Rev Robert Finlayson (1793-1861) - Part 2: Revival in Lochs

Prefatory Note

This article is the second of two articles on Rev Robert Finlayson which first appeared in the Bulwark, the magazine of the Scottish Reformation Society. It appears here with minor changes.

Preaching

Rev Robert Finlayson was, perhaps, pre-eminently a preacher. In the previous article, we saw the effect of his preaching in Aberdeen and in Knock – it was no less effective in Lochs. His preaching, says Norman C. Macfarlane, ‘abounded with parable, allegory and dialogue, and in pictures of the spiritual life.’ It was characterised by clarity and sincerity and it brought weighty and eternal doctrines to bear upon the consciences of the Lochs people. John Macleod explains that ‘His sermons, rich in illustration and pithy saying, were as entertaining as they were arresting, and as captivating as they were solemn.’

Finlayson’s statistical account of the parish in 1833 tells us that, at this time, the people in Lochs were largely illiterate. Half of those between 12 and 24 years of age could read in Gaelic because of the influence of the Gaelic schools; however, only 12 in the whole parish could write. A few of the men could speak broken English but the common tongue was Gaelic.

And so Finlayson, without compromising his message, explained the gospel to them in picturesque and illustrative language. So much so that one of his co-presbyters in Lewis, the Rev. Duncan MacGregor, minister in Stornoway Free Church from 1849 to 1854, recalls that they used to call him ‘the Bunyan of the Highlands.’ Indeed, it is said that he carried Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress always in his pocket and in his heart. And so, in bringing the message to the people, he brought it to them using terms, concepts and pictures that they could understand. Macfarlane explains that

He made the men of old spring into life before the eyes of his congregation, and his hearers were fascinated as he clothed those ancients in the Lewis tweeds and made them speak in the Lewis accent. The scenery of his picture was invariably local and vividly painted.

By way of illustration, he was once preaching on the prodigal’s return to his father and, particularly, the ‘best robe’ with which he was clothed:

The Father calls his servants to bring forth the best robe and the servants come and he asks them, ‘What robe is this?’ ‘It is the robe of unfallen man’s righteousness,’ the servants answer. ‘Ah, it’s very beautiful, but that is not the best. In that garb Adam fell.’ Another, white and more shining, was brought. ‘What,’ asked the Father, ‘is this?’ ‘This is the robe of the Angels that surround the Throne and adore their Lord.’ ‘Ah, it’s very fine, but there is a better.’ At length one of exquisite loveliness was brought, and the Father asked, ‘What is this?’ ‘This was woven amid the awful splendours of Calvary. Its every thread was a pang. It is the choice robe of Thy Son’s sufferings. It is the righteousness of Christ.’ ‘Yes,’ said the Father, ‘that is the best robe. Put it on this, my lost son, who has come home again.’

His sermon on the completion of Noah’s Ark is also striking in its illustration and application:

When the Ark was finished a group of the carpenters called in for their wages. They knocked and Mrs Noah came to the door. ‘Is Noah in?’ ‘No, he’s away at the stormy Butt of Lewis far a bull for the Ark.’ A few days later they called again. ‘Is Noah at home?’ ‘No, he’s away to hilly Uig for a ram.’ They came again and found Noah at home. They asked for their wages, and he paid them. Then they went to Stornoway and called for whisky and brandy, and they drank themselves into wild revelry. They were shouting and singing their songs and dancing their drunken dance when – lo! – a thunderbolt crashed and the rains began. What peal of thunders! The like was never heard before. The heavens poured in torrents. The public house was flooded and a river rushed through it and rose with appalling rapidity. Then did the mocking carpenters cry. But the Ark was closed and Mercy’s day was gone. O people of Lochs, God’s Ark stands open for you today. But the day of the closed door is coming.

This was preaching that the people could understand, that they could relate to, and that cut to their very hearts. It brought home to them the message of the Bible, a message which had been so obscured under the ministry of Rev Alexander Simson - a message which was now blessed to countless souls in Lochs. And the message was bolstered by the holiness of the man who preached it, so much so that MacGregor could say ‘Never did we feel the power of personal holiness in re-enforcing the truth spoken from the pulpit more than when hearing him.’ Macfarlane recalls how his mother, who was a member in Lochs during Finlayson’s ministry, would speak to him in later years of how the tears would fall freely down the minister’s face as he leaned over the pulpit to plead with unsaved sinners to come to Christ.

Pastoral Work

As well as preaching, Finlayson would catechise the people. Twice a year, he would turn up in every village and the people would gather to be questioned on the Shorter Catechism and general Scriptural knowledge. Rather than this being a dreary affair, the people loved it and even looked forward to it. Through these meetings the people, young and old, were taught in a more interactive atmosphere and the minister became more acquainted with his people and their spiritual state.

Pastoral visitation was an important part of his work. He literally crossed land and sea in order to be with his people, in order to question them about their souls, and in order to personally seek to apply to them the balm of Gilead. He was always about the work of the gospel; he seemed to have an interest in little else. That was his passion – his own physical safety and comfort were nothing, as was evidenced by the numerous times that he went out to the other side of the parish against his wife’s wishes, saying:

Macedonia was no further from Paul when he saw the vision in Troas as Eisgean was from Crossbost. O, my wife, souls at Gravir are calling me today and I cannot stay. It’s easier to battle with the elements than to silence the cries that ring though me.

The salvation of his people was his ruling thought and his chief desire.

As another said of Samuel Rutherford, it was just as true of Finlayson, that he prayed all day long as if he did nothing but pray; he preached all day long as if every hour was filled with preaching; and he visited so persistently as if the whole time was occupied with visiting.

And yet, although Finlayson was a gentle and kind-hearted man, he was not afraid speak directly and issue rebukes where that was required. There was not an ounce of fear in him while he carried out his Lord’s work. A few examples can be given.

When he first came to Lochs, one of the elders in the congregation asked if the new minister wanted to hear him pray. ‘Certainly,’ replied Finlayson. The man began with the Lord’s Prayer, added his own medley in the middle, and then finished with the Lord’s Prayer again. He then asked the minister how he enjoyed his prayer. Finlayson replied,

It had a beautiful beginning and a beautiful ending that shone like the splendid marbles of the Temple, but in between there was a heap of wood, hay and stubble!

The mission house at Eisgean had a leaky roof and it wasn’t really fit for its purpose. Finlayson addressed the situation by saying to them that, as he walked in the Eisgean road, he met the Bible and he said to it,

Oh Bible why are you so sad and where are you going?’ ‘Oh, I’m leaving Eisgean meeting house. The big drops of sooty rain that fall on me there blacken my pages and waste me badly.

That very week, the mission house roof was repaired.

On another occasion he was preaching in the village school in Balallan; Balallan, at that time, was a spiritually hard and careless spot. He addressed the people:

O Balallan, you are the Devil’s kitchen where he cooks his meals. He may dine elsewhere, at Keose, or Cromore or Crossbost, but it is here he cooks. O Balallan, throw water on those cooking fires.

After revival had swept through the village, however, he could say, ‘O Balallan, the Devil’s former kitchen, you are now become a Bethel, a house of God.’ He was not afraid to chastise them for their sins in order to bring them to a realisation of their need of a Saviour.

Revival

Certainly, there seem to have been some converts in Lochs before Finlayson’s arrival. The village of Aline, which was part of the parish, had experienced revival in the early 1820s through the ministry of a school teacher. But the revival was not widespread in Lochs and the people remained, largely, in spiritual ignorance until Robert Finlayson came.

When Finlayson arrived in Lochs, he did so with the specific intention of evangelising the people, of bringing them to the knowledge of the truth; of leading them out of darkness and into Christ’s marvellous light. And the effect of Finlayson’s ministry was as he had intended and as he had prayed for; to put it simply, the effect was large-scale awakening. ‘Under the blessing of God,’ says Donald Beaton, ‘the wilderness soon showed signs of becoming a fruitful field. Prayer meetings were set up in every township.’ A desire was ignited in the hearts of the people do ‘hear what God the Lord will speak’ (Psalm 85:8) to them. Macfarlane argues that

Not more passionately did the devout in Israel regard their Sion than the men of this parish the church and manse at Keose. Their very dust became precious. Stormy seas were crossed, and dreary miles of bog-land were traversed by souls eager for regaling. They wished Sabbath came round more quickly.

There was a thirst for the Word of God, to know more of it in their minds and to feel more of it in their hearts. Lives were changed; indeed, the focus of the whole community was changed. Soon, family worship was conducted in every home and, as in many places in Lewis at that time, you couldn’t walk through a village from 7pm onwards without hearing God’s praises being sung or His name being called upon in prayer. Jesus had said concerning Zacchaeus that ‘This day is salvation come to this house.’ (Luke 19:9) When Robert Finlayson came to Lochs, salvation came to the district. Murdo Macaulay writes that:

The good pastor of Lochs had been, perhaps, made the happy instrument of more numerous conversions, and more extensive quickening within his own sphere of labour, and throughout the whole Island of Lewis than any other minister of his time. His record at Lochs was a bright one. By his pastoral oversight, his earnest faithful preaching and prayers, and his unique catechising, the whole parish became so transformed as to cause “the desert to blossom as the rose”. He exercised a powerful and lasting influence upon the religious thought, and spiritual life of the island.

Superstition, which was largely prevalent throughout the island before the revival, was also dispelled. Dr Charles MacRae, minister in Stornoway, once jokingly asked a boy from Lochs if there were still fairies in his home district. ‘No,’ came the solemn reply, ‘they all left when Mr Finlayson came.’ The revival was as deep as it was wide and left no stone unturned. It affected the outward as well as the inward, the mind as well as the heart, a man’s morals as well as a man’s prayers. The sons and daughters of the revival were recognised by their works; they were known for godliness, for prayerfulness, for zeal, for kindness, for evangelism. That was the effect that Finlayson’s God-owned ministry had upon the people of Lochs for 25 years and that district is still benefiting from its fruit today.

Relevance for Today

In conclusion, we have to ask, what does it all matter? History is, of course, empty, unless we apply it and learn from it. What do we learn from Robert Finlayson and his ministry?

Darkness Precedes Light

We learn that darkness in a community, as was the case in Lochs before Finlayson’s ministry, is often the precursor to light. Revival often comes when things are at their most spiritually dark. That is something that we must consider as we observe the spiritual darkness in our country today and, indeed, in many of the churches of the land.

A Godly Ministry

We see also the effect that a godly ministry can have. Finlayson was, undoubtedly, a gifted preacher. However, what marked him out was not great preaching but the fact that he was holy, prayerful, zealous and sincere, having a love for his people which compelled him to spend all of his energy in seeking to bring them to the knowledge of Christ. Oh how we need this today; godly ministers who will dedicate themselves to God and to their people; men who will choose

rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season,’ who will esteem ‘the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt. (Hebrews 11:25-26)

What a challenge to ministers in 21st century Scotland! Do they love God above all else? Do they love their people more than themselves? Or do they seek popularity, power, wealth and an easy life? It is also a challenge to congregations in 21st century Scotland – what do we look for in a minister? Is it great gifts or great likeness to Christ?

A Pattern for Ministry

We see also in Robert Finlayson a pattern for ministry. He was a man of prayer and this spirit of grace and supplications immersed his every effort in gospel ministry. He believed in preaching; that was his preeminent outward work – to preach from the pulpit 'the unsearchable riches of Christ'. He believed also in pastoral visitation; he was amongst his people – he knew their physical state and he knew their spiritual state and so he was more qualified to preach to them and to pray for them.

This is the tried and tested pattern of ministry and is, generally speaking, the pattern that God blesses with true, deep, spiritual revival. It is the pattern that brought awakening to Lochs in the 19th century and it is the pattern that will bring awakening to Scotland in the 21st century. Let us, then, prayerfully stick to it and pray that God will visit us again in grace.

Reliance upon the Holy Spirit

Finally, we learn from Robert Finlayson’s ministry that the Church is always dependent on the Holy Spirit to bring quickening, revival and awakening. Nobody in Lochs was more aware of this than Finlayson himself. Robert Finlayson was no more sincere or faithful than Isaiah, who himself saw little to no outward blessing. But, in God’s gracious providence, He saw fit to bless Lochs with the outpouring of His Spirit in a way which, for a time, was withheld even from Judah. The awakening was the Spirit’s work – Finlayson was but an instrument in God’s hands, whose preaching and pastoral ministry was blessed by the Spirit to the souls of many men, women, boy and girls.

Let us then pray for that same Spirit who blessed Lochs in the 19th century to bless our districts in like manner. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is no less powerful or able today than He was then. Let us, therefore, pray the Lord of the harvest with humility and confidence, with the words of the Psalmist: ‘The Lord of us hath mindful been, and he will bless us still; He will the house of Israel bless, bless Aaron’s house he will.’ (Psalm 115:12)


Rev Robert Finlayson (1793-1861) - Part 1: An Overview of His Life and Ministry

Prefatory Note

As well as using the blog for Church news and comment on contemporary issues, I hope to use it to post some relevant historical content. As well as looking to the future and surveying the present, it is also important for us to understand our past. It is hoped that these articles will help us to be aware of where we have come from, in spiritual terms, and what God is still able to do for us as a Church and community.

This is the first of two articles on Rev Robert Finlayson. Details of his ministry in Lochs and the blessing that accompanied it will be dealt with in a future article. Both articles, with small changes, originally appeared in the Bulwark, the Magazine of the Scottish Reformation Society.

Upbringing

Robert Finlayson was born in 1793 in a village called Mid-Clyth in Caithness, around 4 miles north of Lybster and 12 miles south of Wick. His father was a schoolmaster and a godly man; his mother, too, was known for godliness and came from a godly family. Mid-Clyth was in the parish of Latheron and the minister was a moderate, not known for godliness or for evangelical preaching. So, young Robert’s parents asked a more notable minister, the Rev. John Robertson, then of the Achrenie Mission, to baptise their child. This John Robertson became famous as a preacher in the Highlands and was God’s instrument in the conversion of Dr John Macdonald of Ferintosh who himself was the instrument of conversion in the lives of hundreds of people throughout the Highlands and beyond. When Mr. Robertson baptized young Robert Finlayson, he said to his mother: ‘Mrs Finlayson, I assure you that this is none other than a Samuel that has come to you from the Lord. He is to be reared for the Temple Service.’

When he was 5 years old Robert’s family moved to Dunbeath, which was only 11 miles South of Mid-Clyth but it was in a different parish – a parish which had a godly, gospel preaching minister. This exposure to gospel ministry had a deep effect on Robert and, from a young age, he had a concern for his soul. He also seems to have had a desire to preach the gospel at this stage – Norman C. Macfarlane, in his Apostles of the North, tells that, as a child, he would go out to preach to the hens and, with tears in his eyes, he would plead with them to remember the God who cared for them. As well as exposure to gospel preaching, he also had exposure to good books which he found on his father’s shelf. Among them were Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Boston’s Fourfold State and Edwards’ History of Redemption.

University Years

Young Robert doesn’t seem to have come to an assurance of faith, however, until he went to King’s College in Aberdeen. There he attended the ministry of the famous Dr James Kidd, an Irish man who was an eccentric and a fierce evangelist, and was at that time minister in the chapel-of-ease at Gilcomstom. Under that ministry, and with help from a book by James Hervey called ‘Theron & Aspasio’, he came to a knowledge of the Saviour that he would so faithfully and fruitfully serve for the rest of his life.

During his Aberdeen days, Robert came to be known as ‘Finlayson of Prayer’, so that, as Macfarlane shares, ‘often the air was melodious with his song.’ After his years in college, he became sick with smallpox, so much so that he went blind for 18 days and thought he would die. However, God, in His providence, had work for him to do and he made a remarkable recovery.

Ministry in Aberdeen

Robert Finlayson was licensed by the Church of Scotland presbytery of Caithness in 1826. He took his first service in Watten and text was from Ecclesiastes 9:10: ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.’ Afterwards, the minister of the congregation said to an elder, ‘Well, we had a young minister today.’ ‘Yes,’ the elder replied, ‘but he was an old Christian.’ This was a sign of things to come.

His first charge was in Aberdeen, as the assistant to Rev Hugh Mackenzie in the Gaelic Chapel there. Although there is confusion regarding what other work he did while in Aberdeen (the Fasti (1870) says that he worked part time as a missionary in Dr Foote’s congregation (East St Nicholas), Ian R. Macdonald, in his book Aberdeen and the Highland Church (1785-1900), makes a strong case that this is an error in the Fasti and that, actually, it was more likely that he preached once a fortnight at the Woodside Chapel, a preaching-station linked to Dr Kidd’s Gilcomston Chapel.

Before long, his preaching was drawing crowds, to the point that the Church was crowded an hour before the minister turned up and late-comers couldn’t even get near the door! His preaching, then, was doctrinal, imaginative, quaint and earnest – Macfarlane says that ‘there was a note of the heavenly which struck every hearer.’

Ministry in Knock

After 3 years in Aberdeen, Robert Finlayson took a call to the parish of Knock in Point on the Isle of Lewis and became only the third evangelical minister, after  Alexander Macleod of Uig and Finlay Cook of Cross, to settle on the island. Although the details of his ministry in Knock are scant, we know that it was owned of God. His first sermon was preached on the text ‘Behold the lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world’ and, during his 2 years in Point, he continued to preach Christ to the people with great power and effect.

The Church in Knock, built just a year before Finlayson’s arrival, would be packed to capacity, and people would come from Stornoway (who then had a moderate minister) to hear him preach. Not only that but, on week nights, people crowded his house to hear family worship so that the living-room, hall and even the stairs would be crowded with people wanting to hear him. In 1829, however, after just two years in Knock, he was translated to the parish of Lochs by Lady Stuart Mackenzie – the work in Knock, in God’s providence, was carried on by another godly minister, the Rev. Duncan Matheson.

The Parish of Lochs

The parish of Lochs, along with perhaps the parish of Lochbroom, must have been among the most difficult places to minister in in the whole of Scotland. For one thing, it was massive, bigger than some Scottish counties. Its borders were taken from Loch Seaforth to the Creed and about 10 miles inland. As well as that, it included Carloway and Shawbost on the West Side of Lewis. That is the equivalent of 5 Free Church parishes today! But not only was it a huge area, transport was also problematic. David Beaton explains that

The parish was broken up by numerous arms of sea, extending far inland, and there were no roads. In visiting he had to cross numerous ferries, and to walk miles upon miles over rough moorland, and to make long voyages by sea in an open boat. He had to stay night in uncomfortable huts and sleep in uncomfortable beds.

Finlayson’s successor – Big John Macrae – had a small yacht called “The Wild Duck” which was gifted to him by the people of Skye but Finlayson had to make do with a small white pony and other peoples’ boats where he could make use of them.

Finlayson’s predecessor in Lochs was a man called Rev. Alexander Simson from Ferintosh who spent the best part of 40 years in the parish until his death in 1830. Although he clearly had affection for his people, and cared for their physical well-being and education, yet he did little to nothing for their souls. He has a perfect caricature of moderatism, what Beatons calls ‘a blind leader of the blind.’ It is very likely that he himself was a stranger to grace and that evidenced itself in his ministry. His preaching was boring and showed the people little of their own souls and even less of Christ, the Great Physician of souls.

The story is told of a communion Sabbath in Lochs after the revival had broken out elsewhere in the island. All adults in Lochs were at this time communicant members and Mr Simson, as was his custom, gave an indiscriminate, unqualified call to the Lord’s Table with his usual formula: ‘My Christian friends, take your places at the Lord’s Table; come, every one of you.’ At this point five young men (three from Harris, one from Back, one from Shawbost) stood up and called Mr Simson a ‘murderer of souls.’

Rev Murdo Macaulay, in his Aspects of the Religious History of Lewis, says of these zealous young converts that theirs was ‘a zeal without knowledge, which considered neither time, place, circumstances, not consequences.’ For their trouble, these young men were given 6 months in the Dingwall prison. When questioned in prison by the Dingwall minister as to why they did what they did, one of the young men answered quoting a Psalm, ‘I believed, therefore have I spoken; I was greatly afflicted.(Psalm 116:10) Whatever our view of these men’s actions, this instance gives an idea of how dark things were in Lochs just prior to Finlayson’s induction in 1831.

Finlayson’s manse was in Keose Glebe and the house is still occupied today, although not as a manse. His Church was in the harbour in Keose, where there is a factory today, and it could hold 700 people. He married a Miss Macaulay from Uig who Macfarlane, having a personal recollection of both Finlayson and his wife, describes as ‘an admirable helpmeet, a brilliant conversationalist, a devout soul, and the personification of kindness.’ Indeed, it was she who managed the manse and the glebe and, in many ways, kept her heavenly-minded husband right in the things of the world.

Personal Character

Macfarlane’s observation of Robert Finlayson was that ‘he lived in Heaven.’ His mind was most upon the main things; his ‘affection on things above, not on things on the earth.’ (Colossians 3:1) He was once walking on the moor with his brother-in-law who asked him, ‘Where are we?’ Finlayson replied, ‘I don’t know where you are but I’m between Genesis and Revelation, and a good sermon it was too!’

Finlayson exemplified what was said by McCheyne: ‘It is not great gifts that God blesses but great likeness to Christ.’ And it was this Christ-likeness that distinguished Finlayson from others; it was Christ-likeness which gave power to his preaching, profit to his pastoral visitation, and energy to his prayers.

Although Lewis has had ministers with greater intellects, never has a minster in Lewis been so loved by his people as Robert Finlayson. John Macleod, in his Banner in the West, writes:

Placid, affectionate, unhurried and good-humoured, Finlayson is in striking contrast to the firm manliness of Big Macrae, the prim Piety of Finlay Cook, or the remote and authoritarian Alexander Macleod.

Perhaps more than any of the other ministers of his generation, Finlayson could be described as a people person – something that can be quite rare amongst ministers, even in our own day. It was said of him that there wasn’t a child who didn’t know him, from Aline to Stornoway, and from Carloway to Gravir.

Disruption

His godliness, however, was a manly godliness. It was strong, immovable, and exceedingly rare. This is illustrated in 2 very different examples. First, in 1843, at the time of the disruption, Finlayson took his whole congregation into the Free Church. The account of Finlayson’s life in Disruption Worthies of the Highlands explains that this was done at great cost to himself and yet

his mind was clear as to the duty of renouncing the status and advantages of the Establishment, as he could no longer retain them without violating his conscience, and being unfaithful to his Lord and Master.

So he and his family left the manse in Keose and moved to Stornoway for two years while a new manse and Church were being built in Crossbost. During this time, he and his congregation worshiped mainly in the open air and Finlayson had to travel to Lochs from Stornoway for all of his pastoral work. His first text after the Disruption, as he preached in the open air, was from Hebrews 11:24-25:

By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.

Significantly, Finlayson was the only Disruption minister on the island who remained with his congregation for any length of time after 1843 – all of the others, good men though they were, left soon after for greener pastures and, presumably, for easier, wealthier, parishes. This shows us that Finlayson was a man of principle and a man who dearly loved his people and was willing to suffer hardship with them and for them.

Bereavement

Another example of his masculine godliness is seen when, in 1849, his two sons Donald, 17, and Robert, 14, drowned when their boat capsized in Loch Erisort when they were out fishing on a perfectly pleasant summer’s day, in plain view of the manse. This is still spoken of today by the people of Lochs and there are crags in Loch Erisort which are named after the boys. When the bodies had been recovered and lay in the manse in Crossbost on the Lord’s Day, Finlayson went out to preach in the Church and he did so with great power. One of the elders said to him, ‘This is hard on flesh and blood.’ He replied, ‘this is hard even on grace itself.’

Finlayson, although feeling that it was his duty to preach that day, did so with great pain in his heart in light of the horror that had occurred in his family. Macfarlane records, however, that more tears fell from the congregation than did from him in the church that day; that there was an air of transfiguration about him and that the glory of the Lord seemed to encompass him. After this incident he was overheard, while standing near the site of the drowning, praying to God and saying: ‘Since thou hast deprived me of my two sons, make up to me my loss by giving me more love to thine own Son.’

Robert Finlayson’s spiritual life was fed by his reading of the Word and his communion with the Lord in prayer. He had been known as ‘Finlayson of Prayer’ in Aberdeen and he continued to be ‘Finlayson of Prayer’ all of his days. In fact, he frequented a small cave by the sea, down from the manse in Crossbost, in which he would regularly pray for his congregation, coming up to a higher spot at times so that he could look out upon the villages as he prayed for them. Such prayer knitted him to his people and knitted his people to him.

Move to Helmsdale

In 1856, when Finlayson was 63 years of age, he was translated to Helmsdale. His parish was so large and scattered that, due to his age and lack of health, he didn’t feel that he could continue the work. When asked why he was moving he said, ‘How can I account for a people who I cannot even reach?’ Helmsdale was a far smaller and more accessible parish and he felt that, even in his old age, he could still be useful there.

Macfarlane says that that, the day he left Lochs, the parish was ‘a vale of tears … the heart of Lewis followed him to Helmsdale and prayer for him never ceased to rise in Lochs.’ Indeed, Macaulay remarks that the number of people named “Robert” in the district ‘was a mark of the attachment that the people of Lochs had for their minister.’ Even today, many of the men in Lochs named “Robert” can trace their name back to an ancestor who was named after the beloved Mr Finlayson.

It seems like Finlayson too left part of his heart in Lochs. When conducting a question meeting in Helmsdale, he asked a man to stand to speak to the question and the man dithered and hesitated in humility. ‘Rise, rise sir,’ he said to him, ‘I saw a day on a green knoll in Lewis, and you would not have been asked to rise.’ There is, perhaps, an element of wistful nostalgia towards his adopted island of Lewis in this otherwise harsh rebuke.

His last sermon was preached at a communion in Dunbeath on ‘the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ (Revelation 19:9) Three short weeks later, on the 23rd of June, 1861, he personally tasted the glory that he had presented to the people that day in Dunbeath when, at the age of 69, he was taken into a more glorious fellowship.