Part 1: Glory Filled The Land

Chapter 8: 1880s - Bringing in the Sheaves

Ness 1880’s
Back 1880’s


Ness 1880’S

  A period of marked spiritual blessing took place in the Ness district of Lewis in the latter half of the 1880's, during the ministry of Duncan MacBeath, a native of a (now uninhabited) township in Applecross, Wester Ross. MacBeath’s father and grandfather were both noted as having been sincere followers of the Lord.1 A tall, handsome figure crowned with golden hair, Duncan was described as being grave of disposition, though ‘gifted with an impressive voice, a strong personality, and an unstudied, if unconscious, dramatic gesture’.2 Formerly a missionary in the Inverness area, he had not received formal training in the ministry; still, the General Assembly of the Free Church granted him ‘dispensational privileges’,3 and he was accepted to the Ness charge in 1879.

  At that date, despite having 584 adherents, the Ness Free Church – situated at South Dell - had only 62 members. This was not an uncommon scenario in the Highlands & Islands, as there were many ‘hidden ones’ who, oppressed with a sense of sin or general unworthiness, never ventured to make a public profession of their hope by joining the Church. MacBeath compared these ‘private Christians’ to ‘a hidden stream the wholesome waters of which could not be seen or tasted except at the point where it touched the sea. Those were they, in other words, who walked humbly and in quiet before the Lord, but who often on the very fringe of the eternal world made it clear that they knew the grace of God in truth’.4

  MacBeath lived much of his life in the habit of prayer. As a result, his preaching came with anointing. One woman in the district, Margaret Thomson of Skegersta once said, ‘I never listened to him but I could say as he finished, “Oh, what a pity you were not at the beginning!” Despite having heard all the great preachers of the day, this was not something she could say of any other. Other people were so much blessed under MacBeath’s ministry that frequently as he preached the trickle of tears which had dropped from their faces could be seen on the floor opposite the pews. Yet nothing could be seen or heard which would distract either preacher or people.

  Members of his congregation said that MacBeath’s ‘sermons - otherwise thin - were illuminated by rare parables and stories, that his portfolio seemed to be undiminished by all he brought out, and that his stories were framed in fretwork'.5 In one sermon he made mention of a small hill in Lewis with the name ‘Cnoc an da sheallaidh’ (‘The Hill of Two Views’), so called because in an eastward direction lies the waters of the Minch, while looking the other way one sees the blue expanse of the Atlantic. Noting this fact of nature, MacBeath said that at the place where the convicted sinner has the clearest sight of his sins, there too God will enable him to view ‘the sea of the infinite merits of Christ’s blood where his sin can be covered forever’.6

  MacBeath was well known for his uncanny sense of spiritual discernment, and this, too, came frequently to light from the pulpit. One Sabbath, during the morning service, he intended to preach on a particular theme, but 'lost his sermon', that is, felt irresistibly constrained to preach from another text instead. This he did, not knowing there was a lady in the congregation who, although a Christian, was troubled over the meaning of a certain passage of Scripture. She had gone to one or two elders to discuss the matter but they were unable to help her. As she walked to church that particular morning she had silently prayed that God’s servant would shed light on the text. During the service the minister read this very portion of Scripture. In his treatment of the words he enjoyed great freedom and the word, coming with unusual power, spoke straight to the woman’s situation. ‘When the service ended he left the church unwilling to speak to any in the way. Only the person whose prayer God had so richly answered stood before him. She asked him if the sermon which he had just delivered was the fruit of his own experience. “I cannot say that it was”, he replied, “but I believe what I said was true in the experience of some. And are you”, he added, “the woman who took from me the sermon? I wonder how many in Ness could take the sermon from the minister as you have done!”’7

In November 1887 Free Church deputies visiting Ness reported that ‘the spiritual state of the congregation is very hopeful; all the means of grace are largely and reverently waited upon, and not a few souls are seeking the way to Zion’.8 Murdoch Campbell records that under MacBeath’s ministry in Ness, ‘the myrtle tree and the fir tree grew where the briar and the thorn had cumbered the ground’. He continues, ‘the crop of converts which came into existence under Mr. MacBeath’s preaching was noted for the stable quality of their spiritual life. They grew and matured in the devotional atmosphere of a congregation on which a copious shower of the divine blessing had fallen’.9

  The grandfather of the Rev Alistair Smith, later of Scalpay Free Church, was one of the first converts of this movement, although he didn't come forward to join the church till the 1920s. (Owing to the Union of the Free and the United Presbyterian Churches in 1900, there arose a ministerial vacancy in Ness Free Church which lasted until 1912).10 Another fruit of the movement was Alexander Campbell, father of Murdoch Campbell (pastor, evangelist and writer of spiritual books such as the absorbing 'Gleanings of Highland Harvest'). Brought under mental anguish and deep conviction of sin while a young lad, Campbell Snr. was given encouragement by his mother one evening to attend a prayer meeting. Here his burdened soul found rest in the words, ‘I, even I am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins’. For some time the young man experienced an overflowing measure of the joys of salvation, although he also had to quickly learn that at times the Lord proves to be ‘a wayfaring man’, in that, for a season of time, and for His own purposes, His hand of blessing appears to be withdrawn.11

  One winter’s day shortly after his conversion, while alone on the moor looking for stray sheep, this young believer sat down to rest when suddenly, losing all consciousness of time and surroundings, he found himself on the fringe of another world, where the Lord 'revealed to his soul the excelling beauty of His own perfections, and the preciousness of those spiritual truths which had now become his inheritance. The glorious spiritual world which he had just entered he saw by faith. The glory of Christ, and His way of salvation, were also presented to him in a fuller light'.12 Melted under the abundance of the revelation, Campbell overflowed with praise. He treasured this and another similar 'Bethel hour' for the rest of his life.

  Another lasting impression was occasioned by Campbell accompanying an old, enfeebled woman and another young man from Ness to a Communion near Stornoway. After walking over fourteen miles, the woman lost all power to go further, so, sitting down by the road, the three believers prayed for help. Soon a cart approached but, despite having plenty of space, it ungraciously passed them by. However, just a short distance ahead of them, the horse this compassion-less man was steering shied violently, till both horse and cart were stuck in the soft moorland. Frustrated goadings from its gruff master had no positive effect. The young man in the group reminded the animal's owner of the biblical account of Balaam's ass reproaching its master. Hearing this, the desperate man reluctantly agreed to allow the aged woman onto his cart, but, he insisted, if the horse would still not move forward, he would assume that God's hand was not in the matter. No sooner had the woman boarded the cart than the horse pulled itself out of the bog and walked away in perfect docility!

On still another occasion Campbell was walking to a Communion with some friends when they passed by an old woman from Bragar, an eminent Christian known as 'Eirig Ruadh'. Eirig was travelling with a younger friend, and as the youths passed, she said, 'How is it that my Father's children pass me in the way without speaking?' As they turned to acknowledge her, she looked at each earnestly, then said to one, 'When I spoke of my Father's children I did not mean you, for I fear you are not one of them'. This seemed an odd and tactless remark, for the young person concerned was at that time showing much apparent interest in spiritual matters. However, she later fell back into apathy; and, as far as could be reckoned, left the world in this same sorry state.

  Regarding MacBeath’s converts, Murdoch Campbell wrote, ‘If in after years some of them lost the sensible enjoyment of their first love there were few, indeed, who fell away. In his old age one of them told a friend of the spiritual joy of his early days, but how a gradual decay left him nothing but a mournful recollection of better times. This state of spiritual decline lasted for twenty years. “But one day”, he related, “as I sat listening to the Word preached, I felt what I was afraid had utterly died within me springing again to life”. The Lord opened his grave and gave him a longed-for reviving. When the mown grass gets “the latter rain” a new growth is at hand’.

  ‘The Sabbath before he (MacBeath) died he left the manse with his text chosen and the sermon thought out. When, however, he stood up to preach he confessed to the people that by an inward compulsion he had to change his theme. He gave out the words, “Awake, O sword against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the Lord of hosts; smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered…”. These words, we know refer to the eternal Son of God who had to bear the stroke of divine justice because He bore our sins. It was, however, both significant and solemn that within a few days the dust of this faithful pastor of Christ was carried to the grave amid the tears which dropped from thousands of eyes. He died in 1891 at the age of seventy years’.13


Back 1880s

  The Rev. Hector Cameron was inducted to Back in June 1881. During his 26 years’ ministry there, he was ‘favoured with a time of blessing’ which his biographer compared to similar seasons of refreshing which Cameron had experienced in his youth. The first was in the Lochaber / Sunart district in the early 1840’s, when the Cameron family would travel many miles over the hills of Sunart to Strontian to hear the Gospel preached by the Rev. Alexander Macintyre. A later period of blessing occurred after John MacQueen from Skye settled there in 1853, and it was at this time that seventeen-year-old Hector was converted. It seems likely that the time of awakening in Back under present consideration took place in the latter part of the 1880’s, at the same time as other parts of Lewis were being spiritually stirred.

  Cameron was a man of strong convictions and had a forceful way of expressing them. He often bemoaned 'this devilish temper of mine'.14 Something of his temperament and personality, as well as the authority which a Highland minister had in those days, comes over in the following story. ‘Mr Cameron was once due to take the Fast-day services at the Barvas Communion, and on his way over on Thursday, he met a man with his horse and cart coming in the opposite direction. Mr Cameron stopped him and asked him why he was going to Stornoway on the Thursday of the Communion. The man informed him that he was going over to get provisions for the Communion. Mr Cameron exploded, and compelled the man to turn back home, saying to him: "How dare you go to Stornoway on the Fast-day when I am to be preaching in Barvas today!" When Mr Cameron arrived at Barvas he told the congregation of this incident, and how he turned the man back home. After rebuking them for their laxity, he then added "It is not you that I should blame, but the hornless minister sitting behind me." ("Cha sibh is coireach ach a' chaora-mhaol ministeir a tha 'na shuidhe air mo chulaobh.") This was Mr MacArthur, the minister of Barvas’!15

  Yet the same man also had a softer side which endeared him to his congregation. A writer for ‘The Highland News’ and an acquaintance of Cameron wrote; ‘He had a great and generous heart, which again and again broke through the incrustation of tradition and party. One of his first acts on coming to Lewis was to call personally on the writer, and invite him to his Communion, assuring him at the time that he was sick of the controversies of ecclesiastical parties, and was determined to live them down’.16 However, in that attempt he surely failed. For although some to this day regard him as the man who saved Lewis for the Free Church, others see him in a completely different light. John Macleod argues emphatically that ‘it would be a good deal more accurate to assert that he denied Lewis to the Free Presbyterians and thus cheated the Long Island of a surviving, united Evangelicalism’.17

  Cameron's preaching and character made a deep impression on the people he served. ‘One of Mr Cameron's sons, ‘Seonaidh Ruadh’ (‘Red Johnnie’), was the leader of a local group of boys, and used to go with them to church, sitting on the gallery. It is said that he warned them not to misbehave until his father began to preach his sermon, but after that they could do as they liked. The reason for this liberty was that Mr Cameron kept his eyes closed during the delivery of his address’, or as Norman MacFarlane puts it, ‘He had the trick of reading off his sermons from the back of his mind’.18 Yet eminent as he was as a preacher, he is said to have excelled in leading the prayers of a Christian congregation.

  At the commencement of the period of awakening that occurred in Back, Rev. Cameron ‘noticed signs of a quickening in the congregation, but this did not seem to touch either himself or the Session. So at the next Communion he asked the Session if they had noticed any signs of quickening among the people. One of their number called "Alasc. Pharlain", from Tong, said he had noticed a stirring among them, and knew the reason for it. He said there were three widows at the Coll crossroads who kept a prayer-meeting every Sabbath evening after the evening service, in each of their homes in turn. "Very good, very good" said the minister: "On your way home Alasc, call in and tell them to keep going!"’19

  Rev. Mackaskill, a Free Church deputy from Dingwall, describes a memorable Communion day in the Back Church in November, 1886. ‘Sabbath drew together from all the surrounding districts a congregation estimated at fully 5,000. The day was mild and comfortable for outside services – wonderfully so at such an advanced period of the year. This huge mass of people literally hung upon the lips of the preacher during the whole service. About 500 sat down at the Lord’s Table. The whole service was deeply solemnising. But the extraordinary service of the occasion was that of the Sabbath evening. It was arranged to be held outside, as no church could contain the people who were expected to be present. At 6.30 we reached the tent, where, to our amazement, we found a congregation of no less than 3,000 persons. There being no moonlight, the only material light by which to see this mass was a large lantern fixed within the preaching tent. To this congregation my friend and brother, Mr. Macmillan, preached a most able and vigorous sermon’.20


1 On one occasion, all three generations of the MacBeath’s were present to speak at the Friday Question meeting during a Communion.

2 Murdoch Campbell ‘Gleanings of Highland Harvest’, Fearn 1989 p63

3 Macfarlane ‘Life of Rev. Donald John Martin’ p63

4 Ibid. p64. Such characteristic of the minister suggests that he was quick to show tenderness toward the lowly and contrite in heart. On the other hand, MacBeath was known to show severity towards some in whose Christian witness he could put no trust.

5 Macfarlane ‘Life of Rev. Donald John Martin’ p63

6 Ibid. p67

7 Ibid. pp65-66. Another occasion of the operation of discernment in MacBeath’s ministry took the form of a bad omen. During his period of ministry, the Free Church building was situated in South Dell, a few miles south of Port of Ness. About 1888 many people began campaigning for a new church to be built in the village of Cross. Kenneth Macpherson, a school teacher and catechist in nearby Lionel – and one who had strongly supported MacBeath’s call to Ness – fervently opposed the motion for a Cross church, and he gathered a number of supporters to his cause. The Deacons Court began gathering money to help construct the new building, while the dissenting group at the same time sought to garner funds for a meeting house in Lionel, where Macpherson was already holding unofficial morning and evening Sabbath services. MacBeath, wisely or unwisely, and no doubt under much strain from this and other trials of his ministry, predicted that not one of the ringleaders in the troublesome group would be given grace to die peacefully in their beds. In time, such striking prediction was fulfilled. One member of the group collapsed and died in a ditch by the roadside at Cross. Two others moved over to live on the small isle of Rona, and were later infamously (as a result of separate prophecies from two godly members of the parish) found dead outside their dwelling-place. Meanwhile, Kenneth Macpherson left his abode one day and was never seen again, while a fifth member of the group died outside the door of his house following an illness.(See John MacLeod, 'Banner in the West' for more on this story)

8 ARC-FCS-SR&M 1887 p38

9 Campbell ‘Gleanings of Highland Harvest’ pp63, 68-69

10 Personal communication with the Rev Alistair Smith

11 Murdoch Campbell ‘Memories of a Wayfaring Man’, Glasgow 1974 p4

12 Ibid.

13 Campbell ‘Gleanings of a Highland Harvest’ p69

14 Murdo Macaulay ‘Hector Cameron of Lochs and Back: The Story of an Island Ministry’, Edinburgh 1982 pp16-17.

15 Ibid. p19.

16 Ibid. p17

17 Macleod goes further; ‘The more one discovers, the less heroic Hector Cameron becomes. ..a pompous, noisy, really rather stupid man, whose antics on at least two occasions would unhesitantly provoke decisive church discipline today; a man easily outmanoeuvred in debate, as defter minds ran rings around him; a man who left division wherever he went’ (Macleod, Banner In The West, p199)

18 Ibid. p18; Macfarlane ‘Life of Rev. Donald John Martin’ p63. Indeed Macfarlane called Cameron, ‘hot and impulsive’, attaining ‘the unique notoriety of being impeached for pouring hot artillery fire from the pulpit’. Additionally, he claimed with some bias, regarding the run-up to the Union of the Free and United Presbyterian Churches, Cameron ‘did much to break the religious unity of Lews in two’.

19 Macaulay ‘Hector Cameron of Lochs and Back’>

20 ARC-FCS-SR&M 1887 pp38-39


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