The beginning of a matter is of great importance in assessing how it will proceed. Commonly the first step sets the direction of a whole enterprise. Thus the Book of Genesis (meaning the beginning of things) has a large place in the Old Testament and is frequently referred to throughout the Bible. This being the case we intend spending a large proportion of this article on the genesis of the Raasay Free Presbyterian congregation.
The twin forces of secularisation and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution had a powerful effect on the country at large during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The effects filtered down to all sections of society but were particularly evident in the Christian Church. By claiming that the forces which had formed the individual were blind to right or wrong, evolution separated him from moral responsibility. It was assumed that man had now reached a more advanced stage than ever before; so religion was one crutch he could dispense with. Man had “come of age”. Secularisation involves a preoccupation with purely temporal concerns; “prediction and planning take over from prayer and providence” (2). In the broader Biblical view of matters, there was nothing new in these ideas. They were as old as unbelief itself, which began with Satan’s temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden when he called in question the truth of God’s word: “Yea, hath God said?” (Gen 3.1).
Our particular concern is with the effect of these forces on the old Free Church towards the end of the nineteenth century, resulting in the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and particularly a congregation of that denomination in Raasay. The Free Church had been formed in 1843, when over 450 ministers left the Church of Scotland in a movement called the Disruption. The point at issue was: whose authority was to be recognised by the Church, the word of Christ as King or the word of an earthly monarch? In choosing to stand for the crown rights of the Redeemer, these men left manses and glebes and set up the Free Church of Scotland.
Fifty years on, under the influence of the forces mentioned above, another spirit had given birth to another movement in the Free Church. Dr Rainy, whose uncle was responsible for clearing 14 townships and 97 families to create a sheep farm on Raasay in the 1850s, (3) was its chief architect. Dr Rainy and his party wished to form a larger body by joining with the United Presbyterian Church; they drew up a Declaratory Act and presented it to the Free Church Assembly of 1891. This Act was designed to cut the Church adrift from the Westminster Confession of Faith as the foundational statement of the truths of the Bible. Those who subscribed to the Confession (as ministers did at their induction) could now agree with as much or as little of it as their private judgement and consciences could bear. This proposed Act was passed down to Presbyteries as required in Church law, and it was apparent by the Assembly of 1892 that a great majority were in favour of it.
At this point the name of Rev Donald Macfarlane, who was to become the first minister of the Free Presbyterian Church in Raasay, comes particularly to the fore. A substantial minority within the Free Church, the Constitutional Party, expressed opposition to the Declaratory Act, but no one separated at the 1892 Assembly. Mr Macfarlane, then Free Church minister at Kilmallie, near Fort William, was not a member of that Assembly. Immediately on hearing what had happened at the Assembly, he called a Kirk Session meeting, which entered in their records a formal protest against the Declaratory Act. He was persuaded to stay on in the Free Church by the Constitutionalists as they were hopeful of having the Act rescinded at the 1893 Assembly.
In the Spring of 1893 Mr Macfarlane received a call from the Raasay congregation, which he felt led to accept. At his induction on 20 April 1893 he stated publicly before the Presbytery and the congregation that he was not taking office as minister of Raasay under the Declaratory Act in any sense or degree. When it was clear that the Assembly in May 1893 would not repeal the Act, Mr Macfarlane laid a Protest on the table and separated from the Free Church. The Raasay communion was held on the second Sabbath of June, and on the Monday Mr Macfarlane gave a lecture explaining his position. Those gathered included not only the local congregation, but also many visitors (about 2000 in all according to a newspaper report at the time). (4) Mr Macfarlane then asked those present to stand up who agreed with his action in separating. All present stood, apart from six. On July 28 the first meeting of the Free Church Presbytery of 1893 was held; it consisted of Rev Donald Macfarlane, Rev Donald Macdonald and Mr Alexander Macfarlane, schoolmaster in Raasay. A formal Deed of Separation was drawn up and passed at the next meeting in Portree on 14 August 1893.
Former friends now castigated Mr Macfarlane in the press, where the movement was described as “calculated to do the most serious harm to the cause of truth and godliness in our beloved Highlands”. (5) He was required to vacate his manse forthwith and for the next five years, until a manse was built, he lived in Broadford and came over to supply Raasay every weekend. The main reason for the delay was the opposition of Mrs Woods, the proprietrix of Raasay, who at first refused to give ground to build on and then set very stringent conditions on her offer of ground at Holoman. By 1899 a church was also built, with seating for 210. Rev A MacRae Portree preached at the opening of the Holoman Church on 27 October of that year. Despite the opposition he and his congregation had experienced, Mr Macfarlane did not become embittered or hypercritical. Quite the reverse, as the following quote, identifying his own and his congregation’s needs, demonstrates: “How much we need the quickening and reviving work of the Spirit in Raasay! My own soul needs it and the congregation needs it. Wilt Thou not revive us again, that Thy people may rejoice in Thee.” (6)
After 10 years as minister in Raasay, Mr Macfarlane was translated to Dingwall. His parting sermon was from Acts 20:32: “And now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace”. During this sermon he said, “Ministers are removed; God never changes. Cleave to Him and to the word of His grace. . . . I desired and laboured for the salvation of you all.” (7)
Services were held in the north end of the island in the meeting house at Torran, the school on Fladda, and the church on Rona. As the population moved to the south end, these meetings ceased. The last services were held in Rona in 1920, in Fladda in 1965, and in Torran in 1967.
After Mr Macfarlane’s departure, the services were kept by lay missionaries and elders under the supervision of an interim moderator appointed by the Presbytery. Among these interim moderators were Revs A MacRae and D M MacDonald of Portree, and A F Mackay and J A MacDonald of Applecross, while the first local missionary was Alexander MacLennan, Rona. It was Alexander MacLennan who, in declining to follow advice that he should remain in the old Free Church and not follow Mr Macfarlane, compared the Declaratory Act to cholera – something to flee from. (8)
Fellowship meetings, held on the Fridays of communion seasons are occasions when the male members present are asked to speak to a question based on a text of Scripture. The exercise involves each speaker making a difference, on the basis of the text, and from their own experience, between those who are the Lord’s people and those who are not. Alexander’s contribution was always valuable. On one occasion, he compared the true believer to a sailor who, anxious to reach a certain port, was scanning sea and sky to see if there was a favourable wind for his journey. As a believer, the great aim of his journey through life was to get to heaven and he was afraid that sin and Satan would blow him off course and make shipwreck of his profession. The hypocrite, on the other hand, was like a man to whom sailing was merely a pastime and he could sail before any wind that was blowing. Alexander was brought to the heaven he sought in June 1920. (9)
In 1910 Andrew Tallach, who had previously been missionary in Lochinver, was appointed to Raasay. His time in Raasay spanned the Great War, in which three sons were combatants, and his work in Raasay was not without its difficulties. Rev Neil Cameron notes that “an outstanding characteristic of Mr Tallach was the patience with which he could bear fiery trials and reproaches. He very seldom said one word to defend his own interests, but could not bear that God’s truth and cause should be allowed to suffer so far as it was in his power to vindicate the same.” (10) Andrew Tallach passed away on 11 July 1923. While Mr Cameron writes appreciatively of these men, the congregation in Raasay benefited incalculably from his own preaching. From that first communion, when as a student he assisted Rev D Macfarlane in June 1893, till his death in 1932 he assisted regularly at communions on the island every summer. Samuel Rutherford’s wish that his own parish of Anwoth would benefit from his preaching is expressed in the words:
“If one soul from Anwoth
Meet me at God’s right hand,
My heaven shall be two heavens
In Immanuel’s land.” (11)
William MacSween was a missionary and a stonemason. In 1929 he built the present church at Clachan and during the 1930s he kept the services in the north end of Raasay. Mr MacSween was the father of Rev Malcolm MacSween, who later became minister in Bracadale and Oban. In 1934 Rev Murdo Morrison was translated from Assynt to Raasay. However, his health was poor while in Raasay and on medical advice he moved to Tain on the East Coast to get the benefit of a drier climate. His obituary states: “It can be said regarding Mr Morrison that he preached law and gospel. He experienced in his own soul the power and evil of sin, and that the remedy God provided is sufficient to supply the need of perishing sinners. To this remedy he directed sinners and warned them of the consequences of rejecting it.” (12)
Raasay was again vacant for six years till Rev Donald Campbell was ordained and inducted there on 20 October 1942. The number signing Mr Morrison’s call is not recorded, but 270 members and adherents signed Mr Campbell’s call. It is also recorded by the Lord’s people that Mr Campbell frequently enjoyed freedom and liberty in preaching the gospel during the four years he was in Raasay. He had a warm and engaging personality and was an eloquent preacher of the truth as it is in Jesus. He was translated to Stornoway in January 1947, after which Raasay was without a minister for a further seven years.
In July 1958 Ewen MacSween, elder and missionary in Raasay, passed away. Ewen was a man of deep spiritual experience both of the sinfulness of sin as he found it in his own heart and the liberty of the gospel. He received that liberty under a sermon preached by Rev Neil MacIntyre, Edinburgh, at a Bracadale communion. Though latterly in delicate health, he used to walk three miles to keep the services in Torran. Over the last few Sabbaths he attended church, he had Psalm 45:15 very much on his heart: “They shall be brought with gladness great and mirth on every side into the palace of the king and there they shall abide”. (13) During this vacancy the elders kept the services under the overall supervision of the interim moderator. One such elder was Neil MacLeod, who kept the services in Torran and Fladda between 1950 and 1965.
Donald Nicolson was a missionary in Raasay from the late 1930s till he died in 1955. He had come to a saving knowledge of the truth at an early age and was “a man of prayer”. His prayers were characterised by honesty of expression, a fruit of his natural frankness, salted by grace. When very ill on one occasion he was heard to say, apparently on waking from sleep: “Grant it, Lord; grant it”. When asked what he was praying for, he replied, “For the Holy Spirit to come to this place”. (14)
Donald Matheson was a missionary in Raasay in the early 1950s. Born in Duirinish, he went as a young man to work in Glasgow. He continued for a time under soul concern, until he found the liberty of the gospel while listening to an action sermon (the sermon preached before the bread and wine are dispensed at a Communion) by the Rev J R MacKay on the words, “Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd” (Zech 13:7). In 1951 he married Miss Margaret Tallach, who had been headmistress of Raasay School since 1908. In 1954 he retired to Portree, where he became an elder for the last two years of his life. (15)
On 26 August 1954 Rev J A MacDonald was translated from Applecross to Raasay, after 14 members and 192 adherents signed the call. While still a teenager, Mr MacDonald was impressed by the triumphant death of his godly older sister Catherine when she was only 17 years old and his subsequent spiritual pilgrimage was greatly influenced, under God, by the ministries of Rev D N MacLeod, Harris, and Rev James MacLeod, Glendale. His first sermon after his induction was from Acts 10:33, “Now therefore are we all here present before God to hear all things that are commanded thee of God”. Mr MacDonald was the first minister to occupy the present manse in Clachan. He remained in the Raasay charge until he was inducted to Fort William on 14 December 1960.
John Gillies, a highly esteemed elder under Mr MacDonald, was born in the north end of Raasay, spent his working life in Glasgow, and returned to his native island in 1957. John was an evidence of the value of family worship; it was while gathered with the rest of the family in his father’s house, as the Word was read, and praise and prayer were offered up, that he first came under a sense of his own sinfulness before a holy God. (16) In 1963 he returned, terminally ill, to Glasgow and passed away the following year.
On 14 March 1961 Rev D J MacAskill was translated to Raasay from Lochcarron and remained the minister in Raasay till December 1965, when he accepted a call to Uig, Lewis. He was “a peaceable and guileless man, who will be remembered (to quote a Synod tribute) as one who was a diligent pastor, much loved and respected by the godly in all his charges, one whose aim ever was to bring souls placed under his care to a saving knowledge of Christ”. After Mr MacAskill’s translation to Uig, John MacLean, Northton, Harris, was missionary in Raasay from October 1966 to December 1970, when Rev D Nicolson was inducted to Raasay. Mr Nicolson continued minister there till his translation to Glendale in March 1978. The services were kept by the elders, Ronald MacBeath, Calum Mackay and John M MacLeod, until the induction of Rev J R Tallach on 22 December 1983, when 103 members and adherents signed the call. John M MacLeod passed away in 1996. John Gillies and Kenneth Gillies were inducted as elders since the present minister’s induction. John Gillies has now moved to Stratherrick, and Kenneth Gillies passed away to his eternal rest in November 1999.
Though it is an island, Raasay has certainly not been insulated from the general, national decline in spirituality and church attendance. When Mr Macfarlane separated from the Free Church, he had a congregation of several hundred, including 34 members in full communion. Even within living memory, congregations of 250 on an ordinary Sabbath were common. Today (March 2001) there is an average attendance of around 30, and there are 9 members. Even allowing for the changes in society at large arising from the leaven of unbelief already noted, and the decline in the combined population of Raasay, Rona and Fladda from 670 in 1891 to the current 160, this constitutes a sharp decline in church attendance. Furthermore, in reviewing the lives of the men who adorned the gospel in the Free Presbyterian congregation in Raasay in the past, one is tempted to conclude that there has been a decline not only in numbers but also in depth of spiritual experience. We are not as our fathers were either in stature or in numbers. Yet this may be an example of the foolish enquiry that Solomon warns us against. “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this” (Ecc 7:10).
However, looking over the state of the Church in Scotland at large and Raasay’s place in particular, we feel at home with Samuel Rutherford’s comment on his own day (1600-61): “It is our Lord’s wisdom that His kirk should ever hang by a thread; and yet the thread breaketh not, being hanged upon Him who is the sure Nail in David’s house (Is 22.23), upon whom all the vessels, great and small, do hang; and the Nail (God be thanked) neither crooketh nor can be broken”. (17)
1. The writer gratefully acknowledges the help of Mr Calum MacLeod, Raasay, in collecting data for this paper.
2. New Dictionary of Theology, IVP.
3. R Sharpe, A Study in Island History. Grant and Culter Ltd, p 200.
4. D Beaton, Memoir, Diary and Remains of the Rev Donald Macfarlane, p xxxiii.
5. D Beaton, Memoir, p 32.
6. D Beaton, Memoir, p 39.
7. D Beaton, Memoir, p 39.
8. N Cameron, Ministers and Men of the Free Presbyterian Church, Settle Graphics, p 72.
9. N Cameron, Ministers and Men, p 74.
10. N Cameron, Ministers and Men, p 78.
11. Letters of Samuel Rutherford, edited by Andrew A Bonar, p 742.
12. The Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 52 p 72.
13. The Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 63, p 242.
14. The Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 60, p 368.
15. The Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 61, p 302.
16. The Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 70, p 247.
17. Letters, p 80.