The state of religion in that county was then most deplorable. Thurso, that is, Thor's town, containing between 2,000 and 3,000 inhabitants, had not been catechised for forty years, a circumstance which then implied great neglect, and "in all the shire of Caithness, consisting of ten parishes," there was scarcely an instance of the Gospel being faithfully preached. At Thurso, a pious Anti-burgher minister laboured with some good results, and there were a few of those belonging to the Established Church who attended the Secession place of worship, without themselves joining its communion. But the good that was done by these Anti-burghers was on a very limited scale, and no effort was made to extend the Gospel beyond the bounds of their own chapels or the families of those by whom they were attended.
"It is," says the Journal, "a mournful fact, that it was the universal practice to commute for a sum of money the public profession of repentance enjoined by the Church of Scotland on those guilty of adultery or other open transgressions. When such persons have paid the fine they are admitted to the communion-table without scruple. When such practices as these take place to any extent, no wonder if the land mourn, and that the Lord threaten to visit us with his sore judgments. Shall I not visit for these things' saith the Lord.' Nor can it at all surprise those who know the Gospel to learn, that while the name and ordinances of God are thus profaned, men should in general be living without God and without Christ, and, consequently, without any well-grounded hope in the world. It gives us much pleasure, however, to remark, that the Lord hath not wholly left himself without a witness, even in those places which are most desolate. It is said that in this shire, about fifty or sixty years ago, the whole of the ministers were faithful preachers of Christ. Their testimony has been transmitted, and the instructions and example of humble individuals have been blessed of God for keeping alive a spirit of real religion in some of the interior parts of the country. It is remarked that those persons are, in general, such as live at the greatest distance from the churches, and who, in consequence, meet together by themselves for the purposes of religious conference and worship on the Lord's- day."
Such was the state of Caithness at the time when James Haldane preached in its chief town, on Thursday, the 31st August 1797, his first sermon in the yard of the Anti-burgher Meeting-house to not more than 300 persons, "who seemed rather unconcerned." Thurso was crowded with strangers who had come up to the fair. On the following Monday he preached twice in a large yard, in the open air, to congregations "which seemed more attentive." Next day the congregation had increased to 800 persons in the morning, and about 1,500 in the evening. On the Lord's-day morning attention had become so much aroused, that before the usual church hours, he preached at half-past nine o'clock to 1,700 people, and although it began to rain, "no person moved." He then went to church, where a melancholy sermon was delivered, in which the minister cautioned the people against trusting for acceptance with God to the blood of Christ. "His peace-speaking blood," says the Journal, "was only for the holy and the good!" But against this false doctrine James Haldane testified in the evening to no less than 3,000 persons, assembled from places far and near, to whom he proclaimed the true Gospel of the grace of God. During the following week-days he preached morning and evening each day at different places in the county. The Journal contains the following entry on the next Lord's-clay:?
"Lord's-day, September 10th.?Preached at ten o'clock to from 2,000 to 3,000 people, many of whom had come from the country. Preached again at two o'clock, to upwards of 3,000 persons, from the Second Epistle of John, verses 10 and 11."
The results of this tour in Caithness will be again more particularly noticed, but perhaps it cannot at present be more fitly concluded than by the insertion of the following letter. It is written by the wife of a pious minister at Elgin, a venerable lady, who was one of those to whom Mr J. A. Haldane was then the messenger of peace. She was the daughter of that Mr A. Millar, of Staxigo, near Wick, whose hospitality is so gratefully acknowledged. Mrs M'Neil's letter was written shortly after Mr Haldane's death and is dated 20th March 1851. It is addressed to the excellent surviving sister of Mr Aikman, whose own recollections have furnished some valuable incidents for this and the preceding chapter:
"I now come to that part of your letter wherein you mention my dear and much loved and respected friend, Mr James Haldane,?a name very dear to me. I have often thought that there was something of idolatry in my affection for that good man. If I have ever felt or known anything of the truth, he was the blessed instrument; and not to myself only, but he was the instrument used by God for the conversion of my dear brother and sister, in his first visit to Caithness. Both the latter died of typhus fever, in the hope of a glorious immortality, a few months after his visit to Caithness. I had a married sister, who died of fever about two years previous to your dear brother (Mr Aikman's) and dear Mr Haldane's visit to Caithness. At the time of her being seized with illness, I was young, thoughtless, and lively.
"The fever being deemed infectious, the doctor persuaded my parents not to allow either of my sisters or myself to see her. However, early in the morning on which she died, my eldest sister and myself were sent for to see her before her death. She had early in life been made a partaker of Divine grace and was a most affectionate sister. We lived in the country. She lived in the town of Wick. Her husband brought us into the room where she lay; she was then in the agonies of death. I had never seen one in that state before, and being much attached to her, it made a very deep impression upon my mind, and I became much concerned about my soul. My health gave way, and I was wasted to a shadow. I concealed from every person the state of my mind, and always sought retirement, but did not know where to flee for deliverance from the guilt of sin. I had relations who lived within a few miles of Thurso. They wished me very much to visit them, in the hope the change might be useful to me, and my parents and their friends were equally anxious for this. But it was health to my soul which I needed and longed for. However, as they wished it, I went. Some days after I went there, my aunt had gone into Thurso, and when she returned she said the town seemed in an uproar, or something to that effect, about a remarkable preacher who had come there, and that he seemed very zealous, and was preaching in the open air.' I immediately set off, accompanied by one of my cousins. It was on a Saturday evening. I went with my cousin to the place. He was standing on the top of an outer stair, dressed in a grey coat, with tied hair, and powdered. But I think I shall never forget the fervour and divine unction with which he proclaimed the Gospel of mercy. It rained very heavily, and although very wet and miry where the congregation stood, no one, I think, moved to go away until the sermon was over. I felt very unwell but was riveted to the place, and sorry I was when he finished his subject.
"On Sabbath, I went in the forenoon to the parish church. The minister's text was 4th and 5th verses of the sixth chapter of Galatians. In the evening Mr Haldane preached in a yard, where it was thought there were 4,000 people assembled. He took occasion to show the fallacy of the doctrine preached in the forenoon. I was standing beside a number of the genteel people, but not religious people. Some of the gentlemen called out, ' Stone him!' others, Stop him!' However, no person obeyed their commands, and Mr Haldane went on with his subject. At last this gentry all left the place, and I was -very glad to be rid of them. This minister, of whose erroneous teaching Mr Haldane had said so much, was a particular friend of my dear father. My mind was in distress lest my father should take any dislike to Mr Haldane; and that if Mr Haldane should go to Wick, I might not have the liberty to hear him. I next day wrote to nay sister, giving an account of the whole matter, and said all I could in Mr Haldane's favour. Your dear brother (Mr Aikman) had hurt his leg in coming out of a boat. This confined him to his lodgings, in Mr George Millar's house, for several weeks, so that I did not see him in Thurso. Owing to your brother being confined so long, they determined that Mr Haldane should come to Wick until Mr Aikman should get better. It seems they had previously no intention of stopping at Wick, but the Lord had purposes of mercy for some there. When Mr James Haldane arrived, an express was sent to my father to let him know. When I heard this information given, my heart trembled between fear and joy. I was afraid way fatter would not allow my sisters and myself to go to hear him, because he had said so much about his favourite minister; and I was just saying to my eldest sister that I feared we would not be allowed, when my father came into my room, and said, ' Make yourselves ready to go and hear Mr Haldane, and your mother and myself will also go.' I could not describe my joy. We went, and the people were assembling. It was in a large yard. Mr Haldane, after singing and prayer, gave out the 7th verse of the first chapter of Haggai,?"Thus saith the Lord of hosts, Consider your ways.' My father heard with deep attention. As for myself, I was completely riveted; my eyes could see nothing but Mr Haldane, and my ears hear no sound but his voice. Well, that was the text and sermon which the Lord blessed for the conversion of my dear father. After the sermon, my father said to my sister and me, Go into Mr Craig's, and give your mother's compliments and my own, and ask Mr Haldane if he will kindly come out to Staxigo with you.' (Mr Craig was my brother-in-law.) My joy was great, and I thought, surely the Lord has heard my prayers. Mr Haldane very kindly consented at once, and he came, and for two weeks, if not more, he remained in my father's house,?indeed, as long as he was in the place, except when he went into the town to preach, which he did every day, and we always walked in and out again with him. My eldest sister then alive, and my youngest brother, were both at that time also brought to Christ, so that there were four of us who I trust were all brought out of darkness into God's marvellous light. Could I but love that worthy man P He threw his whole soul into his subject, and com?mended the truth to everyone's conscience, as in the sight of God. Your brother only came to Wick the day before they left the country, so that I only saw and heard him once at that time. Both of them, with Mr Innes, came round again in 1799; but whenever they came, my father's house was headquarters with the whole of them.
"I recollect the last sermon Mr Haldane preached in our chapel in Wick (some years afterwards, in 1805, on his fourth tour to Caithness) was on these words,'Finally, brethren, farewell.' I thought, shall this be the last sermon he shall preach here? and I felt my spirits sink within me.
"This was indeed the last. The last night he was in our house he read the 4th of Philippians, and made some remarks. He wrote me several letters, one of which I now enclose, and a very short one, mentioning that he had sent me some books for my Sabbath-schools.
"I may add that I believe there was not a district in Scotland where their labours were so much blessed as in Caithness. In Orkney, too, the Lord made them very useful. But the good done by those godly men was remarkable. Under God, they were the means of bringing the Gospel to Wick and Thurso.
"When Mr Haldane came first to Wick in the year '97, it was in the harvest time, in the month of October. One gentleman, at that time a very careless man, gave liberty to the shearers to leave the field and go to hear Mr Haldane, which they did and reaped the field by moonlight. This I believe was only once. But from that time he paid more attention to religion, and, I believe, under Mr Cleghorn's ministry, was savingly converted to the truth. Often did my dear brother Benjamin say to me upon his death-bed, that he blessed God he had ever known and heard dear Mr Haldane. He died in February, '98, and my sister about three weeks after. My sister was twenty-four years of age, and my dear brother eighteen years. They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in death were not long divided. Both were beautiful and handsome, and both, if there were any favourites, were the favourites with my father, and were loved by all who knew them. I, too, was lying ill and despaired of at the time. You may believe what a trial this was to our parents, but God wonderfully supported them.
"The deep distress of mind I was in when I first heard Mr Haldane I could not describe; and when the Gospel was revealed to me in all its glory, my joy was great, so much so that I was sometimes so overcome with it, I thought I could contain no more. Often do I wish I now felt the same brokenness of heart and the same lively hope which I had in the days of my youth. Often, when these good men were in Caithness, many would walk twenty miles to hear them, and return home in the evening.
"Worthy Dr. hums has lived to see all those who then were fellow- helpers with him consigned to the house appointed for all living, while their emancipated spirits are now rejoicing before the throne of God. I trust he may be spared a long while yet, to labour for the good of souls. May lie yet have many given him for his joy and crown Mr Campbell was only once in Caithness. He, too, was an excellent minister. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. May it be our happiness, my dear friend, to meet those holy men of God at His right hand, when we go hence and are no more!
"My letter is not fit for any eye but that of a friend; but though I write confusedly, perhaps Mr Haldane may find some interesting things in it, to show how his worthy father was esteemed, and the good he was the means of doing in Caithness.
"All my blunders I hope he will kindly overlook. At my advanced age, on the borders of seventy-five, I cannot expect to be very free from blunders in my way of stating what I have, but I can vouch for all as facts which I have written."
From 'The Lives of James and Robert Haldane,' by Alexander Haldane.
These meetings were generally in the open air.