The Reformation in the North of Scotland - Dr Douglas Somerset
22 Feb 2010
I would like to begin by thanking you for inviting me to speak tonight. My subject is ‘The Reformation in the North of Scotland’ and I presume that one reason, if not the main one, for choosing this subject is that 2010 is the 450th anniversary of the Reformation of 1560 and we are seeking to remember with thankful spirits the great and inexpressible blessing which God gave to Scotland at time.
I should start by explaining the subject that I am addressing: ‘The Reformation in the North of Scotland’. I am taking a broad view of ‘the North of Scotland’ and I am going to include the whole Highland area from Caithness to Inverness to Argyllshire, the Gaelic-speaking area. The reason for doing this is partly that the surviving information for smaller areas is limited and technical; and partly because there is a general story to tell for the whole area.
And by ‘The Reformation’ I will understand the whole transformation of human life which took place in Scotland in the years after 1560. I want to think about three aspects. There was the ecclesiastical reformation from Romanism to Protestantism and Presbyterianism: a change in the outward appearance of the Church. Then there was the spiritual reformation from darkness and ignorance to faith in Christ. The Reformation was a great work of revival. Then, thirdly, there was the reformation of society which was the outworking of the spiritual reformation: a new attitude to morality, to education, to life. Where there is a Reformation people become honest, industrious, eager to learn, and independent-minded. There is an end of bribery, for instance. Each man is judging right and wrong for himself by the Word of God.
These things happened more slowly than in the North than in the South. The Reformation period in the South was complete with the Reforming of the universities in the 1570s and the setting up of Presbyteries after 1581. But in the North the change took much longer. Spiritually, much of the great change did not take place until the eighteenth and even the early nineteenth centuries. And, strictly, the translating of the Gaelic Bible (NT 1767; OT 1801) was a part of the Reformation. But we have to limit ourselves, and I will draw the line at about 1690: the Revolution and the end of the Stewart dynasty.
1. The Ecclesiastical Reformation
The first general point that we would make is that Romanism collapsed in Scotland in 1560. Not that every Roman Catholic became Protestant, or that every Roman priest disappeared, but Roman Catholic public worship in the parishes ceased everywhere, and that seems to have happened quite rapidly. This was true, not just in the Lowlands but in the Highlands. After 1560 there was no longer an organised Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. Many of the Bishops conformed to Protestantism, and many of the priests did the same. Some noblemen continued as Roman Catholics, but even most of those who did were happy to play along with Protestantism, and the vast majority became Protestant, at least in name. Even the return of Mary in 1561 did not raise much hope for Romanists of re-establishing what they had lost. It was gone.
There were various political plots, but when Rome started to attempt a religious recovery in the 1580s it was through Jesuit missionaries, or priests sheltered by local Roman Catholic landowners. It was very much a ‘missionary situation’ with the bulk of the people having forsaken Romanism. In the 1620s, when Roman Catholic ‘missionaries’ re-appeared in the Hebrides, they spoke of ‘converts’ and ‘reconciled heretics’. There is no part of Scotland that can claim to have been Roman Catholic since the Reformation. It was reported of Barra, for instance, (to the 1766 General Assembly) that ‘in Charles I time all the inhabitants were Protestant, but after the Restoration (of 1660) Popish priests got in among them and perverted them, and their then Protestant minister was a man inattentive to his character and to duty’. (Similarly, Lochaber, which had no settled minister from the Reformation until 1658, was stated by a Jesuit in 1648 to be ‘inhabited by men not susceptible of piety’, and was reported in 1698 to contain only 30 Roman Catholics. The return to Romanism happened after 1721, at which stage there were only three Roman Catholic families in the area; see Donald MacLean, Counter-Reformation in Scotland, pp.154-6.)
In place of Romanism came Protestantism, of a sort. Not necessarily real, spiritual Protestantism, but the adoption of some, at least, of the features of Protestantism. The first things was the settling of the Highlands with ministers and readers (who would ‘read’ a service if there was no minister available). There is an interesting paper on this subject by Professor James Kirk of Glasgow (which appears in more than one form) where he details the settling of ministers and readers in the various Highland Dioceses—Dunblane, Dunkeld, Moray, Ross, Caithness, Argyll, and the Isles—after the Reformation. What is striking is how rapidly this happened. The Reformed Church had a great shortage of ministers after the Reformation, but the Highlands were no worse supplied than the Lowlands. By 1574, for instance, there were 223 ministers and readers for the 215 parishes of the Dioceses of Dunblane, Dunkeld, Moray, Ross, and Caithness (the figures for the Dioceses of Argyll and the Isles are not available). This was better than for the Lowlands, but, of course, one has to bear in mind that many of the Highland parishes were vast and that travel was so difficult. But there was a structure in place and there was the beginning of the work of the gospel. In Inverness, for instance, there was a minister by 1560 (the priest conformed) and elders and deacons were appointed in October 1562. The same happened in Harris. So there was a notionally Protestant minister who was prepared to conduct a Protestant service.
What sort of service did these men take? Of necessity, it was a very simple and limited service. There would be prayer, of course, and the reading of the Bible (which would have to be extemporaneously translated into Gaelic), and there would be preaching or exhortation. There could be no Gaelic singing because there were no Gaelic metrical psalms. In a bilingual place like Inverness there would be English metrical psalms at the English services, and perhaps these were sung at the Gaelic services as well. More than half the country was Gaelic-speaking at the Reformation. Incidentally Alastair Crotach (d.1547), buried in Rodel, is said to have translated several psalms into Gaelic, which were published ‘by Mr Morrison of Ness’, but the Gaelic experts can shed no light on this statement.
One of the things that somewhat helped the Reformation in the Highlands was that, of the Highland bishops, three (I think) out of the seven became Protestant. They no longer had ecclesiastical authority, but they had money and secular influence which could be used for good or ill. One of the great difficulties facing the Reformed Church was the shortage of money, and the difficulty of getting what was supposed to be Church money out of the hands of noblemen, bishops, abbots, etc. So these men, and other influential landowners in the Highlands, were useful in settling minister and arranging for them to be paid and for churches and manses to be maintained. On the other hand, a setback to the Reformation in the Highlands was the partial restoration of Bishops at the Convention of Leith in 1572. The idea was that these bishops would powerful and dynamic figures, but the reality was that they tended to be non-resident, and idle, and to spend the revenues on themselves.
The most notable of these Bishops, and a better man than most, was John Carswell (d.1572). Soon after the Reformation he was appointed Superintendent of Argyll and the Isles. (These superintendents were a temporary expedient introduced because of the shortage of ministers.) Carswell was active in travelling in the Highlands. For instance, in May 1564 he sent an apology of absence to the General Assembly explaining that he thought he could do more good for the Kirk by travelling, and pointing out that it was only feasible to travel in the summer months. It appears from an ‘instrument’ that he signed that he was in Lewis in 1566. To the displeasure of the General Assembly, in 1565 Carswell accepted the Bishopric of the Isles from Queen Mary. He seems to have moved in a less Reforming direction in later life, though he denied this in his only surviving letter.
Carswell has the distinction of publishing the first printed book in Gaelic, the Book of Common Order (a Directory of Public Worship) in 1567, of which three copies survive [one found in Daviot?]. The English original (based on the form of service used in Geneva) had been formally published in Edinburgh at the beginning of 1565. Carswell says in his preface that he had waited to see if anyone else would translate it, but reluctantly he had to do it himself. It was a scholarly piece of work, and showed a remarkable vision. So he, at least, was doing something.
One slightly later Bishop was Andrew Knox of Ranfurly (1559-1633). He had been a student of Andrew Melville’s at Glasgow University, but was not as principled a Presbyterian as his teacher and in 1605 he became Bishop of the Isles. He was a bold man and there are quite a few anecdotes of his adventurous life. In 1608 he went as chaplain with a small fleet to Mull, where a meeting had been appointed with several of the leading Highland chiefs, such as Rory MacLeod of Harris (Rory Mor), Macdonald of Sleat, Clanranald Macdonald, and others. When some of them showed a reluctance to assist the work of the Reformed Church, they were, on Knox’s advice, invited onto the King’s yacht for dinner, and to hear a sermon which he was to preach. After the dinner and the sermon they were informed that they were captives and were transported down to Ayr and then to prison in Stirling. The only one too canny to go on the ship was Rory Mor. They were not released until they had agreed to attend a meeting at Iona at which they subscribed a bond to support the Reformed Church. As a result Knox’s ‘credit’ in the Highlands was rather low, and in 1611 he was appointed Bishop of Raphoe in Ireland. In the event, perhaps his credit improved because he did not demit the Bishopric of the Isles until 1618. Possibly he was influenced in this decision by the infamous Articles of Perth, adopted in that year.
The interesting thing about Knox, though, is that he re-appears as an old man in the life of John Livingstone. Livingstone had to withdraw to Ireland in 1630 (just after the Kirk of Shotts revival) to avoid persecution in Scotland. At that stage he was still a probationer, in need of ordination if he was to find a charge in Ireland. As a Presbyterian, he did not want Episcopal ordination, and it was suggested he should see the old Bishop of Raphoe, who was over seventy by this time. He records that Knox ‘told me that he knew my errand that I had to him, because I had scruple against episcopacy and ceremonies, according as Mr Josiah Welsh and some other before him; and that he thought his old age was prolonged for little other purpose but to do such offices...’ He arranged for Livingstone to be ordained by three Presbyterian ministers, though he himself had to be present, and he handed Livingstone the ordination service to score out anything that was objectionable. Livingstone, however, said: ‘I found it so marked by some others before that I needed not mark anything’. Knox was a man who was prepared to go so far in a degenerating situation, but at the last drew back with revulsion.
So ecclesiastically, the Reformation was an abrupt change from Romanism to Protestantism, of a mixed Presbyterian/Episcopal variety.
2. The Spiritual Reformation
Notwithstanding the ecclesiastical change, there is little evidence of a spiritual change in the Highlands before 1600. Whatever there was was local, affecting just a few people or families. We know the names of numerous early Highland ministers, and perhaps some or even many of them faithful men, but we simply have no knowledge of their spiritual state. Apart from Carswell’s Book of Common Order (which is quite informative), we do not know what they were teaching, or whether there was any evangelical seed being sown. They have left nothing in writing, and nor do we have surviving church records. In Inverness, for instance, the Burgh records go back to the Reformation, but the earliest surviving Session records date to 1661, the earliest Presbytery records (apart from a few fragments) to 1670, and the earliest Synod records to 1623.
In 1597, James Melville and others were sent by the King and the General Assembly on a Visitation of the North. They visited the Synods of Aberdeen, Moray, and Ross, deposing some ministers, admonishing some, and encouraging others. They met the noblemen and chief barons, and discussed the maintenance of churches. In Inverness they met the Chief of Clan Mackintosh who had a plan for all the churches in his bounds and who promised to maintain them and to ensure the safety of ministers in the area. Melville’s comment on his tour was ‘I have ever since regretted the state of our Highlands, and I am sure that if Christ were preached among them, they would shame many Lowland professors’. Similarly in Robert Bruce’s sermons, which date from this time, the Highlands are always portrayed as a wild place without the gospel.
One place to which the gospel came very soon afterwards, however, was Tain. The minister there from 1599 was John Monro, nephew of Robert Munro of Fowlis who had supported the Reformation at the first Reformed Parliament of 1560. John Monro attended the Aberdeen Assembly of 1605, refused to declare it unlawful, and was imprisoned in Doune Castle (near Dunblane). He was sentenced to be banished to the Mull of Kintyre, but then escaped and returned to the ministry in Tain. He, at least, was a godly man. But the places to which Presbyterian ministers were banished after the Aberdeen Assembly (Caithness, Orkney, Shetland, Lewis, Arran, Bute, Kintyre) give an indication of the general religious state of the Highlands. Clearly it was felt that they could not do any harm in these places.
Traditionally, what brought the gospel to the Highlands was the banishment of Robert Bruce to Inverness in August 1605 by the King for his opposition to Prelacy. Probably it was on this occasion (or possibly his second banishment) that he paused in a trance for a while before mounting his horse. On being asked what he was doing, he replied: ‘I was receiving my commission and charge from my master to go to Inverness, and he gave it me himself before I set foot in the stirrup; and thither I go to sow a seed in Inverness that shall not be rooted out for many ages.’
Wodrow says that ‘he continued at Inverness about four years, where he had very great success in his ministerial work. Many were converted and multitudes edified. He preached every Lord’s day forenoon, and every Wednesday, and read and exhorted at the prayers every evening while he was there.’ This account is confirmed by several other sources (e.g. Robert Fleming). The earliest reference to his success is from a Jesuit in 1648 who wrote to the General of his Society that, while the region round the sources of the Ness had a ‘warm’ climate, ‘so also is the temper of the inhabitants, who are ardent Calvinists, having become obstinately imbued with these sentiments by a preacher who was sent there for banishment by King James the Sixth.’ At the same time as this success, however, Bruce had to endure great opposition from the minister, James Bishop, who was a ‘king’s man’, and also difficulties from the magistrates. On one occasion he was shot at, and escaped alive only because he had paused to examine a magpie’s nest which he thought was curiously made.
There are two references to him in the published Records of Inverness. The first one, dated 25th July 1606, is about Andrew Innes who had ‘troubled Mr Robert Bruce at the water side under silence and cloud of night’. Andrew Innes had resisted arrest and seems to have been an idiot. He was ordered to be scourged and have his ear nailed to the throne. The other one, dated 9th February 1607, is about Alexander Merchant who had been deprived of his freedom and position as burgess in November 1606 because of his insolent behaviour towards the Provost and Baillie. The record says that ‘now, by instigation and earnest request of an honourable man, Mr Robert Bruce of Kinnaird, and God by his Holy Spirit having moved the said Alexander Merchant’s heart, acknowledging and confessing his contempt made to God and to them openly in judgment and council, and they on the other part having considered his humility, and having compassion towards him, have granted to him his freedom, liberty and position as burgess again’. The impression is certainly of the Gospel having an impact in that case.
Bruce was in Inverness until 1613, apart from a few months in Aberdeen in 1611 and in Forres in 1613. He was then banished to Inverness a second time from 1622-1624. He seems to have had even more difficulties during this second period, but also more success with the gospel. For a while he had to live in Fortrose because Inverness was so uncomfortable. While in Inverness, multitudes came from Ross and Sutherland to hear him, and the ferries on the Sabbath were crowded with people who wanted to hear him. [preached in Gaelic?]
One of his converts was Alexander Munro (c.1605-1653), who was a teacher in Strathnaver with parents in Inverness. Following his conversion, Munro several times heard a voice, or received a strong impression, that he should enter the ministry, in the parish of Durness. He went to university in Aberdeen and was inducted to Durness in 1634 where he too had considerable success. He translated large parts of the Scripture into Gaelic metrical verse and ‘Sandy Munro’s verses’ were learnt by many children and were long spoken of. Only two of them survive, unfortunately, in the Fernaig MS. The same manuscript has a poem by Duncan Macrae (its compiler, b.1640 in Inverinate) which is worth quoting as an illustration of the evangelical doctrine then current in Wester Ross:
I am tonight in woe
Corrupt I am in my flesh
My heart is stricken with pain
Sick unto death through sin
O Man, who suffered in agony upon the tree
In bitter anguish through false judgement
Protect thou me, thou Son of God
Undertake thou mightily in my cause
This poem is distinctly Protestant in its confession of indwelling sin.
After Robert Bruce, the gospel continued in Inverness and the surrounding area. In 1638 Andrew Cant came up to Inverness with Earl of Sutherland and Lord Lovat, collecting signatures for the National Covenant. His exhortation survives, and afterwards the whole town subscribed the Covenant ‘except or the minster, Mr William Clogie, and some few others’. A letter from one of Cromwell’s soldiers in Dundee in 1651 speaks of the contact between English soldiers and ‘a very precious people which seeks the face of God in Sutherland and divers other parts beyond Inverness’. In Covenanting times we have Thomas Hog, Fraser of Brea, and John M’Killican, and up in Sutherland, George Squair from Warwickshire in England, who acted as an assistant to Alexander Munro and who held a Covenanting communion at Rhicoinich near Kinlochbervie. In 1687, the minister of the first charge in Inverness, Angus Macbean, decided that he could no longer be an Episcopalian. He preached a sermon on 23rd October on Job 34:31-32 ‘If I have done iniquity, I will do it no more’, demitting his charge. A few of Robert Bruce’s hearers were still alive to witness this occasion. For this, Macbean was imprisoned in Edinburgh for over a year, dying soon after his release.
So the gospel was firmly established from Robert Bruce’s time onwards.
3. The Reformation of Society
I want now to look at the third aspect of the Reformation, and I want to concentrate on the Synod of Argyll. One reason for this is that the contrast is more starkly seen on the West Coast, and another is that their work deserves to be highly honoured.
The 1620s saw renewed efforts in the Highlands from the Romanists, probably encouraged by the defections in the Church of Scotland, who had started a Franciscan mission to the Hebrides in 1619. Perhaps it was in response to this that the Gaelic edition of Calvin’s Catechism was published about 1631. This was the second Gaelic book published after Carswell’s Book of Common Order, but it survives in a single copy and nothing is known of its origin. In 1638 the General Assembly set up the new Synod of Argyll which held its first meeting on 24th April 1639. It comprised the old diocese of Argyll and the Isles and its bounds extended from the Mull of Kintyre to the Hebrides. Its seat was at Inverary.
Let me mention some of the difficulties that the Synod of Argyll faced: parishes were generally far too large for one man, and some of them were vacant; there was a shortage of Gaelic-speaking ministers; some of the ministers were away as chaplains during the civil wars; travel was tiring and dangerous, especially in winter; stipends were often not paid on time; manses and churches were not maintained by the heritors, though they were required by law to do so; educational facilities were very limited throughout the area; there were effectively no Gaelic books available (although Carswell’s BCO and the Irish NT of 1602 were being used in the Synod); there were problems with law and order (ultimately they were dependent on the Marquis of Argyle for enforcing this); there were some prominent Papists and Episcopalians among the Highland chiefs; there was a entrenched superstition among the people, for instance in sun-worship; it was difficult to get ministers to attend the Synod, especially those from the Presbytery of Skye; and there were several civil wars, including Montrose’s terrible Inverary campaign of 1644-5 culminating in the battle of Inverlochy at which Montrose defeated the Marquis of Argyle.
What did the Synod try to do: The Minutes of the Synod from 1639-1661 survive and were published in 1943-4 through the efforts of Duncan Mactavish, the County Clerk of Argyll, and an evangelical, who had re-discovered them. The minutes survive through the prudence and industry of one of the ministers, Robert Duncanson, who decided in 1661 that he had better take a copy of the minutes in case the Episcopalians destroyed them, which is exactly what happened. These minutes record the efforts of the Synod.
They had a scheme for increasing the number of parishes, which got quite a long way but which ultimately failed; they pressurized the heritors to pay stipends and to repair the churches and manses; they set up nine parish schools for which they got funding from Parliament and the General Assembly, and they set up bursaries for forty children to be educated in Glasgow; they sought to exercise church discipline—with numerous marriage cases involving divorce and uncleanness, and with attempts to suppress idolatry (sun-worship) and to reason with papists and Episcopalians. They were not afraid to tackle the highest: they wrote in May 1643 to MacNeil of Barra asking him to hand over his Madonna and child for destruction, and they instructed the Bracadale minister to confer with Rory Mor’s widow who was a ‘professed papist’. They took the National Covenant up to Skye in 1642 and got signatures for it in Eynort and Bracadale. At the same time they conducted a visitation in Skye. In one parish the elders complained that they were ‘treated as ciphers, because the minister did all himself, without requiring either their advice or assistance’. There had been no meeting of session, and all discipline was conducted privately. In other places there was difficulty over forming a session because the local landowners refused to cooperate with church discipline. Meanwhile the Skye ministers, who were reluctant to attend the Synod, complained that the Harris and Lewis ministers would not even attend the Presbytery.
To rectify the shortage of Gaelic literature the Synod of Argyll started a translation project. The Shorter Catechism was published in Gaelic in 1653 (English version); the first 50 metrical psalms in Gaelic were ready in 1659; the entire Psalter was ready soon afterwards but had to wait until 1694 for publication; and they also had a translation of the OT in MS which was unfortunately lost. Every one of these projects was fraught with difficulties (getting the translation complete, getting funding, distributing the books, getting catechists) and required great persistence. The names of Dugald Campbell of Knapdale and Ewan Cameron of Dunoon, who did most of the translation, deserve to be remembered with honour.
There was a remarkable breadth of vision in their work. Even keeping up regular meetings of Synod and maintaining the Record was a considerable effort. Their readiness to attempt the seemingly hopeless was praiseworthy; as was their persistence after setbacks; and their effort to be consistent in church discipline and in the government of the church. The fruit of their work was not seen immediately, but it appears in the subsequent history of the gospel on the West Coast of Scotland.
While Robert Bruce brought the glorious gospel through preaching, the work of the Synod of Argyll was almost equally important. M’Cheyne has a sermon on the ‘Office of the Ruling Elder’ in which he says: ‘When I first entered upon the ministry among you, I had very inadequate views of the duty of ruling well the house of God. I thought that my great and almost only work was to pray and preach...When cases of discipline were brought before me, I regarded them with something like abhorrence...But it pleased God to bless some of these cases of discipline...and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so too is church discipline.’ He goes on to talk about the two keys of doctrine and discipline which Christ has committed to his Church. So this was how the Reformation came to the North of Scotland: through the preaching of the gospel, blessed by the Holy Ghost, and by the ‘patient continuance in well-doing’ of the courts of the Church.
This article is the substance of an address given to the Inverness Branch of the Scottish Reformation Society, 22nd February 2010 by Dr Douglas Somerset, Aberdeen.
SCOTTISH REFORMATION SOCIETY
The Scottish Reformation Society was founded in 1851, following a protest against the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. The original constitution of the Society set out its objectives as being “to resist the aggressions of Popery; to watch the designs and movements of its promoters and abettors; and to diffuse sound Scriptural teaching and information on the distinctive tenets of Protestantism and Popery”.
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