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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XLVI. - Two Notable Balquhidder Ministers


MR ROBERT KIRKE and Mr Alexander Macgregor were both notable men. Mr Kirke was remarkable for his Gaelic and general scholarship, much literary work, and, finally, for being as was believed abducted by vindictive fairies. Singularity and longevity distinguished Mr Macgregor from the long series of post-Reformation Balquhidder ministers who, as a class, seem to have been good quiet men that strove to do their duty under circumstances which were of a very trying nature occasionally.

Mr Robert Kirke was the seventh and youngest son of Mr James Kirke, minister of Aberfoyle. After having taken his degree in Edinburgh, and studied theology in Saint Andrews, he was inducted minister of Balquhidder in 1669, and stayed there until the end of 1685, when he succeeded his father as minister of Aberfoyle. It was when he was at Balquhidder that he made his Gaelic metrical version of the first hundred psalms. In poetical rhythm, force and flow, there is no metrical version in English which can stand favourable comparison with Kirke's work. He must have had high poetic gifts as well as a thorough knowledge of Hebrew, and full command of an ancient language into which Hebrew thought was easily transmitted. The Highland ministers and others who, before 1740, completed the metrical version of the psalms in Gaelic, imitated Kirke to the best of their ability, and so gave the whole version a very homogeneous appearance. Although Kirke faithfully adhered to the original, he permitted himself the use of phrases at which Dr Smith of Campbellton and his revising committee boggled in the last century, and which they altered, or of which they reduced the use to a minimum. "Pubal," the proper Gaelic word for tent, was properly used by Kirke and his imitators. The revisers went so far wrong as to substitute for it the mongrel word "pailluin" pavilion. As non-scriptural terms, they looked askance at "Dia nam feairt" (not "feart"), God of strengths, and "Righ nan dul," King of the Elements, or of all existence. Our old Glenlvon miller of Milton Eonain had some cause for his indignant declaration: "Thug Mac- aghobha agus a chuideachd an smiorchailleach as an t-salmadair." ("The son of the Smith and his Committee have taken the spinal marrow out of the psalm book.") That was going too far. They made not a few good amendments, but they ought to have respected Kirke's poetic words and phrases, which were far more telling than any they could substitute. Kirke's last year in Balquhidder was darkened to him by the death of his young wife, over whose grave he placed a flagstone with a suitable inscription in English, followed by a Latin quotation. He married again in Aberfoyle. The Irish Gaelic Bible of Bishop Bedell and William O'Donnell, as it was printed in Irish characters, was not easily read by Highlanders who were taught to read only books printed in Roman letters. Mr Kirke wrote out the whole Irish Bible from Genesis to Revelation for the purpose of putting it in the plain Roman alphabet which Highlanders were taught in the schools. It was a laborious undertaking which must have absorbed a great deal of his time for a number of years. His Bible was published in London in 1690. I have a copy of it, which belonged to my grand- father, and which, I suppose, had come down to him from his grandfather. Mr Kirke adhered strictly to the Irish Bible wording, but had, of necessity, to supply the place of the useful Irish dot by the vagabond "h," which exercises so many functions in Gaelic, written or printed in Roman characters. His work undoubtedly removed a difficulty, but it would have been more satisfactorily removed by teaching children both the Celtic and Roman alphabets. The Celtic alphabet, besides being beautifully ornamental, suits Gaelic, whether Irish, Scotch, or Manx, much better than the unorna- mental Roman alphabet. Mr Kirke, as the metrical version of the psalms demonstrates, was master of the best style of the Highland Gaelic; a style which passed on to the Balquhidder hymn writer, Dugald Buchannan, in the next century. It seems a pity, therefore, that instead of trying to popularise Irish Gaelic, he did not devote himself to writing the Bible in his own excellent Scottish Gaelic. He appended to his work a vocabulary of several hundred words in which Irish and Highland Gaelic differed, and this vocabulary was the first foundation stone of our after-time Gaelic dictionaries. With all his learning Mr Kirke believed in the fairies, and wrote a curious pamphlet in English about them, called the "Invisible Commonwealth." Sir Walter Scott, who did not know about Mr Kirke's valuable Gaelic work, got hold of the "Invisible Commonwealth" pamphlet and the story of Mr Kirke's death. When walking alone on a reputed fairy mound near his Aberfoyle manse Mr Kirke fell down in a fit and was dead when found there. It was, therefore, believed that the fairies had abducted him in revenge for having revealed their secrets, and that the body found on the mound was one of their usual delusive impostures.

Mr Alexander Macgregor, presented by Sir John Macgregor of Lanrick, was inducted in November, 1804, and died in May, 1836. The notice of this man in the "Fasti" does not tell where he was born, or where educated, or how he was employed during the first fifty years of his long life. It states that he was licensed by the Presbytery of Kintyre on the 2nd of January, 1788, and ordained by them as chaplain to the Highland Society of London. I can supply some of the deficiencies. Mr Macgregor was a native of Rannoch, and of the Macgregors of the Smithy "Griogaraich na Ceardaich" a strongi swarthy race. He was in the habit of telling people of later generations that, as a bonnetless boy, six or seven years of age, he saw the mustering of the rebels of Rannoch who marched out at the beginning of the rebellion to follow Prince Charlie. That oft-repeated story of his pretty nearly agreed with the universal belief of the Balquhidder people that he was a hundred and three years old when he died. But what had he been doing between the bonnetless boy date and 1788? I do not remember how I got it, but I have been always under the impression that he was attached as chaplain, assistant chaplain, or perhaps as teacher and catechist, to a Highland regiment, and that he had been with his regiment in America during the war with the United States. There must have been past services in his favour to account for his being licensed and ordained at such an advanced age, for he was then sixty years of age. When first settled in Balquhidder he was, on his own showing, sixty-six or sixty-seven years old, yet he looked and felt like a man in the prime of life, and for the next quarter of a century his eyes did not grow dim, nor was his natural strength much abated. It was stiffness in his legs that made him incapable of mounting to and descending from the pulpit, which caused him to get an assistant a year or two before his death. The old man went regularly to church and sat with the elders, and one day when the assistant said some- thing which did not agree with the Confession of Faith, the alert critic below exclaimed "That is wrong and heretical." As a minister he was sui generis. Without being scholarly, cultured, or gentlemanly, his force of character and the Tightness of his views gave him a drill-sergeant mastery over gentle and simple. In London he had seen much of high society, and had come into contact with many distinguished people, and elsewhere he had seen life under various aspects. And to judge from his manner, the conclusion to which he had come was that people of all classes needed to be driven to cultivate Christian morals, and in their different spheres to be diligent and well-doing, and to act up to their respective responsibilities. Old parishioners spoke with awe of strong-handed acts of his, and at other times chuckled over his unclerical sayings and doings. They said he was pitifully tender and very liberal with his own money to the afflicted, and to those whose poverty was no fault of their own, while he scourged with the scorpions of his tongue those who did not use all diligence to help them- selves by honest work. Loafers and tipplers feared him, and so did sluttish women who did not keep their homes tidy and see to it that their families were well clad in homespun. He kept a comfortable house, hospitable in a plain way, for the wages of servants were low, and he raised a great part of his food supplies on his own glebe. Far as he was from being a niggard, he lived so well within his comparatively liberal stipend that his savings swelled up to 1600. Towards the end of his long life he became troubled as to how he should dispose of that money. He had outlived almost all his blood relatives. When at last he began to think of making his will, his next-of-kin was a sister's grand- son or great-grandson of the (to him) appalling Lowland surname of Kitchener. Little foreseeing the fame which the future was to throw on that surname, he would mutter in Highland scorn "Kitchener, Kitchener; pots and pans and smells of greasy messes!" Therefore he went one day to the Chief of his clan with his bank deposit receipt, intending to hand it over to him endorsed there and then. The Chief said he would gladly take any- thing left to him in a properly-made will, but that he could not honourably take his money in any other form. The intention of making a will was never carried out, and the heir-at-law, notwithstanding his surname, came in for the whole little fortune.

He denounced cruelty to animals, advocated protection to all harmless creatures in their breeding season, impressed upon children the idea that it was a heinous crime to disturb or rob the nests of little singing birds, and constituted himself a truculent water-bailiff to prevent poachers from blazing the river and killing the fish in spawning time. He did not care a straw if poachers killed any amount of fish and game outside the breeding season. Let proprietors look to that, it was no business of his. His bellman, who was still bellman in my time, and lived to be nearly a hundred years, held his memory in awful respect, and, when telling me stories about him, lowered his voice to a whisper as if he feared the ghost of the doughty despot was listening near him. It chanced that once upon a time the minister caught Calum, one of the bellman's sons, killing fish in the spawning season, whereupon he fell into a tierce rage and raised such a storm that the lad fled from the parish until his father should make peace for him. The bellman, much alarmed about losing his own post, waited one day on his knees on the gravel for the coming out of the minister, and when the minister did come out, as was his habit to do after breakfast, he made abject apologies and gave the most profuse assurances that Calum would never offend in the same way again. So conditional pardon was granted and Calum came back to his father's house.

The harvest of 1826 the year of the short corn was, for the whole United Kingdom, the most de- ficient in yield of food for man and beast of all the harvests of the nineteenth century. The potato disease, heavily as it fell in some districts, was not such a general calamity as the bad harvest of 1826. In that year there was no rain in the growing and ripening period. The sun scorched the fields and much of the lighter grazing lands. The corn crop was so stunted that in many places it was pulled instead of being cut, and, in not a few instances, it was neither pulled nor cut, but animals were turned in to graze upon it. Food supplies from the outer world were not so quickly or so easily obtainable as they are now. Scarcity and clearness of provisions had to be faced. The minister of Balquhidder, like so many others, caught the alarm, and bestired himself to prepare for the coming ordeal. In ordinary years the kirk session fund barely coped with the needs of the parochial pauperism, and there was no reserve, as in many other parishes, to fall back upon. So the minister civilly asked the heritors to aid the kirk session by laying a rate on themselves, for the relief of the poor. When the heritors delayed compliance with this request he waxed wroth and threatened legal action to compel them, under the useful, but seldom resorted to, Act of Charles II. to meet and stent themselves for the relief of the poor. It was a plain case of emergency and the minister had the law on his side, and he was not a man whose threats could lie disregarded. A meeting of heritors was accordingly held at the hotel at Lochearnhead, which the minister, of course, attended, and at which, as the advocate of the poor and the minister of the parish, he asked for more than was granted to him. His assertions in regard to the gloomy outlook for Strathyre and Lochearnhead, which had both a crowded population already impoverished by the shrinking profits on the spinning of flax and wool, were ridiculed by all the heritors and pertinaciously controverted by one of the single-farm proprietors five or six were then to the fore who, as a resident, was held to be sure of his facts. The minister lost his temper and so did the little Laird. The dispute became so hot that at the close of the meeting the minister refused to stay to the dinner which invariably followed occasions of this kind. Although beyond his ninetieth year he was still a splendid walker He had come three miles on foot to the meeting and thought nothing of striding back again. Besides this he had to call at a house on the way in which there was illness. The stiffness which disabled him at the end of his life did not come upon him until he was bordering on his hundredth year. It was wet weather, for immediately after the deficient crops had been gathered in the rain, so long withheld, poured down in deluge abundance. His visit to the house of sickness so delayed the minister that the little Laird, who was riding, overtook him at Achtoo. Flushed with meat and drink, and made more angry than ever by being chaffed at dinner about what the minister had contemptuously said to him and of him, the Laird rashly renewed the controversy when he overtook the minister, and swaggering on his horse with his whip at a spot where the dry and dusty ditch of summer time was now filled with muddy water, he happened to strike and knock off the minister's hat. In an instant he found himself pulled out of his saddle and on his back in the ditch, a grim giant bending over him, who said in sternest tones, "larr mathanas airson do beatha!" (Beg pardon for your life). He had to do what he was commanded, but when he got on his feet he earnestly declared that the whip smack on the hat was a pure accident for which he was truly sorry. The explanation, which was perfectly true, was at once accepted, and the incident closed. The minister's forecast of the evil about to fall upon many honest and industrious people in Strathyre village and the Lochearnhead district was exceeded by the sad reality. The distress, which then attained its height, continued in a lessened degree until some years later the congestion in those two places was relieved by a large flight of emigrants to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Yet the Laird was far from being wrong in contending as stoutly as he did that, taken all together, the crops and grazings of Balquhidder came nearly to an average in the year of unexampled drought. Most moist and upland places where ripening is backward in ordinary years, produced good and early ripened crops of grain, and wet meadows had excellent yields of hay in the dry and hot year when other lands were parched.

However he picked it up, our old clerical despot held the Covenanters' severe and all embracing theory of church discipline, and, what was more, carried it out inflexibly in practice. Combining in his own person the functions of policeman, sheriff, and parish minister, he suppressed any remnant which remained of the wildness of the Rob Roy period by putting down drinking excesses, fighting among young men, and quarrelling among older people. His aims were always good, but his methods were simply his own peculiar ones. In his public rebukes of the fathers of illegitimate children, he habitually lost control of tongue and temper. He let off the women offenders with scoldings before the session, but male offenders had to stand up in church to be scolded before the congregation. As soon as a male offender was cited to appear in church, word of the coming affair went forth to the neighbouring districts, and on the appointed day people came from other parishes to enjoy what was fun to them, but a sore ordeal to the rebuked sinner, whose punishment did not end with that one day. Words and phrases of the torrent of abuse which poured on his head from the pulpit, stuck like burs in the memory of the public, and he was sure to be reminded of them through the rest of his days. These were the opening sentences of admonishment of a lad of twenty, who became a delinquent before he was quite out of his trade-apprenticeship :

"Eirich suas a bhiasd ghreannaich 's gum faigh thu cronachadh do pheacaidh. Nach e chuis-naire 's an nith graineil gum biodh tusa, nach eil fhastast a coisneadh luach peic mhine 's an t-seachduin, a falbh mar tharbh sgireachd feadh na duthcha, anns an oidche, 'sa briseadh challaidean 's a dol mar ghad- aiche, a stigh troimh uineagan," etc.

"Stand up, ye touzle-haired little wretch, that you may be rebuked for your sin. Is it not a shameful and abominable thing that you, who do not yet earn the price of a peck of meal in the week, should go, like a parish bull, through the country in the night, and be breaking fences and going through windows like a thief?" etc., etc.

Fear of his pulpit reproofs promoted some hasty marriages. As for children born out of wedlock, they were carefully looked after by ministers and elders all over Scotland. The Balquhidder minister and his elders took great pains to have such children properly brought up and treated as well as if no stain rested on their birth. In the eye of the law there was a wider difference between the two sets of children than there was in the eye of the Church.


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