Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the category “Beliefs”

Kerry Revival 1861

While doing online research on the Needham family I came across the following statement in an article from the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Tribune from 1901.

Mr. Needham owes his conversion to the great religious revival which swept over Ireland in the year 1861. Mr. and Mrs. Needham have collaborated in the writing of a number of religious books, which have earned for the authors the indorsement of well known clergymen of the Baptist sect. (Cambridge Tribune, Volume XXIV, Number 24, 17 August 1901)

George C Needham

G C Needham

I had not been aware that there had been a great religious revival in Ireland in in 1861 so I did some more searching and found a whole lot of references. Names like Spurgeon, Dwight L Moody, and others kept turning up, together in some cases with George C Needham (the C stands for Carter, which was his mother’s maiden name), which is the Mr Needham referred to in the article above.

One of the most useful accounts I found of what was happening in Kerry in 1861 is the following which I have taken from the Gospel Hall website. Dromore Castle, which is mentioned at the beginning, is an old house in Templenoe, the village where the Needham family lived.

Dromore Castle (where lived the well-known Christian gentleman, Mr. R. J. Mahony) and Derriquin were neighbouring estates. F. C. Bland and R. J. Mahony had known each other from infancy, and their mutual affection was like the love of brothers. Early in the year 1861 some earnest words spoken by Mr. Mahony at a gathering of parochial school children at Dromore Castle made such a deep impression on some of the adults present that meetings for prayer followed. One and another became deeply anxious about eternal things, and soon an increasing company of the peasantry were rejoicing in new-found blessing. The Ulster revival of 1859, and the Dublin awakening of 1860, had failed to make any sensible impression upon the people of the south. But God was about to work among them in His own way. A friend from a Midland county, hearing of the work, paid a visit to Dromore, bringing with him C. H. Mackintosh, whose ministry by word and pen has helped so very many. A meeting was arranged, and the closing passage to the 2nd chapter of the Epistle to Titus was his subject. Among the number who attended were Mr. and Mrs. Bland, and both of them were brought to Christ by the Word.

In those bright days of the early revival there was a striking freshness and power about the testimony. As in apostolic times, the convert not infrequently became a witness and a minister at once, seemingly as the natural outcome of the blessing received. Boon companions and bosom friends in recreations of their boyhood, and in the pleasures and pursuits of their early manhood, Bland and Mahony now became united in preaching Christ to their friends and neighbours. The blessing spread among the gentry, and at the summer assizes at Tralee eight members of the grand jury took part in public meetings for the preaching of the Gospel. And the fruit of that work still lives. Many Christian homes there are in Munster where “the Kerry revival” is reckoned as the epoch of their spiritual blessing. (Biography 43 – F.C. Bland, Gospel Hall website)

Dromore_Castle

Dromore Castle c.1900

The article in Wikipedia about Dromore Castle (from which the public domain picture to the left has been taken) indicates that R.J. Mahony’s father (Denis Mahony), who was a Church of Ireland minister and who supervised the building of the house, was not locally popular because of his evangelistic tendencies, in spite of a keen social conscience that led him to set up soup kitchens for the poor during the Potato Famine. The Rev Denis Mahony is listed as the landlord of the Needham family home in the 1852 Griffith valuation though he apparently died in 1851. Dromore Castle was inherited by Richard John Mahony, the man mentioned in the article above, who together with F.C. Bland (Francis Christopher) was so instrumental in the revival of 1861.

Derriquin Estate, (there is a good photo of the now ruined Derryquin Castle on this blog) owned by F.C. Bland, was near Sneem, where Mary Hickson (Needham) and her husband lived in 1861. Since the Hicksons and Needhams were members of the Church of Ireland as were the Mahonys and the Blands, it seems hardly surprising that the Needhams were affected by the same move of God that affected their landlords. It may even be that the “earnest words spoken by Mr Mahony at a gathering of parochial school children at Dromore Castle [early in 1861]” were heard by the three youngest Needham boys who were all still in school – Benjamin was 8, Thomas 7 and William 5. The “adults present” on that day may have included the boys’ older siblings or their father – though their mother was dead.

Perhaps it was George C Needham, 15 years old at the time, who was most impacted by the revival that broke out that year, and who spent so many years preaching the gospel later in life, primarily in America, but also in Britain and as far afield as Japan and China. The same newspaper article quoted above, from the Cambridge Tribune, includes the following in its short biography of George:

Mr Needham is assisted in his evangelistic work by his wife. They have been extensive travelers In the cause of religion. Both Mr. and Mrs. Needham have carried their revival Into England, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, China, and various parts of the United States. Mr. Needham claims that within a year a deep spiritual movement has made its appearance In Japan, and that large numbers of Japanese are being converted to Christianity. The movement affects not only the poorer classes, but it is penetrating to the more exclusive circles of society. Official Japan is agnostic, but many among the cultivated classes, educated by contact with European and American civilization, are more willing to listen to the teachings of the missionaries. Mr. Needham assisted the late Rev. Mr. Moody in his work of evangelization for a good many years. He is now associated with Rev. William Moody, the son of the great evangelist. (Cambridge Tribune, Volume XXIV, Number 24, 17 August 1901)

The younger brothers, Ben, Tom and Will, all became evangelists too, and so they too were doubtless impacted, even if they were hardly aware of it at the time. Thomas does not mention the revival in his book From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, but dates his conversion to Christianity to the time after he came to America.

ThomasNeedham1900

Thomas Needham, the “sailor preacher.”

It certainly seems likely that the older sisters were affected. One of them, Belinda, whose life remains largely unknown to me, is mentioned in Thomas’ book, written many years later. He speaks of the piety of his older sister, who gave him a Bible when he went to sea in 1867 and prayed for him daily all the years he was wandering the world. He wrote:

I only knew that my sister professed godliness and that she had truly acted it. She had been a mystery, but an admiration to me. I had been in awe of the influence her piety had over my life. (Needham T, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.50)

I can’t help wondering about the effect of this revival on my direct ancestors – William and Mary Hickson – Mary being the oldest of the Needham siblings. They were relatively recently married and lived in Sneem, quite close to F.C. Bland. They had a toddler, Richard, and in 1861 their second child, Susie, was born. Susie was my great grandmother, born 100 years before me. Her parents took her to Boston when they migrated there in 1865 and to Australia where they arrived in 1878. Susie was by then 17 years old. Some years later she would marry another Irish immigrant, George Byrne, and together they raised their six children in the Brethren Church in Sydney. One of their five daughters was my grandmother, Gertrude Byrne, and though she married an Anglican, George Simmonds, recently migrated from England, they raised their three daughters in the Baptist Church in Goulburn.

SusanByrne1a

Suzie Hickson (later Byrne)

My father’s mother was a Ross, whose ancestors experienced the revivals in the Scottish Highlands in the 1840s. So there is a revival heritage on both sides of my family, and that has left its mark in me. In these days of growing indifference or even antagonism toward the things of God in the western world, which is my home and cultural heritage, I often find myself longing for a powerful move of God to come again.

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Thomas Needham, wandering Kerry boy

Out of the wandering Kerry boy He was to fashion a man of God whose chief delight it henceforth should be to preach that gospel which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth. (From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.51.)

Thomas (1854 – 1916), the third of the four Needham evangelists (George, Benjamin, Thomas and William) who were friends of DL Moody, was the second youngest of the ten children in the Needham family of County Kerry, Ireland. They were “non-conformists,” though exactly what variety I don’t know, I suspect Methodists or Baptists. Their parents were George and Susan Needham, of Kenmare, in Kerry. George (1802-1862) was a captain in the coastguard. His wife was a lot younger than him (1818-1856), only fifteen when she had her first child, Mary. She died in 1856 when Benjamin was three, Thomas two, and the youngest brother, William, only an infant. She was just 38 years old.

The three little boys, Benjamin, Thomas and William, were subsequently raised by their father and older siblings. Mary, the first born in the family, was 21 when Thomas was born, and 23 when their mother died. Mary became the stand in mother for the family. However, two years later, when she was 25, Mary married and moved out of the family home to Sneem, a few miles to the west, where she settled with her husband, a whitesmith. Mary Needham (Hickson) was my mother’s Irish great grandmother.

Elizabeth, the second sister in the family, was then 19. When Thomas was eight his father also died (1862) and he, along with all the other Needham children were left as orphans. The three youngest boys, Benjamin, Thomas and little William were wholly in the care of their older siblings, except Mary who had had started her own family.

Many years later, Thomas wrote a book about his early life, called From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land (published 1920). It can be read online here. It is a fascinating book and gives a tiny glimpse into his childhood in Ireland as well as his adventures after he left in 1867 at the age of 13. The book is the story of his journey to faith in Jesus, and provides the background to his later life as a minister and evangelist. He writes in the foreword:

Though repeatedly urged to do so, the writer has long hesitated to record the startling experiences of his eventful life. All that he is today as a Christian minister of the Cross of Christ, he owes to that grace that “brought him up of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set his feet upon a rock and established his goings.” To boast anything in his natural self, of courage or exploits, would be to detract from the glory of that grace whose handicraft, as a new creation in Christ, he is. (p.4)

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From Cannibal Land

The story is there to be read in its completeness on the Internet, and I will summarise the tale some other time. My purpose here is to reflect a little on the Needham family in Ireland in the 1850s and 60s, to get a picture of their lives there. Thomas’s book is the only real source material that I have to go on, but some pictures are included which are very helpful.

The Needhams before Thomas

His oldest sister, Mary, was born in 1833, and during her teenage years had weathered the storm of the Potato Famine that so shaped Ireland in the seven years after the blight first appeared in 1845. The Needham children grew up in a country that was suffering. They saw starving people around them and deaths from malnutrition and disease were all too common. They saw those neighbours of theirs who had the means departing Ireland for the promised lands of America and Australia. Many others went to England looking for relief. Their mother, Susan (Carter), was herself English and it is not unreasonable to imagine that some of the older children of the family went to relatives in England to escape the ravages of the famine.

The community they lived in was shrinking. George and Susan surely talked too about the pros and cons of leaving their beloved homeland. But they were spared the extreme suffering of many others presumably as a result of George’s steady income, which sustained the family through those difficult years. He is said to have been a captain in the coastguard, but I have not found any document to support this, and the Griffiths Valuation lists him as parish clerk. But they lived close to the sea, a fact that was to shape Thomas’ life profoundly.

They were a family of faith, Protestants in a Catholic community. When Thomas was born (1854) the family lived in Templenoe, quite close to the church. The church of Ireland structure was deconsecrated in 1993 and became The Vestry Restaurant, but is now apparently closed.

Needham Family Church

The Griffiths valuation for 1852 shows that the family home was on the block of land next to the school and Petty Sessions Court House. It lies on the northern side of the Ring of Kerry Road, looking out over Kenmare Bay. George is listed as the tenant and the landlord is Revd D Mahony. The tenement is described as “house, office and land.” It was here Thomas Needham was born in 1856.

Tom’s childhood

Thomas describes his birthplace as follows, and includes a picture in his book:

I was born by the ocean; on the shores of Kenmare Bay in the South of Ireland, not far from the beautiful lakes of Killarney, with their echoes, their legends and their weird fascinations…

Needham Home
As a child he was filled with “an unconquerable passion for the sea” that “shaped the whole course of my early life.” His passion caused him to devise any means whatever to get out on the waters of Kenmare Bay, to the distress of his father, who knew of the sea’s dangers from his work with the coastguard.

All my youthful pranks took a seaward turn. If my father deprived me of a boat, I launched the pig trough into the heavy breakers. If he hid the oars I made a pair of garden shovels answer the purpose. When all means of rowing failed I made a sailboat with the sheets from my bed. No punishments, no remonstrances from my gentle sisters could subdue the wild passion that constantly drove me into the deepest “perils of waters!” (p.6)

After his father’s death his older siblings had to deal with young Thomas’s obsession with the sea and ships. He describes their solution to his preoccupations:

Finally, it was decided by my family, that the only cure for my fascination, was to send me to sea in earnest, and let me experience some of the hardships, as well as the fun, of the ocean. I was youngest but one of ten children. My father and mother, both godly Protestants in a Catholic community, were dead. So at the early age of thirteen, my brothers and sisters concluded to put me on board a Receiving Ship of the British Navy.

Tom goes to sea

So Thomas joined the navy in 1867, and sailed off into the world. His adventures are recorded in the book and make for great reading. At the end of chapter one he describes his parting:

The parting from home and all its familiar scenes was sad enough. But sadder to those left than to he who was going. I took the farewells, the advice and the gift of a little Bible with a boy’s elastic hopefulness. My older brother George accompanied me to the ship…

ThomasNeedham1861
It was some years before Thomas returned to Ireland, but I have tried in vain to find dates. He had departed in 1867, two years after Mary and Elizabeth had gone out to Boston. How long he was at sea or in South America is not specified in the book, but it must have been several years.

While he was still in South America he had written to a brother and sister who he knew were in Boston. A reply came eventually from the brother with the news that his older sister Belinda had died.

In reply to my long silence, came one from my brother, urging me to return to them; and telling me that my dear sister Berlinda had died. This news I had got before I quit the river steamer; and it was my urgent reason for my longing desire to leave South America. The death of this sister came as a peculiar blow to me. It was her who had cared for me so tenderly and patiently in my young days. Her hand had packed the little Bible among my sailor traps. Her “God bless you, Tom,” was the last prayer I had heard. Her hand had waved the last farewell as I left my home shore. Her secret prayers, I well knew, had for years followed me over the boisterous waves and wide steppes. And now she was no more. Never again should I see those tender eyes, and that rich raven black hair, and hear that low musical voice. What knew I of the resurrection and its comforts then? Nothing. I only knew that my sister professed godliness and that she had truly acted it. She had been a mystery, but an admiration to me. I had been in awe of the influence her piety had over my life. And now it was ended. Could it be? How she must have yearned for me and I never went back to her. And now it was too late. I sat in my cabin with the little black banded envelope pressed close in my trembling hands. I cried, and cried alone, until my heart was well nigh breaking. Who, or what, could administer comfort to my natural soul, as yet unsatisfied by the grace of God? Today, a saved man, knowing the power of prayer and the strength of Christian hope, I think of my sister as in the arms of Jesus, in that blessed repose of those who are “absent from the body but at home with the Lord.” I know that parting are only for a little while. I know that reunions are eternal. (pp.49-50)

Going home

He booked a passage for Europe and the homeland. When he came to England he discovered that none of his family remained in Ireland, but that all had migrated to America, to the Boston area, to the same area that Mary and Elizabeth had settled in 1865.

I lost no time in finding a ship for Boston and finding my kindred. And the home coming was a double. I returned to the bosom of my family, but more wonderful, I, a prodigal, returned to my heavenly Father’s house; for it was in the city of Boston that the grace of God met me and saved me. (p.52)

Thomas was still a young man – in 1870 he was barely more than 16. Who he lived with when he came to Boston I don’t know, nor what he did to earn a crust. Eventually he became a minister, but the process by which that came about is unknown to me. He died suddenly on Sunday 1 October, 1916, some 45 years later, at the age of 62, of a heart attacked sustained just after preaching to a congregation of 700. The afterword of his book explains:

From Cannibal Land afterword

 

Four Irish-American evangelists

In John Hickson’s book, Notes of Travel, the name Needham turns up a number of times in the chapter on North America. He refers to them as “friends” or “relatives.” John Hickson was an Irish immigrant to Australia. How did he come to have friends and relatives in North America? Who were these Needhams, why were they in the USA and in what was their connection with John Hickson?

The text of the book gives some clues:

Camden (New Jersey) is a fair-sized town on the banks of the Delaware river about 90 miles from New York, and surrounded by some very fine farming land. The few days we spent there were excessively hot, not the dry heat of Australia, but an oppressive damp heat that makes life a burden. Our friends the Rev Wm (William) Needham and Mrs. Needham invited us to picnic with their congregation at a place called Glenlock, some twenty miles from Camden, and although we were most kindly and attentively treated, the heat and oppressiveness of that day will long remain in our memory. However, in the afternoon, over the strawberries and cream and iced tea, we forgot the heat and toil of the day, and talking of events of past days when we were boys together, we renewed our youth and laughed and joked over many an exciting incident. (Notes of Travel, pp 25-26)

William Needham (1856-1941) was eight years younger than John Hickson. But they had been friends in Ireland during their young days, despite their difference in age. William had come to America and become a minister. John had migrated to Australia and become a timber merchant. Now they were reunited in New Jersey. Apart from this picnic on a sweltering day in one 1893, the details of the visit are not recorded, but it is clear that William welcomed John and his daughter Alice to America with open arms. The two Irishmen (John was 45 and William 37) had a good laugh about old times and compared the way their lives had gone. It seems unlikely that they ever saw each other again.

Further down the same page we meet another Reverend Needham, this time Benjamin:

The town of Coatesville is nicely situated between low hills and undulating country, and is rich in agricultural and pasture land… the famous Brandywine [river] passes through it. We were driven by our friend and relative, Rev. B. Needham, along its banks and were shown the places where some severe battles had been fought between Washington and the English troops. It is a very pretty place and we enjoyed our visit very much although the days we spent there were oppressively hot. Mr Needham is pastor of the Baptist church, also conducts a gospel tent and is a man of large influence in the town of Coatesville. (Notes of Travel, pp 26-27)

Benjamin Needham was one of William Needham’s older brothers. He was forty in 1893, the year John Hickson and his daughter came to America, but still five years younger than John himself. He too had come out from Ireland, and had also become a minister. In contrast perhaps to Sydney, where John had made his home, there was a great spiritual revival happening in the north eastern states of the USA. DL Moody was in the centre of this awakening, but there were things happening all over the countryside. The Needham brothers seem to have been a part of this.

Like the Hickson family they were Irish Protestants, but they did not have the proud Church of Ireland tradition that seems to have characterised the Hickson family. There were ten children in the family and many, perhaps all of them, came to America. Benjamin, as can be seen from this extract, was a Baptist pastor. Even before they left Ireland they had been “non-conformists”, neither sharing the Catholic faith of the majority in their homeland, nor the Anglican faith of the Hicksons. The revival in North America of which DL Moody was a part was connected with the Holiness Movement, which had its origin in Methodism, so it was also in a sense a “non-conformist” movement. The strong Anglican traditions that characterised Protestant Sydney at that time was perhaps less dominant in America. And how much the revivals of the 1890s affected the predominantly Catholic Irish Americans is something of which I have no knowledge.

Moody’s name crops up repeatedly in John Hickson’s book. Hickson mentions travelling to Northfield, “the home of Moody and Sankey, where some of our friends live… Here Moody was born and here his mother still lives, as also both himself and Mr Sankey when not engaged in evangelistic work. They have both devoted large sums of money to the establishment of seminaries for the education of young men and women who show an inclination for advancement… Those institutions are … supplied with the best professors and teachers, and every modern appliance and convenience.” So Moody’s legacy is about more than just spiritual revival and had a profound effect on the educational development of that part of the States.

Northfield appears to have been the home of a third Reverend Needham, whose wife, as it turns out, was also a preacher of some note. Hickson writes:

We had the pleasure of hearing a very gifted American lady, the wife of Reverend G. C. Needham, addressing a meeting, and the style, terseness, beauty and common sense of her address would be a valuable acquisition to many of our modern ministers. The Sunday we were at Northfield Mr Needham preached to a large congregation in a beautiful church, and was assisted by a very able choir… Northfield is a lovely place and we would have been pleased to have been longer able to enjoy the hospitality of our friends Mr and Mrs Needham… but… after spending a few days there we took train via Millers Falls to Boston. (Notes of Travel, p.28)

George, born in 1846, was the big brother of the four Needhams who became ministers, and was two years older than John Hickson. His wife’s name was Elizabeth Annable and according to other records they are both buried in Narbeth, Pennsylvania. George is mentioned in Hartzler’s book, Moody in Chicago, as being one of Moody’s co-missioners, so it seems likely George knew DL Moody quite well.

The fourth of the Needham brothers who became an evangelist is not mentioned by John Hickson in his book. His name was Thomas (1854-1916), and since he wrote a book about his early life, I know more about him than any of the others. That book has the curious title of From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, and the story it contains I will write about another time. Where Thomas was in 1893 when John and his daughter were travelling I am uncertain since he doesn’t get a mention, but he lived in the same area around New York-Boston, and was known to DL Moody too, as can be seen he afterword to his book:

Mr Thomas Needham, who, for nearly forty years preached the gospel in the United States, having been associated with DL Moody, Dr Torrey, Dr Chapman, his brother George and many known evangelists and teachers in that land, passed into the presence of his Master on the first Sunday in October, 1916. (From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.69)

The question that arises, of course, is how John Hickson was related to all these evangelists. Hickson’s book indicates that he was childhood friends with at least one of them, William, the youngest, even if William was a good deal younger than John. But he was closest in age to George, who was two years older than him. Notes of Travel clearly states that John Hickson and the Needhams were boys together, but it seems they were more than friends, though Hickson does not explain in his book how they were related.

The answer to this question lies in their oldest sister, Mary Needham. The Needham boys I have mentioned were four of ten children in the family from County Kerry. Some years ago I received an email from Keith Walmsley, my mother’s cousin, himself a descendent of the Hicksons and Needhams. He explained the following:

[Mary] was one of ten children in the Needham family that lived in the south of Ireland. Her father was a captain in the coast guards and her mother died early (is it any wonder after so many children?). Anyway she took on being “mother” to all the other children and obviously did a fantastic job as they were a very keen Christian family of the nonconformist group. Four became evangelists in one way or another.

Mary Needham married William Hickson, John Hickson’s older brother, when John was just a lad. They had seven children, one of whom was Susie Hickson, my mother’s grandmother. Mary and William migrated with their first three children, and William’s father Richard Hickson, to the Boston area in 1865. It was some 12 years later that they decided to leave the USA and move to Australia, where they arrived in 1878. Richard had however died and is buried in Providence, Rhode Island, some way south of Boston.

John Hickson had lived with William and Mary in Ireland when he was a teenager in the years before they migrated to America. So Mary was John’s sister in law, and her evangelist brothers, who she had “mothered” after their own mother had died, were thereby John’s brothers-in-law. It was in his early years in Ireland that he got to know all Mary’s family. It was many years after they had all left their Irish homeland that they were reunited in the land of the star-spangled banner.

The most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain

It is worthy of remark that it was at the climax of its spiritual prosperity the cruel work of eviction began to lay waste the hill-sides and the plains of the north. Swayed by the example of the godly among them, and away from the influences by which less sequestrated localities were corrupted, the body of the people in the Highlands became distinguished as the the most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain. It was just then that they began to be driven off by ungodly oppressors, to clear their native soil for strangers, red deer and sheep. With few exceptions, the owners of the soil began to act as if they were also owners of the people, and, disposed to regard them as the vilest part of their estate, they treated them without respect to the requirements of righteousness or to the dictates of mercy. Without the inducement of gain, in the very recklessness of cruelty, families by hundreds were driven across the sea, or gathered, as the sweepings of the hillsides, into wretched hamlets on the shore. By wholesale evictions wastes were formed for the red deer, that the gentlemen of the nineteenth century might indulge in the sports of the savages of three centuries before. Of many happy households sheep walks were cleared for strangers, who, fattening amidst the ruined homes of the banished, corrupted by their example the few natives who remained. Meanwhile their rulers, while deaf to the Highlanders cry of oppression, were wasting their sinews and their blood on battlefields that, but for their prowess and their bravery, would have been the scene of their country’s defeat.
(Kennedy J, The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire, pp.15-16, first published 1867)

John Kennedy’s description of the Highland valleys as “sequestrated localities,” gives an idea of their isolation, remoteness and inaccessibility. Nowadays the Highlands are criss-crossed by roads and railways, but before the 1800s the roads were just dirt tracks and the railways had not yet come. Transport was on foot or by horse, and was slow. The people of these Highland valleys lived their whole lives with little contact with the outside world.

There was of course an exception to this. Many young men were recruited into Highland regiments of the British Army, famous for their fighting spirit, and for their loyalty to their lairds.  Responding to the call for volunteers, they marched out of their Highland glens, and departed for distant lands, where they fought and in many cases died, far from home. These were the men Kennedy refers to who wasted “their sinews and their blood on battlefields that, but for their prowess and their bravery, would have been the scene of their country’s defeat.” I am reminded of the haunting words of Mark Knopfler’s song, Brothers in arms:

These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
Someday you’ll return to
Your valleys and your farms
And you’ll no longer burn
To be brothers in arms…

Such young men brought back tales of the many places they had seen, but part of the tragedy of the Clearances was that when they returned to their “valleys and their farms” there was nothing there. Their families had been evicted, the crofts where they had passed their childhood days destroyed to make way for “strangers, red deer and sheep.”

In the two centuries before the last of the Clearances in Ross-Shire (Greenyards 1854) there had been repeated spiritual revivals in the area. This is the subject of Kennedy’s book, and it makes for fascinating reading. It is also the subject of Tom Lennie’s book, Land of Many Revivals, which looks at the same influences not just in Ross-Shire but throughout Scotland. Lennie writes, for example, of the Clearances in Strathnaver, in Sutherland, north of Ross-Shire:

     The district had known rich spiritual blessing from as early as the 1720s onwards. According to the Rev Donald Munro of Ferintosh, a fresh wave of spiritual life began to pass through the Strath about the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth. Children and youth, impressed on seeing their seniors repair to Saturday noon prayer meetings – which were common in parts of the North at that time – eagerly began their own prayer groups.
Some in Strathnaver and the wider parish of Farr were said to have been ‘among the most outstanding of the men of the Highlands.’…
A minister who commenced his ministry in Farr said, “…I never knew any place where the religion of Christ so shone, and flourished, and pervaded the community, as it did in Strathnaver.”…
When the Rev David Mackenzie settled as minister of the Mission in 1813, he found a congregation of between 600 and 700, among whom were many men and women – some of high military rank and some well educated – who were ’eminent for piety, and their names still savoury among the churches of the north’ in the late 1870s. Over the next few years, during the period known as the Highland Clearances, every one of the Strath’s 1,600 inhabitants was ruthlessly evicted from the area. The Rev. Donald Sage… later wrote of the last Sabbath in the Strath before the Clearances… It was an unusually fine morning so the service was held on a beautiful green sward by the River Naver. After a sermon and the singing of a psalm, ‘At last all restraints were compelled to give way. The preacher ceased to speak, the people to listen. All lifted up their voices and wept, mingling their tears together. It was indeed the place of parting, and the hour. The greater number parted, never again to behold each other in the land of the living.’ One distressed witness of the evictions wrote of the sufferers: ‘The truly pious noted the mighty hand of God in the matter. In their prayers and religious conferences not a solitary expression could be heard of anger or vindictiveness.’ Many found no resting place till they reached the backwoods of Canada.
Some decades later, a Sutherland newspaper reminisced about the ‘noble band of godly men born and brought up in Strath Naver, parish of Farr, a district eminent for years, during the latter part of the last century (eighteenth) and the beginning of the present, as the residence of a number of pious, well educated and intelligent Christians.’
(Lennie T, Land of Many Revivals, 2015, pp.199-201)

A picture emerges of the inhabitants of these remote Highland valleys: there were certainly “peasants” among them, but there were soldiers too, and educated people, and they were people of faith. This was the fruit of religious revival, but such a spiritual richness was apparently not evident to the landlords who owned the land on which the people lived. These landlords were quite happy to clear them away for their own economic reasons, justified by some misinformed idea of “progress,” in which the wealthy were more interested in money and ideology than in people. They saw the inhabitants of their lands as too numerous and were worried that they might have to be supported financially from the landlords’ own pockets, something that until then had never been necessary since the “peasantry” were self sufficient and in fact paid rent to the lairds. The landlords did not see the people as intelligent, educated, loyal or pious, but rather as a potential burden that stood in the way and which needed to be removed. Hence the Clearances.

In another place or time the people may have revolted, taken up arms to defend their homes. Indeed it would seem that this was what was expected by many of the aristocracy. They had seen what had happened in France, and what was even happening to a lesser extent in England, and they expected armed resistance. They did not understand the transformation that had taken place in so many Highland hearts. Despite small disturbances the evictions were mostly a peaceful affair, and though the people appealed to their lairds’ reason and compassion, when they were met with stony indifference they usually accepted the judgements of their “superiors” and left quietly. As Lennie quotes, ‘the truly pious noted the mighty hand of God in the matter. In their prayers… not a solitary expression could be heard of anger or vindictiveness.’

Such a submission to ‘the mighty hand of God’ is frowned on in our day and age, seen as naive and foolish. Resistance is seen as the just way to proceed. But our ancestors lived in a different age, and the people of the Highlands were influenced by a different ethic and worldview. They interpreted what was happening in the context of God’s sovereignty. They didn’t understand why they should be caused to suffer, but they believed in God, and were comforted in their knowledge of his love. They did not interpret their suffering as a sign that God had deserted them or was punishing them, though they were well aware of their own failure to live up to His standards. They did not understand their suffering, but they accepted it, and saw his hand at work.

The result? The gospel was spread around the world, especially to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, countries which so many descendants of the Highlanders now call home. My own ancestors were not among those who were forced to leave, but rather left the Highlands of their own accord. But they too carried with them the spiritual heritage of the preceding two hundred years in the valleys of the Ross-Shire Highlands, a fierce commitment to God which has survived down through the generations. My grandmother’s name was Winifred Urquhart Ross – her names bearing witness to her ancestral origins in Ross and Sutherland. The man she married, my grandfather, came from a somewhat less “religious” family, with its roots in Germany and England. Before he met Win, he had already been influenced towards faith by a couple with whom he lodged in Lithgow, NSW, during the First World War. Here is what my father wrote about that time:

     Dad’s first job that I know of was in the Lithgow Small Arms Factory, but he was called up for military training in early 1918. The War ended in November 1918 just as he was about to embark for overseas. Presumably he returned to his job in Lithgow, but left at some stage to attend Technical College where he later became a teacher in Engineering Trades Drawing at Ultimo Technical College in Sydney.
While living in Lithgow, Dad was greatly helped by Mr. and Mrs. Goodes, with whom he probably boarded. They were a godly Christian couple, and would have been mainly responsible for adding a Christian dimension to his life which the rest of the Holford clan did not have. Sadly none of his siblings had any interest in the Church.
Through his involvement in the Anglican church he also became acquainted with the Robinson family (also of Scottish ancestry). Bradley Robinson was the Rector of the church, and he was married to Gertrude, the eldest daughter of the Ross family of Mosman. He got to know Winifred, a younger sister of Gertrude, who visited the Robinson family from time to time.  It happened that Dad’s father was living in the same street (Raglan St.) as the Ross family, so the friendship with Winifred strengthened until they became engaged and eventually married on December 20, 1925 in St. Clements Church, Mosman.

So the fruit of the revivals in Scotland, of the preaching of great men of God like the Rev John Macdonald of Ferintosh and many others which resulted in “the most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain,” has come down through the generations, and spread itself around the world, and has even affected me, though I fear sometimes that I take more after the rather more irreligious Holford clan than the Rosses of Gledfield. But I too have found my way to a faith in the same God that inspired that Highland family, and at least some others of their descendants. So I cannot help but be inspired by the descriptions of those exciting times, and long to see them come again, not just to the Highlands, but to the little corner of the world where I find myself now. Here is another sample, an account of the ministry of James Kennedy of Aberfeldy, recorded by his son, John Kennedy, and quoted in Tom Lennie’s book:

     [Many came] every Sunday, fifteen to twenty miles, to sit under him in Aberfeldy, though they had to start at four in the morning to do it. The sight of these pilgrims travelling in carts, on horseback, and even on foot – the old men clad in homespun and often wearing the Highland bonnet, the old women wearing the snow white ‘mutch’, and carrying sprigs of sweet scented ‘southernwood’ as well as white handkerchiefs and the beloved Psalm-book in their hands – was by no means lacking in picturesqueness. Reaching Aberfeldy long before the hour of service, they were hospitably entertained at breakfast by the villagers. Then they streamed into the plain little chapel, and the worship began… As soon as the church was emptied the manse was crowded… Many of them did not get home till midnight; but the way, though long, was made cheerful with ‘songs of Zion’ and with talk of what they had heard in the morning.”
(Kennedy, Old Highland Days, quoted in Lennie T, pp.210-211)

And a final description, written by a Rev David Campbell a native of Glenlyon, recalling Kennedy’s ministry there in 1816. He had seen Kennedy

     stand almost knee-deep in a wreath of snow, while at the same time it was snowing and drifting in his face all the time he was preaching, and the people gathered around him patiently and eagerly listening to the fervent truths that proceeded from his lips… “Ach gu phi a-comhdhunnadh” – “But to conclude”! – when he came to that, his voice faltered, his eye brightened, and you would think he was as it were rushing between men and death, or plucking them out of the fire.
(quoted in Lennie T, p.210)

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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