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Parish Life in the North of Scotland
Chapter IV - Alexander Sage in Dirlot, and his Caithness Contemporaries


MY father was appointed in 1784 to the Mission of Dirlot, a wide and populous district within the boundaries of the parishes of Reay, Halkirk, and Latheron, and in the counties of Caithness and Sutherland. He officiated in turn at Dirlot, Strathhalladale, and Berriedale. His residence was at Dirlot, a most romantic spot on the banks of the Thurso river, which issues from a lake about twelve miles beyond it. This place was the property of his progenitor, John Mackay of Dilred in Strathy, who had obtained a disposition to this and other lands in Caithness, from his brother Donald, first Lord Reay, in 1626, and in 1633, a charter of confirmation from John, Earl of Sutherland. The ruins of his castle consist of a small square tower standing on the top of an almost perpendicular rock jutting out into the river and nearly surrounded by it. Before the invention of gunpowder and the consequent use of artillery, it must have been impregnable. The savage wildness and extent of the district none but those who have seen it can accurately conceive. It extends from the shore of the Moray Firth to the ironbound coast of the Atlantic. The greater part was a heathy moor, full of quaking bogs, some of them extending ten and fifteen miles, and intersected with rapid mountain torrents, such as the rivers of Thurso, Halladale, Dunbeath, and Berriedale. The bogs were also studded with stagnant pools, some nearly twenty feet deep. It would be impossible for a stranger without a guide, to find his way through this region of mist and quagmire; and the only track, by which man or horse could be led, was along the banks of the rivulets, or on the tops of the small eminences by which the bogs were skirted. The breed of small horses then reared in the country showed a wonderful sagacity in threading their way through those dangerous morasses. These animals, in the coldest day in winter, unless during a severe snow-storm, were never housed; and when employed either in riding or bearing burdens indicated a knowledge of the difference between hard and boggy ground which made a near approach to human intelligence. My father's house was a low, uncomfortable cottage of two rooms and a closet, not far from the old ruin of Dirlot. During his residence in the district he seldom rode on horseback. On foot he traversed the whole district, accompanied by his gillie or kirk-officer, and neither bogs, nor torrents, nor foul weather might arrest his progress. After preaching at Berriedale one Sabbath in spring, be cut across the mountains on his way homeward. There was a rapid thaw, and the rivers were flooded. When he came to the heights of Braemore the Berriedale river presented a formidable obstacle to his further progress. It was over "bank and brae," and the stream, at the usual ford, raged and foamed and rushed with arrow speed. The kirk-officer, who, according to custom, preceded him, no sooner cast his eye upon the flood than he made a dead halt. "What is the matter now," said my fattier, coming up to him. "O, sir," said the officer, "we must return; the big stone is two feet under water, and three men on the opposite side are waving their bonnets, warning us not to attempt the passage." "What folly," said my father, and, seizing his attendant by the collar, he deliberately walked into the stream with him; then taking a diagonal course against it, amid the roaring of the torrent, and the warning and almost despairing shouts of the men on the other side, he pushed on, and, in less than ten minutes, placed himself and his Billie safely on the opposite bank.

I have often heard my father speak of those with whom he was on terms of intimacy during his ministry at Dirlot. Marcus Gunn, his next neighbour, was a man of decided piety. He lived at Dalmore, in the immediate neighbourhood, while his brother lived at Cattaich, also in the vicinity, and each had a large family of sons. Marcus Gunn was lessee of the original estate of Dirlot, comprising Dirlot, Dalmore, Dalnaclaitan, Toremisdale, and Cattaich, and these pendicles of his farm he had sub-let to his own near relatives, presiding over them with all the simplicity and affection of a patriarch. His lease he held of the laird of Ulbster, who, in the year that my father came to Dirlot, was created a Baronet as Sir John Sinclair. Patrick, one of Marcus Gunn's sons, presented my father with a fine folio copy of Bishop Pearson's Exposition of the Creed, now in my possession.

Another of his acquaintances, Neil Macleod, lived at Braemore. He had a good farm, and was one of the most substantial tenants in the county of Caithness. He was subsequently appointed acting factor on the Braemore estate. Moreover, he was a man of great personal strength, of much native humour, and of unbounded hospitality. A native of Sutherlandshire, he in early youth left that country, and passed the rest of his life in Caithness. An intimate acquaintance of his, Alexander Gordon, lived in his neighbourhood at Uaig, on the estate of Langwell, at the base of Scaraben, a high mountain which separates the estate of Langwell from that of Braemore. Gordon was also from Sutherlandshire, and, like Macleod, was a very strong man. In those days a sort of noisy feud subsisted between the Caithness Highlanders and those of Sutherland. The embers of this quarrel were sure to be blown into a flame when the contending parties met at markets, and when, on such occasions, their tempers were heated by the ardent spirits which they drank immoderately over their bargains. On one occasion, when a market was held at Dunbeath, an old feud between the Caithness and Sutherland men came on for decision. The ringleaders in the fray were tenants on the estate of Swiney and Latheron. These fellows had communicated their intentions to their landlord, Sutherland of Swiney, who, instead of checking them, went so far as to order some scores of hazel sticks from Inverness to furnish them with the means of attack. The business at the market had nearly closed when one of Swiney's tenants fastened a quarrel on Alexander Gordon, under pretence of having been unfairly dealt with by him in a matter of bargaining. From violent words they came to blows; Swiney's tenant struck Gordon with his cudgel, and this was the signal for a general onset. Gordon had no stick, and he was encumbered with the care of his son, a youth of nine, whom he held in his right hand. But forbearance was, in existing circumstances, out of the question. So, letting go his little son, he threw himself upon the foremost of his opponents, wrested his cudgel from his hand, and dealt out to him and two or three others such stunning blows as laid them prostrate at his feet. Their places, however, were soon supplied by others, and Gordon would have been overcome had he not, in his extremity, been observed by his stout friend, Neil ,Macleod. Placing themselves back to back, the two wielded their cudgels, striking down an assailant at every blow, until at last they got clear of the crowd, and their opponents surrendered. Macleod and Gordon came off with a few scratches, but a dozen of Swiney's tenants were carried home severely bruized. The case was tried before the Circuit Court, and the culpable part which Sutherland took in the matter being educed in evidence, be was so heavily fined as to be under the necessity of selling his estate. It was afterwards purchased by my uncle, Charles Gordon of Pulrossie. From the manly and prominent part taken by Neil Macleod in this affray, and his successful defence of his friend, it was long afterwards known and remembered under the name of "Carraid Neil Mhicleoid," or "Neil Macleod's fight." He was twice married, and a son of his, by his second wife, was for a time minister of Mfaryburgh, near Dingwall [and afterwards of the Free Church in Lochbroom, in the west of Ross-shire.—Ed.] Neil Macleod died at Berriedale in May 1814. His brother, James Macleod, kept an inn at Helmisdale.

Some of the members of the Presbytery of Caithness, during my father's residence at Dirlot, may also be named. Mr. Patrick Nicolson, minister at Thurso, kept a good table and stood high in favour of the gentry; but, in the discharge of his pastoral duties, he was certainly remiss and indolent. This inactivity laid him open to a severe censure by Rob Donn, the poet. "And what is poor Mr. Thomson doing among you?" asked Mr. Nicolson of Rob Donn. "Why, parson," replied the poet,' Mr. Thomson is doing what you never did—he is doing his best." Mr. Nicolson inherited a small property from his father, whom he also succeeded as minister of Thurso; but his affairs got deeply involved, and the place was, after his death, sold for the behoof of his creditors.

Mr. John Cameron, minister of Halkirk, was my father's next neighbour and colleague, so that they frequently met. The same spirit of drollery, which be exhibited as a student of divinity, continued to be his characteristic feature when a minister. He married a Miss Lee, who was a governess in the family of George Sinclair of Ulbster, and who was recommended to Cameron by Lady Janet Sinclair, mother of Sir John. She was no beauty, and Cameron admitted that he married her simply because Lady Janet wished him to do so. One day, as he was writing an important letter, his wife looked over his shoulder and read what he had written. Aware of this, he dashed off the following couplet:-

"Cameron is a pretty fellow;
But, O, his wife! she's dun and yellow."

On perusing this Mrs. Cameron went off in high dudgeon, and her husband was allowed to finish his epistle at his leisure. Mr. Cameron had a strong vein of poetry, particularly in the department of satire. Mr. Robert Mackay, a writer in Thurso, who published a history of the clan Mackay, carried on a poetical correspondence with Cameron, in which, after a "keen contention of their wits," and a most bountiful interchange ofersonal abuse, Mackay was worsted, and gave up the contest. Mr. Cameron had an only daughter, to whom he was very much attached, and he gave her every advantage for her improvement. She was a very elegant woman, and was married to James Dunbar of Scrabster, but did not long survive her marriage. In his ministerial capacity Mr. Cameron was a failure; his habitual levity effectually prevented any good being done by his ministrations.

My father enjoyed some intimacy with Mr. Joseph Taylor, minister of Watten. He was translated from \Vatten to Carnbee, in Fife, in 1805, by Sir Robert Anstruther of Balcaskie, who about that time became a proprietor in Watten parish. In the living of Carnbee he was succeeded by his son, the Rev. Anstruther Taylor.

Another of my father's friends when at Dirlot was Dr. John Morison of Canisbay, well known as a man of letters and a poet. He composed some of the most beautiful of our scripture paraphrases, such as the 19th, 21st, 27th, 28th, 29th, 30th, and 35th. He was a first-rate classical scholar, and possessed literary attainments of a very high order. Several poetical pieces he published in the "Edinburgh Weekly Magazine," with the signature of Musaeus. As a preacher, he was eloquent; but, as a divine, his theology was superficial and undecided. A native of Aberdeenshire, he was born about the year 1749, was settled in Canisbay in 1780, and died on the 12th Juno, 1798, in the 49th year of his age, and 18th of his ministry.

With Mr. Alexander Smith, minister of Olrig, my father had but little acquaintance. He was a very eccentric man, and his conduct, though unexceptionable, was somewhat defficient in consistency. His widow long survived him, and towards the close of her life was totally blind. Two of his sons became ministers in Caithness, William, who succeeded Mr. Oliphant at Bower, and James, who succeeded Dr. Morison at Canisbay.

During his residence at Dirlot, my father became a married man. On the 19th of March, 1784, he wedded Isabella, eldest daughter of Mr. Donald Fraser, minister of Killearnan, and afterwards of Urquhart, in Ross-shire. Their marriage contract, in the form of a letter addressed to her brother, Dr. Alexr. Fraser, by my father, thus proceeds:-

ALCAIG, 15th March, 1784.

Revd. Dear Sir,—As your sister, Miss Isabella Fraser, and I have agreed to enter upon the married state, from a principle of mutual love and affection, and as I am not as yet possessed of an Established Church benefice with which to provide her as I would wish, I hereby oblige myself to bequeath to her all the subjects and effects belonging to me in case I should die before I am provided with a stipend on the establishment. I also hereby exclude any other person to intermeddle with any part of my subjects except the above Miss Isabella Fraser, my intended spouse alenarly. For the further security, I also bind myself to extend this security on stamped paper any time required. As I grant this, my obligation, from my special regard for Your sister, so I hope she will be pleased to give a similar security to me in case I should survive her, and I am, Revd. dr. Sir, your me. obedt. Servt.,


I, the above-designed Miss Isabella Fraser, in consequence of the affection expressed for me in the above letter, do bequeath to Mr. Alexander Sage, my intended husband, all my effects that shall pertain to me at my death, in case I shall predecease him, and exclude any other person from intermeddling with them : in witness whereof I have subscribed these presents, at Alcaig, this nineteenth day of March, xvij. and eighty-four, in presence of these witnesses—Mr. David Donoon, minister of Killearnan, and Mr. John Grant, merchant in Inverness.


JOHN GRANT, Witness.

The marriage took place at Alcaig, a small farm in the parish of Urquhart, to which my maternal grandfather's widow and surviving family went to reside after his death. The union was solemnized by my grandfather's eminent successor, the Rev. Charles Calder, and among the witnesses present were my maternal uncle, the Rev. Alexr. Fraser, D.D., of Kirkhill, the Rev. David Denoon, of Killearnan, and Mr. John Grant, merchant in Inverness. And here I would .record some particulars of the excellent individuals with whom, by his marriage, my father became connected. Superior to them all, not only by reason of seniority in years, but also in gifts and graces, was my mother's father, the Rev. Donald Fraser. He was a son of William Fraser, a substantial tenant in the parish of Petty, near Inverness. The precise year of his birth I am not able to ascertain; it might be about the year 1711. During his attendance at College he was introduced to the chief of his clan, the well-known Simon, Lord Lovat, to whom he so strongly recommended himself by his capacity and acquirements that he made him private tutor to his sons, the late General Simon Fraser of Lovat, Archibald who succeeded him, and a third son who (lied before he attained to manhood. During my grandfather's residence in Lord Lovat's family, his time was spent partly in Edinburgh and partly at Beaufort Castle. It so happened that, when my grandfather and his pupils were in Edinburgh Lord Lovat was at Beaufort, and when they were at Beaufort his lordship was in Edinburgh. This must have arisen from his lordship's arrangements, but it certainly was not owing to any dislike to his tutor, or unwillingness that he should reside under the same roof with him. I mention the circumstance because it gave rise to a correspondence between them, which is preserved, and is in possession of the Frasers, ministers of Kirkhill, and lineal descendants of Mr. Fraser. The correspondence shows what Lord Lovat was at his own fireside, and exhibits him as possessing a shrewd and penetrating apprehension of what was right both in principle and conduct, as well as an anxiety that his sons should be trained up accordingly.

When my grandfather, after finishing his theological studies, was licensed to preach, his abilities speedily recommended him to public acceptance. The parish of Fearn in Ross-shire, becoming vacant, the parishioners, along with some of the heritors, made a joint application on his behalf, and they were on the eve of success, when suddenly, and from a quarter artfully concealed, arose a strong opposition. This opposition was based upon certain alleged irregularities, which were at once preferred against him before the local Presbytery. One witness only was brought forward, a woman, whose statements were proved to be false by an alibi. The charge was accordingly dismissed, but he lost the parish of Fearn, which was meanwhile given to another. In his letters to my grandfather Lord Lovat pretends to be very angry at this. He abuses the Fearn heritors, and expresses his determination to sift the matter to the bottom, adding that, "when the defamer of his dear Donald is found out, he would bring him to punishment though it should cost him a thousand pounds." Now Lord Lovat would have found himself in rather an awkward plight had the originator of the calumny been actually unveiled. For when the truth came out at last, it was ascertained that the instigator of the plot was none other than Lovat himself, who adopted this course in order to secure his tutor's services to his sons during the years of their minority.

On the 27th of March, 1744, my grandfather was ordained, by the Presbytery of Chanonry, minister of Killearnan. Three years thereafter, that is on the 8th day of June, 1747, he married Jean Fraser, daughter of Alexander Fraser, minister of Inverness. This Alexander Fraser, himself an eminently pious man, was son-in-law of a minister still more eminent, Mr. Angus MacBean, minister of Inverness. Mr. MacBean, whom it is refreshing to me to claim as my great-great-grandfather, was one of the many bright lights of the Church at the close of the seventeenth century. He was born in the year 1656, and was settled minister of Inverness in 1684. The subject of a popish sovereign, and an eye-witness of James's insidious efforts to restore Popery, Mr. MacBean bore an undaunted testimony against it; and, finding that even within the limits of his own charge at Inverness were to be found the abettors of Popery, he considered it his duty to resign his charge. This decided step surprised some, offended others, and filled all who derived benefit from his ministry with sorrow. After resigning his charge he preached in his own house to crowded audiences, and very soon thereafter he was cited before the Privy Council, and charged with insubordination and treason. After a long and grievous imprisonment, under which his bodily constitution, always weak, finally sank, he was, on the accession of William and Mary, at the Revolution of 1688, liberated, and restored to his charge. lie died in Edinburgh in February, 1689, at the age of 33. A brief account of him, drawn up by Mr. Stewart of Inverness, was transmitted by Mr. Alexander Fraser at Urquhart to Wodrow the historian, on the 5th of August, 1723, and is published in the edition of Wodrow's History.

By his first wife, my grandfather had three sons and three daughters. Simon, born on the 4th April, 1748, went to India, and died at Calcutta in 1770. Alexander, the second son, born on the 4th of July, 1749, I shall notice afterwards. Isabella, the eldest daughter and my mother, was born on the 14th of January, 1751. Marjory, the second daughter, born on the 2nd April, 1752, married Mr. John Fraser, minister of Kiltarlity in 1773. They had a son and three daughters. The daughters emigrated to America. Donald, the third son, was born on the 10th December, 1756. During my grandfather's ministry at Killearnan, several occurrences served to distress his mind, and to impair his usefulness. The first was the rebellion of '45, in which he got involved in consequence of his personal connection with Lord Lovat. The artful part taken by Lovat in the national drama was as revolting to my grandfather's feelings as it was ruinous to Lovat himself. To my grandfather his conduct was wholly unexpected. He knew him to }possess an ordinary share of sagacity; and therefore that he should have risked his family interests, his title, his standing as a chief, and his estate, not to say his head, in a political speculation was what, from his previous knowledge of him, Mr. Fraser could not conceive possible. Nothing, therefore, gave him more heartfelt sorrow than the sweeping ruin with which this unfortunate man was at last overwhelmed. His amiable and attached pupil, General Fraser, whom my grandfather had so carefully instructed in the principles of religion and loyalty, the infatuated father compelled to head the clan, and lead them forth in arms against the laws and liberties of their country. When the political air-bubble burst on the field of Culloden, and when a Government, at first panic-stricken, but afterwards triumphant, entered upon the work of legal vengeance, my grandfather saw, with the acutest anguish, his aged chief cragged from his hiding-place, and hurried off to London, his castle burnt, his estate forfeited, and the wretched man himself, though at the utmost limits of human existence, put to death on the scaffold. Of this fearful consequence my grandfather had often warned him, but to no purpose, and two letters are to be found in his correspondence with Lovat, one to the father and the other to the son, full of the most earnest, forcible, and affectionate remonstrances with them both, on the dangerous courses they were pursuing. This most melancholy breaking-up of a family to whom lie had such strong ties of natural affection bore heavily upon his mind, and rendered his residence at Killearnan, within view of the blackened ruins of the castle of the deceased chief, very painful to him.

Another circumstance, which did not contribute very much either to my grandfather's personal comfort as a man, or to his moral weight as a minister, was the active part he took in the extinction of a parish. The heritors of Scotland, in those days, were very active, not in extending the church, but in curtailing it. '['hey did this wherever an opportunity offered. The parishes of Suddie and Kilmuir wester were small, and that the heritors might not be burdened with the payment of a stipend to each minister, they entered into a plan by which the two parishes were to be united into one. This plan was readily countenanced by the Presbytery, and by none of the members more so than by my grandfather who was clerk. The Presbytery records on the subject are all written out in his own hand and occupy many pages. After this transaction he did not remain any time at Killearnan. lie had little reason to be satisfied with the people of that parish. They were ignorant and obstinate, and although he was a powerful preacher, and unwearied in the exercise of all his pastoral duties, he found himself most unsuccessful in regard to the great end of his ministry. His health, too, was indifferent. His particular complaint was somnolency, which, before he left Killearnan, had reached such a height that, when in the pulpit, he often fell asleep between the singing of the first psalm and the prayer which followed. in what this singular ailment originated is not known; the country people ascribed it to witchcraft, and he himself thought so too. '.l'he tradition is that, in the public exercise of ministerial duty, he had given offence to two women in the parish who were dreaded as witches, and that they had, according to their diabolical art, made a clay effigy of him, laid it in the dunghill, and stuck it round with pins. On this Mr. Fraser got ill, and felt pains in his body which terminated in somnolency.

In 1756, the neighbouring parish of Urquhart or Ferintosh becoming vacant, my grandfather, after an incumbency of thirteen years at Killearnan, was translated thither, and inducted by the Presbytery of Dingwall on the 2nd of June, 1757. His ministry at Urquhart was more pleasant to himself and profitable to the people than at Killearnan. He very soon recovered his health. His stipend was very small, and, to increase it for the benefit of his family, he was induced to take on lease, from the proprietor of Culloden, the mills of Alcaig in the vicinity. This step did not please the parishioners; they thought it rather incongruous that the minister should also be the parish miller. One day he met with a parishioner, on his way home from Alcaig, a shrewd though quite an illiterate person. " Well, Thomas," said the minister, accosting him familiarly, "how are you, and what is your news P" "Very bad news indeed," said Thomas, " I am informed that our minister's wife has taken up with the big miller of Alcaig." My grandfather understood the innuendo, and so keenly felt the reproof, that, on his return home, he sent to the proprietor a resignation of his lease. In June, 1757, his daughter, Jane Forbes, was born. She married a man named Fraser, and had issue. One of her daughters, Margaret, wife of a sergeant in a Highland regiment, I recollect to have seen at Kildonan about the year 1799.

At Urquhart, or Ferintosh, as it is also called, my grandfather's ministry was much blessed. He was the honoured instrument of raising up some of the most eminent Christians in the north. Mr. Donald Mackenzie, for many years Society schoolmaster in the west end of that parish, was, at an early age, brought under the power of the truth through his preaching. He died at the age of ninety, having lived long enough to be a hearer of Mr. Donald Fraser's son, grandson, and great-grandson. After sixteen years of ministry at Urquhart, my grandfather died on the 7th of April, 1773. His son, Dr. Alexander Fraser, was settled minister of Kirkhill, Inverness-shire, about a mouth afterwards.

Of him I have some recollection, not from personal knowledge, but from that hearsay which so copiously flowed from his "praise" which "was in all the churches." I will relate a remarkable occurrence connected with his boyhood. A fierce cat had broken into the manse cellar at Urquhart, and committed great depredations. My uncle resolved to destroy the animal, and accordingly he and another boy of his own age pursued the creature, and having got it into a place whence it could not escape, they pelted it with stones until it was apparently dead. That night my uncle and his companion occupied the same room. For some reason his companion was unable to sleep, and, about an hour after he lay down, he heard my uncle's hard breathing as if in sound sleep, but this was followed by a stifled groan. Becoming alarmed, he got up, and, guided by the moonlight, walked towards my uncle's bed. There, to his horror, he saw the cat they had left for dead close at my uncle's throat, and in the very act of planting her fangs in it. He seized the animal, and strangled it.

Dr. Alexander Fraser was settled minister of Kirkhill in 1773. A Mr. George Mark had, on the death of the former incumbent, been presented to the living; but, owing to his ignorance of Gaelic, he was set aside, and by the choice of the people my uncle was appointed. As a preacher, Dr. Fraser was much approved. I have heard an intelligent hearer of his, who himself became afterwards a very distinguished preacher, say that he never felt more convinced of the infinitude and unfathomable depth of divine truth than under the preaching of Dr. Fraser of Kirkhill. He was an honoured and successful pastor as well as an able preacher. His literary remains are contained in two octavo volumes, and a small pamphlet. He was deeply versed in the higher walks of theology, profoundly read in Scripture truth, and an enlightened and judicious enquirer into prophecy. On the unfulfilled prophecies he wrote an admirable treatise, which he published in 1795, entitled a "Key to the Prophecies of the Old and New Testaments which are not yet accomplished." This work is now out of print. His "Commentary on the Prophecy of Isaiah, being a paraphrase with notes, showing the literal meaning of the Prophecy," was published in the year 1800, at Edinburgh. It is dedicated to Bishop Hurd of Worcester. None of his sermons have been published except one, which he preached at Taira, on the 27th August, 1800, at the opening and first institution of the Northern Missionary Society. My uncle united with his mental studies much bodily exercise. Kirkhill he found a wilderness, but, being a man of great taste, he left it an Arcadia. About the age of fifty, his health began to decline; this was ascribed by some to a fall which he got. However that might be, from being rather stout in bodily habit, he suddenly fell off, and became thin and spare, and without experiencing any pain, he lingered about three years after this, when his life and labours were finally closed on the 13th of January, 1802, in the 53rd year of his age, and 29th of his ministry. He was succeeded in the living of Kirkhill by his son Donald.

After his marriage, my father continued missionary minister of Dirlot for some three years. During that time, two children were born to him, viz., Elizabeth, on the 7th December, 1785, and Jane, on the 21st of March, 1787.

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