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Issue 77 - Highland Churches

Scotland Magazine Issue 77
October 2014


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Highland Churches

James Irvine Robertson ventures into the stormy passage of religion in the Scottish Highlands

They are places of pilgrimage for the descendants of Highland emigrants of past centuries. Melancholy, often isolated and windswept, usually enclosed by a rubble-stone wall to keep out the sheep, they hold the dust of a thousand years of their ancestors.

Sometimes, there are no more than a few humps and hummocks. Sometimes the tops of a few simple stones poke through the turf. Occasionally, one can see some letters, a crude cross or even a sword incised upon a recumbent tombstone. Sometimes such burial grounds were used into the 20th century and some son of the locality who made good in Glasgow or Canada may have raised a more solid polished memorial carved with the names of himself, his parents and a string of siblings who died young. Such ancient burial grounds lie in every Scottish glen.

Often the remains of the little crofting townships where these people lived have vanished without trace, their stones quarried in a later age for sheep folds and farm buildings, themselves now tumbling to ruin. Sometimes more substantial relics lie alongside, and these will be the remains of the little church which once served the community. It is often thought that such churches fell into disuse through depopulation but, in most cases, the cause was the Reformation.

In the 16th century, the nobility of Scotland was vying for control of the throne. The Stewarts were no more than immigrants to Scotland like so much of the aristocracy and their rivals questioned their divine right to the throne. The Church was part of the struggle, Roman Catholics supported Queen Mary against her Protestant adversaries and the latter triumphed in 1560 when the Reformation parliament abolished papal jurisdiction in Scotland.

But Scotland was a land of two nations: the South, who spoke the Scots form of English, and the Gaelic Highlands. The Reformation was a Lowland phenomenon and the Gaels were presented with a fait accompli.

It had taken long enough for the Catholic Gospel to penetrate the wild fastnesses of the Highlands, and communications were little better by the 16th century. The Highland priests were Gaels, and part of their communities but there were precious few clergy in the new church who were interested in the barbarians in the north. One contemporary commentator wrote ‘The indifference shown to their religious instruction at the Reformation looked more like a total extinction than a reform of religion.’

Catholic priests in the Highlands lost their income unless they converted to the new faith and there were limited numbers of Protestant ministers to replace them. Parishes were amalgamated, sometimes four into one; countless chapels were destroyed and huge tracts of the country were left without church or minister.

For example, Appin Parish was annexed to Lismore. Kilchonan in Rannoch was annexed to Fortingall. The churches of these adjoining amalgamated parishes were 78 miles apart in a country without roads or means of communication or transport.

Nine churches or chapels in these parishes were suppressed and the reformers replaced thirteen clergy with two. And few of the incoming Protestant ministers spoke Gaelic. Those who did had to struggle to translate the English Bible into Gaelic as they preached. In 1688 over two hundred copies of the Old Testament printed in Irish Gaelic, were dispatched to Scotland and distributed to most Highland parishes. They were received with great satisfaction but they still left difficulties for the parish ministers who needed to translate the Irish Gaelic into Scots Gaelic.

In 1709, to counter the lingering Catholicism and Jacobitism in the Highlands, the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge was founded to provide schools ‘where religion and virtue might be taught to young and old.’ By 1808, it was running 189 schools in the Highlands.

Initially the Society ruled that all teaching should be in English, but the absurdity of forcing young Gaels to learn biblical passages in an incomprehensible foreign language brought about a change. In 1741 the SSPCK introduced a Gaelic-English vocabulary, then in 1767 brought in a New Testament, translated by James Stuart, the minister of Killin, with facing pages of Gaelic and English texts for both languages to be read alongside one another. In 1801 a Gaelic translation of the Old Testament was completed.

In 1824, the Government provided funds to address the paucity of Highland churches. Forty three were built to a design by Thomas Telford, each with a stipend of £120 a year. To look once more at Fortingall Parish, new churches with their own ministers were erected at Innerwick in Glen Lyon and at Kinloch Rannoch, creating new quoad sacra parishes with authority over spiritual matters while parent Fortingall remained a quoad omnia parish with the civil authority.

Highland religion still differs from Lowland religion. The Disruption of 1843 split the Church of Scotland. The conflict was about control and patronage. Ministers in the established church were appointed by local grandees and the Church’s head was the Sovereign in parliament.

This was unacceptable to many for the essence of Presbyterianism is that congregations have power over their own access to the Almighty. Christ, not the monarch, is Head of the Church. Almost all the Highland congregations joined the Free Church and, when the rift was healed in 1929, many remained outside and, in the Highlands and Islands, the Free Church is still strong although still prone to disputes and schisms.

And Roman Catholicism in the far north west never died away. This is most obvious in the Outer Hebrides where, on South Uist, next door to the fiercely Protestant North Uist and Lewis, one can see the incongruous sight of Marian shrines alongside the windswept machair.