60656: Rev Donald Maccallum: Rebel Minister and Crofters’ Champion (I)

The following account of Rev Maccallum’s life before arriving in Lewis was written by Angus Macleod, Calbost and Marybank.

The 19th century was an unhappy period in the annals of the Highland crofting community. Life was hard for crofter and cottar alike and many years of persecution and harsh treatment by unscrupulous landlords was bound, in the end, to lead to civil unrest and even open rebellion.

The Land League, a form of crofters union, began to spring up in many townships throughout the Highlands. The main aim of these bodies was to stiffen crofter resistance to the landlords’ efforts to drive them from their small patches of land by the exorbitant rents and all other means at their disposal.

The Land Leagues in the main were made up of crofters and cottars and had little or no support from the middle classes or the Church. The Established Church did nothing to assist its poor and under-privileged parishioners for fear of offending the landed gentry. It enjoyed many privileges from the landlord and under no circumstances was it prepared to put these in jeopardy.

There is always the exception and in the 1880s there appeared a crofters’ champion in the person of the Rev. Donald MacCallum, a Church of Scotland Minister from Argyll. Donald, a crofter’s son from Craignish in the Parish of Kilmartin, was born in 1849 and died in 1929. He was involved in the crofter’s cause in three islands, namely Skye, Tiree and Lewis. Very little has been written about his activities and most of what is contained in this article has been gleaned from oral sources.

As far as I could establish, he arrived in Skye in 1883 when he accepted a call to the Parish of Waternish. It was here that he became involved in the crofters’ struggle against the inhuman conditions prevailing, conditions that had led to the famous Battle of the Braes in 1882.

On his arrival at Waternish, he found that most of the people had left the Church and all he could muster for a service was about a dozen souls. The building itself was in near ruins, and the condition of the parishioners’ houses was even worse. Their dwellings were little more than hovels, black houses built of earth and stone – most of them without a chimney.

Little wonder that a great number of the inhabitants were victims of such diseases as tuberculosis, diphtheria and bronchitis. Sanitation was nonexistent and the lack of hygiene and medical care led to a very high mortality rate, especially among the younger population. The peasantry lived in abject poverty, without access to either common grazing or outrun.

This deplorable state of affairs must have left the young Minister a very disillusioned man. Anger and frustration boiled within him and he decided he could no longer sit on the sidelines while his parishioners starved and died. He would, as the servant of God, do his utmost to help his flock to break the chains of bondage that tied them to a callous landlord and uncaring Church. To him the Laird appeared to be leading a life of luxury while his tenants starved and died in his service. And the Church stood aloof, as if blind to the poverty that surrounded it.

At a meeting of the Land League, MacCallum was invited to speak on behalf of the crofters and this he did most eloquently. Quoting text after text from the Bible he made a scathing attack on both Laird and Church. “It is the sacred duty of the Church to help the poor and needy”, he cried. “Yet it stands by and does nothing!” But his message fell on deaf ears, for the Skye Presbytery had no intention of getting involved in a fight with the landed gentry. The John the Baptist Church of Waternish was but a lone voice crying in a wilderness of greed and self-interest.

Nevertheless the wee Minister from Argyll was a doughty fighter, with an enduring belief that justice must prevail. He had a Master to serve and that Master was not in the Presbytery but the Lord Jesus Christ. Warming to his theme, and I quote from the Rev. Norman MacLean’s book ‘Set Free’, he said, “We have among us those who have meat. They are the Lairds, the factors and the lawyers who neither sow nor reap. And who are they that have no meat? The toilers who produce it. They are the slaves of an unjust and iniquitous system.”

It must be said that in spite of his fiery utterances Donald MacCallum was a man of God, a man without hatred or guile – a humble servant of the Master he strove so manfully to serve. He believed that it was the system, so unjust in all its complexities that had led to the situation now existing, not only in Skye but also in many other parts of the Highlands. It was a legacy from the ’45 rebellion, when sheep and deer became more valuable than human beings. It certainly took courage, a virtue that MacCallum seemed to possess in abundance, for a Minister of a minority Church to speak with such ardour against those who held sway in Waternish. But mindful of his own humble beginnings and of the message of the Gospel, he was no longer prepared to stand aloof from the suffering and degradation that surrounded him. He came to the meeting as the Minister of a broken down Church but left it as a hero.

His fame soon spread to other parts of the Island where agitation was rife and he was invited to other townships to preach the gospel of equality. “It is now time for the Skye crofters to throw off their yoke”, he would exclaim. “Slaves throughout the world are now free, yet there seems to be no freedom for the black house dwellers of Skye”.

But then the law stepped in and on a Saturday evening he was arrested on a warrant issued by Sheriff William Ivory. He was taken to Portree and locked up to await trial on a charge of inciting the lieges to violence. By arresting him Sheriff Ivory, no doubt with the Battle of the Braes still fresh in his mind, was determined to nip any further agitation in the bud.

News of the arrest spread like wildfire and excitement and indignation reached fever pitch. A man of God was languishing in gaol, when he should have been preaching the Gospel. Prayers were offered on Sunday from the Parish Church pulpit for his quick release. But the neighbouring Free Church and the United Free Church remained strangely silent and made no reference to the Minister now incarcerated in Portree.

However, this was not the way his arrest was viewed by the common people and on Saturday night in two hotels in Portree minds were agog. The Tory faithful felt that Sheriff Ivory was within his rights to authorize the arrest but at the same time they had grave doubts about the wisdom of his action; in Liberal quarters, condemnation of the decision was unanimous. This was not only an attack on the Church but also an attack on the right of the individual to free speech. Certainly the person involved was only the Minister of a minority Church and things would have been a lot more serious had it been a Minister from the all-powerful Free Church that had been arrested.

part two

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