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


His Birthplace — His Father — Anecdotes of His Boyhood — His Education — College Days License — His sermon in Applecross — His labours in Lochbroom — Anecdote.

RISSEL, in the district of Kishorn, within the parish of Applecross, was my father's birthplace. It is one of those green spots that usually speck the breasts of hills, formed of such limestone rocks as abound in that part of the country. The time was when the most of these oases had cottages on or beside them. Often, throughout the Highlands, they now serve but to mark where cottages once stood. Some of these desolate hill-sides have seen better days, and they have their own striking way of telling their reverse. As one looks on them now, in their patched clothing of green and purple, through which the grey and naked elbows of the underlying rocks protrude, they seem, like men of broken fortunes, wearing, all in rags, the dress of other days.

His father, himself the son of godly parents, was well known in the surrounding district. He had been educated with a view to the ministry, and had been for several sessions at college; but believing that the Lord had accepted his intention without requiring its fulfilment, as in the case of David, in reference to the building of the temple, he never applied for license, but lived to see two of his sons serving the Lord in the Gospel. Combining, with the warm heart of a Christian Highlander, an enlightened understanding and a tender conscience, he was a man to win affection and command respect. He was eminently a man of prayer; and such was the feeling with which, on that account, he was regarded by the people, that, when the fishermen were out on Loch Kishorn on a stormy night, they knew no fear, so long as they saw the light in his window, believing that while it twinkled there, he was pleading with God for their safety. During many years of his life he attended the ministry of Mr. Lachlan Mackenzie of Lochcarron, by whom he was greatly beloved and respected. Sometimes, when that godly minister would shrink from engaging in public duty, in a fit of unbelief, Donald Kennedy would succeed in persuading him, after all others had failed. Once, on the morning of a communion Sabbath, when the hour for commencing the service had come, Mr. Lachlan was still locked up in his bedroom. The morning had been stormy, and the Tempter had found it easy to persuade him that this was permitted, just to prevent his preaching, and that it would be presumption to go out in the face of a frowning Providence. His friend from Kishorn, had only arrived as the hour for beginning public worship had come. Being prepared to find what he afterwards ascertained to be the case, he went at once to the minister's bedroom. The door was locked, and no answer would be given to all his knocks and en treaties. He had much in him yet of the strength of younger days, and, putting his shoulder to the door, he forced it open, and on entering, found as expected, the minister stretched weeping on his bed. He ordered him at once, in accents tremulous with respect, to rise; telling him he was ashamed to find one, who had so often caught the tempter in a lie, yielding yet again to his suggestions, and assuring him that if he went forward to the Lord's own work, at the Lord's own bidding, difficulties would vanish, and his fears be disappointed. Mr. Lachlan yielded before his urgency; and scarcely had he crossed the threshold, on his way to the place of meeting, when the rain ceased, the clouds were scattered, and the frowning morning was succeeded by a smiling day of sunshine. During the service of that day, the Lord's servants and people enjoyed a "time of refreshing" that left its mark on their memories for ever.

In his management of his household, he was peculiarly conscientious. It was his habit, as it was that of "his father before him," when each of his children reached a certain age, to retire with them to a quiet spot in the wood, and there, after spending some time in prayer, after explaining to them the nature of his engagements, in their behalf, at their baptism, and appealing to their conscience as to his manner of fulfilling them, directing them to the only source of strength, he took them under vow to seek and serve the Lord. My father always retained a lively recollection of this solemn transaction.

But before that time, and even from his very in fancy, he was regarded by his acquaintances as a subject of grace. At the age of three years, it was his habit to retire to some secret place to pray. One day, in his fourth year, while thus engaged, a woman, who was passing, heard the child's voice lisping his petitions to God, and, arrested by the words she first heard, she stood to listen till his prayer was ended. What she then heard, the Lord applied with saving power to her soul, and she, notorious only for wickedness before, was known, from that time till her death, as a consistent witness for God in the district. Thus early did the Lord give an earnest of the great usefulness of his later years.

Notwithstanding these indications of an earlier piety, he himself, sometimes at least, looked no further back than the twenty-fourth year of his age for the dawnings of spiritual life in his soul. In that year, he passed through a process, that gave him a deep experience of the convictions and temptations usually attending a work of conversion; but whether it availed, merely to prepare him for dealing with the cases of others, or as his introduction into the kingdom of grace as well, it is now impossible conclusively to determine. But the individual himself not being always the best qualified to judge in a such a case, I cannot dissent from the opinion of those, who knew him in his youth, and who believed that he had feared the Lord from his earliest years.

About the sixth year of his age, he was seized with small-pox. The attack proved to be very severe, and the child, unable to see or to speak, seemed lying at the very gates of death. Just when "at the lowest," and while his father was in his closet wrestling with God for his life, a man from the neighbourhood, who had the reputation of a seer, entered the house. The mother, ascertaining he was in, and having in her as much superstition as made her anxious to consult him, brought him to the room in which her son was lying.

The child was quite aware of the man's entrance, but was utterly unable to express the horror with which his presence had inspired him. "What do you think of John?" asked the anxious mother. The oracular reply was, "Ere the tide that now ebbs shall have touched the shore again, your child shall be no more." This the child distinctly heard, but it gave him no alarm. He knew the man who spake these words was a messenger of Satan, and the Lord so calmed his spirit that "the prince of the power of the air" could not stir it. Just then the father returned from his place of prayer, his face lighted up with the joy of hope. Observing the seer, he ordered him at once away. The man, too glad to escape, instantly vanished, though not through the chimney or the keyhole, as such persons were sometimes suspected of doing. Observing his wife in tears, he asked her why she was weeping. She told him the seer's gloomy prophecy. "The messenger of Satan lieth," he said: "the Lord hath given me the life of my child, the blessings of His right hand shall rest upon his head, and he shall yet serve the Lord in the gospel of His Son." In course of time the child recovered sight and health; but never could the man who prophesied his early death, from that day look him in the face. He carefully avoided him whenever he seemed likely to meet him. But as he was leaving home, on one of his journeys to college, and as he was passing out of a narrow gorge, that formed the outlet of the glen behind his father's house, the seer suddenly came out from behind a rock, and, in a flutter of excitement, rushed up to him; but with no worse intent than to thrust a sum of money into his hand, which having done, he as suddenly again disappeared. Doubtless, the man's conscience was smarting under a sense of guilt, and the money was intended as a solatium for the pain which he formerly inflicted.

His early education was the best that could be procured in the district. This, however, is no high praise. He was taught to read, and write, and count, and was crammed with Latin. This was all that parish teachers in the Highlands, in those days, usually tried to do, besides practising themselves in the use of the lash, their kilted pupils affording them a tempting facility for the performance. Each lesson, given with this accompaniment, left its mark on the skin as well as its print on the memory, and, it must be confessed, stuck well to the pupil. Better Latin scholars, at least, were turned out of the dreadful schools of those days, than come from the pleasant seminaries of the present. Whatever was the character of the teacher under whom my father studied, he left his school prepared to pass respectably through the curriculum at King's College, Aberdeen.

Very different from what it now is, was the journey to College in those days. Many students were obliged to walk their weary way, from the far north, to the granite city. Sometimes a gillie was in attendance, who carried the scanty wardrobe and the provisions for the way; a laird's son would have a horse and a gillie. Hospitality was no rare virtue in the days of our fathers, and but few of the poor students had to pay for a night's lodging by the way. Some kind farmer was almost always found, who made the weary traveller welcome to bed and board for a night. This might be less necessary to the student, on his way to the south, his purse then containing the sum given him to meet the expenses of the session. But the purse was, generally, empty enough on his way home again. An Aberdeen professor used to tell his students of his having started once, after a College session, for his home in Caithness, with only twopence in his pocket. On one of his journeys to College, my father walked, "between sleep and sleep," no fewer than eighty miles, a feat very unusual even in those pedestrian days.

A College life, before his time, was almost as unlike the present as were College journeys. Not long before then, all the students occupied apartments within the College, and messed together. Strange parties these must have been that sat around the long table in the College hall! Many a district contributed its share of temper, fun, wildness, and awkwardness, to the talk and the manners of that group of youths. Under a professor's eye and influence, the whole might have been smoothed down into a very dull affair; but the recoil would be all the greater when the professor had gone, and wild and furious would be the din, when each one in that motley group resumed his own proper phase, and found the reins lying on his neck again. Had the lodgings been comfortable, the fare good and cheap, and the supervision close and godly, this arrangement might have been excellent. Almost anything is better than to send a youth to College, without a tutor or a friend, allowed to keep his own purse, and to choose his own companions.

Three sessions, then, completed the literary course at King's College, and each professor carried a set of students through all the classes. This could only be a good arrangement, if each professor was equally qualified in all the departments of study, if all were equally good or equally bad, and if the professor and his pupils took well to each other at the outset. But the "Jack-of-all-trades " is generally "master of none;" and considering the difficulty now felt in getting one suitable man for each chair, we may not return to the plan, requiring each professor to be qualified for all.

Two sessions only were then spent in the study of theology. Five years were thus the term of a youth's college studies for the ministry. This is now thought to be greatly too short; but if young men were only allowed to get out of their teens before entering college, the result of a five years course would weigh just as much as that of eight years, on which a youth at twenty can now often look back. Let Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew be confined to schools and gymnasia, and let theological professors examine oftener and lecture less, and we can have in five years all that is worthy of a college in our present literary course, and quite as useful preparation for the work of the ministry, as can now be procured in our divinity halls. But, after all, what avails any course of theological study, if the essential qualification be awanting, which only the Spirit of the Lord can supply. It is too often supposed, that any gifted man can be shaped into a minister; whereas the more talented a man is, and the more furnished with all the accessories that constitute a minister's intellectual equipment, the more dangerous will he prove, if he be not a minister of God s own making. It is indeed a mistaken idea, that learning is unnecessary and college studies useless; but it is a greater and more dangerous error, so to elevate the importance of literature and science, as practically, at least, to exalt them above the essential of godliness. On no account ought the Church to lower the standard of literary attainment, by which candidates for the ministry are tried; but when she allows Satan, so often, to thrust ungodly men through her courts, under the disguise which talent and learning may form, she should surely be at liberty to receive, occasionally, from the Lord, men whom He hath "created anew" for His work, though they may lack the trappings by which the ungodliness of these others was concealed. Sometimes, such men have been signally blessed in the ministry of the gospel, and any arrangement, that makes their reception im possible, cannot be sanctioned by the Lord.

In these remarks, some may think they discover an admission, that my father's early education was defective. With all the ardour of my love to him, and all the depth of my veneration for his memory, I will not claim for him any distinction for extraordinary talent or learning ; nor does it pain me that I cannot. He may have entered college with the disadvantage of a defective education, and he may have passed into the hall without having made any marked progress in literature and science; but I can truly claim for him, at least, an ordinary measure of attainments. His sternly exclusive regard to what was substantial and useful, made him utterly indifferent to the acquirement of what was merely shadowy or showy.

He knew what he lacked, and if he chose he could acquire it; but if he was understood, this was all he was ever careful about, as to his manner of expressing his thoughts when preaching the gospel. The idea of studying manner or style was one that never found a place in his mind. But what a counterpoise to every defect, in point of literary acquirement and mere superficial polish, were his sound and penetrating judgment, his devotion of heart to the service of the Lord, his experience from very infancy of the power of the truth, his habitual prayerfulness, and that holy watch fulness which communion with God never fails to produce. Such was my father when studying for the ministry, and if I may not be proud of him, I cannot be ashamed of him.

During the interval between two of his college sessions, an incident occurred, to which he often gratefully referred. He and his brother Neil, having gone a deer-stalking, they came in sight of a herd which they could only approach within gunshot, by creeping slowly up the slope of a hill. John was in advance, as they were stealing there way towards the deer. The tricker of his brother's gun having been caught by the heather, the shot was discharged, and the ball passed through his coat. Rising at once, he said to his brother, "Neil, I think it is time for us to give up this work." Discharging his own gun, he shouldered it, and, on reaching home, laid it aside, never to use it again.

He was licensed to preach the gospel, by the Presbytery of Lochcarron, Nov. 24th 1805, in the twenty-fourth year of his age. His discourses, all of which he delivered that day, "were unanimously approved of," and the Presbytery "were fully satisfied with the manner in which he acquitted himself in the languages, moral and natural philosophy." Either at the same meeting, or nearly about the same time, other young men were licensed. Referring to the group, Mr. Lachlan said, "the others are only preachers of our making, but the Lord made a preacher of John Kennedy."

About the time of his license, he was appointed teacher of the parish school of Lochcarron. While discharging the duties of that situation, he continued to reside in his father's house; and was accustomed to walk to his school and back again, each day; but to him, with his athletic frame and buoyant step, the twelve miles walk was but a pleasant exercise. During his connection with the parish school, he enjoyed the privilege of sitting under Mr. Lachlan's preaching, and of being admitted by him to the closest private intercourse. How his face used to light up, in after years, at the remembrance of the sermons and the conversations of those days!

Not long after his license, he attended a communion at Applecross, at which Mr. Lachlan was the principal assistant. On Saturday, Mr. Lachlan was appointed to preach a Gaelic sermon, in the open air; but such was his state of mind, in the morning of that day, that he abandoned the idea of preaching, and resolved to remain in his bed. He sent for "John," as he always called my father, about break fast-time and insisted on his preaching for him. It was not easy, to think of taking Mr. Lachlan's place; but there was "no help for it," and he was obliged to promise to preach. The advice, given him by Mr. Lachlan, was — "when you are asked to preach on an hour's notice, spend one half of the hour on your knees, pleading for a text, a sermon, and a blessing; and the other half employ in studying the text and context, and in gathering as many parallel passages as you can find." The time for beginning the service arrived, and the preacher went to the meeting place. The tent, in which he stood was constructed with oars, in the form of a cone, covered with blankets, and having an opening in front, with a board fixed across it, on which the Bible was placed. Unobserved by the preacher, and just as he had begun his sermon, Mr. Lachlan, lifting the blanket from the ground at the back of the tent, crept in behind him, and sat down. The sermon had not proceeded far, when a case was described, which was so exactly Mr. Lachlan's at the time, that he could not refrain from exclaiming aloud. Starting on hearing the voice from behind, the preacher, not a little disconcerted, looked round, on which Mr. Lachlan kindly said to him, "Go on, John; I have got my portion, and my soul needed it, and other poor souls may get theirs, before you conclude." Thus encouraged, the preacher proceeded, the Lord was with him, and his sermon was blessed.

About two years after being licensed, he was appointed to preach in Lochbroom, the parish minister having been suspended. The time which he spent there, was in some respects the happiest portion of his life, and a light rested on it, that drew the eye of memory frequently towards it. It was the season of his "first love," as a preacher the Lord was very near to his soul, and a manifest blessing rested on his labours. During that time, many souls were truly converted unto God, some of whom, in Lochbroom, and some, in other places, to which they were scattered, continued till their death, to shine as "lights in the world." Many a sweet hour of communion with the Lord he enjoyed in those days, in the woods of Dundonnell!

I cannot forget a trying scene, into which a streak of the light of those days was once cast to cheer my heart. Being called to see a dying woman, I found, on reaching the place to which I was directed, a dark filthy attic in which I could observe nothing, till the light I had carried in had quite departed from my eye. The first object I could discern, was an old woman crouching on a stone beside a low fire, who, as I afterwards ascertained, was unable to move but "on all fours." Quite near the fire, I then saw a bed, on which an older woman still was stretched, who was stone blind, and lying at the very gates of death. The two women were sisters, and miserable indeed they seemed to be; the one, with her breast and face devoured by cancer, and the other, blind and dying. They were from Lochbroom ; and we had spoken but little, when one of them referred to the days of my father's labours in their native parish, and told of her first impression of divine things, under a sermon which he preached at that time. The doctrine of that sermon was as fresh in her mind, and as cheering as when she first heard it, half a century before. Such was the humble hope of both of them, and their cheerful resignation to the will of God, that I could not but regard them, even in their dark and filthy attic, as at the very threshold of glory. I left them with a very different feeling from that with which I first looked on them; nor could I see, among the gay and frivolous, whom I passed on the street after leaving them, any who, with all their health, cheerfulness, and comforts, I would compare, in point of true happiness, with the two old women in the cheerless attic.