Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I have wanted to tell this story for many years! Now I can….and it’s all true!
I have had the privilege of ministering in two places where I loved the people! The first of these was Brora. This came to mind last week when I was preaching down in Cronulla, and we saw this lorry from ‘the Shire’
and then someone sent me this old cutting from ‘the Raggie’ (the Northern Times)
and when I heard the sad news of the death of Jamesie Sutherland. Brora was, and is, such a fascinating place – full of character and characters. My former minister and then colleague, John Mackay, once said to me, you should write all this stuff down – no one will believe it!’. I haven’t done so – but I did keep a diary (and still do) and some things are so memorable I doubt I will ever forget them!
I will occasionally put up some of the Brora memories – at least those that are public and printable! But Jamesie’s death reminded me of one particular story – which I will just call ‘the strange incident of the poacher in the night.’ This was many years ago, and I guess we all remember things differently, but this is a true story – and Nan, his widow has given me permission to tell it. So many years have passed its now history – and I’m sure the statute of limitations applies!
A New Ministry
In August 1986 myself and Annabel having just got married, packed up our few belongings and headed to start ministry in Brora. The story of how we were called there can wait for another time – but aged 24 I was keen, zealous and enthusiastic. The congregation were small, warm, real and a glorious messy microcosm of humanity!
It’s easy when you are new in a small village of 2,000 to make contacts. The very first Sunday some new people came to church – one was a young man who had come to the induction because he had seem me from a distance on a motorbike and thought my scarf was long hair – he was curious so came to the induction and was astounded that 300 plus people were there – and disappointed that my hair was short! He came back on the Sunday evening and was even more disappointed to see that there were only 40 (he knew nothing about the tradition of Free Church inductions where friends, family and Christians from miles around gathered in support). But eventually he became a Christian.
Can David Come Out to Play?
One of the stalwarts of the congregation was a wonderful woman called Jo ‘Spriggy’ – (in the Highlands most people went by nicknames – often associated with history, job, appearance or relationships!). Jo was a lovely ex FP (Free Presbyterian) and she and I had some interesting conversations! That first Sunday she brought along her grandson, Johnny ‘Spriggy’ – Jamesie and Nan’s son. I think he was about ten at the time. When he came out of the church with his Gran, I asked him what he liked doing – and he replied – ‘playing football”. I suggested that he and I should go for a game some time.
The manse is right beside the Church. That afternoon Annabel heard the doorbell ringing, and went to answer it. She came back laughing. Johnny was standing on the doorstep with his football boots asking, “Is David coming out to play?”. I couldn’t that afternoon, but often on a Saturday morning Johnny and I would go up to the park to kick a ball around.
The Curious Incident of the Poacher in the Night
A while later, we were in bed around midnight and the phone rang. Usually, a phone call in the middle of the night is not good news. I jumped out of bed and answered it. It was Nan. “Can you come up to the house, I need your help”. I said to Annabel – “I have to go; I think someone is under conviction of sin! “So I dressed quickly, got in the car and drove the short distance to Jamesie and Nan’s house. Before I could get out of the car, Nan and her sister Marina, jumped into the back of the car and asked me to drive. This is the conversation as I recall it:
“It’s Jamesie – he went up the river”
“up the river?”
“Yes – up the Doll – poaching” (the Doll was the crofting area).
“He got sprung by the gamie” (gamekeeper)
“Where is he? In jail?!”
“No – he’s at home with Birdie – behind the couch!”
“So, what does this have to do with me? “
“He left the car – and it’s got a net in the boot with a salmon!”
“Could you drive us up to the Doll, so that we could get it”
“You want me to assist you in poaching and recovering stolen goods?!”
“Yes – if they get the car, they can confiscate it and Jamesie could go to the jail for six months”
“That’s ridiculous! For taking a salmon from the river!”
Nan was so upset – I agreed – which is why I found myself driving up a single-track road into a field, with my headlights off. After dropping of Nan and her sister – I went back to their house, met with the ‘boys’ and then went home. When Annabel asked what it was all about, I told her – ‘I’ll tell you in the morning.” When we got up that morning and went to the door – there was a salmon on the doorstep! Jo was mortified that her daughter had asked ‘the minister’ to help – but as Nan stated – who else could she trust?!
I suspect that there were some who would think I should have refused. Although I did not do anything illegal was I not aiding and abetting a crime? Perhaps. But to my mind I was preventing a greater injustice. The Estate would charge £1,000 per week (a massive sum in those days) for German, American and English tourists to come and fish. The local people had had a tradition of ‘taking one for the pot’. (As one of the local men pointed out to me, this was vastly different from the poaching gangs who sometimes came up from Glasgow – in one instance I was told of the river Helmsdale being poisoned with cyanide, killing hundreds of fish, which were then taken away.) The attempt to stop this resulted in harsh and unjust sentences. I remember one man from Brora getting six months for poaching at the court in Inverness – the same day another man got a 12-month suspended jail sentence for accidentally killing someone in a drunken brawl!
(My friend Alastair McIntosh sent me this gem ” Prof Donald Macleod of the Free Church
of Scotland once gave a sermon on the matter in his column in
the West Highland Free Press.* ‘Until I have a lobotomy;’ he
proclaimed, *I will never be persuaded that poaching is a crime
or even a sin.’).
Eventually the law really became unenforceable and so local people could pay a licence for £6 per year to fish the first mile of the river. I only had a few encounters with poachers, but their fishy stories were great. I believe they are true – but you judge for yourself!
For example, my predecessor, Davie Paterson often used to go down the river. One time he tripped over a policeman lying in wait for the poachers. Apparently, he had a salmon and was wearing his dog collar. The policeman apologised and told him just to go on his way. Every time Davie came to visit us – someone left a salmon in the boot of his car! There are many other ‘Davie’ stories but I’m not sure how many of them are legendary!
Another poacher told me that one night he had taken a net down to The Mound – this was an extraordinary dam at a sea loch between Golspie and Dornoch. The salmon and trout were often piled up there. He saw headlights coming and so took his net and hid in the bushes. Much to his horror the car was a police car – and even worse, it stopped. Out jumped a policeman. The poacher was about to run, when the policeman reached into the boot of the car, took out a net, and grabbed a few salmon for himself, before driving off!
I used to go up to that same sea loch with my dad fishing. As far as I know it was the only sea loch which was private and on which you were not allowed to fish. I don’t think dad ever had a licence – but as he dressed up in plus fours and a tweed fore and aft everyone just assumed he was one of the toffs from Dunrobin castle or one of the estates! One of my favourite memories of my dad is when he took us up to the hill lochs in the heart of Sutherland – one of the most remote and beautiful areas in the world – and, despite often catching little, and the midges, one of the most relaxing and refreshing things you can do!
Another time I was asked to conduct the wedding of a notorious poacher in the Dornoch hotel. At the reception I was quite surprised to see that the Chief Constable was on the guest list – and even more surprised to see that ‘poached salmon’ was on the menu. I asked the groom – ‘does this refer to the method of cooking?”. “No – me and the boys went down the river last night”! Everyone – including the Chief…knew. One of the ways that poaching was curtailed was to heavily fine hotels who took salmon from poachers.
Tommy Urquhart, the Baptist minister in Dalkeith, was from Brora and was one of ‘the boys’ before he was converted through the ministry of David Paterson. When he was up visiting his mother one time, we both went down the river to fish. As we were fishing he asked me “do you have a licence?”
“No – I thought you had one”
“No _ I thought you did”
I asked Tommy – “What will we do if we catch a salmon?”
He replied: “It goes against every grain in my body to put it back – we’ll give it to my mum”>
We didn’t catch anything – although Tommy did tell me that he used to be a great ‘ripper’ – someone who used a gaff to pull in the fish.
One time I was speaking to an elder on the island of Lewis and he told me that he used to take his boat out to sea and get a salmon. I asked him how he could justify that – and he cited the metrical version of Psalm 24 “the earth belongs unto the Lord and all that it contains”!
Donny Jack, elder in Leith and Free Church Trustee, used to tell the story of how he and a colleague were driving the old Highways and Byways Missions van and they decided that they would try out the loudspeaker on the top. As they drove round a corner they blasted out :” Behold your sins shall find you out!” – only to come across a couple of startled poachers in the midst of packing up their nets into the back of the car!
It was interesting in our congregation. We had poachers and we had a river bailiff – he was ex-military (they often were – local people would not take the job) and was one of our elders. This is a Highland version of diversity in the Church – “Greeks, Jews, Barbarians, Scythians, slave, free, poachers and gamekeepers!”. We also had some regular fishermen who went out to sea, mainly for crab and lobster – our church supper evenings and outreach events were something special!
People are fascinating. Their real-life stories are better than fiction. And Jesus loved ordinary people and fishermen. If he offered salvation to prostitutes, I don’t doubt he wants his servants to offer salvation to poachers! (For those poachers who worry that I am comparing you to prostitutes – I’m not. And for those prostitutes who think I’m comparing you to poachers I’m not! But for all I’m simply saying that Christ is for you – whether poacher, prostitute or preacher!). When I was called to the ministry, I believed that God was calling me to be a fisher of men. Little did I realise how that would work out. They did not prepare me for a poacher’s ministry in the Free Church college! But Brora did confirm and prepare me for that calling. Fishing for Jesus is in many ways similar to fishing for fish – and I’m quite prepared to be a poacher for Christ – going into the Devil’s pond to take back what is Christ’s!
Nan became a regular part of the congregation and taught in the Sunday school. One morning I went into her class, and she was crying with laughter. She had asked the children. “Who knocked down the walls of Jericho?” One wee boy replied – “It wasn’e me Miss….it was Baba Scone”. Baba Scone was a more notorious character in the village – a kind of bogey man for the children – (whose story can keep for another time!).
Blessed be the Tie that Binds
When you leave a people you love – you don’t forget them. And although you cease to be their pastor there is always part of your heart left with them. You continue to pray for them. I pray that the Lord will bless Nan and the family in their grief – and I pray that more and more of the people of Brora would come to know the Great Fisherman – the One who came to snatch the brands from the burning – and who seeks to bring a great multitude into his kingdom.
See you next week,
There was another character in Brora who belonged to the Free Church – Meghan Boyd – but I will leave her story for another time – or better still watch the film about her – To Kiss the Water is a beautiful, stunning film….
I love Psalm 77
“I thought about the former days, the years of long ago;
6 I remembered my songs in the night. My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
7 “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favour again?
8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?
10 Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
12 I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”