In the eighteenth century there had been a meeting-house in the north end of Halladale, but this was replaced in about 1830 by a thatched chapel near Comgill, paid for by the people, with assistance from the first Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. (2) At the Disruption, the Achreny missionary, Robert Rose Mackay, and the vast majority of the people of Halladale joined the Free Church. Thereafter, this Comgill meeting-house was denied them. It is unlikely that the Established Church used it much either, and it is now a ruin. In 1847 the Free Church Buildings Committee agreed to buy land at Smigleburn for a new meeting-house, which was completed in 1853.
Strathy had originally been part of the parish of Farr, but a church was built there in 1828, and the charge became a quoad sacra parish (3) in 1833. The minister of Farr from 1815 was the godly David Mackenzie (1783-1868). He, along with most of his people, joined the Free Church at the Disruption, and thereafter they had to worship in a tent for two years on account of the displeasure of the second Duke of Sutherland. In 1845, however, the Duke happened to attend a Free Church service in Lairg and learned that his factors had been misleading him regarding the Free Church. (4) He soon afterwards granted sites for Free churches all over Sutherland, including Farr and Strathy. The sites were granted either on a 21 or a 57 year lease – a fact which was complained of at the time, but which is curious when one reflects that it was less than 50 years from the Disruption till the Free Church was overwhelmed by liberalism.
The first minister of Strathy was Angus M’Gillivray (1805-1873), who was ordained in 1828. In March 1830 John Macdonald, Ferintosh, revisited Caithness and Sutherland collecting money for the Scottish Missionary Society. He preached twice in Strathy and twice in Farr – dining with Mr Mackenzie and staying with Mr M’Gillivray. He also held a service at the new meeting-house in Strathhalladale. In his journal he mentions an interview with Major William Innes of Sandside when they discussed Edward Irving’s heretical views on the human nature of Christ, which were then troubling the Church. (5) Major Innes was very wealthy. When an attempt was made a few years later by some in the Evangelical party of the Church of Scotland to purchase patronages, with a view to settling them on the parishioners, Major Innes bought the patronage of Dairsie in Fife. In accordance with the wishes of the people, he presented Angus M’Gillivray to this charge in 1841. (6) In 1843, however, M’Gillivray joined the Free Church with most of his congregation, and the patronage of Dairsie became a matter of little consequence.
The second minister of Strathy was David Sutherland, who was born at Achscorrieclett near Achreny in 1799. His schoolteacher there was the eminent Robert Finlayson, later minister of Lochs and Helmsdale. (7) He was admitted to Strathy in 1842 and, being evangelical, it was fully expected that he would join the Free Church at the Disruption. But he turned out, in the terminology of James M’Cosh, the editor of the Dundee Warder, to be “chaff of the second class”. The first class of chaff consisted of “old Moderate types”, while the second class comprised “those who professed the same principles as the adherents of the Free Church, and throughout the controversy were more or less active and forward in their advocacy and support of the Evangelical cause, but who have, nevertheless, seen it to be meet and good in the issue to retain their connection with an establishment in which principles they so often professed to hold to be fundamental, and essential to the constitution of every true Church of Christ, have been trampled under foot, and virtually declared by express statute contrary to law”.
David Sutherland had “entertained anti-patronage sentiments, and generally made a very high and full profession of the principles of the Evangelical side, and extended an unwavering support to all their measures, up to the very last . . . [but] a short time before the Disruption, he intimated to his congregation his intention of adhering to the Establishment”. (8) In April 1844 he became the Established Church minister of Farr in place of David Mackenzie. In June of that year, the Apostle of the North preached at Farr, and David Mackenzie related how David Sutherland came to hear him, “but [he] got a red face in hearing [him] preach from the text Acts 4:19-20, ‘Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye'”. (9)
At the Free Church Assembly of October 1843 it was reported that no more than 50 communicants had remained in the Established Church in Sutherland, out of a population of 24 666. Even allowing for the small proportion of communicants in the Highlands, it is clear that most of the people had joined the Free Church, and doubtless this was the case in Strathy. The Establishment retained possession of the Strathy church at the Disruption and it is now a private house, but land for a Free church was obtained in 1845 and the building was completed about 1850. In 1844 the services in Strathy were conducted by Rev William Macintyre (1802-53), who had been missionary of Melness and Eriboll, but who had retired early through ill-health. The intention of the Free Church from the time of the Disruption had been to separate Halladale from Achreny and Halsary and to link it to Strathy. The proposal was discussed at the 1845 and 1846 Assemblies, but it does not seem to have taken effect until 1847, when Strathy became a sanctioned charge.
Thereafter an “unseemly division” over the choice of a minister ensued. Presumably this division was related to the estrangement between Ensign Joseph Mackay and Finlay Cook. Joseph Mackay had never joined the Free Church, and was highly critical of those who did, although he continued to act as catechist for the people of Reay and Halladale. In 1846 he had a bitter dispute with Archie Cook over the latter’s Traducianism (10), and in November of that year he was excommunicated by Finlay Cook, the Free Church minister of Reay, who had taken his brother’s side. The elders supported Finlay Cook, but many of the people signed a petition that Joseph Mackay should continue as catechist, and this he did, notwithstanding the church discipline. In September 1847 he was catechising at Portskerra at the mouth of the river Halladale, and he mentions that he had “never had a greater congregation”. In August 1848 he died, having been reconciled to Archie Cook shortly before his death, but the breach in the Strathy-Strathhalladale congregation continued, and the charge remained vacant for another 14 years. (11)
In 1862 Malcolm MacRitchie (1803-1885) was inducted as the first minister. He was a native of Uig, Lewis, and had been converted prior to the arrival of Alexander Macleod there in 1824. In 1823 he had been teaching at Aline, Lochs, and had seen remarkable spiritual fruit from his labours. At the famous Uig Communion of June 1827, at which John Macdonald, Ferintosh, officiated, MacRitchie was one of the two precentors who carried on the singing when the rest of the vast congregation were overcome with tears. Thereafter he taught in a number of places, including Sconser, Skye. He lost his job as a teacher at the Disruption, and went instead to Edinburgh University to begin his training for the ministry. His first charge was North Knapdale, to which he was inducted in 1854. When he moved to Strathy in 1862, there were about 620 adherents in the combined charge. A son of his, John Malcolm, died at the age of 18 on 13 March 1867 and is buried in the old cemetery at Reay. (12) In 1869 MacRitchie moved to Knock, Lewis.
The next minister of Strathy and Strathhalladale was the eminent Christopher Munro (1817-1885) who was inducted on 13 July 1870. He was a native of Rosskeen in Ross-shire, and a nephew of John Munro of Halkirk. In 1857 he had been ordained as Free Church minister of Tobermory, where a revival took place under his ministry. In his diary for 5 May 1858, during this remarkable time, he wrote of the spiritual desire that he found in his soul: “At family worship felt composed, my soul longing to come near and to take hold of the Lord. On such occasions I feel an indescribable and an unutterable longing that I cannot express in words. O that I always thirsted and could not keep silent and could not rest till a place was found for the God of Jacob!”
In 1864 he moved to Kilmuir, Skye, where again his ministry was blessed. In later years he excelled in public prayer. His neighbour in Skye, Rev Joseph Lamont of Snizort, used to assist him at communions in Strathy, and said of him after his death: “His prayers at Strathy . . . I shall never forget; I do not think I ever experienced such an overwhelming sense of the near presence of the Lord as on some of these occasions”. Every third Sabbath he preached in Strathhalladale, and in the evening after the final occasion he said to his wife, “I felt as if I were addressing them for the last time, and I could not otherwise account for the way in which I felt all day”. He died on 1 October 1885, and is buried in Strathy. (13)
Christopher Munro’s preaching in Strathy was highly esteemed, particularly by those who joined the Free Presbyterian Church in 1893. Mrs Harper and Mrs Swanson were sisters in the Free Presbyterian Church in Thurso, and both their obituaries mention the regard that they had for him. (14) They were nieces of Alexander Sinclair (c1778-1852), one of the leading elders in Thurso at the time of the Disruption, (15) and granddaughters of William Sinclair of Kirkton, mentioned in the second article in this series. Of another Free Presbyterian, William Mackay, it was said that he seldom had a dry eye under Mr Munro’s preaching, and that in later years “a remark about Mr Munro, or a quotation from his sermons or sayings, would stir the deepest emotion in him”. (16) Another Free Presbyterian, Angus Macleod jnr, was asked if Mr Munro “preached to sinners”. His reply was that when he was a young lad, “he used to be riveted to his seat in the Strathy Church under the searching eye of Mr Munro, and used to feel within himself that he was ‘the man’.” (17)
Given his experiences of revival in Tobermory, it is interesting to have Christopher Munro’s opinion of the revivals that took place under Moody and Sankey in 1874. Moody was in Thurso in August 1874 but already, at a preliminary meeting, even before Moody had arrived, about 500 people “made a public profession of being decided for Christ” for the first time. (18) In his biographical sketch of the minister of Strathy, Rev Donald Macmaster of Islay said that Munro “could not tolerate a method of working that has of late years come to be largely introduced – where an ill-disguised Arminianism is preached, and the feelings are strongly appealed to, with the result that crowds of converts are announced who, like Jonah’s gourd, come up in a night and perish in a night”. (19)
By the time of Christopher Munro’s death, the Free Church was already set on the fatal course which led to her wreck. In 1860 Christopher Munro’s “friend and kinsman” Donald Munro (1822-1896) had succeeded Finlay Cook as minister of the Free Church congregation of Reay. He lacked “the fire and lofty flights” of Finlay Cook in the pulpit, but he was “full of pity and tenderness”. Another writer described him as “of a sympathetic nature, and generous in the extreme. No known case of sickness or poverty was unrelieved both by his presence and purse.” In 1883 the Free Church General Assembly passed an act sanctioning the use of musical instruments in public worship, and so opposed was Donald Munro to this that on 18 June 1884, after the next Assembly had failed to rescind the act, he resigned as minister of Reay. Learning of further efforts to have the act rescinded, he was induced to withdraw his resignation but, once these had failed, he resigned for good in 1887. The “increasing departures in doctrine and practice from the original position and testimony of the Church oppressed him.” (20)
The figures for the size of the Strathy-Strathhalladale congregation in the Free Church Tabular View vary in a highly erratic fashion from year to year, but there seem to have been around 700 adult adherents for the years between 1855 and 1890. The 1891 census records that there were 1669 people in Strathhalladale and Strathy, so about two-thirds of the people were attending the Free Church at this time. In July 1889 a communion season was held at the Smigleburn meeting-house in Strathhalladale for the first time, the eminent Gustavus Aird being the minister, and a special communion token was issued in connection with the event. (21) Given the state of the Free Church at this point, however, one fears that a love of novelty lay behind the development. Angus Macleod jnr, quoted above, used to marvel “that the people of Strathy should go astray as they did after having so lately enjoyed the services of such a godly minister as Mr Munro.” (22) In 1886 Walter Calder had succeeded Christopher Munro as minister of Strathy and Strathhalladale, but in 1900 he and a sizeable proportion of his congregation, including 110 communicant members, entered the United Free Church. The Free Church, however, retained the church and manse in Strathy and the meeting-house in Strathhalladale, which indicates that at least a third of the congregation, perhaps about 300 people, must have remained in the Free Church.
The number of people joining the Free Presbyterian congregation in Strathy in 1893 seems to have been about 50. Whether any were from Strathhalladale we do not know. Services were held in the schoolhouse at Strathy until the present church was built in about 1910. Free Presbyterian services were also held in Farr after 1893, with perhaps about 40 people attending, and these continued in an occasional manner until about 1963. One of the leading figures in the new congregation was John Mackay of Swordly, Farr, who died on 11 March 1913, aged 76. Prior to 1893 he had been an elder, and the precentor, in the Free Church in Farr, and he was the Free Presbyterian missionary for Strathy and Farr until his health failed. (23)
The next missionary in Strathy, from about 1908 onwards, was Murdo Mackay (1869-1942), a member of the eminent Mackay family from Strathy Point. His father William Mackay, whom we have referred to above, died in 1904 at the age of 78, and his mother Jane Robertson in 1908 aged 83. A brother Donald was a student for the ministry, but died in 1900 at the age of 33. Two sermons and several of his letters appear in the early issues of the Free Presbyterian Magazine. The Mackay family grave in Strathy, which is less than ten yards from that of Christopher Munro, describes William as “a God-fearing man”, Jane as “a mother in Israel”, and Donald as “a humble and very pious young man”. Another brother was the well-known John Robertson Mackay (1865-1939), Free Presbyterian minister in Gairloch and Inverness before he joined the Free Church in 1918.
One of the sisters, Charlotte Mackay, died in 1946 aged 84. She was described as a woman of unusual nearness to the Lord, and she confided to a friend that she “seldom awoke without the Lord meeting her with His Word on the threshold of the day”. (24) Christopher Munro had taken “a gracious and tender interest in her spiritual welfare”, and she deemed it an honour to have been present at his deathbed. She attended a Free Church communion at Olrig a few months after the separation of 1893, and soon afterwards she joined the Free Presbyterian Church. “What I heard”, she said, “came so far short of what the times required that I became a Free Presbyterian by conviction that day.” Later she visited Donald Munro, the retired minister of Reay, and discussed the Declaratory Act with him, but she refused to attend his meeting that night because he had failed to separate from the Free Church.
Other prominent members of the Strathy congregation included the brother and sister Angus and Jessie Macleod. Angus, father of Angus Macleod jnr quoted above, was born about 1820 and died in May 1915. He had made a public profession of faith in the last year of Christopher Munro’s ministry, and had been a deacon and then an elder in Mr Calder’s time. (25) Jessie was born in 1819 and died on 21 April 1906. An invalid since 1856, she had managed to attend the entire communion season in the summer of 1875, when Dr John Kennedy was assisting Mr Munro, but thereafter she had been practically confined to her house. An interesting snippet of a conversation is recorded between herself and the catechist William Campbell. “O, I sinned,” said she, “as much as ever I could.” “Put it not so,” said he, “but say rather that you sinned as much as it had been permitted.” (26)
William Campbell (c1798-1881) was the son of Hugh Campbell of Halladale mentioned in the second article in this series. He had been a Free Church catechist in the Western Isles after the Disruption, returning to Halkirk in 1860 and acting for a while as catechist in Halkirk and Strathy. In his later years he was deeply concerned at the erroneous views on Scripture which were coming into the Free Church. He is buried in Halkirk, and his tombstone describes him as “one who feared the Lord greatly, and thought and called upon His name; a lover of good men, and who to the end maintained a solid, consistent Christian character”. (27)
Free Church ministers were inducted to Tongue in 1907, to Strathy in 1909, to Farr in 1911, and to Reay in 1914. In 1975 Tongue, Strathy, and Farr were made into one charge, and Reay was linked with Thurso. The Reay Free Church in Shebster is now roofless, with a forlorn monument to Finlay Cook outside it, while the Strathy Free Church is derelict with the windows broken but the pulpit Bible still in its place. The Smigleburn meeting-house in Strathhalladale continues to be used for an annual communion although there is no mains electricity. The population of Halladale is said to be about 60 at present.
This article is part 4 of a series
Other articles in this series:[part 1] [part 2] [part 3]
1. This is the fourth in a series of articles on the history of the Achreny Mission in Caithness and Sutherland. At the Disruption, the Mission was divided into two parts, one of which became the Westerdale-Achreny-Halsary Free Church congregation (see last month’s article). In this final article we trace the subsequent history of the other part, that of Halladale, which in 1847 was joined with Strathy by the Free Church General Assembly.
2. Donald Munro, Records of Grace in Sutherland, Edinburgh, 1953, p 179; Malcolm Bangor-Jones, in John R Baldwin (ed), The Province of Strathnaver, Edinburgh, 2000, p 82.
3. That is, an ecclesiastical parish but not a civil one.
4. William Ewing (ed), Annals of the Free Church of Scotland, 1843-1900, Edinburgh, 1914, vol 2, p 222.
5. John Kennedy, The Apostle of the North, Free Presbyterian edition, 1978, pp 125-6.
6. Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, Wick, 1899, p 322.
7. Donald Beaton, Some Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands, Inverness, 1929, p 213.
8. James M’Cosh, The Wheat and Chaff Gathered into Bundles, Perth, 1843, pp 6-7,99.
9. Records of Grace in Sutherland, p 253.
10. The belief that we derive our souls from our parents. The more common Reformed view on this difficult subject is Creationism – that each human soul is individually created by God.
11. Sandra Train, A Memory of Strath Halladale, Thurso, nd [c1994], p 9; Letters by the eminently pious John Grant, Joseph Mackay, and Alexander Gair, Aberdeen, nd [c1855] pp 63,68; Donald Mackay, Memories of Our Parish, Dingwall, 1925, p 113.
12. A S Cowper and I Ross, Caithness Monumental Inscriptions (pre 1855), Scottish Genealogical Society, 1992, vol 3, p 58.
13. Christopher Munro, Memorials of Late Rev Christopher Munro, Free Church Minister of Strathy, Edinburgh, 1890, pp.27,29,32,125; for a fuller account of his life, see Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 105, pp 33-44.
14. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 2, p 429; vol 8, p 227.
15. Alexander Auld, Ministers and Men in the Far North, 1956 Free Presbyterian ed, pp 141-6.
16. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 9, pp 146-7.
17. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 14, p 147.
18. Alexander MacRae, Revivals in the Highlands and Islands in the Nineteenth Century, Stirling, nd, p 173.
19. Memorials of Christopher Munro, p 21.
20. Memorials of Christopher Munro, p v; Donald Mackay, Memories of Our Parish p 58; Archibald Auld, Memorials of Caithness Ministers, Edinburgh, 1911, p 288.
21. A Memory of Strath Halladale, p 9.
22. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 14, pp 147-8.
23. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 18, pp 144-6.
24. Murdoch Campbell, Gleanings of Highland Harvest, fourth ed, Inverness, 1969, p 101. For obituaries of the Mackay family see Free Presbyterian Magazine vol 5, pp 182-5; vol 9, pp 146-7; vol 13, p 309-11; vol 49, pp 175-6; vol 52, pp 176-7.
25. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 20, pp 264-7.
26. Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 11, pp 59-64.
27. Ministers and Men, pp 140,210-212.