Near the back entrance of St Callan’s church, Rogart, and within collapsing iron railings and low stone wall there is a somewhat difficult-to-read insciption on a gravestone for a minister: Alexander MacLeod. Although buried here and born on the other side of the county in Balchladich, Assynt, he is best remembered across the Minch. Everyone of a churchgoing disposition on the Isle of Lewis has heard of him and, only a year or two back, a service was held in the open air at the very location where thousands gathered two centuries ago to hear him preach. Why is a near household name on the island pretty much unknown in a parish in his own county where he was minister for the same amount of time?
In late November it was my birthday and I got to choose where we would spend Saturday. For some time I had wanted to see where Alexander MacLeod had becone so prominent. We managed to get the baby fed, pack the car and reach Uig in enough time for a walk across the sands and back before dark. The old Manse (I don’t know if this is the same building that MacLeod lived in or not – RCHAMS does not have a date) is now a high-end restaurant. Whether it is the same house of not, it was to this site that MacLeod came when he took up the charge in 1824.
When he arrived he was rather appalled at the religious state of things. One elder allegedly prayed for there to be a shipwreck so that they could gather the materials that would be washed ashore. MacLeod felt that the people did not have a grasp of the basics of the Christian faith and decided that there should therefore be no more communions or baptisms until that was remedied. MacLeod got to work preaching the core gospel message from the pulpit, he encouraged learning the catechism, led prayer meetings and promoted family worship within the home. There was stiff opposition among some but others, across the island, were drawn to the teaching.
‘Uig became the centre of attraction, not only to the people of that parish, but also to the whole population of Lewis. Incredible efforts were made by earnest souls in all parts of
the island to be present at the preaching of the Word, even on ordinary Sabbaths. Men, and even women, travelled from Ness, Back, and Knock, distances of from twenty to forty miles, to Uig Ferry from Saturday till Sabbath morning to overtake the boats for church, which often required to leave very early on account of head winds, and the distance to be travelled by sea, which cannot be less than ten or twelve miles.’ (Worthies, p. 227)
After four years of teaching MacLeod felt that people could take part in these sacraments with understanding so he prepared for a communion season. These were multi-day events culminating in the dispensing of bread and wine. All over Scotland people would come from considerable distances to attend these. They enjoyed the intellectual stimulation, the sociability, and the spirituality. It was common for over a thousand people to participate, so they often took place outside. A minister might select a natural amphitheatre so the people could range them selves around and hear him. There is such a site in Rogart, just behind the Free Church, and there is another well-known one in Ferintosh on the Black Isle where occasional services are still held. There was often a preaching box which kept the minister and his Bible dry and sheltered from the wind. There’s a great example of one of these outside the old church in Edderton, and there is also one in the museum at Pairc, on Lewis. In Uig the heritage society board indicated that MacLeod would have preached from beside the wall of the manse, with the people gathered on the hillside behind.
What had been happening in the parish was really quite remarkable. Many people had profound spiritual experieces and were fired with enthusiasm for a revived faith. People’s whole way of life altered, with consequences to the present day. One memoir records that ‘between the intervals of public worship, and after it was over, especially on communion occasions, every retired spot for miles around would be occupied by a secret worshipper, wrestling with God for the blessing on his own soul and that of others. It was quite common for one, who wished to be entirely alone with the Hearer of prayer, to be under the necessity of travelling miles into the moor or mountain to find a place of complete secrecy beyond the sight and sound of anxious pleaders at the throne of grace. It sometimes happened that an earnest one spent the whole night in the solitude of the moorland in communion with God, unconscious of the outward circumstances or situation until the morning sun appeared in the sky.’ (Worthies, p.228)
While these sorts of scenes were common in the twenty years he was in Uig, they did not follow him when he moved briefly to Lochalsh, and then for another two decades to Rogart. So the man who was at the centre of a lasting religious and cultural shift in Lewis and is remembered two centuries after his work there, is pretty much unknown in Rogart.
Sources: D. Beaton, Diary and Sermons of the Rev. Alexander MacLeod of Rogart (formerly of Uig, Lewis) with Brief Memoir (Inverness: 1925) available online at: http://www.alastairmcintosh.com/islandspirituality/1925-Alexander-Macleod-Uig-Dairy-Sermons.pdf
J. Greig, Disruption Worthies of the Highlands (Edinburgh: 1886) available online at: https://uigchurch.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/1886-Alexander-Macleod-Uig-Disruption-Worthies.pdf