In the accounts of famous ministers of Caithness and Sutherland in former times, there are frequent references to the Achreny Mission and its godly succession of missionaries: Robertson (later of Kingussie), Macdonald (Ferintosh), Munro (Halkirk), Finlay Cook (Reay) and others. The Rev Donald Beaton, in his valuable book, Ecclesiastical History of Caithness, concentrated mainly on the parishes of Caithness, and did not give a connected account of the Achreny Mission – a district about nine miles south of the village of Halkirk – where nothing remains now except the burying ground. Such an account might be of interest, however, and in this article we begin by tracing the history of the Mission down to the departure of John Munro in 1815.
The first matter calling for attention is the name of the Mission, which is variously given, not only in differing spellings of Achreny, but also as: Dirlot, Dirlet, Strathmore, and Halsary, together with Halladale or Strathhalladale, and combinations of these. An explanation for these names is supplied by John Munro, who was writing in 1834 in the New Statistical Account as the minister of the parish of Halkirk: “There is a missionary employed in the most distant parts of the parish, who is partly supported by the Commission for managing the Royal Bounty (1), and partly by the inhabitants of the mission district of the parish. The missionary has three preaching stations: one at Achrenny in this parish; one at Halsary in the parish of Watten; and the third at Halladale in the parish of Reay. To the Halsary district there is attached a portion of the parish of Latheron.” To this explanation it might be added that Dirlot was the principal farm near Achreny, while Strathmore was the name of the district containing it. The missionaries were either probationers or ordained ministers, but they were not permitted a seat in Church courts.
The early history of the Mission is obscure. A missionary was settled in Strathnaver in the 1760s, spending every third Sabbath in Strathhalladale, (2) but the first missionary in Achreny seems to have been settled rather later than this. When James Macdonald, the father of John Macdonald, Ferintosh, was living at Dalemore in Strathmore about 1760, it was the parish church in Halkirk that he attended on the Sabbath. (3) Writing for the First Statistical Account in 1791, John Cameron, the minister of Halkirk, mentions a mission-house nine miles from his church at which “the minister of the parish was wont to preach every fourth Sabbath as a voluntary deed, if not prevented by bad weather”. The mission-house, he says, was large, and had been built and maintained by the people of the district, and “of late years, they have had a missionary supported at their own expense also”. Possibly the first missionary to be appointed to Achreny was Alexander Sage; certainly he is the earliest missionary of whom we have a record.
Alexander Sage (1753-1824) went to Achreny in 1784 and continued there until 10 May 1787 when he became minister of Kildonan. He preached in turn at Achreny, at Halladale, and at Berriedale in the parish of Latheron, about 15 miles south of Achreny. (4) The meeting-house in Halladale was in the north end of the strath at this time, possibly at Kirkton. (5) The Halsary meeting-house had not yet been built, and the Bruan-Berriedale Mission, as it was to become, was still joined to the Achreny Mission. Sage lived in “a low, uncomfortable cottage of two rooms and a closet” at Dirlot, but a new mission-house was built soon afterwards at Achreny. In his Account of 1791 John Cameron reported that “an excellent dwelling-house was very lately built by subscription, in order to encourage the missionary, and to assist the people, and with the prospect that a perpetual mission was to be established there”.
Alexander Sage was the son of Aeneas Sage, the famous minister of Lochcarron, and the father of Donald Sage, minister of Resolis and author of Memorabilia Domestica. Prior to becoming missionary of Achreny, he had been the parish schoolmaster of Tongue, Sutherland, and it is related how on one occasion he found himself involved in a brawl with his pupils, who had mutinied and attacked him. Like his father he was a man of enormous strength and he had no difficulty in crushing the rebellion. (6) One of the ringleaders among his pupils was Hugh Mackay, Moy, who was to become his successor at Achreny. Memorabilia Domestica provides a graphic account of Alexander Sage’s time at Achreny with several interesting anecdotes.
The next missionary at Achreny, Hugh Mackay (c1762-1804), was licensed by the Presbytery of Tongue on 12 January 1786, and was appointed to Achreny presumably in the latter half of 1787. It appears that he moved to Croy as assistant to Hugh Calder about the beginning of 1789. (7) A godly man, he became minister of Moy on 25 April 1793. On one occasion Lachlan Mackenzie was assisting him at a Communion, and after the service on the Monday found him rolling on the ground weeping because no one had been converted. Lachlan Mackenzie, however, was able to assure him that five people had been converted. (8)
It is puzzling to find Hugh Mackay opposing the motion of the Synod of Moray in support of foreign missions at the 1796 General Assembly. During the famous debate he “firmly declared his opposition” to the proposal to appoint a collection in aid of foreign missionary work. Perhaps he was of a mind with Lachlan Mackenzie, who thought that “the superstition, idolatry and immorality of many who call themselves Christians is an invincible bar in the way of [the conversion of the heathen], so that any attempt to convert them would only bind them faster in their chains of error and delusion than ever.” (9) The parish of Moy, however, was one of the first Highland parishes to send money to the Edinburgh Missionary Society when it was set up by John Erskine in 1796. Furthermore, Hugh Mackay and Lachlan Mackenzie were both active in their support of the Northern Missionary Society from 1800 onward. (10)
The link between the Achreny and Berriedale Missions seems to have continued at least until 1791 because in that year Robert Gunn, the minister of Latheron, mentions in the First Statistical Account that “there is a missionary at present employed between the extremities of this parish and the parish of Halkirk”. The man he refers to is likely to have been John Robertson of Kingussie (1758-1825), the next missionary of whom we have a record, but Robertson’s dates at the Achreny Mission are hard to determine. Mr Beaton refers to a letter received by the Presbytery of Tongue on 25 June 1789 from John Cameron, Halkirk, and Robert Gunn, Latheron, “intimating that they, with the people of Achreny, had made choice of Mr Robertson,” and he goes on to say that Robertson was at Achreny for five years, before moving to the Eriboll Mission in Sutherland. (11) George Sutherland, on the other hand, says that Robertson was ordained missionary at Eriboll on 28 June 1789, had become missionary of Berriedale and Bruan by 1793, and moved to the Achreny-Halsary-Halladale Mission about 1795. (12)
Robertson was certainly at Bruan in 1793 because in March of that year he baptised Robert Finlayson, later minister of Lochs and of Helmsdale, at East Clyth near Bruan. (13) He was also certainly at Achreny about 1798, because at that time he was instrumental in the conversion of John Macdonald, Ferintosh (1779-1849), who was born at Brawlbin, seven or eight miles from Achreny. Macdonald went to King’s College, Aberdeen, in 1797, coming under soul concern soon afterwards. Thereafter the preaching of Robertson, “then missionary at Achreny”, was one of the means “employed and blessed by the Lord in guiding him into the truth as it is in Jesus”. (14) It seems likely then that Robertson went to Eriboll in 1789 and became missionary of Berriedale, Achreny and Halladale about 1791, remaining at Achreny when the Bruan-Berriedale Mission was separated. This happened about 1795, because William Mackintosh, later minister of Thurso, was ordained missionary of Bruan and Berriedale in December 1795. In August 1799 Robertson was translated to the chapel of ease in Rothesay, Bute, and in 1810 he moved to Kingussie. He frequently assisted at communions in Arran, and was involved in the awakening which took place there under the ministry of Neil M’Bride. This revival was of considerable significance for the Achreny Mission.
The next missionary at Achreny of whom we have a record was John Macdonald, Ferintosh, himself, who was licensed on 2 July 1805 and was appointed missionary for six months in November 1805. His father James was a noted catechist in the parish of Reay and well known to the godly people of Achreny. David Steven of Bower used to relate how the new missionary came to be appointed: “Mr Macdonald had just been licensed to preach, and the Achreny Mission being then vacant, the people were anxious he should get the appointment. Mr Cameron, minister of Halkirk, who had supervision of the Mission (it being within his parochial bounds), wished that another – a relative of his – should get it and had sent him to preach there for several Sabbaths. On the day of election, Mr Cameron requested the people to express their opinion of the young man they had been hearing; but no one responded to the invitation. At length, Mr Cameron, addressing Colin Campbell, the catechist of the district, said: ‘Come Colin, let us hear your opinion’. ‘My opinion is,’ said he, rising to his feet, ‘that I would not take the poor creature’s judgement on a worldly matter, far less on a soul’s case.’ Thereupon the people rose and, to a man, left the church; and Mr Cameron went home in a very indignant mood. Seeing, however, that they were intent on getting their favourite, he at last yielded, and intimated this in these words: ‘Well, well, since James Macdonald’s son makes the best kail, you can sup the more of it!'” (15) Mr Cameron, it may be remarked, was the “Mr C” of a neighbouring parish who had baptised John Macdonald. He was on a shooting excursion at the time and broke the ice on a pool with the butt of his gun to get some water. (16)
In January 1806 John Macdonald married his first wife, an aunt of George Davidson who was minister of Latheron from 1820. Several of his biographers have commented on what they saw as the rashness of his action in his unsettled circumstances. Interestingly, there was nothing striking about his preaching at this stage. “His first discourses,” says John Kennedy, “though carefully prepared, were very unpretending; and, though distinctly, were coldly delivered.” (17) In September 1806 he was ordained as missionary of Bruan and Berriedale, and in January 1807 he moved to the Gaelic Chapel in Edinburgh.
John Macdonald was succeeded at Achreny by John Munro (1768-1847). The two of them had been in the same year at King’s College, Aberdeen, and would probably have been friendly after John Macdonald’s conversion, John Munro himself having been converted in his early years. He became the missionary at Achreny on 13 August 1806, and married on 16 September of the following year, his wife Isabella being a sister of the eminent William Forbes, minister of Tarbat. It is recorded that in later years, while taking a drive with her, it occurred to him to question her with regard to her religious experience. He was, he said, so pleased and satisfied with the genuineness of her religion, that if he had not married her long ago, he would marry her now. They were both nearly 80 at the time. (18)
It is evident from John Munro’s entry for Halkirk in the New Statistical Account that the life of the Achreny missionary was hard: The people “are very much scattered, and are often prevented from attending the missionary’s preaching by the river and other swollen streams, which, especially during the winter and spring, are so much swollen, and that perhaps on the day the missionary is to preach in the district, that it is impossible for many to attend, and very likely they will not hear sermon again until the missionary is there three weeks thereafter. This produces great evils – it begets indifference to the means of grace, and at last, in too many cases, a total neglect of these means. This is not to be attributed to the missionary, nor, humanly speaking, to the people, but to the system on which the mission is established, and the utter impossibility of any one man being able, however gifted with zeal and abilities, to discharge aright duties requiring continual devotedness and unwearied labours to perform them either with success or efficiency. Is it to be supposed that a minister can administer religious instruction to a population of at least 2500, scattered over the remote parts of three parishes, and the greater number of the distant glens and valleys in the high and mountainous districts of the county of Caithness? Here is committed to the pastoral superintendence of a missionary a boundary, the extremes of which, by a practicable road, are from 40 to 50 miles distant from one another.”
Donald Sage, whose sister was married to Mrs Munro’s brother, comments on the limited “natural capacity” and “literary attainments” of John Munro, and mentions that “although he was universally respected by the pious among the lower classes, yet, by the higher and better-educated who knew not the truth, he was known in Caithness by the epithet of ‘Munro of the Hills'”. (19) As Mr Beaton remarks, however, John Munro’s entry for Halkirk in the New Statistical Account “is a very eloquent piece of work, decidedly the most eloquent of all the productions of Caithness ministers” in either Statistical Account. (20)
On 14 December 1815 John Munro moved to the Gaelic and English Chapel in Edinburgh. It is said that there was not a dry eye when he preached his final sermon in Halladale. (21) The Gaelic and English Chapel had come into being in March 1809 following a proposal to introduce some English services into the Gaelic Chapel, for the benefit of children and others who had little or no Gaelic. The result was a split. John Macdonald, Ferintosh, under whose ministry this painful episode occurred, remained minister of the Gaelic Chapel until 1813, when he moved to Ferintosh, while the Gaelic and English Chapel sought a new minister. The two chapels were reunited in October 1815, shortly before John Munro’s arrival. He continued there until 1822, when he returned north, to Halkirk.
This article is part 1 of a series
Other articles in this series: [part 2] [part 3] [part 4]
1. An annual sum of money donated by the King, first given in 1725, for the support of gospel work in the Highlands.
2. Malcolm Bangor-Jones, “From Clanship to Crofting: Landownership, Economy and the Church in the Province of Strathnaver”, in John R Baldwin (ed), The Province of Strathnaver, Scottish Society for Northern Studies, Edinburgh, 2000, p 81.
3. Donald Mackay, Memories of Our Parish, Dingwall, 1925, p.159.
4. Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, Wick, 1899 (second edition) p 38.
5. Donald Munro, Records of Grace in Sutherland, Edinburgh, 1953, p 179.
6. Memorabilia Domestica, p 32.
7. Donald Beaton, Some Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands, Inverness, 1929, p 118.
8. Lachlan Mackenzie, Additional Lectures, Sermons, and Writings, Inverness, 1930, p 11. Two further anecdotes involving Hugh Mackay, too long to be included here, are given in John Macleod’s By-Paths of Highland Church History, Edinburgh, 1965, pp 87-89.
9. Lachlan Mackenzie, Lectures, Sermons, and Writings, Inverness, 1928, p 410.
10. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 19, pp 294-297,387.
11. Noted Ministers, p 118.
12. George Sutherland, The Missionary Ministers of Bruan, Wick, 1935, p 6.
13. The Missionary Ministers of Bruan, p 6.
14. John Kennedy, The Apostle of the North, (Free Presbyterian ed) 1978, p 18.
15. Alexander Auld, Memorials of David Steven, Wick, 1874, pp 43-44.
16. Apostle of North, p 9; Memories of Our Parish, p 165.
17. Apostle of North, p 22.
18. Memorials of the Late Rev Christopher Munro, Edinburgh, 1890, p 19.
19. Memorabilia Domestica, p 192.
20. Donald Beaton, Ecclesiastical History of Caithness and Annals of Caithness Parishes, Wick, 1909, p 212.
21. Alexander Auld, Ministers and Men in the Far North, 1956 Free Presbyterian ed, p 59.