Donald M’Queen was for seventy years catechist in Bracadale and Duirinish in Skye. A short book about M’Queen was written by his minister (James Ross) and published in 1891, perhaps surprisingly, by London-based company, Thomas Nelson. The author’s method is not to give a chronological account of M’Queen; instead he focuses on several traits that were prominent in the catechist. In fact, we learn more about Ross’ outlook than we do of M’Queen. We can also read about M’Queen in Roderick MacCowan’s Men of Skye in which a chapter is given to his life, and this chapter gives more biographical details as well as several anecdotes.
M’Queen died on 13th November 1885, when he was one hundred years of age. His father had been a farmer and an innkeeper in Skye and had been able to give his son a good education (including attending a school in Inverness), which enabled him in later years to read current literature and also contribute effectively to church courts. After his schooldays, he returned to Skye and was a tutor in the families of wealthy persons.
In his twenties, he heard James Farquharson, the Haldane preacher, who was instrumental under the hand of God in bringing many in Skye into the kingdom of Christ. M’Queen also was converted through this preacher (his wife also became a Christian through Farquharson, although the account does not indicate if she was married at the time). In 1815, M’Queen moved to the parish of Bracadale when the minister there (Mr. Shaw) appointed him as the first English teacher on the island of Soay. For about twenty-nine years he was employed by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge as a teacher in several districts of the parish, and after the Disruption in 1843 he became a catechist for the Free Church. As a catechist he served for fourteen years in Duirinish before returning to Bracadale where he served until his death.
Shaw had come to Bracadale in 1814. When he began his ministry there, Skye was not in a healthy spiritual state. The gospel was not preached in many of its pulpits. Instead the people heard a form of legalism that indicated a person’s good works were sufficient for entrance to heaven. For the eight years that he had in Bracadale before his death in 1823, Shaw had a willing helper in M’Queen in bringing the gospel to sinners.
The ignorance of the way of salvation that prevailed in the community meant that M’Queen had to explain clearly the meaning of sin so that his listeners would understand and feel the plague of their own hearts. Of course, he realised that such conviction is the result of the work of the Spirit. Further he preached as one who knew the sinfulness of his own heart, and that is usually the kind of preacher that the Spirit uses to bring genuine conversions.
On one occasion, a lady asked him what Bunyan meant by the Slough of Despond? His reply was, ‘Whatever Bunyan meant by that, I wish I saw you in it; I wish I saw you in the Slough of Despond.’ What M’Queen meant was that such an experience was a good way of getting rid of notions of self-righteousness and turning to Christ alone for mercy. His biographer cites with approval this statement by John Owen: ‘A poor ungodly sinner going to God with the guilt of all his sins upon him, to receive forgiveness at His hand, doth bring more glory unto Him than the obedience of an angel.’
A notable convert of M’Queen’s was John Maclean, a man who was one hundred years old. M’Queen called at his home and found him confined to bed and blind. Although he was in a bad way physically, he was worse off spiritually. M’Queen discovered that the man’s hopes for eternity were based on his own good works. However, through the words of M’Queen, the man was savingly changed and was given seven more years in which he witnessed to the grace he had received from God.
One of the striking features of M’Queen’s character as a catechist was his patience. He persisted in preaching publicly and counselling personally those who showed no interest in the gospel. His dealings with the wayward were marked by wisdom and his policy was never to discuss the sins of one person with another person -- instead he spoke to each individually about his or her sins. Often he had to exercise patience with those who misunderstood his messages; his response was to let them speak so that he would discover their misconceptions and correct them from the Bible. His patience was also revealed in his persistence in prayer for the gospel to be blessed; ‘if the answer was not given presently, he was kept in an elevated frame of mind waiting patiently for it.’ His colleagues recognised that his patient personality made him an ideal person for healing disputes between people; he ‘excelled in finding ways and means of restoring peace and in inducing those at variance to become reconciled.’ Patience was also seen in the way he responded to troubles: he regarded each ordeal ‘as a fatherly chastisement, designed for his good, and intended to increase his faith’. He knew that he needed daily grace to bear these trials patiently and he sought and obtained it. Personal failures in exercising patience caused him to mourn, which is a reminder that devout believers are strongly affected by such sins.