Chapter 5: Educated Non-conformists

Chapter 5: Educated Non-conformists

In Ulva, the Blacks had been Church of Scotland members, as, according to the New Statistical Account, was everyone apart from a few immigrants from South Uist ‘of the Papish persuasion’. In Ardtun however, they met the Baptists. Ardtun appears in the records of the Baptist Home Mission as being particularly receptive to their message and presumably for that reason, they were particularly active there, meeting in homes, to which friends and neighbours were invited. Baptists were distinctive in their belief that Baptism should be by total immersion in water and should follow personal faith, rather than be administered to children as an act of faith by their parents. They were also distinctively fervent in their faith. However, there was another factor, which may have contributed to their popularity. The Baptists were more of a ‘people’s church’ with a system of church government which an outsider might describe as democratic, although Baptists themselves would probably not accept that description, preferring to argue that the will of God is to be discerned by the whole congregation, not one man or an elite clique no-matter how holy. Critically however, they were not identified with the religious establishment of the day, which in the minds of many was complicit in the clearances. The fact that Ardtun was refuge for so many victims of the clearances from other parts of Mull may account for Baptist strength among them.

Quite the opposite of being aligned with the religious establishment, before the 1872 Education Act, which created non-denominational state schools in Scotland, to become a Baptist could result in institutional marginalization, the Presbyterian and Scottish Episcopal denominations being powerful forces through their land ownership and their control of religion and education. In Bunessan, this translated into restriction on places for nonconformist worship, such that at one point, the Baptist were meeting in a cave near Ardalanish. It was even known locally to result in denominationally inspired loss of home and livelihood, in cases where that was in the gift of the established church, such as teacher in a denominational school.

The Bunessan Baptists were mainly from among the crofting community and included the Blacks’ next-door neighbour Mary MacDonald, composer of the Gaelic Christmas carol ‘Leanabh an Aigh’ translated into English as ‘Child in the manger’. The tune to which she set her poem was later named ‘Bunessan’ and borrowed for the lyrics ‘Morning has Broken’, written in 1922 by London authoress, Eleanor Farjeon. ‘Morning has Broken’ to the tune ‘Bunessan’ was recorded by Cat Stevens, reaching number one in the US pop charts in 1972, exactly a century after her death.

John and Elizabeth Black had a simple yet profound Christian faith. Clearly more than conventional observance, it seems to have sustained them through serious adversity and if any of them ever wished to pass anything on to succeeding generations, that would be it.

Crofting may have been a subsistence economy, but the communities were far from primitive or parochial. John and Elizabeth’s six children were literate in both Gaelic and English. Their local Secondary School was at Bunessan, but there were also several small neighbourhood primary schools at Pennyghael, Uisken, Creiche and one in Ardtun just up the road from Knockan, where Margaret Black was a ‘pupil teacher’ in the early 1900s. Pupil Teachers were introduced in 1847 as a kind of apprentice teacher earning a small salary. They sometimes went on to formal teacher training and certification, Margaret among them. Some more famous names such as Ramsay MacDonald and Scottish radical John MacLean were also pupil teachers in their day. Donald Black helped with book-keeping in MacQuarie’s store in Bunessan and also in the Argyll local factor’s office.

Books such as ‘Columbus’s Voyages of Discovery’ and Pears Encyclopaedia occupied a shelf along with the family Bible. A small pedal organ and a music edition of Sankey’s ‘Sacred Songs and Solos’ recalled the days of Baptist house meetings in Ardtun. Sepia prints of François Millet’s paintings The Gleaners (1857) and The Angelus (1859) were companions on the wall to two original small oils of unknown origin, some early family photographs and a remarkable charcoal portrait of John Black II. All this is known because they were still there when the house was re-opened in the 1940s.

There was evidence of a wry awareness in the crofting community of the outside world, for example of British military involvement in Africa between 1879 and 1902. One local crofter was nicknamed ‘Cronje’ after the Boer General, and the horse in the Knockan story above was named ‘Buller’ after one of the commanders of British forces. It is impossible to tell now whether Buller the horse got his name on account of a piece of heroism by Buller the General during the 1879 Zulu wars, which earned him the VC or some less illustrious events during the second Boer War (1899 – 1902), which earned him the nickname ‘Reverse’ Buller. Buller (the horse) was commandeered for the war effort in 1914, and served as a pack animal in Flanders. He survived that and, after the war, Johnny Black spotted him pulling a milk cart in Glasgow. Allegedly they recognised each other.

Chapter 1: Before Crofting (pre-1814)

Chapter 2: Mull's Triple Whammie (1814 - 1850)

Chapter 3: Ardtun (1850 – 1914)

Chapter 4: Crofting Life

Chapter 5: Educated Non-conformists

Chapter 6: A Second Clearance (1914 onwards)

Chapter 7: Deja Vue all over again


Forgotten Scots