The blessed influence of the awakening extended northward into Sutherlandshire and southward into the Black Isle. It was powerfully felt in Golspie, a parish signally favoured in the ‘Far North’ for vital religion. In the seventeenth century, the Earls of Sutherland might be said to rival those of Argyll in unflinching devotion to Christ’s cause and covenant, and many were the devout refugees who found a quiet resting-place in the reign of terror, under the shadow of Dunrobin Castle, in Golspie.
In 1690, Mr. Walter Denoon, a native of Easter Ross, was inducted to the parish. He is more than once honourably mentioned by Wodrow in his history as a notable Covenanting preacher. On the 3rd September, 1678, he had the honour of being accused as a keeper of conventicles in his native county. On the 12th February, 1679, he was seized by the young Earl of Seaforth, and ordered to be transported from sheriff to sheriff till he arrived at the Tolbooth of Edinburgh. Six days after, Lord Brodie enters in his Diary: ‘This day Mr. Walter Denoon passed by, being taken by the Earl of Seaforth on the 12th, and sent from shire to shire. My soul grieved that this should be the first act of that young man’s life. Lord!, overrule and turn it to good.’ On arriving at the south ferry of Dundee, worthy Denoon was rescued by his friend, ‘that excellent young gentlemen, Andrew Ayton, younger of Inchardie,’ who, when little more than seventeen years of age, was an intercommuned fugitive in Moray, and so soon to win the martyr’s crown at Cupar.
In 1680, Denoon was so obnoxious from holding conventicles that the Privy Council on 6th March, wrote a virulent letter to Alexander Mackenzie, Sheriff-Depute of Ross, to suppress conventicles in that shire. After referring to the king’s care to suppress such meetings, and to Ross-shire as a district purged of infection, they add, ‘Yet some bold and presumptuous persons, setting aside all fear of God and respect to their sovereign and his laws, have adventured to intrude themselves in a pretended ministry, and thereby to debauch weak men and silly women, drawing them into those rebellious methods, particularly one Mr. Denoon and Mr. Hepburn; we cannot expect but you will use all diligence to apprehend them or others, and dissipate their meetings with all severity.’
So determined were the Council to create a solitude and call it peace, that in less than a week (12th March) they sent another peremptory letter to the Earl of Moray, urging him ‘to use all diligence to preserve the northern shires from this infection’. Mr. John Hepburn, mentioned by the Council as the coadjutor of Denoon, was the son of a persecuted Covenanter who lived in the neighbourhood of Forres. Father and son are often mentioned as guests at Brodie Castle. After the Revolution, Mr. John Hepburn became minister of Urr, Dumfries, and was a noted and persistent contender against defections in Church and State. Denoon was a member of the Assembly in October 1690, and one of the Commission of Assembly for visiting on the north side of the Tay. ‘His last appearance,’ records Dr. Scott, Fasti, ‘is on the roll of Synod, 19th June, 1728, when he is said to have been nearly a hundred years old, and in the 76th of his ministry, having been for many years the oldest minister in the province.’
He was succeeded in Golspie by Mr. John Sutherland (son of Mr. Arthur Sutherland of Edderton) in 1731. Sutherland was a devoted Gospel minister, a zealous champion of the rights of the people in opposition to the moderatism that was beginning to poison the life of the National Church. ‘He greatly encouraged opposition to the settlements of those ministers who did not have the popular voice in their favour, and gave sealing ordinances to such as withdrew from their regular pastors; so that he exercised the office of universal bishop in their bounds.’ He was eager to join in ‘the concert for prayers’, entered into on the part of leading ministers in America and Scotland in 1744.
On the 8th August, 1745, he wrote an interesting letter to Mr. Robe, which was published in his Monthly History of that year. He begins by bearing testimony to the piety and patriotism of the noble Sutherland family, in serving the interests of true religion in the parish. The Covenanting fugitives, instead of returning to their old homes after the Revolution, evinced their gratitude and attachment to the family of Dunrobin by remaining for ‘the rest of their days in their respective callings under the wings that covered them in their distress’. They and their children became a blessing to others. ‘At my admission in 1731,’ he tells, ‘there was a goodly number of devout Christians in the place, but in a few years sundry of them were called to the joy of their Lord; whilst we who survived them found cause to bewail that but few were wrought upon to fill up their places.
‘In this uncomfortable state of things, and amidst my greater fears than hopes, I took care to notify to the people the blessed and wonderful sense of the Gospel in the British colonies of America, so soon as I had certain accounts of it by the printed declarations of Messrs. Edwards and Cooper and others. I likewise communicated to them the display of Divine mercy and grace, your congregation, that of Cambuslang, and sundry other congregations in the west and south of Scotland were so highly favoured with, immediately after I found that blessed work so well attested by you, by Mr. Willison of Dundee, Mr. Webster of Edinburgh, and sundry more of our brethren of unquestionable credit. After my return from the Assembly of 1743 I also reported to them what with great joy I had myself observed of the Lord’s work with you at Kilsyth, Methil, and Cambuslang, in my way to that Assembly; if by these means I might provoke the people to emulation, yet no success was observed.
‘In August 1743, after the administration of the sacrament of the Holy Supper at Nigg, at which I assisted, I lamented to our dear and worthy brother, Mr. Balfour, the wretched security of the people of my parish, and my unsuccessful ministry among them. He thereupon reported how much cause he had to bless the Lord for the success of the Gospel among his people from the time he had constituted societies for prayer in his parish. Immediately I resolved to essay the like means in imitation of his successful example, and on my return home communicated this design to some of the serious people of the parish, and directed them to meet in three separate societies on Saturday evenings, with earnest recommendations to them to pray for the influences of the Spirit of God to accompany the ministration of Gospel ordinances in the place. This number called the rest of the communicants together, and soon set about the duty according to recommendation, but no remarkable change could be observed on any for the space of a year thereafter.
‘But when our hopes were almost gone, the great and bountiful God, who ever does wonders, was mercifully pleased to breathe upon a number of dry bones, and to visit them with His salvation; for from the beginning of November last to the date hereof, upwards of seventy persons came to me under various exercises of soul. A few of this number, who had visited me in or about November last, told, among other things, that they had been for sundry months bowed down in spirit under a sense of their aggravated guilt, but, for reasons they mentioned, could not get themselves prevailed upon to disclose their sad circumstances till then. Soon after this hint I showed to the congregation, in a doctrinal way, that it was the duty of awakened sinners, next to their application to a throne of grace, to lay open their sense of sin and misery to ministers and experienced Christians, lest through want of appointed helps Satan and lusts might get advantages of them. This public notice so far encouraged such as were awakened before or after that date that they afterwards resorted to me frequently as their occasions required.’
After describing the exercises and temptations of the awakened, he proceeds: ‘With regard to their conversion I may affirm that the change to the better is evident in their lives, as their neighbours testify of them. This work was advanced in some by quicker and in others by slower degrees; yet in both a decent, grave and solemn deportment, or shedding abundance of tears, which they concealed as long as they were able, were all the visible signs we had in time of hearing of the inward concern of their minds. And by reason of the silence and calmness that accompanied this work in its beginning or progress hitherto, we have heard of none that returned to reproach it. About forty of them have with weeping eyes and trembling hands received tokens for the Lord’s Table at the late solemn ordinance here, and it is hoped the rest will be encouraged to follow their example in a little time. With respect to the effects produced on their bodies, some have told me that they had been deprived of many nights’ rest, others of many hours of almost every night, in which they were deeply exercised with apprehensions of the wrath of God, or much comforted. Some for a time lost nearly all appetite for food, or forgot to eat at their set meals. Others felt their bodily strength and health much impaired; and a few had tremblings on some occasions without any other effects on their bodies.
‘I must further remark that, since the beginning of this work, those of long standing in religion have been sensibly revived and enlarged, and are much comforted now with what they observe in others, and are very helpful to them. Even the secure multitude attend ordinances better, and seem to listen to the word preached with greater attention than before. Most of the awakened are between twenty and fifty years of age; few are under twenty, and only four from sixty to seventy. They are farmers or tradesmen, or their wives and servants. Seven are widows in low circumstances. The terrors of the Lord denounced in His Word against the wilful transgressors of His holy laws, and the impenitent, unbelieving despisers of His Gospel grace; the impossibility of salvation on the score of self-righteousness; the absolute necessity of the efficacious influences of the grace and Spirit of God in order to a vital union with Christ by faith for righteousness and salvation; that all the blessings of the New Covenant freely given by the Father to the elect, and purchased for them by the sufferings and death of Christ the Son, are effectually applied to them by the Holy Ghost -- these were the doctrines insisted on to the congregation. Those wrought upon have told me that a course of lectures on the Gospel according to Matthew, especially the conclusion on the sufferings, death, [and] resurrection of Christ, together with sermons on Deuteronomy 31:21, 22; Ephesians 4:30; 1 Peter 4:17-18; 2 Peter 2:9; Ephesians 5:14; [and] Matthew 12:4; were the means the Lord had blessed to their edification.’