Friday, 5 April 2013

Thomas Guthrie in Lairg and the Preachers Stone at Badbea

We have been up in Lairg on holiday over the last week.  It has been great weather and my crash course in lambing has been a steep learning curve!  We have also been looking after some pigs which has been an even more interesting experience.  Feeding them every morning brings a whole new dimension to the story of the Prodigal Son!

I enjoyed preaching in the newly refurbished Gair Hall in Bonar Bridge last Lords Day and in the beautifully situated Rosehall Church in the evening.  Rosehall is next to Altass where we have been going for holidays over many years.  I have never found a more beautiful glen in Scotland although parts of Argyll come very close!

There is an interesting reference to Lairg in Guthrie's Autobiography and Memoirs.  He was touring the Highlands for the 'Manse Fund' from July 1845 - July 1846. Guthrie toured the country gathering stories (and more importantly money) in response to the many ministers who had left their manses after the Disruption.  It was in the Highlands of Scotland that Guthrie came across some of the most tragic situations which he vividly conveys in his letters. 
Writing from Lairg on June 25th, 1845 Guthrie writes to his wife that he had visited the tent where the Free Church congregation were worshipping.  After the Disruption in 1843 the Lairg Free Church congregation had to worship in a canvas tent for for two years at the foot of Clais-nam-Buaile.  Eventually they were allowed to build on the other side of the river and took the ferryboat to church until a swing bridge was eventually built.
Guthrie, in his letter, also spoke of visiting Creich (Bonar Bridge);
Close by the Free Church at Creich I saw an interesting place, - the rock under whose shadow, and the lake by whose side, the people worshipped God for more than two years, summer and winter, no less than thirty years ago.  A Moderate was intruded: the people took up their bibles and left the church empty.  The Seceders had not penetrated these Highland fastnesses, nor was there any Free Church then to help them; so they met under this rock, and the 'Men' conducted their services for two years under the open sky.  Afterwards they had to meet in different parts of the parishes; but now, after thirty years of separation, the Disruption - as they call it, the Blessed Disruption - has brought them together again in the Free Church (Autobiography and Memoir, 1897, p 419).
After a few enquiries this week we managed to locate the Preachers Stone.  It is along the shore of Loch Migdale and the start of the path is just below the home that Prof John Murray was born in - Badbea.  It is a beautiful, gentle walk suitable for children (our 3 year old managed with minimal carrying).  The walk is maintained by the Woodland Trust and you can find more information here.
The stone is about 1 mile along and is right beside the shore.  'The Men' would have preached up the hill to the people like a natural amphitheatre.  My uncle, William Murray, who has lived in Lonemore (near Dornoch) for over 70 years had never visited the stone so it was wonderful to get his picture beside the stone and chat to him about some of the local history. 

My uncle William Murray at the preachers stone, Badbea.

James and Calum on the preachers stone.  Loch Migdale in the background.


As mentioned above, Thomas Guthrie's name will be for ever be connected with the 'Manse Fund'. After the Free Church Disruption of 1843 there was incredible suffering as ministers and their families left their churches and manses over the issue of state interference in the spiritual decision making of the church. The issue at stake was the headship of Christ over the church which dates back to covenanting times. It is an incredible testimony to these men that loss of their homes was no deterrent to following their principles.
Thomas Guthrie was approached in May 1845 to become the figure-head of the Manse Fund. In customary humility, when Guthrie was pressed upon to take on this role by none other than Dr Thomas Chalmers, he responded at the first Glasgow meeting by saying;
It was no office I sought myself. I would much rather have stayed at home with my own flock and my own family: I have had enough of speaking, and travelling, and fighting and I am tired of it: and were it not that I have reason to believe that I am the last 'big beggar man' you will ever see, and were it not that the cause has all my sympathy and deepest interest, I would have been happy had the Church chosen one better fitted for it than myself; but I am sure that in one respect no man could be better fitted, for if I have not a head, I have at least a heart for the work (Autobiography and Memoirs, 1896, p 417).
The Manse Fund had the ambitious target of raising £50,000 immediately with the ultimate target of £100,000.  Before the Manse Fund had started £50,000 had been raised for the School Building Fund with the combined total raised by the Free Church by 1845 the incredible sum of £697,000. Guthrie expressed serious concern that the Manse Fund would stretch the generosity of Free Church people to the limit but he needn't have worried.  After Guthrie had toured 13 Synods and 58 Presbyteries in less than a year, he was able to announce to the General Assembly of June 1846 that £116,370 had been raised for the Manse Fund. Ultimately there were 6,610 subscribers who gave an average of £19 each.
The scale of the Manse Fund can be seen by the fact that 700 manses were needed to respond to the huge demand after the Disruption. It is interesting that manses were to be build in the following order of priority;
  • Highland Parishes
  • Lowland County Parishes
  • Small Towns
  • Large Towns

This is Presbyterianism in action. The wealthier city congregations were seeking to alleviate the incredible amount of suffering in the Highlands.  The strong were seeking to support the weak. 
During his tour of the Highlands, Guthrie also felt some anger at the way the godly had been treated.  There is a tragic account of his visit to Tongue where he visited a Mr Mackenzie and his son who having left the manse were living in 'mean cottage school house under the lee of a heather hill'.  Both father and son were gravely ill due to the conditions they were living in and Guthrie's hatred of oppression and injustice was stirred as it so often was.  Writing to Mrs Guthrie he says;
Every daisy on the road had its cup closed; and surely, thought I, if God in this storm protects these little flowers, He'll not dessert these two faithful servants - the venerable old man and a son worthy of his sire.  I confess when, on my return, I again passed the Manse and looked on its smooth lawn, and chimneys, and neat trim walks I felt my corruption rising (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 421).
The Manse Fund was perhaps Guthrie's greatest legacy.  It is unlikely that anyone else could have achieved what he did in such a short space of time.  His energy and oratory enabled the Manse Fund to smash its original target.  Numerous ministers and their families owed a huge debt of gratitude to Guthrie for providing the resources to build manses so that the gospel could continue to prosper not just in the Highlands but across the whole of Scotland. 



  1. Hi Andy, I am the Woodland Trust's Site Manager for Ledmore & Migdale, and I'd like to thank you for posting the story about the Migdale/Badbea preaching stone. I did not know of it before! I have seen an old picture of an outdoor service taking place in the woods, I imagine that this must have been the place. I'd be interested to know how you tracked it down - if there is local knowledge about it, I'd love to find out more.
    Kind regards, Eleanor Garty

  2. Thanks for your comments! I found out via the old lady at the art shop in Bonar Bridge. She is a real fount of knowledge!