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Parish Life in the North of Scotland
Chapter V - Alexander Sage: His Settlement at Lildonan. The Presbytery of Dornoch


ON the 10th of May, 1787, my father was settled minister of nv, Kildonan, Presbytery of Dornoch, Sutherlandshire. The living was procured for him by the interest of his steady and tried friend, Charles Gordon of Pulrossie. I have been informed that, on the death of Mr. William Gunn, minister of Golspie, that living was first procured for my father by Mr. Gordon; but, on considering that my father was not, by his natural capacity, well fitted for so public a place, Mr. Gordon waived his claim in favour of Mr. Keith, then minister of Kildonan, and, upon his translation to Golspie, my father became his successor.

His settlement at Kildonan was not an harmonious one. The causes of this lead me to state candidly what I conceive to have been his personal character. He was the sincere and uncompromising enemy of sin in every shape and circumstance. It might present itself under all its palliatives, alleviations, and recommendations, but his hostility to it remained unchanged and inveterate. Then he had naturally a beautiful and inimitable simplicity of mind, which interwove itself into his Christian character. There was an artlessness in all he said and did which no one could have assumed. It was in this natural simplicity of mind, under the guidance of the Divine Spirit, that lie received his views of Divine truth. In the confession of his faith, there was a simplicity, solidity, and connection, all of which were characteristic of the structure of his mind. But while I state this as my deliberate conviction concerning him, I must also mention some things which contributed to obscure his Christian character and to limit his usefulness as a minister. His piety, though genuine and vital, was slow in its growth; divine truth had made a saving impression upon his mind, but that impression was not, at its outset or during its progress, accompanied by any very deep convictions. Then, again, he was not a man of intellectual force. He comprehended a subject after much and laborious investigation, but his mental progress was slow and tedious. His apprehension, too, was neither quick nor far-sighted, and he was defective in the ars loquerudi. He had a difficulty in finding words to express his ideas or to convey his meaning, and he had a timidity amounting to shyness, which often crippled him as a speaker. Public observation his mind shrank from, and the effect of it upon him frequently was to make him confused in expressing his thoughts. When he felt himself in this uncomfortable state of mind, words invariably failed him. When settled minister of Kildonan, therefore, his parishioners, especially those eminent for piety, received him coldly. I may mention specially some of those who led the opposition. The first was an old man, an elder, who lived at Kinbrace, about six miles to the north of the manse. The next was John MacHarlish, who lived at Kildonan, and who was afterwards one of my father's tenants. Another was an old man who lived at Ulbster on the Strath at Helmisdale, about four miles to the east of the manse. Of his opponents, the most indomitable was the eccentric John Grant, who lived at Diobal. The opposition which all these men gave to my father's ministry was- of the passive sort. They never attended church, but on Sabbath held meetings of their own. They thus succeeded in alienating the minds of my father's parishioners from his ministry, and to this might be traced the beginning of that disaffection to the Church of Scotland which afterwards, in my native county, prevailed so largely. This opposition, however, was not so persevering as it was strong in its first outset; it ultimately died away. My father's natural disposition and manners were, to the great body of his parishioners, irresistibly taking, and, in addition to this winning disposition, he had also those personal attractions which never yet were overlooked by, nor failed to have their due influence over, the mind of a Scottish Highland Presbyterian. My mother was eminently pious. Combined with a mild, equable temper, she possessed a deeply reflecting and intelligent mind. In these respects, she was to my father, who was of a temper directly the reverse, a true "helpmeet." Their circumstances were limited, as the salary of the Dirlot Mission never exceeded £40, and at Kildonan the stipend was under £70. At the outset they had difficulty in getting along. Furniture for a larger house, stocking for a considerable glebe, and a farm of very great superficial extent, which my father took in lease, subjected them to a far heavier outlay than they were able adequately to meet. My mother, who; to her mild temper, united a degree of humour, used to say, "is bochd so, is bhi bochd roimh," which was synonymous with the adage, "out of the fire into the embers." My father, however, had the faculty of keeping out of debt. He (lid not indeed succeed in avoiding it altogether, but, notwithstanding all his difficulties, he never contracted a debt which he could not ultimately discharge. This was owing, not to any special shrewdness in the management of his affairs, but solely to a native honesty, which was the leading feature of his disposition. The natural heat of his temper, however, was troublesome both to himself and others. His parishioners were not unfrequently scorched by it, and my mother often had difficulty in checking its violence. Like the foam on the water's troubled surface, it appeared only again to disappear. No judgment of my father's principles could be worse founded than a judgment resting on the transitory ebullitions of his temper, which, although too easily roused, somehow or other were invariably excited on the side of truth. His parishioners knew this, and when the more judicious and reflecting witnessed such a triumph of "the old Adam " over him, they never nor were much surprised at its brief outbreaks.

The members of the Presbytery of Dornoch when my father became connected with it were, his maternal uncle, Mr. Thomas Mackay, minister of Lairg; Messrs George Rainy, of Creich; John Bethune, of Dornoch; Eneas Macleod, of Rogart; William Keith, of Golspie; Walter Ross, of Clyne; George MacCulloch, of Loth; and William Mackenzie, of Assynt. At Lairg, Mr. Thomas Mackay was appointed assistant and successor to his father on the 17th November, 1749; and at the death of the latter, four years after, the whole care of the parish devolved upon him. Of deep and fervent piety, he was profoundly versed, not only in Scripture doctrine, but in its life-giving influence on the heart. Prayer and the study of the Scriptures constituted the occupation of his private hours. When he preached, every intelligent hearer could see that "because he believed, therefore he spoke." He was recognised as an earnest Christian when be was but a very youthful minister, and his ministry was signally honoured in being made instrumental for bringing many to the knowledge of the truth. Yet with these bright features of spiritual character, Mr. Mackay was uneven in his temper, dogmatic in his opinions, and in his judgments, severe and harsh. My father, who was of different disposition entirely, could never agree with him, and felt uneasy in his society. Mr. Mackay had a family of five. His eldest daughter, Catherine, married Captain Donald Matheson of Shiness, by whom she had a numerous family of sons and daughters. His eldest son, John, was one of the clerks to the Commissioners for India, and in their service he lost his sight and retired on a pension. He purchased the small estate of Little Tarrel in the parish of Tarbet, to which he gave the name of Rockfield. Air. Mackay's second son, Hugh, was a captain in the Madras Native Cavalry, and agent for carriage and draught horses to the Indian Army under General Wellesley, afterwards Duke of Wellington. He was killed in the battle of Assaye, assigning the bulk of his fortune to his elder brother, John. Mr. Mackay's youngest son, William, was a sailor, and commanded a merchant ship trading to India. In 1795 he was one of the survivors from the skipwreck of the Juno, on the coast of Arracan, of which he published an interesting narrative. He died in 1804. The youngest daughter, Harriet, married Mr. George Gordon, minister of Loth, by whom she had five children. Mr. ,Mackay lived to be an old man. Towards the close of his life, and when unfit to engage in his public duties, he employed assistants. The first of them was a Mr. William Ross, who was very popular among the humbler classes. The people called him, by way of respect, a "Lump of Love," but the higher classes called him "Lumpy." He died minister of the Gaelic Chapel, Cromarty. Mr. Mackay's other assistants were the late Mr. James Macphail, minister of Daviot; the late Mfr George Gordon, of Loth; and Mr Angus Kennedy. The last of these succeeded him in Lairg, but afterwards went to Dornoch. Mr. Mackay died in 1803.

My father's next co-presbyter, in point of seniority, was Mr. George Rainy, minister of Creich; he was settled there in 1771. A native of Aberdeenshire, the Gaelic was not his mother-tongue, and even after practising it during an incumbency of 45 years he could not easily get his mouth about it. He was a truly pious man, and if he was not successful in adding numbers to the church, yet be was an honoured instrument in watering and refreshing the people who were committed to his pastoral care. His great defect was his deficiency in the language which his parishioners best understood. In other circumstances this drawback would have been fatal to his usefulness as a minister. But Mr. Rainy was the very model of a sincere, practical Christian ; he preached the gospel by his life more than by his lips. What his tongue failed fully to explain to his flock his everyday walk clearly conveyed; and when they connected together the doctrines which he taught in the pulpit, his personal intercourse with each, his zeal, his sanctified dispositions, and the warmth and overflowing tenderness of his heart, they forgot the liberties which lie took with their language and listened with attention, because they were convinced that they heard the truth from the lips of one of its most faithful preachers. Mr. Rainy married a daughter of Mr. Gilbert Robertson, minister of Kincardine. Mrs. Rainy was pious, the impersonation of motherly kindness, the beau ideal of a minister's wife.

The next member of the Presbytery whom I would mention is air. Eneas Macleod, minister of Rogart. His father I have already noticed as the author of "Caberfeidh," the Gaelic satire, and well known in his native parish of Lochbroom as a poet, by the name of "Tormaid Ban," or the fair-haired orman. Mr. Macleod of Rogart was his second son. His eldest son was Professor of Hebrew in the University of Glasgow, and bequeathed his valuable library to King's College, Aberdeen, of which both he and his brother, the minister of Rogart, were alumni. The latter was admitted minister of that parish in 1774. Mr. Macleod was not a popular, nor a very evangelical preacher. He had a rich vein of humour added to great penetration and solidity of judgment, and, though not himself a poet, he possessed a high taste for the art, and ardently patronised it. With Rob Donn he was intimate, and he committed to writing the poems of that hard from the poet's personal recital. It is to this manuscript that we are indebted for the edition of Rob Donn's poems, edited in 1829 by Dr. Mackay. Dfr. Macleod married Jane Mackay, the daughter of a respectable farmer who occupied the place of Clayside, now a part of the extensive ducal manor of Dunrobin. This Mr. Mackay was a connoisseur in card-playing, and was therefore recognised among his associates under the name of "Hoyle." By his wife ,Mr. Macleod had four sons, Donald, William, Hugh, and Wemyss, and three daughters, Esther, Jean, and Elizabeth. He died on the 18th of May, 1791, and was succeeded by the Rev. Alexander Urquhart.

John Bethune, D.D., minister, first of Harris, and afterwards of Dornoch, and son of Mr. Bethune of Glenshiel, my grandfather's contemporary, "ministear na tunn" (the barrel minister) was my father's co-presbyter for upwards of thirty years. He was translated from Harris to Dornoch in the year 1778. He married Barbara, daughter of Mr. Joseph Munro, minister of Edderton in Ross-shire, by whom he had five sons, John, Joseph, Matthew, Walter, and Robert, and three daughters, Christian, Barbara, and Janet. Dr. Bethune was an elegant classical scholar, a sound preacher, and one of the most finished gentlemen I ever remember to have seen. His manners were so easy and dignified that they would have graced the first peer of the realm, and his English sermons, which he always read, were among the neatest compositions I ever heard. In preaching in the Gaelic language, he used very full notes, as his mind was of that highly-intellectual character that it could not submit to, nor indeed be brought to work in, mere extempore or unconnected discussions. With all his other qualifications he had a delicate sense of propriety, and from anything, even the slightest word, come from what quarter it might, that touched upon this terra sacra, he shrunk back as from something positively loathsome. He was a model Christian minister in the eye of the world; but with all his natural talents and acquirements, with all his orthodoxy and sentiment, and with his high sense of moral propriety, before the keen glance of Christian penetration, he sank at once to a much lower level. To the anxious and sincere enquirer after truth, his sermons presented only a dreary prospect of cold and doubtful uncertainty.

Mr. William Mackenzie was settled minister of Assynt in 1765. He was licensed by the Presbytery of Edinburgh, and preached his first sermon in the pulpit of Dr. Hugh Blair. Settled as the pastor of a rude and semi-barbarous people, in a wild secluded district, instead of setting before them the right path by his precept and example, lie too became as barbarous and intemperate as the worst of them. His exhibitions in the pulpit were not only lame and unprofitable but absolutely profane, calculated as they were to excite the ridicule of his audience. His excesses reduced himself and his family to great indigence. On one occasion his shoes were fairly worn out. It was Saturday evening, and he had not a decent pair to wear next day in going to church. He therefore despatched his kirk-officer with all convenient speed to a David Macleod, a shoemaker, who lived at a very considerable distance off, and who had made many pairs of shoes before for the parish minister without having received one copper in the way of remuneration. Next day, after delaying the service as long as lie could, his bearer per express to the shoemaker not having returned, Mr. Mackenzie was obliged to go to the pulpit slip-shod as he was. In his sermon, such as it was, he had occasion towards the close to refer to some incident in the life of David, King of Israel. "And what said David, think ye, my hearers?" He was, in due course, about to answer the question himself, but just at that moment his bearer to David, the Assynt shoemaker, who had returned, was entering in at the church door. Hearing the minister's question he shouted out, loud enough to be heard by the whole congregation, " What did David say?—he said indeed what I thought he would say, that never a pair of new shoes will you get from him until you pay the old ones." Towards the close of his life he became quite helpless, and an assistant and successor was provided for him in the person of Mr. Duncan Macgillivray in the year 1813. Mr. Mackenzie died in 1816, at the advanced age of 82.

Mr. William Keith, minister of Golspie, my father's immediate predecessor in Kildonan, was admitted minister there in 1776. Previous to his settlement in that parish, he was first a missionary in the county of Argyle, and afterwards assistant to Ttr. Donald Ross, minister of Fearn. Mr. Keith, with whom I was intimately acquainted, gave me many anecdotes of Mr. Ross. His narrow escape from a sudden and violent death, through the gigantic exertions of Mr. Robertson of Lochbroom (am ministear laidir), had in his latter days considerably impaired his judgment. Mr. Keith was not many years his assistant when, on the death of Mr. John Ross, he was settled minister of Kildonan. He was a man of good ability and sincere piety. His ministry as well as his temporal circumstances at Kildonan were successful and prosperous. Eminently practical, his doctrine did not enter very much into theological details, but it was sound, scriptural, and edifying. He was on the best ministerial footing with his parishioners. The living was very small, but his wants were few. He lived frugally, and the parishioners filled his larder with all sorts of viands, such as mutton, eggs, butter, and cheese. He had also, as minister of the parish, the right of fishing in the river of Helmisdale to the extent of seven miles down its course. He married Isabella, daughter of Mr. Patrick Grant, minister of Nigg, and had seven children, Peter, William, and Margaret, horn at Kildonan; and Sutherland, Elizabeth, Sophia, and Lewis, born at Golspie. Mr. Keith was not very active among his people, being of an exceedingly easy temperament. He was also of a very social disposition; this indeed he indulged in to a fault. Society, good living, and the luxuries of the table, although they never led him into any excess, yet presented such attractions to him as often brought him in undue intimacy with the worldly and pi ofane. After Mr. Keith had laboured for some years at Kildonan, the parish of Golspie became vacant by the death of Mr. Gunn; he then applied personally to the patron, who presented him to the living. His departure was universally regretted by the parishioners of Kildonan, who were much attached to him.

Mr. Walter Ross was admitted minister of Clyne in the year 1777. He was the immediate successor of Mr. Gordon. His admission was opposed by the parishioners, who had set their affections upon a Mr. Graham, a native of Lairg, and known to be a godly man. The then Countess of Sutherland was an enemy of God's truth, and her practice was to appoint, to every parish in her gift, men who in every way brought reproach on the ministerial character. The Countess, therefore, indignantly rejected Mr. Graham, and Mr. Ross, whose principles were in strict accordance with those of his patron, was presented. As a preacher, he was nothing at all, for the reason that his sermons were not his own. As the prophet's son said of the axe, when it dropped into the stream, so might Mr. Ross say of each of his sermons, "Alas, master, for it was borrowed." He had a Herculean memory, and he used to say that he had often privately read, and afterwards, for a wager, publicly preached the sermons of his clerical friends. His private character, as an individual, had no moral weight, for not only was his conversation light, worldly, and profane, but it was characterised by exaggeration and absolute untruthfulness. He completely understood the art of money-making, and none could exceed him in domestic and rural economy. He was a farmer, a cattle-dealer, a housekeeper, and a first-rate sportsman; and he knew how to turn all these different occupations to profit. He took a Highland grazing at Grianan, on the river Brora, about ten miles to the north of his manse, where he reared black cattle, and sold them to great advantage, lie resided here during the summer months, and preached on the Sabbaths, in a tent, to the inhabitants of the more remote districts of the parish. His skill in domestic management recommended him to the late Sir Charles Ross of Balnagown, and so entirely did Sir Charles give up to him the economy of his household, and so much was Mr. Ross engrossed with this, that he was an almost constant resident at Balnagown Castle, to the total neglect of his parochial duties. Mr. Ross was, in short, like not a few clergymen of his party in the church of that day, such a minister as Rob Donn, in his satire on the clergy, has so graphically depicted:—

Mr. Ross married, some years after his settlement at Clyne, Elizabeth, daughter of Captain John Sutherland, the occupier of the farm of Clynelish in the vicinity of his manse, by whom he had a son and daughter. He died in 1825, aged about 74 years.

My father's next neighbour and co-presbyter was Mr. George Macculloch, minister of Loth. With this short, keen, argumentative old man my earliest recollections are associated. His youth was spent at Golspie, of which he was the parochial schoolmaster. A native of the Black Isle, Ross-shire, he understood the Gaelic language but imperfectly. When at Golspie, he was the stated hearer of Mr. John Sutherland, who afterwards became minister of Tain. Mr. Sutherland was an eminently pious man, and a truly scriptural and orthodox divine. [Mr. John Sutherland was translated from Golspie to Tain on 23rd June, 1752. He died 25th Nov., 1769, in the 39th year of his ministry. He was intimately associated with the eminent Mr. Balfour of Nigg in the remarkable revival of true religion which, under God, by their instrumentality, took place in Ross-shire at that period. He also boldly contended for the rights of the Christian people in the calling of ministers. His father was Mr. Arthur Sutherland. minister of Edderton, a man of kindred evangelical spirit, who died in 1708, aged 54 years; and his son was Mr. William Sutherland, minister of Wick.—Ed.] To the doctrines of free grace he gave a more than ordinary prominence, but this, instead of converting the schoolmaster, only had the contrary effect of setting him to reason against such doctrines, so that he ultimately settled down into a bigoted and rationalistic system of Arminianism. He married Elizabeth Forbes, daughter of the gardener at Dunrobin, by whom he had sons and daughters. His sermons, both in Gaelic and English, were intensely controversial. His Calvinistic antagonist stood continually in his "mind's eye," like a phantom, and to this fancied opponent he preached, but not to his congregation. They were entirely neutral, and listened to his arguments and repelling of objections very much after the manner of Uallio, who " cared for none of these things." He argued right on, and while he wearied himself by the "greatness of the way," he came at last to exhaust the patience of his hearers. No friend, lay or clerical, who might casually visit him, could remain for two hours under his roof without being dragged into the "Arminian controversy." As he advanced in years, although age did not cool his combative propensities, yet his views of divine truth underwent a gradual but most decided change. In his latter days he was much confined to his room, and there, under the sanctified influence of bodily suffering, he applied for strength and and patience to the volume of inspiration. In these circumstances, his his arguments were exchanged for deep reflection, the pride of intellect for self-abasement, penitence, prayer, and self-enquiry. Into this ethereal fire, the favourite "Arminian Controversy" was at last thrown, and reduced to ashes. He died on the '27th December, 1800, in the forty-fifth year of his ministry.

Fit for pedlars or sailors,
Fit for drovers or factors,
Fit for active shrewd farmers,
Fit for stewards not wasteful;
Their sworn calling excepted,
Fit for everything excellent.

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