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Banner in the West

(A Spiritual History of Lewis and Harris)


John Macleod


Birlinn



I must confess to writing this review before I have finished the last two chapters. There has been a need for a popular history of the Church in Lewis and Harris and this book is both popular and enjoyable in both its content and style.  


The book has been given unfavourable reviews in the English Churchman and the the magazine of the Free Church Cont. who fault the turn of phrase that is often employed by the author.


I must confess to a degree of discomfort with some of the wording that he uses at times - but in a perverse way this can add to its appeal (his description of the Iona community as 'the Liberal Democrats at prayer' not only brought a smile to my lips but has a poetry that I will remember). Clearly, it is not right to refer to A. W. Pink as an 'English nutter' although, one must question the wisdom of Pink not attending church when living in Stornoway. Equally, he seems to have cause hurt to the reviewers in the above magazines with his description of one of their relations as having a fondness for Whisky. I can relate to this possible misreporting as his tales in an earlier volume (No Great Mischief If You Fall) of the events surround the division of the Free Presbyterian Church in 1989, include a description of my own father that abounds with inaccuracies - from the colour of his hair to the nature of his employment. Yet, all this is to take away from a book which readers will enjoy and profit from reading.

He begins with the Celtic Church, Nordic Invasions and Medieval Rome. The chapters give a feel for missionary endeavour in the early church and give interesting insights into those pre-Reformation periods that David Calhoun illuminates in those MP3 lectures.


He does not overlook the role of the Church in working with schools in evangelism - and rightly gives a huge place to the work of the SSPCK and the Gaelic Schools. His telling of the revivals at Uig under A. Macleod are fascinating (the tale of the first prayer meeting with his new elders brought tears of laughter to my eyes). His material on Finlay Munro and Angus of the Hills is very thought provoking and abounds with anecdote. Having recently read the life of Big Macrae it was a delight to see his retelling of some of those tales and the abiding influence of the work of that godly man.

I think what might have provoked some of the negative reviews from the Free Church authors in those magazines has been his treatment of the issues surrounding 1893. In a chapter entitled 'The Devil's Kitchen' (this chapter title comes from a speech in 1894 on the floor of the General Assembly and is a reference to the declatory act), he says 'There have been rather desperate attempts to argue that Hector Cameron saved Lewis for the Free Church. It would be a good deal more accurate to assert that he denied Lewis to the Free Presbyterians and thus cheated the Long Island of a surviving united Evangelicalism.'. His treatment of the separation acknowledges the courage and integrity of Rev. McFarlane and the students under Mr Cameron.
Speaking of the events in the immediate aftermath (1893-1990) he says, 'If several of the Highland eminences had come out in 1893 - or even one, like Gustavius Aird in Creich or John Noble in Lairg - there would have been a Free Presbyterian landslide'. Then he goes on to comment, 'We should remember besides that, almost from the start, Free Presbyterians have been persecuted... Everywhere Free Presbyterians were harassed. One child in Lochcarron never forgot mud being flung - real mud, literally flung - as "the Seceders" went to service.... For now, Free Presbyterians were taunted, pelted and ridiculed. They were of course in a Highland, Constitutionalist country; those who made their lives miserable were former Constitutionalist allies, and a good many of them - including now a few ministers - ended up in the Free Church minority.

The Free Presbyterians have often been condemned for refusing to return to a purified Free Church. Even by 1900, this was in human terms asking rather a lot.'
He goes on to outline some of the work of Neil Cameron in outlining the distinct differences between Free Church and Free Presbyterian services. Charting our history he observes 'The Free Presbyterian Church continues globally to grow - the last decade alone has seen new congregations in England, Kenya, Ukraine, Singapore and event the USA'. Adding, 'The Free Presbyterian Church was besides, from the start, 'more lay than clerical' and in some striking respects has a more democratic character than its rivals. Laymen take services, adherents often precent and Free Presbyterian women have always been obituarised in their magazine... She alone, these days, remains vigourously and frankly Protestant, though never beyond the bounds of courtesy, and openly deplores such ugly things as the Orange Order. She has also been determined not be defined as a Gaelic Church of exclusively Highland identity.'.
I hope this has helped to give a flavour of what is a very interesting book that I am sure many of the regular readers of this site would both profit from and enjoy.