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The lighter side of church life

Although the church ruled with a rod of iron, there were times when its flock could take a hidden delight in the shenanigans of the clergy. Men of the cloth, like everyone else, are human. Here are some tales to show that...

Turn the other cheek?

At an unknown date in the 17th century Mr Pitcairn, son of the minister, kept a shop in South Ronaldsay which contained a general assortment of goods, as was needed on the island. One Christmas he and his wife were invited to spend the holiday with Sir James Stewart at his house in Burray. When the holiday was over they returned to their home at Neward and were horrified to find that their stores had been broken into and a large amount of valuable goods had been stolen.

Patrick Kinnaird, the baillie of the district, was immediately contacted and at his command a number of men were gathered together to search for the thieves. The evidence pointed to an elderly couple. Some of the stolen goods were found on the road to Mr and Mrs Hutchone Voy's cottage. In the barns, more goods were discovered. It seemed an open and shut case but the couple would not confess. They were tied up, side by side, to a pair of harrows and were threatened that if they did not make a confession, their tongues would be burnt.

A pair of harrows, Swona

With no confession forthcoming the baillie and his men searched through the Eastside district and eventually came upon a house at Aikers where Donald Bruce lived. In this house, and that of his neighbour, almost all of the stolen goods were found. Kinnaird immediately despatched a rider to release the old man and his wife.  

Some friendly and sympathetic neighbours conveyed Bruce and around six accomplices across the Pentland Firth. They were later known as Skipsies on account of their flight and were never heard from again. No doubt they feared the punishment that awaited them if they ever returned.

There is no record of what compensation was made to Mr and Mrs Voy for what they had endured. The couple are mentioned though in the records: "At Peterkirk, 7 December 1664, Being Wednesday, Bill, Magnus Croamarty, in Hoxa, contra Hutchone Voy and his spous, for slandering of him. Quhilk bill and witness being examined, the defender was cleared and they appointed Christian peace." 


All babies had to be baptised, it was believed, in order for their souls to go to heaven. The child death rate was high so it was important to get a baby baptised as soon as possible.

Old superstitions were slow to die out and in the Annals of Church in Orkney it is recorded that Mr Grant, a minister, complained he had twice been interrupted in dispensing baptism when he tried to baptise a girl ahead of a boy. He was told that if he did this it would give the girl a beard while the boy would be robbed of it.

Another superstition which caused concern among the ministers was the signing of boats in South Ronaldsay. For a long time after the Reformation the fishermen would put a coal tar cross on their boats every Hallow's Eve to protect them from evil spirits.

Orphir man Thomas Louttit was interrogated because "as they were laying his wife in her coffin he took corn and put some in her mouth as well as laid some in the chest". He explained that he had the best of motives as it was to stop his wife coming back and bothering her stepdaughter whom she had quarrelled with during her life.

The Session were unimpressed and demanded a public profession of repentance in the kirk, but Louttit was unrepentant. The Session then played their trump card, those who "proved contumacious" were handed over to the civil magistrate and Louttit was made to pay two pounds Scots into the box.

They are human after all

Although ministers were held in high regard, and stood in judgement of their parishioners, some of them slipped up.

Gilbert Body was minster for Holm and was called "a drunken Orkney ass" by someone who had differing opinions to him. He was drowned in a loch near the middle of the parish in April 1606. Tradition says that this happened after he left a marriage party in the west of the parish, in the darkness of the night. Perhaps he had been drunk and fell into the loch. Who can tell?

In 1555 Magnus Halcrow, priest in Orphir, was excommunicated for adultery and other crimes. His case was referred to the titular Archbishop at St Andrews and was eventually absolved.

An outspoken minister

John Gerrard was an outspoken man and was rather eccentric in his manner and sayings. He was held in great regard and affection by those who knew him and many of his odd sayings were floating about among people for many years after his death.  

One day two dogs found their way into the church and began fighting during the middle of the sermon. The beadle rose to put them out but the minister called out, "Leave them alane, John, leave them alane". He watched for a while and then said: "Well done the red ane, he'll beat the black ane."

On another occasion he took for his text "Live at peace with all men" but as he was illustrating his text he exclaimed: "I say it is impossible to live at peace with some men, for there is Willie Sinclair of Steeos in the gallery there, who borrowed a creel from me sax weeks ago, and he has not seen the way to put it back yet. Wha could live at peace with yon man?"

 Creel pictured in Swona

During an examination of school children in Kirkwall Mr Gerrard prayed that "all good influences might cleave to the children's hearts like butter to bere bannocks".

He was keen on dancing and encouraged it. No sooner had he married a couple than he was telling them to dance: "Up now and dance merrily, and show how well you can dance."

No room at the church

During turbulent times some minsters had a problem being accepted in the community and there are a number of stories of ministers being barred from their own churches.

James Tyrie was admitted to the church on 23 June 1747. There was such great opposition to his settlement that access to both churches in Stromness was denied to him. Those who went to hear him preach were cruelly treated by a crowd of women and all methods were used to discredit him.

Scandalous reports were made against him and everything was done to try and destroy his character. So great were the disturbances that, on the advice of the Synod, the Presbytery on 25 August called Fanny Laing and others before them for breach of the Sabbath, and insulting and opposing Mr Tyrie in the exercise of his office. They all denied the charges.

Soldiers needed for an ordination

John Reid was to be ordained in August 1745. When the Presbytery met for the ceremony they found the church door locked. An angry crowd, which consisted mostly of women, was present and prevented the ordination from happening. It was postponed until 7 May the following year. 

This time, the Presbytery had a body of soldiers from Caithness who guarded them as they made their way to the church. Once again a crowd collected and tried to obstruct the Presbytery and in the confusion a woman was killed and several wounded. Mr Reid died on 19 January 1776 in the 30th year of his ministry.

Sometimes ministers had a dreadful time and had the worries of the world upon their shoulders. The minister in Hoy had a particularly bad time at the hands of Lady Melsetter.

John Keith, the eldest son of Alexander Keith, minister of Sandwick and Stromness, had many grievances and he stated those in a complaint he gave to the Presbytery.

On 9 April 1728 he made a complaint against Christina Crawford, Lady Melsetter, "who refused payment of stipend for crop 1727, though he had a family of ten children besides his servants to support. She also encroached on the town of Fea, one-third of which belonged to the minister as glebe, and is chiefly the property of the King, and under the tacksman of the Bishopric willing [intending] to have three dwellings built there without acknowledging either, as her son's property. She came in person with her bailie and locked up the school house door, built by the session and parish for the children, and took away the key, not allowing the schoolmaster to enter, who has been approven by the Presbytery, and turned it into a workshop for her wright, although the Presbytery wrote earnestly to her rather to encourage a school in her bounds.

"The lady fined the miller £10 for grinding victual to my family in an inclosed island, where I can neither beg nor borrow any sort of victual were my family to starve for want of bread. Lest the world should know such barbarity she has discharged her tenants and ferrymen to transport any letter for me, and to catch all letters directed for me wherever they can find them, and carry them to her or her bailie to be stopt or destroyed."

We are further told: "The Presbytery having read and considered the above grievance, have great sympathy that with Mr Keith who has laboured long under a burden of troubles almost insupportable, which makes him and his family very uneasy, and are like to render his ministry very unsuccessful in that place.  The Presbytery most earnestly recommend his grievous and lamentable condition (which to our knowledge is without a parallel in this church) to the venerable the General Assembly for redress. The Assembly on 11th May following instructed the Commission to do what they can for redressing the grievance of Mr Keith. After recrimination and libel on both sides the Presbytery on 8th September 1730 held a visitation of the parish when concessions were made and an amicable agreement subscribed by both parties."

It is hard to imagine how cut off this poor man must have felt, with a family to support, servants to pay, a house that needed maintenance and the power of Lady Melsetter being used against him. It says a great deal for his character that he remained in the post for so many years afterwards.

Sometimes, however, people were keen to have the minister come to them. A strange complaint to the minister of Orphir occurred on 22 August 1688, made by Hugh Moar of Daill. He told how he had been "troubled these three years bygone by evil spirits, namely, fairy folk".

And this complaint came before the brethren: "Mr John Hendrie, minister of Orphir, did represent to the Reverend a saddened and deplorable complaint given in by John Inksetter, in mane and behalf of his wife, Barbara Hutchison, against Hugh Moar in Daill, in the parish of Orphir, who having declared himself in presence of the ministers and elders convened for the time, that he has been troubled these three years bygone by evil spirits, namely, fairy folk, amongst whom he did perceive really to his apprehension, Barbara Hutchison forsaid, who from that time and hitherto has four dead children with the said fairies, and that the said Barbara, their mother, has the profit of all the Bow of Orphir, and her neighbours. Whereupon the reverend brethren upon consideration did cause their officer call the said Hugh Moar and he not comparing referred the matter to the laird of Gramesay. At a subsequent diet Moar was asked by the Moderator if ever he was with the fairies and he confessed he was two years with them, and saw them, but had no communion with them. He was asked if he saw Barbara Hutchison amongst them, and he said that he either saw her or a woman like here, but did not speak with her. The reverend brethren on consideration think fit that he first be put in prison in the Kirk, in a place called Marwick's Hole for a time, and then refer him to young Graemsay to inflict any punishment that he may think fit, with the advice of the session that the said Barbara Hutchison be restored to her good name.".

Being a minister is not all fun.  The minister often has a tough job, being peacemaker, judge and jury.

In 1697 Janet Brown was before the Stromness Session for calling Besse Sutherland "a blabbing bitch". Janet was ordered to do repentance before the pulpit on the next sermon day.

Ursula Gaunn in Orphir was fined for swearing at her neighbour for stealing her corn, and "exhorted to repent and amend and behave herself otherwise she would ruin both her soul and body".

Anna Hestwell in Stromness confessed to being "at the ebb" one Sunday in 1702. She confessed that she had been looking for some seaweed for her children to eat as she had nothing to give them. The minister ordered her to appear before the pulpit the next sermon day and acknowledge her fault. No record is available of how the church aided this poor woman, whose children were starving.

Seaweed on a beach

No amount of punishment would prevent men from taking to their boats when a pod of whales were spotted. The opportunity was too good to miss. They could lay in stores of meat and oil and so defied the church. In 1814 even a Stromness Kirk officer, John Louttit, took part and was "charged with Sabbath profanation in going out with several others on the Lord's day in a boat after whales".

The church was akin to Big Brother. They had eyes and ears everywhere and parish gossips were keen to impart knowledge if it meant getting someone into trouble.

If the records are to be believed, fornication was rife in every parish and the clergy seemed to spend an extraordinary amount of time seeking out single pregnant women, fornicators and adulterers.  

To be fair, it was important that single mothers named the father of their child as the infant would become a financial burden on the parish. It was in the interests of the church to seek out all sinners as fines were imposed and this kept money in the poor box. If a man acknowledged being the father, he simply had to admit his guilt and pay a fine and spend time on the white stone of repentance. The woman had to do the same.

Two youngsters in Orphir were "ill kirk keepers". One was sentenced to pay 30 shillings "or stand in the jougs". The other was to be "whept about the kirk by the hand of the officer the first Court day, and his mother to pay half the money for not correcting him as she ought when she found him going astray".

George Low wrote a description of the Johnsmass bonfires, which were formerly lit in every parish on 24 June, the Feast of St John:

"They light up a large fire on every most conspicuous place facing the south and this is augmented by every person who attends, none of whom come empty. Likewise, every person whose horses have been diseased or who have any of these gelded, brings them loaded with fuel to the fire, every beast is led round the same, always taking care to follow the course of the sun in their several turns, else they imagine their thanks for the recovery of the beast is not properly returned. The people go round in the same manner … Sometimes great part of the parish assemble at this time and dance round and through the fire till late in the evening."

Every kirk was supplied with a repentance stool. This was frequently in use, and the sinner would sit or stand for as many Sabbaths as the Session thought appropriate. In 1701, between July and September, Stromness man John Brown stood for four Sundays between two heavily-pregnant girls for whose condition he was responsible. In October they were allowed to pay fines and be absolved.