The final missionary at Achreny, and the first Free Church minister of the Westerdale-Achreny-Halsary charge, was Robert Rose Mackay (c1798-1866). Like John Macdonald, Ferintosh, he was a native of Brawlbin in the parish of Reay. He was a precocious child, and was asked to take charge of a school in Lybster at such a young age that his father feared he might fall off the rocks into the sea while he was at play. In 1821 he spent a year at King’s College, Aberdeen, and from 1822 to 1824 he was teaching in Halladale. He returned to King’s again from 1824 to 1827, but never graduated. He studied Divinity under Thomas Chalmers in Edinburgh, and taught for several years at a school in Melvich. In 1839 he was appointed missionary at Achreny. As a teacher, he was “painstaking and conscientious, and made it his business to teach his pupils to fear God and keep His commandments.” As a preacher, he was “full of matter; a labourer in the full sense of the term, and did not shun to declare the whole counsel of God.” (2) He was much in demand at communions. A great collector of anecdotes, his manuscript notes on the parish of Reay form the basis of the book Memories of Our Parish, which gives interesting information about James Macdonald, Finlay Cook and others. He never married. The Achreny Mission in his time was described as “a garden of the Lord”, (3) so it is unfortunate that we have no anecdotes from this period.
On 30 June 1847 Robert Rose Mackay left the Westerdale-Achreny charge to become Free Church minister of Bruan, near Wick. He suffered a stroke in 1856 and died on 22 November 1866, being buried at Mid Clyth. After his departure the Westerdale-Achreny charge remained vacant until David Ferguson was inducted in April 1849. The following incident, related at some length by George Davidson of Latheron, seems to have taken place during this vacancy. Davidson is discussing the fate of various church buildings at the Disruption.
“The last to be noticed is Halsary, embracing the outskirts of the parishes of Latheron, Halkirk, and Watten, and in connection with the Royal Bounty Mission of Achreny. This church, which was lately built, I had every reason to hope would be safe, not only because the missionary and the whole congregation adhered to the Free Church, but especially as no aid had been asked for or obtained from the Quoad Sacra Fund for its erection. For several years nothing was either said or done to give us the least cause of alarm, but suddenly a missionary appeared with an appointment to the mission from the Royal Bounty Committee. Strange to say, he had no Gaelic, although he came to preach to a Gaelic-speaking people – a clear evidence, surely, that young men from the Highlands were rather scarce in the Establishment!
“I immediately wrote to Sir Ralph Anstruther, on whose land the church stood – hoping that he would feel no difficulty in conveying to us the small piece of ground around the church, knowing that the church itself had been built by and for the people, all of whom now belonged to the Free Church. In his reply, he stated that the step taken by the committee in sending a missionary was not advised by him, but that being himself an elder in the Establishment, it could hardly be expected of him to make over the sole right of the Halsary place of worship to the Free Church; but he would recommend that, as preaching was held there alternately with Achreny, both missionaries should preach by turns at each station, and so give the people an opportunity of having a sermon every Sabbath. Of course, I thanked Sir Ralph for his kind proposal, but begged to assure him that this was impracticable, because the Establishment had enacted that no Free Church minister was to be admitted into their pulpits – a circumstance which he must have forgotten – besides that, it could hardly be to the credit of his Church to have their missionary preaching there one Sabbath to empty pews, and our missionary the next to a large congregation. This at once satisfied him that his proposal – made, I was persuaded, from the best of motives – would not answer. His final reply was, ‘Well, you may rest assured that I will not disturb you in your possession of the Halsary church; only, I suspect that another party may, without asking my liberty or yours.'” (4)
Having secured the Halsary building, Davidson now turned his attention to Achreny. He writes: “The Achreny station was in the parish of Halkirk, on the estate of my esteemed friend, Sir George Sinclair, (5) and was originally given by his father for the accommodation of his tenantry in that quarter. Here also stood the residence of the missionary; and I had great reason to believe that, should it be occupied by the Establishment (which had only one solitary shepherd in the whole district), then Halsary would be no longer safe, having been formerly joined with Achreny in the mission. I was fully aware that a petition had been presented to Sir George by the minister and people of Achreny at the time of the Disruption, praying him to make over to the Free Church the accommodations there, as they had all joined that body, and that he had declined to interfere, believing that they belonged to the Royal Bounty committee.
“I therefore lost no time in visiting him at Thurso Castle, and acquainting him with the true state of matters: namely, that a missionary from the Royal Bounty had arrived, and that if the present accommodations really belonged to the committee, then it would be necessary for the people to erect a new place of worship for themselves; in which case I hoped he would assist them, as there was no likelihood of their joining the Establishment. At the same time, I stated that, as the existing buildings had been erected by the people themselves, it would be a pity to put them to the expense of erecting others, without, in the first place, ascertaining whether the committee had a valid title to hold them, after the people – from conscientious motives – had ceased to use them. . . . The result was that the committee at once withdrew their claim to the stations and Sir George most readily transferred them to the congregation of the Free Church worshipping there.” (6)
The next minister of the Westerdale-Achreny charge, David Ferguson (1815-1887), was inducted on 5 April 1849. He was a native of Forse, Latheron, and had graduated at King’s College, Aberdeen, in March 1843. “He was a man of genial disposition, upright and straightforward in word and deed. He had a strong and well-built frame, indispensable for his work, which extended over an area of many miles of hill and moor.” (7) The Free Presbyterian Magazine described him as “a sound and faithful preacher of God’s Word”, (8) and a number of the Free Presbyterians who founded the Halkirk congregation had enjoyed his ministry in their earlier years. “He was an impressive preacher both in Gaelic and English. His end was very sudden. Having preached one Sabbath from the text: ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved’ (Jer 8:20), he was seized with illness and had to be assisted from the pulpit to the vestry, in which, without any indication of suffering, he passed away.” (9) He died on 25 December 1887 and is buried in the old graveyard in Latheron.
The population of the Achreny district fell rapidly in the years after the Disruption. In 1855 the number of adherents of the Westerdale-Achreny charge was said to be 600. (10) Probably this figure did not include the children, who might have brought the total up to about 900 – 200 fewer than it had been 15 or 20 years earlier. In 1865 the aggregate attendance of Westerdale and Halsary was 860, and it appears that the Achreny meeting-house had been demolished by this time. (11) In 1876 the Free Church Tabular View indicated that there were about 400 adult adherents, but by 1886 the number had fallen to just over 300. It has to be said that the figures in the Tabular View vary erratically from year to year, but a numerical decline was evidently in progress. Perhaps some people were drifting to the Established Church, and others ceasing to attend altogether, but the shrinking population must have been the main factor.
The last Free Church minister of Westerdale and Halsary was Angus Mackay, who was ordained and inducted in 1889. In 1900 he and his congregation went into the United Free Church. There were 68 members at this stage, (12) but some people had already left his ministry in 1893 to join the Free Presbyterian Church. We have little indication of the number who did so, except that it was enough to warrant the holding of open-air services in Westerdale on occasion. About 40 people are also said to have left the Halkirk Free Church at this time to join the Free Presbyterian Church. (13)
One Free Presbyterian from Westerdale was the notable Chirsty Gunn. Her grandfather Robert had lived at Achaneccan in Kildonan, and Donald Sage remembered him as “a gentleman-like old man who had been much in good society, and had received a somewhat liberal education”. (14) He had the best claim to the disputed chieftainship of the clan Gunn but he had fallen on hard times. David, her father, was his eldest son and had married Catherine, daughter of John Ross (c1733-1775), the minister of Kildonan from 1761 to 1775. Catherine was a woman “as remarkable for her deep piety as for her prepossessing appearance”, (15) and David too was an eminently humble and pious man. When Kildonan was cleared, he moved to Strath Beag above Westerdale and became the catechist for the district. John Munro, Halkirk, held him in high regard. On one occasion, shortly before the Communion, his only cow died. The subject at the Fellowship Meeting was the marks of love to the brethren, and Ensign Joseph Mackay gave the meeting a practical turn by declaring, “If we only had among us a little of the love of which we have been speaking and hearing today, David Gunn would not be long until he got a new cow”. (16) David died in 1827, while his wife Catherine, who had been born on 12 June 1773, lived to be about 100.
Chirsty Gunn herself died aged 85 on 16 July 1900 and was buried near her parents in the Achreny burying-ground. (17) She in turn had outlived her husband James Bain by 39 years. Interestingly, the day of her burial is mentioned as a day of particular spiritual comfort for another Free Presbyterian from Westerdale, Mary Macbeath. Born in 1853, she had been an invalid from the age of 14, and confined to her bed from the age of 20. That evening a little meeting was held at her bedside at which the minister who had buried Chirsty Gunn spoke on Psalm 45:13-15, on “the King’s daughter” and “her fellow virgins”. “Mary”, it is reported, “said afterwards that she never felt at any time in her life so willing to depart from the world that she might be with Christ.” (18)
Another Free Presbyterian, Williamina Sinclair of Westerdale, died on 13 April 1913 aged 73 and is buried in Halkirk. (19) Her husband James Henderson had owned the main Westerdale lands, and was related to the William Henderson on whose land the Westerdale Free Church had been built after the Disruption. Mrs Henderson was a member of the Halkirk congregation, and a liberal supporter of the Church. The next year saw the death of Mrs James Mackay, who died in Halkirk on 14 May, aged about 84. She was from Tormsdale, a mile south of Westerdale, and she used to look back to her childhood in the days when Peter Davidson and Robert Rose Mackay were missionaries at Achreny. “If there is a spot in Tormsdale I would like to see it is that housie where I used to go to secret prayer when my grandfather was done with family worship. I would run to this secret place, a sweet place to me.” (20)
Another Free Presbyterian from the Westerdale congregation, who died in 1914, at the age of 80, was Donald Murray, Scotscalder. His father William was one of the “Men”, and was greatly troubled by the false views on Scripture coming into the Free Church in his later years. (21) Donald was the Gaelic precentor in the Westerdale congregation in David Ferguson’s time, and was elected an elder but declined the office. (22) He is buried in Halkirk and, rather surprisingly, the monument over his grave is about 15 feet high, the highest in the entire graveyard.
The same year also saw the death of Marjorie Sinclair of Brawlbin Mains, who was born at Leosag, Scotscalder, about 1837. Her husband Donald Macadie was an eminent elder in the Westerdale congregation, dying in 1891. He was a nephew of James Macadie, another of the “Men”. (23) Marjorie’s brother Donald was an elder in the Halkirk Free Presbyterian Congregation, dying in 1922, aged 79. (24) Another Free Presbyterian from Westerdale was Isabella Mowat, whose family had been driven from Strathnaver during the clearances. She was related to Donald Sage, and was the mother-in-law of George Mackay, the Free Presbyterian minister in Stornoway, although she did not follow him when he left for the Free Church in 1905. Her husband John Sinclair was killed in an accident at Scotscalder Station in 1894 and she died in 1925, aged 87. (25)
Both the Halsary meeting-house and the Westerdale church and manse passed to the United Free Church in 1900, and to the Church of Scotland in 1929. The Halsary meeting-house remained in use until the Second World War, although by 1925 it was already regarded as one of the “most lonely-situated buildings in Caithness.” (26) Today it is still in a sound condition but serves as a shelter for cattle. A plaque on the gable records that it was built by public subscription in 1842. In 1970 the Westerdale-Halsary congregation of the Church of Scotland was united with the Halkirk congregation, and the Westerdale church was closed some time afterwards. The Achreny meeting-house had disappeared by 1909 when Mr Beaton wrote that “a green mound marking the foundation of the Achreny mission-house is all that is now to be seen where many a precious gospel sermon was preached in the days gone by”. (27) Very few people live in the Achreny district at present, and Halsary is, if anything, less populous.
This article is part 3 of a series
1. In two previous articles we have traced the history of the Achreny Mission from its origin in the eighteenth century down to the Disruption of May 1843. Soon after this the Mission was divided into two separate charges. In this article we give an account of the subsequent history of the first of these, the Westerdale-Achreny-Halsary charge.
2. John O’Groat Journal, 29 November 1866.
3. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 19, p 233.
4. Alexander Mackay, Life and Times of Rev George Davidson, Latheron, Edinburgh, 1875, pp 166-7.
5. Although he had supported the Non-Intrusion party prior to the Disruption, Sir George did not join the Free Church until 1851, and was therefore in the Established Church at the time spoken of in this paragraph.
6. Life and Times of Rev George Davidson, pp 167-68.
7. Archibald Auld, Memorials of Caithness Ministers, Edinburgh, 1911, p 288.
8. Vol 19, p 233.
9. Memorials of Caithness Ministers, p 289.
10. William Ewing (ed), Annals of the Free Church of Scotland 1843-1900, Edinburgh, 1914, vol 2, p 226.
11. John Marius Wilson, The Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland, Edinburgh, nd, vol 2, p 39.
12. Ewing, vol 2, p 226.
13. Ewing, vol 2, p 225.
14. Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, Wick, 1899, p 137.
15. Donald Munro, Records of Grace in Sutherland, Edinburgh, 1953, pp 177-178.
16. John Macleod, By-Paths of Highland Church History, Edinburgh, 1965, p 108.
17. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 5, pp 186-9; A S Cowper and I Ross, Caithness Monumental Inscriptions (pre 1855), 1992, vol 3, p 80.
18. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 12, pp 185-187.
19. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 18, pp 73-74; Caithness Monumental Inscriptions, vol 3, p 101.
20. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 19, p 111.
21. Alexander Auld, Ministers and Men in the Far North, 1956 Free Presbyterian ed, p 211.
22. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 19, p 33; Caithness Monumental Inscriptions, vol 3, p 114.
23. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 19, pp 232-233; Caithness Monumental Inscriptions, vol 2, p 152; Ministers and Men in the Far North, pp 212-214.
24. Caithness Monumental Inscriptions, vol 3, p 115.
25. Caithness Monumental Inscriptions, vol 3, p 115.
26. Memories of Our Parish, p 87.
27. Donald Beaton, Ecclesiastical History of Caithness and Annals of Caithness Parishes, Wick, 1909, p 215.