- Land, Faith and the Crofting Community: Christianity and Social Criticism in the Highlands of Scotland, 1843–1893
This is an outstandingly good book (the fourteenth in the series of Scottish Historical Review Monographs) by a very capable young scholar who is training for the ministry of the Free Presbyterian Church. That last point matters. Virtually every historian who has written about agrarian and social change in the nineteenth-century Highlands, myself included, has recognised the extent to which such change was bound up with the spread and consolidation – among the crofting population above all – of evangelical Presbyterianism. Few or none of us, however, have explored evangelicalism’s role from a standpoint firmly inside that faith. Allan MacColl most definitely does so. This is one of his book’s strengths. While by no means neglecting other denominations, MacColl displays a particularly clear understanding of, and empathy with, the Free Church clerics and laymen who were so central to so much of what happened in the Highlands in the half-century between 1843, when the Free Church [End Page 362] separated from the Church of Scotland, and 1893, when MacColl’s own Free Presbyterian Church broke, in its turn, from the Free Church.
Throughout this key period in the modern history of the Highlands, as Allan MacColl demonstrates, evangelical Presbyterianism influenced, indeed often shaped, the means by which crofters and their allies first sought to criticise, and then to rein in, landlords who, prior to their powers being limited by the Crofters Act of 1886, were at liberty, as shown by the prevalence of eviction, to do much as they liked with both their estates and their tenants. MacColl’s achievement – one facilitated, to reiterate, by his sympathetic understanding of where the people he writes about were coming from spiritually and theologically – is to investigate the religious aspect of anti-landlord feeling with a comprehensiveness that has previously been lacking. As a result of so doing, he demolishes one of the contentions I advanced in the course of my own–now more than thirty-years-old–account of the protest movement which, in 1886, won the tenurial concessions which have since kept crofting in existence. The Free Church, I asserted long ago, was largely hostile to this protest movement. As Allan MacColl proves, I could scarcely have been more wrong.
MacColl reaches that conclusion by way of rigorous research. In the context of there being a good deal of spiritual common ground between him and many of the church folk who populate his pages, this merits emphasis. Although produced from within the belief system which it examines, Allan MacColl’s book is no sectarian tract, no one-sided apologia for a faith which continues to engender strong feelings – whether for or against. Instead, MacColl’s assessment of evangelical Presbyterianism’s significance is founded on factual material obtained from an impressively wide range of published and unpublished sources in Gaelic (of which Allan MacColl has a firm grasp) as well as in English. This material is deployed in ways which enhance greatly our–certainly my–understanding of what was going on ecclesiastically, socially and politically in the nineteenth-century Highlands. The same material is also analysed in a manner which, drawing as it does on MacColl’s extensive knowledge of wider currents in Christian thinking, connects the Highland experience with developments elsewhere in the western world of Victorian times.
Allan MacColl begins by quoting remarks made by Professor Donald Macleod, Principal of Edinburgh’s Free Church College, in the course of a 1995 sermon commemorating the Highland Clearances. Commenting on the church’s role in relation to clearance and the like, Professor Macleod said: ‘I represent the church... I confess its guilty silence. Like the German Christians under the Nazis, the clergy of the Highlands failed to open their mouths for the dumb.’ Allan MacColl’s book explicitly takes issue with Macleod by suggesting, as MacColl puts it, ‘that the Principal need not have...