For all the contemporary interest in cultural landscape interpretation and conservation, there are plenty of sites that elude official attention. Many are just too awkward or too obscure.
Finlay Munro’s footprints at Torgyle, Glenmoriston is arguably one such: a set of footprints imprinted in the clay since the 1820s as a muddy testament to the religious truths proclaimed by an itinerant evangelical preacher.
Finlay Munro was, by all accounts, a strange and charismatic figure. Born in Tain, he became famous for tramping the byways of the Highlands and islands preaching an evangelical gospel to anyone who would listen.
“The clergy were mad against him,” recalled Rev Alexander Maclean of North Uist, “and the ignorant and wild people dealt brutally with him in every place”.
And yet Munro had his followers – despite the disapproval of the ministers who resented this unkempt upstart distracting their own flocks.
In Lewis, an immense congregation gathered on the low hill of Muirneag where people often met for worship. Such were the multitudes gathered on the slopes, that Munro in his sermon addressed the hill itself: “Muirneag, Muirneag, it is you that may feel well pleased today with your new coat on” (a pun on the Gaelic name, ‘little pleasing one’).
In a short portrait of Munro, Free Church Principal John Macleod (1872–1948) quotes an old crofter friend of his – Archie Crawford – who, as a boy, had heard Munro preaching in his father’s barn. “He [Crawford] formed the opinion” writes Macleod with some understatement, “that there was something unsettled about him, and, indeed, that he was odd”.*
Though by no means unaccustomed to ridicule, Finlay Munro was subject to some particularly disruptive hecklers when preaching in Glenmoriston in 1827. That his tormentors were allegedly Roman Catholics from Glengarry surely adds to the currency of the tale.
Munro stood his ground. He told them that the very clay would testify to the truth of his words; that his footprints would endure – until his hearers met their judgment or, in some accounts, until the Day of Judgment.
And there they remain – an epistemic imprint. They are not, despite their protective cairn, very easy to locate. The most reliable means of finding the site is to use the OS grid reference – NH 311138. A map can be found here.
Such landscapes are invariably awkward for the appointed guardians of heritage. For one thing, they tend to commemorate or evoke traditions, values and stories that don’t readily translate into the secular world.
An unthreatening veneration of Celtic Christianity is all very well but who, in officialdom, wants to recall spiritual intensities, conversions, callings, judgments, liberties in prayer and convictions of sin?
And yet these aspects of Highland experience arguably occupy a large part of the oral tradition in the last two hundred years and they, in turn, find their expression in the storied landscape.
This sort of lore stirs us – but uneasily; it draws out our aversion to the uncanny. Nothing in modern Scotland is more familiar and more foreign than Calvinism. That’s why it is interesting.
*John Macleod, ‘A Highland Evangelist’ in GNM Collins, Principal John Macleod D.D., Free Church Publications Committee (Edinburgh, 1951).