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Easter Ross
Ecclesiastical History

In Easter Ross there are no fewer than thirty-one churches, of which the Church of Scotland has ten, the United Free Church, twelve ; the Free Church, seven ; the Free Presbyterians and the Episcopal Church, one each. All the clergymen having charge of these separate congregations live in unity and those of the several denominations exchange pulpits occasionally, but this happy condition of aftairs has been reached only after some considerable heart-burnings and heart-searching on the part of the eminent men who in the past officiated in the district, and because of the broad view taken of their duties by those at present occupying Easter Ross pulpits.

The story of the religious history of the district centres chiefly round the churches of Tain, Fearn, and (in a lesser degree) Nigg.

Tain owes its first notice in history to St. Duthus who was born here, educated in Ireland, and obtained such an accurate knowledge of the Scriptures that he became “Chief Confessor of Ireland and Scotland.” To this place the remains of this “godly and learned man” were translated about two hundred years after his death which occurred in 1065. From him Tain takes its Gaelic name of Baile Dhuthaich, and it is quite possible he had something to do with making the place a sanctuary and so gave the Burgh importance nearly a thousand years ago. The chapel in which he is supposed to have worshipped was destroyed in 1427, and the ruins well preserved still stand. Before then (circa 1370) there was built the old church of St. Duthus possibly by William, Earl and Bishop of Ross, who would have the help of the pilgrims attracted to it in the hope of miraculous healing—as at present they are drawn to such places as Lourdes and St. Anne’s de Beaupre, and leave their thank offerings. Thus we know that Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith left for it his “robes of cloth of gold and silk and his furred robes.”

In the time of James III. the Church was by Papal Bull raised to the rank of “Collegiate” with a Provost, five canons, two deacons, a sacrist, and three choristers. This Bull is still to be seen in the Town Clerk’s office. James IV. also in his various visits contributed to its upkeep. Because of its eminence in affairs ecclesiastical there must have been regular communication between the church dignitaries of Tain and the south, and thus the Easter Ross people early became imbued with the thoughts of the men who brought about the Reformation in Scotland, and when leaders like Munro of Fowlis gave the weight of their influence to the new doctrines preached by the Reformers there is little wonder that Tain should be the first town in the north to embrace the reformed religion. So strong indeed was the tide that Nicolas Ross, the then Provost of Tain, voted in the Parliament of 1560 for the suppression of the church in which he held office. The people also became so zealous in furthering the new doctrines that the Good Regent Moray presented them with a beautifully carved oaken pulpit which, when St. Duthus Church stood vacant, had some of its ornamentation broken or carried away but which has been replaced by an exact replica which is now one of the sights of the town.

But the Reformation had also the effect of taking away the peculiar efficacy of the place as a holy shrine, and pilgrims no longer resorted to it, and as about that time laws were more justly administered criminals and “broken men” in decreasing numbers, and with less security, fled to it for sanctuary. From that time to this, however, it continued to be a centre of light, learning, and commerce for the whole surrounding district.

Some of the emoluments or chaplainries pertaining to the old church here were converted into bursaries to help young men to study at the Universities. One of these bursars was John Munro who afterwards became minister here, and he was brave enough to attend, at Aberdeen, an Assembly interdicted by James VI. For this he was summoned before the Privy Council and though the majority of those who “compeared” with him submitted, Mr Munro maintained that the Assembly at Aberdeen was “a verie lawful General Assembly.” For this “ contumacy ” he was imprisoned in Doune Castle but escaped and resumed his work at Tain, but the Crown withheld his stipend. The people saw to it that their minister was not starved out. The Privy Council was not thus to be baulked and therefore addressed a strong letter to the Town Council on the iniquity of their allowing “a person standing under His Majesty’s offence to have so peaceable a residence as well as the free exercise of his calling among them” and ordering them to imprison him. It does not seem clear how the Council acted but this brave minister died five years afterwards.

After the Restoration of 1660 three ministers of the district were ejected, viz.—Rev. Thomas Ross of Kincardine, Andrew Ross of Tain, and M'Killigan of Alness, as well as the famous Thomas Hog of Kiltearn, who was a native of Tain. The sympathy of the people was evidently with the “outed” ministers, but an Episcopalian was incumbent of St. Duthus from 1666 to 1700.

Then there was a sensational struggle to have the minister of Tarbat “translated’’ to Tain. The manner of this translation is curious. The story goes that a number of strong good people from Tain went one Sunday morning to Tarbat, took the chosen minister out of his pulpit, carried him to Tain, placed him in the Regent Moray’s pulpit and asked him to deliver the sermon he was to have preached at Tarbat.

After this minister’s death in 1744 the magistrates agreed to give a unanimous call to the minister of Auldearn, and in order that the call might be unanimous and harmonious, declared “if any of the burgher inhabitants will give opposition, the Council will look on the same as very unkind and undutiful. as they wanted a speedy comfortable settlement to prevent the abounding sin and wickedness of the place.”

In 1797 Angus Macintosh, D.D., was translated to Tain and died there in 1831. It was he who, after he on a Sunday morning got a newspaper with the news of the victory at Waterloo, saw it his duty to take the paper with him to church and read out to the people with much acceptance the story of that victory. As a preacher he was said to combine all the excellencies of M'Phail of Resolis, Fraser of Alness, and Porteous of Kilmuir Easter. He died in 1831 and was succeeded by his son, Dr. Charles C. Macintosh, in 1831. In common with most Highland ministers he “came out1' at the Disruption. There have been other ecclesiastical sensations in Easter Ross churches since but none of such importance as this, and at present it would appear that the next will be the day on which it is declared that the United Free Church has entered into union with the Church of Scotland and the bitterness of years absolutely buried.


Fearn occupies a prominent place in the ecclesiastical history of Ross because of the somewhat strange history of its Abbey Church. It would appear that when William the Lion was in the north he built not only a fort on the Nigg Sutor, where the present Admiralty Fort is, but a castle at Edderton to overawe the inhabitants of Easter Ross, and when not long after it became fashionable for the nobility to build abbeys, Farquhar, Earl of Ross, in 1230, had one erected at Fearn in Edderton. The story of this Earl’s reason for founding it as sometimes given is that when he accompanied his sovereign, Alexander II., to London, he met a famous French champion whom he challenged to mortal combat. Before engaging his foe, Farquhar in his terror, vowed that if the Almighty helped him to win he would found an Abbey. The Earl slew his opponent and on his way north called at Whithorn and brought with him some of the relics of St. Ninian and two canons.

“Malcolm of Galloway” was the first abbot of the new abbey and conducted its affairs with great piety and judgment for fifteen years. After about twenty years the priests, according to one authority, because the devotions were interrupted by the ferocity and savageness of the neighbouring inhabitants, transported the abbey “for the more tranquillity, peace and quiet thereof” to its present site and gave it the name by which it was at first known. Another story is that the churchmen found their lands at Edderton rather confined, and not so fertile as they would have wished, and therefore got a new bull from the Pope for building the Abbey where it now stands in a fertile and extensive plain. Earl Farquhar, the founder, is buried within this Abbey and a stone effigy marks the spot where he lies.

In 1338 the Abbey was re-built, while a Mark Ross was abbot and later the convent ventured to reject a presentee of the Prior of Whithorn.

There was also a stuggle between another abbot, Thomas M'Culloch and Andrew Stewart, Bishop of Caithness,rin which the former was ousted from the abbey and went to Mid Geanies where he erecte'd a private opposition chapel. The most famous of all the abbots, however, was Patrick Hamilton, who received the benefice when quite a child, though it does not seem probable that he lived here. He was the proto-martyr of the Reformation. He studied at St Andrews, travelled in Germany, imbibed the Lutheran teaching at Wittenberg, and embodied his theological convictions in a set of articles called “Patrick’s Pleas” which is thoroughly Lutheran in standpoint, form, and expression, and it would seem for a time as if it were he, rather than Knox, who was to give his impress to the Reformation movement in Scotland. The church took alarm at his preaching and James Beaton, Archbishop of St. Andrews, enticed him to St. Andrews, where at a trial he was found guilty of thirteen different articles of heresy, and was burned at the gate of St. Salvator’s on 28th February 1528, and “his reek infected as many as it did blow upon.”

He was succeeded by Donald Dunoon, who came from Argyllshire and grew wealthy here. The lands of Cadboll, once abbey lands, passed into his hands. His nephew Andrew succeeded to these lands and was the second laird of Cadboll of that name. About that time there was also a Sir David Dunoon who had property in the neighbourhood. It is interesting to note that although the lands of Cadboll have changed hands several times during the past three centuries, there are still families bearing the name of Dunoon in Easter Ross, no doubt descendants of this ancient family. He was succeeded by a Robert Cairncross, who was appointed because he was wealthy and was able to restore the abbey which was then badly out of repair. Nicolas Ross of Tain was also in charge for a time. The next abbot, Thomas Ross, who was also Provost of the Church at Tain, and Vicar of Alness, had to face troublous times, during which he lived in Forres. The kind of trouble to be dealt with may be inferred from the story of the complaint made by William Gray to the Privy Council in 1569. He tells that when after preaching he had descended to administer the Sacrament, one Robert Lennox, whom he debarred from the Communion, in a great fury and rage came to him with a drawn sword, with which he struck him and would have killed him but for the interference of the parishioners who stopped him. Lennox did not appear when summoned to trial, was declared a rebel, put to the horn, and had his goods forfeited.

In 1599, most or the lands belonging to the Abbey were made the Barony of Geanies and granted to Sir Patrick Murray, who did not find them profitable, and in 1607 or 1617, all the other lands belonging to the Abbey and not included in the Barony, were annexed to the Bishopric of Ross and this institution after existing for nearly four hundred years became extinct.

The Abbey is now the Fearn Parish Church. In the story of “The Washing of the Mermaid,” Hugh Miller in Scenes and Legends graphically describes the fall of the roof of the Abbey on a Sunday morning in 1742 while the congregation was^ worshipping, a catastrophe in which thirty-six persons were killed and many more so dreadfully injured that they never recovered.

This place is certainly worth a visit by any one interested in the history of Ross-shire.


The parish of Nigg has borne its share in the ecclesiastical strife of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From 1729 to 1752 this parish enjoyed the ministrations of Mr Balfour, an eminent and successful divine in his time, but on his death, owing to a Royal presentation being given to, and accepted by a Mr Patrick Grant, regarding whom unfavourable reports reached the parish, the congregation resolved to do all in their power to prevent his settlement in Nigg. The majority of the members of the Presbytery sided with the congregation in their opposition and refused to induct him. The Assembly acquitted Mr Grant of the charge brought against him and again ordered the Presbytery to induct him. A minister was sent to Nigg to explain the Assembly’s decision. He reported on his return that he found only two servants and therefore he did not preach but that he left the edict in the keyhole of the church door. On hearing this the Presbytery determined to disobey the Assembly’s order. Again it went to the Assembly which threatened the Presbytery. The latter in alarm agreed to induct Mr Grant, but when the day came, only four members were present, and according to Scott’s Fasti, two of the four men were found at six o’clock in the evening to have withdrawn in fear, leaving the Presbytery without a quorum and nothing was done. A third time Mr Grant appealed to the Assembly and a motion was made that the whole Presbytery of Tain be deposed instanter, but this was lost as against one that the Presbytery be solemnly rebuked, and the obnoxious presentee was inducted to “ the bare walls ” of the church of Nigg. It was at one of these Presbytery meetings that the famous scene occurred which Hugh Miller so graphically describes in Chapter X. of Scenes and Legends, when Donald Roy, the famous and venerable second sight elder of the congregation, appeared and with prophetic fervour warned them that the blood of the people of the parish would be on their heads if they dared to induct Mr Grant, which so terrified them that they on that occasion quickly carried a motion for delay. Mr Grant acted as pastor for about thirty years after his induction. The people, however, refused to attend the Parish Church, and built for themselves a meeting house at Ankerville. For a time they were without any minister, but in 1760, they heard of a young man who was in Inverness and could preach Gaelic. He came to Nigg, but it appeared that while he was in Inverness he had fallen into debt, and only three years later his landlady found out where her erstwhile lodger was. She set the machinery of the law in motion, and a messenger-at-arms was sent out to arrest him. The men of Nigg were in Logie that day cutting peats, but the women on hearing ot what was to happen to their minister, met in a body at the Red Bridges, filled their pockets with stones and chased him to within two miles of Tain.

In 1765, the Presbytery of Dunfermline and Perth, as there was no Secession Presbytery further north, inducted a Mr Buchanan from Callander. During the last year of Buchanan’s ministry, the heritors resolved that he must have no successor, and thought the best way to do this was to deprive the congregation of their church. A day was appointed for demolishing the building, but no one in the parish would do it. Next day, however, a squad from Logie came and knocked it to pieces. As it was known that the church stones were to be used in the building of the Shandwick Mansion-house, one of the people pronounced a curse on the proprietor and his mansion ; and the remarkable thing is that the mansion was never finished, and stands to this day a saddening sight with its walls unfinished, and now crumbling to ruin, with bats, moles, and rats as its only inhabitants, the red stones of Nigg being conspicuous owing to the lime never adhering to them. A second church was then erected on the Pitcalnie estate. It was thus it came about that before the union of 1900 there were only three United Presbyterian Churches on the mainland, north of Inverness, viz. :—Wick, Tain, and rural Chapelhill in this parish.

The bell of Nigg Parish Church bears the inscription, “Michael Bvrgerhvys, me.1624. Soli Deo Gloria,” while the present church was built on the old site about 1626. The story goes that the people of Nigg and Fearn were expecting bells for their churches from Holland by the same vessel and deputations from both congregations went to Cromarty on the same day to carry them home. After some jollification, they were both crossing to the Nigg side by the same boat and during the passage quarrelled and one of the bells was thrown overboard. Both parties were determined to bring home a bell and had a regular fight, in which it is said the Nigg men won, and this Dutch bell still rings the parishioners to worship.

There is another famous bell, large and well-toned, in the Parish Church of Kincardine, and which has been in regular use since 1778, On a marble tablet under the belfry is the following inscription

This Bell, Captured from a French Ship of War of 74 Guns, was Gifted By Admiral Sir Joiin Ross of Balnagown, Bart., in the year 1778,

To the Parish of Kincardine

“When Britain's navies did a world control,
And spread her empire to the farthest pole;
High stood our hero in the rolls of fame,
And Lockhart then became a deathless name,
This bell no more shall witness blood or gore,
Nor shall his voice mix with the cannon’s roar;
But to Kincardine by the hero given,
Shall call the sinner to the peace of heaven."

In the other parishes there have been clergymen who were famous over a wide area for their eloquence and spirituality of their preaching like Rev. John Porteous who was minister of Kilmuir Easter from 1732 to 1775; Rev. Dr Bethune, minister of Rosskeen between 1717 and 1754 ; and the Rev. Thomas Ross of Kincardine, who as a Covenanter was imprisoned in Tain in 1675, and to whom Rev. James Fraser of Brea and Culross dedicated his memoirs.

There were in those days “men” in every parish, many of whom possessed not only of the highest character because of the sanctity ot their lives but because of their gifts of oratory as well. Some were possessed even of second sight. Several of these second sight stories are told by Hugh Miller regarding Donald Roy. Of another, Alexander Ross of Edderton, similar tales are also told.

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