Glen Matheson was raised in a rural area known as Earltown in northern Nova Scotia. This Highland community was settled predominately by people from the eastern parishes of Sutherland. Many of Glen’s ancestors lived in Strathbrora, Strathfleet and Fleuchary as well as in the Lochbroom area. Glen has been researching the emigrants from Sutherland to Nova Scotia and beyond for over four decades. However his passion is the stories of the early settlers of his home community. He maintains a blog at earltown.com where one will find several connections to the cleared settlements of Sutherland.
It’s complicated is a phrase that has come to the fore in social media to describe a couple whose marital or romantic relationship has some challenges. If Girzel Grant were to have a Facebook page, it would likely be her status.
William Murray was one of the ‘Men’ of Sutherland, a pious, evangelical catechist who laboured in the parishes of Dornoch and Creich in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. He was born around 1752 and lived at Fleuchary. Very little is known of his younger years or what circumstances gave rise to his passion for spreading Christianity. It is likely that he was a regular attendee of the seasonal communions held in both Sutherland and Ross. Many of his contemporaries received much of their ecclesiastical knowledge at these four day events. He may have been converted at one of these.
In due course William was singled out to assume the role of a catechist. The accreditation process included an examination by a minister – in this case Dr. Angus MacIntosh of Tain. Dr. MacIntosh, already familiar with William’s abilities, referred him to Rev. William Forbes in Tarbet for more intense scrutiny. He was duly admitted to the ranks and assigned to the parish of Creich. It doesn’t appear that William removed to Creich to take up his duties. His labours required a lengthy journey by foot to the eastern boundary of Creich after which the parish extended for a further thirty five miles westward. Men like William conducted prayer meetings and visited families in their homes to test them in their catechism, encouraging and ensuring that faith existed beyond appearances at church on the Sabbath.Men of Sutherland, a book published in 1937, is a sort of oral history-inspired set of mini biographies. In it he is remembered, more than a century after his death, as ‘a man eminent for godliness, of deep experience and great attainments in Christian life, generally admitted to have been unrivalled among the Men.’ His reputation in Nova Scotia, possibly passed on to his family by later emigrants, was similar. In 1926 his great grandson, Rev. John Murray, described him in a community history as ‘among the most godly men in Sutherlandshire.’
Like many of the Men, or na daoine, he tended to use a rather complex style, laced with allegory, which could make his preaching rather difficult to follow. Apparently when “speaking to the question” on communion Fridays, his exhortations were so reasoned and complete that other participants would be deflated!
While William’s many descendants in Northern Nova Scotia were aware of his name and eminence in church affairs, his wife’s existence was merely the record of her name – Grace (Girzel) Grant. For several generations, Grace was a mandatory name in every family descending from this couple. Oddly, (or maybe not), there is no oral tradition of the life and times of Grace Grant.
Reading through Men of Sutherland and a related publication, Records of Grace, there is little mention of the women who supported their husbands during their tenure as catechists. However William’s marital status gets special mention and without sugar coating: ‘His wife was a worldly, profane person, violent in her opposition to religion and religious meetings.’
The basis for this rather unflattering assessment seems to emanate from an occasion when Grace tracked down William at a meeting, ‘entered and abused those present in no unmeasured terms.’ An old worthy present at the occasion prophetically declared: ‘Let her alone, poor woman, she will not have as much as a grave linen to cover her remains at last.’ This suggests Grace, on more than a few occasions, vented her opinions on the relevance of religion and her husband’s calling.
This also begs the question as to the relationship between this godly apostle and his “profane” wife. What was the discussion over the evening meals? How did William escape censure for not keeping his family in line? How could a catechist be credible if his own wife didn’t seek redemption? Did William take an appointment in Creich to avoid her or the embarrassment she might cause? It’s complicated…
Let’s look at it from Grace’s perspective. Her husband leaves home, probably frequently and for several days, to attend to his flock in distant Creich. In the warmer months, when agricultural work would be at its peak, William might be off to the communions anywhere between Farr, Lochbroom, Lochcarron and Kiltearn. Each was a four day event not including travel time. When at home, we can picture William meditating on the scriptures, sermons he had heard and organizing his thoughts for future meetings. Although William’s earnings from catechising contributed to the family economy, much of their income depended on the land they farmed. And who managed that while William was away?
Not only did Grace have at least four children under foot, she had to tend the crops and the cattle. Most likely she had to arrange for the sale of the produce at nearby markets or far off fairs. It was no easy life when a husband was at hand let alone gone a portion of time. Did this realization provoke Grace into “making a scene” at the prayer meeting?
In the next post, things take a turn for the worse…
George MacDonald, Men of Sutherland (1937, 2014)
Rev. Donald Munro, Records of Grace in Sutherland (1953)
Rev. John Murray, History of the Scotsburn Congregation, Pictou County (1925)
Personal communication, Dr Elizabeth Ritchie, March 2015