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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

VI. The Highlands

32. Religion in the Highlands, 1765

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1The Calendar of Home Office papers of the reign of George III, edited by Joseph Redington and Richard Arthur Roberts, provide essential information about the years 1760 to 1775: “The documents from which the abstracts have been prepared consist of Letters to and from the Secretaries of State, and other letters, Reports, Memorials and Petitions, Warrants of various kinds, etc. “(preface, page v). Among the prominent subjects dealt with in the different volumes are finance and trade, colonial policy, law and order, correspondence with the Treasury and Irish and Scottish affairs.

2The following document is an extract of a report by a Dr. Walker to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland enclosed in a letter written on 13 June, 1765 to Lord Sandwich, who at the time was Secretary of State for the Northern Department.

3Joseph Redington, Richard Arthur Roberts (eds.), Calendar of Home Office Papers of the Reign of George III, 1760-1765, London: Longman, 1878, p. 560-563. Extract of the report:

Dr Walker states that he visited 52 Gaelic parishes in the Western Highlands and Islands, which had not fallen under the examination of the visitors appointed by the Assembly in 1760. He gives an account of the extent and number of inhabitants of eight of these parishes; viz., six included in the promontory of Cantire, two in the island of Ila, the parish of Jura comprehending Jura, Colonsay, and a number of lesser adjacent islands. Their extent was very large, and the ministers’ residences in some at a distance of 10 or 15 miles from places of worship, which were often also difficult of access. To Colonsay, distant above 20 miles of sea from Jura, the minister was only able to go twice a year; and in Scarba he preached once a quarter to its own inhabitants, and those of several smaller adjacent islands. In this parish (Jura) the Sacrament of the Supper had never been dispensed but once in the century.

  • 8 See introduction to chapter 6, p. 80.
  • 9 The “Seven Years’ War”, which actually lasted nine years from 1754 to 1763. The war pitted Great B (...)

In character the people were acute and sensible, extremely desirous of instruction, and capable of great attainments, both in knowledge and industry; the ignorance and idleness that too much prevailed amongst them being by no means their fault, but the misfortune of their situation. Wherever they had access to schools, to public worship, and to the ordinances of religion, there they were more regular in their morals, more civilized in their manners, and in their way of life more active and industrious than their countrymen who were strangers to these advantages. A considerable part of the Royal Bounty was employed in supporting missionary ministers. In the countries which Dr. Walker visited, there were 10 of these ministers whom he found without exception well qualified, and every way worthy of the station they filled, and some of them men whose learning, abilities, and behaviour were far superior to the salary of 25l. or 30l. a year they received. Another part of the bounty was employed in supporting catechists, who had generally from 5l. to 15l. a year; their business being to catechise the people who had not access to public worship, to meet with them on the Sabbath, to read the Scriptures, and to join with them in psalms and prayer. He examined 18 of them in the course of his journey. Some were as well qualified and as useful as could be expected, though others were rather inadequate to the task to which they were appointed. He thought the well qualified amongst them might be most usefully stationed in the Popish countries. The bursaries established in 1756 for students in Divinity, with a salary of 10l. or 15l. a year, had been followed with all the success that had been expected. As the people could not be taught to read in their native tongue, and as they could only attain to a knowledge of the Scriptures or of any other books by learning English, the progress both of Divine and human knowledge among the inhabitants depended in a great measure on the progress of the English tongue. He thought the utility of promoting this design by the ministers preaching some part of every Sabbath in English, as they had been ordered, rather doubtful; for unless the people were previously instructed, it was not to be expected that they could make any proficiency by sermons, and sometimes this course rather irritated than conciliated the people, and gave them a prejudice against the language. He thought the spread of English was to be gained most effectually by schools. None of the children when they came to the parochial or charity schools, were able to speak a word of English; yet in three years, or four at most, they learnt both to read and to speak it perfectly. Wherever there were schools planted, English made a visible and considerable progress; but there was scarce a vestige of it to be found where they were wanting. The Island of Icolmkill, though for several centuries the principal seat of religion and learning in Britain, yet, for want of a school, there was not a person amongst in 200 inhabitants who could speak English or read the Bible. The same state of ignorance prevailed in many large tracts in the Highlands, all from the want of schools which were the most effectual means to spread the English language, and to diffuse the knowledge of the Gospel, and the useful arts of life. To accomplish these valuable purposes the laudable and well directed endeavours of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge8 had been highly conducive. They supported in the North 170 charity schools, containing about 7,000 scholars; yet these were but few compared to the whole number of children that required to be taught. In consideration of all this, Dr. Walker suggested that the catechists would be employed to greater advantage as schoolmasters, particularly where no schools existed, with a small addition to their salaries, the latter being the more laborious occupation. He also suggested that a legal school should be established in every parish. The Society did not grant a charity school, except where a legal school existed; but still the country in general was ill supplied. Of the parishes he visited, 23 had no legal parochial school. There was a practice, that was likely to prevail, which would render the erection of charity schools more and more necessary; viz., where two or three parishes, which had each of them a legal salary for a schoolmaster, united them in order to obtain a master who would be able to teach Latin and the other parts of education generally taught in a grammar school, the legal salary being only sufficient to procure a schoolmaster capable of teaching English, and a little writing and arithmetic. This had an excellent effect in the education of the gentlemen’s children, and of such of the tenants as were able to board their children at school; but as it left one or two parishes without a school at all, children of the poorer sort were left destitute of any instruction. Dr Walker considered that all reformation from ignorance and superstition, and all improvement of the country, must begin with the instruction of the inhabitants in their early years. Everywhere in the Highlands where he travelled the Popish religion was visibly on the increase, chiefly owing to the immoderate extent of the parishes, the ignorance of the people in the Sacred Scriptures and the Protestant principles, and the assiduity of the Romish priests. He instances the Islands of Barra, in the parish of Harris, 50 miles away from the residence of the minister, who visited them only once a year. In the reign of Charles I the inhabitants were to a man Protestant. When he visited them, 1,300 were Papists, and only 50 Protestants, and there was a priest established amongst them. Above 20 persons had been converted to Popery within four or five years […] The baleful influence of Popery, wherever it was generally professed in the Highlands, was visible even in the face of the country. There, not only morals and manners, but even the very soil, was more rude and uncultivated. The Popish inhabitants were as tenacious of the old customs as they were of the old Religion. These were strongly linked together in their mind and conduct; and hence they became particularly averse to every innovation that tended to promote industry or to improve the country. It was natural to feel for fellow creatures, but still more for fellow subjects, in such a situation, and especially for a people marked by nature with strong principles of honour and fidelity, and in every respect highly deserving the attention of their countrymen. The remedy was the erection of new parishes. The report indicates the places where they were most required, and where they would be most easily accomplished, giving full details of their size, number of inhabitants, etc. Dr. Walker, in concluding, remarks that in general the people of the Highlands were perfectly well disposed towards the reformation and improvement of their country, anxious to get free from ignorance and dependence, fond of having their children well-educated, and of acquiring knowledge of every kind, and full of affection to their ministers, who were in general men who highly deserved the esteem and confidence of their people. People of all ranks had also a sincere and hearty affection for the present Government of His Majesty. The wise measure adopted during the late war9 of putting confidence in the inhabitants by calling them into the field, and rewarding them for their gallant behaviour, had been followed with high returns of gratitude and fidelity, and with the most desirable and happy effects.


8 See introduction to chapter 6, p. 80.

9 The “Seven Years’ War”, which actually lasted nine years from 1754 to 1763. The war pitted Great Britain (allied with Prussia and other smaller German states) against an alliance consisting of Austria, France, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony.

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