Category: Biographical

John Knox

Among all the makers of the Scottish Reformed Church one stands pre-eminent: John Knox.  To some, he was the greatest-ever Scotsman.  To others, such as Andrew Lang and Edwin Muir, he was a paranoid bigot responsible for all the ills we have suffered since the Reformation.

Yet, for all the attention he has received, key facts in Knox’s life remain a mystery.  Even his place and date of birth are uncertain.  The general consensus is that he was born at Haddington in East  Lothian. But when?  The traditional date was 1505, but recent scholars prefer 1513-14.  Over against this we have to set the fact that in 1564 a contemporary described Knox as "a decrepit old priest".  If he was born only in 1513-14, he must have been decrepit in his late forties: a claim that the rest of the young elderly will find hard to thole.

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Wells of Joy: the Poetry of the Reverend Murdo Campbell, Resolis

The Reverend Murdo Campbell died in 1974.  Now, almost forty years later, his son, David has published a collection of his father’s Gaelic religious verse.

It immediately set my mind to working out connections.  Writing was in Murdo Campbell’s blood.  His brother, Angus (‘Am Puilean’) was a distinguished author, best remembered for his autobiography, ‘A Suathadh ri Iomadh  Rubha’ (‘Rubbing Up Against Many a Headland’).  His other brother, also named Angus but known as ‘Am Bocsair’, was a gifted bard, and his two sons, Alasdair and Norman, have made notable contributions to recent Gaelic fiction.  Mr. Campbell’s own son, David, the editor of this volume, chose a different path, becoming a distinguished Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, having previously studied under another eminent Highlander, Donald Mackinnon, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.  To complete the connections, the translator, the Reverend Kenneth MacDonald, a native of Applecross, and one of our foremost (if most unassuming) Gaelic scholars, was for many years a colleague of David’s at Glasgow.

Which all goes to show how perceptive was the Puilean’s choice of title.  The Gaidheal does indeed rub against many a headland.

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Peter Grant of Strathspey: Theology in Song

All lovers of Gaelic song will be familiar with Calum Kennedy’s heart-rendering ‘Oran mu Leanabh Og’ (‘Song of a Young Child’), but few, I suspect, will be aware of its source.  It was composed by the most prolific of our Gaelic hymn-writers, Peter Grant, and portrays an infant reporting back from heaven to assure his parents that if they knew the bliss he now enjoyed, far from grieving for him, they would be longing to join him.

Grant’s poetry was quintessentially lyrical and in the not too distant past his songs were being sung all over the Highlands.  The first collection appeared around 1809 (when Grant was only 26), the last in 1926: 21 editions in all.  Now his name is all but forgotten, yet not only are these songs treasures in themselves (and quite enough to provide a whole programme for BBC Alba), but his life and work provide a fascinating window into the world of the post-Culloden Highlands.

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Calvin: the Great Re-Former

John Calvin probably never heard of the Western Isles, and many in the Western Isles certainly wish they had never heard of him.

There’s no point in re-traversing the old familiar allegations of his baneful influence on the arts; nor is there any point in defending him from the charge that it was his fault that in the 1970s a man from Barvas had to trudge the seven miles to Galson if he wanted a ‘Christian drink’.  What really bugs me is that scarcely a day passes but the phrase ‘a narrow Calvinism’ walks across my computer-screen.

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Alexander Duff: a Forgotten Missionary Giant

Today, Alexander Duff is largely forgotten, his memory eclipsed by his younger contemporary, David Livingston.  Yet when Duff died in 1878, the Times contained a long obituary, Prime Minister Gladstone eulogised him and Scotland mourned as a nation that had lost its noblest son.  Few then would have thought it possible that Duff would ever be forgotten, but forgotten he is, and nowhere more so than in the Highlands.

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The Spiritual Life of Thomas Chalmers - Part 2

Effects of the change

What Chalmers himself called “the very great transition in sentiment” was accompanied by an inward peace and joy which he never lost.  Reflecting on the experience years later, he wrote: “The righteousness which we try to work out for ourselves eludes our impotent grasp, and never can a soul arrive at true or permanent rest in the pursuit of this object.  The righteousness which, by faith, we put on, secures our acceptance with God and secures out interest in His promises.  We look to God in a new light – we see Him as a reconciled Father; that love to Him which terror scares away re-enters the heart.”

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The Spiritual Life of Thomas Chalmers - Part 1

Thomas Chalmers gained renown as an orator, preacher, political economist, philanthropist, educationalist, ecclesiastical statesman and – above all – as an incomparable motivator of his fellow Christians. Men of high birth and scholars of world-renown sought his friendship. The University of Oxford conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws; the French Institute enrolled him as a corresponding member. Neither of these honours had ever before been conferred on a Scottish clergyman. When he died, he was buried “amid the tears of a nation, and with more than kingly honours”.

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The House My Father Built

My father was a hero.  The word, of course, has military associations.  The ancient Latins made no distinction between a hero and a man, taking the view that both had one function: to fight.  As a child of the War I was happy to buy into the package.  My foetal brain heard little music, but it heard much of war and my childhood was steeped in its memories: "the Crisis", Scapa Flo, the sinking of the Royal Oak,the Rawalpindi and the Hood and the countless friends who, in the moving Gaelic euphemism had "got in the way in the War" and never returned.  I still have some of those obituaries from the early 40's, kept by my mother in the same black box as protected their insurance policies and other valuables.

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The New Gael

An Gaidheal Ur. "De tha sin, a ghraidh?"  On the telly, Celtic and Liverpool.  On the radio, Rangers and Strasbourg.  We have come a long way.

In Stornoway, my mother lies dying: a seann Ghaidheal to the last.  Her mother died when she was four; her stepmother when she was twelve.  Her first child died, aged fifteen months; her second, aged twenty-eight.  She cleared away all his photos and never looked at his likeness again.  In childhood, she had potatoes and salt for dinner, and was belted at school for speaking Gaelic.  Her father took the King's Shilling and served as a soldier in Egypt.  In the Great War, he was a Seaman, RNR.  "'M bidh muir a'cur ort?" he asked me once.  "Bithidh," I said.  "Bha sin a's na daoine," he said, "Bha mis aig an iasgach fad mo bheath's bha 'm muir a'cur orm a h-uile la."  I remember it every time I board the ferry.  A seann Ghaidheal, pulling nets, sea-sick, day after day, year after year, from Stornoway to Yarmouth and Scrabster to Lowestoft.

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