‘Amidst wreaths of snow’: travelling and preaching in East Sutherland

Had you been travelling from Rogart to Lairg on Wednesday afternoon on the 18th January 1843, you would have passed two riders, heads bowed to protect themselves from ‘wreaths of snow’. They were Hector Allan, minister of Kincardine, and John MacDonald, minister of Urquhart in the Black Isle. They were men on a mission, on the first of their two trips to convince the people of Sutherland to support the planned secession of the Evangelical wing from the Established Church of Scotland. There had long been disagreement about the level of control the state or landed proprietors had over the church. Over the previous ten years the issue of patronage, when a landowner rather than the congregation appointed a minister, had become the focal point of the contrasting theology and priorities of Evangelicals and Moderates. To prepare for the secession, emerging leaders of the future Free Church sent out men to explain to and win over the people. What follows below is Hector Allan’s diary of one of these trips.

Tuesday 17

Arrived at the manse of Kincardine to breakfast, and preached that day at Creich (Rev. Murdo Cameron’s), and addressed the congregation on the important objects of the present mission. The people very attentive and apparently deeply interested.

[Murdo Cameron was no Evangelical, indeed when he was put in place in 1813 by the proprietor most of the congregation left and met for the next thirty years at Migdale Rock. Despite this, he seems happy for Allan and MacDonald to promote their views.]

Wednesday 18

Proceeded in the morning to Lairg. Mr. M’Gillivray received us kindly. Preached in his church to a crowded audience. After which explained the position of the Church and her present prospects.

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Strathfleet, on a day less blighted by wreaths of snow, from Aberscross. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Thursday 19

Proceeded through Strathfleet amidst wreaths of snow, just on the wane, to Rogart. Called at the manse; Mr. Mackenzie, minister, from home. Preached in the open air in a corner of the parish of Dornoch, indenting his parish, and near his church, to an audience of about fifteen hundred, who seemed to listen with deep attention and interest. Immediately after the addresses, the work of signing commenced — a worthy and venerable elder (John Sutherland, above ninety) having led the van. That evening proceeded to Rhives, where we were most kindly received by Mr. and Mrs. Gunn.

[It was vital to have the consent of the parish minister before preaching. The trick of preaching just within one parish with the neighbouring people over the boundary in theirs was often used when permission was refused. The ‘signing’ refers to a paper signed by those committing themselves to the cause of the Free Church.]

Friday 20

Took a trip to Clyne and Loth to make arrangements for future operations, and returned in the evening to our good quarters at Rhives, after having settled to preach on Saturday at Helmsdale, and Sabbath at Clyne. Had a meeting in the evening with the elders of Golspie. Were led to expect the minister of Golspie’s pulpit, but had a note of refusal from him next morning.

[Alexander MacPherson of Golspie was clearly less open-minded than Murdo Cameron]

Saturday 21

After an early breakfast, started for Helmsdale, where a congregation of fourteen or fifteen hundred were waiting us. Preached in English and Gaelic, and addressed them in each of these languages. The audience here also deeply interested in the business of the day. Returned in the evening to Clyne manse, and were concerned to find Mr. Mackay laid up in consequence of a severe accident.

Sabbath 22

Preached in the churchyard (Clyne) to an immense congregation, not under three thousand. Spent the evening chiefly with Mr. Mackay at his bedside.

[While the numbers seem incredible, Evangelicalism was strong locally; preaching fulfilled a function of intellectual stimulation for people who spent most days in manual labour; and John MacDonald was an incredibly popular and charismatic preacher.]

outside service at Edderton Church, possibly around 1870, in the foreground the minister is preaching from a shelter called a preaching ark. Tain & District Museum and Clan Ross Centre

Outside service, probably a communion, at Edderton Church (neighbouring parish to Dornoch and Kincardine) taken in about 1870. Massive gatherings of people for outside services were part of a long tradition, but became symbolic of the stoicism of the Free Church in the immediate post Disruption years where many congregations lacked denied buildings. Permission to use photo granted by Tain Museum: from an album given to the museum by Miss Rosa Ross.

Monday 23

In consequence of previous notice, the people assembled in order to an explanation of the position of the Church. Not less than two thousand five hundred were present, several of whom were from neighbouring parishes. Marked attention given to the sermons and addresses. Returned in the evening to our hospitable friends at Rhives.

Tuesday 24

Not having had permission to preach in Golspie, met with the people in the open air on the Links, where a commodious and comfortable, tent was erected for us, and where the greater part of the parishioners were present … In the evening, at Rhives, fixed our plans for visiting Assynt and Stoer…

[The Rogart and the Golspie people met in the open air. Note this was mid-January! They were keen.]

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The lumps and bumps of Golspie links, much now occupied by the golf course but which in January 1843 were used for Allan and MacDonald’s mass tent meeting, can be seen just beyond the January-sodden fields of Culmailly Farm. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Wednesday 25

After parting with our good friends at Rhives, who entertained us most kindly, and cheerfully accommodated crowds of people from the neighbourhood, who came there to attend family worship every evening, we proceeded to Dornoch, where we had previously arranged with Mr. Kennedy to preach. Arrived to breakfast. Preached in the open air to upwards of two thousand, and after addressing them in Gaelic at considerable length, preached in English in church to a respectable audience, and addressed them also on the object of our mission.

[Reading the Bible together, singing and praying was a common daily practice among Evangelical families. It was usually led by the male head of household. When John MacDonald went on tour he often attracted many people who wanted to hear him take family worship.]

Thursday 26

… to Kincardine, where a large congregation were assembled for sermon. Had here also another opportunity of addressing the Creich people … This was deemed necessary and seasonable on account of reports having reached us that evil-designed individuals had been attempting to pervert the minds of the people, and the many well-disposed amongst them expressed themselves well pleased that these misrepresentations were met and obviated.

[An intriguing hint here about opposition to the Evangelical cause – something often ignored in religious accounts of the Highlands.]

The snow-defying efforts of Hector Allan and John MacDonald were well rewarded. Many folk ‘came out’ in May 1843, and the Free Church took strong hold in east Sutherland. 

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