In days gone by, there were not a few worthy men and women who passed the period of their sojourning in the north west of Scotland, and in that part of Sutherland where Robert Ross was born and brought up. The standard of godliness which they set for themselves and others was that found in the Word of God, and the manner in which they lived in close communion with God is left on record in several publications.
Such was Robert Ross’s stature as a Christian, and as a living epistle of Christ known and read of all men, that he might well be regarded as one whom those outstanding Christians of the past would have readily taken to their bosoms, discerning in him those very marks of saving grace which they so earnestly sought to discover in themselves and which they looked for in others professing godliness before accepting them into their fellowship and confidence.
Robert was born on 29 June 1920, at Ardmore, a small, isolated crofting village situated on the northern shore of Loch Laxford and within the bounds of the parish of Eddrachillis. He was the third oldest in the family of nine children born to Hector and Robina Ross. As there was no road of any kind to Ardmore, access to it was either by sea, or overland by walking along the rough three-mile-long moorland track which branched from the Durness-Scourie road three miles south of Rhiconich.
The nearest Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland congregation met at Kinlochbervie eight miles away, and the able-bodied among those in Ardmore who loved “the gates of Sion” regularly walked there on the Sabbath Day. It was, of course, not possible for young children to attend regularly, but those able to make the journey did so from time to time, if the weather permitted. However, the means of grace became more accessible when a Sabbath service was started at Achlyness School, just over three miles from Ardmore.
These services were conducted by Mr George MacKenzie, a godly elder who is described in his obituary as “receiving marvellous nearness to the Most High and who was endowed with remarkable gifts and talents”. He preached mainly in Gaelic, but he was not forgetful of those who were not fully fluent in that language and would use some English to explain what he was saying. This, we are told, made quite an impression on the Ross children and their mother, who was able to be there with them. One of Robert’s sisters still remembers how the man of God would often pray that the weather would keep dry for the homeward journey and that it often did. Robert Ross often mentioned the name of George MacKenzie and it is clear that he was much loved and respected by him and the other members of his family circle at Ardmore.
The writer of George Mackenzie’s obituary mentions that two other men noted also for their godliness – Donald Macleod, Duartbeg, and Hector Morrison, Foindle – had also recently been removed to their everlasting rest and that by their removal the Church militant had suffered a great loss, especially the cause of truth in Eddrachillis. He goes on: “They were men who prayed fervently that faithful witnesses would be raised up in the congregations where they worshipped and, it may well be, their prayers will yet be answered”. We believe that Robert Ross, in his day and generation, was indeed one of those faithful witnesses, raised up in answer to the prayers of these righteous men.
Robert left school on reaching 14 years of age and worked for some time with his father and older brother at lobster fishing. Thereafter he was employed for some time in Overscaig before moving to Killin, where he worked on a farm for two years, but it had always been his ambition to join the Royal Air Force. That ambition was realised in 1938 and, when his training was completed, he was posted to RAF Kinloss, a base that had newly been commissioned. With the outbreak of World War II, he was stationed at various places in the United Kingdom before being posted overseas. The destination was Singapore, but before the troopship arrived there the colony fell into the hands of the Japanese, and a new course was set for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In view of the harsh, inhuman manner in which the Japanese treated prisoners of war, many of whom died in captivity, Robert afterwards saw the Lord’s hand in his preservation at this time.
After service in the Far East and having, in the Lord’s providence, come unscathed through the war, he took advantage of the offer open to ex-servicemen to learn a trade. It was thus that he came to Glasgow to train as a painter and as a result began to attend St Jude’s church. At the time, the minister was Rev D J Matheson.
It was about this time that Robert was converted, but, as in the case of many other honest and true-hearted Christians, he apparently could not pinpoint the exact time of the change or the means which were employed. He had three godly grand-aunts living in Partick at the time, but we are told that he had no desire to visit them until the change came and that, when he did visit them, they persuaded him to go with them to hear Rev Roderick MacKenzie. Robert was then 27 years of age.
Robert would not deny the fact that he obtained much good from being under Mr MacKenzie’s preaching, but on his first visit home to Ardmore, his father told him that Donald Campbell, Missionary, disapproved of him attending his ministry. For Donald Campbell, Robert had the greatest respect, and for that reason, among others, he regularly attended St Jude’s when he returned to Glasgow.
After some time, he returned north and was employed with a firm in Tain. He thus came to attend the services held by Archie Robertson, who was the Church’s able and well-known missionary there at the time. It was in Tain, in 1951, that he came before the Kirk Session and sat at the Lord’s table for the first time. As it happened, Mr Robertson’s oldest son was preparing to emigrate to Canada and Robert decided to join him. Accordingly, he arrived in Vancouver, where he was to be resident until December 1955.
Humble and circumspect in his walk, life and behaviour, the Vancouver congregation, and especially the Lord’s people among them, took him to their hearts. It was in Vancouver that he was to meet Mary Macaskill, who was later to become his true helpmeet in life and is now left to mourn his death. In December 1959 they were married in Scotland and, while many thought that it would be advantageous for the young couple to return to Vancouver, Robert felt that he could not leave the area when his services were required in keeping the church door open in Kinlochbervie and Scourie. Alex MacDonald, the Missionary – a man held in the highest regard by all who knew him – was to depart for Stoer. As Robert was greatly attached to him, regarding him as a father and mentor in spiritual things, parting with him as he boarded the Kylesku ferry on the day of his removal was a painful and sorrowful experience.
Alex MacDonald’s cloak was now to fall on the shoulders of Robert Ross and, putting the cause first, as he consistently did all his life, any thoughts of emigrating to Vancouver were banished, and with his young wife (who was of the same self-denying mind) he now decided to settle down in his native place. A home was to be wonderfully provided. Godly Hector Morrison, already mentioned, had a house in Foindle in which, after his death, his son resided. As he was now in his eighties and living alone, he decided to move, and the house was offered to Robert. It was thus that he and his wife came to live in what many would regard as one of the most idyllic spots on the face of the earth. He worked from his home and, as time passed, his skill, honesty and integrity as a tradesman became widely known.
On 9 July 1958, at Kinlochbervie, he was ordained to the office of the eldership. In October 1960, much to the joy of Robert and the people there, Rev D B Macleod accepted a call to the Kinlochbervie and Scourie Congregation. Mr Macleod was to remain there for two years. The attachment between himself and Robert Ross was to remain strong and unbroken until Mr Macleod’s lamented death in January 1995. After an interval of eight years Rev John Tallach was inducted. By now Robert’s oldest son was due to go to a secondary school and it was thought expedient that the family should buy a second home at Ardgay. There they were to remain for 16 years, but the Foindle home was retained and they returned to it in 1988. By this time Rev John Tallach had moved, and his brother, Rev Fraser Tallach, had already taken his place.
In 1989, the Free Presbyterian Church was agitated by the departure of the ministers and elders who formed the Associated Presbyterian Churches. Although Rev Fraser Tallach was prominent among those who defected, Robert Ross and his fellow elders remained steadfast. The congregation was much reduced numerically, but as a result of their faithfulness, services were maintained and the church buildings remained in possession of the Church, apart from the manse, which was recovered later.
Robert did his utmost to maintain the witness of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, not only in his native Sutherland, but also in Caithness. Once a month he travelled to Halkirk, a round distance of over 200 miles, to keep the door open there on the Sabbath and he did so self-denyingly and in the face of the many difficulties which the performance of that duty entailed. Robert Ross would be the last to claim pre-eminence, but others would judge him to be a worthy follower of such laymen as George MacKenzie and the others already mentioned, who served Christ in their day and in the sphere of labour allotted them.
His delight was to speak well of Him who loved him and gave Himself for him. Latterly his sky appeared to be unclouded. About a year before his death the writer, as well as others present in his home, heard him say, quite spontaneously, “For 40 years I could not say it, but I can say it now, ‘My beloved is mine and I am His’”. This assurance was far from that which savours of presumption and inclines men to looseness; it was that of a mature Christian and that for which “a true believer may wait long, [and] conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it”. Those close to him would testify that he was habitually found seeking “the Father, which seeth in secret”.
We are told that his close communion with God was revealed in several instances when portions of the Word of God, accompanied with light and power, afforded him the direction or comfort which he was seeking at the time. In public and at family worship he earnestly prayed for the coming of Christ’s kingdom, fully persuaded that all these precious promises relating to the whole earth being yet filled with His glory would in due time be fulfilled. He read Puritan authors such as John Owen with relish. Latterly his eyesight failed to some extent and he was not able to read as much as before.
We are told that a few weeks before his death, he asked his wife to print out in large characters an excerpt from Matthew Henry’s Commentary in relation to Philippians 2:5-8. It reads as follows:
“Here is a gospel pattern proposed to our imitation, and that is the example of our Lord Jesus Christ: ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus’. Observe, Christians must be of Christ’s mind. We must bear a resemblance to His life, if we would benefit from His death. If we have not the Spirit of Christ, we are none of His. Now what was the mind of Christ? He was eminently humble, and this is what we are peculiarly to learn of Him. ‘Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart.’ If we were lowly-minded, we should be like-minded; and, if we were like Christ, we should be lowly-minded. We must walk in the same spirit and in the same steps with the Lord Jesus, who humbled himself to sufferings and death for us; not only to satisfy God’s justice, and pay the price of our redemption, but to set us an example, and that we might follow His steps.”
The piece of paper bearing these words, written in capital letters that they might all the more easily be read, was afterwards found on his desk.
Although he had undergone surgery in November 2000, he had made an excellent recovery and his health remained good and his mind clear right to the end. However, on becoming unwell on Friday, September 3, he was taken to Raigmore Hospital, where it was discovered that his condition was terminal. He remained buoyant and hopeful that he might yet return home to his beloved Foindle and render further service to his Master, but it was not to be. On Thursday, September 16, he suddenly passed away. The time of his departure had come and in the twinkling of an eye he was, we firmly believe, “absent from the body and . . . present with the Lord”. He was found prepared for death; his feet were long beforehand planted upon the rock and the new song was already in his mouth. He was laid to rest in Scourie cemetery on Wednesday, 22 September 2004. It is where the precious dust of others whose memories he cherished is also found.
To his sorrowing widow and the four sons and three daughters, who are acutely aware of the loss of a beloved husband and father, we extend our sympathy. We are not forgetful of his brothers and sisters also, as well as the small but faithful congregation who mourn his passing. The comfort is theirs that they are not to sorrow as others which have no hope. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him.” (Rev) J MacLeod