Religion in the Scottish Highlands: 1600-1670

Presbies, Papists, Piskies, and Puritans

by Glenn McDavid


To understand the religion of the Highlands during the Clann Tartan period (c. 1630) we need to consider the overall religious history of Scotland and the specific characteristics of the Highlands. The fundamental religious issue of the age in Scotland, and indeed of all western Europe was the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic reaction to it, both of which originated in the previous century. The religious issues are at the root of the Thirty Years War, which is the basis of our 1630 scenario. The Army of Gustavus Adolphus, including the Scottish mercenaries, saw itself as fighting for the Protestant cause. This is obvious from Monro’s memoirs.

The British Civil Wars (1639-1650) are also partly a religious conflict: Scottish Presbyterians supported the English Puritans who controlled Parliament. They were opposed by Episcopalians (Anglicans) fighting for the Crown, often allied with Catholics. Highlanders were represented on all sides.

The Reformation and Afterwards

The Reformation in Scotland made little progress until the arrival of John Knox, after which it advanced rapidly. In 1560 the Scottish Parliament abolished Papal jurisdiction, outlawed the Mass, and made the Church of Scotland officially Presbyterian, following the model of John Calvin in Geneva. The new Church (Kirk) imposed a very puritanical code, including the prohibition of Christmas festivities.

In the Highlands the immediate impact of the Reformation was less drastic. They were remote from Edinburgh, both geographically and linguistically, and at first few ministers of the Kirk ventured there. However, the Catholics in the Highlands were cut off from the wider Church. There was no system to replace priests who died or were otherwise unable or unwilling to serve. By 1600 there were only about 12 Catholic priests in all of Scotland, none of whom served in the Highlands. Despite this many Highlanders remained devoted to the old religion and continued to follow Catholic practices in so far as was possible.

In 1619 the Catholic Church finally began to address the needs of the faithful in the Highlands. A mission of Irish Franciscans arrived in that year and found a fertile field for their labors. Their base was in Antrim, close to the Scottish coast, and where the Earl was a MacDonald and maintained close ties with his Scottish kin. Furthermore, as Gaelic speakers they were able to communicate with their flock, few of whom spoke Scots or English. They and their successors reported considerable success in reconciling Highlanders to Catholicism, but were always limited by their small numbers. As late as 1679 there were only four priests for all of the Highland and Islands.

As time passed the new Presbyterian Church began to make itself felt in the Highlands. Highlanders were strongly inclined to follow the lead of their chiefs, and the conversion of a chief often, though not always, caused the Clan to follow. Archibald, fourth Earl of Argyll and Chief of Clan Campbell, was an early convert to the Protestant Faith and after his death in 1558 his son, another Archibald, continued to energetically support the new religion.

The authority of the chief is illustrated by a story from the Island of Rum:

“The inhabitants are fifty-eight families, who continued Papists for some time after the Laird became a Protestant. Their adherence to their old religion was strengthened by the countenance of the Laird’s sister, a zealous Romanist, till one Sunday, as they were going to mass under the conduct of their patroness, Maclean [the Laird] met them on the way, gave one of them a blow on the head with a yellow stick, I suppose a cane, for which the Earse [Irish/Highlanders] had no name, and drove them to the kirk, from which they have never since departed. Since the use of this method of conversion, the inhabitants of Egg and Canna, who continue Papists, call the Protestantism of Rum, the religion of the Yellow Stick.”

The progress of the Kirk was further encouraged by the Scottish Government. The Statutes of Iona, passed in 1609, required that Highland Chiefs send their heirs to the lowlands, to be educated in English speaking Protestant schools. As a result some clans, such as the MacDonalds of Sleat and the MacLeods of Harris adopted the new religion.

Other Clans, including the MacDonalds of Clanranald, Keppoch, Glengarry, and Glencoe, renamed resolutely Catholic. In response to the Protestant threat, in 1626 the Chief of Clanranald wrote to Pope Urban VIII:

…the darkness I mean of error, which the turbulent detested followers of the accursed faithless Calvin had introduced, through the violence and tyranny of the Council of Scotland, through lying pseudo-bishops [see below] and fraudulent ministers…

It is certain and evident, since it is already known in the council of Scotland that we have received the true faith, that we shall be compelled to the renunciation of it or to the loss of temporal goods and life, or both, as has frequently happened, not only to Scots but also to many Irish

… Our country and islands … are far removed from the incursions and outrages of the English to whom we have never at all given obedience.

All the Gaelic-speaking Scots and the greater part of the Irish chieftains joined to us by ties of friendship…”

The Kirk was hostile to the traditional Gaelic culture of the Highlands, and attempted to abolish many “immoral”, “uncivil”, and “heathenish” practises. Among these were dancing, herb lore, Yule-tide dramas, Samhainn bonfires, and the veneration of holy wells. The intent was to remake the Highlanders in the image of their lowland neighbors, even in language. As late as 1716 the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge was committed to “rooting out their Irish [Gaelic] language.” (Michael Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, p. 216).

A few powerful chiefs were able to achieve some peace between the Protestant Faith and Highland Culture. Notable among these were the Campbells of Argyll. Despite their loyalty to Kirk and (most of the time) Crown, they maintained a Gaelic Court at Inverary Castle. (McLeod, p. 201)

Protestant Split: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms

King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in 1603, Like Scotland, the larger kingdom was also Protestant, but quite different in character. Queen Elizabeth, out of both politics and conviction, prevented the English Puritans from imposing as thorough a Reformation as occurred in Scotland. The Church of England retained a set liturgy and government by bishops—Episcopacy—although the official theology was then, like that of the Kirk, very Calvinist. While some puritans hoped he would complete the Reformation of the English church along Scottish lines, in fact the opposite happened. King James quickly took a liking to Episcopacy, remarking that “a Scottish Presbytery agreeth as well with a monarchy as God with the devil.” He went on to appoint three Bishops for the Church of Scotland, which maintained an uneasy mix of Presbyterian and Episcopal government down to 1637.

King James did not go much beyond this. Honed during his difficult early years as King of Scotland, his political instincts were excellent. He would have preferred that the Church of Scotland were more like that of England, but he also understood the strength of his opponents, and knew how far he could push them.

His son, Charles I, who became King in 1625, was also devoted to the the Church of England. By then that Church was evolving its own distinctive character. Many Catholic practises, abolished in the previous century, were reintroduced by the Bishops and their supporters, subsequently known as the Carolines. The new leadership also backed away from the strict predestination of the Calvinists, allowing more theological room for free will. These tendencies were favored by the King, but were regarded with horror by the Puritans, such as Peter Smart, who condemned “The whore of Babylon’s bastardly brood, doating upon their mother’s beauty, that painted harlot, the church of Rome, has laboured to restore her all her robes and jewels again, especially her looking-glass, the mass, in which she may behold all her bravery,…”

Like his father, Charles I believed in the Divine Right of Kings. However, he lacked his father’s sense of the political limits of the Royal power. In 1637 his Bishops published a Scottish version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which was actually more “Catholic” than its English counterpart. At its first use, on July 23 of that year, it provoked a riot. The Kirk, very much in sympathy with the English Puritans, totally rejected the book and everything it stood for. The following year the National Covenant was signed, firmly opposed to Episcopacy and anything smacking of Catholicism.

King Charles then decided to impose Episcopacy and the Prayer Book by force, using an English Army. The result was the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and 1640. Limited by the King’s difficulties with the English Parliament, his armies were untrained, poorly equipped and badly led. As a result they were easily beaten by their Scottish opponents. The Covenanters remained firmly in control and the King’s position in England was badly weakened. The English Civil War, between King and Parliament, broke out two years later. Official Scottish opinion was firmly on the Parliamentary side, and in 1643 Scotland entered the war against the King.

The impact of these events in the Highlands was quite complicated. The Campbells firmly supported the Covenanters, as did the Frasers, Grants, Monros, and Rosses, but many other Highlanders were not so enthusiastic. The Catholics, of course, had no reason to fight for the Covenant. The intervention of a Scottish army on behalf of Ulster Protestants further alienated them—the native Irish were not only their co-religionists, but in many cases also their relatives. In the western Highlands and Islands many clans had suffered greatly from the growing power of the Campbells. Whatever their religion, they were understandably reluctant to follow a cause embraced by their enemies. All of these reasons applied to the Southern MacDonalds, and some of them plotted an uprising in the King’s name against the Campbells. Little came of this in 1639-40, but these were precisely the motives that led Alasdair MacColla to join the Marquis of Montrose in a spectacular campaign againt the Covenanters five years later.

Among the Protestants, some Highlanders were not nearly as Puritanical as a Covenanter would wish. As late as 1669 the Catholic Oliver Plunket noted that some “heretics”

“cease not, however, to cherish a great esteem for the Catholics, as appears in many things.

If a priest visits them they show him more respect and honour him more than their own ministers. In fact the heretics amongst the Highlanders surpass in reverence for our priests the very Catholics of the Lowlands.

They moreover retain many Catholic usages, such as making the sign of the Cross, the invocation of Saints and sprinkling themselves with Holy Water; which they anxiously ask from their Catholic neighbours.

In sickness they make pilgrimages to the ruins of the old churches and chapels which yet remain, as of the most noble monastery of Iona, where St Columba was Abbot: also of the chapels of Ghierlock and Applecrosse and Glengarry which were once dedicated to the saints. They also visit the holy springs which yet retain the names of the saints to whom they were dedicated and it has often pleased the Most High to restore to their health those who visited these ruins or drank at these springs, invoking the aid of these Saints.

Finally, many Highland Protestants simply remained loyal to the King. Despite his faults, they did not believe Parliament had the right to supplant his authority. This, along with the retention of Catholic practises, would lead them to favor the Episcopalian party over the Covenanters. Even after the Kirk became finally Presbyterian in 1689, a lot of Highlanders remained loyal to the then disestablished Episcopal Church.

The divided religious loyalties of the Highlanders were to have consequences far into the future. Politically, support of the Stewart King had united Highland Catholics with many of their Protestant neighbors. This alliance was to appear again in the Jacobite rebellions of 1689, 1715, and 1745.