Thursday, 4 April 2013

Religious studies: Preaching in the Scottish Highlands



Donald E. Meek


The pleasure of giving this Warrack Lecture is offset by the knowledge that the remit implicit in the title, 'Preaching in the Scottish Highlands', is potentially very large indeed.  At least two of the other subjects which form separate Warrack Lectures in this series could be accommodated inside my theme.  In fact, the theme is worthy of a series of lectures in itself.  In this lecture I will need to be highly selective in those aspects which I choose to discuss. Given the constraints of time and knowledge, I will need to restrict myself to the post-Reformation period, and more specifically to the years since 1790, when printed material becomes available.  This means leaving aside the Middle Ages and specifically the period of the so-called Celtic saints like Columba and Mael-ruba and the myriad of less famous mortals who proclaimed the Christian Gospel in the Highlands and Islands in the millennium between 563 and the Reformation.1


The main thread which I intend to develop in this very selective lecture is that of preaching in the Scottish Highlands in relation to its cultural context.  The Scottish Highlands, by which we mean the Highlands and Islands, have been, and to a certain extent still are, a Gaelic-speaking area.  Gaelic is now spoken by approximately 65,000 people throughout Scotland, about half of whom are to be found in the Western Isles and western mainland  of Scotland.  The other half are in the Scottish Lowlands, mainly in the Glasgow conurbation, and scattered across mainland Scotland.  A century ago the number of Gaelic speakers in the Highlands was very much larger.  It goes without saying that English has gradually displaced Gaelic in extensive areas of the Highlands; the strongest concentration of Gaelic speakers is to be found nowadays in the Outer Hebrides.2


It is fair to state that, since the Reformation, the Protestant Church has acknowledged the importance of Gaelic as a part of ministry.  There have been times when the commitment of the church to Gaelic has faltered.  This happened largely because the church was never committed to Gaelic per se; Gaelic was a medium for the communication of the Gospel.  In other words, the language was no more than a route to gain access to the minds and souls of Highlanders. Despite such a utilitarian view of Gaelic, it can be said that, on balance, the Church of Scotland acknowledged the importance of Gaelic, and throughout the centuries it has tried to preserve a Gaelic ministry in its Highland charges.  Latterly it designated its parishes 'Gaelic essential' or 'Gaelic desirable', and thus attempted to ensure that Gaelic ministers were appointed to those charges which were deemed to require Gaelic preachers.


All the other Protestant churches and denominations active in the Highlands have employed, and in some cases continue to employ, Gaelic preachers - the Episcopal Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church, and also the smaller nonconformist bodies, like Baptists and Independents, or Congregationalists, as they are more frequently known nowadays.  I myself was brought up in the Inner Hebridean island of Tiree in the 1950s and 1960s.  My father was a crofter, but he was also a Baptist minister, who served in the Inner Hebridean islands of Colonsay, Islay and Tiree.  Much of his ministry was in Gaelic; throughout my boyhood, I heard at least one Gaelic sermon every Sunday, and frequently more than one.  Usually, the morning service in the Baptist church was in Gaelic, and the evening service was in English.  My father retired from active ministry in 1965, and entered the history books as the last Baptist minister who used Gaelic regularly in a Highland charge.  I have thus lived through the death of Gaelic preaching in one denomination - and I rather fear that there are clear signs that the same process is now affecting the other denominations. Gaelic-speaking ministers are currently in very short supply, and, as far as I can judge, the various Protestant churches are not doing a great deal to stimulate a continuing interest in Gaelic.  Proclamation, not preservation, is their main goal.3


The Protestant churches have been the main 'users' of Gaelic as a preaching medium, but the Roman Catholic Church likewise has employed Gaelic in its services in the Highlands and Islands, and continues to do so.  Since the Second Vatican Council, it has made much more extensive use of Gaelic in preaching and worship. The Diocese of Argyll and the Isles has a small but well-sustained body of Gaelic-speaking priests who serve charges in the islands of Barra, South Uist and Eriskay, and on the western edge of the Highland mainland. The Gaelic priests of the Highlands and Islands are usually natives of the islands that they serve, and are very close to the everyday lives of their people and their communities. Their preaching is immediately recognisable to the Protestant Gaelic ear, not only by its different doctrinal emphases, but also by its register and diction. Put simply, Roman Catholic preaching style is closer to ordinary, spoken Gaelic than Protestant preaching normally is. Protestant preachers use a more elevated style of Gaelic, based on the Classical Gaelic heritage which the Protestant church inherited from the Middle Ages.  This may seem slightly paradoxical, but it is, in fact, the case that Protestants have been much more wedded to upper register than Catholics.4


Gaelic preaching was, and is, to be heard not only in Highland pulpits; it has also found a significant place in Lowland pulpits, notably the pulpits of the Gaelic chapels which were built in Scotland's cities from the late eighteenth century in order to provide spiritual nourishment for the many Highlanders who found their way to the cities for employment. Here in Aberdeen, for instance, a Gaelic congregation was established in 1785, largely for the benefit of Highlanders who came to work in the granite quarries in Rubislaw. The chapel which the congregation later erected, and which was located for a number of years in Gaelic Lane (where the old building can still be seen), was a focal point of Gaelic activity. Pre-eminently it provided a platform for Gaelic preachers, among them some distinguished graduates of King's College and Marischal College.5  In passing, we may note that a very high proportion of Highland ministers, including some of the area's finest Gaelic preachers, were graduates of this university.6


Highlanders went farther afield than the Lowlands and eastern fringes of Scotland; they emigrated in substantial numbers from the early years of the eighteenth century, and sometimes took their preachers with them - or found new preachers.  Preaching had a very important place in the emigrant context. It is very significant that the first Gaelic sermons to have survived in print were published far from the Highlands - in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1791.  Both were preached at Raft Swamp in 1790 by the Rev. Dougal Crauford, a native of Arran, no doubt to a large number of Crauford's Highland compatriots who, since the late 1730s, had been creating a substantial Gaelic colony in that part of what is now the USA.7


Bibles and literacy

Having given you an overview of preaching in the Highlands and beyond, let me now pick up my main thread, namely preaching in the Highland cultural context - or contexts, since we are dealing with Gaelic and English in the region, though my main interest will inevitably be in Gaelic preaching.  Preaching in Protestant pulpits in the Highlands reflected its cultural context in the first instance by being, very largely, an oral art.  Literacy on any signficant scale - by which I mean the capacity to read and (usually) to write - did not begin to penetrate the Highlands and Islands effectively until the end of the eighteenth century, and more particularly the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the establishment of the Gaelic Schools Societies from 1810.  When it eventually  began to take effect through the work of the Gaelic Schools, literacy had a strong link with the Gaelic Bible, since the Gaelic Bible was their principal text-book.8


Until literacy began to spread through the influence of the Gaelic Schools, it was restricted very much to the 'learned class' in the Highlands, and to a large extent Gaelic literacy continued to be the preserve of the 'learned class' - pre-eminently ministers and schoolmasters - even after 1800.  That class inherited, and preserved, some of the skills of the Gaelic learned orders of the medieval world (1200-1600) - the poets, historians, sculptors, masons and medical men who were patronised by the Gaelic aristocracy. The Classical Gaelic literary line, so to speak, can be traced through John Carswell, who translated the Book of Common Order into Classical Gaelic in 1567, and thus provided the first Gaelic book ever printed.  In the seventeenth century, the literary line runs through several very important Episcopal clergymen in Ireland and Scotland - and these men were of great importance in providing the first Gaelic translations of the Bible. Bishop William Ó Domhnaill had produced a Classical Gaelic translation of the New Testament by 1602/3, and by 1640 Bishop William Bedell had completed his translation of the Old Testament into Classical Gaelic.  The latter was published in 1685.  These translations were used in Gaelic Scotland too, and in 1690 they were transliterated from Gaelic font (with its many abbreviations, which made them difficult to read) into Roman font by the Rev. Robert Kirk, the Episcopal minister of Aberfoyle, who produced the first Gaelic 'pocket Bible'.  The Classical Gaelic Bible texts, and especially 'Kirk's Bible', as it was called, laid the foundation for the translation of the Scottish Gaelic Bible, which was much indebted to its Irish (Episcopal) predecessors.9


The translation of the Bible into Scottish Gaelic was achieved in two stages by Presbyterian ministers. The New Testament, largely the work of the Rev. James Stuart of Killin, was completed in 1767 and the Old Testament, the work of several scholars, including James's son, John, was finished in 1801.  These translations were sponsored by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), a body which began to establish schools in the Highlands in 1709.  The SSPCK initially aimed to eradicate Gaelic by teaching English in its schools, but by the mid-eighteenth century it had changed its tactics, and arranged for the translation and ultimate publication of the Gaelic New Testament in 1767. The Old Testament was translated thereafter in sections.10  The availability of the whole Bible after 1801, and the major revision of 1807, led to the creation of the Gaelic Schools Societies which were, as we have noted, central to the spread of Gaelic literacy.


The first printed sermons

The influence of Bible-based literacy, reflecting the gradual use and absorption of the new translations, probably stimulated the appearance of printed Gaelic sermons.  The Gaelic Bible helped to create a literate ministry, and also a broader readership.  One of the first Gaelic sermons ever printed, preached  at Raft Swamp, North Carolina, in the autumn of 1790 by Dougal Crauford, drew its theme from Micah Chapter 2, verse 10: 'Eiribh agus imichibh, oir cha 'ne so bhur tamh' ('Arise, and go, for this is not your rest') - a text which must have had considerable poignancy in the emigrant context.11  The Gaelic version of the preaching text was derived from the 1786 translation of the Prophets, made by the Rev. Dr John Smith of Campbeltown.12  The Raft Swamp version of Micah 2: 10 did, however, employ a different word for 'rest'; it used tàmh  and also àite tàimh rather than Smith's còmhnaidh ('dwelling') - perhaps pointing to some degree of fluidity and variablity in the Gaelic Bible versions, between printed and oral, or memorised forms.  An 'oral Bible' was very much part of the Highland people's spiritual equipment, and one can still encounter 'texts' which are known in forms different from those in the printed versions.  These may well go back, in some instances, to the manse-made translations which were used by ministers before the Scottish Gaelic Bible became available.13


The 1790s witnessed the printing and publishing of more Gaelic sermons, some by Crauford himself, in both Fayetteville and Glasgow.  Printing of Gaelic sermons 'caught on' gradually in Scotland, but it never became a major industry, and I am often struck by how few Gaelic sermons were ever printed.  The first ministers to put their sermons into print, like the Rev. Ewen MacDiarmid (who published a fine collection of his sermons in 1804),14 were often located outside, or on the edge of, the Highlands, and were associated with specific groups, like migrant Highlanders or, interestingly, Highland soldiers.  MacDiarmid was, for a period, the minister of Glasgow Gaelic Chapel.  He was also an important collector of Gaelic songs and lore - as well as being warmly evangelical in his sermons.15


Despite a sporadic interaction with the printing press across the years, and the regular publication of Gaelic sermons in periodicals such as the Gaelic supplement of Life and Work, Gaelic preaching remained what I have already called an 'oral art'.  The hallmark of the greatest Gaelic preachers was their capacity to deliver sermons orally without reference to paper or notes.  This reflected the fundamentally important place of oral skills in the Highland context; the telling of traditional Gaelic tales was likewise an oral art - an art to which the Gaelic sermon was indebted to some extent.  The pre-eminence of orality was, to a certain degree, increased still further when evangelical Christianity began to penetrate the Highlands and Islands.  The preacher was expected to deliver a message from God, a message which was spontaneous and given to preacher and people in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The use of paper, and the reading of a learned and laborious discourse, became the hallmark of the Moderate preacher.  One of the most dismissive Gaelic terms for a poor preacher was that he was a ministear pàipeir - 'a minister of paper'.


Of course, Highland ministers were not entirely free from paper. The paper-free pulpit was as much an ideal then as the paper-free office is today.  The very existence of the Raft Swamp sermons  indicates that Dougal Crauford was a highly literate man who was able to write out his sermon long-hand in a manuscript, and I suspect that he did so before he delivered the sermon.  In fact, many Highland ministers made outlines of their sermons before they delivered them; some used slates, on which they wrote in chalk, and then wiped off their notes; while others wrote outlines on paper, or even drafted full texts. Some manuscript collections of Gaelic sermons have survived from the eighteenth century to the present day.16 The important thing was that the preacher should not appear in the pulpit with a large and bulky manuscript, and proceed to read it to the expectant congregation! The same condition applied to English sermons too.  It was not a question of language, but of inspiration.


Sermons, delivered spontaneously from the pulpit, were very important in the Highlands. The sermon was the centre-piece of worship.  In many parts of the Highlands and Islands, the whole experience of Gaelic worship was focused in the phrase aig an t-searmon ('at the sermon').  'An robh thu aig an t-searmon an-diugh?' ('Were you at the sermon today?') was the great Sabbath-day question in my part of the Hebrides.  The profundity of preaching is underlined by one Raft Swamp sermon.  It comprises some 16 pages of tightly packed print, which must have taken at least an hour and a half to deliver!17


Themes and theologies

I have given you some account of the wider context of preaching in the Highlands and among emigrant Highlanders.  I now turn to consider themes and styles.  Moderate preaching - the preaching of virtues and morals - was known in the Highlands, but it fell out of favour as the Highlands became progressively evangelical in the course of the eighteenth century and pre-eminently the nineteenth.  When Archibald Farquharson, the Congregationalist minister in Tiree, made a preaching tour of Barra and South Uist in 1838, he lodged with the parish minister in Barra, and attended his preaching in the parish church.  This was what he wrote in his Journal:


'3d [June] Lord's day.  Heard Mr Nicholson preach who did not begin till 1 o'clock.  The sermon was very barren, not calculated to be useful to a single soul, and I should suppose from want of attention, that none of the hearers would take a single sentence with them.  Such a death-like scene I never witnessed.  There were about 60 present.  And I should suppose that nearly one half were there on my account.  The Sabbath before I was told there was not above 20 present. At the conclusion of his discourse, I commenced out side in the shelter of the church, but owing to a very heavy shower of rain, we had to take shelter in a house not far distant.  All the people came to hear with the exception of the few who look upon themselves as the gentry.  I suppose they considered it under their dignity to hear a Dissenting Preacher.  However the poor common people came to hear, and although I could not say that they heard gladly, yet they listened attentively.  Intimated that I would preach again in the evening.  Accordingly about 60 attended who listened with very good attention to what I considered the words of eternal life.  At the conclusion of the discourse I gave them tracts and directed their attention to what I considered the most important of them.'18


Here the 'death-like scene', presided over by the non-evangelical parish minister inside the church, is contrasted with the evangelical proclamation of the 'words of eternal life' in the open air. In the mainland Highlands, of course, in areas such as Easter Ross, preaching with a Puritan flavour was well known as far back as the seventeenth century, but it was only after 1800 that evangelicalism reached the furthest Hebrides.  As it did so, evangelical preachers gained immense prominence, and the Disruption of 1843 guaranteed that Moderate death would be swallowed up in evangelical victory.19


Some standard features of evangelical preaching are very clearly anticipated in one of the first printed Gaelic sermons, to which I have already referred.  Dougal Crauford's discourse at Raft Swamp in the autumn of 1790 majored on the need to forsake the things of this world.  This was to become one of the keynotes of Highland evangelical preaching during the next century.  This was what he said:


'Criochnachui' onoir agus urram, basaichi maise agus gach dealbh is fionalta a chuaidh riamh a sgeudacha le feòil, falbhaidh beartas as an tsealladh le sgiatha grad, imichidh foghlum agus gliocas air falbh, agus dichuinichear gach ni a chuireas a bheatha so fa chomhair 'ar suilean; ach mairidh subhailce gu siorruidh, se onoir amhain beatha agus sonas gach ni tha iomlan, mor, agus maith.' 20


('Honour and privilege will perish, beauty and every finest image which was ever bedecked by the flesh will die, wealth will vanish from sight with swift wings, knowledge and wisdom will depart, and everything that this world puts before our eyes will be forgotten; but virtue will last forever - honour consists solely in the life and joy of every thing that is perfect, great and good.')


Crauford directs his hearers to seek the place of true satisfaction, to be found only in Christ. Yet, while this was a prominent note in evangelical preaching, it was not the only one.  The application of God's law, and sinners' disobedience to that law, was (and remains) a very important theme. Alexander MacLeod of Uig, reputedly the first evangelical minister in Lewis, who was inducted to his charge in 1824, kept a diary, in which he sometimes wrote (in English) his sermon outlines.  On April 30th 1826, he wrote:


'Preached from the 32nd of Jeremiah, 40th verse, on the Everlasting Covenant.

1st, Considered the awful state of those who are under the broken covenant - under the curse in every duty, and their seeming blessings given to and enjoyed by them under the curse.

2nd, The properties of the new covenant (1) eternal (2) of peace, (3) of promise, (4) new, (5) well-ordered, (6) made sure in all things etc.

3rd,  The Administrator of the blessings of the covenant who gives the legacy to his legatees, even to the elect of God.  (1) He does this in the capacity of a prophet, witness and interpreter.  He explains his own testament, and executes and administers the same.  (2) He acts as an advocate or prevailing intercessor in whose hands no case has ever failed. (3) He acts as a powerful king.  He administers conviction, conversion, life, light, power, sanctifying grace in every duty and trial, sanctification and eternal life.'21


The logical progression of the preacher's mind, from law in the Old Testament to grace in the New, is very clear. While law and grace were much to the fore in Highland preaching, some of the most famous preachers of the Highlands and Islands had a very deep concern for the physical, as well as the spiritual, well-being of their hearers.  None was more distinguished in this respect, as in many others, than the Rev. Dr John MacDonald of Ferintosh, the 'Apostle of the North', one of Aberdeen's most distinguished graduates.22 MacDonald's most memorable sermons were often preached at communion services, commonly held out of doors, and his style was highly emotional, frequently causing paroxysms among his hearers. In spite of such emotionalism, however, MacDonald had a very down-to-earth side to him. He preached a remarkable sermon on the cholera epidemic of 1832, taking as his text the words of Paul to the Philippian jailor - 'Do not harm yourself'.  MacDonald saw the cholera epidemic as God's judgement, but he exhorted the people to do everything possible to keep themselves from harm, particularly by listening to those who had been sent to provide healing and relief; those who failed to do so, MacDonald argued, would be guilty before God of having failed to discharge their duties towards their own bodies.23


Preachers could also use sermons as political vehicles, even in the theologically conservative Highlands, in which abasement before God was more likely to be encouraged than rebellion against overbearing landlords. A distinctly liberationist note was sounded against consolidating masters of the soil by Lachlan MacKenzie of Lochcarron in the later eighteenth century. This note reasserted itself in the 1880s, when ministers like the Rev. Donald MacCallum (1849-1929), who led crofters in their reaction against landlordism, preached what he called the 'land gospel', promoting a form of liberation theology which did not go down well with his fellow ministers.24  Berating one's fellow ministers was, of course, one of the less admirable roles to which Highland preachers applied their rhetorical skills, especially during and after the bitter ecclesiastical strife of the late nineteenth century.25


Style and delivery

I must hasten to discuss style very briefly.  Looking across a range of printed sermons, both Gaelic and English, preached in the Highlands over the years, I am very much aware of a considerable variety of approaches.  Of course, the printed sermons are but a poor shadow of their original, orally delivered forms. They do not preserve anything of the physical animation of the preacher, his gesticulations and pulpit drama, as he warmed to his theme, and implored his hearers to attend to God's Word; they contain little trace of the modulation of his voice, his accent, or his mannerisms, though dialectal features are frequently preserved.  It was normal for Highland preachers to project their voices by means of a heigtening of pitch as the sermon progressed, as happens in Wales.  This was known to us in Argyllshire as the minister's duan, 'song, tune'. Yet, even if they do not catch the cadences, printed sermons at least give us an outline of what the preacher said, and here we can see a considerable variety of styles and approaches. There are many sermons, particularly those preached in the northern Highlands and Islands, which are in effect theological treatises, departing little from straight exposition of the Bible text.26   There are also others which are much more anecdotal, making extensive use of story and illustration, closer to the type of preaching characteristic of Lowland pulpiteers like Alexander Whyte of Edinburgh.27   Some Highland ministers, like Robert Finlayson of Lochs, in Lewis, were experts at locating biblical events and characters in their own communities.  Even Noah could become a local worthy with a boat, like all other good crofters.28 Less ponderous evangelical preaching, putting more emphasis on personal response and decision-making, and often leaning towards the vernacular language, was more common in the Inner Hebrides than the Outer Hebrides, and more likely to be found in revivalist contexts than in the regular proclamations of Calvinist ministers.29


Sermons were produced to meet a wide range of contexts across the years; in addition to what we regard as the normal church setting, sermons were regularly preached in the open air, especially at communion services, when thousands would gather together; others were preached on emigrant ships, prior to departure; and still others were preached by enthusiastic itinerant preachers to small congregations in cottages, in the harvest field or by the shore. Itinerant preachers were particularly gifted in making sermons relevant to the contexts of their audiences.  Themes like road-building, harvesting, fishing and the burning of dead scrub, lent themselves readily to biblical illustration.  In 1841 a Baptist itinerant preacher, James Miller, encountered a group of wood-cutters at Connel Ferry on one occasion, and records in his journal:


'I told them God would cut down the wicked, and cast them into the fire, as they did the trees which they were cutting for charcoal.'30


As a result of variations in themes and contexts, there was, and there is, no single type of sermon which can be called characteristically 'Highland'; there are many such types.  Yet there were, and there are, certain expectations which Highland and specifically Gaelic preachers tried, and still try, to satisfy. For one thing, within the predominantly Protestant tradition, it was important to hold to the Scriptures and to expound them. As I have said, the Raft Swamp sermon of 1790 is very much in the evangelical mould, and draws richly on Scripture, and this approach was maintained loyally, especially in the northern Highlands and Outer Isles.  The weight of exposition was sometimes lightened by exemplum and illustration, and some ministers, like the celebrated eighteenth-century minister, John Balfour of Nigg, were particularly well known for their parables and anecdotes. The ministers' ancedotes tended to survive longer in popular memory than the rest of their sermons.  They were, and are, frequently recounted whenever and wherever sermon-loving Highlanders meet together.  Highland sermons owed much to both the Bible and traditional forms of story-telling - and that relationship is clear to the present day.  Tales about ministers, their sermons, and especially their illustrations, have become a narrative cycle in themselves.31


The influence of preaching on Gaelic culture

In conclusion, let me say a little about the manner in which preaching has influenced Gaelic, and Highland, culture. I have mentioned some aspects of the process whereby culture influences preaching, but the other side of story is no less important.  Because the sermon was a central art form in the Highlands, it influenced a great deal of creativity, both oral and literary. It honed the mind and sharpened the expression of preacher and hearer alike.  It is possible to detect the impact of pulpit phraseology in Gaelic poetry, from the time of Mary MacPherson (1821-98), the Skye poetess of the nineteenth century, to that of Sorley MacLean, one of our most famous twentieth century Gaelic poets, who died in 1996.  Mary MacPherson prided herself in having listened to the Rev. Roderick MacLeod, Skye's great evangelical leader and a thorn in the flesh of the Established Church, preaching at Fairy Bridge in times of spiritual revival in the early 1840s.32  Her verse contains many echoes of the rhetoric of preaching, as does the much more modern poetry of Sorley MacLean, whose rhetorical roots were in the Free Presbyterian tradition of the island of Raasay.33 In the academic cloisters, Professor William J. Watson (1865-1948), Gaelic Scotland's foundational Celtic scholar, who occupied the Celtic Chair at Edinburgh, used to tell his students that he well remembered the powerful Gaelic preaching of the Rev. Dr John Kennedy (1819-84), Dingwall, whose services he had attended as a young boy with his parents.34


Preaching thus contributed something to the development of Gaelic poetry and scholarship, but it contributed even more to the shape of Gaelic prose.  The earliest Gaelic periodicals were produced by ministers who were naturally inclined to homiletic styles of exposition, even when dealing with everyday matters. Witness, for example, the foundationally important prose writing of the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod, Caraid nan Gàidheal ('The Friend of the Gaels') (1783-1862).35  In the same tradition were the Rev. Alexander MacGregor (1808-81),36 and, in the twentieth century, the Rev. Donald Lamont (1874-1958), and the Rev. Thomas M. Murchison (1907-84).  Lamont and Murchison were distinguished editors of the Gaelic Supplement of Life and Work, through which they made an enormous contribution to the development of modern Gaelic prose.37


Gaelic preaching also shaped broadcasting, and thus entered the realm of modern 'electronic orality'. In 1923, Gaelic broadcasting was initiated in Aberdeen with a Gaelic religious address. An annual Gaelic service from King's College Chapel became a regular feature of Gaelic output from 1926.38 Gaelic radio has given a central place to Gaelic preaching, with weekly Gaelic services being maintained to the present.  Gaelic producers still tell amusing tales of Gaelic preachers of an earlier generation who could not be prevailed upon to produce a written script, far less a typed one, but who - in true Highland oral style - would hold forth fearlessly before the microphone for precisely the right number of minutes, much to the unspeakable relief of the producer. The video-recording of Gaelic services since the early 1990s, for transmission on Gaelic television, has provided a late, but very valuable, record of those aspects of preaching which the printed page and the radio have not been able to capture.39


The centrality of preaching, and its influence in broadcasting and literature in the Gaelic world, can be seen as a virtue or a vice, depending on your standpoint, but it is probably true to say that, on balance, preaching in the Highlands had its negative, as well as its positive, aspects as far as the culture is concerned. It was, in a thoroughly scriptural phrase, a two-edged sword, which could not only deliver liberation but also deal death, particularly to traditional cultural icons. It has probably contributed as much to rigidity as it has to revitalisation.   Since the Second World War, however, and more markedly since the 1960s, the power and influence of Gaelic preaching have declined sharply, and Gaelic poetry and prose have become largely secular occupations. The output of the pulpit can no longer be said to be the touchstone of the best Gaelic.


Where, then, does preaching stand in the present-day Highlands?  How highly is it rated as a part of worship?  This depends on your location, and especially on your church and denomination. Gaelic preaching has all but vanished from the smaller churches, such as Baptists and Congregationalists, and the supply of new Gaelic preachers for Free Presbyterian pulpits has all but ceased. The larger Presbyterian bodies still have the resources and the cultural commitment to give Gaelic preaching a significant place.  The Free Church of Scotland retains the highest proportion of current Gaelic-speaking and Gaelic-preaching ministers.40  In such a context, one can yet hear sermons which bear a striking resemblance to Dougal Crauford's autumnal discourse at Raft Swamp, North Carolina.  Oral delivery, unaided by notes or manuscript, is also maintained by some evangelical preachers, but, as memory spans shorten, as concentration begins to lapse, and as ministerial stamina declines, in the Highlands as elsewhere, the once dreaded ministear pàipeir - the paper-bound minister or his lay representative - is much more prominent.  As my old Gaelic-speaking friends in Tiree would have said, with a knowing nod of the head after a disappointing morning service and a poor sermon delivered from a conspicuous piece of paper, perhaps by the giver of this lecture, 'Is e seo là nan nithean beaga' - 'This is the day of small things'.  



1. For this early period, see Alan Macquarrie, The Saints of Scotland: Essays in Scottish Church History AD 450-1093 (Edinburgh, 1997).

2. General information on Gaelic and Gaelic culture can be accessed readily in Derick S. Thomson (ed.), The Companion to Gaelic Scotland (Oxford, 1983). 

3. For a general introductory account of the relationship between the churches and Gaelic culture, see Donald E. Meek, The Scottish Highlands: The Churches and Gaelic Culture (Geneva, 1996). 

4. Donald E. Meek, 'God and Gaelic: The Highland Churches and Gaelic Cultural Identity', in Gordon McCoy (ed.), Aithne na nGael (Belfast, forthcoming), touches on this matter, and takes forward the discussion in Meek, The Scottish Highlands, by using the categories established by Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (London, 1952). 

5. Ian R. MacDonald, 'The Beginning of Gaelic Preaching in Scotland's Cities', Northern Scotland, 9 (1989), pp. 45-52; Ian R. MacDonald, Glasgow's Gaelic Churches: Highland Religion in an Urban Setting (Edinburgh, 1995); Ian R. MacDonald, Aberdeen Gaelic Chapel (Edinburgh, forthcoming). 

6. This important topic is currently being researched by Dr Ian R. MacDonald (see note 5). 

7. Douglas Kelly, Carolina Scots: An Historical and Genealogical Study of Over 100 Years of Emigration (Dillon, S.C., 1998), is true to its title, and provides important discussion of the use of Gaelic in the Carolina emigrant churches; for some biographical details of the Rev. Dougal Crauford (otherwise Dugald Crawford) (1752-1831), see p. 130. 

8. Donald E. Meek, 'The Bible and Social Change in the Nineteenth-Century Highlands', in David F. Wright (ed.), The Bible in Scottish Life and Literature (Edinburgh, 1988), pp. 179-91 (187-9). 

9. Donald E. Meek, 'The Gaelic Bible', ibid., pp. 9-23. 

10. Ibid. 

11. Searmoin a chuaidh a liobhairt aig an Raft-Swamp, air an fhichioda' latha don cheud mhios don Fhoghmhar 1790, le D. Crauford, Minister (Fayetteville, 1791), p. 34.  This is the 'text' at the beginning of the second of the two sermons, which are published in the one book.   I am very grateful to Mr David G. Williams, San Francisco, for providing me with copies of these important sermons, and also for encouraging me to research their background, themes and styles.  I hope to edit the sermons in detail elsewhere; my comments in this lecture amount to no more than preliminary scene-setting. 

12. Leabhraichean an t-Seann Tiomnaidh, Earrann IV (Dun-Eidean, 1786). 

13. Meek, 'Gaelic Bible', p. 19. 

14. Searmona le Mr. Eobhann Mac Diarmaid Ministeir ann an Glascho, agus na dheidh sin an Comrie (Duneidin, 1804). 

15. Derick S. Thomson (ed.), The MacDiarmid MS Anthology (Edinburgh, 1992). 

16. Kenneth D. MacDonald, 'Prose, Religious (eighteenth century)', in Thomson, Companion, pp. 240-2. 

17. an Raft-Swamp, pp. 34-50. 

18. William D. McNaughton (ed.), Archibald Farquharson's Journals (Glasgow, 1996), p. 5. 

19. Douglas Ansdell,  The People of the Great Faith (Stornoway, 1998). 

20. an Raft-Swamp, p. 34. 

21. D. Beaton (ed.), Diary and Sermons of the Rev. Alexander MacLeod, Rogart (Inverness, 1925), p. 16. 

22. John Kennedy, The Apostle of the North (Glasgow, 1978 repr.). 

23. Daoine air an Comhairleachadh an Aghaidh bhi Deanamh Croin orra Fein - Searmoin, a thugadh seachad an' Inerpheafaran aig an am do bhris an galar d'an goirear an colera mach sa bhaile, le Eoin Domhnullach (Inbherneis, 1832). 

24. Donald E. Meek, '"The Land Question Answered from the Bible"; The Land Issue and the Development of a Highland Theology of Liberation', Scottish Geographical Magazine, 103, No. 2 (September, 1987), pp. 84-9. 

25. Cf. Ian R. MacDonald, 'Pulpits and Parties', in the Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland, October and September, 1998, pp. 212, 236. 

26. For an accessible sample of Highland preaching (in English) in different styles, see D. Beaton (ed.), Sermons by Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands (Inverness, 1930). For a Gaelic exposition of the Parables by the Rev. Donald John Martin, see Calum MacIllinnein (deas.), Teagasg nan Cosamhlachdan leis an Urramach Domhnull Iain Mairtinn, (Edinburgh, 1914). 

27. This genre is - broadly - represented in the sermons of the Rev. Malcolm MacLeod; see T. M. MacCalmain (deas.), An Iuchair Oir: Searmoinean leis an Urramach Calum MacLeoid (Sruighlea, 1950). 

28. Roderick MacLeod, 'The John Bunyan of the Highlands: The Life and Work of the Rev. Robert Finlayson (1793-1861), Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, 54 (1984-86), pp. 240-68.  According to Norman MacFarlane, cited by MacLeod (p. 254), Finlayson 'clothed those ancients in the Lewis tweeds and made them speak in the Lewis accent.' 

29. Comparatively few examples of Inner Hebridean searmons, especially those by Baptists and Independents, have been published; I hope to edit some of my late father's sermons, which are meticulously preserved in his notebooks. 

30. Reports of the Baptist Home Missionary Society for Scotland (Edinburgh, 1829-46), 1841, pp. 19-20. 

31. This appears to be the religious equivalent of secular story-telling; the words and deeds of famous ministers form a substitute for those of the heroes of traditional lore. 

32. Dòmhnall E. Meek (deas.), Màiri Mhòr nan Oran (Dùn Eideann, 1998), t.d. 21. 

33. MacLean pays tribute to the oral prose of some of the most powerful Gaelic preachers of the twentieth century, notably the Rev. Ewen MacQueen; see William Gillies (ed.), Ris a' Bhruthaich: The Criticism and Prose Writings of Sorley MacLean (Stornoway, 1985), p. 109. 

34. For this insight, I am very grateful to my relative, the Rev. Malcolm Lamont, Inverness, who was one of Professor Watson's students. 

35. For a brief introduction, see John MacInnes, 'Caraid nan Gaidheal', in Thomson, Companion, p. 35. 

36. MacGregor's work is currently being edited by Dr Sheila Kidd, Department of Celtic, University of Glasgow. 

37. For Lamont, see Thomas M. Murchison (ed.), Prose Writings of Donald Lamont (Edinburgh, 1960). 

38. Donald E. Meek, 'Gaelic Broadcasting: The Early Years (1923-30)', a report prepared for the Gaelic Advisory Committee of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland, May 1978. 

39. The earliest recordings were made by Tern Television, Aberdeen, and Abu-Tele, Skye. 

40. According to Free Church figures for 1995, 'there are just over 100 Free Church ministers in Scottish charges, 36 or 37 of whom preach in Gaelic'.   This amounts to just over one-third of ministerial capacity; the proportion in the Church of Scotland is probably considerably lower.          


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a very interesting and informative article. I listen to a lot of sermon downloads while I work, and I've found that many of the Highlanders still have that beautiful combination of thorough scriptural exposition, fervent love for Christ, and practical, down-to-earth application that is seldom found elsewhere in one package!