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As well as using the blog for Church news and comment on contemporary issues, I hope to use it to post some relevant historical content.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.


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.


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.


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.