Tag Archives: Scotland

6 November: reasonable to refuse?

Fisherman and child, Mallaig, Scotland.

When Doctor Johnson travelled to Scotland in 1773, the 1745 campaign of Bonnie Prince Charlie to regain the throne and the subsequent reprisals from George II were still remembered by those who had been affected. Here is some of what Johnson found.

There was perhaps never any change of national manners so quick, so great, and so general, as that which has operated in the Highlands, by the last conquest, and the subsequent laws.  We came thither too late to see what we expected, a people of peculiar appearance, and a system of antiquated life.  The clans retain little now of their original character, their ferocity of temper is softened, their military ardour is extinguished, their dignity of independence is depressed, their contempt of government subdued, and the reverence for their chiefs abated.  Of what they had before the late conquest of their country, there remain only their language and their poverty. 

Their language is attacked on every side.  Schools are erected, in which English only is taught, and there were lately some who thought it reasonable to refuse them a version of the holy scriptures, that they might have no monument of their mother-tongue. That their poverty is gradually abated, cannot be mentioned among the unpleasing consequences of subjection. 

Johnson had given his support to those working for a full Scots Gaelic translation of Scripture; the Gospels and Psalms had come first, used in public and private worship every day.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century foreign missionaries made sure to translate the Bible as soon as they could, but imagine learning to render Latin, Hebrew and Greek into a language not previously written down! It is not just word for word, but idea for idea, a different way of thinking. Not respecting those differences would have been unacceptable bullying. The same is even more true of trying to attack a mother-tongue and deprive people of the Bible in their own language. Whatever mistakes those early missionaries made, they were made in good faith and in service of the local people, to whom they were happy to hand over responsibility as soon as possible.

from “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson)

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31 October: O Holy Christ.

Memorial to fishermen lost at sea, Mallaig.

This prayer from Alistair Maclean’s ‘Hebridean Altars’ seems the right introduction to November, when we remember all who have died and been guided over the ford to Heaven. Consider, if you will, the phrase, ‘When I shall make an end of living’. Maybe we should do that each night before sleep: ‘The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end. Amen’

O Holy Christ,
bless me with Thy presence
when my days are weary 
and my friends few.
Bless me with Thy presence
when my joy is full,
lest I forget the Giver in the gift.
Bless me with Thy presence
when I shall make an end of living.
Help me in the darkness to find the ford.
And in my going
comfort me with Thy promise
that where Thou art,
There shall Thy servant be.

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30 October: Dreary toil.

We continue reading from Hebridean Altars by Alistair Maclean his 1937 collection of the Islanders’ wisdom and piety. Who could not make their own the first part of the prayer we share today? The second part echoes Paul to the Colossians (1:24): “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

Christ says to each one of us, “Thou must take his place.”

Seven times a day, as I work upon this hungry farm,
I say to Thee,
"Lord, why am I here?
"What is there here to stir my gifts to growth?
"What great thing can I do for others --
"I who am captive to this dreary toil?"

And seven times a day Thou answerest,
"I cannot do without thee.
"Once did my Son live thy life,
"and by his faithfulness did show
"My mind, My kindness and My truth to men.
"But now He is come to My side.
"And thou must take His place."

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29 October: On the latch

The gate may be rusty and damaged but go through, follow the path…

It’s time for another visit to the Hebrides, in the prayers and wisdom of the Islanders collected by Alistair Maclean in ‘Hebridean Altars’. This prayer derives from Revelation 3:20: Behold, I stand at the gate, and knock. If any man shall hear my voice, and open to me the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

Gone are the days when we might have felt confident to leave a door unlatched, a bicycle unlocked. We can, though, be ready to welcome Lord Jesus in whomsoever crosses the threshold of our home, or presents themselves to our eyes and ears, the threshold of our hearts.

I wait with Love's expectancy.
Lord Jesus, trouble not to knock at my door.
My door is always on the latch.
Come in, Dear Guest,
and be my host,
and tell me all thy Mind.


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30 September: Juggler’s Balls

I can recall my heart leaping when we drove through an area of the Scottish borders where I had spent a year as a teenager. That visitation was unplanned and quite unexpected, our route had been determined by the morning traffic in Edinburgh. Wordsworth came to his old haunts, distressed with a burden of sad anticipation. But he like me, was surprised by joy.

It had not been the happiest year of my life but it was in the beautiful Tweed Valley, beauty that resonated with my adult self decades later, all unexpectedly. A moment to be grateful for. Now here’s Wordsworth.

“Beloved Vale!” I said, “when I shall con
  Those many records of my childish years,
  Remembrance of myself and of my peers
  Will press me down: to think of what is gone
  Will be an awful thought, if life have one.”
  But, when into the Vale I came, no fears
  Distress’d me; I look’d round, I shed no tears;
  Deep thought, or awful vision, I had none.
  By thousand petty fancies I was cross’d,
  To see the Trees, which I had thought so tall,
  Mere dwarfs; the Brooks so narrow, Fields so small.
  A Juggler’s Balls old Time about him toss’d;
  I looked, I stared, I smiled, I laughed; and all
  The weight of sadness was in wonder lost.
  From “Poems in Two Volumes, Volume 1” by William Wordsworth)

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19 June: Wickedness takes the short cut

At the Last Supper scene from Strasbourg Cathedral, Judas is to the right of centre, grasping his moneybag. He has just received the piece of bread from Jesus, to the left, who has his hands clasped, his eyes turned heavenward. How did the betrayal that is about to occur come about? It doesn’t feel to me like just one more venial peccadillo, but perhaps it did to Judas. Maybe the venial peccadilloes, his stealing from the common purse, paved the way for the big one.

Here is an extract from Boswell, reporting a conversation on Skye in which Dr Johnson, The McCleod of McCleod, Rev Donald McQueen, and Boswell himself discussed human wickedness.

JOHNSON. ‘Cunning has effect from the credulity of others, rather than from the abilities of those who are cunning. It requires no extraordinary talents to lie and deceive.’

This led us to consider whether it did not require great abilities to be very wicked.

JOHNSON. ‘It requires great abilities to have the POWER of being very wicked; but not to BE very wicked. A man who has the power, which great abilities procure him, may use it well or ill; and it requires more abilities to use it well, than to use it ill. Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to every thing. It is much easier to steal a hundred pounds, than to get it by labour, or any other way.

‘Consider only what act of wickedness requires great abilities to commit it, when once the person who is to do it has the power; for THERE is the distinction. It requires great abilities to conquer an army, but none to massacre it after it is conquered.’

From “The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.” by James Boswell.

More than once I have heard a preacher say that Judas was taking a short cut, contriving a showdown with the authorities that Jesus would surely win, a coup d’etat. But Jesus was not one for political short cuts; he was not a lazy thinker. Thirty pieces of silver could have been earned by hard work or by betrayal. Perhaps the moment of truth for Judas came as he kissed his master, and suddenly realised how wrong a turning he had made.

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3 May: In the Gloom of the Evening.

Doctor Johnson is on his travels in the Isle of Skye, in Autumn of the year 1773. The places named were homes of the local gentry who unfailingly welcomed Johnson and his friend James Boswell.There were no roads on Skye at this time and a trusted guide was absolutely necessary for safety.

More than 200 years later, I cannot help but think of the violence, terror and uncertainty that so many unwilling travellers have experienced in recent months, and the welcome they have received from strangers in their unexpected hour of need. Let us hope and pray that a ‘degree of cheerfulness’ may be granted them through the kindness of others, enabling them to sustain their children and vulnerable dependents.

In our way to Armidel (Armadale) was Coriatachan, where we had already been, and to which therefore we were very willing to return.  We staid however so long at Talisker, that a great part of our journey was performed in the gloom of the evening. 

In travelling even thus almost without light thro’ naked solitude, when there is a guide whose conduct may be trusted, a mind not naturally too much disposed to fear, may preserve some degree of cheerfulness; but what must be the solicitude of him who should be wandering, among the craggs and hollows, benighted, ignorant, and alone? The fictions of the Gothick romances were not so remote from credibility as they are now thought. 

In the full prevalence of the feudal institution, when violence desolated the world, and every baron lived in a fortress, forests and castles were regularly succeeded by each other, and the adventurer might very suddenly pass from the gloom of woods, or the ruggedness of moors, to seats of plenty, gaiety, and magnificence.  Whatever is imaged in the wildest tale, if giants, dragons, and enchantment be excepted, would be felt by him, who, wandering in the mountains without a guide, or upon the sea without a pilot, should be carried amidst his terror and uncertainty, to the hospitality and elegance of Raasay or Dunvegan.

Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland by Samuel Johnson.

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17 April, Easter Day: Taking His Place

A different thought for Easter day. What is the meaning of the feast for us, who live in a very different world to the first century Palestine of Jesus and his disciples? What does it mean to be a disciple today. This Scottish Island farmer from early last century has an answer that can encourage us in our faith and our daily Christian life.

Seven times a day, as I work upon this hungry farm,
 I say to Thee, 'Lord, why am I here?
What is there here to stir my gifts into life?
What great things can I do for others --
I who am captive to this dreary soil?'

And seven times a day, Thou answerest,
'I cannot do without thee. 
Once did My Son live thy life,
and by his faithfulness did show My mind,
My kindness 
and my truth to men.
But now He is come to My Side,
and thou must take His place.'

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29 March: Avoiding bitterness

Reverend Robert Walker skating

An excuse for revisiting Raeburn’s portrait of his friend Robert Walker, is this quotation from one of his sermons.

Too many of those who make a profession of religion … indulge themselves in a bitter, censorious disputation, more allied to peevishness than either to virtue or religion … their conversation is gloomy, their countenances and manners forbidding. From such unfortunate examples, it is too often rashly concluded, that the nature of religion itself is harsh, melancholy and severe.*

These days we have perhaps lost much of the gloominess, though covid and climate change do tempt some to adopt that attitude. What seems to persist is the censorious disputation which can become bitter. Let us pray for the grace to see ourselves as we are in relation to others, and to step back from disputation that divides and brings the Church into disrepute.

Perhaps each one of us needs time to be alone with God and nature as Robert is here. Not much skating this winter in Kent, but walking is always available, free of charge, to set the spirit free.

*See The Skating Minister, by Duncan Thomson and Lynne Gladstone-Millar, Edinburgh 2004, p33.

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22 March: Excuses for what we know to be wrong.

It’s the eighteenth century, and Dr Johnson and James Boswell’s tour around the Hebrides has been curtailed by the weather. Boswell had enjoyed more than one glass of his host’s hospitality on Saturday evening, and woke up with a hangover, barely conscious. No minister, so no Sunday service, but conscience was to catch up with him, though he tried to wriggle out of it. But finally he was honest with himself and the reader.

I took my host’s advice, and drank some brandy, which I found an effectual cure for my head-ach. When I rose, I went into Dr Johnson’s room, and taking up Mrs M’Kinnon’s prayer-book, I opened it at the twentieth Sunday after Trinity, in the epistle for which I read, ‘And be not drunk with wine, wherein there is excess.’ Some would have taken this as a divine interposition.

This was another day of wind and rain; but good cheer and good society helped to beguile the time. I felt myself comfortable enough in the afternoon. I then thought that my last night’s riot was no more than such a social excess as may happen without much moral blame; and recollected that some physicians maintained, that a fever produced by it was, upon the whole, good for health: so different are our reflections on the same subject, at different periods; and such the excuses with which we palliate what we know to be wrong.

From “The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.” by James Boswell.

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