The Highlanders – Catholic or Protestant?

Everyone writing history, or what is claimed to be history, presumably believes that he or she is writing the truth. Even people churning out what is basically propaganda for this or that set of rulers (democratic or dictatorial) have probably convinced themselves that what they write is true. So when I find it necessary to disagree with what others have written about the Highland clearances, and to allege that they have got their facts wrong, it is broaching a very profound question: not merely whether an account of what happened in the Highlands in 1700 to 1900 is accurate or not, but whether any account of history can be trusted – whether historians are keeping to this basic necessity of all history, or not.

Those who read my Highland Clearances will see this issue coming up again and again. For now, let us take one comparatively small point. In the old Highlands (say in the hundred years up to 1750) what religion was professed by the Highlanders? Obviously you have to decide first who were the Highlanders, and where did they live: but assuming my conclusion that 162 parishes in Scotland, in fourteen of the old Scottish counties, constituted the Highlands (and I don’t think any serious estimate could differ very much from that conclusion), then Dr Webster’s investigation in about 1750 gives us an answer to that question – at any rate for people who are prepared to add up a lot of figures. Dr Webster asked each parish minister for the total population of the parish, and the numbers adhering to each church. In the 162 Highland parishes there were 295,566 people. There were 282,735 Protestants, and 12,831 Roman Catholics. That means that 95.66% of the Highlanders were Protestant, and 4.34% were Catholic. Of every 10,000 Highlanders, 9566 were Protestant.1

It is true that the Webster figures were all supplied by Presbyterian ministers, and some people might wonder whether they might have been tempted to minimize the number of local Catholics. However, a papal delegate (one William Leslie) estimated in 1678 that there were some 12,000 Highland Catholics: that judgement was considerably earlier than the Webster calculation, but was very close to it numerically.2 Another Catholic estimate, in 1766, only a year or two after Webster’s work, was that the Highland Catholics numbered 13,166.3 This again is very close to the Webster return.

So much for the facts. Now for what some historians or other experts have said (always remembering that nearly 96% of the Highlanders were Protestant) –

Hugh Miller (1854): “the Stuarts, exiled for their adherence to Popery, continued to found almost their sole hopes of restoration on the swords of their co-religionists the Highlanders”.4

The Rev. James MacKenzie (1911): “the clans, when they had any religion at all [the true flavour of Lowland scholasticism comes through here], were mostly Popish”.5

A. G. MacDonell (1937): the Reformation divided the Highland clans “into two separate factions, the Protestant and the Catholic”, as if they were of much the same size: an impression strengthened by his references to “the Catholic clans of the North and West”, and to “the Catholicism of the seaboard clans or of the islands of the Hebrides” (including, presumably, the rigidly Protestant Lewis, Skye, North Uist and so on). MacDonell also described Prince Charles’ army as “Catholic soldiers”; in fact some were Catholics, some Protestant.6

Sir Thomas Innes of Learney and Frank Adam (1965): “the clans, for the most part, were Episcopalians or Catholics”.7

Janet Glover (1966): in 1700 “loyalty to the Roman church . . .was assured in the Highlands”.8

Ian Finlay (1966): in the early seventeenth century “the inhabitants of the Black Isle were Protestant, when all their Highland neighbours were Catholic”.9 (In fact the “Highland neighbours . . . of the Black Isle” – Frasers, MacKenzies, Munros – were all Protestant.)

James MacMillan (1969): “the Highlander was an unregenerate Papist”; “the Highlands . . . were Catholic”.10

L. G. Pine (1972): as a result of religion “the rift between Highland and Lowland inhabitants became more pronounced”, since “many of the clans, especially in the Isles, adhered to Catholicism, while the rest of Scotland devoted itself to Protestantism”.11

Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry (1985): “the devastation of the Highlands was [after Culloden] . . . applauded by many Lowland and Presbyterian Scots who hated Highlanders more for their stubborn adherence to the Roman Catholic faith than their loyalty to the Stewarts”.12

Professors Donnachie and Hewitt (1989): there were “divided loyalties among the clans – many had remained Catholic”, while “the Jacobite clans, notably the MacGregors, MacDonalds, MacPhersons, Stewarts and Robertsons, continued to support the Catholic cause after the Hanoverian succession”.13 (This may be taken to imply that all these clans were Catholic; in fact the MacGregors, MacPhersons, Stewarts, and Robertsons, and many MacDonalds, were Protestant.)

John Burke (1990): “during the century after Culloden more than forty ‘Parliamentary churches’ were built throughout the Highlands to designs by Thomas Telford, in an effort to woo Papist Jacobites finally to Protestantism”.14

Jeff Fallow (1991) the Highlanders’ “religion at that time [was] mainly Catholic or Episcopalian”.15

Tom Steel (1994): “James VI and his successors continued to see it as a mission to civilize the Highlander and stamp out his general intransigence and Papist ways”.16

The Times (1996): the clearances could be seen as an assault by the “Protestant Scots-speaking Lowlanders” on their “Catholic Gaelic-speaking neighbours”.17

David Ross (1998): “most central and western clans remained Catholic”.18

Arthur Herman, an American professor of history (2002): while in 1700 the Lowlanders had embraced Presbyterianism, “the clansmen in the north tended to remain loyal to the Catholic faith or followed their chieftains into the Episcopalian Church”.19

A website (2006): “Catholicism was the predominant religion” in the Highlands and Islands.20

The Times (2006) commented on Gaelic: “as ‘the Catholic tongue’, it was suppressed for decades.”21

If such an incontrovertible fact as the Highlanders’ religion can be defied in this way, it is the less surprising that so much else that is written about the Highlands is so often of dubious authenticity.


1 Kyd passim

2 Alexander Leslie, 1677; see Blundell 1909, 17.

3 Sybil M. Jack, Keeping the Faith: the Catholic Mission in the Highlands 1560-1800, p. 64. See M. Lynch, Scotland, A New History, 367; he quoted the figure of 13,166, and said it was in 1764. In fact it was in 1766 – though the information appeared in Sybil Jack’s book at page 64. It shows how easily a number can be allowed to infect other numbers nearby. Numbers of other authors have quoted this same figure of 13,166, and said it was in 1764; in other words they took the information from Lynch, and failed to check the source from which he drew it.

4 Miller 1854, 373.

5 MacKenzie 1911, 650.

6 MacDonell 1937, 13, 30, 172. MacDonell described Prince Charles’ army in 1745 as “half-savage, Gaelic-speaking, Catholic soldiers”.

7 Adam/Innes 1965, 55. The date indicated was “after 1603”, but no evidence was given to support the statement, or to explain why (in that case) there was such an enormous conversion by 1750. There is no evidence that any of the clans were Episcopalian.

8 Glover 1966, 193.

9 Finlay 1966, 30.

10 McMillan 1969 187, 183.

11 Pine 1972, 14.

12 Somerset Fry 1985, 197.

13 Donnachie & Hewitt 1989, 42.

14 Burke 1990, 183.

15 Fallow 1999, 74.

16 Steel 1994, 110.

17 The Times, 3rd February 2006, 28.

18 Ross 1998, 182.

19 Herman 2002, 94.

20 www.

21 Richards 1999, 368, quoting The Times, 1996.

By Alwyn Edgar

Author of The Highland Clearances.