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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XLI. - A Disputed Settlement Lord Aberdeen's Act

I HAD been nearly seven years among the Fortingall people when Mr Stewart died. The quoad civilia parish of Fortingall was legally the "United Parishes of Fortingall and Kilchonain" (probably Kil-Chomgain), and as such it had two patrons, who exercised their rights alternately. The Duke of Atholl was patron of Fortingall, and the Chief of the Menzieses patron of Kilchonain or Rannoch. Glenlyon before the Reformation days had belonged to the Abbey of Scone, and after the Reformation merged into Fortingall. The later presentations were as follows. The Duke of Atholl presented Mr Macara, Sir Robert Menzies presented Mr Irvine, the Duke of Atholl presented Mr Macdonald, Sir Neil Meuzies presented Mr Robertson Irvine, and the Duke of Atholl, when Mr Irvine was promoted to Blair-Atholl, presented Mr Stewart. On Mr Stewart's death it was the turn of Sir Robert Menzies. Sir Neil's son, to present his successor. Soon after Mr Stewart's death it was rumoured that Sir Robert was being persuaded to present a young man who had been assistant at Dull, and was then at Straloch. In the after proceedings I was called, by the legal representatives of patron and presentee, "Captain of the Fortingall people" by way of denunciation, and from the Bar of the General Assembly it was pleaded that in addition to its being the law of the land, "it was much better that patronage should be attached to status and property than given up, as was sought in this case, to a clever but unscrupulous schoolmaster." Now the simple fact was that the opposition had gathered sweeping force before I had anything whatever to do with it. I knew less about the presentee than did many of my co-parishioners, and my slight knowledge of him was rather in his favour, for he had likeable qualities, and the alleged flightmess which was objected to in him might well be attributed to youth and inexperience. Those who got up the opposition founded it on independent grounds, but there were others who wished strongly that Sir Robert should be respectfully asked to present Mr Grant, of Tenandry. Now, unlike the greater number of the people, I had never heard Mr Grant. He was, I knew, a man of good report, and a popular preacher, but he suffered from bad health. Sir Robert, who was living at Foss House, was quite accessible. It was thought wise to suggest to the patron that Mr Grant would be a very acceptable presentee, and not to mention any other name at all. At this stage of the congregational movement I certainly did become a sort of leader, because the people had no one else to fall back upon. I had found by this time that they had cause to believe their objections were not base- less, and had become convinced that there would be a split if the man objected to was settled as minister of Fortingall. Mr John Robertson, Glenlyon House, one of the elders, and myself were appointed to go to Sir Robert and bring Mr Grant's name before him as that of a man who would be gladly and thankfully accepted at his hands. When we reached Foss House we were told Sir Robert was out with a host of shooters and beaters on a great hare hunt on the hill, but Lady Menzies received us most kindly and hospitably. We explained our errand to her, and she expressed a very high opinion of Mr Grant, but mentioned his unsatisfactory state of health. She readily promised to lay the matter before Sir Robert, and we went away pleased because assured that no presentation had yet been issued, and hopeful that Lady Menzies's influence would be used in favour of an appointment by which all trouble would be avoided. But on the hill, amidst a snowstorm, we came up to the line of shooters and beaters, and had a short conference with the patron himself, which was not quite so reassuring in character, but it did not leave us hopeless either. We were sanguinely deceiving ourselves. In a short time the man to whom our people objected was their presentee. When he came to preach his trial sermons, Sir Robert and other gentlemen, who were all Episcopalians, and a company of non-parishioners came to hear him, and, in fact, to overawe the Fortingall congregation. That, however, was impossible. The same device was again resorted to, and again in vain, when the Presbytery met in Fortingall Church to moderate in the call. By this time the war spirit had seized upon us and united us in a solid body of objectors determined to resist the settlement under the provisions of Lord Aberdeen's Act. It was at this stage that I did willingly become a leader, because I happened to know more about Lord Aberdeen's Act and ecclesiastical procedure than the rest of the objectors. At the Presbytery meeting the call was signed by so very few members or adherents of the congregation that if it had retained any of its theoretical vitality the presentee should have been rejected then and there. Theoretically the call was what gave the presentee his spiritual commission, but in practice the call had been whittled down to a mere formality which two or three signatures of communicants made valid. Still, in a case like ours, the call remained a test of congregational feeling. It was signed by a very few of Mr Stewart's former hearers and by some non-Presbyterian heritors. That Free Church elder, the Marquis of Breadalbane, who was a large heritor in the parish, honourably held aloof. Still his name was so unscrupulously used to influence workmen on his home farm by all who were beating up recruits to sign the call that one of the elders, Mr John Anderson, and myself went to see him at Taymouth Castle. But before that interview a batch of his workmen, some of whom were Free Churchmen, and others who, though parishioners, went to worship at Kenmore, came late one night and signed the call. Mr Anderson and I found the Marquis very affable. We had a long conversation with him, and he did not let us away without giving us supper. He was annoyed at hearing that his name had been used, and gave us authority to contradict the false report. He said they were not free from troubles in his own Church, and that to fan fires of discord in another Church was the last thing he would think of. With the exception of the few from the home farm, the Free Church people of Fortingall held aloof like the Marquis. They showed indeed that they expected and wished the objectors to be defeated, but they had a just idea of fair play, and, as Presbyterians they knew how hotly outside interference would be resented. Besides all this they felt sure that their own party would gain by the defeat of the objectors, which they predicted was sure to be effected by the combined forces of land- owners and Moderatism. The case was the first which had arisen under the Aberdeen Act, not only in the Presbytery of Weem, but as far as I can remember in all the southern Highlands. It was therefore keenly watched with contrary hopes and fears by both Church of Scotland and Free Church people. The Aberdeen Act had been boasted of on the one side and sneered at on the other for years, and now it was to be tested in a Highland parish. If the objectors looked at the case from the local point of view, its broader aspect as a test of the worth or worthlessness of the Aberdeen Act was what engaged the attention of the general Highland public. Both sides engaged legal agents, and issues were joined before the Presbytery. The relevancy of the objections lodged had first to be dealt with, and that was not any easy thing to settle, for any- thing which amounted to libel could not be admitted under the Act. That contest being finished, witnesses were examined, first on behalf of the objectors and then on behalf of the presentee. On relevancy and other points appeals were taken to 'the Synod and Assembly, but it was to the honour of the Presbytery of Weem that no change of consequence resulted from the appeals. The work was a new one to the Presbytery, yet it was carried through with conspicuous ability and fairness. When it is mentioned that the case went before two Assemblies first on relevancy and then on merits it may be seen what a weary long contest it was. It was indeed wearisome, trying, and costly to both sides, and to one who knew no more than what was admissible in the objections under the Act it might seem to be much ado about nothing, or an illustration of the old couplet:

"I do not like thee, Doctor Fell;
The reason why I cannot tell."

The working out of the deceitful Aberdeen Act imposed great hardships both on objectors and presentees. It is different now, but in 1856 any presentee to a Gaelic-speaking parish who had no Gaelic could be rejected without much trouble to parishioners or any slur on his own fitness for an English -speaking parish. Our Fortingall presentee had excellent Gaelic, for he had been thoroughly taught by his uncle, Mr Samuel Maclaren, schoolmaster of St Fillans. It would have been better for both sides if he had made the wretchedly-signed call an excuse for retirement before issues had been joined, but he could not have done that without giving offence to those who wanted, in pursuance of a mistaken policy, to force him upon an almost unanimously objecting congregation. From begin- ning to end the Fortingall people stood firmly shoulder to shoulder. Open and underhand efforts to divide them united them more closely than before. Near the end of the proceedings a rumour went forth on bat-like wings over all the parishes of the Presbytery of Weem that many of the objectors were now repenting of the action taken and wished to withdraw. When indignant people spoke to me about it, I did not think that this rumour was worthy of more serious consideration than other falsehoods of a hostile nature which had gone before it. But so many of our side were so angry at the malicious intention, and so much afraid of its possible consequences, that a petition to the Presbytery flatly contradicting it and repeating unshaken adherence to the original objections was sent round and signed by all the original objectors, and also by some others who were not at home on the previous occasion. That retort killed the lie before it could do any mischief by being circulated underhand, if not openly used as an argument in Synod and Assembly.

The Assembly of 1857 had two cases of disputed settlements to dispose of the first from Fortingall and the second from Kilmalcolm. The Fortingall case was taken up on the evening of the day which was observed as the Queen's Birthday. The pleadings were long, and ministers and elders who were invited to or gave Birthday dinners went away on the understanding that no decision should be come to until the next day's meeting. This informal understanding did not bind Mr Procurator Cook, who, when he had cause to believe himself at the head of a majority, set his face against adjournment, and had the satisfaction, in the small hours of a misty morning, of getting by a majority of six the chance of throwing aside the case of the objectors, and ordering the settlement of the presentee to be proceeded with at once. More than a score of the members who went away under the belief that an adjournment would take place recorded their protests the next day against what had been done in the night, and others who did not record their protests spoke in wrathful terms about what they called a dirty party trick. We heard many stories about the way in which the trick had been engineered, some of which were probably untrue, but one of them was partly corroborated by the fact that after dining several of those who voted for Mr Cook's motion came back, while those of the other side, believing in the adjournment, did not. It was customary on the Queen's Birthday to adjourn early in the evening. Without any informal under- standing at all it was contrary to that custom to continue proceedings throughout the night. The wrong done to the Fortingall people under cloud of night, and other accidental or cunningly contrived misconceptions, turned out to be balm in Gilead for the Kilmalcolm objectors. Their case was by far the weaker of the two, but they got rid of their undesired presentee in a short and sharp manner. It was clear to every one that the two decisions were as inconsistent as they could be, and that besides its other faults the Aberdeen Act was subject to all the uncertainties of a fluctuating Assembly, which in cases of this kind had no such guidance of precedents and principles as in libel cases. I will not refer to the subject again, but will say that the after history of the Fortingall settlement vindicated the objectors and reflected no honour on the wisdom of the Assembly's decision. Ere many years its sequel was a failure that ended in a tragedy. Most of the objectors joined the Free Church and then had a minister of their own.

The ludicrous contrast between the two decisions of the Assembly given at the interval of a few hours led to something more important and far-reaching than the settlement of the Fortiugall presentee and the summary rejection of the one for Kilmalcolm. On the day on which the protest of the absent ones had been recorded and the Kilmalcolm case disposed of, a hasty semi-private meeting of members of the Assembly and others was held, at which the first step was taken for forming an organisation to work for abolishing patronage by Act of Parliament and the paying out of the patrons. The movement thus instituted marked a turning point in the latter-day history of the Church of Scotland; and as a greater result Presbyterian union would long ago have been happily brought about had the spirit of religion and reason been stronger than the pampered cult of concreted sectarianism and suicidal perversity. For a period of years after the Disruption the party of the "Forty Thieves" had neither the force nor the courage to contend energetically on behalf of their own sound principles. They accepted Lord Aberdeen's Act as a great and valuable concession; and in respect to the recognition of the full spiritual powers of the Church Courts in purely spiritual matters, so it was. After ten years' trial it was found to be a delusion in regard to disputed settlements and a snar, cumbrous, costly, uncertain, a dreadful ordeal for presentees, and a worrying and disintegrating bone of contention for congregations. The younger, more resolute and clear-sighted ministers and ruling elders scarcely needed to be convinced that the Act was a failure. But a sudden illumination was required to brace up the half-measure and less courageous section of the party to go in at once for the abolition of patronage. This movement for the abolition of patronage, once it was properly started, gained momentum like a stone rolling down a steep hillside. At the end of sixteen years a Conservative Government granted the relief which had been so often petitioned for to no purpose for two hundred and sixty years, and that, too, in a fuller measure than our ancestors had ever sought to obtain it. Nothing short of the total abolition of patronage would give general satisfaction to the laity of the Church of Scotland after ten years' experience of the working of Lord Aberdeen's well-meant but disappointing Act. Could it by any conceivable possibility have been so carried out as to fulfil the full promise of its plausible phraseology? No, because its working could never be divested of party characteristics, and placed on the same judicial non-party platform as regular libel cases. Throughout all its existence decisions on cases under it were arrived at less on judicial principles than like votes in the House of Commons on party grounds. The policy of abolishing patronage was truly conservative, while that adopted by many patrons and the Peel Government after the passing of the first Reform Bill was short-sighted and radically destructive.

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