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Sketch of the Civil and Traditional History of Caithness from the Tenth Century
Chapter XIV

Several of the Established schoolmasters and ministers of Caithness of a former age, were highly talented men. Among the more distinguished of the latter for learning and ability, may be instanced the late Alexander Pope of Reay, Thomas Jolly of Dunnet, Dr Morison of Canisbay, and the two brothers, William Smith of Bower and James Smith of Canisbay. A brief account of each of these clergymen may be interesting.


The late Mr Pope of Reay was in some respects a remarkable man. He was a native of the parish of Loth, in the county of Sutherland, of which parish his father, the Reverend Hector Pope, was Episcopal clergyman. Having adopted Presbyterian views, the son became a licentiate of the Church of Scotland, and on the 5th September, 1734, was ordained minister of Reay. The new incumbent was admirably fitted for the charge. He was possessed of great bodily strength as well as vigour of intellect; and strange though it may sound, he was not a little indebted to the former quality for his success as a moral and religious reformer. At the time of his induction, the parish of Reay might be said to be in a state of semi-barbarism. The natives were in general grossly ignorant, disorderly, and intractable, and in his intercourse with them Mr Pope had frequent occasion to avail himself of his physical powers. During the first year or two of his ministry, he never went through the parish, or even ascended the pulpit without a good cudgel in his hand, either to defend himself in case of attack, or to inflict corporeal punishment on such reprobates as were inaccessible to reproof in any other way. Mr Carruthers, in his excellent memoir of Pope the poet, having occasion to allude to the minister of Reay, says, "He used to drive his graceless parishioners to church with a stick, when he found them engaged on Sundays at games out of doors. Another of his reforming expedients was making all the rough characters of his parish elders of the church, so that, invested with ecclesiastical dignity and responsibility, they might be ashamed of vicious practices."

Touching this matter, there are several amusing anecdotes told of Mr Pope. I will just mention one of them. There was one resolute character in the outskirts of the parish, who had hitherto defied all attempts to get him to come to church. The minister had repeatedly sent messages to him, expressing a wish to see him at the manse, but Donald always declined the honour, and said that he had no desire or ambition to cultivate his acquaintance. The parties as yet had not seen each other; and as Donald would not visit the minister, the minister resolved to visit Donald. Accordingly he set out one day, and arrived in the evening at the house of his refractory parishioner. He passed himself off as a wayfaring man, and as Highlanders have at all times been noted for hospitality, he no sooner solicited quarters for the night than it was granted him. He was provided with a homely but substantial repast, and he and his host chatted away very agreeably till bed-time. Donald then pointed to his couch, a primitive shake-down of heather, with a deer-skin for a coverlet, in one corner of the hut. But the stranger declined betaking himself to repose until they had gone through the duty of worship.

"You will have to pray, Donald," said he.

Donald looked at the man with astonishment, and said he would do nothing of the kind; he had no talent in that way.

"But you must pray," rejoined the stranger; "I will make you do it, and on your knees too."

"Will you?" said Donald; "you'll be a clever fellow then; no, Mr Pope himself, the minister, strong man though he be, will not make me do that."

"Well, I'm Mr Pope," said the stranger; "and as you are an obstinate sinner, I order you to go to your knees instantly, or you'll repent it from every bone in your body."

Donald's wrath was now fairly kindled. Up he started to his feet, and up started the parson at the same time, and, without further parley, they set to with clenched fists in regular style. But Donald, though he fought like a hero, was no match for the minister; and at length yielding up the contest, he said that he would try to do his bidding. He then knelt down, and uttered the following ejaculation:—"O Lord! thou knowest herself cannot pray."

"That will do," cried Mr Pope, "that is a very good beginning. I shall conclude the service of the evening myself with a few words of exhortation, after which we will retire to bed."

This singular visit to Donald was, under Providence, the means of producing a complete and happy change in his conduct. From that day henceforward, he became a reformed man; and the minister, who felt a peculiar interest in his new convert, made him an elder of the church.

The worthy minister, with many solid and excellent qualities, had a strong dash of eccentricity and enthusiasm in his composition; and one romantic adventure of his forms a highly interesting passage of his life. Mr Carruthers thus tells the story:—"The northern Alexander Pope entertained a profound admiration for his illustrious namesake of England; and it is a curious and well-ascertained fact that the simple enthusiastic clergyman, in the summer of 1732, [There is an error of date here. Mr Pope was not minister of Reay in 1732, but was residing at Dornoch, and it must have been from the latter place that he rode to Twickenham.] rode on his pony all the way from Caithness to Twickenham, in order to pay the poet a visit. The latter felt his dignity a little touched by the want of the necessary pomp and circumstance with which the minister first presumed to approach his domicile; but after the ice of outward ceremony had in some degree been broken, and their intellects had come into contact, the poet became interested, and a friendly feeling was established between them. Several interviews took place, and the poet presented his good friend and namesake, the minister of Reay, with a copy of the subscription edition of the Odyssey in five volumes quarto."

Besides being an able and popular preacher, Mr Pope of Reay was a man of considerable literary talent, and a celebrated archaeologist in his day. He translated from the Latin into English as much of the "Orcades" of Torfaeus as bears on the ancient history of Caithness; and he is the author of the Appendix, No. V., in Pennant's Tour, which gives a brief account of the antiquities and statistics of the several parishes in Caithness and Sutherland. He died on the 2d March, 1782, after an incumbency of forty-eight years.


The late Mr Thomas Jolly, minister of Dunnet, was a native of Mearns or Kincardineshire, and was born on the 24th January, 1754. His parents belonged to the Scotch Episcopal Church, and he himself was, of course, bred up in that form of worship; but he changed his views, and joined the Established Church. This step, it is said, greatly displeased his relatives, who were keen Episcopalians, and looked upon the Church of Scotland as no church at all. He came first to Caithness as tutor to the late James Traill, Esquire of Rattar. In 1778 he was appointed assistant to Mr Traill's father, the Reverend Dr Traill of Dunnet; and, on the death of that clergyman, was presented to the church of Dunnet, by the late Sir John Sinclair, and settled minister thereof, in the year 1784. Mr Jolly was a most ingenious man, and an excellent scholar. Previous to receiving the presentation to Dunnet, he had been offered the professorship of humanity in one of the colleges of the United States—a situation for which he was eminently qualified by his high classical attainments, and his profound and accurate knowledge of the Latin language. He was perhaps the best Latinist of his time in the north of Scotland. Being unwilling, however, to relinquish his views towards the ministry, he declined the honour of the academical chair.

At the time of his settlement at Dunnet, there was no medical practitioner nearer than Wick or Thurso; and having a good deal of medical skill himself, he was for many years both the physician and the pastor of his people. He always kept a stock of medicines, which he gave gratuitously to the sick; and his manner of treating diseases was so successful, that individuals came to consult him from all parts of the country.

Though highly esteemed by his congregation, Mr Jolly was not what is usually termed a popular preacher. He never indulged in vague declamation, or in any of those extravagances of gesture and expression that are so taking with the uneducated vulgar. He chiefly addressed himself to the understanding of his hearers; and while he gave due weight to the fundamental doctrines of religion, he always insisted on the practical effects which those doctrines were intended to produce. The matter of his discourses was always instructive, clear, and well arranged, and his style of composition singularly neat and chaste. In 1822, he published a sermon "On the Redeemed from the Earth," from Rev. xiv. 3. The leading idea is original, or at least not very common among divines; and the discourse is a remarkable production, full of ingenuity, and written in his usual chaste and perspicuous style. Dr Andrew Thomson, in his review of the sermon in the "Christian Instructor," gave it all due praise as a most ingenious exposition, though he would not say the point was demonstrably established of that particular passage of the Apocalypse. Mr Jolly was also the author of a letter to Dr Chalmers immediately before the Disruption, which letter, from its remarkable ability—for he was then verging on ninety years of age—and its mild but earnest tone of remonstrance, coming from an aged brother, who, it might be said, was calmly waiting his removal to a better world, excited at the time a good deal of public attention. Being zealously and conscientiously attached to the Established Church, as, in his view, the noblest and most perfect Christian institute in the world, he deeply deplored this calamitous event, which he considered calculated to embitter all the sources of social happiness, and to exercise an injurious effect on the best interests of religion. He devoted much of his time to the study of the Scriptures in the original; and amongst his unpublished writings was found an elaborate treatise, entitled an "Essay on Justification," extending to upwards of 100 pages. It is divided into seven sections; and from the great care with which it is written, he would seem at one period to have had the intention of publishing it.

At the time of his death in 1845, he had nearly completed his 91st year, having held the incumbency for the unusually long period of sixty years. In person Mr Jolly was considerably below the middle size, but his head was large and well developed, and his eye keen and penetrating. In his habits he was remarkable for his regularity, and this must no doubt have greatly conduced to that uninterrupted good health which he so long enjoyed. He never had an assistant, and ho preached until within a fortnight of his death. He was succeeded in the charge by his son, the Reverend Peter Jolly, a highly talented man, and an excellent preacher, who, at the time of his father's decease, was minister of Canisbay.


Dr John Morison, the author of some of our finest paraphrases, was a native of the parish of Cairnie, in the presbytery of Strathbogie, and county of Aberdeen. He was born in the year 1750. After finishing his academical course at King's College, Aberdeen, he came to Caithness in the year 1768, to teach the family of a Mr Manson of Greenland. [The Greenland mentioned above is the name of a township in the parish of Dunnet.] Having remained two years in Greenland, Mr Morison removed to the parish of Halkirk, and was tutor for three years in the family of Mr Williamson of Banniskirk. After that, he taught the school of Thurso for about half a year. On becoming a licentiate of the church he went to Edinburgh, where he resided some months, improving himself in the art of elocution, and enlarging his knowledge of the Greek language and literature, of which he was passionately fond, under Professor Dalziel. While in Edinburgh, he made the acquaintance of Dr Macfarlane, who was afterwards appointed one of the committee for making the selection of the paraphrases that were added to the psalmody. After leaving that city he went north, and was engaged as tutor in the family of Colonel Sutherland of Uppat, in the county of Sutherland. While there, he was fortunate enough to meet Mr Sinclair of Freswick, Sheriff of Caithness, who formed such a high opinion of Mr Morison's talents, that on the death of Mr Brodie, the minister, in 1780, he presented him to the church of Canisbay, of which he was patron. As a preacher, Mr Morison was greatly distinguished for his eloquence. His command of language and liveliness of fancy, it is said, were such, that he seldom was at the trouble to write out his sermons, but preached extempore, or at least with very little previous study. Of his uncommon readiness in this way an interesting anecdote is told. Being in Wick on a certain occasion, Mr Sutherland, the minister, happened to ' say that he would give him a text from which ho would not be able to extemporise a sermon. Mr Morison said if it was a scriptural text he would try it. Accordingly on the Sunday forenoon, after he had ascended the pulpit, the precentor handed him a slip of paper on which was the following from Luke xiv. 34, "But if the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned?" When the introductory part of the service was over Mr Morison gave out his text, and seemingly with the greatest ease preached a most eloquent and instructive discourse, to the great delight of the congregation and the utter astonishment of their pastor.

On the 3d of August, 1792, he obtained the degree of D.D. from the University of Edinburgh, on the recommendation of Professor Dalziel.

He sent twenty paraphrases to Dr Macfarlane, who laid them before the committee. [In the list of members of this committee appear the names of Principal Robertson, Dr Hugh Blair, Dr Webster, Professor George Hill, Dr John Ogilvie, and Dr Alexander Carlyle of Inveresk.] The merit of the whole was acknowledged; but owing to the great number of contributors, and the limited number of pieces to be printed, only seven of Dr Morison's were selected. One of his rejected paraphrases is the following, which we think equal in point of poetical merit to any of those that were admitted into the collection:—

Isaiah xlii. 10-13.

A new song to the Lord our God,
All ends of th' earth begin;
In songs of praise break forth, ye isles,
And all that dwell therein.

Ye rocks with all your vocal tribes,
Aloft your voices raise;
Ye seas with all your swarms declare
The great Creator's praise.

And ye that oft in whelming floods,
His works of wonder view,
O sing of Him whose saving light
Beams marvellous on you.

In hallelujah's long and loud,
To Him all praise be given,
Whose presence fills the spacious earth,
And boundless waste of heaven.

The committee at the same time expressed their regret that more could not be admitted, without seeming on their part to neglect or overlook the many contributions of others. His paraphrases are the 19, 21, 27, 28, 29, 30, and 35. Several poetical pieces of his on various subjects appeared in "Rudi-man's Weekly Magazine," between the years 1771 and 1775, bearing the signature of "Musaeus." But these do not rise above the ordinary magazine poetry of the period, which, the student of English literature knows, was dull and mediocre enough. It is only as a sacred poet that Dr Morison shone with any brilliancy. His genius kindled at the Christian altar. It seemed to catch inspiration from the divine theme; and his compositions in this way are characterised by a beautiful simplicity and depth of poetic feeling, that strike the most careless reader.

Among other amusements of his leisure hours, he translated Herodian's history from the Greek, a part of which, as a specimen of the performance, he sent to professor Dalziel, who praised it very highly; but, from the original work not possessing any great inherent interest, it was never published. He also collected the topographical history of Caithness for George Chalmers' "Caledonia."

Soon after his induction to Canisbay, he married Miss Catharine Black, only daughter of Mr James Black, factor for the Duke of Gordon. By this lady he had a son and three daughters.

Dr Morison died on the 12th June, 1798—comparatively a young man—in the forty-eighth year of his age, and eighteenth of his ministry. The last time he appeared in the pulpit, was during the war with France, when, the country being menaced with danger from her enemies at home and abroad, the church was, on some particular occasion, called upon to arouse the patriotic feelings of the people, and to set before them the many blessings and advantages, civil and religious, which they enjoyed under the British constitution. His text was from 1 Samuel i. 10, 24, "God save the King." The subject was one. peculiarly suited to his genius; and his discourse is said to have been a masterpiece of eloquence, and to have electrified the congregation. The complaint of which he died was a decline brought on by exposure to wet and cold. His remains were interred in the churchyard of Canisbay; and it is mortifying to think that not even a common slab indicates the spot where reposes the dust of one of the best poets of the Church of Scotland.


Mr William Smith was a native of the county, and the eldest son of the reverend Alexander Smith, minister of Olrig. On the death of the Reverend James Oliphant of Bower, he was presented to that living, on the 17th September, 1788, by Miss Scott, eldest daughter and heiress of Major General Scott of Balcomie, in whose family the patronage was then vested. The presentation was signed by commissioners appointed by Miss Scott, one of whom was the celebrated Henry Dundas, treasurer of the navy. At the time of his induction he was quite a young man, and for many years he was one of the most popular preachers in the county. He was particularly distinguished as a linguist. Besides being acquainted with several of the modern languages, he was a thorough proficient in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Latterly, he applied himself vigorously to the study of the Gaelic, under the instruction of an old catechist from the Highlands, and he made such progress in that language, that he fancied he could preach in it. At any rate, he was fully bent on giving it a trial. Accordingly, having on one occasion gone to Halkirk to assist at the communion, (Gaelic and English discourses being regularly delivered there,) he intimated to Mr Cameron, the minister, his wish to preach a Gaelic sermon to the people. Mr Cameron, a noted humorist, was amazed at the proposal, and it was with no little difficulty that he got him advised to give up the idea. He assured him that none but a born Highlander could preach in Gaelic, and that if he attempted to open his mouth in that tongue, he would, with his bad pronunciation and his blunders, set the whole congregation a-laughing at him.

With a vast fund of learning, much quaint and satirical humour, and a great knowledge of human nature, Mr Smith mingled a strong dash of eccentricity. One of his peculiarities was a fondness for travelling in the night season, and particularly in bad weather. If he happened to be at a meeting of Presbytery in Wick or Thurso, the darkest and stormiest night in winter would not deter him from setting out, and proceeding on his journey homewards.

Allusion has been made to his knowledge of human nature. None knew better than he the habits, modes of thinking, prejudices, and superstitions of the peasantry of Caithness; and when he descanted on this subject from the pulpit, "holding the mirror up to nature," it was a perfect treat to hear him. In what may be termed moral anatomy, he wa8 unrivalled as a dissector. His knife was blunt, but it did the work of cutting up effectually. He was particularly severe on those who gave long prayers, and made a great noise about religion, but whose conduct did not correspond with their profession. It happened that one of his own elders, a decent sort of man upon the whole, had, on one occasion, imbibed rather more liquor than was consistent with the dignity and responsibility of his office. The matter soon reached the ears of the minister, and the method he took to rebuke the erring member of his kirk-session was not a little strange. The next Sabbath, when the religious service was over, but before the pronouncing of the blessing, and when the elder in question was going round with the "brod," or ladle, for the usual collection for the poor, Mr Smith rose and thus addressed the congregation:—"My brethren, we are told in Scripture that the elders of old were filled with the Holy Spirit; but nowadays they're filled with John Barleycorn!" Having thus delivered himself, he resumed his seat in the pulpit. As the fama against the elder was widely known through the parish, every eye in the church was instantly turned on the poor man, and the congregation could not help giving way to a smothered laugh.

Mr Smith published one or two sermons during his lifetime ; but although they were highly evangelical and learned, they did not add much to his literary fame. He was unfortunately a careless composer, immethodical, and digressive; and his discourses wanted that connected train of thought and elegance of style so necessary to secure the attention of the better class of readers. He died in 1846, in the 78th year of his age.


Mr James Smith, who succeeded Dr Morison, was a most amiable and accomplished man, and an excellent classical scholar. Before his appointment to Canisbay, he was for a short time tutor at Barrogill Castle, in the family of the Earl of Caithness. Mr Smith was a man of fine taste. His sermons, which he wrote with great care, were models of elegance, and reminded one of the style of Blair. They were indeed too fine for his audience; and the consequence was, that he was not popular as a preacher, though in every other respect he was much esteemed and beloved by his people.

Mr Smith's life presents few incidents or salient points of much biographical interest; but the following anecdote may be given as a proof of his kindly, unsuspecting nature:— Living, as he did, so near John O'Groat's, and being noted for his hospitable disposition, Mr Smith had occasionally a visit from some of those tourists who, in the summer and autumn months, came to see that celebrated locality. One forenoon a stranger gentleman called at the manse, and, addressing the minister in Latin, told him that he was a native of Hungary, a Protestant, and a Professor of Humanity in one of the colleges in that country, and that he was at present travelling through Britain chiefly for the benefit of his health. He had only a few words of English; but he knew his reverence was a scholar, and would be able to converse with him in the good old Roman tongue. Mr Smith felt interested, and, brushing up his Latin, said he was happy to make his acquaintance, and asked him to remain and take dinner with him, which he readily consented to do. The conversation was carried on in Latin—rather stiffly at first on the part of the minister, who was often at a loss to give the Latin terms for common things. , The professor, considering that he was a valetudinarian, played a capital knife and fork, and relished very much his tumbler of toddy, declaring that the man who first invented it should have had a statue erected to his memory! To entertain his host, he sung with great spirit some of the odes of Horace; and, in short, proved so intellectual and fascinating a companion, that Mr Smith—who was then untroubled with the cares of matrimony—kept him at the manse for about a month, during which time the professor enjoyed himself greatly, and made a rapid proficiency in English! On taking his leave, the kind-hearted clergyman expressed himself as sorry at parting with him, and said he sincerely hoped he would get safe home to his own country. But the good worthy man was in this instance imposed upon. The professor was not the "genuine article;" for it was afterwards found out that he was an accomplished rogue, and a Jesuit in disguise.

Mr Smith died in 1826, at the comparatively early age of 51.

The Established Church and the Free Church embrace the greater part of the community in Caithness. The other religious denominations are the Original and U. P. Seceders, the Baptists and Independents, with a small body of Reformed Presbyterians, and another of Episcopalians. The Romish, Church has no footing in the county; and there is not, we believe, a single pervert to Romanism among the entire population. There is a chapel in Pulteneytown for the accommodation of such strangers of that communion as come to Wick at the time of the herring fishing, which usually lasts about three months, but except for that brief period, the chapel is seldom opened or used as a place of religious worship. The Original Seceders and the Baptists have long been established in the county. One of the first ministers of the former was a Mr Dowie, whose memory is still held in great veneration by that body. The founder of the Baptists in Caithness was Sir William Sinclair of Keiss, who belonged to the Dunbeath family, and was, properly speaking, baronet of Dunbeath. His lady was a daughter of Sir James Dunbar of Hempriggs.

On embracing Baptist views, Sir William went to London, and was there formally baptised, and admitted a member of his adopted church. He commenced preaching in Caithness about the year 1750, and continued to do so with great zeal for the space of fourteen years. He formed a church at Keiss, over which he regularly presided as pastor. In 1765 he left the county and went to Edinburgh, where he died two years afterwards. Sir William published in his lifetime a small collection of hymns of his own composition, sixty in number, which are still sung—-or were till very lately—at the meetings of the Baptists for religious exercises at Keiss. In this peculiar department of sacred literature the worthy baronet did not shine. The hymns contain no poetry properly so-called, but they indicate a mind imbued with deep and fervent piety. Sir William, we have heard, was in his younger days a short time in the army. While there, he learned to become an expert swordsman; and touching his skill in this way the following curious anecdote is related:—A good many years after he had retired from the service, and while he was one forenoon in his study intently engaged in perusing some treatise bearing on his peculiar religious views, his valet announced that a stranger wished to see him. The servant was ordered to show him into the apartment, when in stalked a strong muscular-looking man, with a formidable Andrea Ferrara hanging by his side, and making a low obeisance, thus addressed the baronet:—

"Sir William, I hope you will pardon my intrusion. I am a native of England, and a professional swordsman. In the course of my travels through Scotland, I have not yet met with a gentleman able to cope with me in the noble science of defence. Since I came to Caithness, I have heard that you are an adept at my favourite weapon, and I have called to see if you would do me the honour to exchange a few passes with me, just in the way of testing our respective abilities."

Sir William was not a little astonished and amused at this singular request, and replied that he had long ago thrown aside the sword, and except in case of necessity, never intended to use it any more. But the stranger would take no denial, and earnestly insisted that he would favour him with a proof of his skill.

"Very well," said Sir William, "to please you I shall do so."

And rising and fetching his sword, he desired the fellow, who to appearance was an ugly-looking customer, to draw and defend himself. After a pass or two, Sir William with a dexterous stroke cut off a button from the vest of his opponent.

"Will that satisfy you," inquired the baronet, "or shall I go a little deeper and draw blood?"

"O, I am perfectly satisfied," said the other. "I find I have for once met with a gentleman who knows how to handle the sword."

The story ends here; but there is little doubt that the worthy baronet, before he allowed his visitant to depart, would seize the opportunity of reasoning with him on the folly of his conduct, and directing his attention to a more rational and Christian course of life. The Caithness Baptists cherish with affectionate regard the memory of Sir William. The Independents in Caithness owe their origin to the visit of the celebrated Messrs Haldane and Aikman to the county in 1797. The Reformed Presbyterians have existed among us for some time back; but the Episcopalians are of recent introduction, and consist principally of strangers from the south. Their preaching station is in Wick.

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