John Kennedy of Dingwall

Rev. John Kennedy, D.D., of Dingwall

This website is dedicated to the works of Rev. John Kennedy, D.D., who was minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Dingwall (in the Scottish Highlands) from 1843 until his death in 1884.


The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire

by Rev. John Kennedy, D.D., of Dingwall


The Year of Grace — State of the Highlands before the Reformation — The First Labourers — State of Ross-shire before 1660, and thereafter, till the Revolution — The Best Days of Ross-shire — Highland Clearances.

W ILD and uncultivated, as their native hills, were the people of the north, when already, in some parts of the Lowlands, the desert was beginning to "rejoice and blossom as the rose." The winter of the north had lasted long, and dark and dreary had it been throughout. And when "the time to favour," "the set time," had come, protracted and broken was the work of spring; but a genial summer followed, and a rich harvest was thereafter gathered. Cold and dreary, or dark and stormy, may be the winter that shall close this year of "visitation." The chill of its presence is already on the hearts of "the living;" but who can tell, whether it shall continue to advance with the quiet of a blight, or yet burst upon us with the fury of a tempest?

When the Gospel was first sent to the Highlands, Popery claimed the whole region as its own, although its dogmas were not generally known, nor its rites universally practised. Fearing no competing religion, the priesthood had been content to rule the people, without attempting to teach them. His ignorance and superstition made the rude Highlander all the more manageable in the hands of the clergy, and they therefore carefully kept him a heathen. He believed that the priests were as powerful as the fairies and he brought venison to the bishop, and thus rendered her due of faith and of practice to the Church. In exchange, there was given him all the wild license which he craved. Popery has always had an easy way of making conquests in heathendom. If it can only steal in its baptism among the rites formerly practised, and hang a crucifix on every idol formerly worshipped, and attract to its priesthood the blind veneration of the people, it will consent to leave all else as it found it. Such must have been its conquest of the Highlands of Scotland. Savage heathen could everywhere be found, trained Papists in very few places, when the light of the gospel first shone on the north. There was even then quite as much of what was peculiar to Druidism, in the religious opinions and worship of the people, as of any views and practices derived from Popery.

There were then in the Highlands, clans, each with its chief, as well as congregations, each with its priest. The influence of the castle had never been displaced by that of the chapel, anxious though the Romish hierarchy ever were for a monopoly of power. Had the clergy attempted to supersede the chieftains, they would have assumed the attitude of rivals before them, and on this the Highlander had never learned to look without being provoked to a trial of strength. Had they even endeavoured to check them, they might have become unmanageable. They therefore wisely gave them rein, careful only to direct them; for having learned to manage, they cared not to remove them. Their power having been made useful to the Church, the priests were rather anxious to preserve it. Each found it his interest to acknowledge and advance the influence of the other. The chief sent his clansman, with blood on his hands, for peace to the priest; and the more guilty the devotee had become in the service of the former, his fear made him all the more servile in the hands of the latter. The priest sent his penitent, with an indulgence, to the service of the chief; and the more the serf placed his trust in the power of the Church, all the more boldly could he fight the future battles of his clan. The clergy, too, must themselves be Celts; and as no way had been found of emptying his veins of Highland blood, while leaving him fit for Highland service, the clannish feeling was strong even in the priest. He could be moved, sometimes, to subordinate the claims of his chief at Rome to the wishes of his chief at home. Priest Mackenzie could be persuaded to gather the Macleods or the Munros to mass at an appointed time, that his chieftain might find it convenient to butcher or to burn them. A levy from the clan would be the churchman's reward for this service. The two thus helped each other; and, combined, they bore with the pressure of a double despotism on the deluded people, the chieftain using all his influence to keep them serfs and savages, and the priest doing his utmost to keep them dupes and fanatics. Alas! for the poor Highlander under them. He, with an energy and ardour that made him a hero, even when a slave, and a love of country and of kindred that made him a patriot, even when oppressed, was found by the Reformation as Popery had left him, an utter heathen in ignorance, a very fanatic in superstition, and, in his habits, a lawless savage, rioting in the wild excitements of the chase, in the perilous adventures of plundering raids, and in the fierce combats of rival clans and chieftains.

It was in 1563 the first ray of Reformation light broke through the darkness of Ross-shire. By the General Assembly of that year, Mr Donald Munro was appointed "Commissioner of Ross." The Lord came with him to his work, and before seven years had passed, the cause of truth had made such progress in Easter Ross, where he chiefly laboured, as to attract the notice of the "good Regent Murray," who presented to the people of Tain a pulpit for their church, as an acknowledgment of their zeal.

In 1574 ten ministers and twenty-five readers were labouring in Ross-shire. The county was divided into ten districts, each containing several charges. To each district a minister was appointed, and, so far as the supply afforded, a reader to each charge. The several congregations in his district were visited by the minister, though he had the immediate oversight of the charge, which was accounted the central or the most important. This arrangement was, of course, only temporary, and was gradually abandoned, as the supply of ministers was increasing. Efficient readers it was difficult to procure, and a number adequate for the supplying of all the charges it was quite impossible to find. It was difficult, too, to confine such as were employed to the work which alone was assigned to them. Some of them had formerly been priests, and while required only to read to the people, they could not be kept from going beyond their commission into the track of their old course of service. The ministers, too, were liable to prelatic aspirations, and it was well, for themselves and for others, that the temptation to lord it over subordinate labourers was removed, so soon as the Church could displace, by an ordained pastorate, the temporary office of the readers. Of the work and success of the labourers in Ross-shire, during the sixteenth century, no distinct memories have survived.

Little is known of the state of matters in Ross-shire, during the days of the Tulchans. The Bishop of Ross, who was deposed by the Assembly of 1638. was one who was likely to use all his influence in suppressing the truth, and in oppressing the people who loved it. On the occasion of his deposition, Mr Alexander Kerse said, "he is the vive example and perfyte paterne of a proud prelat, and enters in composition with the Pope himselfe; and therefore, let him have his due deposition and excommunication;" "and the whole Assembly, in ane voice, voited the same."

On the re-establishment of Presbytery, after the days of the Tulchans, the people were found to be still grossly ignorant and superstitious, and the state of morals to be extremely low. During a visitation of the more remote Highland Parishes in 1656, the Presbytery of Dingwall found that "amongst their abominable and heathenish practices, the people [of Applecrosse] were accustomed to sacrifice bulls at a certaine time, upon the 25th of August, which day is dedicate, as they conceive to S. Mourie, as they call him." Whether this Mourie was a heathen deity, a Popish saint, or one of Columba's missionaries, it may be impossible to determine. The Presbytery also found "that future events in reference specially to life and death, in taking of journeys, was expected to be manifested by a hole of a round stone, wherein they tried the entering of their head, which, if they would do, to wit, be able to put in their heads, they expect their returning to that place; and failing, they con ceived it ominous." What effect would the application of this test, and faith in this omen, have on the hosts who travel in these restless days? If the old Highland proverb - "a large head on a wise man, and a hen's head on a fool" be as true as it is trite, would not the reading of the omen require to be reversed, in order to keep the most of them at home?

In Gairloch, during the same tour of visitation by the Presbytery, similar practices were found to prevail, as appears from the following minute, dated, "Kenlochewe, 9 Sept., 1656:" - "The Brethren, taking into their consideration the abominations within the paro- chin of Gairloch, in sacrificing of beests upon the 25 August, as also in pouring of milk upon hills as oblations, whose names are not particularlie signified as yet, referred to the diligence of the minister to mak search of thoas persounes and summond them; and withal that by his private diligence he have searchers and tryers in everie corner of the cuntrey, especiallie about the Loch Mourie, of the most faithfulle and honest men he can find; and that such as are his elders be particularlie poseit concerning former practices, in what they know of thoas poor ones who are called Mourie his deviles, who receives the sacrifices and offerings on account of Mourie his poore ones, and that at least some of thoas be summond to compeare before the Presbyterie until the rest be discovered." The Presbytery, at the same time, found, "that Mourie has his monuments and remembrances in several parochins within the Presbyterie, but more particularly in the parochins of Lochcarron, Lochalsh, Kintail, Containe, Foddertie and Lochbroome." In spite of every effort to put them down, these "heathenish practices" continued to prevail for some time thereafter, for in 1678 the curate of Gairloch, Mr Roderick Mackenzie, summoned certain parties "for sacrificing in ane heathenish manner in the island of St. Ruffus, commonly called Eilean Mourie, in Lochewe, for recovering the health of Cirstane Mackenzie." What was then the state of that district, may help to give an idea of the gross darkness that must have overspread the whole Highlands a century before.

Of the ministers who then laboured in Ross-shire, not many names are remembered. The gospel was fully and faithfully preached in some parishes in those days. In Tarbat and in Kincardine, in the Presbytery of Tain, there were godly ministers; in Kiltearn, and, for a short time in Fodderty, in the Presbytery of Dingwall, and in Cromarty, in the Presbytery of Chanonry. It was in Kiltearn, under the ministry of Mr Hogg, that the most signal success attended the preaching of the gospel; but there were movements elsewhere among "the dry bones," and through out the county, souls were then gathered to Christ and to glory, as the first-fruits of Ross-shire unto God.

At the Restoration not many of the ministers were found faithful in the day of trial. Mr M'Killigan, then minister of Fodderty, was the only one who at once demitted his charge. Mr Hogg of Kiltearn, Mr Anderson of Cromarty, and Mr Andrew Ross of Tarbat were deposed; and in 1665, Mr Thomas Ross of Kingcardine resigned his living. All the other ministers clung to their stipends, and contrived to swallow piecemeal the "black prelacy" that was then thrust on the conscience of Scotland.

The conforming ministers were allowed to retain some relics of their former privileges, to reconcile them the more easily to their bondage. They, forsooth, held their meetings of presbytery, and wrote minutes of their proceedings, which are still extant, and, mixing the memories of other days with the dreams of the present, they might have cheated themselves into thinking that they were not Episcopalians after all. Their bishops - for they had three in succession - humoured their dupes as other of their mitred brethren would not. They allowed them to meet in presbytery, with a Moderator, episcopally chosen, and an archdeacon, who in the moderator's absence, might act as his substitute. When both these "bishops brats" were on a hunting expedition after some of "the seditious ministers," or were required to wait on "their Right Reverend Father in Chanrie" on the day appointed for the meeting of presbytery, "the brethren" were not allowed to transact any business, and could only minute in their record that they had met and done nothing. The only work allowed to them, at any time, was to wade through all the vile details of the cases of discipline that were reported to them, and then to pass them over to the bishop for decision; to examine candidates for orders, who were then required to repair for ordination to the bishop; and to report, for the information of the bishop and the Council, all they knew regarding the ongoings of the outed ministers. They retained, from better days, the practice of delivering in rotation "an exercise and addition" on some passage of Scripture, at each meeting of their so-called presbytery; but, strict though they were in requiring an apology for absence, the man who had "to exercise" was very often "indis posed" on the day of meeting.

In 1665 the bishop sent an order to the presby teries, "requiring them to use all diligence in celebrating the holy sacrament of the Supper." The men who, in former days, judged their congregations "quite unfitted for such service," now, while their congregations are in no better state than before, resolve to yield obedience to the bishop. In 1668, the bishop "ordains, by letter, that the brethren preach on Christ's nativity day," and all the brethren after wards reported that they did so, except one, who was "tender at the time." In 1671, the effect of Episcopal drill becomes more apparent, and they regulate their procedure most submissively "according to the act passed by my Lord Bishop." In 1678, they would meet "for despatching of Mr Roderick Mackenzie, Chanter, south, as commissioner from the Synod of Ross to the primate, in order to the process delivered against Mr Thomas Urquhart, late minister at Cromartie; and on the same year," the moderator presented a letter from the Right Reverend Father, the Bishop, desiring that the moderator, with a select number of the brethren, should repair to Chanrie to put a final period to Mr Thomas Urquhart;" the bishop adding the words, "his process," to his order, to meet the scruples of the quondam Presbyterians. Thereafter, they continued to act most zealously, as the bishop s police, against the few faithful Christians, who were left in the county, and who were troublers of prelatic peace.

"The camel" given them to swallow in the test oath of 1681, caused a little higgling, which drew down upon them an imperious letter from the bishop, whose threats were far more effectual than its logic. It had a sting in its tail which terrified the poor men, though the argument in the body of it must have failed to convince them; and so "all the brethren concluded to meet at Chanrie, on Tuesday the 28th December, current, to close their resolution anent the test." Having bolted the oath, they lay down in their chains, and, excepting the intervals of disturbance caused by the conventicles at Kiltearn, Alness, and other places, they slept on, till awakened by "the glorious revolution."

In 1690 Presbytery began to resume possession, but only very slowly could it do so. There were few ministers to whom places, occupied by them before the Restoration were open. Mr Hogg returned to Kiltearn, but the labour of a few weeks sufficed to exhaust the remnant of strength which persecution had left in him; Mr Anderson resumed his work at Cromarty; and for a few months Mr M'Killigan laboured at Alness; but these, for nearly two years, were the only Presbyterian ministers, who had been in the county. In 1693, though the ministers of Ross and of Sutherland were united in one presbytery, there were only four out of the two counties whose names appear in the sederunt at any of their meetings; Mr Hugh Anderson, Cromarty, and Mr William Stewart, Kiltearn, being at that time the only Presbyterian ministers in Ross-shire, and Mr Walter Denune, Golspie, and Mr William Mackay, Dornoch, the only Presbyterian ministers in Sutherlandshire.

A few of the Episcopal incumbents laid themselves open to deposition by their disloyalty, and some by their immorality, and the places of others were soon made vacant by death. But of these openings the Assembly could not take immediate advantage. The demand for ministers was beyond the supply. They had not learned to extemporise incumbents, as was the fashion in the days of the Tulchans, and of the more ambitious prelatists of later times. Vacancies abounded, but they chose to wait till the breaches were repaired by the Lord, rather than to shovel in such rubbish as had filled them before.

The re-occupying of the county, even when supply was provided, was found to be more difficult than to take possession of it at first. Not only were the Episcopal incumbents on the field, to employ all the influence which they had managed to acquire, in opposition to the cause of the Gospel, but a strong political feeling was aroused, and directed by the Jacobite chieftains, alike against the reigning sovereign, and against the Church which he had been the means of restoring. There were a few among the people who had hailed the revolution with delight, and who, still more, rejoiced in the restoration of the Gospel to their land; but the number of such was small. In several parishes the first presentees had much opposition to encounter. In 1716, the minister of Gairloch was compelled to leave his parish, owing to the ill treatment he received at the hands of both the laird and the people. His crops were destroyed, his house robbed, and he and his family were reduced to a state of starvation. In 1720 the presentee to Lochalsh was not allowed to preach at all in that parish, and for several years, after he was first driven out of it, he could not venture to return to his charge. In 1717, the minister of Killearnan was refused by the heritors, who were bigoted Jacobites, any share of the maintenance due to him; his manse was razed to the ground; and, so incensed were the people against him under the instigation of the lairds, that his ministry was deserted, and his person in danger.

Even after the most of the charges in the Synod were supplied by Presbyterian ministers, the curates still hovered about them, and, by clandestine marriages and baptisms, and in various other ways, exerted a baneful influence on the feelings and habits of the people. In course of time these gad-flies were removed; and the only traces of "black prelacy," left in the county, were a very few Episcopal chapels, the resorts of Jacobite lairds and their underlings, and of fugitives from Presbyterian discipline.

It was after the first quarter of the eighteenth century had passed, that the best days of Ross-shire began. A few godly ministers were then scattered over the province of the Synod. In 1725, Mr James Fraser was ordained minister of Alness, and his labours were early and greatly blessed. Seven years thereafter, Mr Porteous came to Kilmuir, and few ministers have been more successful than he. Mr Balfour of Nigg, Mr M'Phail of Resolis, Mr Beaton of Rosskeen, and Mr Wood of Rosemarkie, all famous men of God, were his contemporaries. Before the middle of the century the great revival of religion began, which spread its blessed influence alike over Highlands and Lowlands. At Nigg, Kilmuir, Rosskeen, and Rosemarkie, especially, the Lord's right hand wrought wonders of grace in "turning" many "from darkness to light;" but in other places throughout the county, many souls were then gathered to the Lord. Under the ministry of such men as Fraser, Porteous, Beaton, Balfour, M'Phail, and Wood, the good work continued to advance and to spread, till the desert began now indeed to "rejoice and blossom as the rose."

This extensive revival resulted from the blessing of the Lord on the stated preaching of the Gospel. It was preceded by much prayer. It began in the hearts and the closets of the people of the Lord. Its progress was attended by no unseemly excitement. There were no outcries or prostrations at public meetings in those days. It gave rise to no unwise multiplication of agents, means, and meetings. Deep impressions of their utter impotence under the power of sin, as well as of their utter inexcusableness under its guilt, with a distinct recognition of the necessity of regeneration and of the sovereignty of grace, distinguished the experience of the awakened. Attaining to a clear view of the foundation, object, and warrant of "the hope set before him" in the Gospel, they grew up, under the skilful tuition of godly ministers, intelligent, exercised, and consistent Christians. An intense aversion to unsoundness, formality, and unwatchfulness, distinguished them as a class. Few, very few, of those who were admitted into the confidence of the Church, at that time, ever belied their profession. They were, indeed, to Ross-shire a preserving and a seasoning salt, till the Lord removed them out of it.

In 1782, there met at Kiltearn, on a communion occasion, under the preaching of Dr Fraser of Kirkhill, perhaps as blessed a congregation as ever as sembled in Scotland. Hundreds of God's people from the surrounding district, were there, and all of them had as much of the comforting presence of the Lord as they were able to endure. It was then the culminating point of the spiritual prosperity of Ross-shire was reached. Under the ministry of the Calders, Macadam, Mackenzie, the Mackintoshes, Forbes, M'Donald, and others, the Lord's people continued to be edified, and souls were still "added to the Church." But such days of power as were formerly enjoyed, have never yet returned. Days of richer blessing shall verily yet be given: but ere they shall come, the present generation may have passed, under "the shame of barrenness," from the earth.

It is worthy of remark, that it was at the climax of its spiritual prosperity, the cruel work of eviction began to lay waste the hill-sides and the plains of the north. Swayed by the example of the godly among them, and away from the influences by which less sequestered localities were corrupted, the body of the people in the Highlands became distinguished as the most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain. It was just then that they began to be driven off by ungodly oppressors, to clear their native soil for strangers, red deer, and sheep. With few exceptions, the owners of the soil began to act, as if they were also owners of the people, and, disposed to regard them as the vilest part of their estate, they treated them without respect to the requirements of righteousness or to the dictates of mercy. Without the inducement of gain, in the very recklessness of cruelty, families by hundreds were driven across the sea, or were gathered, as the sweepings of the hill-sides, into wretched hamlets on the shore. By wholesale evictions, wastes were formed for the red deer, that the gentry of the nineteenth century might indulge in the sports of the savages of three centuries before. Of many happy households sheep walks were cleared for strangers, who, fattening amidst the ruined homes of the banished, corrupted by their example the few natives who remained. Meanwhile, their rulers, while deaf to the Highlanders cry of oppression, were wasting their sinews and their blood on battle-fields, that, but for their prowess and their bravery, would have been the scene of their country's defeat.