A name to be reckoned with which has cropped up in this blog on more than once occasion is Nether Lochaber, the pen-name of the Rev. Alexander Stewart (1829–1901). Over more than four decades of contributing a more or less fortnightly column to the Inverness Courier resulted in two publications: Nether Lochaber: The Natural History, Legends and Folk-lore of the West Highlands (1883) and ’Twixt Ben Nevis and Glencoe: The Natural History, Legends, and Folk-lore of the West Highlands (1885). His namesake Alexander Carmichael may have got to know him from these very columns but it is likely that they may have come across one another earlier than 1859, the date on which Nether Lochaber penned his first of many contributions on wide-ranging topics such as folklore, poetry, meteorology and ornithology. An occasional contribution, as we have seen already, would wend its way from Carmichael when he was resident in Benbecula. This was the very island of Nether Lochaber’s birth for his father had been on the island working for the excise at that time. The well-respected minister passed away in early 1901, only a few months after the publication of Carmina Gadelica. It might well have been one of the last books that the Rev. Alexander Stewart was to read. Although we have yet to find evidence to the contrary, it is likely that Carmichael would have been present at his friend’s funeral. The following is the first excerpt of an appreciation of Nether Lochaber written by Donald Ross.
The “Inverness Courier,” in the issue of 25th January 1901, reported the death and funeral of a Highland scholar, “a patriot who name would be handed down to posterity as the revered and honoured of Celts all over the world.” Three days earlier the largest gathering possibly ever to assemble by Loch Leven in Nether Lochaber had witnessed the burial of Dr Alexander Stewart, minister of the Established Church at North Ballachulish, a man who had become a legend in his own time. For almost fifty years he had been respected, indeed revered, for his scholarship, love of nature and homeland, and, above all, for his humanity. It was a day of lowering and overcastting sky and mist driving over a background of sea and snow-clad mountains. Pipers of Ballachulish Volunteer Company of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders preceded the procession from the manse at Onich, playing “MacCrimmon’s Lament,” “Lochaber no More,” and “The Land o’ the Leal.” Then came representatives of the clans, learned societies, the Presbyter of Abertarff, the Stewart Society; and Cameron of Lochiel. Nearly every man and boy in the locality followed, and women and girls stood on the mile-long route, or watched from the hillside above the churchyard. It is clear from the account of the day that all were filled with emotion to a degree that could have come only from a sense of irreparable loss and identity with a great heart that has been lost to the Highlands. It is fitting, sixty years later, that we should recall with pride the name and work of Alexander Stewart, “Nether Lochaber”.
He was born in 1829 in Benbecula, where his father was an officer of the Inland Revenue. When Alexander was young his family moved to Oban. He went to school there, and later at Kilmichael in Perthshire, and had ample opportunity to acquire much of his early knowledge of the lore of the Highlands before he entered St Andrews University in 1843. He obtained his M.A., distinguishing himself especially in literature and the classics.
Stewart was ordained in 1851, after service as a missionary in Oban and assistant in Paisley. He started his ministry in Nether Lochaber, being presented by the Crown to the combined parish of North Ballachulish and Ardgour. He had charge of 1,100 souls, and two churches, and preached in Nether Lochaber and over Corran Ferry in Ardgour on alternate Sabbaths. He received “Royal Bounty” stipends totalling £120 supplemented by sums from the heritors, and a glebe of 3 to 4 acres. In 1852 he married Janet Morrison, eldest daughter of one of his Argyll parishioners, Lieutenant Morrison, R.N., of Sallachan House, and brought her to the manse in Onich to be his trusted helper for nearly fifty years.
Ross, Donald, ‘Nether Lochaber: Memories of a Well-known Highlander’, The Inverness Courier, no. 11943 (20 Jan., 1961), p. 3
Image: Portrait of Nether Lochaber from The Celtic Magazine, vol. IX, no. 5 (1901), p. 19