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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part I: Chapter 5


Culdees—Norse Paganism—Introduction of Christianity—Popery —Reformation—Episcopacy—Presbyterianism—State of Religion in the Eighteenth Centnry—Mr Haldane—Independents —Wesleyans—Seceders—Baptists—Free Church—Established Church—Re-introduction of Roman Catholicism—of Episcopacy—Revival of 1862-63—General Remarks.

THE moral and social condition of a people is so intimately connected with the state of religion amongst them, that in order fully to enter into the character of those we are considering, it will be necessary briefly to glance at the influence of Christianity over them.

When the Romans finally left Britain, in A.D. 446, it appeared as if the country would speedily lapse into that degraded state of barbarism out of which it had only begun to emerge. But there came a light better, and brighter, and nobler, and more enduring than any that ever emanated from either pagan or pseudo-Christian Rome. That light was none other than the Sun of Righteousness. In the little isle of Iona, on the west coast of Scotland, there existed the well-known Presbyterian College presided over by Colm, commonly called St Columba. From this little centre of light, during the sixth century, missionaries spread over all Scotland, carrying alike with them the blessings of spiritual life and secular progress. Cormac, one of their number, came to Orkney, under the auspices of one of its Pictish kings, about the year 570. From Orkney those active apostles of truth proceeded to the sister group of islands, and thence to Iceland.3 What progress Christianity made at this early age, we have no definite means of ascertaining. At all events, the ministers of Christianity seem to have been pretty numerous, for when Harold Harfager invaded the islands three centuries after its introduction, he found the inhabitants to consist of two classes, Piti or Picts, and Papae or priests. The old pagan priests do not appear to have been so distinct from the people as to be reckoned a distinct nation; whereas the Culdees, as their name signifies, were “dwellers in solitary places;” and in the three islands in Shetland called Papa, after these “Paps,” there are no remains of Pictish buildings, as there are in every other part of the country. However, we know that the “good tidings of great joy” came to these remote islands; and who can tell but that when the “great multitude which no man can number” shall come “out of every nation and kindred and tongue,” to meet their Lord on the day of His glorious appearing, there may be many who were gathered from that distant land, by these devoted men, in that early age

At the end of the ninth century, the islands were entirely subdued by the Norsemen, who brought their pagan rites with them. Although they subdued, it is not at all likely they utterly exterminated, the existing inhabitants, amongst whom primitive Christianity would probably still continue. For a little more than a century after their subjugation of Orkney and Zetland, did the Norsemen continue the savage rites of Odin, so well adapted to their summers of plunder and their winters of feasting; for, as already mentioned, about 985, Christianity in the form of Popery was introduced amongst them by Olaf-Trigvisson, King of Norway, in a manner highly characteristic of the times—viz., at the point of the sword, just as the religion of Mahomet was extended over so great a portion of the East. But as might be expected, both from its nature and from the manner in which they were compelled outwardly to conform to it, Roman Catholicism produced little change on the life of the Scandinavian Shetlanders; for we find them continuing their predatory nautical excursions for two or three centuries afterwards. Though nominally connected with a Christian Church, they were evidently still attached to the ancient gods of their fathers. William, the first Bishop of Orkney and Zetland, was appointed about 1100. After the lapse of about two centuries from the time of its introduction, the Shetlanders, as their pursuits began to change from a nautical to 'a pastoral character, became gradually more attached to the new religion, until two centuries before the Reformation, when the Church of Rome was all-powerful in the islands. Her chapels became very numerous in every part of the country, and all her traditions and superstitions had immense influence over the people. In the island of Unst, for instance, which is now supplied with two churches, there are to be seen the remains of no less than twenty-four Roman Catholic chapels. In the larger but less numerously peopled island of Yell, the remains of twenty-five of these chapels can be traced. While Popery and its concomitant evils of ignorance and superstition increased, the energy of the people appears to have declined, for they gradually abandoned their nautical pursuits, and betook themselves to the more peaceful employments of the shepherd and the husbandman. As an instance of the savage character of the people at that period, I may mention that when, in 1588, a flagship of the Spanish Armada was wrecked at the Fair Isle, and the protracted residence of the crew began to produce a dearth of provisions, in several instances the male inhabitants waylaid the poor half famished foreigners, and pushed them over the cliffs.

Again much later, in the year 1664, when a Dutch East Indiaman was wrecked at the Skerries, the inhabitants were in a state of intoxication for twenty days, from the spirits obtained, from the wreck.

The annual visit of the Dutch fishing fleet in the palmy days of that great enterprise was the occasion of much vice. So great had it become that, in 1625, the Law-ting made it a subject of legislation. The court was informit of the great abomination and wickedness committed yearly by the Hollanders and country-people, godless and profane persons repairing to them at the houses of Lerwick”—of the drunkenness, swearing, bloodshed, murder, robbery, immorality, &c., and “after good deliberation, knowing that the houses of Lerwick are the retreat of these profane persons and the causes of these abominable sins and wickedness, with consent of the most part of the owners of the said houses, ordained the said houses to be utterly demolished and down-cassin to the ground.”

Shortly after the middle of the fifteenth century dawned the glorious era of the Reformation. In Scotland, as is well known, this great movement was brought about amongst the commons by the divine blessing attending the preaching of such noble reformers as Hamilton, Wishart, and Knox, and in opposition to the wishes of its rulers. In England, on the other hand, it was forced on the people by the king and nobles; and so was it introduced into the remote Scottish province of Orkney and Zetland. Here there were no Hamiltons and Knoxes to enlighten the people, and the “ reformer99 was none other than the notorious Lord Robert Stewart, who no doubt forced the reformed faith on his subjects from similar motives to those which induced Henry VIII to quarrel with Rome, and enrich himself with the spoils of the English monasteries. In Zetland also, as in England, the reformed religion, at the command of the rulers, assumed a prelatic type, which appears to have prevailed till Episcopacy was abolished in Scotland by the memorable General Assembly of 1638. The clergy who occupied the Shetland churches at the time of the Reformation appear to have had no difficulty in changing their creed, while they kept their livings. Of the religious condition of the country during the seventeenth century, as far as I have been able to ascertain, little is known; and that little points to a state of matters by no means happy. On the final establishment of Presbytery, after the Revolution of 1688, the great majority of the Shetland people were again willing to “sail with the running stream.” But the lairds remained attached to Episcopacy up to the middle of the eighteenth century, and were, for the first half of that period, ministered to by a single clergyman of that persuasion, who itinerated amongst them.

The eighteenth century was in Shetland, as in Scotland, a very dark period. Both pastors and people were fast asleep in the cold embraces of dead Moderatism. The clergy, however, in these remote isles, while their brethren in the south spent their time in the genteel enjoyments of drinking claret and cultivating belles leltres, celebrated the orgies of Bacchus with the “corn-water” smuggled by their parishioners. The smuggling trade, in which they were extensively engaged, had a most demoralising effect on the people. The gentry, whenever they had an opportunity of meeting, spent their time in drinking punch and playing cards; and profane swearing was awfully common even among ladies of the best positions. But during this dead period the truth of God was not left without its witnesses. Till about the middle of the century the saintly Mr Bonar, minister of Fetlar (the great-grandfather of the honoured ministers of the present day of that name), “ earnestly contended for the faith once delivered unto the saints/’ and the impress of his faithful preaching is still in the hearts of the people of that island. In the latter half of the century. (1743 to 1804), Mr Mill of Dunrossness itinerated through his wide ministry, catechising the people and preaching the “ gospel of the kingdom.” In 1799 Mr James Haldane made an evangelistic tour through Shetland. Here, as elsewhere, the labours of that devoted evangelist were greatly blessed, and they gave an impulse to the religious life of the country. Mr Haldane thus describes the state of religion as he found it—“ Of the twelve ministers, not more than two or three preached the gospel. . . . The religious state of the people had been previously (to his visit) deplorable.”

He was soon followed by other Independent preachers, who, along with the Wesleyan Methodists, who established themselves about twenty years later (in the year 1821), were greatly blessed in their labours, which did much to revive the drooping piety of the people. Crowds flocked to hear them, despite the opposition of Moderate ministers and hostile lairds; and not a few joined their communion, particularly that of the Wesleyans. They joined them simply because they had “life,” and not, it is to be doubted, because they approved of Arminianism more than Calvinism, or the Independent rather than the Presbyterian form of Church polity. The Seceders who obtained adherents, and did much good over so great a part of Scotland from 1733 onwards, never appeared in Shetland till B&ore than a century after that period. In 1839 they established a small congregation in Lerwick.

The Baptists are also represented in Shetland. Their largest congregation is in Dunrossness, the scene of the ministry of Mr Sinclair Thomson, the founder of this denomination in Shetland. Mr Thomson, whose ministry extended from about 1816 to his death, at the age of eighty, in 1864, was evidently a man of great gifts and administrative powers, as well as graces. He was originally a fisherman, and was entirely self-taught.

From about the third decade of the present century, onwards, the Church of Scotland began to show signs of revived zeal and energy. Her great movement, now so well known as the “Ten Years’ Conflict,” did not excite in these islands the interest its importance demanded. The evangelical party was not largely represented in the county, and those who did belong to it did not take much part in controversy. Towards the end of that remarkable period, the principles for which the Church contended found an able exponent in the Rev. John Ingram, colleague and successor to his father, the minister of Unst. An eloquent and powerful preacher, a devoted minister, and a man endowed at once with a warm heart and profound common sense, Mr Ingram rendered then, as he has done since, great services to evangelical religion and the Free Church. At the Disruption, when his brethren proposed to abandon Shetland, as being too poor to support an unendowed ministry, he was the means of preventing such a step.

One result of the Disruption, in Shetland, was the planting of churches in districts which had not been favoured with them before, being so distant from the parish churches to which they were attached, that it was very difficult, if not impossible, for the people to attend; or in parishes where the ministers had long been unfaithful; or, like those described by Mr Haldane, who “did not preach the gospel.” I could point to several districts where, even within my own recollection, a mighty moral and spiritual reformation has been wrought; but I shall only briefly mention one. The people of the parish or district of Connings-burgh, the most northerly district of the parish or ministry of Dunrossness, were formerly notorious for their ignorance, poverty, drunkenness, quarrelsomeness, and smuggling propensities. A boat’s crew of Conningsburgh men arriving at Lerwick were pretty certain to leave it in an advanced state of intoxication, but probably not before disturbing the peace of the town by a fight Shortly after the Disruption, a Free Church, the first of any denomination since the Reformation, was built at Conningsburgh, the people of which had enjoyed the services of a faithful minister, in the neighbouring parish of Sandwick, for some years before that event. The people of the parish, with scarcely an exception, adhered to this church, and the ministrations of their faithful pastors have been so much blessed, that the formerly savage Conningsburghers have risen greatly in the scale both of religion and morality. Very similar results, although not on so large a scale, are following the recent planting, in very necessitous districts, of United Presbyterian Churches. The efforts of the various non-conforming bodies have produced a most wholesome influence on the Established Church, in stimulating her to greater zeal. With a laudable desire to care for the waste places, she has, during recent years, placed missionaries in several destitute localities, besides endowing two new quoad sacra parishes, and providing them with ordained ministers. Much of the present prosperity of this Church may be attributed to the judicious selection made by the Earl of Zetland, when filling up vacant parishes. What has injured her more than anything else, is the heavy assessments of late imposed in many parishes, for the erection and repair of churches and manses. In several instances, a charge of ten or twelve shillings, and in one case seventeen shillings and sixpence, per pound, has been laid on the whole rental of the parish, that of feuers as well as heritors. These grievotis burdens would be much felt anywhere, but weigh peculiarly heavily on the pockets of the Shetland proprietors, whose Poor Rates and other assessments are already more than they can bear. They formed the chief subject of his speech, when Mr McLaren, M.P. for Edinburgh, in the spring of 1870, moved the second reading of his Bill for Abolishing Compulsory Church Bates in Scotland. It is to be regretted the Church cannot devise some mode of putting an end to this source of weakness to herself, and irritation to the country at large.

In 1860, the timid Protestants of Shetland were alarmed by the cry of “Popery!” Dr Stephen De Junkovskoi, Apostolic Prefect of the Arctic Regions, escorted by two priests of inferior degree, arrived at Lerwick, and founded an outpost of the Church of Rome. Mission premises were soon afterwards secured, but no church built; and since the death of tbeir accomplished clergyman, in 1872, the few members of that communion (chiefly Irish) have been left without a shepherd.

Episcopacy, which had died out more than a century before, reappeared in Shetland in 1861, when a mission was established at Lerwick, under the Rev. Robert Walker. The labours of this worthy gentleman have been devoted chiefly to the poor, the ignorant, and those who had lapsed from attendance at church altogether; and the congregation which regularly assembles in the handsome church of St Magnus is a very tangible proof of his success. The school attached to this church, as mentioned in another connection, has done much good to the many poor children who attend it.

A remarkable revival of religion took place in 1862-3, chiefly through the instrumentality of Mr John Fraser, a gentleman distinguished as much by his abilities and varied accomplishments, as by his devotion to the glory of the Redeemer, and the spiritual welfare of his fellow-men. Mr Fraser itinerated through all the country and held numerous meetings. Wherever he went his services proved most attractive, and crowds flocked to his meetings, often from great distances, across dreary moors and stormy sounds, in the coarsest of weather; while ministers and laymen of all evangelical denominations warmly welcomed, and readily aided him; others, chiefly of the Established Church, stood aloof, or offered opposition. Great interest was awakened, and great excitement prevailed. Many foolish things were no doubt done by foolish men, but there are the best reasons for believing that this great movement was largely conducive, at once, to the glory of God, and the everlasting welfare of mankind. These pages are not the place to discuss the process by which this opinion is arrived at.

The religious and ecclesiastical history of Shetland, thus imperfectly sketched, presents some curious anomalies, and contrasts with other countries. In most countries, but particularly in Scotland, we find an adherence, more or less, to certain religious principles, which prevent the people from being shifted about with every wind of doctrine, and from changing their creed to suit the ever-changing policy of the times. In Shetland, these religious, or rather ecclesiastical principles, are, or at all events have been, unknown. The “true blue ” Presbyterianism, which is such a marked feature of the Scottish character, and which has exerted such a powerful influence on the history of Scotland, is unknown there. The Shetlanders have, in short, always in religious matters “sailed with the running stream.” At the command of their rulers, they nominally abandoned their Paganism, and adopted Popery. At the Reformation, again, they readily attached themselves to the Protestant Church, though sincere Papists at heart. During the prelatic times they were Episcopalians, and after the Revolution of 1688 they became Presbyterians. At the Disruption, again, only those who had acceptable pastors who “went out” joined the Free Church. Shetland at the present day is the stronghold of the Establishment; and, until the recent increase of Wesleyan congregations in the larger towns of Scotland, there were, curiously enough, in Shetland more Methodists than in all Scotland together, thus showing how Arminianism, so distasteful to the Scottish people, readily made progress there. The Free Church, though powerful in two or three parishes, is feeble in the county as a whole.

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