Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Memoir of Norman MacLeod, D.D

AT the end of last century there were two families residing on opposite shores of the Sound of Mull, in Argyllshire, their houses fronting one another across the blue strait which winds in from the Atlantic. From the windows of the Manse of Mr. Macleod, the minister of Morven, on the mainland, could be seen the dark ruins of the old castle of Aros, in the island of Mull, frowning from its rocky eminence over the Bay of Salen, and behind the castle appeared the house of Mr. Maxwell, the chamberlain of the Duke of Argyll, and "tacksman" [There are few now remaining or the class called "Gentlemen Tacksmen," who ranked between laird and farmer, and once formed the bone and sinew of the Highlands.] of Aros. These were the homes where the father and mother of Norman Macleod were then enjoying their happy youth.

This memoir must begin with a sketch of these families, and of the early life of that youthful pair; for on few men had early influences a more permanent hold than on Norman Macleod. What he was to the last, in some of the most conspicuous features of his character, could he easily traced to the early associations which clustered round Morven and Mull. The Highlands of those days no longer exist, but he inhaled in his childhood the aroma of an olden time, and learned from both lather and mother so much of its healthy and kindly spirit, as left about his life, to the last moment, a fragrance of the romance of which it was full.

Except to those immediately concerned, genealogies are uninteresting, and those of Highland families, with their endless ramifications, eminently unprofitable. It will be sufficient to state that I have before me a family "tree,"—such as used to be so common in the Highlands— in which are the names of the Camerons of Glendessary, scions of Lochiel; of the Campbells of Ensay and of Saddell; of the MacNeils of Crear; of the MacNeils of Drumdrissaig; and of the Campbells of Duntroon—names once well known in their own country, although now, alas! in some instances only found there on moss-grown tombstones.

Not far from Dunvegan Castle, in Skye, a roofless house,—its garden weed-grown and abandoned to utter solitude,—marks the place where lived Donald Macleod, the tacksman of Swordale, who married Anne Campbell, a sister of Campbell of Glensaddell. He was the great grand-father of Norman, who used to repeat with grateful memory the tradition of Swordale, "having been a good man, and the first in his neighbourhood to introduce regular family worship." The eldest son of this good man, and the grandfather of the subject of this memoir, was called Norman. He was educated for the Church, and in the year 1774 was ordained minister of the parish of Morven, in Argyllshire, that "Highland Parish" so affectionately described in the "Reminiscences." The house of Fiunary, as the Manse was called, has given place to a better and more ornamental dwelling. Pleasant woods now cover the green bank beside the bright burn where stood the square house of orthodox Manse architecture—a porch in the centre and a wing at each end—and where grew up the happiest of families in the most loving of homes. Norman thus describes Morven:—

"A long ridge of hill, rising some two thousand feet above the sea, its brown sides, up to a certain height, chequered with green strips and patches of cultivation, brown heather, thatched cottages, with white walls; here and there a mansion, whose chimneys are seen above the trees which shelter it;—these are the chief features along its sea-board of many miles. But how different is the whole scene when one lands! New beauties reveal themselves, and every object seems to change its size, appearance, and relative position. A rocky wall of wondrous beauty, the rampart of the old upraised beach which girdles Scotland, runs along the shore; the natural wildwood of ash, oak, and birch, with the hazel-copse, clothes the lower hills, and shelters the herds of wandering cattle; lonely sequestered bays are everywhere scooped out into beautiful harbours; points and promontories seem to grow out of the land; and huge dykes of whinstone fashion to themselves the most picturesque outlines; clear streams everywhere hasten on to the sea; small glens, perfect gems of beauty, open up entrances into deep dark pools, hemmed in by steep banks, hanging with rowan-trees, ivy, honeysuckle, and ferns; while on the hillsides scattered cottages, small farms, and shepherds' huts, the signs of culture and industry, give life to the whole scene."

This minister of Morven was in many ways a remarkable man. Noble-looking and eloquent, a good scholar, and true pastor, he lived as a patriarch among his people. He had a small stipend, and, as its usual concomitant, a large family. Sixteen children were born in the Manse, and a number of families—a shepherd, a boatman, a ploughman,—were settled on the glebe with others who had come there in their need, and were not turned away. Never was a simpler or more loving household. The minister delighted to make all around him happy. His piety was earnest, healthy and genial. If the boys had their classics and the girls their needlework, there was no grudging of their enjoyments. The open seas and hills, boats and dogs, shepherds and fishermen, the green height of Fingal's Hill, the Waterfall roaring in the dark gorge, had lessons as full of meaning for their after-life as any that books could impart. The boys were trained from childhood to be manly, and many an hour taken from study was devoted to education of another kind—hunting otters or badgers in their dens, with terriers whose qualities were discussed in every cottage on the glebe; shooting grouse, and stalking the wary black-cock (for no game laws were then enforced in Morven); fishing through the summer nights; or sailing out in the "Sound" with old Rory, the boatman when the wind was high, and the Roe, had to struggle, close-hauled, against the cross-sea and angry tide. In the winter evenings old and young gathered round the fireside, where songs and laughter mingled with graver occupations, and not unfrequently the minister would tune his violin, and, striking up some swinging reel or blythe strathspey, would call on the lads to lay aside their books, and the girls their sewing, and set them to dance with a will to his own hearty music. Family worship, generally conducted in Gaelic, for the sake of such servants as knew little English, ended the day.

Norman's grandmother was one of the tenderest and wisest of minister's wives. The unconscious centre of the every-day life of the household, her husband and children leaned on her at all times, but especially in times of sickness or sorrow; for if there were days of joy, there were also many days, not the less blessed, of great sadness too, and of mournful partings, when one young form after another had to be laid in the old churchyard.

The period when his father [The late Norman Macleod, D.D., Minister of St. Columba, Glasgow, and Dean of the Chapel Royal.] was a boy in Morven was remarkable in many ways. The country was closely inhabited by an intensely Highland people. The hills and retired glens, where now are spectral gables of roofless houses, or green mounds concealing old homesteads, watched by some ancient tree standing like a solitary mourner by the dead—were then tenanted by a happy and romantic peasantry. It is impossible now, even in imagination, to re-people the Highlands with those who then gave the country the savour of a kindly and enthusiastic clan-life—

"The flocks of the stranger the long glens are roamin',
Where a thousand bien homesteads smoked bonny at gloamin;
The wee crofts run wild wi' the bracken and heather,
And the gables stand ruinous, bare to the weather."

There were many men then alive in Morven who had been out with "bonnie Prince Charlie," and the chivalry of the younger generation was kept aglow by the great French war and the embodiment of the "Argyll Fencibles." Among such influences as these Norman's father grew up and became thoroughly imbued with their spirit. Full of geniality, of wit, and poetry—fired with a passionate love of his country—wielding her ancient language with rare freshness and eloquence—he carried into the work of that sacred ministry to which his life was devoted a broad and healthy human sympathy, and to his latest day seemed to breathe the air imbibed in his youth on the hills of Morven. [See Appendix A]

As the incidents of his life were closely intertwined with those of his son, nothing need here be said of his public career, He was a remarkably handsome man, with a broad forehead, an open countenance full of benevolence, and hair which, from an early age, was snowy white. His voice was rich, and of winning sweetness, and when addressing a public audience, whether speaking to his own flock in the name of Christ, or pleading with strangers on behalf of his beloved Highlands, few could resist the persuasive tenderness of his appeals. He was in many ways the prototype of Norman. His tact and common sense were as remarkable as his pathos and humour. He left the discipline of the children almost entirely to their mother. She was their wise and loving instructor at home, and their constant correspondent in later life; while he rejoiced in sharing their companionship, entering into their fun, and obtaining the frankest confidence of affection. He seldom, if ever, lectured them formally on religious subjects, but spread around him a cheerful, kindly, and truly religious atmosphere, which they unconsciously imbibed. "Were I asked what there was in my father's teaching and training which did us all so much good," Norman wrote at the time of his father's death, "I would say, both in regard to him and my beloved mother,—that it was love and truth. They were both so real and human; no cranks, twists, crotchets, isms or systems of any kind, but loving, sympathizing —giving a genuine blowing-up when it was needed, but passing by. trifles, failures, infirmities, without making a fuss. The liberty they gave was as wise as the restraints they imposed. Their home was happy—intensely happy Christianity was a thing taken for granted, not forced with scowl and frown. I never heard my father speak of Calvinism, Arminianism, Presbyterianism or Episcopacy, or exaggerate doctrinal differences in my life. I had to study all these questions after I left home. I thank God for his free, loving, sympathising and honest heart. He might have made me a slave to any 'ism.' He left me free to love Christ and Christians."

The ancestor of Mr. Maxwell, Norman's maternal grandfather, was a refugee, who, in the time of the "troubles," under Claverhouse, had fled to Kintyre. He was, according to tradition, a younger son of the Maxwells of Newark, and once lay concealed for several weeks in the woods of Saddell, until, being pursued, he escaped to the south end of the peninsula; again discovered, and hotly chased, he rushed into a house where the farmer was carding wool. Immediately apprehending the cause of this sudden intrusion, the man quickly gave the fugitive his own apron and the "cards," so that when the soldiers looked into the kitchen, they passed on without suspecting the industrious youth, who sat "combing the fleece" by the peat hearth. This young Maxwell settled afterwards in the neighbourhood, and his descendants, removing to the half-lowland town of Campbeltown, made good marriages and prospered in the world. Mr. Maxwell, of Aros, had been educated as a lawyer, and became Sheriff Substitute of his native district; but receiving the appointment of Chamberlain to the Duke of Argyll, he settled in Mull, to take charge of the large ducal estates in that island. He was an excellent scholar, and full of kindly humour. If the grandfather at Morven valued Gaelic poetry, no less did the other take delight in the ancient Border ballads of the Low Country and in the songs of Burns, and read with keen interest the contemporary literature of an age which culminated in Walter Scott. He drew a marked distinction between "office hours" and the time for amusement. Strict and punctual in his own habits, he attended carefully to the work of the tutor, and the studies of his family; but, when lessons were over, he entered with a young heart into their enjoyments. In summer the house was continually filled with guests—travellers on their way to Staffa, with letters of introduction from the South, and remaining sometimes for days beneath the hospitable roof. Many of these were persons whose names are famous, such as Sheridan, Peel, and Sir Walter Scott. Such society added greatly to the brightness of the household, and shed a beneficial influence over the after-life of the children.

Agnes Maxwell, Norman's mother, was brought up with her uncle and aunt MacNeil at Drumdrissaig, on the western coast of Knapdale, until she was twelve years of age. She there passed her early youth, surrounded by old but wise and sympathetic people; and, being left much to the companionship of nature, wandering by herself along the glorious shore which looks across to islands washed by the Atlantic surf, her mind, naturally receptive of poetic impressions, awoke to the sense of the beautiful in outward things. She not only grew up a deeply affectionate girl, but she also learned to feel and think for herself. Her own words give a vivid picture of the healthy training of her childhood:—

"My Aunt Mary was a woman of strong sense and judgment, very accomplished and cheerful, and while most exacting as to obedience and good conduct, was exceedingly loving to me while I was with her. She gave me all my instruction, religious and secular; and used in the evenings to take her guitar and hum over to me old Scotch songs and ballads, till I not only picked up a great number, but acquired a taste for them which I have never lost. From the windows there was a charming view of the hills of Jura and of the sea, and I still recall the delight with which I used to watch the splendid sunsets over the distant point of Islay. I never knew what it was to miss a companion; for it is extraordinary what a variety of amusements and manifold resources children find out for themselves. I fear that some of the fine young ladies of the Present day. attended by their nursery-maids, would have thought me a demi-savage, had they seen me helping the dairy-maid to bring in the cows, or standing in a burn fishing for eels under the stones, climbing rocks, or running a madcap race against the wind. Our next neighbour was a Captain Maclachan, who had a flock of goats, and of all delightful things the best was to be allowed to go with Jeanie, the goat-lassie, to call them from the hills, and see them milked."

Her picture of the habits of the people at that time is curious and interesting:—

"There was none of the ceremony and formality among neighbours that exist now; visitors came without any previous notice, nor did their arrival make much alteration in the arrangements of the house. Neither Christmas nor New-Year's Day was allowed to pass without due observance. Invitations were issued to all the neighbouring families; old John Shaw the 'Fiddler' was summoned from Castle Sweyn to assist at the festivities; and I remember the amusement I had at seeing my old uncle, who did not in the least care for dancing, toiling with all his might at reels and country dances, until the ball was ended by the 'Country Bumpkin.' On Twelfth-Day a great 'shinty' match was held on one of the fields, when perhaps two hundred hearty young and middle-aged men assembled to the music of the bagpipes, and played the match of the year with a fury which only the presence of the 'laird' prevented sometimes from passing into more serious combat. The 'shinty' was always followed by a servants' ball, when it was not uncommon for the country lasses to dress in coloured petticoats, green being the favourite hue, and in a nice white calico 'bed-gown,' confined at the waist. Their hair, falling over their shoulders, was held back by a long comb, which was usually the gift of a young man to his sweetheart. I never understood that there was intoxication at these festivities, for, indeed, the people of the district were very regular in their habits, so that I cannot recollect more than two persons noted for being addicted to excess. There was only one woman in the neighbourhood who took tea, and the fact being considered a piece of disgraceful extravagance, was whispered about with much more sense of shame than would now be caused by the drinking of whiskey. The parish clergyman was a frail old man, who preached very seldom, and, when doing so, wore a white cotton night-cap. I remember his once putting his hand on my head and blessing me, as he came down from the pulpit. There was not a seat in the whole church except the family pews of the heritors and minister. Some of the people supported themselves on the communion table, which ran from end to end of the building, while others brought in a stone or a turf, on which they ensconced themselves. And yet, in spite of this extraordinary absence of religious instruction and of pastoral superintendence, the people were moral and sober.

"I well recollect my aunt weeping bitterly as she read aloud to us the account of the execution of Louis XVI., while I sat on a stool at her feet and had it explained to me. Then came the raising of the volunteers, the playing of pipes in the remotest glen, and the drilling of recruits in the perpetual 'goose-step.' My uncle was made a captain, and, to my intense amusement, I managed regularly to hide myself in the barn to watch the old gentleman being put through his exercise by the sergeant. A fit of uncontrollable laughter at last betrayed my lurking-place."

When she returned to Aros, after the usual "finishing" of an Edinburgh school her home became doubly sweet to her by the merriment of a household of brothers and sisters, the tenderness of a mother who loved every living thing, and, above all, by the companionship of her father who delighted in her sweet rendering of his favourite Scotch music, and shared with her all his own stores of old romance All this tended to form that character which, ripening into purest Christian life, has been as a living gospel to her children and her children's children.

I have dwelt thus at length on the early days of these parents, not merely from the natural desire to speak of those we love, but because almost every page of this memoir, down to its latest, will bear witness to how much Norman owed to that father and mother.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus