|The Village Prayer House and the Voluntary Gaelic Schools|
The village prayer house has long been an established institution in the life of the community in the Scottish Islands and through it lay members take a very active part in the affairs of the Gaelic Church. That came about through the instrumentality of the Edinburgh Gaelic School Society, which had a tremendous impact on the outlook of the people both in the field of religion and education in the 19th Century.
The voluntary Gaelic School Society was founded in Edinburgh in 1811 with the object of teaching the people of the highlands and islands to read the scriptures in Gaelic, their mother tongue. The first of many Gaelic Schools set up in Lewis by the Society was in Bayble in 1811 and there were at least four or five small Gaelic schools in Pairc in the 1820’s. One was set up in Gravir in 1822, one in Marvig and at Loch Shell (probably Lemreway) in 1828 perhaps more.
These schools were built and maintained by the community and were of simple construction , the walls were of undressed natural stone with a thatched roof, they were sparsely furnished with home made stools and the lighting and heating was poor. Teachers were appointed for their godliness rather than their academic qualifications, they were referred to as “Sgoilean Chriosd” (the schools of Christ), and these buildings became the forerunners of the present sophisticated village Prayer House.
In some places these schools were called “Tighean Leughadh” Reading House or “Tighean Sgoil” School House. The walls of the original Gaelic School in Calbost and Marvig and doubtless many other places may still be seen. The Calbost “Tigh Sgoil” was in use as a prayer house until the early years of the 20th Century but we only know of one gaelic resident teacher , his name is given in the 1851 census figures as Malcolm Morrison. “Mac Thormod Shaighdair” born in 1815 in Kneep Uig, Lewis and his family is given as a wife and four children. At various times he served at Carnish, Inaclete, Kershader, Laxay and Branahuie.
A new sophisticated purpose built Prayer House was built by the Calbost community in the mid 1920’s it was renovated several times and it is still in good condition, but alas the people have left and the Prayer house is out of use at present.
The Gaelic Teachers Guidebook stated that a Sabbath School for children was to be held in the forenoon and on the Sabbath afternoons there was to be a one hour session of instruction for adults. On the Sabbath evening after 6pm a prayer meeting was to be held in the school building for the benefit of all attended in that way the institution of the village Sunday School as well as the village mid-week and Sunday evening prayer meetings were first introduced by the Gaelic Society. The origin of Sunday School is much older and can be traced back to the pioneer work of Robert Raikes in Gloucester, England.
The New Testament first appeared in Gaelic in 1767, but the whole bible was not translated into Gaelic until 1801 yet it was a closed book to the people of Lewis because they could not read Gaelic or English, it is said that the scriptures were not available in Lochs in the peoples language until the 1820’s when 24 copies of the first edition of the full Gaelic Bible came to the Tacks men in Crossbost, Valtos, Crobeg and Lemreway.
Even as late as 1833 the Second Statiscal Account for the parish of Lochs state that there were only 12 people in the Lochs parish that could write (presumably English) and a few males that could speak broken English. We may be sure that these 12 people were of the tacks man class. It was thought that through the medium of Gaelic instruction real progress was achieved in educating the people of Lewis and that was through voluntary organisations. At the time of the 2nd Statistical Account half the inhabitants of Lochs between the ages of 12 and 24 could read the Gaelic language, all because of the Gaelic Society Schools.
There was a magnificent response to the opportunity for the first time to read the scriptures in their own tongue, adults as well as children attended the Gaelic schools and the treasure house of the scriptures soon influenced the minds and outlook of the people and dispelled the superstition in which the people lived. In that way the manners and culture of the people improved, we owe a great deal to these simple Gaelic schools.
The Gaelic Society schools were circulatory which meant that they moved from place to place, usually every three years, but the period varied and every village however small would have a school for at least a year.
There were five classes in each school as follows:
From about 1820 a religious revival took place in Lewis, it began as a lay movement before the first Evangelical Minister the Rev. Alexander Macleod came to Uig in 1824, later on the ministers became leaders of the movement. The first ever question meeting in the Outer Hebrides took place in 1825 in Stornoway, by that time lay people took an increasingly more active part in the life of the Church, question meetings were held on the Highland mainland long before that.
The crofters were ruthlessly removed from Eisken in 1833 and they were dealt with like ‘a flock of sheep driven by dogs into a fank’, observed one of their number. In 1831 two years before that event the first evangelical minister that came to the Parish of Lochs, Rev. Robert Finlayson came to Keose, Rev. Finlayson discovered that thee were no Kirk Session and no Kirk Session records, so he set about putting that right and included in his session some Gaelic School teachers, he went round catechising the people regularly and holding prayer meetings in the various villages throughout his scattered parish.
When he came to Eishken he found the Prayer House in a poor sate of repair and
Rev N C Macfarlane in his book “Apostles of the North” tells us of the novel way Rev. Finlayson appealed to the Eishken villagers to repair the leaky roof of the Prayer House.
He told them-
“As I was walking out I met the bible from the Eishken Prayer house and I said ‘O Bible, why are you so sad, and where are you going? ,
" Oh I am leaving Eishken Meeting House, the big drops of sooty rain that fall on me there blacken my pages and waste me badly”
That week the roof of the Eishken Prayer house was thoroughly overhauled.
The Free Church Ladies Association was established in 1850 with the aim of the religious improvement in the Highlands and Islands, the association opened schools in various places and they were popularly known in the Highlands and Islands as “Sgoilean-na-ladies” the Ladies School, the first schools opened by the association in Lewis were in Uig and Gravir and later on they opened in Cromore, there are 4 people in the Latin class one of them a girl, the first female scholar Rev Macfarlane encountered in the Hebrides. It is quite remarkable that classical scholars were found in a small voluntary thatched school in a remote crofting community in less than 30 years after the people were first introduced to elementary education.
Article written by Angus "Ease"Macleod.
This article was reproduced by the kind permission of the Angus Macleod Archive which is open to the public at Ravenspoint Kershader.