Revivals in the Highlands: Part 2
In Part 2 of an article on Rev. Robert Bruce, Alex Muir writes of Bruce as ill and exiled to the Highland capital, but used of God as 'a light shining in a dark place' to converting effect.
Part 1 of this article can be found here.
AS it was with Knox and Welsh before him, the Lord often spoke to Bruce in dreams and visions. One of these concerned God's judgment upon the faithless, time-pleasing ministers of Scotland. In the dream he began to weep and pray, asking the Lord that he might be kept faithful. When he awoke in the morning, his pillow was wet with tears.
He also ministered mightily to others by his public prayers. Robert Fleming wrote this of him: Mr Bruce was a great wrestler who had more than ordinary familiarity with his Master. He was short in prayer when others were present but every sentence was like a strong bolt shot out of heaven.
On one occasion, when he was in Edinburgh, a number of godly ministers gathered in his room to discuss the plans the bishops had for Scotland and the action they ought to take. Afterwards, Bruce was asked to pray. As he prayed about these issues and the lamentable state of the Kirk, the Lord so poured out His Spirit upon them, that they could hardly contain their emotions. And several people in other parts of the house, who knew nothing of the meeting, felt a deep sense of Divine solemnity come upon their spirits. In revival history, such happenings are not uncommon. At times whole communities have been made aware of eternal things as the Spirit of God has been poured out. Then people are made to cry with the Psalmist: Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?
For a time in his later ministry, Bruce preached at Larbert. Next to the old church was a room where Bruce spent his time between sermons. One day, many strangers, along with a number of nobles and prominent people had gathered to hear him. But he was late in coming to the pulpit.
The beadle was asked to remind the preacher about the time of the service. He knocked gently on the door but there was no answer. Bruce was in prayer and didn't hear him. So the beadle returned and said that there was someone else in the room because he had heard the preacher say, over and over again, that he wouldn't go to the church unless the other came with him, but the other made no reply.
The 'other' was the Holy Spirit and He did at last go with God's servant and made the sermon that day a wonderful blessing to many.
There's more to effective preaching than well prepared and well delivered sermons. The Apostle Paul told the Thessalonians: Our Gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction ( I Thess. 1: 5). That was why he could go on to say: You turned to God from idols to serve the living and the true God and to wait for His Son from heaven (1:9). We deliver the message but only the Holy Spirit can convict sinners of their sin and turn their hearts fully to Jesus Christ.
Conflict with the king
King James's policy to replace Presbyterianism with Episcopacy was opposed by Bruce and James could no longer tolerate such a man in St. Giles. He had him falsely implicated in a conspiracy against the crown and banished him to Inverness.
Bruce's biographer, DC Nicol, describes the event in these words: Upon 18th August 1605, the blow fell which Bruce had for months anticipated and he was ordered, within ten days, to ward (to be forcibly confined) in Inverness.'
Imagine this in a tourist brochure of the time: Come to Inverness, the Gulag of the Highlands! That, in fact, would scarcely have been an exaggeration. McNicol continues: To a home-loving Scot of the period, the sentence of detention in Inverness was like Siberian exile to a Russian of the present time.
Just getting there was a nightmare. In1562, Mary Queen of Scots and her halfbrother, Moray, visited Inverness. The journey was described as terrible for both man and beast. Twenty-seven years later, James VI himself came north with an army to subdue the wild clansmen. But he spent most of his time hunting. Meanwhile, murder, arson and every kind of lawless behaviour continued: Huntly against Sutherland, Sutherland against Caithness, clans declaring war on one another as if Scotland had neither king nor government.
One terrible incident illustrates the barbarity of the Highlands at that time. In 1603, a band of Glengarry Macdonalds raided Rossshire. When they came upon their enemies, they found them in church. But this did nothing to restrain their savagery. They set fire to the building and, to add to the horror, Glengarry's piper tried to drown the shrieks of the dying people by playing the clan march!
The Reformation in the middle of the 16th century had been a great revival; but beyond the Highland line, there was still great spiritual darkness. The people knew nothing of the soul-saving, life-changing Gospel of God's grace and love in Jesus. But the Lord now began to work through His persecuted servant.
The first exile
Bruce was banished twice to Inverness. When he first came, the town was small, made up of only two intersecting streets under the shadow of the castle. Across an oak bridge which spanned the River Ness, a little suburb was beginning to spring up but there were few comforts to be found, even by the standards of these days.
There wasn't a doctor in the vicinity and Bruce, who wasn't in good health, could have done with one. But spiritual medicine was now at hand for sin-sick souls in the town and Bruce was given permission to preach. The going wasn't easy and he faced much opposition. On one occasion, he was shot at from a cottage in the Fisher Street. The ball missed him by only a couple of inches.
There was little fruit from his ministry in the north on this occasion, but seed had been sown which the Holy Spirit would water in due course. God's promise of revival isn't for well cultivated gardens but for barren places: The wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom (Isa 35:1-2).
If we feel that Britain is in a bad way morally and spiritually, consider the Highlands when Bruce first came to Inverness. Then consider what God did next.
In 1613, Bruce was given permission to leave Inverness. He was supposed to be confined to his house at Kinnaird, but he found the freedom to preach in a number of places, with the exception of Edinburgh. At his mansion of Monkland, near Glasgow, he also met for conference and prayer with others of like mind, like Robert Boyd, the Principal of Glasgow University and Mr. Scott, the minister of that town.
What intercessions there must have been on those occasions, not just for Scotland as a whole but for Inverness and the Highlands. The area of his ministry might have been limited by the King but his prayers weren't. He was a Daniel in prayer for his people and the words of Gabriel to the prophet might well have applied to him: As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given... for you are highly esteemed (Daniel 9:23).
Like Daniel, Robert Bruce was a bold and fearless man of faith, and, also like Daniel, he again found himself in conflict with the King. Where he saw error, in society or in the Church, he couldn't hold his peace. As God's messenger, he had to speak out.
It's said that he once described the ministers of Edinburgh as false prophets. But that's what they were if they were preaching salvation through works and rituals instead of through faith in Christ alone, the foundational doctrine of the Reformation. In any case, in 1622, nine years after his release, he was again banished to Inverness, the pretext being that he had defied the authorities by visiting Edinburgh.
During his first eight years here, he had sown with tears. In the next two years, he was to reap with joy. At the age of 68, in poor health, and remembering his previous struggles, he was reluctant to go. He pleaded for clemency from the authorities: My Lords... I am an old man; I am weary and wasted with grief and care... If his majesty will be graciously pleased to let me spend the remnant of my... days in my own house... There the letter breaks off and the page is stained with tears. But the King was adamant: He shall go to Inverness.
On the 18th of April, he prepared to set out with some friends on the long and arduous journey. They mounted their horses first but Bruce just stood beside his horse, his eyes looking up to heaven. And he didn't take to the saddle until a fifteen minutes had passed.
Realising that the man of God had been given some kind of vision, one of the friends asked him what had happened. Bruce replied: I was receiving my commission from my Master to go to Inverness and He gave it to me Himself... and thither I go to sow a seed in Inverness that shall not be rooted out for many ages.
Given his previous experience in the town, this seemed a most unlikely outcome. But Bruce had heard from God and went forth with the Word of God. And we're reminded of two verses from the prophecy of Jeremiah: I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me? ( 32:27), and... Let the one who has my Word speak it faithfully... Is not my Word like a fire... and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jer 23:29)
In Gaelic, there's a saying about hard hearts Cruaidh ri creag, Hard as a rock. Into the rocky Highlands went Robert Bruce. He would be confronted by many hard hearts; but, through the preaching of the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, hearts of stone would be turned into hearts of flesh. And in the course of time, one of the fiercest races on earth would become among the gentlest and most godly.
The soldiers who were billeted in European homes during the Napoleonic Wars were generally a pretty wild lot. The Highland soldiers, by contrast, were popular and made welcome because they were so well-mannered, even playing with the children. As a result, they were given the description: Lions in the field and lambs in the house.
The enemy was roused by Bruce's reappearance and again there was strong opposition. But, as time passed, there was a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the region. What kings of Scotland had failed to achieve by force of arms, was brought about by one man armed only with the Gospel of Divine love.
What happened was a miracle of grace. MacNicol tells the story: Ere long, a truce of God was made among the clansmen and the chiefs, with their retainers... crowded to hear the new teacher... Across the Kessock Ferry, over the breadth of the great county of Ross, from every point on the compass, they came in crowds to hear the fresh message of hope... The capital of the Highlands must have been in those days, like Patmos or like the jail of Philippi, glorious with the very presence of God.
One of the converts was Alexander Munro who went on to have a powerful ministry in the Reay country. He also translated portions of Scripture into Gaelic verse so that those who couldn't read could commit God's Word to memory. MacNicol continues: And every receiver of the Word of life would become an evangelist so that the Highland people would proclaim from heart to heart, in their own melodious language, the amazing Divine message of pardon and peace. At all levels of society, the Word of God spread rapidly and was honoured.
One poor drover was so moved by a sermon of Bruce that he came to him afterwards, for counsel. In faltering, broken Scots he said: I'se gie ye twa coos ( they were all he had) if ye'll gree me and God, that is help me to find peace with God.
Robert Bruce spent only two more years here, but what a tremendous work he did under God and what a legacy of godliness he left in the north! In 1624, he was allowed to return to Kinnaird and his ministry continued until his death in 1631. A year before he died, he was one of the ministers at the famous Kirk o' Shotts communion. On the Monday, the preacher was John Livingstone, a young man who had sat under Bruce's ministry at Larbert. Now the older man, who had known so much of God's power himself, was to see the same anointing upon a younger man, a token of God's blessing for the future.
As a result of that one sermon 500 people were soundly converted. But more than that, the impact of the revival was to continue over the coming years. In the words of Robert Fleming, It was the sowing of seed throughout Clydesdale. What had once been a desert, had become a field of golden corn and from the sheaves gathered there came fresh seed which would result in a future harvest.
With great feeling and conviction, Robert Bruce once said of the One whom he so loved and trusted: God is a God to me! And He is our God too, unchangeable and unchanging. What He has done, He can do again. So let us take heart from that fact and from the words of the Holy Spirit in Psalm 126:6: He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.
Continued in Part 3.
Rev. Alex Muir is a retired Church of Scotland minister who has served in parishes in the Highlands and Islands. He has studied the history of revivals, and writes speaks on the subject. Alex now lives in Inverness with his family.
Whilst in the parish of Keiss and Canisbay in the north of mainland Scotland he ministered to the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother who had a residence in the Castle of Mey.