James Ross’s sixteenth birthday
James Ross was born in Gledfield, Ross-Shire, in the winter of 1827, the fourth child of the village blacksmith and his wife. James’ birthday was the 31st of January, but there were a lot of children (12 in all) in the Ross family and it is unlikely that there was much fuss around the celebrations of birthdays. However, James’ sixteenth birthday, 31 January 1843, was memorable, because on that day the famous evangelist from Urquhart, the Rev John Macdonald, preached at Kincardine Church, the Ross family’s parish church. It was not a Sunday service, but was in fact a Tuesday, in the middle of a cold, wet, squally winter. The Thursday before the Rev Macdonald had stopped briefly at Kincardine southbound for home. He had been preaching up in the Golspie region, on the east coast of Sutherland Shire, James’ mother Catherine’s home town. On his brief stop at Kincardine he had announced that he would be back the following week, and would preach again on Tuesday, before travelling northwest into the mountains and onwards to the West Coast.
That Tuesday and the days following are described in the journal of one of the Rev Macdonald’s travelling companions, a certain Rev H Allan, and extracts of his journal can be found in John Kennedy’s book, The Apostle of the North. The words evoke the severity of the winter, and offer a unique glimpse into the day James Ross turned 16, when two thousand gathered to hear one man preach.
Tuesday 31st. Rev McDonald arrived… at Kincardine about 12 noon and preached in the tent in the churchyard of Kincardine to about two thousand people… Prevented from proceeding to Assynt that evening as intended, owing to the very boisterous state of the weather. After going a short distance were obliged to put back.
Wed 1st Feb. Left Kincardine manse at half past seven. Breakfasted at Inveran, Captain Clarke’s, and proceeded by Oikel Bridge to Assynt Manse [across the mountains to the western side of Sutherland Shire], where we arrived about five o’clock, being a distance from Kincardine manse of forty miles. Encountered almost the whole way severe storms of wind, rain and sleet.
Thursday 2nd Feb. A dreadful day with drift and snow…
It was awful weather. Assynt, up in the central highlands of Sutherland Shire, is not exactly close to Kincardine, and yet they had intended to travel there from Kincardine in the evening. They were hardy men, so if they were forced to turn around the storm must have been severe. So the Rev Macdonald and his band of missionaries stayed overnight in Kincardine, just a few miles down the road from the Ross home in Gledfield. The next day they set out into the storm again, and this time succeeded in reaching their goal by nightfall, their whole journey through wind, rain and sleet, which later turned to snow.
As I read this account I have found myself wondering about that Tuesday in the churchyard of Kincardine. If two thousand assembled then surely the Ross family were among them. The whole of the Strathcarron could hardly have contained so many; people must have come from villages all round. It was James’ birthday and must have seemed special to him. He stood there in the cold and rain and wind, with the crowds, listening to the great evangelist. Macdonald preached in Gaelic, the native tongue of most of the people in the area. His journal contains a list of the texts he preached on during those days. At Kincardine it says simply that his text was Isaiah 55:3 – “Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.” How Macdonald expounded these words is not recorded, but he was a powerful speaker, and I suspect that what he said made a profound impact on the young man from Gledfield. It may have been the first time James had heard Macdonald preach. As he stood there in the wind and rain of the Kincardine Churchyard the words James heard spoke to a deep longing in his heart, a longing for life, for hope, for meaning. God spoke to him that day, in Gaelic, James’ native tongue: “come to me; listen, that you might live.” I believe that James responded in heart and mind with a resounding, “Yes, I come!” It may well have been this sermon that prompted him to attend the great communion meetings at Ferintosh (see my previous blog). This commitment, this agreement with God, would become his anchor in life, his firm foundation, the source of the faith and strength needed to carry him through all the trials and adventures that lay ahead.
Kincardine Church is no longer a place of worship but seems now to have become the meeting place of the local historical society. I was there with Hamish a few weeks ago, on a hunt for my ancestors. In the same churchyard where Macdonald preached are the headstones of a good many Rosses. They must have been proud to be laid to rest in what for them was holy ground, a place of spiritual awakening, of revival. James (senior) and his wife Catherine are there, as well as John, Malcolm, Catherine, Hector, and Alexander. There may be more, but I only found these. There is a Celtic Cross marking the family grave of the blacksmith’s granddaughter, Hughina Aird, who married the schoolmaster at the Gledfield School, a certain George McLeod. James Ross junior, my grandmother’s grandfather, along with his brother Andrew and two sisters Helen and Jane, are buried in Australia, migrants to the colonies of the far flung British Empire, a world away from the Scottish Highlands. The Ross family are divided in death, though they were very much together that winter day in Kincardine in 1843.
I believe that, thanks in part to the dynamic ministry of the Rev John Macdonald, the Ross family had a hope that transcended life on earth, a hope of heaven. The words on the base of Hughina Aird’s gravestone bear witness to this, a reminder that this life is not all there is: “Is mise an aiseirigh agusa bheatha.” Although I do not understand this language of my forefathers, the translation as far as I can work out are the familiar words of Jesus: I am the resurrection and the life.
Digital image of Dr Macdonald courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Hill & Adamson (Scottish, active 1843 – 1848)
Rev Dr John Macdonald, 1843 – 1847, Salted paper print from a Calotype negative
20.2 x 14.6 cm (7 15/16 x 5 3/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles