In 1675 a sixty one year old man from Fearn was apprehended and thrown into the tolbooth at Nairn. His crime was not theft, assault or murder. He was accused of holding secret Christian meetings. This was not the first time Thomas Ross had got into trouble for his faith.
Thomas was born in about 1614 in Fearn, Easter Ross. His father was the well-to-do George Ross of Nether Pitkerrie. He probably attended the local parish school then studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen. It was a popular college for those with Presbyterian sympathies, although his younger son studied at Kings. We do know that at some point he married Lilias Dunbar and the couple had two boys: Alexander and George.
Thomas Ross had decided on a career in the church. He was passionate about his faith and developed a reputation for holiness so, on the surface, seems well-suited to the profession. However, the mid-seventeenth century was not an easy time for ministers. Church and state were closely tied and there was an ongoing struggle between Episcopalians and Presbyterians. The former system involved a hierarchy of ministers, bishops and archbishops whereas in the latter, church government was by consensus of ministers and elders through a system of church courts. Thomas was firmly in the Presbyterian camp and this was to cause him problems.
We know nothing about Thomas before 1655. He may have started his career as a schoolteacher as so many aspiring ministers did. By August 1655 he was a married man aged about forty with a young family. He had replaced the previous minister of Kincardine who was removed due to ‘malignancy’! Kincardine parish stretches along much of the south bank of the Dornoch Firth, a stretch of good arable fringing a hilly hinterland. Although he was a family man, well settled in a respectable and congenial profession in his local area, life was not to continue smoothly for Thomas Ross. In 1661 the ‘Drunken Parliament’ annulled all Presbyterian legislation and Episcopacy was restored. The next year the Parliament declared that all parishes which had been filled since 1649 were now vacant. The ministers were required to reapply to their bishop and patron by 20th September 1662. If Thomas did this he would automatically be reinstated, however to do so was to recognise the new order. While most in the north and east of Scotland were content to conform, Thomas joined the ranks of those in the Covenanter hot-spots of Galloway and Ayrshire. His refusal meant that in 1663 he was deprived of his parish. Outed ministers were not meant to resettle within twenty miles of their former charge, but Thomas may have negotiated a relaxation of this rule as he and Lilias moved to the nearby Royal Burgh of Tain. If the boys were still young at this point the advantage was that they were closer to the town’s well-respected school. They doubtless also had friends there.
Like many of the ousted ministers and their congregations, Thomas was a passionate believer. We don’t know how he made a living in Tain but it is quite possible that in his free time he held secret religious meetings for locals, perhaps including some members of his former congregation. This was dangerous. Conventicles were outlawed by the government who believed they were ‘seed-beds for sedition’ and fines were imposed on those who did not attend their parish church. Over the next few years political tension erupted in violence in southwest Scotland. Troops were deployed to impose anti-Covenanter legislation, a ragtag army of Covenanters was defeated near Edinburgh and the government brutally repressed the movement. By 1669 government policy became more conciliatory. It was announced that outed ministers who had lived quietly since, could return if their parishes were still vacant. However Kincardine was not vacant. When Thomas left the previous minister, the one dismissed for ‘malignancy’, had been restored. Instead the Rosses with at least one servant, Jane Taylor, sailed south to Morayshire. There he was involved in ‘preaching the Gospel with no small measure of success’, presumably in conventicles. Thomas not only ministered to those who shared his faith but was influential in the conversion of several. His converts included Margaret, the wife of Hugh Rose, 14th baron of Kilravock. Having such an influential disciple may have protected him and the other ‘faithful messengers of the Cross’ in their activities. But this protection was not to last.
To be continued…
Hew Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae Vol. 7 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1928)
Donald Beaton, Some Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1929, 1985)
J.H.S. Burleigh, A Church History of Scotland (London: Oxford University Press, 1960)
This concerns the thing that has long fascinated me about scottish church/state history – the tensions between the democratic approach embodied in Presbyterianism and that of authoritarian rule indicated in episcopacy. It’s great to have the personal detail in this post as an example of the real people involved.