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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XLVII. - Balquhidder in 1857-60


As long as the Macgregor Chiefs had the patronage, they naturally presented clansmen. Mr Alexander Macgregor was succeeded by Mr Alexander Murray Macgregor, who, before his translation, was minister of Atharacle in Argyllshire. He was related to a landed family in that district, and his father had been a captain in the army. There may be a hidden similitude in contrast, but to the people who knew him there were only two binding links between these two Macgregors, and these were their names and their striving to reach one end by pursuing widely different ways. It was a blessing for one to know Mr Alexander Murray Macgregor. Of all the good ministers and priests of the different denominations into which the Christian world is divided, with whom I came in contact during a long life, I thought I had found in him the finest type of the Christian guide and example most fully realised. During the Ten Years' Conflict he sympathised with the popular party, and was reckoned one of them. But like the rest of the "Forty Thieves'" party, and like so many of those who were hurried out at the Disruption, he wished to exercise patience and to proceed by civil methods to seek the removal of grievances. He was by nature and reflection bound to recoil from violent agitation and a policy which, after the meeting of Convocation, directly threatened to destroy the integrity of the Church of Scotland. And because he did not go out in 1843, the "Witness" assailed him in one of its bitterly unfair articles in which it was then running down the ministers with popular sympathies who did not go out. Fiercely hot and, too frequently, scandalously unjust as were the mutual recriminations of those days of angry partings, it is impossible to believe that, had he personally or by truthful report known the minister of Balquhidder, Mr Hugh Miller would have allowed that particular article to go into the "Witness." Peace-loving, pious, and charitably-minded, Mr Macgvegor was a sensitive man who was no seeker of vain-glorious applause, but he expected justice from his fellow-men. The instant he read the attack upon him, he decided to give up his charge. Forthwith he sent his resignation to the Presbytery of Dunblane, packed his boxes, and, having provided for pulpit supplies, left the parish. After seven years' service among them, the Balquhidder people knew his worth, and even those who had joined the Free Church were unwilling that the parish should lose him. As for his own congregation, they were thrown into a state of consternation and sorrow at first, but, rallying quickly, they sent remonstrances after the fugitive minister, and unanimously petitioned the Presbytery of Dunblane to refuse the acceptance of his resignation. The Presbytery did so, and added its remonstrances to those of the parishioners. Deeply moved and conquered by these proceedings, which he looked upon as amounting to a renewal of his commission, he came back, declaring that as long as he could do his work there nothing would tempt him to leave Balquhidder. He kept to that resolution when he might have had more lucrative and, what some would have considered, more desirable charges.

The incident of Mr Macgregor's resignation and triumphant restoration helped to clear and sweeten the local ecclesiastical atmosphere, surcharged as it was for a short while with Disruption electricity. No one could deny that the parish minister had been enthusiastically recalled and elected by his congregation after seven years' work. The placing of the Free Church and manse at Lochearnhead also did much to reduce sectarian friction. At Lochearnhead the Free Church was less like a rival than a desirable supplement to the parish church. In far-off days, indeed, the Bishops of Dunblane placed at Carstran, very near where the Free Church stands, a chapel of ease, the ruins of which were pointed out to me and may yet be visible. It was at Lochearnhead and Strathyre that the Free Church strength lay. And the Lochearnhead congregation were fortunate in getting Mr Eric Findlater for their first minister, and in having him for a long period of years at their head. Parish minister and Free Church minister were personally good friends with separate spheres of labour. So there was more peace in Balquhidder than was usually found in Highland parishes after the Disruption. Mr Findlater came from the north side of the Grampians. And so, a quarter of a century before, did his uncle, Mr Robert Findlater, who gained a high reputation when missionary minister at Ardeonaig on the south side of Loch Tay as an ardent young revivalist. He was called back to a more important charge in his native region, and died before the Disruption. His successor at Ardeonaig, Mr Hunter, was a revivalist who, in a few years, received a better appointment, and in 1843 lost repute among his former admirers by not going out. The sturdy, rustical, short-trousered successor of Mr Hunter in Ardeonaig, Mr Donald Mackenzie, seerns to demand a nod of recognition. He was the nephew of Mr Lachlan Mackenzie, minister of Lochcarron, in Ross-shire, who was believed to have the gift of prophecy. The nephew shared in that belief, and revered his uncle's memory. Outside the range of the ideas held by the pious folk of Ross-shire regarding dreams, visions, and sudden flashes of communication with the unknown world, Mr Donald Mackenzie was the most practical of men, and his sermons were of the same practical character as the cultivation of his carefully farmed glebe. But he imported from Lochcarron the sing-song habit of intoning which the Ross-shire "men" loved, and their favourite ministers imitated. The sing-song intoning of Mr Donald Mackenzie spoiled his English sermons, but in his Gaelic seemed to fall into not unmusical cadence. He went out at the Disruption without the slightest hesitation, although he had not taken any prominent part in the preceding controversy, and after the parting there was no lessening of the old friendship between him and the scholarly, scientific and gentlemanly Dr Duff, minister of Kenmore, his former ecclesiastical superior.

Balquhidder had four schools. Three of these, the parish school and the side schools at Strathyre and Lochearnhead, were under the superintendence of the Church of Scotland. The fourth was the Free Church school at Lochearnhead, which received an endowment from the Maclaren Trust. This Trust was formed by the will of Mr Donald Maclaren, a native of the parish, who, as banker and wool dealer at Callander, made what was then held to be a large fortune, and left the bulk of it for Free Church purposes, chiefly in the locality with which he was connected by birth and business.

Poor Mr Carleton, my predecessor, lingered on in a dying state for six weeks after I began the teaching of the parish school, and after his death, some more weeks elapsed before I was fully installed, as I had first to be appointed by the heritors, then examined by the Presbytery of Dunblane, and sworn again to bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Throughout the whole of that houseless time I was the guest of Mr Macgregor at the manse, and a happy time it was for guest and host until a fearful outbreak of diphtheria among the children filled many homes with sorrow and threw gloom over the whole district, and especially saddened and harassed the parish minister, who had been partially educated for the medical profession before taking to the clerical profession, and as the nearest doctors were ten and seven miles away, gave medical aid in simple cases, and in serious cases saw to it that the doctor's instructions were carried out. In 1857-8 diphtheria was a new disease to the British people, just as appendicitis was to a later generation. No doubt there had been cases of both in former days, but they had been too few to be classified as specific diseases. The deaths of five children of the Dean of Carlisle, Dr Archibald Campbell Tait, who, after being Bishop of London, became Archbishop of Canterbury, took place not very long before the Balquhidder outbreak, and raised discussions in the medical journals about what was called "Boulogne sore throat," but no treatment beyond burning the throat affected with nitric acid seems to have been found out. At Mr Carnegie's expense, Dr Julius Wood, Edinburgh, gave help as a specialist to the local doctors, but it was the coming of snow and frost which really stopped the plague suddenly and thoroughly. Before the purifying snow and frost, there had been a long spell of foggy, oozy weather, when people looking down from their homes on the flooded meadows could almost feel as if they were beginning themselves to get covered with green moss. The victims of the scourge were the smaller school- children and those who were too young to be sent to school at all. There were no deaths among children in their teens, and adults were not attacked at all.


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