Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Spiritual heritage

The Ferintosh burn was one of our favourite places of play. To stand where Dr Macdonald stood, to speak from his platform – this was something performed with a superstitious fear and awe. How often we heard people speak of what the great Dr Macdonald said and did, but it was not until childhood had passed and a work of grace was performed in our hearts that we came to appreciate spiritually the doctor’s life and work.

It became “the order of the day” for any who visited our old home, beside the Ferintosh Free Church of Scotland, to be taken on a pilgrimage to the Ferintosh burn. Few resisted the urge to test the acoustics when they found themselves at the preachers stance. Perhaps most often quoted on such occasions was “Ye must be born again.” This was much in keeping with the whole drift of Dr Macdonald’s ministry.

John Walter Ross, Lochcarron, Ross-Shire, Scotland. 1978.
From the Foreword to the 1978 edition of The Apostle of the North, the Life and Labours of the Rev John MacDonald, DD, of Ferintosh. By John Kennedy.

My grandmother believed that her grandfather, James Ross, who came out to Australia in 1866, “lived at Ferintosh opposite Dingwall.” I have not been able to verify that he actually lived there, though it is quite possible, since Ferintosh, on the Black Isle just north of Inverness, is a rich agricultural area and there would likely have been plenty of employment opportunities for young men from the Highlands. Our Ross ancestors did not come from Ferintosh but from Gledfield, some 15 miles to the north, where the father of the family was a blacksmith.

Map Ferintosh 1933

Ferintosh on the Black Isle, 1933 map

James Ross was one of his 13 children but chose to be a carpenter rather than a blacksmith like most of his brothers. Around 1850 I believe he left Scotland for England. He married a Welsh girl, Mary Ann Marston, and they settled in Birkenhead near Liverpool, from where they migrated in 1866.

It is difficult to follow James steps between the 1841 census, when he was a 14 year old living in Gledfield, some 15 miles north of Dingwall, and 1855 when his first child was born in Welshpool in Wales. I have previously hypothesised that he worked in an English house in Great Malvern, because a certain James Ross whose date of birth corresponds with our James turns up there in the 1851 census (and he is not to be found at the family home in Gledfield in that census). But the details of the 1851 census are not enough to be absolutely certain that this was the same person.

And what happened between 1841 and 1851? Here is my theory. Because my grandmother left a note to the effect that James (her grandfather) “lived at Ferintosh” and because the name Ferintosh remains in the family, I believe that after he left home in Gledfield, but before he moved to England and Wales, James may have found work in or around Ferintosh on the Black Isle. But why Ferintosh? Was it simply because a job happened to be available there, or were there other forces that attracted him to the area? He can hardly have been there for more than a few years, yet that time appeared to have been so significant to him that it became in the family’s memory James’ Scottish home, rather than Gledfield across the hills to the north.

Ferintosh is a place of great beauty and it is possible that James remembered it for that reason alone. But I believe that there was more than just the memory of its natural beauty that made Ferintosh so meaningful for James. I believe that it was something to do with The Rev John Macdonald of Ferintosh, a man who had turned the Highlands upside down with his preaching during the years he was the minister in Ferintosh. He died in 1849 about the time that James must have lived there. If James on his sixteenth birthday in 1843 had been in the crowd at Kincardine when Macdonald preached, as I have previously suggested, and if his life had been profoundly affected by that encounter, as seems not unlikely, it may well have been that on leaving his birthplace that Ferintosh, the home of the “apostle of the north,” was the place he sought out as he wondered about the direction his life was to take. He had doubtless been to Ferintosh on many occasions to hear MacDonald preach, or to attend the great communion seasons there. Something about the area drew him back. And something about his time there lived forever in his memory, enough for him to say in later years that Ferintosh had been his “home.”

Ferintosh is hardly even marked on modern maps, though it is still there. The Ferintosh Free Church still stands looking out across the Cromarty Firth to Dingwall. And, though there is no signpost, the preaching dell where Dr John MacDonald preached in the first half of the 1800s can still be found at the end of a track which winds through forest and up the slope from the road. It lies in a hollow through which the Ferintosh burn runs, and is surrounded by beautiful fields that slope gently down to the waters of the firth.

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Ferintosh Free Church, looking north toward Dingwall, May 2015

Many years after James had left and Macdonald had died, James’ younger brother Alexander, who had become a teacher, became the schoolmaster at Ferintosh school. Alexander was only five when Macdonald preached in Kincardine that cold winter day in 1843, and only 14 when Macdonald died. So it is less likely that Macdonald’s preaching was as deeply etched on Alexander’s memory as it was on James’. But it is likely that Alexander and his wife were also members of the Ferintosh Free Church of Scotland in the thirty or more years that they lived in the area until Alexander’s death in 1902. John Macdonald was the church’s first minister, from the time it was built in 1843, the year of the Disruption, until he died in 1849. Alexander and his wife Jane came there some twenty years later, possibly within a few years of James’ departure for Australia (1866). I can imagine that correspondence passed between James and his younger brother, thus continuing the connection between James and Ferintosh.

What was it about John MacDonald of Ferintosh that influenced and affected James Ross? What was the spiritual heritage that he took with him, first to England and later to Australia? The first half of the nineteenth century in Scotland was notorious for the Highland Clearances which emptied the glens of much of their populace, scattering them far and wide in Britain and around the globe. But it was also a time of profound spiritual awakening in many places in the north. The Rev Macdonald was one of many catalysts in this awakening.

James Ross, indeed the whole of the Ross family, lived through this period of spiritual revival and change. In 1843 a large group (450 evangelical ministers) broke away from the Established Church in what became known as The Disruption. This resulted in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland. John Macdonald was a leading light in this development, becoming the first minister of the Ferintosh Free Church. In Gledfield, where the Ross family lived, a Free Church was constructed in 1849, and in the 1881 census the family’s address is listed, somewhat mysteriously, as Gledfield Free Church.

Tom Lennie’s recent book, Land of Many Revivals, gives some insight into those years. I have also managed to acquire copies of two books by a contemporary of Macdonald’s, John Kennedy, who was for many years the minister at Dingwall. These books too give a fascinating insight into those times of spiritual as well as social upheaval in the Highlands.

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Days of revival in Scotland, documented in many books

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3 thoughts on “Spiritual heritage

  1. Such a pretty spot! Isn’t it frustrating when ancestors don’t leave the very breadcrumb trails you want? Have you tried the valuation records on Scotland’s People just in case he was renting a place?

    • Thanks for the tip. Had a quick look at the Scotland’s Places website for the valuation records but drew a blank. Mainly seems to list the big landowners, not the little people that I am descended from. But its always worth having a look. Hope things are well with you!

      • They should include the ordinary people too David as that’s,where I found mine. Maybe search by location…can’t recall if that works. Yes, all fine but the move has been demanding.

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