KILLEARNAN - kirk of controversial clerics
Once across the Kessock Bridge turn first left away from the stream of traffic that roars along the A9 to the North and within minutes another world awaits you. Heading towards the former fishing-village of Charlestown, travel along the narrow twisting road that fringes the shore and see myriad seabirds: restless oystercatchers forever probing in the sand, motionless cormorants spreading their wings to dry, hunchbacked herons looking cold and forlorn. A glimpse through the trees of an abandoned, crumbling castle may arouse your curiosity – a detour, perhaps, for another day – but now continue to the red stone building with its commanding outlook over the Beauly Firth: Killearnan Church.
The first impression may be one of surprise for the building is not small, yet it is placed in what must always have been a small hamlet and could never have been conveniently placed for the population of the parish of Killearnan. The parish, however, does comprise two ancient fortresses of the Black Isle, Redcastle and Kilcoy, so it was well-sited for the more powerful of the land barons, the Laird of Redcastle.
The window in the east gable attracts attention, its large dimensions seeming to be out of character with those of Highland rural churches.. But then this building, although added to and restored, goes back to the fifteenth century. Its particular Gothic-style architecture is unusual in Scotland, a possible explanation being that influence was from the nearby fortress of Redcastle which had at that time reverted to the Crown.
The sturdy kirk in the form of a cross is said to derive its name from the seventh century Saint Ithurnan, a nephew of St Columba. Once thatched with heather, it was in 1750 ‘raised in the walls, slated, and seated; but in opposition to the then minister’s wishes, the heritors continued its former Popish form. The present heritors seem not less attached to this relic of Popery than their predecessors.’ Inside the building look for a relic of its distant past: a small reclining carved figure staking its claim to antiquity in a highly-illuminated interior. The brightness inside tells of the church’s restoration in 1892 by the well-known Inverness architects, Ross and Macbeth, whose heightening of the walls by 4 feet explains the sense of spaciousness. On a plaque are inscribed the names of the incumbents of the church, going back to Robert of 1223-1249. The long list will tell future generations of the fundamental change that came about in 1985 with the name of Susan M Brown, the first woman to be appointed minister of Killearnan.
Over the centuries the parishioners of Killearnan seem to have had trouble with a few of their ministers. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, they had complained to the Assembly that their minister, Robert Graham, would not reside in the parish. Graham, the grandson of the first Earl of Montrose, airily dismissed his congregation’s complaint. His justification was that there was neither manse nor glebe at Killearnan, and moreover, he knew no Gaelic. Holding other offices, he was obviously reluctant to give up living in the Archdeacon’s Manse in Fortrose, although he showed his appreciation of Killearnan by acquiring the small estate of Drynie where his descendants lived for three hundred years. A turbulent man, he was also accused of having taken part in the plundering at dead of night of the house of his colleague, the Chancellor of Ross. He and two others are said to have pulled ‘…the complainer’s spouse out of her naked bed, tore her sark and shamefully and unmercifully, without pity or compassion, struck her in divers parts of her body, shot her out the house into the close.’ Not surprisingly, since two other leading men of the day in Ross were also implicated in the scandal, records as to the final outcome of the case disappeared.
That Presbyterianism was not popular with the Episcopal Lairds and their tenantry is evident from the opposition shown to preachers following the Revolution of 1688. Many of them just lost heart and left. When John McArthur came to the parish in 1719, the heritors refused to pay his stipend. An action was raised against them and in retaliation they razed his manse to the ground.
But the incumbent of Killearnan at the time of Culloden had probably only himself to blame: Donald Fraser had the unfortunate habit of falling asleep during his service. The members of the congregation were quite accustomed to dropping off themselves during the interminable sermons of the time, but objected to their minister following suit. In self-defence he claimed to have been bewitched by two local women who were suspected of being witches. Fraser believed he had offended them in some way and they, in retaliation, had stuck pins into a clay effigy they had made of him. What happened to the suspects is not recorded, but it is known that when the minister was invited to transfer to Ferintosh, he stated that if one man or woman of Killeaman objected to his leaving he would stay on. He left.
One name, however, that once commanded universal respect not only in Killearnan but also throughout the North is that of John Kennedy, 1814-1841, whose pulpit you will see on the left of the nave. He would certainly not recognise his church as it stands today. His son, Dr. Kennedy of Dingwall, in The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire paints a dismal picture of the kirk as it was in 1839: ‘Built in the form of a cross, with the pulpit at one of the angles, its barn-like roof unceiled, its windows broken, its doors all crazy, its seats ill-arranged, and pervaded by a dim uncertain light, it was a dismal dingy-looking place within. But all applications for a new church, or a sufficient repair of the old, were refused by the heritors. Tradesmen were found to declare, that the church was perfectly safe, and, whether it was comfortable or not, the heritors did not care, as they never sat in it themselves.’
The writer tells of what happened to those who refused to restore the House of the Lord. Apparently, the Laird who was most opposed to the repairs lost much of his property by fire, the carpenter who declared the old church ‘good and sufficient’ was killed shortly afterwards and the lawyer who represented the heritors at the presbytery meeting went out of business. Dr. Kennedy’s only comment is ‘touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm.’
A walk round the old kirkyard will bring you to the enclosure that surrounds the burial place of the minister loved and praised by the people of Killearnan. John Kennedy was a great friend of the Apostle of the North, John Macdonald of Ferintosh, with whom he often travelled as an evangelist and with whom he divided the work of a communion season. The original sandstone tablet erected in his honour was replaced by a much later congregation in July 1937:
A MAN OF GOD, SENT FORTH INTO THE VINEYARD WITH THE FULNESS OF GOSPEL BLESSINGS…
Kennedy’s preaching was such that to hear him some of the faithful would walk twenty to thirty miles every Sunday. At the beginning of his ministry Communion was dispensed only once a year, and generally on the first Sunday in August. It is said that as many as 10,000 people met on these days, with 2000 of them taking Communion. Such large assemblies were held in the old quarry not far from the church. In the early 19th century the quarry produced stone for the Caledonian Canal locks, the blocks being shipped across the Firth from the old pier near by. From the road the former quarry is not easily discernible. Only by scrambling down the steep dip into a wooded copse can you appreciate the vastness of the old site and imagine the scene where hordes of people gathered, some to receive the Sacrament others to enjoy the excitement of a day-out: ‘In front of the rock, which with the strata of earth that covered it, rose to height of about a hundred feet, and between two mounds of the rubbish that had been removed during the process of excavation, the minister’s tent was erected. There was level ground in front of it, on which the communion tables were placed, and on either side, tier above tier, rose the vast multitude of people.’
This Billy Graham of the early nineteenth century was father to a succession of ministers, making the name Kennedy a household word in Ross-shire. Until the turn of this century people used to come to the manse of Killearnan to see the nursery of the Kennedy children.
Although Ministers and Lairds of Killearnan did not always see eye to eye in the early days of Presbyterianism, death acknowledges no differences as they lie back to back in the old kirkyard. Look for the parapeted enclosure of the MacKenzies of Kilcoy, erstwhile Lairds of restored Kilcoy Castle, situated two miles north of Killearnan. One Mackenzie corpse seems to lead a double life – if you can say that about the dead. Family tradition tells of a certain Kenneth Mackenzie, Sheriff of Inverness and Ross who was murdered in the castle by a smuggler called ‘Black Calder’. His restless ghost is said to haunt the castle, although his body was buried under the flagstones of the church. Perhaps his ghost was finally laid when, during the alterations of 1892, a wooden floor was placed three feet above the original stone floor.
John Kennedy, senior, obviously approved of the Laird of Kilcoy, Colin Mackenzie, one of the few landowners who showed compassion for their tenantry during the terrible years of the Clearances. Writing in the New Statistical Account, he relates that the population of the parish of Killearnan increased: ‘This increase arises from the accommodation given by Colin Mackenzie of Kilcoy, on his properties in this parish, to tenants removed from the estate of Redcastle; and also, in a more especial manner, from the encouragement which the same gentleman gives to strangers expelled from various parts of the Highlands…’
When the Laird died the Inverness Courier of January 28 1845 gave a vivid account of his funeral. It is reported that the procession of four thousand mourners – a mile in length – took four hours to go from the castle to the church.
A churchyard is at times a place of melancholy, but not this one, for here past and present are intertwined. It is now closed for interments, but its church is still vibrant and open to all who wish to worship or simply visit. Standing in the middle of what is today a prosperous estate, it bears witness to the struggles of people who toiled in the fields and fished in the firth over the centuries. For their sake alone future generations should ensure Killearnan does not suffer the sad fate of its nearby ancient castle that is being allowed to crumble into oblivion.