URQUHART – ivy-clad kirk by the Firth

Attribution: not recorded or unknown

The following chapter about Urquhart Church is taken from the book “Land of Churches” by Leonella Longmore and is reproduced by kind permission of Leonella and her husband Bryan.

CHAPTER 22 - URQUHART - ivy-clad kirk by the Firth

Even those who know the Black Isle may not be aware of its abundance of kirks and kirkyards where evidence of a past religious fervour is complemented by the shore-line beauty of the Cromarty Firth. To find one such ecclesiastical experience take the A9 North to Wick and, just before the Cromarty Bridge, turn left to Conon Bridge. As you follow the narrow twisting road that skirts the Firth look right for two clusters of yew trees. Take care on approaching them for you may not notice the old graveyard which they guard until you are already past its iron gate, the sign outside warning you that no dogs may enter. The burial place could do with a more dignified sign outside its entrance for this is the site of old Urquhart Church, a kirk with a history that deserves to be told.

Having left the car outside the gate, you walk along a modern driveway and begin to wonder if this is indeed the place where, according to one record, St. Maelrubha of Applecross was murdered by the Danes in 722. No trace now of the oak chapel that was erected on the spot of his martyrdom and rebuilt five centuries later in stone by Sophia, one of the Urquharts of Cromarty, to whom the Church and Parish owe their name. Yet, on turning right, the feeling of disbelief fades as you find youself amidst old family enclosures, some hidden within balustraded walls, some surrounded with iron railings. 

Ruins of Urquhart Church

Urquhart Church – ivy-clad ruin by the Cromarty Firth    Attribution: Leonella and Bryan Longmore

Suddenly, you realise that what you see ahead is not a clump of trees but a towering creeper that is insiduously smothering the ruins of a church. A sense of melancholy may come over you as you walk round the walls of the ancient kirk, its belfry silenced and hidden by the monstrous ivy, its interior engulfed by the undergrowth. It is as though an undisciplined nature were trying to stifle the echo of a voice that, in the early 19th century, rang out across the Firth: the voice of the Apostle of the North, the Rev. John Macdonald of Ferintosh.

Said by some to have been ‘the greatest Gaelic preacher since St Columba,’ John Macdonald came to the Parish of Urquhart in 1813 and soon his new and aggressive evangelical style made his a household name all over the Highlands. One of the greatest open-air preachers at a time when the Black Isle had a plethora of outstanding evangelists, his Communion gatherings which were held once a year or once in every two years in every parish drew thousands from all over the North. So great were the crowds that he held his open air sevices at Ferintosh Burn, known as the ‘Sacrament Burn.’ Soon after his arrival at Urquhart his wife died just before his first Communion service. Macdonald refused to postpone the service for the immense crowd that had assembled at ‘the Burn’ to hear him preach. His biographer, the Rev. John Kennedy, relates: ‘From the very commencement of the service there was an unusual stillness in the congregation. Few eyes were tearless in that vast assembly; and when, in the evening, he appealed to the unconverted, commending to them the love of Jesus, urging on their acceptance His offer of marriage, and warning them of the danger of refusing His advances, the hearts of the sinners were pierced. The excitement at last was very great, the groans and the outcries of the stricken ones sometimes drowning the voice of the preacher.’ Eye-witnesses at his later, enormous gatherings claimed there was ‘a strange power in the thrill of his voice.’ And his very appearance may have caused many a God- fearing woman to question her purity of mind, dressed as he was ‘after the fashion of the day, in a long black cassock, and skin-tight trousers, which showed off his fine manly frame to great advantage.’ Could this explain in part his being described by the over-virtuous ‘Men of Duthil’ as ‘a blackbird of the devil?’

An evangelist he was, a pastor in constant watch over his flock, he was not, for his travels often took him away from his parish. Several times he visited St. Kilda and once he even went over to try to convert the Irish Catholics on their own ground – a bold act for one who admitted, ‘I never went to the pulpit without fear, and I never left it without shame.’ After the Disruption in 1843 when the Free Church of Scotland was formed, he left his comfortable manse and the new Urquhart Church – the present parish church, completed in 1795 and situated half a mile along the road. For Macdonald had not been the incumbent of the ivy-covered ruin, which was once known as the ‘New Kirk’ of Urquhart.

This ‘New Kirk’ you are visiting had been built to replace an old stone one, thatched with heather. A replacement much needed, judging from the Session minutes that record constant attempts by parishioners at the beginning of the 18th century to obtain pew accommodation. Some even took the law into their own hands: ‘The Officer reported that Andrew Fraser and Kenneth Urquhart in Culbokie made an intrusion on the Kirk by breaking up the Kirk doors, and at their own hand, contrary to the sentence of the Session, set up a seat in the entry of the Kirk, to the straitening and incommoding the congregation, and hindering from free access to their seats, though that place was denied to others having better right, being tenants.’ The Session ordered the seat to be destroyed and the two presumptuous parishioners to be fined and brought before a civil judge if they didn’t pay up.

A decision was made to rebuild the church from the foundation, making the breadth the same, but extending its length by 12 feet and adding on the south side a wing known as the ‘Poor’s Aisle’ – the income from its seat rents going to augment the Poor Fund. But the tenants of Forbes of Culloden did not occupy their new Loft for long. Only forty years later the new kirk was struck by lightning and the fire which ignited its roof spread to the pews, floors and supporting wooden pillars of the lofts. According to the Rev. William Young, who wrote a comprehensive study of his parish in 1984, ‘some charred fragments of timber can still be seen among the ruins.’ It might be difficult to see them amongst the wilderness of today.

Unfortunate though the parishioners may have been in their new kirk, they were fortunate in their conscientious ministers. The last of the three incumbents to preach from the pulpit of the new kirk was Charles Calder, who came to Urquhart – his only charge – in 1774 and stayed there till his death in 1812. A clergy-man’s son, this passionate preacher of Ferintosh had one great theme: the love of Jesus. So much did this subject dominate his sermons he was known to the less loyal of his parishioners as ‘The Piper of one tune.’ His wife, a daughter of Brodie of Brodie, would often find him on the Sabbath rolling on the floor and bewailing his unworthiness to mount the pulpit. On one occasion on asking her why his father had encouraged him to become a minister instead of a blacksmith, she replied: ‘He knew better than that, he knew that your arms lacked strength to wield the hammer, but that you had a tongue that could proclaim to perishing sinners the riches of the love of Christ.’

The pious Calder was to see his kirk go up ip flames and the building of a new one along the road. So the present Urquhart Church,completed in 1795, is the building which the Apostle of the North describes as ‘a plain capacious house, situated near the seashore, as near as possible in the middle of the parish. The number of sitters accommodated is 1200; but from 1500 to 1800 have often been crammed within its walls.’ During his ministry so many extra worshippers came to hear him that planks had to be laid across the aisles to accommodate them. One Sabbath, an overloaded plank broke in two with such a noise that the congregation remembered a prophecy of another Black Isle notable and panicked. It appears the Brahan Seer had prophesied of Urquhart Church that: ‘When a magpie shall have made a nest for three successive years in the gable of the church, it will fall when full of people.’ A magpie had made her nest as foretold and when the congregation heard the crack it stampeded for the door, thinking that the roof was falling in. In the mad rush many of them fell and were injured.

It is fitting that the powerful evangelist be buried in the old kirkyard, so walk towards the avenue of yew trees leading down to the shore. On the left, beside other ministers of the parish is the gravestone of the Apostle, erected by mourning parishioners. Other very early flat stones are worthy of examination; and a wall monument of 1745 commands attention for sculptured angels are not a common grave theme in the Highlands. Three chubby cherubs are carved in stone, two of them sounding the trumpets of the Resurrection, the third prodding the deceased – the grieving family here did not seem to have much faith in their loved one’s chance of waking up.

Walk on through the avenue of yews to the end wall, listening to the birds’ call and watching their antics on the mudflats below. Here is the Yair of Urquhart – the sand-bar set up in the Firth to trap fish when the tide went out. In the 18th century a decision was reached by which the small fish caught there were distributed to the poor.

Time now to enjoy the peaceful beauty of the Firth, to identify Dingwall snuggling into the foothills across the water, to wonder again at ubiquitous, ever-changing Ben Wyvis. No wonder that the Forbeses of Culloden wanted to add the estate of Ferintosh – Fearann an Tois’eachd (land of the Thane) – to their family possessions in 1669. When a Duncan Forbes later declared his allegiance for William and Mary, the Culloden property was damaged by the supporters of Bonnie Dundee at the end of the 17th century. As compensation, Duncan was given a ‘perpetual right’ to distil all the grain from his estate at Ferintosh into whisky. For nearly a century – as long as the privilege lasted – more whisky was distilled in Ferintosh than in all the rest of Scotland put together. When the privilege was bought back by the Government in 1784, the price of whisky immediately shot up, and Scotland’s most famous poet and lover of the ‘water of life’ lamented:

‘Thee Ferintosh! 0 sadly lost
Scotland lament frae coast to coast
Now colic gript, an’ barkin’ hoast
May kill us a’
For loyal Forbes’s chartered boast
Is ta’en awa!’

Even eight years later, in 1792, there were 29 licensed stills in Ferintosh. There must have been many souls to be saved, so it is not surprising that the area attracted so many evangelical ministers at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Time, therefore, to find the site of the great gatherings of the most famous evangelist of them all. Leave the peaceful kirkyard and continue for about half a mile until you come to a fork in the road. Follow the arrow to Ferintosh, but stop immediately on the left before the bridge. There you will see FERINTOSH BURN – PREACHING SITE.

Ferintosh Burn
Ferintosh Burn – where people flocked to hear the preachings of the Apostle of the North.As you follow a track under arches made by gnarled branches of ancient oak trees, the rushing water of the burn announces your arrival at the historic site. Suddenly, you emerge into a natural amphitheatre, where, on a bright day, the rays of the sun seem directed at the small, chapel-like, stone building that stands above the hollow. It is difficult to imagine, but yes, you can almost believe that as many as 10,000 used to gather here to listen to the ‘the wild man of Ferintosh.’

No longer do the worshippers come, but the birds and the animals do for it is now a Wildlife Reserve. In this ecumenical age, it could be that the Apostle of the North and St. Francis are coming together.

Postscript to this history of Urquhart Church:

In the Ross-shire Journal of 1 July 1910 there is recorded the transfer to Urquhart Church of a brass tablet detailing the names of past ministers:

1565 John Robeson, AM
1574 Robert Monro
1642 George Munro
1657 Robert Ross, AM
1665 Donald Fraser
1686 Andrew Ross
1715 Alex. Fraser, AM
1729 Alex Falconer, AM
1757 Donald Fraser
1774 Chas. Calder, AM
1815 John Macdonald, DD
1844 Peter Mackenzie, DD

Ferintosh Burn - where people flocked to hear the preachings of the Apostle of the North.

Attribution: Leonella and Bryan Longmore

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