Saturday, 11 May 2013

Account of a Scottish Highland Communion

On Sabbath week (23d July, 1843) we enjoyed an opportunity of witnessing in the West Highlands one of those impressive spectacles which have been of frequent occurrence in the rural districts of the country since the disruption of the Church — the dispensation of the Lord’s Supper in the open air. The services were of such a peculiarly interesting character, and excited so much attention throughout an extensive tract of country, that, for the benefit of those who have never witnessed sacramental solemnities under similar circumstances, we shall endeavour to describe them.

It was the communion at Ardchattan, a parish situated on the banks of Loch Etive, well known to tourists as one of the most beautiful lochs in Scotland. The Rev. Mr. Fraser, the excellent minister, has joined the Free Church with all his people, the exceptions being quite inconsiderable, and consisting only of a few lairds, and such of their dependents as their influence has retained in the bondage of the Establishment. We are not aware whether the Presbytery of the bounds (Lorn) has of late even provided supplies for the vacant parish; but on the communion Sabbath of the Free Church the parish church was closed. It is a handsome new edifice, which was completed a year or two ago; and seen from the opposite side of the loch, as we pursued our way towards the place where the communion was held, it presented, with its silent and deserted courts, a sorry contrast to the animating scene that awaited us. The manse, a large and commodious one, and then just about to be vacated by Mr. Fraser and his Christian and noble-minded lady, stands on the same side of the loch with the church, but a mile or two farther up, near the site of the old place of worship; and it was a piece of ground in the neighbourhood of the manse which had been selected for the scene of the day’s solemnities. The congregation could be dimly descried across the loch when we reached the ferry, and the melody of psalms was wafted in soft and fitful strains athwart the rippled waters.

On landing on the opposite shore, and rounding a point which prevented us from seeing the congregation till we were full upon it, a scene of unsurpassable beauty and grandeur opened to the view, which we shall never forget. It was one of those sunny and silent Sabbath-days for which we have of late heard town congregations praying, that their fellow-Christians, driven forth from house and hold, might assemble for the worship of the Most High under the canopy of heaven in circumstances of external comfort; and just such a Sabbath as has often recurred, ‘and often been remarked, during the present moist and fickle summer, to make many hearts glad that their prayers for their friends’ and brethren’s sakes had not been disregarded.

It was generally computed that not fewer than three thousand people were congregated on this spot, many of them from a great distance, some of them having crossed mountain, and muir, and loch, for thirty miles round. It was the first communion of the Free Church in the district. None but those who have mingled amongst these warm-hearted and high-minded people, can estimate the depth of affection and the generous enthusiasm with which they have flown to the support of the Free Protesting Church of Scotland. This of itself is attracting hundreds from the mountains and the glens to the Highland communions; and never were seasons of greater solemnity experienced in a land which has long been characterised by the piety of its people.

But this occasion was rendered still more interesting by the presence of that eminent servant of God, the Rev. Dr. M'Donald of Urquhart, familiarly known throughout the Highlands as ‘the apostle of the north’; and of the Rev. Mr. M'Lean, from Cape Breton, we believe. This gentleman returned lately to his native country for the benefit of his health, and has been labouring with singular energy and success in the island of Mull, which has for long been under the undisputed control of Moderate ministers. Mr. M'Lean’s ministry there has been already singularly blessed. The islanders flock to him on Sabbaths and on week-days to receive from his lips a full and faithful exhibition of the gospel; and it was quite delightful to hear, in all quarters, of the great and good work which is going forward in Mull. So acceptable have been his ministrations, that, we rejoice to state, arrangements have been made for settling Mr. M'Lean permanently in Tobermory, the flourishing little capital of the island. In addition to these gentlemen, Mr. Fraser had the able assistance of the Rev. William Fraser of Kilchrenan, and the Rev. Mr. Bannatyne of Oban.

The tent was pitched and the table spread upon a plot of smooth greensward skirting the loch, and sloping upwards from the water’s edge till it terminated in a knoll, rising to the level of the ancient sea-beach, which is seen running with remarkable precision in parallel lines on the banks of Loch Etive, as in all the manifold lochs which intersect this part of the Highlands. It was on this knoll, formed by a massive rock, and glittering with wild flowers – the stone-crop, the blue-bell, Milton’s ‘euphrasy,’ the thyme, and the tormentilla – that the great proportion of the multitude were seated, full in view of the tent, which was placed with its back to the water. Contemplated from this beautiful spot, with the solemn associations of the day and the occasion crowding upon the mind, the surrounding scenery assumed the aspect of one august temple. A few miles to the left, and closing the view of the loch in that direction, Ben Cruachan was seen in all his magnificent proportions, from base to summit, relieved against a serene sky — his rugged scalp of bare red granite glistening in the sunshine, and contrasting with the broad shadows cast upon his flanks by the passing clouds. The peaks of the Glenorchy hills, seen far off over the shoulder of the lofty Ben, formed the background of the view in that direction. In front lay the district of Mid Lorn, with its ocean of swelling hills; and away to the right, the rest of the gorgeous panorama was filled up by the lofty hills of Mull and the dark heights of Morven. At the foot of the loch, and commanding a strait where the tides flow with a tumultuous rapidity and power which often set all navigation at defiance, stood the ancient castle of Dunstaffnage, once the seat of Scottish royalty, and still a proud and beautiful ruin. Doubling the promontory, we come upon another fort, the castle of Dunolly; and within sight of Dunstaffnage stand the interesting remains of the vitrified fort of Beregonium. Duart and Ardtornish castles are in the distance; and almost every island and every headland bristles with its old fortalice or keep, reminding the stranger of no very remote age when this lovely and romantic land was the seat of lawless power and feudal despotism – when the chiefs were tyrants and the people serfs.

It was in such a scene, and on such an occasion, when the contrast betwixt the Highlands as they were and as they are was suggested to the mind by external objects so striking, that one could appreciate the full force of Dr. Chalmers’s thrilling appeal in behalf of the home missionary labours of the Church of our fathers:

‘Come and see the effect of her missionary exertions. It is palpable, and near at hand. It lies within the compass of many a summer tour; and tell me, ye children of fancy, who expatiate with a delighted eye over the wilds of our mountain scenery, if it be not a dearer and a worthier exercise still, to contemplate the habits of her once rugged and wandering population. What would they have been at this moment, had schools, and bibles, and ministers been kept back from them? and had the men of a century ago been deterred by the flippancies of the present age, from the work of planting chapels and seminaries in that neglected land? The ferocity of their ancestors would have come down, unsoftened and unsubdued, to the existing generation. The darkening spirit of hostility would still have lowered upon us from the north; and these plains, now so peaceful and so happy, would have lain open to the fury of merciless invaders. O, ye soft and sentimental travellers, who wander so securely over this romantic land, you are right to choose the season when the angry elements of nature are asleep! But what is it that has charmed to their long repose the more dreadful elements of human passion and human injustice? What is it that has quelled the boisterous spirit of her natives? – and while her torrents roar as fiercely, and her mountain brows look as grimly as ever, what is that which has thrown so softening an influence over the minds and manners of her living population?’ (Dr. Chalmers’ Works, Vol. xi. p. 233).

We had a ready answer in the scene before us. It was – what might long ago have Christianised and civilised distracted Ireland – the Bible in the school and the Bible in the church, read and expounded in the native language. We have often heard of the attention which Highlanders give to preaching in Gaelic, but never before had an opportunity of witnessing it. Dr. M'Donald was the first minister who preached from the tent, the action sermon to the Gaelic-speaking population being assigned to him: and while his sonorous voice rose high and clear as the sound of a trumpet, all heard and all hung upon his words, with an eagerness which we never saw equalled under the most eloquent discourse to a Lowland congregation. Wherever there was a prominence on the knoll which projected a group in strong relief from the mass, there they sat, like a study of heads in statuary, all looking earnestly at the preacher, and all rooted immoveably to the spot. The universal attention was infectious, and Sassenach ears, albeit unused to the music of the mountain tongue, listened too with pleasure, till they began to attach intelligible ideas to these unwonted sounds.

Mr. Fraser, the late minister of the parish, preached an excellent sermon in English, to a small body of the people, in a barn attached to the manse, preparatory to dispensing the communion there. The audience was much impressed; and when the sacred elements were brought forth, and the Lord’s people were invited to come forward to His table – spread out with rustic simplicity in that bald ‘upper chamber’, dimly lighted by narrow loop-holes, seated with rude benches, and swept through by the passing breeze – there was something so touching in the scene and its accessories, that all present seemed overcome at once by the same emotion, and not a few wept.

The services here were concluded with a very seasonable and soothing discourse by Mr. Bannatyne, when most of the congregation joined the main body in the open air. Here the services were if possible still more affecting. Mr. Fraser of Kilchrenan was addressing the last table of communicants, with much energy and affection of manner. The same earnest attention and unbroken stillness prevailed amongst the people. The table was stretched in one long line in front of the tent, where Dr. M'Donald was seated, the benches running parallel on either side. The preacher closed his animated address, and as the elders moved noiselessly along, carrying the consecrated memorials of redeeming love, the eye, in glancing along the rows of devout communicants, might have fallen upon the figure of some venerable man in a shepherd’s plaid, swaying himself backwards and forwards, unconscious of aught but his own thoughts – and whose stooping posture and thin white locks testified to the winters he had weathered amongst the surrounding heights. There were many such fine specimens of the cottage patriarch, pious and grave men, seated at the table of communion; and decent matrons in homely but comfortable attire, wearing no bonnets, but with caps as white as the driven snow. All seemed profoundly affected. Many shed tears. Surely that was a day of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, and a day long to be remembered in the district.

Mr. M'Lean addressed the people after the communion, in Gaelic, in which language all the open air services were conducted, and was listened to with unflagging interest. After a song of praise, which had a peculiarly pleasing effect in the native tongue, the benediction was pronounced by Dr. M'Donald, and the congregation began to disperse. One solitary vessel was seen on the loch during the day, a handsome yacht, which had conveyed a party of warmly attached friends of the Free Church from Oban to Ardchattan. Now its surface was dotted far and near with boats filled with people; and up amongst the hills and glens groups were seen slowly wending homewards in all directions. In a brief space scarcely a vestige of the multitude was anywhere to be discovered. The boats had rounded headlands, and disappeared. Families and friends who took sweet counsel together as they left behind them the scene of sacramental solemnities, and whose hearts burned within them by the way, while they sought again their quiet hamlets and mountain sheilings, were lost sight of as they receded into the shadows of the hills. And the thought came home impressively to one’s mind, that here was a great congregation separated, which could never surely all worship together again on this side of eternity.

Next day there were thanksgiving sermons in English and Gaelic, Dr. M'Donald preaching to a congregation of several hundreds in the latter language. A churlish landlord, who had refused a site for the Free Church, prohibited his farm-servants from attending worship on the fast-day and the preparation and thanksgiving days; and on one or other of these occasions sent them to hay-making, although it rained! In order to accommodate his people, and others in similar circumstances, as well as many from a distance who still lingered in the neighbourhood, Dr. M'Donald consented to preach again in the evening, after working-hours. When Mr. Fraser made the announcement of an additional sermon, which it was known that many from a distance would remain to hear, at great personal inconvenience, he expressed in Gaelic a hope that the people living in the neighbourhood would show every kindness in their power to those who were far from home, reminding them that even a cup of cold water given to them in the name of disciples, would not lose its reward. When the congregation turned to go away, it seemed as if every countenance beamed with tenderness and brotherly love.

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