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Skye Pioneers and "The Island"
Power of the Kirk

After the Reformation in Scotland the power of the Kirk was very great, and in the exercise of discipline it was very strict. As the Belfast settlers were Presbyterian they naturally brought with them their Church polity. But the atmosphere of North America was not the atmosphere of Scotland. The result was that the exercise of Church discipline was greatly relaxed. In Scotland such offences as drunkeness, blasphemy, profaning the Sabbath, cursing, swearing, absenting oneself from hearing the Word, Examination and Sacrament of the Holy Supper, and other offences rendered the accused liable to be brought before the Kirk Session, where evidence was heard and weighed. The ordinary penalty for general offences was for the guilty party to stand in the Kirk door clothed in sackcloth or in linen, barefoot and bareheaded, and later within the church to confess his guilt. In the presence of the congregation he was then solemnly rebuked.

It is true that in the early days of Belfast church accused persons, on more than one occasion, had to submit to the humiliation of public interrogation for their delinquencies, but although severely and solemnly rebuked, at no time was anyone ever pursued with the harshness that characterized similar investigations in the land of their forefathers.

It is also to the credit of this community that, although there have always been witches in their midst, no one has ever in its history been tried for witchcraft, sorcery, divination, or fortune telling. But the functions of the Kirk-Session in Belfast were not treated lightly, either by themselves or by the members of the community, over whose morals and general conduct they had by long recognized usage a power of investigation. The prospect of moral delinquency being publicly exposed and condemned by this ecclesiastical Witenagemote of long-bearded grave gentlemen, had a deterrent effect that, at least in the early days of the colony, must have strengthened the moral purpose of those who feared the condemnation and social ostracism of their friends, more than they craved the pleasures derived from the pursuit of what their less rigid successors would call innocent pleasures.

The semi-circle of austere elders before the pulpit was visible warning to all potential backsliders that condign punishment might still be meted out to those whose conduct fell below church standards as interpreted by them.

But there was another side to the character of these stern men. If they seemed hard on occasions, they could be, and often were, tender. Their kindness to the lower forms of animal life in particular was striking.

It often seemed as if it were touched with the spirit of fatalism. They believed firmly in a special guiding Providence, and any indication of the Divine hand was treated as personal, and was not to be ignored.

On one occasion, at a meeting of the elders of the Murray Harbor Road church, during the incumbency of Rev. Donald Macdonald, a complaint was lodged on behalf of some of the worshippers, that their minds were distracted during the sacred services by the twitterings of swallows nesting in the chimneys. Finally Mr. William Macphail was asked to "go on." Standing up before the assembled elders, and taking in his hands the ponderous Bible that was resting on the table, he allowed it to fall open where it would. It was understood that the chapter thus exposed to view was the one Divinely appointed to be read. When he had finished the lines "Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine Altars, O Lord of Hosts, my King, and my God," the fate of the swallows was settled. After a brief prayer was said the meeting was dispersed. Until these cheerful visitors betook themselves to a sunnier home in the south their merry twittering was a part of each service as unfailing as the reading of Holy Writ itself.

Looking back over the great part the elders played in the Presbyterian Church of early days, one cannot but be amazed at their profound knowledge of Scripture. It almost seemed as if they knew the Bible from cover to cover. Did the minister fail to appear there was always an elder capable of expounding the Word with a fullness of allusion and wealth of illustration that would put to shame the modern college-bred clergyman.

The elders trained under Rev. Donald Macdonald were singularly well equipped in this regard, and that master often met his match in the elders' semi-circle before his pulpit.

Those who have listened to the public prayers of the elders, and of other disciples of Rev. Mr. Macdonald, will never forget the matchless display of apt Bible quotation pouring forth in fine periods, with equal fluency in their beloved native Gaelic, or in their adopted English.

Reverend Samuel Angus Martin, now of Manitoba, recalls the occasion when, as a young man, he heard the debate between the elders of the Murray Harbor Road church as to whether "Cook's Helps" should be introduced into the Sunday school. Mr. William Macphail spoke in favor of the innovation. Ewen Lamont, a local preacher, arose and condemned the proposal. He made a speech filled with deep emotion. Finally, taking one of the pamphlets in his hands, and holding it aloft, he exclaimed with great feeling as he tore it asunder, "This is the human help to aid the Bible you would introduce into the Sunday school."

At the home of his father Samuel Martin, of Uigg, family worship was being conducted by Alexander MacEachern, of Millview. Before the service was commenced Mr. MacEachern turned all pictures in the room face to the wall, and put out the cat and dog. He recalls another occasion in the same house when the same gentleman was conducting worship. While he was praying the chimney caught fire. All the men and boys in the room went to help extinguish the blaze. The roof was scaled and salt and water applied to the roaring chimney. When the fire was finally extinguished and they returned to the room Mr. McEachern was still on his knees in prayer, exhibiting no outward show of emotion, or consciousness of the distraction that had driven others from the menaced house.

Mrs. Mary J. MacLeod, widow of Rev. D. B. MacLeod of Orwell, on the death of her father was adopted by her relative, Donald Joiner MacLeod, elder, of Kinross. Of the many customs which she recalls in this excellent household was that of the daily morning prayer. When Mr. MacLeod had the Bible ready, he called upon the women to cover their heads as enjoined by St. Paul: "Every woman that prayeth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head (Cor. 1, 2.)." On these occasions the women present seized anything near at hand, such as an apron, men's hats, or any other object. On one occasion a lady visitor who was not aware of the customs of the house, on being offered a bonnet, replied "No thank you, my head is not cold."


There was the usual strong Presbyterian aversion to Sunday work and play. Anything tending to gaiety and happiness on that day was frowned upon as lacking in piety. Music and singing were restricted to that of a religious character. When the younger parishioners decided to instal, and did instal, an organ in the "Little" Church at Orwell cross-roads, there was great opposition on the part of a few of the more reactionary of the older generation at the ungodly innovation. This was as late as 1892. In as far as was possible provision was made on the previous day for the wants of the Sunday. Wood was prepared, water drawn, food cooked, all that a greater reverence might be shown the Almighty. These restrictions seem strange today, but the moral chastisement that followed their breach was a thing so potent that only the boldest dared defy.

Life among these Scots was a serious matter, and it was the studied intention and purpose of the older generation to keep it so.

The general atmosphere of the community was that there was an avenging God hovering overhead, or concealed in the adjoining forest, ever ready to pounce upon the guilty for breach of sacred or even profane duty. A sort of shadow hung over the moral atmosphere, which restrained and checked the natural flow of lively emotion and good spirits. The gaiety one usually finds in an English community was lacking.

Their pleasures and recreations were few. The times were hard. From infancy they knew self-denial and toil. Even the bare necessities of life were obtained only after fatiguing manual labor. It is not to be wondered at that their few and simple pleasures were taken almost sadly. Only under the spell of whisky did they entirely forget the sober hardships of a life of toil.

Their sombre outlook on life may have been due to qualities inherited from ancestors whose environment in a land of mist and mountain compelled an age-long struggle to force a bare living from unwilling nature.

Superstition was equally common among the Scots and Irish. In each there was a sensitive apprehension of the supernatural that is not found in the more logical English mind. The world about them seemed full of ghosts and fairies, and every unusual occurrence and dream had its mysterious significance. If a star were seen to fall, or a light to hover near a home, it presaged therein an early break in the family circle.

Living as they did in the woods, their surroundings were gloomy. The wind whistling through the dark forest, the crashing of falling trees, the foreboding shadows of the night, all added to their fear of Nature. As they sat around their hearth fire, listening to tales of warlocks and witches, their wildest fears were aroused. The fickle shadow from the pine knot dancing on the cabin wall assumed the form of hideous and malignant monsters waiting to lay cruel and avenging hands upon them. Although their intellect mocked their credulity, they were never able to free themselves entirely from the belief that there was a menacing force acting independent of the Natural and of the Divine.

The native honesty of the people manifested itself in their business relations. To ask for security for debt was unheard of. Promissory Notes were not in use, and refusal to honor an obligation was looked upon with great scorn.

Many of the Scots and Irish were hard drinkers. Public opinion did not then condemn drunkenness as it does today, and men were not ostracised for it. Rum was provided always at stumping frolics, and other such gatherings. Although ready money was scarce there seemed always to be a way to buy it in quantity on these occasions. No matter how great the supply the capacity of those in attendance seemed even greater. As long as the gathering consisted of neighbors there was no quarreling, but when the whole countryside assembled together, as at a "trot," as the horse race was called, there was occasion found by someone to break the peace, and several knots of men might be seen at the same time, in various places, circling around two or more half-drunken men, each of whom declared with oaths and curses that he was champion of Belfast.

Those living near taverns were scandalized frequently by shameful scenes of revelry. Drunken men reeled about the roads insulting, with profane and filthy language, and sometimes with physical assault, all whom they met.

Weddings were sometimes marked by unseemly conduct on the part of drinkers, and, strange as it may seem today, funerals likewise were seized upon by some as occasions for great license, but never to the same extent as the Irish wake. On one occasion there was a thickening frolic at the home of a resident of Orwell. To slake the thirst that seemed to seize everyone at such gatherings the head of the house started on foot for Eldon with an empty rum jar. A wild winter storm came up during the afternoon. Next morning friends seeking the missing one found his frozen body at the top of the hill near Orwell bridge, within a mile of home and safety.

The clergy of all denominations urged a more moderate use of alcohol. A change came about slowly, and today drinking to excess is a very rare occurrence.

In Father James Phalen, of Vernon River Parish, and his brother, Father William Phalen, of Montague Parish, the liquor interests had two notable opponents. Two more worthy or faithful servants of their church it would be difficult to find. Ever striving to help the lot of their parishioners, they were feared and respected leaders of their respective flocks.

Of the latter it is related that during a certain political and religious agitation, perhaps over the "Manitoba School Question," he made a memorable statement. An election was about to be held. He had just finished reading an episcopal message from the pulpit when he addressed his audience as follows: "And now, as in duty bound, I have read the message of my ecclesiastical superiors. As for myself, I mean to vote for Mr. Welsh on election day."

It need scarcely be said that Mr. William Welsh was the candidate of the Liberal party, against which the wrath of the hierarchy was directed.


Anyone who expressed a desire to formally unite with the church was personally examined as to his or her faith and conduct, by the minister and elders of the church, a few days before Sacramental Sunday. If it was found to the satisfaction of the examining board that the applicant was a person worthy to partake of the Sacrament, he was given a small paper ticket, called a "token," on which was printed the words "This do in remembrance of Me." On Sunday, when Sacrament was being administered by the clergy, assisted by certain of the elders, the candidate could, on coming forward and giving up the token, receive the bread and wine. At this time individual cups were not in use. A few days before this event the "ruling" elder, or one of his brethren, drove to Charlottetown, and purchased the necessary wine from one of the dealers there. The people looked upon the occasion as a very solemn one, fraught with the possibility of much good or ill, depending on the uses made of the privileges of Grace thus so freely offered.

Sacrament was held once a year in June. Preparatory services were held in the forenoon of Friday and Saturday preceding the observance of that ordinance. At these services the minister was usually assisted by one, or more, clergyman, generally from adjoining parishes. At these services the people were encouraged to make a serious survey of their lives and to resolve on future conduct more in keeping with their privileges.

On Sunday morning the spectator might discern in the distance trailing clouds of dust that marked the approach of a great concourse of pilgrims, on every road leading to the church. Long before eleven o'clock, when the services were scheduled to begin, the sacred edifice was crowded to the doors, while outside, standing or seated on the grass, were many times the number inside. A movable pulpit, which was used for the same purpose from year to year, was provided for the clergy officiating outside. It was customary for the older people to worship in the church where the Sacrament was dispensed. Those taking it sat in the front seats, near the table on which the Bread and Wine were placed. After partaking of the symbols they withdrew to make way for others from outside. The parish minister usually conducted the service in the church, assisted sometimes by a minister from a neighboring parish, whose church was closed for that Sunday. The scene outside was one of extraordinary interest. Here was a minister in one of nature's beauty spots, addressing a gathering of romantic and pious Highlanders in their native tongue far from the land of their birth. The whole scene was such as to touch the tenderest and most responsive chords in the soul of this emotional people. About them were the graves and headstones that called to mind their dear departed. To the splendor of the overspreading trees was added the beauty of the verdant slope bedecked with buttercups and daisies, extending to the Pinette below. The fitful breeze wafted sounds of falling waters on the ear. The healing "balm of resinous gums," like incense, floated on the air. A sense of harmony pervaded the hallowed scene.

In such a setting the large congregation listened with bated breath to a rousing sermon in their beloved native Gaelic, and in the same language sang with lusty lungs the old familiar Hebrew Psalms.

The message was so fervid that time sped fast. When one o'clock was reached no one could justly charge their minister (as one of that order was once charged in Scotland) with being "so little serious and concerned, even when he is about immediate worship of God, that he hath been seen frequently, in the pulpit, to take out his watch and look what time of day it was."

When the service was over, the pious worshippers returned to their several homes refreshed, and with a feeling of exaltation derived from communion with spiritual things in surroundings made sacred by the blood of their fathers.

On the Monday morning following, the minister of the parish conducted a brief service that concluded the greatest annual religious and social event of the year in the life of the little parish, isolated in an out-of-the-way corner of the continent.

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