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Friday January 19 2018

Looking Back: Worship in a Cave

The first in an 1888 series by William Jolly, H.M. Inspector of Schools, on Open Air and Cave Worship in the Highlands.


WORSHIP amid the beauties, sublimities, or solitudes of nature carries an indefinable charm and impressiveness possessed by no gorgeous temple or colonnaded cathedral. Under the blue vault and with the varied landscape, the worshipper feels closer to the Soul of All Things, and more truly realises that “in Him we live and move and have our being.”

In the Lowlands, open air assemblies for religious purposes do not seem ever to have been common, except during persecuting times. In the Highlands, on the other hand, they have been carried on to this day, and may be witnessed in almost every parish, especially at the yearly celebration of the Supper and the week-day services held in connection with it.

On these occasions, the people gather from all the country round, by land and sea, in such crowds that no building could hold them. The spots thus chosen for these immense conventicles are generally beautiful and often charming.

Last year, I revisited cherished scenes in the wonderful region that surrounds the beautiful Loch Maree. Leaving Gairloch for Poolewe, you soon look down on the quiet landlocked bay of Loch Ewe. After dropping down on the village, you traverse a rough country road that skirts the Loch, till the road terminates at a village called Cove, near the mouth of Loch Ewe.

A foot-road leads you to the top of an old sea cliff in the Torridon Red sandstone. The path runs down the face of the cliff, through wild rose, bramble and fern, to the middle of a small rocky bay, and right to the mouth of the cave. The entrance has been built up with an eight-foot wall, leaving a doorway in the middle four feet wide. Entering through a grove of green nettle as high as yourself, you are introduced to a spacious oblong cave, hollowed altogether in the red sandstone, fifty feet long, some fifteen feet broad, and ten feet high at the front, but shelving to less than five feet at the back.

The dry floor is covered all over with rows of stones and some planks, set round a reading desk of open woodwork, which stands on a platform to the right. Behind the desk there is a four-legged stool for the preacher, and in front of it a stone for the precentor. Beside it is a “box-seat” for more distinguished hearers; and before the platform are some better planks laid on stones, “the chief seats in the synagogue,” reserved for members of the remarkable fraternity known as “the Men,” and for the magnates of the district. The most of the people sit on the cold, hard stones beyond.

Here assembles, mostly every third Sunday, a large congregation of about a hundred, which rises at times to double that number. They may be seen slowly wending their way from all the country round, and descending the cliffy path.

Their patience seems to a Lowlander wonderful, and impossible to any but Celts; for they sit there, on these hard, low stones and planks, with a strange stillness, for two hours and a half, and they would be satisfied with nothing less!

At noon, an aged catechist enters the cave after the people have assembled, and hanging his hat on a peg inserted in a crack of the rock, takes his seat at the desk. The preacher, who borders on seventy winters, at once strikes a stranger as no ordinary man. His head is large, his hair silver-grey, his brow broad, his attire neat, his manner impressive, and his aspect venerable.

He rises and reads a psalm; for paraphrases are here unknown, and hymns are an abomination to these devout purists. It is needless to say that, in such an outlying region, the whole service is conducted in their own musical tongue, the dearly-loved Gaelic.

Gaelic psalm-singing is everywhere remarkable, but in such a primitive assembly, under such conditions, wonderful. It is a weird, wailing strain, especially with one of the old minor tunes in which they delight. The air alone is sun, broken at every two lines by the curious recitative of the precentor, given on the note of the last word. Here these human strains are strangely united with the sound of the waves. These boom everlastingly on this rocky coast, even in calm, and form a grander accompaniment, in a storm, than deepest roll of organ among cathedral aisles.

Then follow the long and earnest prayer, never under twenty minutes, impressively but curiously intoned, while the people stand as best they may; the reading of scripture; the preaching of a sermon, of an hour and a half, rigidly Calvinistic but fervent and eloquent; another very long prayer; a final psalm; and orderly and silent dismissal after blessing. The large gathering then moves slowly into open day, along the footpath up the cliff, in Indian file. At the top, they assembly for mutual greetings and inquiries, and then, bidding kindly farewell, they wander in picturesque groups back to their homes.

The remains of the church are apparently still in the cave, which you can visit. More information here and here.

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