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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

III. Religion

14. Religion in the Highlands, 1766

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1See introduction to text 13. This is an extract of a report made by different ministers who were appointed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to visit the Highlands and Islands.

2“Extract of the Report of Drs Hyndman, Dick, etc. appointed by the General Assembly 1760 to visit the Highlands and Islands, and the Places where Itinerants and Catechists are employed” in The Scots Magazine, Edinburgh: 1766, p. 575-577.

The visitors had now finished the plan which they had proposed to themselves; for accomplishing the object of the visitation, according to the appointment of the general assembly.

The view now exhibited to the Venerable Assembly of those countries which were the object of our visitation, and especially of the western highlands and islands, serveth to explain the disadvantages of the inhabitants, with regard to the means of religion; and to show how inadequate are the methods which have hitherto been employed for their relief. These disadvantages arise from various causes:

1. Many parishes in these countries, especially in the western highlands and islands, are so extensive as to render the charge of them disproportioned to the ability of the most active minister. Several of them resemble rather a province, requiring the labours of a body of clergy, than a district fit for the inspection of a single pastor. When to the extent of these parishes we add the difficulty of communication between the different parts of them, from the rivers, lakes, and huge mountains, which intersect the western continent, and from the dangerous seas which separate these islands, it is easy to conceive, that during a great part of the year, many of the inhabitants must be deprived of all correspondence with their pastors, and be destitute of the public means of religion. The name of united parishes, so often mentioned in the foregoing journal, sheweth that the ancient division of these countries hath been different from the present, and that several large parishes have arisen from annexations, which, we suppose, took place soon after the reformation.

2. The want of churches in parishes legally erected, which is so common in the western highlands and islands, makes a considerable addition to the other disadvantages of these countries. The inhabitants are obliged to attend divine service in the open fields, or in houses which, from their inconveniency and meanness, are improper for the purposes of religion. The aged and infirm cannot well support this attendance, and the appearance of a public religion is destroyed. In almost all these countries, where churches are now wanting, we saw the ruins of decent edifices, which had been anciently devoted to sacred use. These had been built before the reformation. We observe with concern, that since that period, in many parishes, the house of God hath continued to lie waste.

3. Many parts of the highlands and islands have no school for teaching the children to read, and making them acquainted with the principles of religion. The youth being destitute of the means of proper instruction at home, and hindered by poverty from going to seek them abroad, continue in a state of ignorance, inherit the prejudices and errors of their ancestors, and become an easy prey to those who watch every opportunity of infusing opinions contrary to true religion, and to the just principles of civil government. While large tracts of country possess no means of educating their youth, it is easy to foresee the continuance, if not the increase, of all those evils, under which the inhabitants have so long labored.

4. In the western highlands and islands the inhabitants universally speak the Galic language, and are generally unacquainted with that which is used in the other parts of G. Britain. This defect alone lays them under great disadvantages, both with regard to religion, and to civil life. The knowledge of the Galic language becomes a necessary qualification in every minister who is to serve in those countries, and the difficulty of supplying vacant parishes is greatly increased. The common people can carry on no transactions with the more southern parts of G. Britain, without the intervention of their superiors, who know the English language, and are thereby kept in that undue dependence, and unacquaintance with the arts of life, which have long been the misery of these countries. Till the partition arising from different languages be removed, and the common language of G. Britain be diffused over the highlands, the inhabitants will never enjoy, in their full extent, the benefits of religion and civil government.

In countries lying under such complicated disadvantages, it is easy to see the difficulty of extirpating ancient prejudices, and of introducing the Protestant Reformed religion. The Roman Catholic persuasion, which was formerly established in this, and every other part of G. Britain, hath kept possession of many parts of the highlands ever since the reformation. Notwithstanding the discouragement given to it at different periods, the zeal of the church of Rome, together with the concurrence of political causes, hath been hitherto able to preserve, and even on some occasions to strengthen that interest. The priests of this communion are numerous and active; and although their salaries be small, yet the advantage of a foreign education, which they receive from a public fund, and the influence which their politic religion gives them over the minds of the people, have contributed to check the progress of the reformation, and at some periods to gain proselytes to their own church. In countries so ill supplied with Protestant ministers and with schools for the instruction of the youth, where so little good seed, of any kind is sown, is it to be wondered, that the enemy should sow his tares and that these should bring forth a plentiful increase?

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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