Good riddance to the Wee Frees

New Statesman Scotland

In 1843, when the Church of Scotland more or less was Scotland, a remarkable event took place that was described as a rebellion of the pious. Over the crucial issue of who was to appoint ministers - the lairds or the congregations - the Kirk split into two factions. The Great Disruption saw on one side the Moderates, who accepted the rights of the lairds, and on the other, the Evangelicals, who championed the cause of the congregations. It was a mighty battle of vital principle between what became the Free Kirk and the conservative residue of the Church of Scotland ("The Free Kirk, the wee kirk, the kirk without the steeple; the auld kirk, the cauld kirk, the kirk without the people"), and it involved heroic privation on the part of the Evangelicals and a stern sticking to their established principles from the Moderates. In more than a metaphysical sense, it was a battle for the soul of Scotland. And the people won.

When reunification was patched together in 1929, a small band of extreme Evangelicals refused to come back into the Kirk. Based mostly in the Highlands and the Western Isles, the Wee Frees remained doggedly fundamentalist and unflinchingly anti-Catholic. In 1989, they excommunicated Lord MacKay, the then Lord Chancellor of England, for attending a Roman Catholic mass after the funeral of a friend.

Last week in Edinburgh, another Disruption took place. The already tiny Free Church of Scotland split into two warring factions amid accusations of contumacy (defiance of an ecclesiastical court order) and ungodliness. Twenty-two Free Church ministers walked out of a Commission of Assembly and went to the Magdalen Chapel, the headquarters of the Scottish Reformation Society, to draw up "a declaration of reconstitution of the historic Free Church of Scotland" and to resolve to hold a breakaway General Assembly later in the year and to elect their own Moderator.

However, the origins of this split have nothing to do with the notions of high principle of 1843 and everything to do with an episode of particularly seedy unpleasantness that took place in 1996. Professor Donald MacLeod is a progressive (in Free Kirk terms) theologian who was forced to defend himself in the law courts against accusations that he had sexually molested five women. It was a great story, but completely untrue. It emerged that a group of anti-progressive ministers, who called themselves the Free Church Defence Association, had persuaded the women to make false allegations because they wanted to discredit someone who was attempting to drag the church into the 19th century. It was an extraordinary affair where a group of allegedly deeply religious men concocted a story and coerced five women into lying in court, having taken an oath on the bible.

It would have been bad enough had they left it at that - mud always sticks in matters of this sort and Professor MacLeod had been forced to endure a hellish ordeal. But the Commission of Assembly was called last week because the Free Church Defence Association had refused to disband. And many of the 22 dissident ministers were involved in the conspiracy against Professor MacLeod.

As endlessly divisible fragments of a great tradition splinter into irrelevance and farce, it is sad to reflect on the loss of the intellectual power of the Kirk as a whole, but cheering to watch the demise of the Free Kirk in particular. The historical truth is that its influence on the Western Isles and the Highlands has been stultifying, encouraging extreme conservatism and bigotry while arguing a temporal acceptance of an unacceptable status quo in the sure and certain hope of an afterlife. Perhaps the Gaels needed a hard God who would understand the harshness of life on the wild Atlantic shore. Certainly, this sort of dark and grim fundamentalism took a deep root all the way down the western edge of Britain.

Nonconformism held Wales in its melodious grip until two world wars loosened it, while parts of Ireland still operate as an unforgiving, grudge-bearing theocracy.

It would be encouraging to believe that, as the 22 ministers walked from St Columba's Church in the lee of Edinburgh Castle down to the sunless canyon of the Cowgate and the Magdalen Chapel, they were at last walking out of Scotland's history. Their black-homburg, hypocritical vision of life on the wild margins of Britain has no place in the new century.

Alistair Moffat

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why arms sales are bad for Britain