Lessons from History 2

Malcolm continues his history of the church.

Alexander Stewart took to writing for a popular audience and his monthly columns in the local press, the Inverness Courier, under the name Nether-Lochaber soon gained him local fame. People knew who he was, and his interest and knowledge on many matters of natural history and other matters led to people sending him interesting specimens, dead or alive (mostly dead) for his opinion.

An animal lover, Stewart wrote about his own dogs, including the Labrador that just appeared and stayed. He wrote about other dogs, such as the Highland fox hunting dogs. He says they did not bite people, did not bark excessively and were not prone to hydrophobia (the older name for rabies).

He mentions the two hedgehogs that made a home in the manse garden, whom he called Wallace and Garibaldi. They remained about a year, until one day the gate was open and they wandered away. Stewart had valued them as devourers of wild snakes.

He often noted the birds, and their appearances or numbers, referring fondly to St Valentine’s Day as the time when they would mate. On occasion he summoned local passing schoolboys to help remove a frightened bird from the manse outhouses.

In the 1870s Stewart became aware of the increasing tourist population who arrived to enjoy and explore the mountain scenery. He met some of these in the coffee rooms of the local hotels in the parish here. It was at this time that an electric cable was laid under the sea at Corran linking Ardgour to the mainland.

In 1880 Alexander Stewart became very interested in some of the finds that were uncovered in North Ballachulish. A local Episcopal minister, J R A Chinnery-Haldane had acquired various bits of land and was having them drained when an oak figurine measuring four feet nine inches was dug up. It now sits in the National Museum of Scotland.

Chinnery-Haldane knew that Stewart would be interested in this find so invited him to lunch, but even before the lunch was due to be served, Nether-Lochaber had taken himself down to the shore, investigating. He wrote about it in the press and to the Society of Antiquaries, surmising that this wooden figurine was of Scandinavian origin. He was aware that there had been some Viking incursions into the area just into Loch Leven.

There were also nearby at the north side of Loch Leven and north of Onich bay and at Corran cairn burial cists which Stewart lamented were plundered as people removed the stones for their own use.

Alexander Stewart took an intelligent interest in various objects that were given him. These included a granite barley mortar, called a knocking stone (Gaelic cnotag), a granite barley mortar. It was perhaps 200 years old. It came from a local boatman called John Mackenzie, a neighbour. Mackenzie had acquired it from an elderly aunt who had in turn acquired it from her grandfather. Stewart notes that in the Hebrides the Gaelic word for it was eornachan. Stewart was informed by Mr Cameron hotel keeper at the Loch Leven Hotel that a similar item had been in his family in his younger day and was used also for cooking potatoes and vegetables when these came into more frequent use. Stewart also remarks that many local houses were built of granite. 

Stewart’s observations were of great interest to those interested in archaeology and he contributed writings to the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

 Alexander Stewart published some of his musings in two volumes. The first, Nether Lochaber The Natural History, Legends and Folklore of the West Highlands (Edinburgh Paterson 1883) was dedicated to a local resident, Donald Campbell. However his next work Twixt Ben Nevis and Glencoe The Natural History, Legends and Folk-lore of the West Highlands (Edinburgh, Paterson, 1885) was dedicated to Rev Robert H Story, minister of Rosneath, who would later become one of the leading figures in the Church of Scotland. I find it interesting that Stewart found a kindred spirit in Story, who represents a more liberal sort of evangelical piety, less wedded to the older doctrines of Calvinism. Story took the view that the source of religious awareness is widely diffused in the human spirit; the knowledge of God is not simply in Scripture. Story was interested too in the Celtic past, and in archaeology, as Stewart was.

Stewart’s interest in literature and folklore and Gaelic culture was what gained him renown. His old university, St Andrews awarded him an honorary LLD for his contribution to public life.

It is interesting for us, perhaps, to reflect on how church and society can intertwine. While the charge was sometimes made that some branches of the church in that era had attempted to eradicate folk culture and Gaelic culture, this is clearly not a charge that could be laid at the feet of ‘Nether-Lochaber’. He stands in a longer tradition of northern, Highland, Church of Scotland ministers, mostly of the ‘moderate’ persuasion, who had made an effort to collect Gaelic songs, poems and traditions. Earlier ministers including Rev Alexander Pope of Reay (1734-82) and Rev James McLagan (1738-1805) and Rev John MacDonald (1779-1849) had led the way. Nether-Lochaber was a friend of Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912). Carmichael, an exciseman, collected material for his six volume Carmina Gadelica, a compendium of prayers, hymns, charms, incantations, blessings, historical anecdotes, natural history observations, and miscellaneous lore gathered in the Gaelic speaking regions of Scotland. In many ways they were kindred spirits. Nether-Lochaber was fascinated by the Gaelic prayers and incantations some of which were remembered by local people, though which he says had ceased to be used. Many of these were to be used where people or animals were sick.

In the Inverness Courier on 20th June 1872 Stewart wrote about one that pertained to St Bride (a male Saint Bride), which would be of local interest. He translated it as

‘St Bride went out at early morn, with a couple of horses. One of these broke his leg. He put knee to knee, and bone to bone and vein to vein. As he cured that may I cure this’.  

 Another he quoted was for a cow affected by tumours caused by parasites.

Many of these traditional prayers invoked the name of the Trinity. Stewart’s interest in them predates modern ‘Celtic spirituality’ which has purposely gone back to these. Some, he said, in the Courier on 28th November 1872, present God not just as creator, but as an ever-present, ever-near father, protector and friend, and the interconnectedness of heaven and earth.