The Highland Churches and the First World War

Few historians of the First World War have deigned to consult the ‘Monthly Record’ of the Free Church of Scotland.  That is their loss.  The ‘Record’ might have had little contact with so-called ‘men of affairs’, but it was in very close contact with ministers, chaplains, soldiers, sailors and, above all, with Highland parishes.  Its editor, Archibald McNeilage, was a brilliant professional journalist; and the annual Reports of the Church’s Highlands and Islands Committee still give a splendid insight into the social problems of the time.

The effect of the War on the Highlands and Islands was immediate.  The Government ordered Naval Mobilisation on the 1st  of August, 1914  The following day was a Sunday, and in between the morning and evening church-services, over 2000 Lewis Naval Reservists received orders to report immediately to their various ‘ships’.

In an instant, homes and communities were deprived of their young men. But this wasn’t all.  The war put an immediate end to the East Coast herring-fishing, forcing the boats to return home from Yarmouth and Lowestoft with only a fraction of their usual income.  Nor was it only the fishermen who were affected.  The herring-girls also had to return home, many of them penniless.  The economic impact of this was calamitous.  The income of the herring-girls represented an annual revenue of some £60,000: equivalent to £5million in today’s money.  That was lost.

That same year the potato-harvest failed, and Lewis faced real distress.  The Free Church then decided to approach the Government and the War Office, particularly on behalf of the dependents of soldiers and sailors, but quickly ran into the usual difficulties.  Other churches refused to get involved, on the ground that there were already ‘allotments’ to the dependents of servicemen.  These allotments, however, were based on the principle of ‘loss of earnings’, and this put islanders at a hopeless disadvantage.  Fishermen had had virtually no wages from the previous year’s fishing, and crofters had no steady wages at all.

For once, the Admiralty and the War Office responded with humanity, and even  wrote back to the Church thanking them for bringing the matter to their notice ‘the exceptional circumstances described in your letter.’

The same issue of the ‘Monthly Record’ (June 1915) records that at least 6,000 Free Church men had answered their country’s call: more than the total communicant membership of the Church today.  Over and above this, 26 ministers had volunteered to serve as chaplains.

Others, however, felt as a matter of conscience that they should offer for military service, and the General Assembly made plain that it would not stand in their way.  One of those was Rev. James Orr, Minister of Shettleston, who enlisted as a Private, was eventually promoted to Captain, and was killed in action in August, 1917.

Another casualty was John Munro, a student for the ministry who responded to the call to arms in 1914 while still at Aberdeen University, but was killed in the last year of the War.  Munro, the son of a crofter-fishermen from Point, joined as a Private, rose to the rank of Lieutenant, and won the Military Cross.  Described by his minister as a man who lived in communion with God and by an Army Chaplain as ‘all that a British soldier should be’, Munro was also a poet of such outstanding promise that in an article in the current issue of the ‘Scottish Review’ Iain Smith and Ruairidh Maciver can barely resist the temptation to call him the ‘Gaelic Wilfred Owen’.

The Free Church also had close links with the Naval Reservists interned in Holland from October 1914 to the end of the War.  Expert seamen, they had been assigned to army duties as part of a Royal Naval Brigade and then, with little training, sent to defend the Belgian port of Antwerp.  Forced to flee before the Germans they marched into neutral Holland; and there, near the city of Groningen, they were interned, housed in three large huts which they dubbed, ‘HMS Timbertown’.  Though fairly treated, they were deeply frustrated.  ‘About 1500 of us crossed the Dutch frontier,’ wrote one to the Monthly Record, ‘and here we are wasting our time and doing nothing.’

Among the 1500 internees were over 100 Gaelic-speakers, mainly from Lewis, and for most of the time they had a Free Church Chaplain, Rev. Duncan MacDougall, Ness, who conducted two Gaelic Sunday services and three Gaelic prayer-meetings every week.  Two of the men never made it home: Donald Macleod of Carloway and John McLeay of Barvas both died at Groningen.  McLeay was clearly an exceptional man.  Though but an Ordinary Seaman, it was he who led the group before the Chaplain’s arrival, and at his funeral one of the local Dutch ministers remarked that he found in him ‘the humility of a Christian with the courteous dignity of a Highland chief.’

Among the many ‘Letters from the Front’ that came to the ‘Monthly Record’ were several from Groningen requesting Gaelic books such as Boston’s ‘Fourfold State’ and Baxter’s ‘Saints Everlasting Rest’.  These books were easily available in English, and most of us today would prefer to read them in their original language.  That generation, however, not only read Gaelic, but were more at home with Gaelic books than with English.  How so, when the education system was so hostile to Gaelic?

From the beginning of the War, the Church was convinced that it was a ‘righteous cause’, but as the end approached there is no trace of euphoria, and certainly no anticipation of the men coming home to ‘a land fit for heroes’.  The General Assembly of 1918 declared that, ‘The right to live as freemen upon the land which they have redeemed by their lifeblood would be but a small compensation for the heavy sacrifices borne by a loyal and brave people’.  But such a compensation was by no means guaranteed, and earlier that year a group of Free Church men had formed themselves into an Association for the Betterment of the Highlands, deplored the ‘injury inflicted by a bye-past land policy’ and gone on to call for ‘such a land policy as will secure to the population of the Highlands, and especially to the returning brave, a settlement upon the land under conditions of tenure and equipment fitted to secure comfortable and economic living.’

The Solicitor-General, Mr. T. B. Morrison, MP for Inverness-shire, then addressed the meeting, and complimented them on having ‘put the land problem in a nutshell.’

Five years later the heroes were on the ‘Metagama’, starving, and heading for Canada.

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press, 17 October 2014.