Sometime in the 1790s William Keith sat down at his desk in Golspie manse. He picked out his quill, selected some sheets of paper, opened his ink bottle and began to write out the results of his research into his own parish. He, along with all other Church of Scotland ministers, had been sent a lengthy questionnaire by Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster who was hoping to collate a statistical account of the nation. The results of this remarkable survey can be read today online at http://edina.ac.uk/stat-acc-scot/
William knew the area well. He had been minister in Golspie since 1787. Before that he lived in nearby Kildonan. Indeed he was born only some miles to the south, in Easter Ross, in 1741. We don’t know his origins, but it is likely that he was the son of a farmer or tacksman and was educated at the parish school. He did stints at the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh in his teens and into his early twenties. By the age of twenty six he was fully qualified in an academic sense and was licensed by the Presbytery of Tain. It was common for university-educated young men to become teachers for a while. William Keith took over the education of the young people of Creich, a long parish stretching from the fertile low lying country on the northern banks of the Dornoch Firth west towards Assynt. At some point in the next six years he was offered a job by Mrs Ross of Daan and exchanged the public classroom for the life of a private tutor. He probably resided at the ‘old mansion house of Meikle Daan’, a mile or two south of the village of Edderton. There are records of a house there since 1592, though the one William lived in was a two-storeyed modern building surrounded by a walled enclosure and out buildings connected with the farm. In case the young clergyman was likely to forget, he was daily reminded by the lintel above the fireplace to ‘Fear God in hairt’ along with the motto ‘servire Deum est Regnare’. This injunction, dated 1680, was issued by a carved man ‘in what seems to be a Geneva hat, cloak and band with the long peaked beard and moustachios of the seventeenth century’. The lintel is now in Balnagown Castle.
By 1773 Keith had decided to pursue his ministerial career more specifically and was appointed as assistant or a missionary minister in the far south west of the Highlands, in Kilbrandon. The differences between his Gaelic dialect and that of Argyll might have caused some initial adjustment, but Gaelic speaking ministers were scarce so he would have been a prized commodity! He returned to home turf to take up an assistantship with Rev Donald Ross of Fearn. A close friend who later wrote his memoirs suggests that this might have been a trying and perhaps entertaining time. William had many anecdotes about Mr Ross whose judgement had apparently been ‘considerably impaired’ by a narrow escape from some ‘sudden and violent death’! His work in aiding, and possibly containing and mitigating, Ross came to perhaps a thankful end when a job arose in Kildonan. The system in those days was that ministers were presented by the landowner, in this case the guardians of young Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland. This girl was later to become famous for her clearance policies of that very parish. William’s friend, Donald Sage who was brought up in Kildonan, provided a kind and friendly description of his time in 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.’
Keith was what might be called a Moderate, a brand of Presbyterian interested in the arts, in farming, and in living the life of the rural middling classes, and less concerned than their Evangelical brethren with preaching, pastoral care and encouraging Christian conversion. Even his friend Donald commented that he 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 profane.’
To be continued…
Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Vol 7, p 87-8.
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, or Parish Life in the North of Scotland (Wick: William Rae, 1899), 53.