The first post-reformation minister recorded in the Isle of Lewis was Sir Patrick McMaster Martin who, it is said, came to Barvas in 1566. The first Presbyterian minister is said to have arrived in Barvas in 1644.
There is also is some evidence to suggest that at least some Covenanters were resident on Lewis about 1653. At Aird Mhor, north west of the village of Garenin there is a spot known as ‘Buaile nan Covenanters’. It is thought this spot may have been a haven used by Covenanters being persecuted by Cromwellian troops based in Stornoway.
Until the beginning of the 19th century copies of the Bible were very rare in Lewis and Harris. The task of translating the Bible into the Gaelic language had been completed in 1801 and it is reported that during the next 25 years, 60,000 Gaelic Bibles and 80,000 New Testaments were distributed in the Highlands and Islands by The Society in Scotland for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) and the British and Foreign Bible Society. However, in the island of Lewis and Harris, as well as throughout the remote North West of Scotland, very few people could read or write. Of Stornoway, in 1811, it was reported that out of a total population of some 2000, 1333 were unable to read. And, in the district of Point, Lewis, only 6 out of a total population of 800 could read while in the Back area only 2 out of a population of some 700.
The real impetus in the spiritual and societal transformation of the Island came about initially as a result of the work of the Gaelic School Society which was formally inaugurated in Edinburgh on 16th January 1811. This new Society recognised the need to teach the people of the Highlands and Islands to read in their own tongue and to that end resolved at the same meeting – ‘By the erection of circulating schools for the express purpose of instructing them (the people) in the Gaelic language .. to teach the inhabitants to read the Holy Scriptures.’ One of the stipulations of the Society was that – ‘The teachers to be employed by the Society shall neither be Preachers nor Public Exhorters, stated or occasional, of any denomination whatever.’ However this was a rule that was to be bent, broken and cause great problems from the very outset.
The first Gaelic School Society teacher on the Isle of Lewis would appear to have been one John MacLeod, who arrived in 1820. MacLeod was born in Kilmaluag, Kilmuir, Isle of Skye. It appears he came to faith at the time of the great spiritual movement on his home Island which took place between 1814-1816 under the leadership of the famed Skye Evangelist (blind) Donald Munro. John MacLeod had initially served as a Gaelic School Society teacher in Waternish, Skye, where – ‘his labours had been abundantly owned by the Lord’. His first teaching post in Lewis appears to have been in Dell, Ness, at the very north end of the Island.
Both John MacLeod and his wife had a deep concern for the spiritual and social wellbeing of the people amongst whom they settled. Consequently, and in clear breach of the Society’s rules, John MacLeod decided to hold meetings where he could read from the Scripture and explain them to the people. As a result he came in to confrontation with the Parish minister, the Rev. William MacRae, Barvas. The historian, Norman MacFarlane, records of MacRae – ‘His foot for crushing was not a small No. 7, and he put his foot on John MacLeod.’
As a result, John MacLeod, for this infringement of the regulations, was dismissed from his post by the Gaelic School Society. However, the common people of Dell and Galson reacted differently. They raised enough money themselves to pay his salary and built him a school! As a result ‘many were brought to a saving interest in Christ.’
The minister, in retribution, removed all ‘church privileges’ from John MacLeod’s supporters! But despite this opposition Barvas became the centre from which a spiritual awakening spread quickly throughout the Island.
This movement was also accompanied by physical phenomenon and the year 1822 became known in Lewis as – ‘Bliadhna An Fhaomaidh’ – ‘The Year of the Swoonings.’ At revival meetings those under conviction would cry aloud while others experienced convulsions. Some fell into trances and other converts while ‘in a state of physical prostration’ experienced visions from ‘the unseen world.’ Other strange and inexplicable phenomenon also accompanied this spiritual movement. New Birth is a beautiful thing – but very often it is accompanied by events and consequences some consider as ugly and messy! Perhaps they are not suited to the labour suite! Unsurprisingly then, opposition was fierce in many quarters and ‘every device’ it is said, was employed to try and suppress the movement.
Neil Murray, a Ness teacher (who had also been dismissed from his post because of his preaching) and the famed Findlay Munro of Tain, a travelling evangelist who visited Lewis about the same time, were also prominent preacher/evangelists during this spiritual awakening.
In a letter to Mr Adam, the local Factor, dated 23rd December 1823, the parish minister of Barvas, the Rev. William MacRae, accused these men of ‘disseminating wild and unscriptural doctrines’ he continues – ‘It is easy to see that no good can arise to society from raving effusions of such ignorant men, who with the consummate effrontery assume the character and office of public instructors and expounders of scripture, and by whom the poor people are but too easily deluded.‘ He ends his letter by encouraging the Factor to – ‘take an opportunity of checking this growing evil.’
The minister of Uig, Lewis, the Rev. Alexander Simpson, was also becoming increasingly alarmed. In a letter written to the same Mr. Adam on 5th February, 1823, he refers to – ‘That religious phrensy, which, I am sorry to say, has become prevalent of late, and which, if not checked in time, is likely to be attended with most melancholy consequences.’ He goes on to call for action by the authorities and requests the arrest of ‘a lad from Carlarnish’ (Murdo MacDonald from Callernish, who the people regarded as a prophet) who had ‘harangued’ the people the previous Sunday following the minister’s sermon. He also requested a legal order banning any preaching or explaining of the scriptures other that by the ‘constituted authorities.’
Simpson goes in to graphic detail to enforce his requests and no doubt many today would be equally appalled and alarmed at the scenes he witnessed. On the previous Sunday at Bernera, he describes how he was forced preach out of doors due to the vast congregation. During the service he records – ‘I was shocked to see a young woman from Carlua (Carloway) several times seized with spasms, convulsive fits, and screaming aloud in all the wildness of despair.’ Despite this kind of phenomenon, which was by no mean rare, and clerical opposition, the movement spread. When, in 1824, the Rev. Alexander MacLeod from Cromarty, an evangelical minister, arrived in Uig, Lewis, John MacLeod was re-instated as Gaelic teacher to his (MacLeod’s) Parish, although it is uncertain whether his appointment was under the auspices of any particular society.
In 1827, three years after having arrived in Uig, Rev. Alexander MacLeod held his first communion service. Due to ‘unforeseen’ circumstance, while en route to St Kilda, John MacDonald (The Apostle of the North) arrived on the scene. As MacLeod was apparently unwell MacDonald took the various services connected with the communion weekend. On Sunday, 24th June 1827, as we noted in a previous post, he preached to a congregation of at least 7000 people. The scene it is said was – ‘indescribable.’ That weekend was to be a fresh catalyst in the ongoing work of spiritual awakening in Lewis and Harris. Many, it was recorded – ‘went to their homes rejoicing because of all the wonders they had seen in their midst.’ John MacDonald’s simple testimony was – ‘The occasion was a season of awakening to some, and of refreshing to others, and to myself.’
During 1828 the Revival movement became more widespread. It appears that physical and other manifestations also continued unabated. One later commentator refers to such phenomenon as ‘mass hysteria’ – ‘a device of the enemy.’ However, ‘evangelical’ opposition to this kind of phenomenon appears to be of a later origin and little condemnation can be found in contemporary records, although some, who were not familiar with or had first hand experience of this spiritual movement, did voice their concerns.
Of 1828 one historian records that – ‘The whole Island seemed to be moved with one great and powerful emotion.’ The number attending the communion services in Uig, Lewis, that year was estimated at 9000. One eyewitness who visited the Uig area remarked – ‘At all hours, from eight o’clock at night till one in the morning, he had passed by and overheard persons engaged in prayer.’ This movement continued, it is said, for a period of ten years with people coming to faith every week.
The social consequences of a transformed community were also enormous and far-reaching. Schools were built and education established. Sobriety, kindness and honesty became the order of the day, as did the liberality of the people. One commentator noted – ‘The number of sheep annually lost has wonderfully diminished since the commencement of the revival!’
The Captain of a ship which was for a time anchored off Lewis awaiting repairs noted – ‘One hears of religion everywhere, but one sees it here in everything.’ He further records that having travelled extensively throughout the Island at the time, he had never, outside Stornoway, met any intoxication or profanity.
Another man who had a profound influence in Lewis at this time was Braes, Skye, man Malcolm Nicolson. Although details of his life are scant, it is reported that he ‘came under the influence of the truth in a prayer meeting which was conducted by Donald Munro, the blind catechist.’ Nicolson also became a Gaelic teacher – in Barvas, but on joining the Free Church at the time of the Disruption in 1843 was put out of office. However, a house was subsequently built for him and, as an office bearer in the Free Church of Scotland at Barvas, he continued to ‘bear witness as a strong supporter in the cause of Christ.’ It is said that Malcolm’s mind was ‘richly furnished with the doctrines of the Word’, and that he was a ‘poet of no mean order.’ His ‘Canran’ (Murmuring) and his ‘Exhortation to the Young of Barvas’ are said to be Gaelic compositions of outstanding merit. He also had a competent knowledge of music, composing a number of Psalm tunes one of which was named ‘Barvas’.
Yet another worthy of these days was ‘Aonghas nam Beann’ (Angus of the Hills). Angus was a simple man who could not even count his fingers, yet was to become endowed with a deep and profound spirituality. He had been a shepherd, living in a lonely hut among the hills near Uig, in Lewis. When this spiritual movement swept through Uig, Angus found himself under deep spiritual concern. Returning to his native hills he spend many days and nights in prayer. Many men in the district did the same. Angus would subsequently become a channel of the love of Jesus and everyone who met him was aware of it. When engaged in prayer there was little if any hint of the mental defect which marked him at other times.
On one occasion Angus, it is said, when attending a communion in the Lochalsh area, was invited to visit the Lillingstones at Balmacara House, a wealthy aristocratic family, who were overtly Christian. Someone said to Angus – ‘Might you not be proud, Angus, when the lady of this house asked you to her table? to which Angus is said to have replied – ‘Indeed, she might rather think much of the grace that humbled her so that she would take poor Angus to her table.’ (1)
The Rev. Robert Finlayson, Lochs, Lewis, was interviewing three women on one occasion who were seeking admission to the Lord’s table. One had been converted as a result of hearing Angus in prayer, the second on hearing a neighbour repeating one of Angus’s private prayers, and the third under Finlaysons own preaching. ‘I see,’ said Finlayson ‘that I have only one share in this work!’
It was the testimony of Rev. Murdo MacAskill when speaking of Angus that – ‘This poor witless man could claim more spiritual children in the parish of Lochs than all the ministers who had preached there in his generation.’ No one who met Angus was allowed to walk away without an answer to the question – ‘Do you love the Lord Jesus Christ?’ All who who ever came in to contact with him were aware of an indescribable power and influence. He lived under the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
The story is told of Angus and his friend Ewen (also a simple man) addressing some people outside a Free Church Manse, at the time of a communion. They were approached by a Minister, said to be the Rev. Peter MacLean, who we will revisit in a separate post. MacLean asked Ewen and Angus what they were doing and ordered them into the manse. Angus paid no attention and said to Ewen – ‘You are doing very well, Ewen; never heed him, for that is Satan’s way, always when anyone is doing good, he tells them to stop it and go home.’ MacLean returned to the manse where he was asked how he had got on with his friends. ‘Get on with them! They compared me to Satan and did not take my advice,’ he replied!
On a similar occasion in Snizort, Skye, Angus, as was his wont, rose at the end of the service to address the congregation. The minister, the Rev. Roderick MacLeod, asked the assisting minister to ask him to sit down. The minister consequently asked Angus who had given him authority to preach. He replied – ‘The minister of the holy place and of the true tabernacle that the Lord pitched, and not man, and neither you nor any other person will silence me.’ Quite a statement for a man who, as we have said, in the terminology of our day, would be regarded as having severe learning difficulties! He obviously had the only kind of learning that really matters! Angus died while on a visit to Skye and was buried at the old cemetery in Uig, Skye.
Another son of Lewis connected with this spiritual movement but also buried here in Skye was Murdo MacDonald. He is reputed to have been one of the first people converted through the instrumentality of the Gaelic School Society in Lewis. Murdo, a weaver from Stornoway, was a deep thinker but could be severe in his criticism. One day, at a prayer meeting in the Schoolhouse at Bayble, Murdo prayed that God would remove by death or in any other way the ‘feather-bed shepherds who fed not their flocks.’ A bold prayer indeed! The minister of Uig, Lewis, died later that year, and the Stornoway minister drowned the following. MacDonald was accused of killing them!
When the Rev. Alexander MacLeod arrived at Stornoway in 1824 to take up his ministry in Uig, Murdo met him on the Pier. He asked him where he was from and where he was going. MacLeod fired back – ‘Who constituted you my catechiser?’ ‘The Spirit of God did’ replied Murdo. ‘If that be so, I may tell you that I came from Assynt and I am going to Uig to preach the gospel there.’ Alexander MacLeod went on his way, apparently greatly impressed by ‘The Prophet of Bayhead.’
Murdo MacDonald’s last journey was to the Isle of Skye to visit his friend blind Donald Munro. When they met sweet fellowship was enjoyed by both. However, his journey to Skye had taken its toll and Murdo began to realise he may not see his native Island again. A few days before he died he was concerned as to the place of his burial. ‘You shall rest in my own lair’, Donald assured him ‘and we shall rise together.‘ Murdo died in Donald’s arms. Both men are buried in the same grave on St Columbus Island, Skeabost, on the Isle of Skye.
Of course there would go on to be, over the years that followed, a series spiritual movements on the Isle of Lewis – the most well known perhaps being the 1949-1953 revival. However, none, I suspect, matched the intensity or reach of the initial spiritual movement we have been examining here.
1 – The same story is also told in connection with one of Angus’ visits to the Snizort Manse, Isle of Skye. However, this version seems more likely (see research by Douglas E. B. Somerset).