CHAPTER 15: KILTEARN CHURCH - kirk of the Covenanter
To the passing traveller, a Highland road may appeal for its scenic beauty alone, but taking time to wander into its byways will quickly reveal places of undisturbed tranquillity and historical interest. The A9 North from Inverness leads through rolling cultivated fields to wide-angled views of the Cromarty Firth across whose waters the bridge curves like a railway track. Turning left to Evanton, look for the sign Kiltearn Burial Ground and follow the narrow road that winds by the shore of a small bay, winter habitat of swans, and continue past a former manse to a walled kirkyard. There in its midst stands the roofless building, known in by-gone days as Cill-Tighearn: Kiltearn Church – church of the Lord, whether temporal or spiritual being debatable.
Once inside the old churchyard, the undisciplined growth of funereal yew trees may give rise to an initial feeling of melancholy, but the many-faceted outline of the old church soon dispels any dismal thoughts. The dramatic shapes of its sharply-angled walls, its wind-defying belfry and outside stairways would challenge masters of design, even without the incongruous monument in its background, high on Cnoc Fyrish: a Folly built by General Sir Hector Munro of Novar, said to be the replica of a gate of the city of Negapatam in India. But forget man’s extravagances for the moment and consider his endeavours as you wander round the walls of the church and study the stones that link past and present.
That it dates back to pre-Reformation times is surmised from the built-up pointed window in the east gable. What is certain is that the now B-listed ruin was rebuilt in 1791, although, as the writer of the New Statistical Account of the mid-19th century states: ‘the situation is particularly inconvenient for the attendance of the people … more attention seems to have been paid to the comfort of the minister than to the convenience of the people.’
It is not difficult to know who the people of the parish were for on most of the gravestones, whether new or old, is inscribed the name Munro. Now you are in what is known as Ferindonald, Donald’s Land – a name that goes back to the 11th century Donald Munro, who had come from Ireland. In recognition of services rendered to King Malcolm II in expelling the Danes from the country, he was created the 1st Baron of Fowlis (Foulis). A look at the Munro of Foulis’ burial-enclosure against the kirkyard’s west wall shows how the successors of the first Donald, all staunch supporters of whatever ruler was in power, have survived to the present day.
In the 16th century the first Baron to be buried at Kiltearn was Robert Mor – some say on account of his stature, others because of his religious fervour. He was one of the first Chiefs in the Highlands to renounce Roman Catholicism, a challenging decision in the land of the Bishops of Ross, but not surprising when one learns how much he added to his estates by acquiring forfeited church lands. Harling hides the original hewn stones of the mausoleum where lies Robert Mor, although of his two wives no mention is made, his second wife being the notorious ‘Foulis Witch’ – Katherine Ross of Balnagown. She allegedly attempted to kill her stepson Robert, the 16th Baron, by means of a coven of witches who made clay images of the intended victim and shot at him elf arrows – stone age flint arrowheads believed to be of elfish or infernal origin. Robert escaped unharmed, the wizard of the gang was burnt at the stake in 1577 and thirteen years later Katherine herself was put on trial. But, with friends in the right places – she was tried by a Ross and Munro jury – she was acquitted.
One of Robert Mor’s kinsmen who was minister at Kiltearn about 1574 followed his Chief’s religious change of heart. Before the Reformation Donald Munro had been a priest, his appointment as Archdeacon of the Isles inspiring him to write in the Scottish dialect a vivid account of his tour round the Western Isles in 1549. About fifteen years later, he had become a zealous Reformer. The following statement from The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire tells only part of the story: ‘It was in 1563 the first ray of Reformation light broke through the darkness of Ross-shire. By the General Assembly of that year, Mr. Donald Munro was appointed “Commissioner of Ross.'”
What it does not tell us is that Donald Munro did not meet with favour and complaints were made to the General Assembly that he did not know the ‘Scottish tongue.’ He also enjoyed some of the comforts for which popish prelates had been condemned for, it is said, he used as his manse Castle Craig, a former summer residence of the Bishops of Ross. Each Sabbath he would cross over the firth in a boat to preach to the people at one of his three churches – Kiltearn, Alness or Lemlair.
The following century a namesake of his, Robert Monro, was ordered by the Kirk Session to be more ‘painful in catechising’ and to hold the sacrament of communion more often – for the parishioners were ‘regretting the sad condition of sin abounding and no discipline.’ Not surprisingly, the minister lost his post.
But soon ‘a total spiritual reform of the parish’ was about to take place. So turn now to the gravestone at the south-west door of the church to find the burial place of the most famous of Covenanting ministers in the North: Thomas Hog. Appointed here in 1654, Hog lived through the troubled period when Episcopacy and Presbyterianism were vying with each other to become the Established Church in Scotland. He was pastor in the land of clansmen who had followed their Chief abroad to fight for the ‘Champion of Protestantism,’ Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, although it appears the campaign did little for their spiritual enrichment – as related in the The Covenanters of Moray and Ross:
“Like good clansmen, the Munros followed their chief in professing a deep attachment to the Presbyterian Church, but, with the exception of the baron himself and a few gentlemen of his name, there were few examples of vital godliness on the fair slopes of Ferindonald. Soon, however, a change became evident. The blessings of heaven descended on the efforts of the young minister … and the district began to be known by an appellation by which it was long distinguished – ‘the Holy Land.'”
Hog’s success was short-lived, for with the return of Charles II came Episcopacy. Hog and other Protestors were ejected from their homes and prohibited from taking up ‘residence within 20 miles of their churches. Seeking the immediate protection of his brother-in-law, John Hay of Lochloy, in Inshoch Castle near Auldearn, he was assigned by the Laird the house and farmhouse of Knockoudie. So many people flocked to hear him preach the sacraments were administered in a ravine, known as ‘Hog’s Strype.’ Imprisoned in Forres and subsequently, in 1677, in the lowest vault of the prison on the inhospitable Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, Hog remarked that his sentence was ‘as severe as if Satan himself had penned it.’ Eventually, by fleeing to Holland where he became chaplain to William, Prince of Orange, Hog ensured his return to Kiltearn in 1690 after William and Mary had taken over the throne from the Stuarts. The harsh conditions of his imprisonment, however, had taken their toll for two years later, after a long illness, Hog died at Kiltearn. His fears that an unsuitable minister would be appointed to the parish made him leave instructions for his body to be buried in the doorway of the church with the inscription that still reads: This stone shall bear witness against the parishioners of Kilteam, if they shall bring ane ungodly minister in here.
Future congregations must have taken his words to heart and watched their preachers with eagle eyes. When his successor, William Stuart, took over the Kirk Session appointed two of the congregation to act as ‘Inspectors for a month to see none depart from church without relevant excuse till the sermon be ended.’ He was also threatened with loaded pistols by the followers of the Earl of Seaforth while in the pulpit at Dingwall. And almost 100 years later, when George Watson dared to don a pulpit gown, this Papist act so added to general disapproval he was forced to leave the parish, despite being the brother-in-law of one of the most influential Lairds of the area, Sir Hector Munro of Novar.
Look for Sir Hector’s enclosure against the kirk wall, for no visit to Kiltearn can be complete without contemplating the contradictions which made up this son of Ferindonald: praised by some as a brave and intrepid soldier, condemned by others for being ‘responsible for one of the greatest calamities that has ever befallen British arms…’; recognised as having improved his estates and helped his tenants at the time of famine, condemned for having been ‘smitten with a mania for the introduction of sheep.’ The writer in the New Statistical Account, the Rev. Thomas Munro, is careful not to tread on artistocratic toes as he describes the events that took place in 1792: ‘Towards the end of last century, when sheep began to be generally introduced into the north, the numbers of the tenantry were ejected to make way for them, the minds of the people were so excited by witnessing such frequent instances of what they conceived to be wanton oppression and cruelty, that numbers of them assembled, and collecting together all the sheep in Sutherland and the north-eastern parts of Ross-shire, drove them in one mass as far as Kiltearn, when they were dispersed by a party of the 42d Regiment, then stationed at Fort George, under the command of Colonel Sir Hector Munro. Several of the rioters were apprehended and tried at Inverness; two of them were sentenced to transportation, but afterwards escaped from jail.’
It was at that time that the old kirk was rebuilt to seat 700 but its renovation for the benefit of future congregations was ill-fated. In 1816, the Rev. Thomas Munro, a former schoolmaster from Alness, was himself the centre of controversy when a majority of the parish objected to his appointment and left the Established church almost 20 years before the Disruption of 1843. The Inverness Courier of May 21, 1828 reported that the church of Kiltearn was utterly forsaken by the people, and there were no less than 40 children in the parish who had not been baptised.
Hog could not have envisaged the sudden decline in numbers attending his beloved church. Hugh Miller in his autobiography My Schools and Schoolmasters tells how he walked from Alness to Kiltearn to attend the service: ‘I entered the church, for the clergyman had just gone in. There were from eight to ten persons scattered over the pews below, and seven in the galleries above. I wrapped myself in my plaid, and sat down; and the service went on in the usual course; but it sounded in my ears like a miserable mockery. The precentor sung almost alone; and ere the clergyman had reached the middle of his discourse, which he read in an unimpassioned, monotonous tone, nearly one-half of his skeleton congregation had fallen asleep, and the drowsy, listless expression of the others showed that, for every good purpose, they might have been asleep too. And Sabbath after Sabbath has this unfortunate man gone the same tiresome round … with a dreary vacancy and a few indifferent hearts inside his church, and the stone of the Covenanter at the door. Against whom does the inscription testify? for the people have escaped.’
By 1940 the people had long since gone and with them was to go the very fabric of the church on the removal of the its roof. The dramatic outline that remains in the solitary spot beside the, sea-shore seems an inadequate reminder of passions that changing religious beliefs have aroused in the people of Ferindonald – a passion that lives into the twentieth century with the Evanton ‘Church Riot’ of 1900 that opposed the movement to unify the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church; with the refusal in 1977 of the Evanton Headmaster to allow a Christmas tree in his school. Whatever the controversies, the old kirk in its listed capacity endorses the sentiments of past Ross-shire preachers:
‘We most earnestly believe that from the beginning there has been, now is and to the end of the world shall be a Church…’