Tuesday 26 October 2010

Nether Lochaber: The Rev. Alexander Stewart – III

Here is the third and final excerpt of the appreciation of the Rev. Alexander Stewart contributed by Donald Ross to the Inverness Courier where the minister’s interest in the natural world is highlighted, some background to his character, his interests in literary criticism and his final fortnightly column preceding his death. There can be little doubt that he achieved a great deal during his lifetime and his literary efforts were recognised by the University of St Andrews, his alma mater, with the award of the degree of LL.D. in 1884. Previously in 1876 he had been elected, just as Alexander Carmichael had been, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and he was also made a Fellow of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh, and of the Geographical and Natural History Societies of Glasgow. He was also a corresponding member of several learned Societies on the Continent. In addition to all of this he also managed to find time to devote his attention to editing Logan’s Scottish Gael, a two-volume tome of substantial portions. Perhaps the inscription on his memorial best sums up the man and his achievements: “In memory of Rev. Alexander Stewart, LL.D., F.S.A. Scot. For fifty years minister of Ballachulish and Ardgour. Died 17th January, 1901, in the 72nd year of his age. Scholar, naturalist, seanachie, and bard. Distinguished for the variety and charm of his writings; dear to all how knew him, and most dear to those who knew him best.”


Perhaps Stewart was at his best and happiest when discoursing on the habits, trials, and charms of the songsters in his glebe. Not only were his descriptions accurate; they were often amusing, provoking a smile or outright laughter. One of the most hilarious letters to the “Courier” in 1890 (alas printed in no book) is about an inveterate tearer-up of books, Jack the Ripper, his pet jackdaw, who was excused the complete destruction of a Book of Common Prayer in an Episcopalian home in Onich because “he had been brought up a Presbyterian.” He was equally at home with fishes and people brought to his manse all the odd infrequent creatures of the deep, caught or cast ashore, for his learned identification.

He was in other ways a curious mixture of convention and unconvention. He had no Victorian inhibition about stripping in a boat and enjoying a swim in Loch Leven. He writes without embarrassment or apology about sly allusions in a Gaelic poem to the significance of the loss of the maidenly snood. Yet he was against “innovation.” He would not tolerate any interference with the established texts of his Church. He protested against the new translation of the Scriptures, and he would have no truck with the replacement of the Paraphrases by hymns. As for the emancipation of the fair sex, he was convinced that women’s supremacy should be limited to the nursery or the kitchen!


In his pastoral life he had the full confidence and warm affection of the people: not only the established of his own flock, but also the adherents of all the many other sects in the district. They all called him “Nether.” He was a popular preacher, equally fluent in Gaelic and English, but happier and freerer in his mother tongue. He had no clerical starchiness, and said that on occasions a song with a moral was better to be used than a sermon.

Men and women living to-day in Onich were christened by “Nether”; those who cannot remember him a vivid picture of his personality handed down on by their parents. His memory is green — a memory of a vigorous, eager and buoyant character. If he had never written anything, he would be remembered as a first-class sailor, a good swimmer and horseman, a successful fisherman with a rod and line, a hill-walker. As pater-familias, he instructed his three children in the natural history of the sea, shore and land. He was a farmer, like many country ministers, busy tilling, sowing, and harvesting his glebe, managing the byre and poultry-house.


For all his love of the classics, Stewart was a keen critic of modern literature. And in the field of Gaelic song, original and translated, he has a right to be classed with Pattison of Islay, Sheriff Nicolson of Skye, and his friend John Stuart Blackie. If he contributed less than these, he had the gift of introducing the Gaelic bards to English readers. Fourteen of his songs, favourites at mods, are preserved for posterity in Malcolm C. Macleods’ “Modern Gaelic Bards, Second Series” (1913): they include a translation of Robert Tannahill’s “Gloomy winter’s noo awa’.”

Nether’s final contribution to the “Courier” appeared in the issue which briefly announced his unexpected death on 17th January, 1901, suddenly after an illness brought about by an accident a year before. It was a typical letter on folk-lore and Highland custom, about the Black Art and the playing of the trump or Jew’s harp at ceilidhs.


Two-and-a-half years after the say day of his burial another great concourse assembled on the 18th July, 1903, by the lochside road at Onich, again to pay homage to the beloved pastor and man of letters. A public subscription organised by the Stewart Society had provided a memorial in the form of a 20-feet high Celtic cross. It was unveiled by Stewart of Achnacone, and Stewart of Ardvorlich pronounced the address to the memory of a great clansman, “venerable divine, a learned doctor, a great Celtic scholar, a lover of nature, a true Highlander well versed in the lore of his country.”

The cross was removed for safety from quarrying operations in 1955 to the new village cemetery at Innis a’ Bhiorlinn, secluded on the sloping hillside near Corran Ferry. Facing towards the gates of Ardgour, the inscription is from 1st Kings IV, 33, in Gaelic and English, aptly from the record of one other who, too, was a singer of songs and the embodiment of wisdom—“and he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beats, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes.”

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

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [© carstenflieger.com]