The next missionary at Achreny after John Munro was Finlay Cook (1778-1858). He was licensed on 21 August 1816, and appointed to Achreny in 1817. Like his brother Archibald, and a number of other eminent ministers, he was a fruit of the Arran revival under Neil M’Bride, in which John Robertson of Kingussie, a former Achreny missionary, had taken part. Soon after his arrival at Achreny, he was met by James Macdonald, the father of the Apostle of the North, who was over 80 at the time. James thought he would test the new missionary by asking him for baptism. “For whom?” came the reply. “For myself.” “Well,” said the new missionary, “I will baptise you if you tell me who is your father.” Alexander Auld comments, “This ready reply – one more searching than to many may appear – gave James much satisfaction”. (2)
James Macdonald (c1735-1830) had been the catechist in the parish of Reay, though he had presumably laid down the work by Finlay Cook’s time. His successor in office was the eminent William Calder (died 1829), of whom the following anecdote is related. “There is a woe on you, William Calder,” he said aloud to himself on the way home from a Thurso communion, “for all men seem to think well of you.” “But what dost Thou think of me, Lord?” he asked, looking up. “Thou thinkest that I am a poor sinner. Blessed be Thy name. Thou hast taken the woe off me.” On the subject of dreams he used to say, “When I have a pleasant dream, I thank the Lord for it; and when it is unpleasant, I thank Him it was only a dream”. (3)
William Calder in turn was succeeded as catechist of Reay by Ensign Joseph Mackay (1780-1848), a native of Dyke at the upper end of Strathhalladale. Halladale was part of the parish of Reay, and these catechists would have laboured there alongside the Achreny missionary. The minister of Reay from 1783 to 1835 was David Mackay, an invalid for most of his life, who could do little more than preach in Reay on the Sabbath. Meanwhile, from 1769, the minister of Halkirk, the parish in which Achreny lay, had been John Cameron. He was a Moderate whose “habitual levity effectually prevented any good being done by his ministrations”. (4) He died in 1821 and was succeeded the next year by John Munro, who moved back north from Edinburgh.
One of the evil effects of Moderatism in the far north had been to drive a number of godly men out of the Established Church. This separation had been precipitated by an incident at a communion in 1797 in Kildonan, where Alexander Sage, another former Achreny missionary, was now minister. (5) The Separatists tended to be harsh critics of those, such as James Macdonald and William Calder, who did not follow them. One of their leaders in 1797 was Peter Stuart (c1762-1840) from Strathmore in the uplands of the Achreny Mission, but in 1798 he moved south to become catechist in the parish of Croy. Another of the Separatist leaders was John Grant of Kildonan (1752-1829), the most famous of all the men of the far north. He moved to Strathy about 1800 but was evicted in 1820, and from 1822 he lived at Brubster near Achreny. He told Finlay Cook: “Your soul has never cost me a prayer, but your coat [that is, your position as a minister] has cost me many”. Finlay Cook never passed his door, however, because, as he said, “I will get the rod from John, but then I will get honey with it”. (6)
John Grant was heavy-spirited in temperament and given to lamenting the decay of living religion in the land, whereas James Macdonald was “a lively and joyful Christian”. On one occasion James was visiting John, who at worship started to give out part of the eightieth Psalm: “The boar who from the forest comes doth waste it at his pleasure”. James cut him short at once, exclaiming, “I don’t care for your boar from the forest; give me the King’s daughter, all glorious within”. Like other Separatists, John Grant was inclined to appear at communion seasons, and on one occasion the Moderates on the Caithness Presbytery, with no good intention, compelled Finlay Cook to administer a rebuke to him for a remark that he had made at a Question Meeting. Finlay Cook was unsparing in his rebuke, and feared afterwards that he might have given offence. “You were very hard on me the other day at the Presbytery”, said John with a gruff voice when they met. “I was not a bit harder than you deserved”, was the reply. “If you had been one bit less hard than you were,” said John, “you would have fallen in my esteem.” (7) After all his sallies against them, John Grant’s mortal remains now lie just a few yards away from those of James Macdonald and Finlay Cook in the little walled cemetery at Reay.
On 8 June 1819 Finlay Cook was married to Elizabeth Sage, the daughter of John Grant’s original adversary, Alexander Sage. The marriage was performed by her brother Donald, and thereafter she and her new husband returned to the place where she had been born. “In their low thatched cottage and solitary abode at Dirlot,” Donald relates, “I was frequently an eye-witness of their beautiful conjugal unity and harmony. They were constitutionally hot-tempered, but not one hasty word was ever, by any accident, even once exchanged between them. In their views, tempers, and dispositions they seemed to tread the same path, to ‘walk by the same rule’ and to ‘mind the same thing’. As the devoted followers of the Lamb, whithersoever He in His wisdom thought fit to lead them through the ever-changing incidents of time, they were ever humbly tracing His footsteps as set before them in the divine record – in the secret exercises of their souls, in their fellowship with God and with each other, in the unwearied and conscientious discharge of every Christian duty, in the exercise of brotherly love to all who bore the image and breathed the spirit of the Lord Jesus, and in all the ordinary occurrences of life.” (8)
Two of Finlay Cook’s surviving letters were sent from Achreny, and two of his children lie buried in the graveyard there. Of his daughter he wrote, “I had a little girl once, such a pretty little girl, but I made an idol of her, and just as she was beginning to walk, God took her away from me. If you have anything in this world and make an idol of it, the Lord will take it from you, or leave it to be a curse to you.” (9)
Finlay Cook was highly popular as a preacher, and crowds of people from the surrounding area flocked to hear him, including one woman who, though lame, walked well over a dozen miles from the heights of Latheron. (10) He had little regard for his own efforts, however, and on one occasion he visited a blind old man, William Sinclair of Kirkton in Halladale. Finlay Munro, the famous lay-evangelist had recently started preaching, and happened to be visiting at the time also. He had just gone outside for a moment, leaving William Sinclair to ponder the question whether it was right for a layman to preach. “Is that you, Finlay?” said William, when the knock came on his door. “Yes, it is,” said Finlay Cook. “I have just been thinking, Finlay,” said William, “that it would be better for you to stick to praying and to give up the preaching.” Finlay Cook was inclined to agree with him, but soon discovered that the advice was intended for another. (11) William Sinclair was exceedingly conscientious, and it is recorded that on one occasion at a sale of his farm stock he interrupted some of the bidders, exclaiming, “O you are giving too much for that animal; it is older than you think”. (12) Another old man from Halladale was Hugh Campbell, who was born in 1744. At the age of 82, after a lifetime of godliness, he wakened his son William one Sabbath morning with the words, “Rise and get the pony; Mr Cook is to preach in Halladale today, and perhaps I may get one offer of Christ yet”. (13)
There was a desire in the parish of Reay that Finlay Cook should be appointed assistant to the minister, but Mr Mackay, though an invalid, would not hear of it. In 1824 a prayer meeting was started for the sole purpose of obtaining this end. (14) It was held at the house of Major William Innes of Sandside, a lover of good men. He had given John Grant a cottage at Shebster shortly before his death, desiring the honour of having such a godly man on his property. (15) In 1829 Finlay Cook moved to Cross, Ness, and in 1833 to Inverness, but in 1835, following Mr Mackay’s death, he finally became minister of Reay, and the prayer meeting was discontinued. In later years, he and John Munro, discussing their experiences in the Achreny Mission, agreed that it was there that they had had their pleasantest days. Robert Rose Mackay, who was himself missionary at Achreny, remarked, “Perhaps the reason was that you then lived more on the Royal Bounty“. (16)
Finlay Cook was succeeded at Achreny by Peter Davidson (1788-1875). Like his predecessor, he was a native of Arran and had been converted during the revival under Neil M’Bride and John Robertson. He was described as a man “of strong individuality . . . somewhat peculiar in his habits and strict in his views”. (17) In 1829 he had been appointed missionary to St Kilda but does not appear ever to have gone there. On 23 November 1830 he was ordained missionary at Achreny. We have no anecdotes of his time there, but we do have some information about the size of his congregations, because the material for the New Statistical Account began to be gathered while he was at Achreny. John Munro recorded that the population of Halkirk within the bounds of the Achreny mission was 784, although the mission-house at Achreny could only seat 403. The landowner in the Achreny district was the evangelical Sir George Sinclair of Ulbster (1790-1868), whose kindly and enlightened father Sir John had died in 1835. The effect of the clearances in neighbouring Kildonan and in Strathnaver had been to increase the number of people on the Sinclair estate. The minister of Latheron, George Davidson (1791-1873), reported that about 350 of his parishioners attended the meeting-house in Halsary, where a new and more suitable building was about to be built; it was much needed. Meanwhile a chapel had been built near Comgill in Strathhalladale in about 1830, and the average congregation here was 550 out of a total population of 1125 in Strathhalladale. (18)
On 18 April 1837 Peter Davidson became minister of Stoer, and in 1845 he moved to Arran. Following his departure, an attempt was made to obtain the services of John Macdonald (1800-1854), at this stage a probationer, but soon to become the outspoken evangelical minister of Helmsdale. He supplied at Achreny for a while, but “the Word made me wish not to go to the missions [that is, Achreny]”. On 23 May 1837 Finlay Cook wrote to him from the Reay manse:
“My dear Sir, I beg leave to enclose to you the letter of Mr John Waters of Dalnaha, who is one of the managers of the Mission at Achreny. He is an honest man, and takes an interest in the Mission. Indeed, he was one of my best friends when I was there. Will you be so good as to write me your mind on the subject immediately, so that I may be able to return an answer to Mr Waters as soon as possible? Mrs Cook joins in kind regards.” (19)
John Macdonald remained steadfast in his refusal to go to Achreny. The John Waters mentioned in the letter died in 1849 aged 88 and is buried in Halkirk. (20)
The final missionary at Achreny was Robert Rose Mackay (c1798-1866), who was appointed missionary in 1839, and joined the Free Church at the Disruption in 1843. Indeed it was the Disruption which brought the Achreny Mission to an end as a mission, because the Free Church soon afterwards disjoined the Mission and made arrangements for ministers to be settled in the different parts. The entire congregations of Halsary and Achreny joined the Free Church, barring a single shepherd, while the Free Church Tabular View for 1845 indicates that there was also a big congregation in Strathhalladale. The Free Church lost the use of the Comgill chapel in Strathhalladale, but retained the Achreny and Halsary meeting-houses, although her right to these was subsequently challenged.
The meeting-house at Halsary had just been built in 1842, and must therefore have been large enough for the congregation in that part of the Mission, but the meeting-house at Achreny was too small, as we have seen. In 1837 a new meeting-house seating 500 had been built in Shurrery, about ten miles from Achreny, by Major Innes of Sandside. It was opened on 26 November by Finlay Cook, by this time minister of Reay. Shurrery was in the parish of Reay, and Finlay Cook used to preach there every third Sabbath. “The inside [of the Shurrery meeting-house] . . . was made as commodious as possible, but congregations so large assembled that on several occasions they had to go out on the hillside and hold open-air meetings. . . . There were no roads, and the great bulk of the people rode their ponies.” (21)
Major Innes died in 1842, and his nephew and heir, Captain Macdonald, remained in the Established Church at the Disruption, notwithstanding his wife Lady Ramsay Maule’s sympathy with the Free Church. She was a sister of Fox Maule, later Earl of Dalhousie, who was one of the chief supporters of the Free Church among the aristocracy. The Shurrery meeting-house, as a consequence, was retained by the Established Church at the Disruption, with Captain Macdonald himself holding services on the Sabbath, and addressing the small congregation “in a style that would do honour to any lay-preacher.” (22) The Free Church, therefore, urgently needed a new building somewhere near Achreny, and in August 1843 a site was acquired at Westerdale Bridge, a few miles from Achreny. The church was completed in 1844 and the manse about 1848.
In October 1843 the second Free Church General Assembly met in Glasgow, with Robert Rose Mackay, “minister of Dirlet”, as a commissioner from the Presbytery of Caithness. From this it appears that Achreny and Westerdale was already recognised as a sanctioned charge by this time, with their former missionary as the new minister. Halsary seems at first to have been on an equal footing with Achreny and Westerdale, but from 1847 onward the Tabular View lists Halsary as a mission station under the Westerdale-Achreny congregation. Probably the population of the Halsary district was starting to decline. Meanwhile, from the time of the Disruption, the intention of the Free Church had been to separate Halladale from Achreny and Halsary and to join it to the Strathy congregation, but this does not seem to have taken effect until 1847, when Strathy became a sanctioned charge. Thereafter the histories of the two parts of the Mission run separately.
This article is part 2 of a series
Other articles in this series:[part 1] [part 3] [part 4]
1. In the previous article, in the August issue, we sketched the history of the Achreny-Halsary-Halladale Mission from its beginning in the eighteenth century down to the departure of John Munro to Edinburgh in 1815.
2. Alexander Auld, Ministers and Men in the Far North, 1956 Free Presbyterian ed, p 75.
3. Ministers and Men, pp 110,133.
4. Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, second edition, Wick, 1899, p 41.
5. John Macleod, By-Paths of Highland Church History, Edinburgh, 1965, p 81.
6. Donald Mackay, Memories of Our Parish, Dingwall, 1925, p 153.
7. Christopher Munro, Memorials of the Late Rev Christopher Munro, Free Church Minister of Strathy, Edinburgh, 1890, p 36; By-Paths of Highland Church History, p 102.
8. Memorabilia Domestica, p 295.
9. John Kennedy (Caticol), Memoir and Letters of Rev Finlay Cook and Rev Archibald Cook (second edition), Inverness, 1896, p 5.
10. Letters of F and A Cook, p 139.
11. G N M Collins, John Macleod DD, Edinburgh, 1951, p 209-10.
12. Ministers and Men, p 141.
13. Ministers and Men, p 140.
14. Ministers and Men, p 79.
15. Donald Munro, Records of Grace in Sutherland, Edinburgh, 1953, p 155.
16. Ministers and Men, p 75.
17. Alexander MacRae, Life of Gustavus Aird, Stirling, nd, p 115.
18. Malcolm Bangor-Jones, in John R Baldwin (ed), The Province of Strathnaver, Edinburgh, 2000, pp 82,98.
19. John Mackay, Memoir of the Late Rev John Macdonald, Minister of the Free Church at Helmsdale, Edinburgh, 1856, p 44.
20. A S Cowper and I Ross, Caithness Monumental Inscriptions (pre 1855), vol 3, Scottish Genealogical Society, 1992, p 104.
21. Memories of Our Parish, pp 88-89.
22. Memories of Our Parish, pp 47,89