful service of saving parish endowments from lapsing and left them open for successors with better chances than their own.

While other consequences of the Disruption had to remain on the knees of Time, two were forthwith perceived, namely, that a new Poor Law Act must be passed, and that the school system, which with little cost had done so much good, was to be subjected to the undoubted evil of division and the equivocal benefit of educational rivalry. I think now, as I thought then, that the Church of Scotland blundered most foolishly and tyrannically in depriving the parish and other teachers who adhered to the Free Church of their offices and incomes. Had these teachers been let alone, a rival set of schools would not have been set up by the Free Church. Although there were some daft fanatics in that communion who thanked God they were not like other men, and who maintained it was not fit that the children of the godly should be taught in the same schools as the children of the Moderates, and by teachers who, albeit professing the same faith, had not all of them the special Free Church unction of grace, that nonsensical view was not held by the overwhelming majority of Free Church parents. The foolish illiberalism of the then rulers of the Church of Scotland, however, gave the practice their chance, and they used it.

It was in 1856 that Mr Moncrief, then Lord Advocate, introduced a Bill into the House of Commons, which, if passed into law, would have remedied a great deal of the mischief done, by throwing the schools open to all Presbyterian teachers, and at the same time would have relieved the Free Church from what was a growing burden to her, notwithstanding what her schools earned from the Government Grant. At our statutory Widows' Fund meeting, we parish schoolmasters of the Presbytery of Weem passed a resolution in favour of Mr Moncriefs Bill, which, on being published, called out a small ebulition of clerical indignation that resulted in another meeting being called and in the resolution being rescinded by the votes of the members who had not attended the statutory meeting. My neighbour, Mr Macnaughton, school- master of Dull, and I stood to our guns; and our protest against the rescinding of the resolution, and our reason for looking with favour on the Bill being published with the rescinding, the clerical interveners gained little by having meddled in the affair.

The ratepayers and taxpayers of this twentieth century, burdened with the upkeep of public boards and bodies with numerous officials, will find it difficult to understand how cheaply and, on the whole, how satisfactorily affairs were administered in the rural districts when country gentlemen, as Justices of the Peace and Commissioners of Supply, did the work now entrusted to County Councils, and when ministers and kirk-sessions looked after the poor. The rapid growth of population in manufacturing towns and districts had, no doubt, outstripped the powers of the old system to cope with pauperism among the heterogeneous multitudes of incomers in such places, but it was the Disruption which made it impossible in rural parishes to continue that good old system any longer. The "box" funds dried up at their source; for half of the Sunday worshippers everywhere, and a vast deal more than that in the Highlands, had gone off to the Free Church where all the money they could give (and many of them ungrudgingly gave more than they could well spare) was urgently wanted for establishing a non- established Church, from the Tweed to John o' Groat's. Ministers and elders looked of old upon their unpaid services to the poor as a most important part of their religious duty. They were able as Parochial Boards are not to discriminate between God's poor and the Devil's poor. The widow, orphan, arid those stricken with disease, and the honest old man or woman who had fallen upon evil days, were tenderly cared for, while those poor by their own laziness or vices were put under religious and moral pressure to mend their ways, and openings were found for them to make fresh starts. Under this pressure, and with new chances, the Devil's poor were frequently reclaimed from laziness and evil habits. They were taught that self-help is the best help of all "Se fein-chomhnadh an comhnadh is fhearr a th' ami." So well did kirk-sessions man- age their financial affairs that some of them had money out on interest, when the 18th of May, 1843, gave the old system of poor relief and management its death-blow.


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