Although today the prophetic gift and other apostolic signs are not recognised by the majority of Highland Presbyterian Churches, at least officially, and are even labelled as demonic by some – it is only in relatively recent times that such an attitude has become prevalent. It is an attested fact that the theology, which relegates such gifts to the apostolic age, is of relatively recent vintage. However, this theology, which is alien to historical Highland Christianity, has, to a great extent, been imbibed by the majority of Conservative Evangelicals in the Highlands and Islands as well as elsewhere.
The prophetic ministry of a number of the leading Covenanters in the South of Scotland, such as Donald Cargill and Alexander Peden are well documented. What is not so well known is the fact that the prophetic gift was widespread amongst believers in the Highlands and Islands until recent times. Indeed, if we exclude for the moment so called ‘Charismatic Christians’, up until the last several years there have been men and women – predominantly the latter, in Island Presbyterian circles, who have been sought out as those who had access to ‘The secret of the Lord’. As we will discover, the true source of this kind of revelation was not obtained by what today might be termed as a specific gifting, but was the common experience of men and women who lived in what, by modern standards, would be regarded as extraordinary communion with God.
The Prophetic Men of Ross-Shire
Hugh Miller of Cromarty (Scottish geologist, writer and folklorist) wrote – ‘Neither Peden nor Cargill, nor any of the other prophets of the covenant, were favoured with clearer revelations of the future than some of the Highland seers’. One of the men Miller was referring to was Donald Roy, who lived in Nigg, Easter Ross. Donald, one of the areas best shinty players, was converted as a young man and was subsequently made an elder in the Presbyterian Church shortly after the revolution settlement (1689 – 90).
Miller described Roy as – ‘Belonging to that extraordinary class of men who, (lived) as it were, on the extreme verge of the natural world, and (saw) far in to the world of spirits.’
On one occasion when he was about ninety years old, Donald was working with two other men at Castle-Craig farm. Due to a heavy snowstorm during the afternoon, the men retired to a barn. As Donald’s two companions were speaking to each other they noted Donald sitting at the other end of the barn, his eyes fixed on the wall. As they observed, Donald would raise his arms and then clasp his hands as if he were witnessing some terrible scene. They then heard him muttering to himself and as they listened heard him say – ‘Let her drive – let her drive! – Dinna haud her side to the sea.’ Then striking his hands together, he shouted out – ‘She’s o’er – She’s o’er – Oh the puir widows o’ Dunskaith! – but God’s will be done’. ‘Elder’, said one of the men, ‘are ye no weel? – ya wald better gang in till the house’. ‘No’ said Donald, ‘let’s awa to the burn o’ Nigg, there has been ill enough come o’ this sad night already – let’s awa to the burn, or there’ll be more. Leaving the barn the three men went out in the storm and hurried a considerable distance to the burn where they found a poor woman who had collapsed from exhaustion in the snow a few minutes before they had arrived. She was carried to the nearest cottage and soon recovered. The next morning the darker vision was confirmed when the wreck of a Dunskaith boat and the bodies of some of the crew were found on the beach below Craig.
On another occasion Donald’s thirty-year-old grand daughter, who lived some distance away, contracted a dangerous fever and her life was in danger. This occurred unknown to Donald. However the woman’s husband, who was passing through Nigg, called on him and brought him the sad news. ‘Step in on your coming back’ said Donald ‘and dinna tine heart – for she’s in gude hands’. Three hours later the man returned and Donald came out to meet him at the door. ‘Come in Robert’, he said, ‘and cool yoursel, ye hae travelled ower hard – come in, and dinna be sae distressed, for there’s nae cause. Kettie will get o’er this, and live to see the youngest o’ her bairins settled in the world, and doing for themselves’. On his return home the man found that the fever had left his wife and she was on her feet within a short time. She lived to fulfil the prophecy of her grandfather. Donald Roy died in 1774 aged 109.
Lachlan MacKenzie of Lochcarron
The famed Rev. Lachlan MacKenzie of Lochcarron who died in 1819 was also revered as a Prophet. Church historian Dr Donald MacLean, himself a native of Lochcarron wrote – ‘That he uttered predictions is as unquestionably true as that some of them had startling fulfilment’. It is said that Eneas Sage a previous minister at Lochcarron was also revered as a Prophet. Sage denied that he possessed the prophetic gift. However, Lachlan MacKenzie is not known to have made such a denial. MacKenzie prophesied that, as a sign of the validity of the faith he preached, following his death, two trees, of a variety, hitherto alien to Lochcarron, would grow up on either side of the pulpit from which he preached. He further stated that when these trees grew their branches would become entwined and the trees eventually fall to the ground as a sign that the apostasy of the latter day had begun! All this did in fact occur after his death. In 1930 it was reported of the trees – ‘They fell over on the ground where they lie in a decaying condition, but still there’. Shortly before his death Lachlan prophesied that his successor would be ‘a dumb dog that would not bark’. This too was proved correct – in the spiritual sense!
Rev. John Morrison
Rev. John Morrison is, perhaps, the best known of the Highland prophets in the eighteenth century. He was born in 1701 in the parish of Dull, Perthshire and became the Parish Minister of Petty, between Inverness and Nairn, in 1759. Reminiscences of his life, times and many of his prophetic statements are contained in the little booklet (undated) by A.B. MacLennan – entitled – ‘The Petty Seer’. Writing in ‘Times of Blessing’ in 1876, Donald Corbet, Free Church Minister of Kinlochbervie, noted of both Morrison and his father – ‘Their theological knowledge was minute and extensive; and their success in the ministry, both in the conversion of sinners and in the edification of the household of faith, was, I may say, extraordinary …. After his settlement in Petty his church was day after day literally crammed to the door with crowds hungering for the Bread of Life. That continued to the termination of his course.’
On one occasion John Morrison was on his was on his way from Petty to Inverness to officiate at a communion, accompanied by his servant. As they approached Milton of Culloden, the road was crowded with people on their way the Sacrament. ‘You see the large number of people there’, observed the minister, ‘yet only six of them will go to heaven. As a proof that I know the truth of what I say, the innkeeper there (pointing to the Inn which was then near the road at Milton), who is now in good health, will be in eternity before you return to Inverness.’ On his return journey the servant boy enquired for the innkeeper at Milton, to be told that he had fallen down the stairs while drunk, a short time before, and had broken his neck.
A number of Morrison’s prophetic statements, and the fulfilment of them, were highly unusual. Preaching in his own church on one occasion Morrison predicted that a large rock, known as ‘Clach dubh an Adain’, and which marked the boundary between the estates of Lord Murray and Culloden, would be carried seaward without any human intervention. Some 26 years later, on the 20th February 1799, the rock, which weighed at least eight tons, was carried 260 yards out to sea. The only explanation available was that a large sheet of ice had formed under the rock and that a hurricane, on the rising tide, had blown it out to sea.
James Matheson Clashnagarve
Another man who lived, on the extreme edge of the natural world, and saw far in to the world of spirits, was James Matheson (1805 – 75). James was born and lived at Clashnagarve, which lies about five miles north-west of Dornoch. Converted again, as a young man, James Matheson was pre eminently a man of deep devotion and prayer. One indication of the esteem in which he was held was seen when, on one occasion, he dined with the renowned Dr John Kennedy in the Dornoch manse. After the meal James rose to pray and the minister went down on his knees at his feet.
Beside the burn which ran near his home was a hollow where James spent many hours in prayer. For many years after his death the mark of his knees could be seen in the ground. On one occasion James and a friend attended a communion at Creich, where Dr Kennedy was preaching to thousands on the hillside. After a short time his friend observed that James’s face was shining in an unusual way. The friend enquired as to the reason for his obvious delight, to which James replied – ‘Oh if you saw the camp surrounding Dr Kennedy!’ Although the friend could see nothing, James was transfixed by the sight of the angelic host surrounding the preacher. Nor was this only time James experienced such a view of the unseen world.
During the Crimean war James rarely if ever slept in his bed – spending extraordinary periods in prayer. Some men from the 93rd Highlanders fighting in the trenches, saw, on more than one occasion, a strange man moving about the trenches. After returning home at the end of the war, some of these men were at a communion in Creich, when, for the first time, they saw James. They recognised him as the man who had appeared to them in Crimea!
The Isle of Harris
One of the rare privileges in my life was to have known the late Norman MacLeod, Leverburgh, Harris. Although we had similar backgrounds and had both worked for the Police Service in the Highland and Islands – Norman had retired by the time I got to know him well.
Norman was a humble and reserved man who had been brought up in a very conservative Presbyterian denomination but who, as was said of James Mathieson, lived on the verge of the natural world and saw far in to the world of spirits. Shortly before he died I asked Norman to record in writing some of his own experiences. I will share some of these in another post. Suffice to say at the moment they were no less dramatic than those we have already recorded.
Many years ago Norman and I collaborated on a booklet with the same title as this post. What follows was his contribution in relation to his home island, the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides.
‘Often it seems that when the Gospel reaches a people for the first time, a simple child-like faith ensures that is sometimes endorsed by the Holy Spirit in supernatural interventions. There is a story of American missionaries who went to a remote part of Ethiopia in the 1930s and preached the Gospel but had to leave in a hurry following the Italian invasion of 1936/37. After the war, they returned to find that the church they had established was doing rather well in their absence, to the extent that miraculous healings in the name of Jesus were taking place. The Americans it seems had only just enough time to give them the rudiments of the Gospel but not enough time to reduce their simple faith to the more mundane level of their own. What puzzled Job was not that revelation took place but that there was not more of it. ‘Why seeing times are not hid from the almighty do they that know him not see his days. Job 24 v 1. At the end of the 18th century when the whole of the Bible was translated into Gaelic (although some of it had been translated into Gaelic as early as the 8th century by the Celtic Church) (700 years before any of it appeared in English), and the Gospel was delivered to the people in their native tongue by fervent and Godly preachers often to huge gatherings, the Highlands experienced a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit with power that knew not the limitations of the physical world. Dr John Kennedy, in his book ‘The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire’, relates many instances of divine inspiration and revelation. Godly men and women hungry for the word of God, but unable through illness or otherwise to attend church, would know more of the sermon than people who attended.
The Reverend Murdoch Campbell of Ness, in more recent times, recorded many wonderful instances of close encounters with the Divine, like the young girl from Aultbea, left alone at home through illness while the rest of the family attended church was visited by a man dressed in white who held a typical family worship with her, reading from 11 Peter, chapter 1, singing in a wonderful melodious voice and praying with great fervency and humility. After a few words of exhortation and comfort, he shook hands with her in a normal firm grasp, but in walking out the door, he immediately disappeared straight up towards heaven.
Ewen Cameron, Strontian
The spiritual exploits of some of the saintly men of Lewis such as Tormod Sona (Happy Norman) and Aonghas Nam Beann (Angus of the Hills) are well documented, as is an account of Ewen Cameron from Strontian. Angus and Ewen were both, it seems, illiterate and supposedly weak minded. Angus could count no further than three and could think of no good reason while more was necessary as that was the number of the God-head. Nevertheless with the Holy Spirit making up their deficiencies, in spiritual things and scriptural knowledge they could confound the greatest professors. A young woman in a house where Ewen Cameron was holding worship wondered how he could possibly read the bible so wordperfect, so creeping up behind him and looking over his shoulder saw that he was holding the Bible upside down.
Harris produced not a few saintly people whose Godliness was manifest not only by their walk with God but by signs that followed. This was mainly about the middle of the 19th century. The love of their brothers and sisters in the Lord was very strong and, in an age of cumbersome travel and communications, the Holy Spirit made the necessary connections so that they could very often sense the pain and joy, especially if a painful rift, imagined or otherwise appeared in faith. Although miles of land or sea separated them, they spiritually shared the same home (Psalm 90 and 91) the same spirit, love and light.
Norman Paterson of Strond
Before dawn, Norman Paterson of Strond woke up his fishermen sons and asked them to ferry him over the treacherous ten mile wide Sound of Harris to North Uist, explaining that a brother in Christ living on the Monach Isles seventeen miles off the east side of Uist was in deep soul distress and needing his help. Refusals and excuses were brushed aside and finally his sons took him over the turbulent waters of the Sound of Harris to the nearest point on North Uist. From there he walked about fifteen miles to a point on the west side of Uist where he hoped to hitch a lift on one of the fishing boats operating in the region of the Monachs. He stayed the night with some friends but before he retired he arranged with a fisherman to take him to the Monachs, who asked him to be on the shore at 8 am on the following morning. The people he stayed with asked him not to trust the man but to be on the shore at least an hour earlier but he would not agree and turned up at 8 am as arranged, only to see the boat hull down on the horizon. They will be back he assured his friends. No sooner had he said that that the boat turned back. They had forgotten to take their bait container from the shore.
Around 1900, a Godly man from Glenurquhart, known as Da-riridh (“yes indeed or definitely” – a remark he often made, his mainland Gaelic sounding slightly unusual to Harris ears) lived in Harris. He was very much an itinerant, attending all the places of worship and especially communions. In the main, he lived in Northton but when away from home he was never refused a nights shelter. That is except on one occasion when a surly individual living in an isolated place turned him away from his door. When that inhospitable individual died many years later and was buried in Luskentyre cemetery, the grass did not grow on his grave. His relatives often put fresh turf on the grave but the only effect that had was that the red scar of dead grass was so large that it could be seen about two miles away. Da-riridh was a man in constant prayer and seemingly in constant communication with the Heavenlies.
On one occasion some young lads saw him kneeling behind a dyke and crept up to listen. Da-riridh seemed to be more in conversation than in the usual type of prayer, asking questions and appearing to receive answers. He was the first ever recorded hitch hiker in Harris!
On another occasion, having left Tarbert to walk the seventeen miles to Northton, he was overtaken by the post gig and asked for a lift. The postman declined, saying it would be too much for the pony. At that time in Harris, a pony and gig was by far the fastest form of transport but when the postman arrived in Northton, not having gone off the road, the first man that met him was Da-riridh. To the inevitable question, ‘How on earth did you get here?’, Da-riridh replied, ‘The chariots of God are twenty thousand, thousands of mighty angels.’
On yet another occasion at a communion held in the open air, there being too large a congregation for the church building to hold, Da-riridh was seen to leave his place on the hillside, walk to the edge of the congregation, look around and return to his place. After the service, someone remarked to him on the size of the congregation. ‘You should have seen the crowd round about was his reply.’ What crowd Da-riridh was referring to is not known but those who knew the man believed it was an angelic host such as surrounded Elisha at Samaria, 2 Kings, Ch 6, ‘The Angels of the Lord encampeth about them that fear him.’
One day, on the Machair at Seilebost (Harris), he stuck his stick into the ground and declared, “A church will stand on this spot yet.” A very unlikely prediction at that time, the whole west side of Harris having been cleared of its people some eighty years before that. Nevertheless, some years after the first World War, the area was again divided into crofts and a church was built. Now with the fragmentation of the church, two congregations worship there within yards of each other.
In more recent times, Chirsty Mary Morrison, a blind old lady who died about fifteen years ago, seemed to be followed by amazing occurrences. She was constantly on the move, following communions and evangelical meetings all over the Islands and on the mainland, her blindness proving no obstacle, sometimes setting off on her own for America with as little concern as if she was going to the next village. Her blindness of course affected her punctuality at bus stops but she was never left stranded, if no other transport was available, the bus would simply refuse to start until she got aboard! Such stories are also told of Tormod Sona (see previous post).’
Chirsty Mary Morrison
I want to end this post by relating a little more of the life of Chirsty Mary Morrison mentioned above by Norman. Although I never met her I know people who did and the stories of her exploits are still spoken about in the Highlands and Islands.
Chirsty Mary Morrison was born on the 12th of June 1898, in Lingerbay, Isle of Harris. The journey, which brought Chirsty Mary to faith, is not known to me. When she was 19 her eyesight began to deteriorate. Although known by most as ‘Bind Chirsty Mary’ she was, for most of her life, partially sighted, only fully losing her sight in latter years. Chirsty was renowned for speaking her mind, which sometimes resulted in confrontation with the authorities in the Free Presbyterian Church of which she was a member. She had no track with the narrow mindedness of some within the denomination of her birth and traveled freely among the Lord’s people. This was particularly true at communion seasons when she would travel far and wide to fellowship with other Christians. Chirsty Mary remained single all her life, living in her own home in Bayhead, Harris, when she was not engaged on some journey!
The distinguishing mark of Chirsty’s life was prayer. One close friend noted – ‘(She) spent much time in prayer and although at time severely tested, her petitions were eventually fulfilled. During such seasons of desertion, when not conscious of the Lord’s Felt presence, she retired to her room – where she spent hours in prayer, and rocking from side to side in her chair sang a spiritual Gaelic poem mournfully’.
Chirsty Mary’s journeys became legendary throughout the western Highlands and Islands. Transport in the form of cars, ferries and planes were on many occasions, provided in a miraculous way, when she decided the Lord had instructed her to move on. One morning in Tote on the Isle of Skye, the lady of the house (a friend of mine) in which Chirsty was staying entered her bedroom to find her on her knees under the blankets, engaged in prayer. A short time later she announced that the Lord had told her she was to return to Harris on the ferry from Uig. However by that time the ferry timetable indicated that the ferry had already left. The family in Tote took some persuading but eventually the man of the house gave in to her pleading and took her the 15 miles to Uig. On arrival, to the mans surprise, the ferry was still at the pier. As soon as Chirsty had reached the top of the gangplank it was raised and the ferry left port!
On another occasion Chirsty stayed at a home in Stornoway with the intention of catching a flight to Inverness, from where she intended traveling to a communion weekend in Ulapool, a place she had never visited. Flora McNicol, who was a young woman in the home at the time, relates the story – ‘It blew a hurricane all through the night, and the following morning. Chirsty Mary insisted that we go to the Airways Office, and book her seat, as she was assured the plane would eventually arrive, after my father had held family worship. He read from the chapter where it was told Philip of the Spirit, ‘Go near, and join thyself to this chariot’. This was her confirmation, so we both accompanied her to the Airways Office. On arrival there, the attendant smiled, being acquainted with our passenger and as was as always the case, there was one seat left. I took her to the airport, and some hours later the plane arrived in brilliant sunshine. An hour later I received a telegram worded as follows – ‘Chariot met Chariot, till I arrived destination safely, Exceeding joyful, Chirsty Mary’.
For some reason there were those who knew Chirsty but did not always relish her company! After she had become totally blind Chirsty was traveling one day on the ferry between Harris and Skye. On board was a Free Presbyterian minister who though he would better avoid her (he told me this story himself) – and sat in a far corner. However, shortly after the boat left Tarbert he heard her calling – ‘Mr. … is on the boat today. The Lord has told me. Where are you Mr.….’ The minister crept out of his corner and joined her, stating to me as he recounted the story – ‘I felt like Adam trying to hide from God in the garden!’ In June 1984, Chirsty Mary was in Bernara, Lewis for a communion weekend. One evening in the home of some friends someone noticed the colour draining from her face and she became very pale. She was quickly asked if she was all right. She replied that she was, but that two men nearby had just entered eternity. A short time later word reached the home that a local boat had sank and the two men on board had been drowned.
Chirsty Mary died in Harris on the 17th May 1989.