‘The Church has always played a central role in Highland history’

Ansdell’s authoritative account examines conflict, controversy, and the church in a period of immense social and religious upheaval. Ansdell discusses how the period of 1690 through to 1900 catalysed multiple tensions between the church and Highland society.

The People of the Great Faith – The Highland Church 1690-1900
By Douglas Ansdell
Published by Acair


The story of the Church in the Highlands is a fascinating and absorbing subject without which any understanding of Highland history would be greatly impoverished. The Church has always played a central role in Highland history and legitimately shares this with the other themes of rebellion, eviction, emigration, crofting, language, culture, clanship and land.

A period of immense social and religious upheaval from the Revolution Settlement in 1690 to the union of the Free Church and the United Presbyterians in 1900 provides the background where the tension between the church and Highland society and conflict and controversy within the church are examined and discussed.

Despite the importance of the church in Highland history there is no single text which provide a survey of the church in the Highlands in this period. The literature of the Scottish Highlands will be will be enriched with Dr Ansdell’s account, which will have wide appeal for those with a general interest in Highland or religious history.

Dr Douglas Ansdell is recognised as a significant contributor to the topic of church history in the Highlands and Islands. He has previously published numerous articles and is a thorough researcher in this field which is of such significance in the present and past life of Scotland. He is currently employed by the Scottish Office Education Department and also does work for the University of Edinburgh in the Department of Continuing Education.

Chapter 3 – The Extension of Presbyterianism

In the early eighteenth century the Church of Scotland was confronted with a number of obstacles in its work in the Highlands. These were in addition to the continued activity of illegal Episcopalians and the stubborn attachment of some areas to the Roman Catholic faith. Although these issues ensured that the Church of Scotland focussed attention on the Highlands, it also faced a number of other difficulties relating to geography, language, personnel and accommodation. These difficulties inhibited the church’s ability to extend itself adequately throughout the Highlands and Islands. The resulting patchy provision heightened the concern that Catholicism and episcopalianism could remain, thrive and expand. These obstacles, therefore, had to be overcome in order to secure Presbyterianism throughout the Highlands and Islands. Only this, Presbyterians and Government believed, would have the effect of dispelling superstition, overcoming ignorance and promoting loyalty throughout this region.

The fundamental unit of church management that would secure these improvements was the parish. A minister should be settled in every parish, and, aided by his kirk session, should attend to the spiritual needs of the people and exercise church discipline. It was, therefore, the first task of the Church of Scotland to put in place the structure, consisting of parish, presbytery and synod, that would facilitate this. It was also expected that, where possible, people would attend the church in the parish in which they lived. This arrangement was to be the basis from which the church hoped  to extend religious provision in the Highlands.

There is a measure of debate as to when the Church of Scotland could claim to have successfully extended its influence throughout the Highlands. Some historians have regarded 1750 as a turning point and have claimed at this stage the task of securing the presence of the Church of Scotland had been accomplished. Other commentators have considered this assessment too optimistic.  They have argued that even by the end of the eighteenth-century the religious transformation of the Highlands was not complete and there was still room for new initiatives.

The above views, however, need not be regarded as either antagonistic or incompatible. There are two different things being discussed; one relates to the development of the administrative structure of Presbyterianism and the second to the church providing adequate religious instruction for all Highland communities. Thus, some historians have identified mid-century as the point at which they recognise that the structure was in place. Others have made the observation that the benefits which this structure wad to deliver took a little longer.

In some places the Presbyterian structure, once in place, was still not adequate to the task set before it. The settlement of a Presbyterian minister in every Highland parish did not immediately secure adequate religious provision for Highland communities. The established church took the view that that there remained areas of great need in the Highlands. There are a number of reasons for this which are mostly associated with the nature and size of Highland parishes. In terms of meeting this need an important contribution was made by the efforts of missionaries, catechists and school teachers. These individuals supplemented the work of the parish ministry by also providing religious instruction.

The People Of The Great Faith: The Highland Church 1690-1900 is out now (PB, £7.99) published by Acair. You might also like these other titles from Acair – An Sgoil Dhubh and The Living Past – that reflect this Issue’s Ungrounded theme.

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