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July 26th 1776

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The Occasion

During the 18th Century, there were continual secessions from the established Church of Scotland with many showing a desire to return to the pure doctrines of the Covenant. Abernethy was a centre of such doctrines and during the summer, staged open air conventicles attended by thousands from all parts of the County. Below is a description of one such conventicle which took place in 1776.

“The sacrament week at Abernethy, which may be considered as the holy city, the Jerusalem of the Seceders, is one of the greatest curiosities to be seen in all Scotland; being a lively representation and remembrancer of the times of the Covenant and field conventicles. The same spirit that assembled the Covenanters in the reign of Charles 2nd draws together the Seceders at this day at Abernethy, which is held generally in June or July, when the labours of the spring are over and those of the harvest have not commenced and when the days are long and the nights short.

When the anniversary of the Occasion draws near, the sermons for some weeks are animated with more than usual zeal and fervour. The Sunday immediately preceding that of the sacrament Sunday may be considered as the actual commencement of the religious campaign, which is continued, either in reconnoitring, as it were, and various movements, or in hot action. On that Sunday the minister states the duty of communicating; but at the same time the danger of communicating unworthily, and of ‘eating and drinking damnation to themselves’. The Mondays Tuesdays and Wednesdays are employed by the minister in examining and conversing with the intended, particularly the young communicants. The elders, in the meantime, make reports concerning their neighbours, and warn the minister to be very cautious how he admits such and such a one to the table, without sifting him to the bottom: in which reports they are supposed frequently to gratify their private resentments, or other malignant passions.

Meanwhile, the news of the approaching Occasion at Abernethy spreads far and wide. Travellers in every direction inquire at the inns where they stop into the cause of so many people, men and women, trudging along the roads for the space of ten or twenty miles. Even the ferry-boat between Stratherne and the carse of Gowrie is unusually busy.

By Wednesday night the street, with the little lanes or closes about Abernethy, is in motion. The farm houses in the neighbourhood too are full of friends and brethren from remote parts of the country. The barns are also full of men and women, young and old. Much in the same manner we may suppose that Jerusalem was crowded at the Passover. The period of nine months from this date produces sad memorandums of the barns of Abernethy.

Thursday is the fast-day preceding the sacrament. Three different ministers preach form ten o’clock to about six or seven in the evening, with an interval of only one hour for refreshment. The minister of Abernethy himself is a silent auditor: but, when all the strangers have done he mounts the pulpit and recapitulates to the audience the substance of their sermons, adding exhortations of his own. An equal or greater number of ministers continue the work of preaching in a tent on the Muckle Binn for and equal length of time.

On Friday there is a cessation of preaching. On Saturday it is resumed but not until about one o’clock; it is continued however till about eight. On the dismissal of the congregation, such of the intending communicants as had not been furnished with tickets, which they call tokens, for the communion table, receive them now from the ministers and elders. On Saturday evening the voice of someone who has retired for secret prayer is heard behind every hillock and furze bush, and in the thickest parts of the standing corn. A dog here or there stands barking at a noise, which indicates that some stranger is near though he cannot see him.

At last the Occasion Sunday arrives. The church is crowded more than it is easy to imagine. Even the little black gallery called the Cutty Stool is crammed full. Pregnant women faint. For their recovery sympathetic females loosen or cut the laces of their stays, and move them for air to the window. But the windows are beset with dense columns of people eager to catch some of the words of the minister who is serving at the communion table; nor is it without much difficulty that they can be persuaded to fall back for a minute or two, even for saving the life of a sister Secedeer.

In the meantime the work of preaching, praying, and singing psalms goes forward at the tent. I have heard that in the time of old Culfargie ( the laird of Abernethy and one of the leaders of the Suceders) it was sometimes necessary to have two tents, as no human voice could extend to the whole multitude which resorted to the Occasion at Abernethy in those days; but I never saw more than one.

The space occupied by the multitude in front, on either wing, and at the back too of the tent, may be, including the booths and beer stands of publicans, about three quarters of a mile. When a very popular preacher holds forth the hearers sit fast or seize the moment when they think they have been wrought into a suitable frame of mind to repair to the church, and press forward as soon as they are able to the communion table. When it is the turn of the less gifted to fill the tent, they beckon to their acquaintance and retire in crowds to the booths or beer barrels to take a refreshment. From about two o’clock in the afternoon to about six or seven , when there is an interval of an hour, the people passing to and fro between the preaching tent, the church, and the booths of the suttlers, forms the whole, when viewed at any distance, into one compacted scene.

This scene is seen to great advantage on the north and opposite banks of the Erne near the Rynd. The white linen caps and red cloaks, or red or striped plaids of the women of the lower and most numerous classes; the silk cloaks and hats of others; and the blue bonnets or the hats of the men make altogether a very striking as well as motley appearance. The singing of psalms by so great a multitude, with Stentorian voices, to the number of twelve thousand is heard at a great distance like the hum of bees. The Monday after the sacrament is a thanks-giving day. There are two preachers both in the church and at the tent; but the whole service is over by four o’clock when the ministers and elders repair the minister’s house and enjoy a very plentiful, though perhaps I dare not venture to call it a very hearty dinner; for even now the intensity of the religious tone is not wholly relaxed. Immediately after dinner, which is preceded by a very long grace, there is again singing of psalms and a very long prayer” .
Rev. James Hall - Travels in Scotland by an unusual Route

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