Dr Alexander Stewart (Nether Lochaber)

The Famous Rev Dr Alexander Stewart, LLD known as Nether Lochaber became Minister of Ballachulish and Ardgour in April 1851.

He remained as minister here until he died in 1901. For most of his ministry he preached in Ardgour and Onich on alternate Sundays, in Gaelic and English. However, Ardgour got its own minister in 1886 and the parishes were finally separated in 1894.

Alexander Stewart (1829-1901) was born on Benbecula. His father was an Inland revenue officer there. The family were one of the Stewarts of Appin and quite soon they returned closer to their roots, moving to Oban, where Alexander went to school before going to study at St Andrews University.  He began his university studies in 1843. It was quite common in this period for boys (and only boys went at this time) to start university aged around 14. Only later in the century did the pattern change and 17 or 18 became the more normal age. The pattern was for a boy to study a four year course of general arts that would include literature, mathematics, Greek and Latin, philosophy and some natural philosophy (physics). The academic year only lasted from late autumn to Easter. Those who were going on to become ministers would stay on for extra sessions to attend some classes in divinity, which Alexander did.

His time at university coincided with the Disruption, a major rift in the Church of Scotland, where most of the evangelical wing left to form the Free Church. There they could run they church without having to work with the system of state or societal interference, which meant that most ministers were presented to a parish by whoever owned the right of patronage. This was a right which could often be purchased. There were a number of Parliamentary churches which had been created by royal bounty to increase church provision in the Highlands and Stewart.

And so Alexander Stewart was presented by the Crown when he came to the combined parishes of Ballachulish and Ardgour. (The name Nether Lochaber was not used for the parish name until much later).

The ‘moderate’ wing of the Church of Scotland had been the more dominant voice in the eighteenth century, and into the nineteenth. Professor Hill who had taught divinity for many years in St Andrews and whose printed lectures were the standard text book, was a Moderate. It was less a difference of theology than of temperament. Moderates were favourably disposed to culture in its widest expression. Evangelicals were more concerned to bring about a sense of awareness of grace, redemption and a personal religious experience. St Andrews University in its divinity hall was not greatly affected by the Disruption.

Stewart seems to fit more into the ‘moderate’ category. One cannot imagine a typical Free Church minister writing so passionately about nature, weather, astronomy, antiquities, and Gaelic culture and folklore as he was to do.

Theological education then was not as rigorous as it is today. Nonetheless students aiming to enter the ministry would prolong their studies and would attend courses of lectures on various subjects of divinity, learn Greek and Hebrew, and prepare for an oral examination.

St Andrews University had a college, St Mary’s, for divinity. There were never more than three or four academic staff teaching here. They covered Hebrew, divinity (theology), church history and biblical criticism. The professors were not well paid and some had to supplement their meagre stipends by preaching or other work.

One of Stewart’s teachers of divinity was William Tennant, a local Fife minister, but quite an accomplished linguist, poet and dramatist. He taught the Hebrew class. One of his better-known poems is Anster Fair, another was The Thane of Fife. A single man, Tennant suffered from mobility problems and walked with crutches. He had met Sir Walter Scott, and Stewart recalls how Tennant had spoken about this to his students. In him Stewart had a role model of how someone could combine church with broader cultural achievements.

Another of his teachers was George Buist who lectured on Church History and who wrote a book on The Acts of the Apostles, and T. T. Jackson taught the divinity (theology) course.

They were all competent enough teachers but Stewart was not exposed to great theological minds during his training.

So after university study Stewart, and serving briefly as an assistant in the Gaelic church in Paisley, and as a missionary assistant in the Oban Gaelic chapel, arrived in Ballachulish and Ardgour in April 1851.

The following year he married Mary Janet, daughter of Lieutenant John Morrison of Sallachen House, Ardgour. Children were born in the next few years, Fassifern, a girl, and twins, Kenneth and Mary.

He remained as minister here until he died in 1901. For most of his ministry he preached in Ardgour and Onich on alternate Sundays, in Gaelic and English. However Ardgour got its own minister in 1886 and the parishes were finally separated in 1894.