Finlay Munro

(From Aspects of the Religious History of Lewis by Rev M. Macaulay, pages 130-141.)

Perhaps the man who did more than any other to break up the fallow ground in Lewis in the 1820s was the famous Highland Evangelist, Finlay Munro. He travelled much in Lewis during the revival, and paid at least two visits to the island, one before the revival which began in 1822, and one after Mr MacLeod had been settled in Uig in 1824.

Finlay Munro is thought to have been a native of Tain. In his early years he was employed by Dr. Angus Mackintosh as minister's man, and he was supposed to look after the glebe. It was at this time that his spiritual change seems to have taken place, and he came to the conclusion that, if he had faith, he could perform miracles. He gave the minister's seed to the poor, and sowed the chaff in the glebe. He fully hoped he would reap a good crop from this, in the Autumn. The result was that there were no oats in the glebe that year. The Doctor concluded that Finlay had sold the oats, and had kept the proceeds for himself.

Some time before 1820 Finlay was employed as a S.S.P.C.K. teacher in Latheron. This Society authorised their teachers to catechize the people, and as their schools were, as a rule, some distance from the central church in the parish, the teachers held services on the Lord's Day. Attendances were small, but zealous teachers availed themselves of the opportunity afforded to them by the absence of the minister. Thus Finlay began to preach, and during his vacations he travelled as far as Argyllshire and Arran. He felt himself called to preach the gospel, and so gave up his post in Latheron. He embarked on a tour as an Evangelist, holding that his Master's commission sent him to work in the great harvest-field as he sent the disciples of old saying, "Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel .. ., freely ye have received, freely give. Provide neither gold nor silver, nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves; for the workman is worthy of his meat ..." Matt 10:6f.

It was Finlay's custom to ask those who took him from place to place what they wanted for their trouble, and usually he was charged nothing. On one occasion, however, some of his friends in northern Lewis collected a sum of money to provide him with a new suit. They had five shillings left over the cost, and knowing that he would not accept it they put the money in his vest pocket. When Finlay was crossing to Skye or Uist, he asked them for their charge, and they said five shillings. He searched his pockets and found the five shillings which he gave to the ferry-men. When he returned to Ness he asked Angus Morrison who had dared to put five shillings in his vest-pocket, "For" he said "had it not been there it would not have been asked for."

Mr Lachlan MacKenzie, the minister of Lochcarron, died on the 20th April, 1819. Before he died Finlay attended his Communion, and arriving early he attended the Wednesday prayer meeting. After the meeting Mr Lachlan asked him what kind of godliness was found where he came from; was it of the memory or of the pocket? "It is neither," replied Finlay, "What godliness there is, is from the hand to the mouth."

At this communion Mr Kennedy, Redcastle, and Finlay were together, and overheard Mr Lachlan at his private prayers. The effect of the prayer on the listeners was that while Mr Kennedy was weeping, Finlay was laughing with joy.

The late A.N. Kennedy, Back, said that Finlay was put ashore in Lewis for the first time, in the late Spring of 1818, by a lobster fishing smack on its way to the fishing grounds off the Butt. This date might fit in well with his visit to the Lochcarron communion. They put him ashore at a place called Filio-cleit, between Diobadail, North-Tolsta, and Skigersta, Ness.

Finlay was first welcomed by Marion MacRitchie from Ness, who was in her Tigh-Earraich. This was a building with one room, with a place for the cattle. It was different from a shelling, being used in late Spring to accommodate the cattle when fodder at home was scarce. Marion gave him a meal, and Finlay's grace in seeking God's blessing on the food was efficaciously applied by the Holy Spirit to Marion's heart. She later became a noted Christian, and was usually referred to as "Mor bheag an Soisgeil," i.e. "Little Gospel Marion." Somewhat later, Finlay was crossing the moor between Ness and North Tolsta, and was given a drink of milk at a lone sheiling by a young married woman from Ness, named Margaret Gunn, who was spending part of the Summer with her cattle on the moor. She was then a stranger to grace, and Finlay before he left asked her to show him her wedding ring. As he held it in his hand he remarked solemnly, "How like eternity is this ring! it has neither beginning nor end." This seems to have led Margaret to come under concern for her soul, as she thought of her own state in the light of an endless eternity. Both Margaret and Marion were close friends in the bonds of the gospel, and the two are often confused with one another because of the similar circumstances of their conversion.

Mr MacPhail, Kilmartin, savs Finlay's first meeting was inStornoway, on South Beach Street, but in view of his landing place it is doubtful if this was his first meeting in Lewis. It is difficult to know in which direction Finlay travelled first, whether it was across to Ness, or along the East coast to North Tolsta, Gress, Coil and Stornoway. The story is told of a farmer at N. Tolsta named Nicolson, whose wife befriended Finlay, while her husaband bitterly opposed him. When Mr Nicolson was away from home, his wife invited Finlay to hold a service in her house. Before the meeting had concluded the farmer returned, and was furious when he saw Finaly sitting in his house conducting a meeting. Mr Nicolson laid rough hands on Finlay, bundling him out of the house. He lived to regret this rash act, and from that time the aggressor became a broken and subdued man.

Finlay's first convert at Back was Anne MacFarlane, who was the wife of Duncan Stewart, Back, and the mother of Murdo Stewart, the Catechist. She was arrested by something Finlay said to the child in her arms. Another tradition says she was the first member to communicate in the whole district on the North side of Stornoway. This can hardly be true, for John Matheson, Dall Ard Thunga, was converted when Mr Lachlan was assisting Mr Downie of Stornoway in 1782 to 1784. Mr Colin MacKenzie who succeeded Mr Downie died on 7th February, 1815, and Matheson, the blind Catechist, died as a young man.

Mr Lewis Maciver, the tacksman at Gress, had sent for Anne MacFarlane's father, who lived in Sandwick, to "whip" the workers for tack labour, and Anne married Duncan Stewart. Finlay Munro stayed in her house, but, as was his usual custom, he would only sleep in the barn. On a stormy night Duncan Stewards sons carried the boat-sail from the shore, and placed it on the barn to keep Finlay dry. When informed of this, Finlay blessed them, and they all manifested the fruits of grace later on in their lives. Finlay must have been a young lad at this time, for he was called "Am balach leis a'Bhiobull" . . . "The boy with the Bible".

The bulk of the people at that time lived at Gress, and not at Back; and the first Gaelic school was opened at Gress when Angus MacLeod, the teacher at Bayble, was removed to Gress in 1813.

The open-air meeting place of Finlay Munro was above the present croft-house at 28, Gress . . . Gearra Dubhaig. It was here that the sons of Norman MacLeod, Alasdair and Calum 'ic Thormoid, were constrained to go and hear Finlay preaching. Alasdair built piers in Gress which became known as Port Alasdair. The two brothers went to Canada, and Malcolm, according to Principal MacLeod, was one of the early Lewis settlers in the Lingwick district of Quebec. He had been a recognised religious leader in the Back district in pre-Disruption days. He became very attached to Daniel Gordon, the first minister of Lingwick, whose son, Charles, wrote under the pen-name of "Ralph Connor".

Mr Gordon, after a few years, moved West to Ontario. When Malcolm was advanced in years he was overtaken by the weakness of second childhood. Mr Gordon at that time came to assist at the Lingwick communion, and Malcolm's attachment to him was still unabated. Weak as Malcolm was he would not stay at home, and with the assistance of his wife and of his friend, Angus Morrison, Ness, he managed to the service, and sat between them on Friday. Mr Gordon noticed Malcolm, and called on him to speak to the Question. He was willing to do so, but his wife, knowing his weakness, held him down, while Angus Morrison on the other side was helping him up. The minister, noticing what was taking place, spoke sharply to the wife; so Malcolm rose and said, "When I was young in Lewis, word came to the village one day that a service was to be held by a lad who was going about with a Bible. As the others were going to the service I followed them, and sat on the outer circle of the congregation. As the "boy" began to preach I became so enthralled by his teaching that I could not hold back my tears. As he went on I edged nearer and nearer to him, until at last I had shed a bowl-full of tears, and found myself at his feet. The work that began in my heart that day has not yet stopped, nor will it stop." "Shil mi uisge mo chinn, agus an ni a thoisich annarnsa an latha ud ann an Griais cha do dh'fhag e riamh mi, agus cha'n fhag ann an tim na anns an t-siorruidheachd".

Of this Malcolm MacLeod, who died in Canada, Angus Morrison used to say that he was the heaviest sheaf he had known to be reaped off the fields of Lewis, with the exception of two others of his acquaintances. They were the forerunners of the evangelical crop that Lewis yielded in his time, viz., John MacKay of Barvas, who also died in Lingwick, and Murdoch MacDonald of Guershader, who died in Donald Munro's house in Skye. Both MacDonald and the blind Catechist are buried in Snizort.

Of John MacKay, Barvas, Mr MacPhail says, "A Factor of the old times, who had almost the power of "pit and gallows", took a dislike to John MacKay, and forthwith put the usual Lewis Factor's ignoble threat into execution: "Cuiridh mi as an fhearann thu". "I shall deprive you of your land". This he did and MacKay went to Canada, settling in Lingwick. This godly man left a sweet savour behind him both in Barvas and in Lingwick. The Factor, not long after he evicted MacKay, lost his position. He too went to Canada, where he became a poor and penniless man, and sank into oblivion." Rev. Peter MacDonald quotes a remark of a competent authority who said of John MacKay, "I never heard any other illiterate man who had such a remarkable gift in public prayer as John Mackay of Barvas."

MacKay was appointed as Catechist among his Gaelic-speaking countrymen in Canada, and on his tombstone in a Canadian churchyard there is an inscription that testifies to the repute in which he was held there.

One of the homes that welcomed Finlay Munro in Lewis was that of Andrew Finlayson, Cross roads in Coil, Back. Andrew was a N. Tolsta man, and his wife, Mary, was a convert of Finlay's. She became a notable Christian woman. Her son, James, used to tell that when he was a little boy his mother taught him to pray, kneeling beside her morning and evening. The mother said so many words and the boy repeated them after her. One day the boy and Finlay were in the house alone. Finlay asked him to come and kneel down, and the boy obeyed. Finlay then said "Say your prayer", and the boy answered "Say your prayer". Finlay looked sharply at him and said "You wicked creature". Like an echo came the reply of the boy, "You wicked creature". Finlay then understood that this was the mother's way of teaching the child to pray.

Finlay was called the "Boy with the Bible", yet it was an English Bible he had, as there were few Gaelic Bibles in circulation at that time. Finlay as a Society Teacher taught in English, and learned to translate into Gaelic as he read. The prevalence of this practice gave currency in certain districts to local renderings which may still be in use. Many quotations regarded as being from the Scriptures were authoritatively used. Finlay's Gaelic was not immaculate, yet he was easily understood wherever he laboured. He was not above being corrected in statements of doctrine. At the time of his last visit to Lewis, on his way to Harris, he preached in Balallan, and in his effort to magnify the virtue of the blood of Christ, he stated that one drop of that blood was sufficient to wash away the sins of the whole world. He stayed overnight in Balallan, but before retiring, he is reputed to have told his hosts that a man of God would be the first to open the door in the morning. So it happened. Donald Kennedy came early in the morning and disclosed the uneasiness Finlay's remarks the previous day about Christ's blood had caused him during the night. Mr Kennedy gave it as his own view that the salvation even of one sinner required not only one drop of Christ's blood, but the Saviour's full sacrifice of Himself unto death. Finlay listened, and praised God for the privilege of meeting one there who had sufficient scriptural knowledge of the death of Christ to correct him.

Although Finlay met with warm hospitality during his journeys, some of the people and even some of the ministers were very hostile to him. In those days Lay-preaching was looked upon with disfavour, and thus Finlay was regarded as an intruder. But he was a zealous and godly man, whose labours in the Gospel were richly blessed by the Master whom he served. His work was mainly among people where no evangelical ministry was available. As he was given much to secret prayer, he always preferred to sleep in the barn rather than in the house of his host, but at meal-times he joined the rest of the household. Principal MacLeod tells us that on one occasion when in Harris, he was the guest of the godly Mrs MaeDiarmid. Food was scarce, but she had some oatmeal, and went and bled the cow to mix the blood with the oatmeal. This food, duly cooked, she gave to her guest without any comment. When he visited her again she gave him better fare, without any reference to her former provision for him. She was content with what God's providence put at her disposal. This, Finlay said afterwards, was the finest instance he had ever come across of the refinement of culture that true godliness brings in its train.

Finlay paid frequent visits to Harris, and his work there was richly blessed. He once held a meeting at Tarbert, where an unfriendly Factor or one of his officials was present. He appears to have adopted a derisive attitude to Finlay's preaching, which went not unnoticed by those present. One strapping lad got hold of a piece of wood from the shore, and, giving it a good swing, crashed it on the offending official's head. It was said that the lad fled, and did not halt until he reached Uig in Lewis. Finlay also crossed to Uist where he met with great success. He was once on his way, hoping to cross on one of the ferries there. He was, however, left behind by the ferryman because he was too slow in getting ready. A fog came down on the boat, and in their endeavours to pull through it, they arrived back at the place from which they had departed. Finlay then was able to join them, and so got to his destination.