Life Story

Touching the Hem of His Garment

Jessie Anne MacFarquhar

One day in the early 1920’s, at the beginning of Sinn Fein uprising in Southern Ireland, a young woman from the Scottish Hebridean Island of Lewis, Jessie Anne MacFarquhar, was working on a farm near Cork where, for the day, she had been left alone in charge of the the farmhouse. At some point during the day the door of the house suddenly burst open and armed rebels entered the building. One of them approached a stunned Jessie Anne with a pistol in his hand and held it to her head, threatening to shoot her. However, Jessie Anne calmly said to her would be assassin – ‘Shoot my good man, I shall go straight to heaven.’ Thinking the woman must be mad the armed intruder turned and walked away.

As a young woman Jessie Anne had taken a diploma in dairy farming. On completing her course she found employment on a dairy farm in Maybole in Ayrshire. It was while working here that she suffered an accident which subsequently left her with a chronic back pain for the rest of her life. The only way she could get relief from the pain was to walk with her back slightly bent. From Ayrshire Jessie Anne went to work on a farm in Essex and from there to Southern Ireland where the incident referred to above occurred.

Jessie Anne MacFarquhar was born on the 25th of August 1891 in the Parish of Barvas on the Outer Hebridean Island of Lewis. Her parents were Murdo MacFarquhar (B. Stornoway – Circa 1841-1910) and Murdina MacFarquhar nee MacKenzie (B. Gairloch – 1853-1905). Murdo and Murdina had been married on the 8th of October 1874 at the Barvas Inn. At the time of her birth Jessie Anne had five older siblings and would go on to have 2 younger ones. The family were then resident at North Dell Farm and Mill House in Dell, Ness, on the Isle of Lewis.

It is said that the MacFarquhars were not originally from the island. ‘Robert, great-grandfather of the latter-day owners of Dell Farm came from the Redcastle area of the Black Isle, north of Inverness, sometime around the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.’ Being incomers to the area, and apparent better off than most of the community, it is said that the villagers always regarded the MacFarquhars as local aristocrats. Along with this went the inevitable cultural barriers associated with such a designation.

About the time of the incident in Ireland Jessie Anne’s brother Alex (Alexander), who was six years her elder, married an Edinburgh girl, Margaret Graham. However, Margaret found island life very difficult and eventually, in 1924, she left taking with her the couples three young children. She subsequently emigrating to the United States. By this time Jessie Anne was living in Edinburgh where she was romantically involved and considering marriage. However, Alex was struggling to manage on his own on the farm and sent an urgent message to his sister to return to keep house for him. She agonised in prayer over this summons to what she saw as her duty as opposed to her own desires. Her sense of duty won out and she subsequently returned to the farm in North Dell.

Alex later granted his wife a divorce, and, after a few years years, he remarried. His new wife was local nurse, Maggie MacLeod. Jessie Ann subsequently packed her bags again and left for mainland Scotland ‘as uncomplainingly as she had arrived joining her sister Maggie who was a school teacher in Dollar, Fife’. Here the two sisters set up a small bakery business.

But Jessie Ann’s time of independence was short. Tragically Alex’s second wife died and Jessie Ann was, once more, summoned to the farm. She subsequently returned and would remain here till her death in 1971.

In her little booklet on Jessies life (from which most of this article is drawn) the late Annie Morrison of Ness (known as Nandag) notes – ‘Some of her friend thought that Jessie Anne allowed her life to be dominated too much by her sense of duty towards her brother Alex. This was in no way a subservient attitude but rather a strong protective Christian feeling. Alex needed her and there was no one else to look after him.’

From here on I am going to defer directly to some of the stories as recorded by Annie herself in the little booklet – ‘My Friend Jessie Anne MacFarquhar of Dell Farm, Ness’.

‘The music and the beauty emanating from Jessie Ann’s life was unceasing praise and thankfulness. It permeated her existence and flowed from her lips. It wasn’t the great things which she did but the constant acts of Christian kindness flowing from her prayer life which made a difference to all with whom she came in contact. Many, like the late Rev Donald Gillies were amazed when their burdens were lightened through her intercession. As Donald Gilles observed she was cocooned in a natural humility, or perhaps one should say, unnatural humility, for this is not a quality for which human nature is renowned. Whatever she was called upon to do, she saw as the outworking of God’s purpose for her life. She prayed about everything, and, if the answer to her prayer was not what she expected, she still believed that she had been heard, but that God had other plans. She knew that He did all things well.

She never complained of her lot. Her friends of whom she had many were loyal, loving and mindful of her. She had a wonderful capacity for friendship with young. Even the tinkers who erected their bell tents season after season by the Dell river knew the lady at the farm as their friend. Most of the villagers viewed the tinkers with distrust. They would arrive with their carts laden with tin pails and jugs and drawn by lean horses for which they had no obvious provision. Cornstalks would visibly diminish during the dark nights despite the vigilance of their owners. The farm suffered like the crofters but the MacFarquhars tolerated that without any rancour. One night a newly born baby died in the tinkers’ camp. The distraught mother carried the little body to Jessie Anne’s door seeking comfort and advice.

My mother used to send me with small parcels to Jessie Anne. I enjoyed going because she and the house were different to the others in the village. We did not have a picture of impressive looking forebears on our walls nor did we have a bookcase full of books or a huge black kitchen range that seemed to fill one wall of the kitchen. Another attraction to us children was a box of tiny rolls of paper, each bearing a text. We were given a pin and invited to select a text from the olive wood box, which she assured us came from the Mount of Olives. I could scarcely comprehend that this place existed except in the pages of the Bible. Many years later I stood on the Mount of Olives and thought of Jessie Anne.

When Maggie, Jessie Anne’s sister, retired from teaching she joined her brother and sister in Dell. Another widowed sister, Johanna Gunn, was often there. They would sit in the “parlour” under the framed sampler, proclaiming, “Christ, the silent listener to every conversation,” while Alex would hold forth to his attentive audience. Once, when I visited, Johanna Gunn tried to interrupt on a debatable point but she was silenced by Jessie Anne saying, “Hush, Alex is talking.” Alex loved talking. He wanted to become a missionary, and, to further this end, he had been offered the opportunity of preaching a sermon in the local church. He decided to enlist help of a friend who would warn him when it was time to bring the sermon to a conclusion. The friend was to sit opposite the pulpit and take out his handkerchief when Alex should come to a final point. However, Alex, in full flow, forgot the arrangements and carried on till even he got tired. Afterwards he complained of being distracted by someone waving a handkerchief. The friend remonstrated with him and explained that he was only following his instructions. Alex took the talk to heart. Next time, when he was in the middle of a sermon, a member of the congregation had occasion to use his handkerchief. Alex stopped dead.

Jessie Anne managed very well during Alex’s frequent absences whether in springtime or harvest time. The mill and farm separated the villages of South and North Dell from each other and across the farm stretched a right of way leading to the rest of the district of Ness. Jessie Anne regarded all who passed her door as having been sent by God to lend her assistance in time of need. I don’t believe that anyone ever refused, however unbelieving or sceptical they were.

On one occasion my brother Murdo arrived to be greeted with the oft-repeated phrase, “God sent you.” On enquiring why he had been sent, she told him that Alex had gone off to the communions and had left the big black bull roaming the farm. The animal was ferocious, at least by reputation, so Murdo told her that she had got the wrong message this time. “There is no way,” he said, “that I would try to get him into the byre on my own.” You won’t be on your own,” came the confident reply. When you get down to the mill a man will come to help you. Shaking his head doubtfully, Murdo set off down the hill, thinking that he might as well humour her. Sure enough, there was a man approaching the mill from the South Dell side. Murdo thought to himself that this wasn’t exactly the kind of man to whom he expected God to be sending messages. But, as he was on a Jessie Anne errand, he would speak the language, so he said, “God sent you to help me round up the bull and get him into the byre.” The man showed no surprise, and simply said, “Well, let’s do it,” and they did.

Another instance of Jessie Anne’s firm belief in God’s guiding in every detail of her life is given by the Rev Donald MacDonald who was the Free Church minister in the island of Bernera, Lewis. I give his account of his experience in his own words. This time Jessie Anne needed a car and a driver to complete her mission, and in those days cars and drivers were few and far between. Donald MacDonald writes –

‘I was attending both my parents during a long illness when there were no home helps or crisis care. Jessie Anne had never been to our house at Cross-Skigersta Road. With the daily help of the district nurse Catherine MacKay I was able to cope. At this certain time which I am going to refer to, the weather had been bad for several days and I had not got the clothes ready and dry as usual before the anticipated time of arrival of the nurse. I could not leave the house to go to a shop because my father had completely lost his memory. Just at that moment a car arrived with Jessie Anne. She just handed me a parcel. In it was a bed-jacket, a nightdress and a vest exactly what the nurse required. She said, “God asked me during the night to come to your house with this parcel. I asked God to send me a car. God sent Miss Munro, the poultry adviser.” Jessie Anne was only in the house for a few minutes as the car was waiting. Shortly afterwards the nurse came and used everything in the parcel. What amazed me was that, if she had come any other day with that parcel, there would not have been the same need. During my years attending my parents that was the only day that I had that special need.

Jessie Anne’s secret lay in the fact that when the thought came to go anywhere, she was obedient and responded to the call believing it was from God. When I was a resident lay preacher in Berneray, Harris and home in Ness on holiday, Jessie Anne’s brother Alex, died. I never saw any person as radiant and happy in a house of mourning as she was. The solemnity of the voice of death was not absent at all but Jessie Anne was thinking of the bliss of those who died in the Lord. She was thinking of Alex at God’s right hand where there are pleasures forever more. Her face was radiant and she was rejoicing.

I have an old lady in my congregation in the island of Bernera and she used to help the wife of the late Rev John Morrison, Ness at Communion seasons. During the war years, with the expected hospitality at such times, it was very difficult for the lady of the manse. This lady, however, recalls how she and Mrs Morrison were in the kitchen one day wishing for certain items of food. Just then, a knock came to the door. Jessie Anne entered with a shopping bag full of the goods they had been wishing for. It was always the same with her. She was in the right place at the right time when the need was greatest. She had Christian friends everywhere. Denomination was no barrier.’

As Maggie and Jessie grew older money was scarce and the farm was neglected and run down. Alex, who had never been very enthusiastic about work was now looking for someone to help him on the farm and to help the sisters around the house. It happened at this time that Donald Murdo Morrison, a young man from the village of Lionel was looking for work. He had finished a course in crofting and was anxious to put what he had learned into practice. He applied to Alex for a job, though, not being a Christian, he was not sure how he would fit in with the family who were noted for their godliness. Donald Murdo gave me the following account of an incident which he himself witnessed and the background of which he discovered later.

It appears that the sisters Jessie Anne and Maggie were very troubled in their minds due to their circumstances at this particular time. As usual they brought their burdens to the Lord in prayer. They spent the night in prayer but as time wore on they realised that they were not alone. A man was praying with them and supporting them. In the morning Donald Murdo was in the kitchen with Jessie Anne discussing the things which had to be attended to that day when in walked a stranger to the sisters. Jessie Anne addressed his saying, You were the man who was with us last night!” The man replied, “I am the man who never got a wink of sleep throughout the night because of you.” The farm hand was well out of his depth during this encounter.

The visitor was a Christian from the distant village of Skigersta. He belonged to the Free Presbyterian Church and had never met the MacFarquhar sisters. His name was Donald Finlayson, or, in Gaelic, Donald, son of George. He had taken the first bus of the day to make himself known to those whom the Lord had united him in prayer. Donald Murdo, now a Christian and the owner of Dell Farm, was completely bewildered but as he became better acquainted with his godly employers he witnessed more and more of the Lord’s protective arm around them.

Maggie MacFarquhar died while I was away from the island. As soon as I returned I went to the farm to offer my condolences. I said, “Jessie Anne, I was sorry to hear that Maggie had died.” She raised her arms in amazement. “Never, never say that you are sorry to learn that a Christian has gone to heaven. That left me at a loss as to what to say next, but Jessie Anne seemed quite unaware of my puzzlement. She proceeded to tell me how Maggie was aware of angels round her bed shortly before she departed from this life to go to a better one. She was happy to enter the realms of eternal life.

Many incidents which happened in Jessie Anne’s life appear contrary to the laws of nature as most of us understand them. The following is one such incident, which was confirmed during his lifetime by the Ness bus driver involved and by some of the passengers and by Jessie herself. One dark stormy night the bus driver, Murdo MacKenzie, Cross, let Jessie Anne off the bus at the start of the long winding track which led to the Dell Farm house. He was reluctant to leave her in the dark but there was no way that he could manoeuvre his vehicle up the unmade road which wound its uneven way around the mill and up to the house. He positioned the bus in such a way that light headlamps fell on her path for a short distance. Once she had moved out of the beam, he and the passengers became aware of a light moving ahead of her, though that seemed impossible as there was no apparent source of light. Then, suddenly, the light was extinguished. When asked about this later, she said that there definitely was alight on her path. She believed that God had provided it especially for her and she also became aware that her natural humility had deserted her. She was in a state of exultation. As soon as she permitted herself this feeling the light went out.

On another occasion she joined a group of women on a bus which was taking them to church services some distance away. As was customary for them the conversation turned to Biblical topics. Jessie Anne said that she wished for further enlightenment on a particular portion of scripture. When the services started the preacher announced that very portion for his sermon. Her companions were not in the least surprised for this consistent with the way things happened in her life. After the service was over, she approached the minister and said, You got my message. The minister understood what she meant.

Among those who benefited from an encounter with Jessie Anne was the popular Carloway doctor, Peter Aulay MacLeod. Peter Aulay’s family were Free Presbyterians, that is of a different church from the MacFarquhars so the two had not met each other hitherto. It happened that they were both in Macdonald’s Chemist shop in Stornoway on a certain day. Jessie Anne was a relation of the chemist’s family. She was standing back while the doctor was completing his purchases and telling of his futile search for a housekeeper. Jessie Anne said that she knew someone who might be suitable. That encounter for her and the doctor was the beginning of a spiritual bonding, though the doctor could not have believed that, if someone had told him then. He and his friends were a convivial worldly lot, young and carefree while she represented what they considered the staid religious and censorious side of Lewis life. Yet the encounter with this bright unconventional elderly lady made a profound impression on him.

The housekeeper stayed for a short time. She had fulfilled her real role which was to bring those two souls together, for the doctor’s house became a home from home for Jessie Anne during every Carloway Communion season. Peter Aulay’s life changed from the time when he met Jessie Anne. This is the testimony of Peggy MacArthur who became his next housekeeper and who remained with him for twenty years. One evening shortly after the meeting, Peter Aulay sat down with his whisky bottle for his usual dram or two. Suddenly he was convinced that Jessie Anne appeared before him. He could not explain what happened but he knew that he was finished with drinking and with his former companions. Then the phone rung. It was Jessie Anne. “I knew you wouldn’t do it,” she said. No explanation seemed necessary to either of them.

Once, when Jessie Anne was staying in the doctor’s house, she went to hang her old coat in a wardrobe in the hallway, She noticed another coat hanging there. “Whose coat is that?” she enquired. “It’s mine,” said the doctor. “But, I think it’s a ladies coat,” mused Jessie Anne. The response was, “Well, I’ve scarcely worn it. I only bought it because, on a visit to London after the war, I found that I had spare clothing coupons and I thought I might as well spend them. I bought that coat and it has been hanging there most of the time since. Try it on. If it fits you, it’s yours.” Of course it fitted her as she was in need of a new coat. She thanked God and Peter Aulay and it became her favourite coat for many a year. It was on the short side over her long skirts. That didn’t worry her. Clothes were never of great importance to her. Effie Maclver, who had a tailor’s business in Stornoway, had a tweed skirt made for Jessie Anne. She expressed the earnest hope that it would fit. Of course it will,” said the recipient, “God knows my size.” Thus her modest requirement were met by friends and caring relatives. Her sister Johanna Gunn, was more concerned about wearing the right things. Agnes Gillies, a domestic help, in the home found Johanna one day surrounded by yards of fine linen and lace. “I suppose you are wondering what I am doing,” she said. Agnes agreed that she was, “Well.” said Johanna, “I am preparing my burial clothes.” The young woman was taken aback by the casual attitude to death, but then she remembered that this was the MacFarquhar household and to them death was a door to a better life.

As with the episode of the man who had spent the night linked up in prayer with Maggie and Jessie Anne, there were many other evidences in Jessie Anne’s experience of a spiritual perception which was beyond the ordinary range. She was made aware of impending departures of fellow Christians or of the event as it was happening. When the Rev James Tallach of the Stornoway Free Presbyterian Church (1) died during the night of the 11″ January 1960, the night was very dark. In the early hours of the morning Jessie Anne who must have been with the mourners in spirit, felt compelled to rise from her bed and to stand at the window. She saw a stream of sparkling stars flowing upwards across the sky and, as it were a voice saying, “Tallach is gone.” Tallach’s death bed is memorable for the peace around it. The late Dr. Hugh Gillies recorded some of the last words which he spoke “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.” In the morning she told her brother Alex of her experience during the night. He did not believe her and dismissed imagination. However, she knew that he was expecting a carter from Stornoway to come and collect a load of meal that morning. “When you go down to the mill,” she said to him, “ask the man from the town whether there is any fresh news?,” Alex did so. The reply was, “Yes, the Rev James Tallach died in the night.” It was at the time when Jessie Anne had seen the stream of stars and heard the voice.

Almost every one who was acquainted with this saintly lady had a story to tell of amazing happenings in her life and of the provision which the Lord made for her in the most mundane circumstances. Her faith was that of a child towards a loving parent. There was no room for doubting the Creator of the heavens and the earth and the seas. Had he not sent His Son into the world so that those who believed in him should live for ever.

The practical aspect of growing old did not trouble her on her own account but she was concerned in case she couldn’t look after Alex. When he became bedridden he was adamant that he must be allowed to die in his own upstairs bedroom. His elderly sister wracked with rheumatism and chronic back her pain was at wit’s end. He was sure that Jessie Anne would be given the strength to attend to him. Jessie Anne prayed earnestly that he would change his mind, but there was no evidence of that happening. However, having brought her burden to the Lord to deal with, she then prepared a bed for him in the downstairs dining room. Prayerfully and practically she had done her bit. She then waited. A few days after her preparations were completed she retired to her bed as usual.

During the night she was awakened by the strangest commotion. She rushed for the stairs, and, to her amazement, there at the foot of them lay Alex in a crumpled heap. He was badly shaken but not injured. She checked that he had no broken bones. Having assured herself on that count, she placed a pillow under his head and covered him with a quilt. They held a short prayer session of thankfulness and waited for the dawn before disturbing the farmhand who was sleeping in his hut by the mill.

At first light she made her way down the unlit path, no doubt musing that God worked in “a mysterious way his wonders to perform.” She summoned Donald Murdo with the words, “Come and help me. God threw Alex down the stairs but He didn’t hurt him.” The farmhand hurried back to the house with her, not sure of what he was going to find. There lay Alex, all six-foot-plus of him. One thing was obvious and that was that Alex was downstairs for good whether it suited him or not. The problem was how Donald Murdo and this frail old lady were to move the inert figure into the dining room.

Jessie Anne had pondered this in the middle of the night and she had a plan ready. “You know,” she said, “that my brother, Johnny sent me a parcel a while back. Among other things in it was a clothes-line. I didn’t need a clothes line then, but I need it now.” Donald Murdo wondered what they were to do with the rope. They couldn’t tie it round Alex and drag him along. He was too heavy for that. But, Jessie Anne continued,  We’ll tie the line round the pouffe and we’ll get the pouffe under Alex . I will steady him and you will pull.” And that is how Alex, with very little dignity left was dragged into the dining room and somehow got into bed. It was a strange answer to his sister’s prayer but an answer nonetheless.

After Alex died she felt old and physically shattered. She decided that she would go to a nursing home for a month to recover. She could only afford to go for a week but she had no doubt that the Lord would provide as He had done hitherto. The first stop on her journey was in Strathpeffer where her friend, Peggy Campbell, afterwards Mrs Fraser, was the matron of the Ross Memorial hospital there. Jessie Anne told her that though funds were only sufficient for a week she intended to convalesce for a month. Peggy accompanied her to her destination and promised to come back for her a month later. Not only was sufficient money for her board provided by friends but she had enough left over to buy a bouquet for the matron and cakes for the staff. She returned to Dell as she had left with sufficient funds for her immediate needs.

Jessie Anne passed away peacefully in the Lewis Hospital in August 1971. Effie Maclver sat with her till late on in the evening of the 11th August. Her last words to her were an indication that she was very tired, then she feebly uttered the words, “If I could only touch the hem of His garment.” But the hem that she looked for was the hem of her risen Lord in all His heavenly splendour. She died as she had lived in close communion with her Saviour.


The following is Jessie Anne’s obituary written by the late Rev Donald Gillies, Minister of Crossbost Free Church. Donald was born in South Dell within sight of Dell Farm.

“I had hoped that Someone abler than myself would pay tribute to the memory of the late Jessie Anne MacFarquhar of Dell House, Ness, who passed away the age of seventy-nine years away recently in the Lewis Hospital The MacFarquhars of Dell were, in many respects, a unique family, and in the small community in which they lived, they were almost looked upon as an institution. There was about each one of them a nobility and an unfeigned courtesy that rendered them, in some ways, different from the ordinary run of mankind, and the trait that shone brightest in the character of each of them was humility. Those who knew Jessie Anne will know how impossible it is to draw a faithful pen-picture of a character so rich in virtues of which she herself was so utterly unconscious. Her whole life radiated an unusual peace which seemed to possess her at all times. Her hospitality and generosity were such that she could part with whatever she possessed without thinking that she was doing anything out of the ordinary. For her, her Christian duty was everything. It ruled her life in every aspect of it and in every sphere of her activity.

Such a life could not but be a testimony to the truth that the secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him. It shall never be known how many found strength and consolation in the conviction that she was praying for them, in crises of which she had received no knowledge through human channels, but of which she was made aware by the Spirit of the Lord. Indeed, her experiences had they been recorded, would have furnished rich material for a most interesting biography.

Those who had the privilege of her friendship would agree she never indulged in harsh criticism, nor stooped to idle gossip, but she was always ready to see and commend any good which she discovered in others. It was in keeping with the way in which she lived that her end should be peace. Though she lived alone, there was no anxiety as to who should nurse at the end. All was left to the disposal of her heavenly Father. It was while visiting friends in Stornoway that the onset of illness necessitated her removal to hospital, and in a matter of a day or two she passed away. The comment of some who were with her at the end was that she was like an angel. We who knew her over the years, could testify that she lived like an angel, for it is no exaggeration to say that her very countenance always appeared to us radiant with the glow of heaven.

The old Mill House is closed. What memories the sight of it evokes as we look across the glen and realise with a pang of pain that the loyal friends who dwelt there are gone forever. It was a privilege to have known them, and commensurate with that is a grief of having lost them; yet, in our memory’s archives they linger on. Even their death cannot rob us of what in their lives they bequeathed to us, for the memory of the just is blessed.”


  1.  James Andrew Tallach (1896-1960) born 3rd January 1896, Dornoch; licensed 12th October 1926; ordained 13th October 1926, Canada 1926-1928; (London 1929, six months); Kames 4th May 1931-1952; Stornoway 16th September 1952-1960; Moderator of Synod 1934, 1944, 1957; publication Sermons and Meditations (1st edn. 1962, 2nd edn. 1978); died 12th January 1960; buried Sandwick, (FPM, Vol. 65 (1961), pp. 337-342). (FP Website)
  2. The author of ‘My Friend Jessie Anne MacFarquhar of Dell Farm, Ness’, Annie Morrison of Ness (Nandag) died some years ago. The stories recorded here come from that booklet, kindly loaned to me by a friend. As far as can establish the booklet is long out of print (I could not find a copy to purchase) and, despite my enquires, I am not aware of any copyright connected to the book or to the stories shared here. If anyone has any information regarding copyright please contact me so I can acknowledge that – as no copyright infringement is intended. These stories are shared here simply because they are no longer publicly available and I believe they deserve to be read by a new generation.

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  • Reply
    Tom Lennie
    July 9, 2023 at 4:30 pm

    Profoundly moving account. I’ve read this booklet over and over, yet still found something new in reading your article. Would dearly loved to have seen a full biography of this Lewis worthy……..

  • Reply
    July 9, 2023 at 5:01 pm

    Thank you Tom .. yes that would have been interesting indeed!

  • Reply
    I G
    July 10, 2023 at 6:13 pm

    Thank you Steve!

  • Leave a Reply