The Banishment and Return of a Highland Laird
By a Highland Minister
Continued from the November issue. Reprinted from The Original Secession Magazine and edited. Readers may recollect that the previous instalment ended with the note that we were unable to procure the next instalment. However, a friend has kindly supplied us with the next two instalments, the one below being from the July 1890 issue of The Original Secession Magazine.
WHEN Mr John Fraser, Laird of Pitcalzean, Ross-shire, and the other Dunotter prisoners were brought back to Leith in August, 1685, the Privy Council came down to the Tollbooth there to have the pleasure of the re-examination of the much afflicted remnant. They were offered the usual ensnaring oaths, which a few accepted, and thereby secured their freedom. Others, brought to death’s door by the protracted severities of their confinement, “got off upon a bond of compearance when called” at the intercession of friends. The most part still retained their integrity, and were sentenced to perpetual banishment to America.
Their transportation was entrusted to George Scot of Pitlochrie, who in the earlier years of the persecution had repeatedly suffered imprisonment for the faith, which now sat so easy on his conscience that he was eager to procure a cargo of Nonconformists and make much gain by their enforced labour in a plantation [colony] he was anxious to found in New Jersey. Probably he thought that, to his prisoners, slavery in America was preferable to pining away in over-crowded dungeons in Scotland. Scot was as unstable as the water over which he was to sail. One who knew him well described him aptly as “a professor, and nothing of vice or immorality known to him, but not deep drawn in religion, and a very foolish and unwise man in any matters he engaged in.” In Wodrow (Hist. 4. 221), may be seen the names of seventy-two of the Dunnottar prisoners under sentence of banishment, of whom twenty-one were females. Along with them Scot secured a considerable number of other “Whig prisoners” men and women.
There were emigrants too, who paid for their passage, of whom the most notable was Mr Archibald Riddell, son of Sir Walter Riddell, of Glen Riddell, Dumfries. He had been one of the officiating ministers at the great East Nisbet Communion in 1677, which so many thousands attended, at the jeopardy of their lives, on one of the greatest “days of the Son of Man” ever witnessed since Pentecost. Confined for four years in the Bass, he now desired the liberty of an exile. He was joined at Leith by his wife and several relatives. Many trials were before him, but he survived the Revolution, and returned to Scotland to labour much in the Lord before his death as minister of Edinburgh, in 1708.
At this time vast numbers were being transported to Jamaica, and “his Majesty’s plantations”. A great many, too, there were from Argyllshire, who firmly refused compliance with the iniquitous conditions of the “Scots managers”, and preferred bonds and imprisonment to guilty consciences.
When Scot had got the banished on board the vessel he was in no hurry in weighing anchor. He had to find sufficient caution for the transportation of each of the prisoners on his lists, and become bound to return a certificate of their landing, “under the penalty of 500 merks for each one of them in case of failure, mortality and pirates being always excepted”. Twenty-eight of the sufferers left a high-toned testimony behind them for their friends, on behalf of those principles which they held dearer than their lives: “That now being to leave their own native and Covenanted land by an unjust sentence of banishment, for owning the truth and holding by duty, and studying to keep by their covenant engagements and baptismal vows, whereby they stand obliged to resist and testify against all that is contrary to the Word of God and their Covenants; and that their sentence of banishment ran chiefly because they refused the oath of allegiance”, which, they go on to say, they could not take as it involved a repudiation of Christ as King and Head of His Church, and over their consciences, and putting in His room a sworn enemy to religion, an avowed Papist. They then “leave their testimony against the evils of the times, and for the preaching of the Gospel in the fields and houses”.
After a fortnight in Leith, they set sail on 5th September, 1685. For some days wind and weather were favourable, but on passing Land’s End “fever began to rage in the ship, especially among those who had been in the great vault of Dunnottar”. What else could anyone have expected? They were ill, some of them, on coming on board, and they were all in their weakness and emaciation as predisposed to catch infection as they were ready to succumb to fever. Then their food was terribly unsuitable. The salted flesh provided for the prisoners had been giving evidence of decomposition before losing sight of Scotland, and soon it became unfit for dogs. In a month’s time the fever became malignant, and spread with fatal rapidity over all on board. On some days as many as three or four dead bodies were thrown overboard. Most of the ship’s crew, except the captain and boatswain, died. Scot was attacked, and his dreams of gain vanished with his expiring life. His wife, a most worthy lady, then succumbed to the virulent distemper.
Amid all this fearful mortality, attempts were made to deprive the survivors of the consolations of the Gospel. What mingled depravity and cruelty appear in the following picture: “Much severity was used toward the prisoners at sea by the master of the ship and others; those under deck were not allowed to go about worship by themselves, and when they essayed it, the captain would throw down great planks of timber upon them to disturb them, by which some narrowly escaped with their lives.” The voyage was a long record of disasters. Several times, leaks were sprung, attended by great hazard. Sometimes the floating hospital was becalmed, and then suddenly struck by severe gales. The heat at times was intense, so that the air of the crowded cabins was almost suffocating.
Scot was no more, but he left his whole interest in the emigration scheme to his son-in-law, one Johnston, who was heartless and avaricious enough for carrying out the bad business. To make the best possible profit of the Covenanting cargo, the captain and the new owner were negotiating to take the vessel to Virginia or Jamaica, where the labour market was better, with the intention of selling the prisoners as slaves. But the cruel design was frustrated by the wind, or rather by Him who controls the wind and waves. The wind changing drove the ship straight into Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the desired haven, on the morning of Sabbath, 13th December, after a tedious voyage of fifteen weeks. For other three days the afflicted passengers were detained on board. Johnston insisted on their subscribing “a voluntary declaration”, binding themselves to serve him for four years. This, however, they not only firmly refused to do, but “a considerable number of them joined in a protestation against their banishment, with a large narrative of the hardships they endured during the voyage, and formerly, for conscience sake.”
Failing to extort this agreement, and seeing that in their present sickly condition the prisoners were useless for plantation purposes, Johnston allowed all on board to land. Mr John Hutchinson, “a worthy gentleman from the west of Scotland, died among their hands as they were carrying him ashore”. Mr John Fraser, who records this in his narrative, adds: “Partly of those who voluntarily offered themselves to go abroad from the kingdom of Scotland, and partly of those who were persecuted by banishment, upwards of sixty died at sea, whose blood will be found in the skirts of their enemies as really as if they had died at the Cross and Grassmarket of Edinburgh.”
Poor was the welcome awaiting the survivors on landing. The inhabitants of the coast had no sympathy with their sufferings, for they knew not the truth. But further inland there was a town which had a gospel ministry, and many kind Christian hearts. When information reached them of the sufferings of the Scots immigrants, they not only invited all who could travel to come and share their hospitality, but they sent horses a distance of sixteen miles to convey those too sick and exhausted to walk. Well might the persecuted witnesses, now brought back from the gates of death, with the vivid memories of Dunnottar and the fever-smitten ship, regard the hospitality of strangers as “the doing of the Lord and wondrous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23).
But Johnston, their tormentor, was not to let them off for long. He was quite pleased that they should be kindly treated and well nourished during the winter, as their labour in the spring would bring him so much money. So he applied to the courts of law of the province to obtain a decree for four years’ service, upon the ground that the accused had been gifted to his father-in-law by the Scottish government. Upon this they were all imprisoned to prevent escape, and their trial came off in the chief court of the province before the governor and a jury. After hearing both sides of the case, the sensible finding of the jury was: “That as the prisoners had not embarked of their own accord in the ship that conveyed them to the province, and had made no bargain with Scot for money or service, they should be forthwith discharged.” Apprehensive of further trouble from Johnston, most of the prisoners left New Jersey and went to New England, a land of gospel light and liberty, “where they were kindly entertained, and employed according to their several stations and capacities”, until the Revolution afforded an opportunity to the most of them to return to their fatherland.
In New England, John Fraser was licensed to preach the gospel, and his faithful labours were crowned with remarkable success. In the town of Waterbury, Hartford, his preaching was blessed to twelve people, whose names he wrote down in his notebook, and “whom God, by means of the Word preached, had translated from darkness to light, and brought to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ”.
Here, in 1686, John Fraser “married Miss Jean Moffat, daughter of a worthy family in Tweeddale, who had suffered sore persecution for non-conformity. Her father had paid at sundry times a thousand merks of fine, on account of her absenting from the parish church and frequenting field conventicles”. The wife was every way worthy of the husband. She had been his compassion in tribulation during the previous year of multiplied trials over land and sea. She bore the Dunnottar horrors with unflinching fortitude. She signed the testimony when the fever-ship was in Leith. She survived the manifold perils of the voyage, and was a sharer of the common deliverance from the hands of Scot and Johnston.
We are informed that “Mr Fraser and spouse continued in New England until they heard of King William’s accession to the throne. Then they returned to Scotland, and Mr Fraser was settled as minister of Glencorse in the Presbytery of Dalkeith, MrDavid Walker, minister of Temple, presiding on the occasion.” There was, at that time of the “building up of the waste places”, a great scarcity of Gaelic-speaking ministers in the North, and the General Assembly of the Church nominated Fraser as a member of deputations sent several times to the Highlands. Upon the death of their curate, Mr Walter Ross, the people of Alness gave a cordial call to Mr Fraser to be their minister, and Sir John Munro of Fowlis (of famous Covenanting memory) joined them in their application before the southern courts of the Church. Their suit was for a time unsuccessful, and the heritors of Glencorse, in their desire to retain Fraser, built him a new church.
The call to Alness was renewed in the following year, and an appeal taken to the Assembly. On the evening before the sitting of that Assembly (1696) the last seat in the new church of Glencorse was being finished. A careless carpenter neglected to snuff a candle, and the building was speedily in flames. The efforts to extinguish the fire proving ineffectual, Mr Fraser said to his wife: “This will not do, I must use the little remaining Gaelic I have, it seems, and go and preach Christ in my native district.” The Alness appeal was sustained by the Assembly, and Fraser was inducted on 19th November 1696.
We may glance for a moment at the state of Ross-shire at the time of Mr Fraser’s settlement in Alness. In most parishes the old Episcopal incumbents had continued in possession of the churches and manses, and they refused to conform to Presbyterianism. The people’s need of teaching did not give them much concern, and their views of Sabbath observance, if we may judge from the favourite diversions engaged in each Lord’s day, would have delighted our modern most advanced Presbyterian desecrators. Fraser’s presence was very greatly needed. The three old Presbyteries of Tain, Chanonry, and Dingwall were for some years united into one – larger in extent than the present Synod of Ross. Yet the members were very few in number. Here and there were there survivors of the killing times. In Kiltearn, the friend of Thomas Hog, Mr William Stuart, was settled. In Cromarty Mr Hugh Anderson was yet alive, and his son ministered in Rosemarkie. A glance at the old Presbytery records will show with what earnestness, devotedness, and zeal, the handful of Presbyterian ministers laboured.
John Fraser was foremost in every good word and work. In 1709, he was appointed by the Synod to write to Hugh Rose, the fifteenth Baron of Kilravock, Sheriff of Ross, concerning a breach of the Sabbath, following the election of a Member of Parliament for the county. The letter is preserved in the papers of the Family of Kilravock. He refers to the indignation of the ministers of Ross and Sutherland, on hearing that the meeting of Barons held at Fortrose on Saturday, 26th June, “continued undissolved till about 2 am on the Lord’s Day following”. They had no “suitable opportunity of expressing their sense of that disorder until they met at Tain synodically, where, having taken this affair into consideration, they judged themselves obliged to give their joint testimony against that Sabbath profanation. And if the matter was so transacted as was represented to them by all sorts, they could not but fix upon yourself as chief in that trespass. Therefore, to testify their resentment of the dishonour done to God therein, and for convincing and gaining of you, they appointed one of their number to write you upon that head, though very unwilling, as most unmeet for it“.
Fraser then proceeds to show in his letter how objectionable was the calling of the meeting on Saturday, since electors in returning long distances and across ferries were likely to encroach on the Sabbath:
The divine memorandum of the Fourth Commandment, “with the established law and observed custom of this nation, might be presumed a fence strong enough against such conventions on that day, which no Protestant magistrate would deliberately, and with a high hand, overleap. But it is more and more unaccountable, that after the Barons coming to Fortrose on Saturday, so much time passed before their meeting, which occasioned the affair to be protracted till the Sabbath began more than to dawn, which was also attended with other gross disorders, some having drunk to excess in taverns, others travelling and crossing ferries. Among whom yourself was exemplary to others in deserting the ordinances administered in the neighbouring town, and some who were in your own company are said to have sung, shouted, and danced, in the progress to the ferry, without any check or restraint, as if they meant to spit in the face of all sacred and civil laws, while yet the authority next at hand countenanced them therein; whereby, whatever your thoughts were of such barefaced wickedness, yet it appears there was no such impression as Moses had (Exod. 32:19,20 & 27).
I only crave to add that our love and respect to your person, and welfare every way, are so entire and unfeigned that we hope they will not be impeached by our dealing thus freely with you, seeing, if we kept silence, and suffered sin unreproved to lie upon you, we would thereby betray our unfaithfulness to our trust, and hatred and cruelty to your soul (Lev. 19:27), open rebuke being better than secret love without it where it is needful, yea, though these rebukes were wounding, yet those wounds as they are in the house of your friends so they are preferable to the lashes of an enemy, as being designed not to break the head but the heart by a kindly operation.
This, at the Synod’s appointment, is suggested to you by – Very Honourable Sir – your honour’s to be commanded in our Lord,
These are the spirited, yet polite, words of a man who could “speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority”.
In 1710 the Synod of Ross drew up a Formula of Engagements. On the 6th of September of that year the Presbytery met at Kiltearn, “and the brethren having prayed successively, did insert the said Formula in the end of the Presbytery Book, and did all subscribe the same”, as follows:
We, the undersigned ministers, elders, and preachers of the Gospel within the Synod (of Ross), and Presbytery of Dingwall and Chanonry, taking to our serious consideration that notwithstanding of the glorious appearances which the Lord our God hath made for this Church and Land formerly, and at the late happy Revolution, particularly in restoring to this Church the government which Christ the sole Head of the Church hath established on His own House, and establishing the form of sound words contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith, yet there abounds much avowed opposition and secret malignity against both among severals, lukewarmness and self-seeking among most, whereby the work of Reformation is endangered, and the Lord’s jealousy kindled. Therefore we declare, profess, and acknowledge ourselves bound in conscience to maintain, defend, and support in our several places and stations, the Christian Reformed Religion in its Doctrine, Worship, Discipline and Government, according to the Word of God, the Westminster Confession of Faith approved by the General Assembly in the year 1647, and agreeably to our solemn engagements and Covenants, the perpetual obligation of which we own, in opposition to Popery, Socinianism, Prelacy, Arminianism, Erastianism, Separation and Schism, and all innovations, resolving and promising through grace to adhere thereto all the days of our lives, and to walk exemplarily according to the gospel of Christ, and agreeably to our station and characters.
The first signature is that of “John Fraser, minister at Alness“. With all his heart, no doubt, he owned, “the perpetual obligation of the Covenants.” So, we believe, did all the great Highland ministers and “men” in the last century. Some of the names that follow Fraser’s are still highly honoured in Ross-shire. The place of meeting was inspiring. It was crowded with memories of the apostolic Hog, and all around, on both sides of the Firth, were localities hallowed by association with the foremost Covenanters of the North.
John Fraser’s career of extensive usefulness was now almost ended. On the 7th November of the following year, 1711, at the age of 53, he entered into the joy of his Lord, commending to God his wife and two sons, John and James, and two daughters, Catherine and Isobel. John, a most promising youth, was soon “up higher” with his father. Of James, who became a distinguished preacher and theological author, we hope to write in due time.