Church, School & Poor
Religion and royal patronage constituted a potent brew: there were clan v. clan, family v. family, son v. father conflicts. Individual religious conviction in Scotland was often a matter of life or death. Some of the bloody conflicts that had occurred across Scotland during the struggles between the Stewart kings and their opponents were often less to do with religious differences and more as means of settling scores between many of the Highland clans and the growing power of the anti-Stewart Argyll Campbells. However, the County was spared the lethal violence that occurred, for example, in the Covenanting times further south. In common with much of the Highlands, the old pre-Reformation church was supported long after 1560, and the Episcopal Church was well-favoured by some landed proprietors in the County.
There were some covenanting voices in the east of the County. Thomas Hog, minister of Kiltearn Parish (on north side of the Cromarty Firth), was an ardent Calvinist, who usually ignored the demands of his bishop. Though supported by Munro of Foulis his laird, he was eventually sent into exile, but returned to Kiltearn in 1689. His gravestone was inscribed with unrepentant words “This stone shall bear witness against parishioners of Kiltearn if they bring one ungodly minister in here.”
Since the introduction of the Patronage Act 1712, there were scattered instances of dissenting clergy and congregations against the appointment of ministers by the local lairds. One such was Norman MacLeod, from Assynt in Sutherland. He had been barred from preaching by the established church. Having taken up a teaching post in Ullapool, he was disowned by the local minister, who refused to baptise his child. He was forced out of his job, and, in 1817, he left with many followers to Cape Breton, Canada.
Until the weakening of its power throughout the 18thC (by statute removing civil law support to Kirk session judgements, increasing migration between parishes, commutation of penalties based on repentance and public humiliation to fines), the Church of Scotland’s Kirk sessions (church courts comprising the minister and elders) had considerable local clout by overseeing religious observance, public morals. They could even prevent movement between parishes by requiring a certificate of good character (testificat) signed by a minister. As the main landowners, the heritors, were responsible for the building and maintenance of their parish church, and of the ministers stipend and glebe, more often than not the local minister and Kirk session would support the landowners’ interests.
The Free Church, which resulted from the Disruption in 1843, arose out of growing frustration of congregations and many ministers over the abuse of patronage in the appointment of ministers to the Kirk, and the perceived complacancy of some clery. Patronage was a landowner's privilege, which made the church subordinate to the landed classes. Evangelicals within the Kirk finally broke off to form the Church of Scotland Free. In the NW, the Free Church had a head start in the form of The Men, Na Daoine, lay leaders of religion and of community matters, who were largely drawn from better educated crofters and tradesmen. The mass of the tenantry had found in the evangelical movement the scriptures they wanted to hear, and an influential local voice against their oppressors.
Although organised Christian religion took a strong hold upon the population, superstitions and tales of the supernatural lived on amongst many folk, including the seasonal rites important to agricultural communities.
There was a wide-spread desire for literacy across classes. By the time of the 1st Statistical Accounts (1790s), most Lowland parishes had its own school and schoolmaster. In the Highlands, the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge was teaching thousands of pupils (aiming to expand Protestantism and supplant Gaelic by English, initially teaching exclusively in English to Gaelic-speaking pupils). An 'establishment' body, their teachers were sometimes the eyes and ears of the Government in the Highland communities. Other schools were funded by Societies for the Support of Gaelic Schools.
Teachers were often itinerant, moving sometimes short distances, as and when required, teaching the basics of an education to young and old at a time when about 80% of the population could neither read nor write. A religious element was well to the fore. One schoolmaster was commissioned to teach at Altandhu, Coigach, by the Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools, in 1813, following a deputation to the parish minister "They said they would muster at least 40 scholars old and young, all panting for the word of life, and that they would board the Teacher in their own house."
In 1872, a national system of education was brought in throughout the country administered by local authorities. Local school boards were elected to oversee local education. This gave local tenants one of the first legitimate means of opposing the will of the lairds by not selecting the laird’s man; this happened in Lochbroom, where the Cromartie factor, William Gunn, failed in the election.
Folk, who could not support themselves, and were not able-bodied, were supported voluntarily by a combination of church funds raised by collections, mortifications (legacies), incomes from fines, mortcloth dues, fees for proclamations of marriage etc., and by contributions by landowners. In 1845, the influence of the Kirk was further weakened by the establishment of local Parochial Boards, drawing relief funds from assessments made of proprietors and tenants. The Parochial Boards, which comprised fixed numbers of members of the Kirk sessions, and of principal landowners, together with those elected by the ratepayers of the parish, were superseded by parish councils in 1894. A parish, or a combination of parishes, with over 5000 population could build a Poorhouse. In many cases, the communities looked after their needy as best they could……part and parcel of self-sufficient lifestyle in the countryside. Reflecting the special needs of the Highlands following the Potato Famine, Destitution Boards were set up (1847-52) providing food in return for work.
As the County became more accessible, especially after the introduction of steam ships, and stories of destitution entered the regional and national press, the plight of the poor during the worst years of want brought considerable charitable response throughout Britain, often instigated by Highland Societies in the cities.