The following chapter about Resolis 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 19 - Resolis - kirk on the slope of light
Those who know the Black Isle are well-acquainted with its intriguing mis-nomer, its ancient castles and its sweeping landscapes. Not so well known is its wealth of rural churches, steeped in local history and set in unlikely surroundings. To find one such interesting kirk, take the A9 to Wick, turning right towards Culbokie (B9169). The bumpy road offers spectacular views of the fields and hills of Easter Ross across the Cromarty Firth, in which are mirrored the many-legged pyramids of the region’s new landmarks. No longer intrusive in their ugly beauty the exploration-rigs of the North Sea even add to the drama of a Highland landscape. Bishop Robert Forbes who visited the district in 1762 and prophesised that the Cromarty Firth would make a splendid anchorage for the entire British fleet would probably approve of the oil industry’s take-over success.
Once past the War Memorial of the Parish of Resolis, slow down for you could easily miss the sign on the right for Resolis Church. Sturdy gateposts lead into a narrow country road that cuts through vast fertile fields until, suddenly, near the foot of an incline a plain, solitary building appears. Its tall narrow windows and tiny cross tell you of its purpose but you wonder at its remoteness for the kirk has neither the companionship of a surrounding kirkyard nor the trace of a former community. But then, there never existed an actual village of the name of Resolis (the slope of light): aptly named, as those who have tried to take a photograph of the kirk on a sunny day will know to their cost.
A walk round the outside of the church will reveal another difficulty for would-be photographers of the box-like structure of the church: it is surrounded by trees – some of the older ones around the old parish manse at the foot of the slope being planted by Sage himself. In winter, through a network of twisted trunks and bare branches, try a surrealistic shot of the solemn, harled kirk with its high lancet windows and birdcage bellcote. From the slope on the north wall two separate flights of steps lead up to the gallery above whose entrances cat-slide roofs are outlined against the sky.
Being a union in 1662 of the two ancient parishes of Kirkmichael and Cullicudden, Resolis is particularly rich in ecclesiastical remains with no less than seven churches – many in ruins – within its area of eight miles by four. Just before their union the two ministers of Kirkmichael and Cullicudden in 1645 proved to be brave men, unafraid to speak their mind. At that time the parishes were the property of Sir Thomas Urquhart who was patron of them both. When he refused to increase their stipend he was denounced publicly from both pulpits.
The first Presbyterian minister of the united parish was made of milder stuff. Ordained in May 1715, Thomas Inglis was a meek and gentle man, known as ‘the lamb of Cullicudden.’ Quite different a man was his successor, Hector Macphail from Inverness. In Memorabilia Domestica he is described as being ‘minutely conversant with the depths of Satan on one hand, and with the unsearchable riches of Christ on the other.’ At one point his sermons were ‘so unedifying’ that his newly-married wife used to cross over the Firth every Sunday to attend her former minister’s church at Kilmuir Easter.
They must have improved, however, for soon his wife and many of the parishioners were converted to his ways. It was during his ministry that the two parishes became known as Resolis when in 1765 a church and manse were built ‘for the convenience of the parishioners.’ It must have been convenient also for Hector Macphail who used to live at Cullicudden while he preached every Sabbath alternately at the churches of Kirkmichael and Cullicudden.’
But after he died in 1774, the new incumbent showed little interest in the new manse by marrying the Munro of Poyntzfield’s sister and taking up residence in Poyntzfield House – ‘to the utter neglect of the week-day duties of his office.’ The Rev. Robert Arthur’s imperfect knowledge of Gaelic did little to endear him to his Highland hearers, most of whom deserted his preachings for those of the eloquent Charles Calder of Ferintosh. He also did no service to posterity by burning most of the Kirk Session records. Because, it is said, he objected to preserving knowledge of past misdemeanours at the time of the Reformation.
So, when the most famous of Resolis’ ministers first came to the parish in 1822 life was no bed of roses: ‘I found the ecclesiastical state of that parish in utter confusion. There was no kirk-session, no ordained elder, and scarcely even an assessor, no roll of communicants, no list of poor.’ Resolis obviously needed a minister of persuasion and warmth of heart: Donald Sage fitted the bill. By sheer goodness of character he won the affection of his congregation – taking most of them with him when he ‘came out’ at the Disruption of 1843 – and left to posterity Memorabilia Domestica, his autobiographical account of a momentous period in the history of the Highlands. Sage’s descriptions and comments on the Strathnaver Clearance of 1819 of which he was an eye-witness make fascinating reading and provide invaluable documentation for historians.
The new minister’s commitment to his congregation could be partly a result of the tragedy that struck on the day after his coming to Resolis in May 1822: his first wife, Harriet, died whilst giving birth to a still-born infant. So overwhelmed with grief was Sage that he was unable to accompany the funeral procession to Cullicudden churchyard. After a period of spiritual doubt he devoted himself to his pastoral duties and ‘took up, at the same time, a census of the whole population.’ As he relates in the New Statistical Account of 1845, there were no records of the history of the parish for his predecessor, the Rev. Robert Arthur, burnt them so as to hide past irregularities from the prying eyes of future generations. Sage states that the only historical event worthy of note is the plague of 1694 which raged with such fury that whole villges were depopulated, with the living too weary to bury the dead: ‘ …when persons found themselves attacked by the disease, aware that their bodies after death would remain unburied if they did not themselves take some previous measures, so long as they had any strength remaining, they actually dug their own graves, and laid themselves down in them until they expired!’
Inside the church, the large dark pulpit with its impressive sounding board commemorates the first incumbent, Hector Macphail. The imposing podium in the centre of the south wall stimulates the imagination: it is not difficult to visualise Donald Sage preaching there. He had a lot to tell his flock. And sitting in the Lairds’ pew of the five-sided gallery, you wonder how some of them felt as they listened to their preacher’s exhortations to leave the Established Church. The man from Sutherland had no doubts as to what he had done: ‘On looking back on that period of my life, when I was a minister of the Establishment, I have good cause to congratulate myself on the exchange which, even from a worldly point of view, I have since made. For the twenty years consecu- tively in which I was minister of the Established Church, I did not receive a farthing of my stipend without a grudge, or even without the curse of my heritors along with it… They thought that, in giving what justly belonged to me, they were only granting me a favour, for which I was to show my gratitude to them in any way in which they were pleased to call for or to expect it.’
It seems from his writings that the heritors were no more generously disposed to him than they were to the poor who had to rely on collections raised every Sabbath by ‘wooden ladles handed over the church by the elders’ (two ladles are still to be seen at the side of the pulpit); sums obtained during the year for use of the mort-cloth (pall) at funerals; small donations given by some of the resident heritors and by the successful Parliamentary candidate; and, lastly, by fines imposed on delinquents on account of immorality. Yet, as Sage relates: ‘All these sums put together did not in any year exceed £40. After deducting from this several disbursements for certain necessary articles, such as coffins for the poor, communion tables for the out-door congregation, etc, the balance to be divided on every poor person on the roll never exceeded or even amounted to £20.’
Not that life for those above the poverty line was much better, for the farms in the area then, as now, were small and the work involved in the running of them never-ending – little was thought of walking to and from market at Muir of Ord on the same day. It is not surprising therefore, that stories of the supernatural were eagerly listened to by exhausted people who huddled round their hearths for warmth and entertainment. Satan himself is said to have visited the parish on three occasions, once at Balblair Inn where Sage entertained the Presbytery to dinner after his induction. The Rev. G.S.M. Walker, in his account of The Parish of Resolis relates that later in the nineteenth century a group of farmers were drinking and playing cards at the Inn. Suddenly, a dark stranger appeared and asked to join them.
During the course of play a dropped card landed under the table, whereupon it was was seen that the stranger had cloven feet. Terrified, the men called for a Bible; and immediately the sinister intruder vanished up the chimney!
Vanish, too, did the congregation of Resolis church in 1843, the year of the Disruption. It was a momentous year for the Black Isle when its many evangelical preachers led their congregations out of the Church of Scotland into the newly-created Free Church of Scotland: a protest against the system whereby the choice of minister belonged not to the heritors and elders of a parish but to a patron, who might not even be a member of the Church of Scotland. Hugh Miller was in the North when Resolis was in a state of flux and writes: ‘Mr. Sage was preached out on Sunday last, and, by dint of superhuman exertion among all the lairds, a congregation of thirty were brought together to see that he was… There could be found no one to ring the bell, and no one to be precentor, though twenty shillings were offered as remuneration; and a man and gig had to be sent rattling to Cromarty an hour ere service began, to procure both … The story goes, that with the first tug the bellman gave, a swarm of angry bees came down about his ears with wrathful fizz, and that, to avoid their stings, he had to quit his hold and show them a clean pair of heels.’
The induction of the new minister at Resolis on 28 September 1843 provoked a riot, with officials stoned and shots fired at the crowd. Of the many rioters it was Sage’s dairymaid, Margaret Cameron, who was arrested and taken to Cromarty jail. A subsequent attempt to free her led to further trouble, as The Inverness Courier of 17 January 1844 reports: ‘Several persons concerned in the mobbing and rioting at Cromarty and Resolis in connection with Church affairs were tried at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh. Two were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, in prison, and a third who had assisted in breaking into Cromarty jail was sentenced to imprisonment for nine months. It turned out that the cell from which the mob had released the woman was known as the black hole, and had no window except a hole unglazed and with iron stanchions on a level with the ground. The woman, however, was in it only a short time. When the mob attacked the jail, the jailer locked himself in another room.’
That feelings ran high there is no doubt; that congregations were filled with religious fervour is well recorded; that the minister ruled supreme is evident. Whilst Sage and his congregation waited for a new church to be built for them at Jemimaville, services were held at Ferryton in an old disused girnal, a building once used as a meal store with no windows. The only light came from a pane of glass in the roof, directly under which Sage had to stand to enable him to read. The congregation of hundreds would sit or stand listening to him for four or five hours.
Such evangelical enthusiasm was to be the hall-mark of nearly all the parishes round the Cromarty Firth; it carried into the twentieth century the tradition of a spiritual need felt by the people of the Black Isle, a land abounding with ancient churches. It is not only the light of the sun that gives meaning to Resolis.