Part 2: Fire Among the Fisherfolk

Chapter 6: Revivals Along the North East Coast 1880-1913

Moray Coast 1883-8
Ministry of James McKendrick 1882-96
Revival Tornado – North East Coast 1893
Gardenstown & Crovie
Portessie 1896
Findochty & Portessie 1903


Introduction (Additional info)

  In the years prior to 1860 the spiritual climate of the coastal townships between Portgordon and Cullen was said to have been desperate, and several of the villages were completely without any preaching station. The United Presbyterian minister of Banff described how ‘the moral and spiritual condition of our town has been long a matter of reproach’, and he judged Portknockie, Findochty, Portessie and Portgordon as having a ‘deplorable moral and spiritual condition’ which had been ‘notorious for generations’. Apparently ‘few of that people made any profession of religion’; on the contrary, ‘strife, jealousy, malice, blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking, drunkenness, and almost every form of vice and sin prevailed’.1

  Despite this bleak picture, a glimmer of spiritual sunlight existed in these communities in the form of a small number of praying men and women. James Flett, a Findochty fisherman, on a trip to Bo'ness, acquired a bundle of leaflets from a bookshop, providing news of the spread of the 1858 revival in America. These he distributed in his home village. Others, hearing of the power accompanying the ministry of cooper-turned-evangelist James Turner along the Buchan coast, strongly desired that he would visit their areas too. In a succession of mini tours between 1859 and 1862, Turner visited virtually all the fishing communities along the Buchan, Banffshire and Moray coast, while other evangelists held missions in the same or neighbouring localities. Almost everywhere a profound impression was made, and numerous communities were radically transformed by the gospel message. It was said that ‘in most of the villages that stud the Banffshire coast, a stranger in those days had but to signify his willingness to preach the gospel, when suddenly, as if by magic, the whole population – men, women and children – would assemble to hear the Word of God’.2 Hundreds of lives were renewed, entire families were converted to Christ, and not a few pubs closed down. Many new congregations sprang up and the Church became an integral part of community life.

  Revivalism, previously unheard of, became a dominant theme in these fishing ports; to an extent unparalleled anywhere in Scotland during that era or since. Near the beginning of 1863, just two short years after the dramatic revival inaugurated by Turner, a fresh bout of revivalistic activity flared up in Findochty, while Portgordon and other nearby villages also shared in the blessing. A few years later, in December 1866, another season of spiritual outpouring was unleashed on these closely-connected fishing communities. This time Findochty and Portessie contained most of the blessing. Remarkably, just a few short years later, at the beginning of 1871, Findochty was yet again favoured with a 'descent of the Holy Ghost upon’ its people, in a spontaneous movement that spread to all the villages and towns nearby and as far west as Burghead, Lossiemouth and Hopeman. Then, following a visit to the north by Moody and Sankey in 1874, a very significant work developed in Buckie, although ‘on either side, at Portessie and Portgordon, the work of revival had begun and been apparently completed before any spiritual movement could be discerned’ in this more populous centre.3


Revivals Along the North East Coast 1880-1913

Moray Coast 1883-88

A significant spiritual movement occurred along the Moray Coast in the early 1880’s, particularly in Banff, Portknockie and Boyndie. Taking effect in the first half of 1883, its influence was readily observable in the summer of that year, when the Moray coast fishermen were based in Lewis. Rev. Miller of Eyemouth travelled as Free Church deputy to Stornoway that summer and gave a most interesting report of his visit. ‘I enjoyed my four weeks’ stay at Stornoway greatly, though there were some things that I felt to be somewhat against the interests of the work. So far as evangelistic work among the fishermen was concerned, the meetings were large and the interest deep. The open-air meetings especially were attended by large crowds, and one had no difficulty in gathering a very large and attentive audience. For some months a very deep work of grace had been going on among the Moray Firth men all along the coast, and as the greater part of the fishermen at the Stornoway fishing hailed from that quarter, they seemed to have carried with them the spirit of earnest devotion and serious seeking after better things, in that some who had not received any personal blessing in their own homes were brought under the power of the Spirit in the meetings at Stornoway. At the close of the regular Sabbath evening service in the church, which was always of an evangelistic nature, the fishermen were invited to speak – to give reports of the Lord’s work, or to give personal testimony, or any short word of exhortation; and for an hour and a half the interest of that meeting never flagged for a moment, and many a thrilling testimony and many a heart-moving appeal were given and blessed to the audience. Many of these testimonies of a personal kind (and I was very much struck with this) were given, not in the bare form so often followed in the testimony meetings – a mere statement that divine grace had done such and such things for them – but the testimony or experience was rather woven in as a most telling illustration of some particular truth which the speaker was pressing on the people, and most powerfully and beautifully it was done. In most cases it was the very ideal, to my mind, of what a testimony ought to be, and one felt, from the rich, matured spirituality of a number of the speakers, notably those of the famous revival years 1859 and 1871, that such words of sacred teaching and clear experience, backed by a true Christian life, could not fail to be blessed to many. For myself, I frankly and gladly say that from two or three of these humble Spirit-taught men of ripe experience I received not a little help’.4   It was reported in 1884 that those who had made a profession of faith in Christ the previous year were standing firm; a large number of young men had come out boldly on the side of the Lord; and large additions had been made to the membership of the congregations.5

Then came a report in 1886 from the Rev. L. M. Weir, Blochairn, Glasgow, who laboured as Free Church deputy to the fisherfolk in Fraserburgh during the summer season of that year. He spoke of ‘a recent work of grace in various East Coast places’, which particularly affected young females. As a result, ‘there were numbers of young converts among these girls, who, witnessing a good confession for Christ, had a most beneficial influence on the others. It was very cheering to come upon them in visitation, as the deputy several times did, either reading their Bibles, or engaged in family worship together’. He stated that the fisher girls often had considerable free time in the late mornings, so it was easy when visiting their barracks at this time, to get 20, 30 or 40 of them together and have religious exercises with them.6

From Cullen it was reported that the Free Church congregation, and the town itself in a measure, had been specially favoured with successive religious movements, whose permanent effect was to perceptibly heighten the spiritual tone of the people. Around 1887 a special blessing was experienced, which added considerably to the membership of the church. Attendance at the weekly prayer meeting also increased considerably – to around eighty, being a quarter of the church membership. All the office-bearers attended, each regularly participating. No fewer than fifty people took part in it during one particular six-month period.7

  In the spring of 1888 began yet another season of spiritual blessing along the Moray Coast. Rev. White of Blairgowrie was one of the Free Church deputies who evidenced the effects of this awakening in Stornoway, where large numbers of north east fishermen who shared in it were gathered together in the summer of that year. White noted that more men from Buckie took part in the meetings on Lewis than from any other of the mainland ports. ‘As a rule we have had open-air gatherings every night, and not infrequently these took the form of solemn yet glad testimony meetings. I might single out last Friday night as a time of deep impression. The sight of that crowd in the square, and the sound of the fishermen’s voices, will not readily be forgotten. The words of the older men were often marked by much wisdom; accuracy and freedom of statement characterised all; and not infrequently there was a ring of real eloquence and exact Bible knowledge. Stornoway brethren felt constrained to mingle their testimony with that of the open-hearted unconventional fishermen, and evidence was not lacking that the townspeople of Lewis were themselves being moved.

  ‘Sabbath of course was the special day of work and prayer. From half-past nine in the morning till half-past ten at night there were only briefest intervals. Immense open-air meetings were held both before and after evening service in the churches. The orderly march of the fishermen, four deep, round the harbour, singing, as only fishermen seem able to do, hymns of the gospel, both as they entered Mr. Martin’s church, and again as they commenced the final evening testimony meeting, was a thing that can rarely be witnessed. There was an absence of excitement, a spirit of fervent prayer, and a manly confession of Christ, that touched many hearts. Their prayers for their wives and little ones came from the heart, and those who could tell of their children having given themselves to the Lord were filled with double joy’.8

  Rev. Henderson of Busby, Glasgow, who succeeded White as deputy to the west coast fishermen, also referred to this movement, and gave similar testimony regarding its strength and wide influence. In the inquiry meetings numbers were found anxious, and of these not a few, after being dealt with, professed to trust in the Saviour.9 Eighteen months later, a church officer stated that attendance had increased a little as a result of the movement, and the number of communicants had also gone up, but that ‘there have been recently many who left the town, and less of the influence of it than we could wish was felt in these respects’.10

  Of Enzie Free Church deputies reported, ‘Wave after wave of religious excitement has swept over it since the awakening of 1859-60. While in a few instances the result has been of permanent value, in too many cases the type of religious life begotten and fostered has left much to be desired. There have too often been displayed an impatience of, and want of respect for, the ordinary ministry; an unhealthy craving after mere religious excitement to the neglect of home duties and fireside religion; a loose irresponsible church life; and, saddest of all, a blighting, if not fatal, antinomianism. It is well when our ministers are able to get into the current of such revival movements, and direct them into wise, pure and scriptural channels’.  After showing that this had been done in Enzie parish, the deputies added; ‘the result is a church life that is thoroughly healthy, and a ministry that is not only respected but admired’.11


Ministry of James McKendrick 1882-96

Revival Tornado – North East Coast 1893

Gardenstown & Crovie

   The Salvation Army had failed to make inroads in Gardenstown and Crovie, largely due to a band of young men ‘who prided themselves in making gospel meetings…an impossibility’. Despite good attendances from the start, McKendrick, too, found the conduct of these young men ‘unbearable’. Appalled at the disruption the group was causing night after night, the evangelist jumped down off his fishbox and beckoned the ringleader to come out. The trouble-maker sat defiant. Quick as a flash, McKendrick grabbed the lad by his neck-muffler, catching his fist as he rose to strike him, and dragged him out of the hall. Returning to his elementary platform, the preacher warned that if there was any more noise from the rest of the gang, he would deal with them in a similar manner. The next night the hall was packed – some came expecting a scene, others who showed up having hitherto avoided the services because of unruly conduct, which was never to surface again. ‘Most successful meetings’ were thenceforth enjoyed and many were converted. Remarkably, this unusual scenario was repeated almost to a tee in the neighbouring village of Crovie, where MacFarlane also came to help in the work.12


  In Hopeman meetings were held in a large granary which had been hired by Archie McPherson - ‘a most remarkable Christain, known and respected by all in that district’ – who had felt no option but leave his church due to the minister’s moderacy. About 400 filled the granary and all its stairs every night, but so many were still refused entry that open-air meetings on an amphitheatre-shaped piece of vacant ground were begun instead. Thankfully the weather stayed calm and McKendrick noted that ‘nowhere else have I ever seen such absolute abandonment of all other occupations for the Gospel of Christ as in Hopeman…for four weeks Hopeman was in the throes of a great revival. The Holy Spirit of God possessed the place – the wail of the convicted…the praise and rejoicings of the saved were to be heard throughout the entire village by day and by night’. People flocked from neighbouring communities. ‘When the anxious were invited to go into the granary, ‘the scene was indescribable. People could not have been more anxious to get out of a burning house or a sinking ship than they were to get into that granary. Many had their clothes badly torn in the struggle to get up the stair; and there till early morn all who could help the anxious were busily engaged’. Around 300 professed saving change altogether.13


Portessie 1896

  The nearby village of Portessie had known significant blessing following the labours of James Turner, but, it was said, had only seen minor 'waves' of blessing on subsequent occasions, times when other villages in the area had witnessed significant harvests of souls. Far more than most places along the north east coast, McKendrick sensed a hardness among the people and a frightening indifference. Over more than two weeks he watched congregations gradually diminishing and even Christians had grown hopeless and ceased to attend. But the evangelist had a strong conviction that God had called him there, and that He would yet answer. As in other places it was subsequent to a few of the faithful spending many hours in prayer and fasting, and the ensuing conversion of one or two well known locals – in this case Jamie Bruce and John Smith - that many came flocking to the hall over following nights to hear these men speak, and there came a break in the spiritual atmosphere. 'In a short time’ wrote McKendrick, ‘Portessie was in the throes of a great revival, similar to those we had seen at Findochty, Portknockie and other places’. Some of the young men converted here became able preachers of the gospel, a hall was constructed, to be used solely for the purpose of worship and service of God, and ‘from then till now (c1914) Portessie has greatly prospered spiritually’.14


Findochty & Portessie 1903 15

  When, in December 1902 McKendrick’s faithful evangelist-colleague James MacFarlane conducted a mission in Findochty, the work was stiff and unpromising, yet not without apparent result, for about a dozen souls were converted. The mission - and indeed the response of the people - was in fact very similar to that continually being carried on in many other north east fishing communities. Of the December converts, about half came from Findochty and the other half from nearby Portessie, where the Rev George Ryves and others were earnestly seeking a revival in connection with their regular work. Some young Findochty men who had been awakened in the December mission but who had struggled for several months in a state of anxiety fully yielded their lives to Christ at meetings in Portessie in March 1903. Thus, when MacFarlane returned to Findochty for another mission at the start of April, he found the fields white unto harvest.

  Great anxiety was manifested by the unsaved at the very first meeting, but believers in the congregation seemed unmoved, requiring some gentle words of admonition by the evangelist. This pointed message went straight to the hearts of many believers, and not a few went home to spend the whole night in prayer and confession. Gathering the following evening, the changed condition of these Christians was most noticeable and the place seemed charged with the presence of God. After speaking, Macfarlane called on someone to pray. A brother rose and unburdened his heart to the Lord. Before he finished his never-to-be-forgotten prayer, the meeting became at once convulsed with tears and cries. The heart-rending groans and wails that rose were audible even outside the building. The evangelist did his best amidst the distress to point sinners to the Way of Life and was greatly cheered when one after another leapt to his feet exclaiming, ‘I’m saved’, etc. As they did so, saved relatives who were present rushed to shake their hands. Soon the meeting was in an indescribable state of confusion; many were rejoicing, while others sat weeping and bemoaning their ongoing state of despair.

  A number of the newly converted quickly left the meeting to visit friends in the village and tell what God had done for them. Others stayed behind to counsel those yet in distress. As the meeting closed between 11 and 12 at night, Macfarlane announced a further meeting the following morning, feeling assured that after the memorable night they had just experienced there would be no difficulty in getting an audience. Such assurance was justified. As he wound his way to the hall at ten o’clock the following morning, the evangelist found a great crowd near the harbour head. At its centre two men were simultaneously preaching with great enthusiasm! A man of 70, himself in an excitable state, took Macfarlane by the hand and proceeded to the hall. Likewise, a great many others also linked hands like children in a playground and marched joyously to the meeting place.

  Here events were almost beyond description, as, for two hours, folk sang, prayed, wept and testified – often all at the same time. MacFarlane himself was reduced to tears when, during the singing of a hymn, a band of men unexpectedly marched into the hall singing, ‘For the Lion of Judah will break every chain, And give us the victory again and again!’ Some of these men, it transpired, had been saved in their own homes, others came to Christ the previous evening in the Salvation Army barracks, where the power of God had also been signally displayed. As the people dispersed at one o’ clock in the afternoon, many present went off, not to their homes for dinner, but to witness from door to door.

 That evening’s meeting was to have begun at eight o’clock, but at a quarter past six the hall was packed almost to suffocation. When MacFarlane arrived he saw that all thought of conducting the meeting according to the orthodox fashion must be abandoned, for preaching and witnessing were already going on in different parts of the hall. It was an hour and a half before he was able to speak, and even then he had to cut his address short. Almost everybody who had been converted was eager and anxious to help every other person who was not, and it was midnight before this memorable meeting drew to a close.

  A similar procedure continued over the next three days, with two meetings being held each day; one from 10am till 1pm and another running from 6pm till around midnight. On Saturday, the forenoon meeting was abandoned, as the men decided to help out in Portessie, where two new boats were to be launched. For some reason the launch was aborted, so the men and lads, about 500 strong, formed themselves into a march, and sang as they proceeded through Portessie and home to Findochty. Here they held a large open-air meeting on the green and many notable testimonies were given.

  During the second week of the movement, forenoon meetings had again to be abandoned, the men having to prepare their boats and nets for the forthcoming fishing season. Each night, however, large, enthusiastic meetings were held, and the united testimony of both residents and visitors was that they had never seen the like of it before. One charming feature of the work was the manner in which amity and goodwill took the place of strife and spleen, and longstanding feuds being buried in the tide of saving grace. Men who hated the shadow of each other were seen falling into each other’s embrace, while others looked on and wept.

  In Portessie, Ryves’ fruitful ministry was similarly overtaken around the end of March by a yet deeper, supernatural work of grace. The tidings of God’s doings spread around, and from neighbouring villages people flocked to see for themselves the wonder-working power of God. Nightly meetings were commenced in the chapel; this became so quickly filled to capacity that the Mission Hall was opened concurrently, and a visiting preacher invited to speak there. Under the Word of God souls were melted, subdued, saved and set free. Soon, little else was being talked about and the flame quickly spread.

  Presumably having heard of the awakening, three Brethren evangelists came to participate in the work in April 1903, with the specified aim of leading converts into the local Assembly. Scottish Brethren publication ‘The Witness’ compared the movement to that of 1859. ‘The Assembly, Wesleyan, and Salvation Army Halls were crowded with anxious enquirers, evangelists dealing with souls until midnight, and commencing again early in the morning’.16   With the various denominations labouring together, several hundred people in Findochty and Portessie professed new faith in all, while Buckie and Port Gordon also had a measure of saving power bestowed on them.

  Clearly the impact of this movement was widespread and deep, and wonderfully, the blessings of the period were not confined to the Moray Coast. When James Marshall, an evangelist with the United Free Church, returned from Stromness, Orkney, in June 1903, where he had been conducting meetings for five weeks, he testified that in his many years’ work among fishermen, he had rarely seen anything to compare with what was presently happening. Hundreds of Moray Coast men were simply aglow with spiritual life. Meetings throbbed with power and interest, and whereas in former years, during the times of public worship on Sunday evenings, many fishermen could be seen lounging aimlessly through Stromness’ main twisting, narrow thoroughfare, this year the street was empty, as many of the men crowded instead into church half an hour before the start of the service. Afterwards, an open-air meeting would be held at the pier-head, at which the men testified. The problem was not in getting the meetings started, but in drawing them to a close, as one by one, men would hasten to the centre of the ring and pour forth praise to Him who had rescued them from lives of darkness and sin.17

  From Stornoway, too, came news of glad tidings. The Rev James Muir from Glasgow held a mission among the fisherfolk there in the early summer of 1903. Regular church services attracted large congregations, while a united open-air meeting later in the evening drew a thousand people. A number of fishermen, all pertaining to the Banffshire sea-board, gave exhilarating and characteristic testimonies. At 10 o’ clock, with interest still running high, adjournment was made to a nearby hall, and hundreds of men and women streamed in. Alexander Murray of Stornoway, whose ministry had only commenced a year before and who had been the means of much blessing through the winter (see 'Glory in the Glen' p297), conducted the service. After a short address, he uncharacteristically asked anyone who wished for prayer to raise their hands, and at once, half-a-dozen did so. Special work was also done among the fisher girls at this time, a number of whom were brought to Christ.18


1 Quoted in Jeffrey ‘When The Lord Walked The Land p182

2 Quoted in Couper ‘Scottish Revivals’ pp136-137

3 Times of Blessing’ 21/5/74 pp83-84. For the social outcome of these repeated revival movements see Part 5 of 'Glory in the Glen' p467)

4 Report of the Home Mission and Church Extension Committee of the Free Church of Scotland (hereafter RHM&CEC-FCS) 1884 p11

5 ARGA-FCS-SR&M 1884 p61

6 RHM&CEC-FC 1887 p14. George Campbell, an ordained minister, was one of several men who laboured in full time evangelism for the Free Church. He remarked in 1890 that the most pronounced spiritual movement he had witnessed in his own travels throughout Scotland was in Rosehearty ‘several years ago’. As many as seventy professed faith in Christ at that time (RGA-FCS-SR&M 1890 p11)

7 ARGA-FCS-SR&M 1890 p49

8 RGA-FCS-SR&M 1889 p15

9 Ibid.

10 ARGA-FCS-SR&M 1890 p48

11 RGA-FCS-SR&M 1889 p15. Meanwhile, it was said of Portknockie that despite the frequent times of blessing the community had received, ‘the spirit of separatism has greatly marred the result’(ARGA-FCS-SR&M 1890 p48)

12 Ibid. pp98-103; ‘Buchan Observer’ 11/07/1893 p4.

13 Ibid. pp153-163

14 McKendrick ‘Seen & Heard’ pp198-199

15 J. C. ‘Banffshire: As It Was in 1859’ in ‘The Christian’ 30/04/03 p23

16 Dickson ‘The Welsh Revival and the Brethren in Scotland’ p5; ‘Brethren in Scotland’ p122

17 ‘The Christian’ 25/06/03 p25

18 Ibid.

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