Iain Ghobha (John Morrison) was born in Rodel on the Isle of Harris in 1790. He was a descendant of the Hereditary Armourers of MacLeod who were noted for their physical strength. His forebears were also musicians and poets of repute. Iain inherited both the strength and poetic talent which ran in his bloodline. Both Iain’s sisters Mary and Eibhric (Euphemia) were also poetesses.
Iain Ghobha was entirely self-educated spending only one month at a school in Rodel, Isle of Harris. He had however a retentive memory and continued to educate himself, till latterly he could write in both Gaelic and English. He is also said to have learned something of Latin. Such was his skill and understanding of engineering matters that he is said to have been familiar with the principals and construction of the steam engine before he had ever seen one! At the same time he proved his ingenuity by making artistic spinning wheels of a unique design and locks on the Chubb principal which everybody failed to open! He also had an incisive understanding of veterinary surgery.
For 23 years Iain Ghobha worked tirelessly as a blacksmith in Harris, his home Island. His smithy had four forges which serviced the needs of North Uist, Bernera and Harris as well as other places.
His Talent for engineering was put to the test on one occasion when the Earl of Dunmore’s yacht broke down near the Harris coast. The Earl brought workmen from Glasgow in to repair the engine – but they failed. Someone suggested Iain Ghobha and he was sent for from Tarbert to Obbe. Although having never seen an engine in his life, after a few hours of examination he realised the problem and effected repairs on the spot.
About 1820, when 30 years of age, Iain married one Sarah MacLean. Her mother was a Gillies from Skye. For nine years they lived together in a relationship of deep love and devotion. Their marriage produced four children. Tragically his wife died about 1829.
About 1821, with an enquiring mind thirsty for knowledge, Iain Ghobha turned his thoughts to spiritual matters. It was during this period that he composed ‘An Ionndruinn, a Desiderium’ which is said to be characterised by ‘that subtle infusion of the meaning and the music of language which touches the deepest springs of emotion.’
On many days Morrison wandered in secret among the rocks on the sea shore praying and reading his bible, but finding no rest from his inward struggle. He felt himself to be a sheep without a shepherd, and may well have sang one of his own lines –
‘My grief so keen consumes my calm,
I need the balm of Gilead,
My glimm’ring light is lacked of warmth
My faint steps lacking leading;
I need the reading of the psalm,
God’s guiding arm and pleading;
I need the bleeding of the Palm,
I need the Saviour’s feeding.’
It was while he was in this condition that the Rev. John MacDonald, the Apostle of the North (see last 2 posts), accompanied by the Rev. John Shaw, Bracadale, Skye, arrived in Rodel, Harris while en route to St Kilda. On 7th September 1822, on arrival at Rodel, and although tired and weary from a long journey, MacDonald took the opportunity to preach. One of the people who listened intently that evening was Iain Ghobha. He was enthralled by MacDonald’s preaching and was present again the following evening. As there was no precentor on that occasion Iain, who had a voice of ‘singular resonance and melody’ was summoned to the desk. It was on this second occasion, as MacDonald preached, that he experienced the peace for which he had been so diligently searching.
A short time later Iain met Donald Munro, the famed blind Skye Evangelist. It appears that he had travelled to Skye with the express intention of visiting Donald and, when eventually they met, a strong bond of friendship was formed between them.
Iain Ghobha was also a close friend of Alexander MacLeod, Ung-na-Cile, Skye. MacLeod wrote of him in 1830 – ‘After he came to a comfortable hope through grace the state of those around him fell heavily on his soul and his first attempt to spread the light of truth was by conversation. He was regarded as having the natural use of his reason greatly impaired. While some pitied him others hoped time would cure him!’
Shortly after his conversion Iain started to hold meetings in his own home. At first it was the practice for people to come along to see if he would say anything strange. It was his custom at this point to read from the scriptures and when coming to a striking passage to stop and make comment. Debate followed and many questions were discussed and answers given. These meetings continued and after a time spiritual interest in Tarbert flourished.
Iain also began to gain the respect of his fellow islanders. In 1828 the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge offered him a commission, which he accepted. In 1830 he began to hold public prayer meetings and, at the first of these, which was held in the open air, it was reported that some 2000 people attended. In addition his house was crowded out every evening for worship. Given that the first small meetings had started in his home about 1825/26, and that his first listeners had, in the main, been there only to mock, the growth is staggering.
Some weeks after the institution of the prayer meeting, Iain was leading one evening. While reading a chapter of scripture he was so overcome that he could not continue. Many of those present were similarly affected. Another who was present was a Murdoch MacLeod who took over the proceedings. During the service yet others cried out, being in deep spiritual distress.
Every evening except Saturday, the meetings went on with three meetings being held on Sunday. After the meetings each evening, people would steal away to the rocks on the shore for private prayer. Even the children were affected and could be seen here and there on their knees in prayer.
It was about this time that Iain Ghobha penned ‘Gleachd an t-seann duin’s an duin’oig’ – ‘The old and young man.’ The subject concerns the putting off ‘the old man and his deeds’ and the putting on of ‘the new man’ and was sung as a waulking-song by the Harris girls to the Celtic basic-air of ‘O’er the muir among the heather‘ –
‘The new man in my bosom reigneth,
Where still his ground the old maintaineth,
O that the Old were mine no longer!
And that the New were dearer, stronger.
The Old from Adam I inherit,
His nature and his deep demerit;
The New from Heaven’s grace-Revealer,
In whom I find my blessed Healer.
I hate the Old who works disaster,
I love the New, a gracious Master.
The Old Man’s power has depraved me,
And by Satan’s help enslaved me;
And salvation free has brought me.
In the dust the Old Man soiled me;
The New has washed from him that foiled me.
When first the New my state regarded,
He found asleep the Old unguarded;
And when the New with power hailed him,
Then all at once the Rogue assailed him.
When by his spear the New unveiled him,
The Old Man fiercely armed and mailed him.
The struggle started, dark and raging,
Keen lances drawn were fast engaging;
The Old received a fatal crushing,
Through which his life-blood has been gushing.
The Old lies wounded and inglorious,
The New stands over him victorious.
Since then no harmony can bind them,
In discord dire you ever find them:
No common fare their spirits nurses,
The New gives blessings, the Old his curses.
The Old delights in brutish folly,
The New in holy virtues wholly.
Their ways are mutually repelling,
Though living in this sorry dwelling;
But this poor tent will be demolished
When all its sin is gone – abolished.
The Old a cunning soul-constrictor,
The New at every step a victor.
They cannot walk as friends like others,
Although they seem so like twin-brothers;
There will be conflict and disorder
Through all the march to death’s dark border.
The Old remains a filthy waster,
The New a pure and holy Master.
The Old is foolish, the Untrue One,
The Ancient of the days my New One;
The Old, that in his evil reigneth,
A footstool to the New remaineth.
The Old his power is forsaking,
The New One’s might is but awaking.’
During 1827 two Baptist Missionaries visited North Uist and Harris. In their report the missionaries spoke highly of Iain Ghobha, whom they appear to have met, writing to their society –
‘He appears to be a good man, and well acquainted with his Bible. It would appear he has been very useful in this place, both by preaching and writing. He is one of the best poets in all the Highlands; his conduct exemplary; possess excellent talents, and a sound judgement. We were told he can communicate his ideas with facility and force. The people have built a large meeting-house for him, where he preaches three times every Lord’s day…. Besides a Wednesday evening lecture, he has three lectures on a Sabbath. He begins at seven, and continues till ten; again at eleven, and insists till five; lastly, at six and concludes the services of the day between nine and ten’.
In 1830 the Rev. John MacDonald revisited Harris, much to the poet’s delight. On the evening that word reached him regarding the impending visit he was working at the anvil in the Smithy. Such was his excitement he found it hard to subdue his emotions – ‘I longed’ he wrote ‘for the absence of the messenger; and whenever the messenger had gone ran to the smithy door and bolted it. I could then, when alone, give scope to my emotions. I danced for joy – danced round and round the smithy floor; for I felt a load taken off my spirit suddenly. I danced till I felt fatigued; and I knelt and prayed and gave thanks.’
The Apostle of the North, the Rev.John MacDonald, held Iain Ghobha in high esteem. He said publicly on one occasion that the Smith in Harris had as much realised the meaning of the Good News as all the ministers he knew put together. When compared to the Poet-Smith he considered himself as ‘the moon to the sun.’
It appears that it was as a result of his convictions that Iain Ghobha and his family found themselves homeless. In it all it is said he was steadfast, patient and meek. He never uttered a word of bitterness against his persecutors.
He also held monthly meetings in Scarista, Leacli, Finnsbay and Stroud. He walked from village to village and, when he could, distributed medicines to the sick and needy. When preaching he never used a watch but directed a boy to pull his coat when it came time to stop. In his own home he prepared seven or eight beds for travellers who happened to call. In 1843, at the time of the Disruption of the national church – the Church of Scotland, the poet was appointed Catechist to the new Free Church of Scotland which he supported.
It was the first son from his second marriage that he named after his friend, the blind evangelist, Donald Munro of Skye. He was to become Dr. Donald Munro Morrison. After the devastating loss of Catherine MacLeod his second wife Iain married one Mary MacAulay. Such was the dire economic situation Mary was to face, that, following her husband’s death, she and her six children emigrated to North America.
Iain Ghobha was a compassionate man who had a deep concern for the poor and distressed in his community. In October 1848 he organised a petition to the Fishery Office on behalf of the poor. On the 5th April 1849, writing to a friend, he notes – ‘I have no strange news to inform you at present, only that the poor people about us are very much distressed for want of food .. ‘ Consequently, during 1850 he was busy distributing meal and salt for the Relief Board as well as being responsible for the supervision of a new church building. However, writing to his son on 29th April he states – ‘People here about are very destitute of food. There is no meal at present from the relief board.’ He closes his letter – ‘You must excuse me for want of paper.’
During 1851 Morrison visited the south of Scotland and was warmly received in Glasgow and Edinburgh – but by the summer he was back in Harris. Although sinking now in bodily health the inner man was growing stronger. It was during this period that he composed his poem ‘Am Fear Nuadh-Posda’ (The Bridegroom) which explores the ‘mystic love of the Divine Spouse.’ George Henderson, his biographer, notes that ‘the life which was now wearing away in Harris was more and more absorbed in the wonderfulness of the Divine Love.’
Some people give the impression that men like Iain Ghobha were always dour and censorious living a joyless life devoid of laughter and happiness. Such is far from true in his case. The Rev. Macintosh MacKay (1793 – 1873), who knew him well, records – ‘We have seen this man of prayer, of devout meditations, of severe thought relax into uncontrollable laughter under his keen sense of the ludicrous.’
On one occasion a lady hesitantly sent for Gobha, asking if he would tune her piano. He came happily saying – ‘An cuala tu bard riamh an aghaidh ciuil. Is ann tha mise an ughaidh nan droch cleachdaidhean a tha gu tric timchioll air ceol.’ The gist of his statement being that he was not against music per se but against the abuses associated with dances and similar gatherings. In this sentiment he was joined by men like the Rev. John MacDonald, who, as we have seen, saw nothing wrong with the innocent dancing of the St Kildan’s (see last post). These men were not the narrow-minded bigots some more modern writers make them out to be.
Recording his passing at Leacli, Harris on the 6th December, 1852, his biographer notes – ‘He lived in a lonely nook of a remote isle, apart from the learned and the great, toiling at the anvil and soaring into song, a witness to the all embracing Love which seeketh to speak peace, to give comfort unto His people, till after a life in which not a little of Christian joy and Christian sorrow were commingled, he died the death of a saint.’ The testimony of one man who, throughout his life, had been no friend to Iain Ghobha is ample testimony to the character of the man. Standing at his grave he was heard to say – ‘There lies one of the noblest of men.’