One of my Inverness chapters came to an end this afternoon.
I stood by the open grave of Isabel Margaret Grant (1927-2018), the first of my two landladies when I was a student for the Christian ministry during two years 1980-1982 in Inverness.
On the gravestone were the names of her parents, above her brother James, unmarried like herself, who died in her home on the night I was inducted to Inverness on 8/12/1989. Today book-ended an interval of almost three decades between these two deaths. On the Sabbath two days after my induction, my first sermon to the Inverness congregation as its new minister, a congregation with which I had been very familiar and to which I had often preached both as a ministerial student and as an ordained minister, was on that wonderful text 1Tim 1:15.
My first experience of Inverness was arriving at ‘Palmerston Villa’, 4 Millburn Road, Inverness IV2 3PS to lodge with Isabel. Her ever-youthful appearance belied her 52 years, which hardly changed in her last four decades. I was introduced to Inverness-grown plums that autumn, which continues to the present day, with the ceremonious planting of a plum tree in our garden only last week by my wife’s brother as her big-0 birthday present.
Isabel was the senior member on the Communion Roll when I came to Inverness. When she passed away from earth to heaven, she was the last in her generation of a large family of Grants, marking the end of an era going back to the origin of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 1893. Her father John Grant had been an intimate acquaintance of the FP minister of St Jude’s, Glasgow, the redoubtable Rev. Neil Cameron. He became the treasurer of the FP Church for 36 years from May 1924 until 1960 and even after this he was the treasurer for the Publications Committee, such was his interest in Christian literature.
Isabel continued to live in the family home all her life because this Inverness address was on the literature which had been sent all around the world and she wished to be available to respond to any enquiries that might come to this address. This interest in Christian literature was part of Isabel’s life-work.
The distribution of Christian literature has been a useful ministry by many Christian women, and Isabel was one of these. Year after year, she sent out Christian literature all over the world.
She was the Scottish distributor for the Westminster Standard Publications, very useful pamphlets that were the only publications I could afford as a cash-strapped young student at Glasgow University beginning to show an interest in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They cost one or two pence, and sometimes the pricely sum of three pence. They covered all sorts of useful topics that even the children of FP manses did not know, who hung eagerly over my copies at the annual Youth Conference in Kilravock Castle not far from Inverness. They were composed by the Rev. William MacLean under the pseudonym of Ergatees (the Greek for ‘a worker’), a term which I have honoured and adopted in another context.
As I stood at Isabel’s open grave this afternoon, I recollected it was the same open grave into which her brother James was laid when I conducted my first funeral in Inverness in 1989. As I contemplated this, I stood beside an old acquaintance, Murdo Maclean, with whom I had led a tour to Israel in May 2000, and whose father the Rev. Donald MacLean was my ‘father in Christ’ 1Cor 4:15, under whose ministry I was brought to the liberty of the Gospel. Some of us went back to The Beaufort Hotel where I conversed with one of Isabel’s relatives, Donnie Campbell whose late father had arranged my first international flight to preach the Gospel in Canada as a divinity student in 1981, an occasion full of pleasant memories.
Isabel taught the younger children in the Sabbath School for many decades and took a prayerful and lifelong interest in her former pupils. While I preached from one end of the church, Isabel sat at the other end in the back pew, observing the congregation and praying for them decade after decade of her long life that ended in the last month of her 90th year.
She was an assiduous attendee at Communion Seasons and would travel by train with her little store of suitably nourishing and juicy Jaffa cakes to keep her going on the journey. Her favourite minister in her latter years was the Rev. Alexander MacAskill who used to stay at her home at Synod time. There are many who can testify to her hospitality at communions, Church Committee meetings and Synods held in Inverness.
“Mrs Beaton” (1921-2008)
My other landlady in Inverness was Mrs Catherine Beaton, ‘a mother in Israel’ Jdg 5:7 and 2Sam 20:19, who introduced me to many a cuisinery delight, such as her white flour sauce poured copiously over a large cooked onion. She taught me to eat cream and to take breakfast in the morning, after teenage and student years of neglecting it. It was ‘a home from home’, and much more besides.
Her piety belonged to an earlier age. She knew the 150 Psalms of David off by heart in the Scottish metrical version, as did several others of her generation.
She had been widowed young and brought up her young family in Inverness, whose acquaintance I made in her delightful home. They were all married with growing families making their way successfully through life. Her daughter Flora was married to ‘A.P.’ Campbell, brother of the above-mentioned Donnie Campbell, and now Lord Bracadale who had successfully prosecuted for Scotland in the Lockerbie bombing trial and he has recently produced a Review of Hate Crime legislation commissioned by the Scottish Government.
I did not know Mrs Beaton’s late husband, the Rev. Archie Beaton, who ministered in Gairloch, one of the first and largest congregations of the early FP Church. I made a small pamphlet of his obituary from the FP Magazine for her and her four adult children. I was privileged to speak at her own funeral when her mortal remains were laid to rest in Gairloch cemetery. She was from Diabaig, near Shieldaig, where the second founding father of the FP Church, the Rev. Donald Macdonald had ministered.
One evening as I sat by her blazing fire in the sitting room studying my Hebrew vocabulary, she came in with a cup of tea and her home-baking for supper. I discovered that she and her niece Norma MacBeath had been struggling to fix her sewing machine in the kitchen all evening, so I offered to fix it after supper and the family worship. They looked at each other in disbelief and half an hour later they looked at each other in amazement. What they could not have known is that I had often pulled apart my mother’s sewing machine and put it together again. I have many domestic skills that remain hidden lest they be called upon too frequently.
Latterly, Mrs Beaton helped out in the Blythswood bookshop in Academy Street where I remember taking less than five seconds to decide to purchase The Last Days of Jesus, by T. V. Moore, such was my admiration for his style of writing, his exegesis and his choice of this subject. I was not disappointed.
Mrs Beaton liked plants and would regularly bring one home from Howden’s Garden Centre located behind her home. She would rearranged her sitting room with these in a tasteful manner. She had a greenhouse and a vegetable garden at the rear of the house, from where I was provided with fresh produce.
It was sitting in the sun in her garden one afternoon that I developed my proof for the existence of the soul from scriptural teaching on the subject of dreams and my medical knowledge of their impact on the body and mind.
It was here that I began my interest in astronomy with the relatively darker skies of Inverness from my native Glasgow, and I remember discussing with her son John Beaton my observations of the Moon, from whom I purchased a few cars in the intervening decades. Catherine, the oldest in the family, is married to John Cameron-Mackintosh, from whom we purchased another car when later they were part of my congregation in Daviot-Stratherrick-Tomatin from 1983 till 1989. Jeannie, another sibling, was married in Manchester and tried unsuccessfully to persuade me to join CND, the campaign for nuclear disarmament.
Like Isabel Grant, there was a constant stream of visitors going through Mrs Beaton’s hospitable home, such as the Freekes from Holland, father being an ardent student of the twelve volumes of the Works of the puritan Thomas Goodwin, over which I had many a debate, and son Kees who showed me his rare first edition of George Gillespie’s Aaron’s Rod Blossoming. His other son Jan was to marry my third cousin Alice MacKenzie during my time in Inverness, who celebrated her big 0-birthday only two months before my own wife who have been friends ever since she came to Scotland.
Ronald MacBeath and Lizzie, her sister, came regularly from Raasay to the Inverness communion as well as her brother Alex MacLennan from Shieldaig with his wife Mary, and her other brother Duncan from the family home in Diabaig.
Katie, as she was known to others, was always interested in the various Communion Seasons around the church and as a newcomer to the Highlands I was kept informed of what was happening each week. She led a happy, active and useful life.
The passing of these two ladies brings to an end a generation of piety that is rarely seen nowadays – which merits this short notice today, if for no other reason than to encourage godly women to follow in their dedicated steps.
‘It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart’ Ecc 7:2.
One result of my attendance at this house of mourning is that before the funeral today I had no idea that I would write this blogpost. During one of the public prayers, it came to my mind to honour their memory with this short record, which it has been a pleasure to compose. Only weariness upon the reader prevents my writing more. May my subjects’ surviving relatives follow in the footsteps of ‘them who through faith and patience inherit the promises’ Heb 6:12.
They shall be brought with gladness great,
and mirth on ev’ry side,
Into the palace of the King,
and there they shall abide.