The Roll of Probationers 2

The Roll of Probationers 2


What became of the Signatories?

This is a follow on from the article: The Roll of Probationers – Who were the Signatories?.


In the lead up to the Disruption, the leaders of the non-intrusion movement managed their affairs so as to provide the fullest opportunity for men to express open commitment to their cause. Notably there was the Convocation in November, 1842, which passed resolutions which committed signatories to decisive action; and in May 1843 there was a Protest, as well as the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission.

Faced with a “New Secession”, as some seemed to have called the Disruption at first, the Church of Scotland acted no less decisively. They responded to the signing of the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission with their own measures which instructed Presbyteries as to what action should be taken in the face of the departure of such a significant number of their ministers, elders and probationers. Some of these were general measures for the guidance of all the Presbyteries. Others were measures designed for particular situations which not all would face, for example, they authorised Presbyteries to meet pro re nata to deal with the new situation; they allowed stronger Presbyteries to help neighbouring ones which had been severely weakened by the Disruption; and they speeded up procedures for licensing new ministers.

What should be done, faced with the Disruption, was the subject of debate by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on 22nd May, 1843. (The full text of the relevant deliverances may conveniently be found in the Minute Book of the Presbytery of Dundee, p.262.) The Assembly noted that by their own act those who had signed the Protest etc. had separated themselves from the Church of Scotland; that their churches had become vacant and that these ministers were “disqualified from receiving any presentation or appointment to any parochial or other spiritual charge in this church as by law established, unless reponed by the competent ecclesiastical judicatory”. The vacancies that had occurred had to be reported to interested parties.

Inasmuch as it was reported that other ministers had adhered to the Deed of Demission, Presbyteries were instructed to meet on or before the second Wednesday of June for the purpose of ascertaining whether any of their members had done so. Such ministers were to be cited to compear before their Presbytery to clarify their position. If they failed to respond to this citation, their non-compearance should be taken as sufficient evidence of their guilt and they were also to be declared to be no longer ministers of the Church by law established.

Instructions were also issued to provide for a situation where a Presbytery was left without a quorum because of the number of its members who had seceded. To oversee the implementation of these instructions, to advise in difficult cases and to help in the provision of suitable supply for vacant congregations, a large committee of Assembly was appointed, with sub-committees in the main centres: Edinburgh, Dumfries, Glasgow, Ayr, Perth, Aberdeen, Elgin and Inverness. These sub-committees were to have wide powers granted them for the fulfilling of their remit.

Help was needed from all who were in a position to give it. All probationers and students, adhering to the Established Church, could send their names to the Convener of this Committee and state whether or not they were acquainted with Gaelic. A temporary relaxation of the procedures for licensing was enacted to speed up the flow of probationers. On the other hand, a report that an office-bearer had adhered to the secession should be considered a fama sufficient to trigger action against them. Licentiates who were reported to have signed the Protest should be treated in the same way as the ministers.

There were 192 names on the Roll of Probationers who wished to associate themselves with the Free Church. In addition there were 13 probationers who did not sign this Roll but who signed a more formal Deed of Demission. A separate article on this web-site – The Roll of Probationers – Who were the Signatories? – lists the names of these 205 men and sketches out, where known, the course of their lives thereafter. A link is provided to the appropriate place in that article for all men mentioned in this article.

The question then is: in the light of these robust measures adopted by the Church of Scotland, how did the probationers who had sign the Roll or Deed respond? Did they remain committed to the Free Church or did they go back on their commitment? The following is an attempt to categorise the various outcomes for those who signed the Roll of Probationers and the Deed of Demission.

This is a summary of the situation:

Category Number
Free Church Ministers 124
Probationers 23
Served outwith Scotland 14
Teachers and other secular employment 18
Other churches 2
Returned to Church of Scotland 10
Unclear 14
Total 205



Free Church Ministers

124 or just over 60% of those who signed these documents were settled in Free Church charges, the vast majority of these within four years of the Disruption.

It might be instructive to compare this with the number of probationers settled in the Church of Scotland during these years. Probationers, of course, were not automatically chosen for vacant charges. Large congregations often looked for men of proven experience. The Disruption actually stirred the ministerial pot, we might say. It provided an unparalleled opportunity for the ambitious to move up the ladder and for the specially talented to have a more influential sphere of service – or indeed for the old or tired or ill to move to a smaller sphere of service. This moving up process, if we might call it that, allowed probationers at least to get onto the bottom rung of the ladder. Indeed, there were a number of very short ministries at this time, where a probationer, having been settled in a charge, quickly moved to another, presumably, in their eyes, a better one. For example, Charles Kinnear Greenhill was ordained in Garelochhead in October, 1844, and was settled in Roberton by August, 1845; Alexander Whyte was just 14 months in Burghead before moving on to Canisbay; and William Anderson was settled in Evie in 1843 and moved to Flotta in May, 1844.

The statistics regarding the settlement of probationers are as follow:

Year Probationers Settled in Church of Scotland Probationers from Roll/Deed settled in Free Church
1843 145 49
1844 113 49
1845 42 11
1846 32 9
Total 332 118

Other Probationers from the Roll were settled in Free Church congregations outwith this time period: in 1847, 4; in 1848, 1; and in 1850, 1.

This raises a question – an interesting one, though not relevant to our purpose: if over 470 ministers left the Establishment, and only 332 entered as probationers, how was the shortfall made up? There are one or two obvious answers to that but perhaps this is worth a little more analysis on a future occasion.

Another question, more relevant to this exercise, is this: did the probationers who left the Establishment actually enhance their chances of attaining to a pastoral charge by leaving rather than by staying in the Church of Scotland?

It is natural to think that with over 470 ministers leaving their charges, probationers would be best advised to remain in the Establishment, if their own convenience was their motivation, because there would be all these charges looking for ministers. As Thomas Brown in the Annals of the Disruption says: “It was well known that if the threatened Disruption took place, many parishes throughout Scotland would be left vacant, and the licensed preachers of the Church might well have looked forward to obtaining positions not only of comfort, but of influence” (Chapter 14). Similarly Chalmers said, when the Deed of Demission for Probationers was presented in the Free Church Assembly: “Most of the ministers, apart from their families, gave up what might be called the comforts of but the few years that remained to them – the probationers gave up the brilliant prospects of a whole lifetime” (Scotsman, 31st May, 1843, 3). That opinion of Chalmers is somewhat exaggerated. He is speaking from his own perspective – a man already in his 60s. He does not take into consideration that most of the ministers who abandoned the Establishment were younger men. McCosh in The Wheat and the Chaff, p.109 – where he classifies ministers by year of ordination – shows this clearly. Nonetheless it is true to say that probationers by signing the Roll made a decision which might affect the whole of their careers.

We know that from a pool of 205 Free Church probationers, 60% settled in permanent charges in the home church within four years. We know that 332 probationers were settled in that time in the Church of Scotland, but the size of that pool we don’t know. Given the number of licentiates who were being created year after year, it is not clear that, in fact, the Church of Scotland men had better prospects of a settlement than the Free Church probationers. According to William Grant, who was a major force behind the movement to enroll probationers in the non-intrusion movement, there were reckoned to be 500 probationers connected with the Established Church just prior to the Disruption (Brown’s Annals of the Disruption). This is surely a significant under-estimate.

In fact, no-one seemed to know how many probationers there were connected with the Establishment. Presbyteries which were seriously affected by the loss of ministers were making appeals for probationers to come to their aid. Greenock Presbytery, at their meeting of 12th June, 1843, invited “any probationers who were present and willing to give their assistance to the Presbytery in the present emergency” to give in their names. It seems clear that the Presbytery didn’t know who were the probationers within their bounds; they didn’t have a roll of probationers – otherwise surely they would not have had to make a public intimation that they should come forward to help. Similarly, on 26th May, 1843, Edinburgh Presbytery appointed a committee “to make up a correct list of the probationers within the bounds of the Presbytery.” At the next meeting, a list was presented and put into the hands of the Clerk so that more names could be added. Clearly, there was no up-to-date list and it was not easy to make up a complete list of probationers – there were always some who had slipped from view. The number of probationers in the Church was not accurately known.

Of course, there were probationers and probationers. Some were only so in name and had no thought of taking up a pastoral charge. They had settled down in other employment and even an emergency such as the situation which emerged at the Disruption was not enough to tempt them into seeking a presentation to a vacant charge. The difficulty that Church of Scotland Presbyteries had was not only knowing who were licentiates but also which of them would be willing to take up ecclesiastical appointments.

We cannot, therefore, say what proportion of probationers available to them were settled in the Church of Scotland in the four years following the Disruption. But we may ask the question: even if it was a lower percentage than that achieved in the Free Church, was this only obvious in retrospect? Could the demand for such numbers of probationers in the new Free Church have been anticipated?

Those on the Moderate side in general did not anticipate that many would leave the Establishment. On that view, for probationers to transfer their allegiance to the Free Church would be a professional disaster. On the other hand, Candlish already had a building, seated for a thousand people, ready for him to use; there were over 400 men committed to leaving and the aim of the Free Church was to be a national church. But still there was no certainty that 400 would leave, nor that the people would follow. Dr Landsborough of Stevenston, for example, did not expect many of his people to follow him. But his fears in that connection were not realised: “In going to the hall I met few coming to the Established church, and I saw few going on their way to the hall, so that I knew not how matters were going on. When I reached the hall I found that it was completely filled, and a crowd standing about the door who could not gain admission” (Disruption Manuscripts, 39, p.3, quoted in Brown’s Annals of the Disruption, Chapter 12). There were hopes but no certainties in regard to the response of the people to the Disruption.

We can, therefore, say that before the event, it was not at all clear that the Free Church would require, or be able to use, 205 probationers. We are surely justified in saying that in general, it was not a calculation of the chances of a settlement that led these men to leave the Church that was about to need the services of over 300 new ministers. It was a matter of principle.

However, the situation rapidly changed. On Tuesday, 30th May, 1843. Candlish reported on the demand for the services of Free Church ministers. He stated that there were 244 places which needed preachers. The immediate (minimum) need was for 171. Of these “a considerable number consist of congregations already formed, or nearly so, in places where their ministers continue in the Establishment”. Others were required for preaching stations or missionary districts, to build these up until they became viable charges. Only 122 preachers had made themselves available at that stage (Scotsman, 3rd June, 1843). In other words, by that time it was evident that a large body of probationers would be required by the Free Church.

Two points can be made on the basis of these figures: firstly, not all the probationers who had signed the Roll or Deed were immediately available for service. This confirms the view that not all of them wished to take up pastoral responsibilities: they intended to continue in their current employment, in teaching, for example. More of this below.

Secondly, it also shows that, having committed themselves to the Free Church, probationers had every prospect of finding a field of service. It became evident very early that adhering to the Free Church was not a step which would adversely affect their chances of employment, rather it would enhance them. They may not have had good practical reasons for associating with the Free Church in the first place, but they certainly had good practical reasons for continuing with their commitment.



Included in this category are men who continued to describe themselves as probationers of the Free Church. Some of them gave their services to the Free Church in some ecclesiastical capacity. In other cases we cannot say precisely what role they performed, but they regularly described themselves as Probationers (or licentiates or preachers) of the Free Church throughout their lives.

Of those who had ecclesiastical occupations, we might mention the following:

George Dalziel, Edinburgh, was chaplain of the Magdalen Asylum of which his wife was, at one stage, the matron.

Colin Frazer, (or Fraser) was in effect minister of the Free Church at Fasnakyle and held in his name a site for the Free Church there.

David Fraser, Contin, was taken into the administration of the Free Church: he became Secretary to the Free Church’s Committee for the Highlands and Islands.

Adam Gordon died young, so we do not know what might have become of him, but we do know that shortly after the Disruption he was already “employed as a preacher in the New Secession Church in Rosehearty in the Parish of Pitsligo”.

George Hislop, Edinburgh, was, for 21 years, chaplain in Calton prison in Edinburgh.

James Logan in 1871 was living in Roberton and was designated as a Free Church minister. There had been no settled minister in that congregation since 1852, so we may assume that, though he was not ordained, he was doing the work of a minister there.

Nicholson Milne, Lochlee, though he later became a teacher, was designated as a home missionary of the Free Church of Scotland.

Eneas M. Rate, Edinburgh, was for a time Secretary of the Continental Committee of the Free Church. Later he was instrumental in the formation of Bainsford Free Church.

Edward Reid was variously described: Superintendent, House of Industry and Refuge (1841); Governor of St Nicholas Poorhouse (1851); Superintendent, House of Refuge (1865-66); and Secretary, Industrial School Association (1866-67).

This leaves a significant number of men who remained probationers but whose ministries we cannot identify. This should not surprise us. In those days, generally only licensed men could occupy the pulpit. Licentiates were therefore needed for all sorts of situations. Illness was more common then than now. Ministers who suffered chronic ill-health might spend the winter months on the continent. Probationers would provide supply in their absence. Many charges were felt to be too heavy for one man, especially for older men, and they would have probationers appointed as assistants. Many city or large town charges had probationers serving as missionaries. There were city missionaries needed, and chaplains for prisons, and various other institutions. All the Presbyteries needed a good supply of probationers just to function normally.

In 1852, The Home and foreign record of the Free Church of Scotland published a list of Free Church probationers – 181 of them. Someone wrote in that same issue: “We often hear that the number of our probationers is unnecessarily large, that many of them can get no regular employment in the vineyard. The truth is, that with our Colonial and Foreign openings, on the right hand and on the left, in both hemispheres, and in all climates, the number of our probationers and students would not be too great for a generation to come, though it were double its present amount, if only there were more of indifference as to the precise locality of their labours.”

That there was a good number of probationers of the Free Church who remained as probationers does not require special comment – that was the nature of church life in those days.


Served outwith Scotland

Of the 14 probationers in this category, Canada was the initial destination of no less than eight of them, though two of them went on to Australia later. Four had ecclesiastical connections initially in England, though one of these moved on to Australia and one became a missionary in China. Only one, as far as we can judge went directly to Australia; and one probably went “to America”.

There are two cases in this category worth looking at. They are said to have been sent by the Church of Scotland Colonial Committee to Canada after the Disruption. This fact might call in question their commitment to the Free Church: did they revoke their attachment to Free Church principles by going abroad under the old Colonial Committee?

In the case of Robert Lindsay, the situation is that the matter had been arranged before the Disruption took place. On 9th May, 1843, he asked the Presbytery of Linlithgow for a Presbyterial Certificate as he had been appointed to labour as a missionary in the Presbytery of Upper Canada. The certificate was granted. With everything set up, the arrangement stood, despite his signing of the Probationers’ Roll.

The case of Murdoch Stewart is probably similar. He went abroad under the auspices of the Colonial Committee of the Church of Scotland and was settled in a congregation in Cape Breton by September, 1843. I can find no reference to him in the Minutes of the Presbytery of Elgin, either as a recalcitrant probationer whose licence had been revoked, or as someone going abroad and in need of a Presbyterial Certificate. Perhaps he was under a different Presbytery though resident within the bounds of the Elgin Presbytery. It is most likely that the practical arrangements for him to go to Canada had already been made prior to the Disruption and his signing of the Roll made no difference in practice.

A general point about these two men and others who were in a similar position is this: it is possible to argue that the quarrel of the non-intrusionists was not with the Church of Scotland but with the Establishment. They severed ties with the Establishment because it was vitiated, to use Chalmers’ well known word. He did not mean by that that the Church of Scotland was vitiated; he meant that its connection with the State had been corrupted. The conditions which obtained in Scotland because of the judgements of the civil courts did not necessarily obtain elsewhere. There was therefore not necessarily the same need for separation from the Church of Scotland abroad as there was in Scotland itself because there was not the same intrusion into the spiritual sphere by the civil authorities that the Free Church men thought there had been in Scotland.


Teachers and other secular employment

Of those that come into this category, there are only five who were not teachers. James B. Brichan was an antiquarian and author; Charles Clarke was a farmer / tacksman; Robert Duncan was also a farmer and William Couston Stephen was a landed proprietor. Teaching was, of course, the favoured option for licentiates prior to ordination – or indeed for whose who never engaged in full-time ministerial work. Some of those who signed the Probationers’ Roll were already teachers and the signing of the Roll had different implications for them depending on their circumstances.

For those holding parochial appointments, identifying themselves with the Free Church almost inevitably led to the loss of their employment. This may well not have been anticipated by all who adhered to the Free Church. Of those probationers who returned to the Church of Scotland two were teachers.

Some who were already teachers remained so throughout their working lives. It is impossible to say whether they intended or hoped to be able to take up regular ministerial charges when they associated with the Free Church. Some were of an age when they were very unlikely to get a ministerial post and presumably left the Establishment out of conviction and not in the expectation of attaining to a ministerial charge.

In this category we might mention John Ferguson Brown, of Edinburgh, who was already well established in his teaching career. He was house governor of George Watson’s Hospital for several years and thereafter teacher in the Southern Academy. Though deprived of his licence by the Presbytery of Edinburgh, he continued to call himself “Reverend” – which gave to him a certain status, for example, when advertising himself as a tutor of young boys.

Much the same can be said of James Cumming. He too was deprived of his licence by the Edinburgh Presbytery. He too was an established teacher – having taught for about 20 years prior to the Disruption. He taught both in Edinburgh Academy and Glasgow Academy and became H.M. Inspector of Schools. It seems to me unlikely that he contemplated a change of career when he signed the Probationers’ Roll. Yet he clearly retained his connection with the Free Church, serving, for example, as an elder in their General Assembly.

James Grant was about 44 years of age at the Disruption. He had been teaching at Donaldson’s School in Aberdeen since at least 1839 – and he continued in that position till about 1864. In 1851 he styles himself a Free Church probationer. Perhaps he had hopes of a ministerial charge; or perhaps he was firmly settled in a teaching career.

William Meston was in his 50s when he signed the Roll. He probably died a few years later but it seems unlikely that he signed the Roll to facilitate a career change. The same can be said of Andrew Robertson of Greenock. He continued for some years with the school that he had prior to the Disruption but he drops from sight in 1846.

Others who were already well established in the teaching profession, remained as teachers but gave their services to the Free Church in one capacity or another.

Alexander Reid had over 20 years of teaching behind him at the time of the Disruption. He continued in that career and established a fine reputation as an educationalist. For a time he gave his services to the Free Church as their Inspector of Primary Schools.

David Smith, too, continued as a teacher and for some years he was the classics tutor in the Free Church Normal Seminary in Glasgow. He, too, drops from sight in Scotland and it is probable that he went to South Africa, whither his brother and sister had gone in connection with the educational work in Lovedale.

Peter Steele, Dalkeith, lost his post as Parochial Schoolmaster in Dalkeith because of his attachment to the Free Church. He continued in teaching, setting up his own academy in Dalkeith, but in 1848 he was appointed lecturer in Classics and English in Moray House Free Church Training College.

George Wilson had been a teacher in Alves for over twenty years. He was appointed in 1843 as a teacher in Malta under the auspices of the Free Church.

The circumstances of others we do not know much about, but the fact that they remained teachers does not suggest that they no longer favoured the Free Church.


Other Churches

There were those who left the Free Church in favour of ministry in other Scottish Churches.

John Tyndal became disillusioned with the Free Church and transferred his allegiance to Churches holding to the testimony of the original secession. He finally became associated with the United Original Secession Church – see here for more details. It should be noted that his dissatisfaction with the Free Church was not connected with their severing their ties with the Establishment but their alleged lack of sympathy with the stance of the Covenanters. When he left the Free Church, in no way was he going back on the principles that he committed himself to in signing the Roll.

Peter Hately Waddell became well known. There is much that can be said about him but what is relevant to us here is, firstly, his ecclesiastical status and, secondly, whether his leaving the Free Church implied some second thoughts about his leaving the Establishment.

Regarding his status, it is interesting to note the way in which he describes himself in some of his writings. On 21st March, 1843, in a publication entitled Orthodoxy is not evangelism: being a letter of remonstrance, he describes himself as “a probationer of the Church of Scotland”. On 31st August, 1843, in A letter to Thomas Chalmers … and rev. Thomas Guthrie, on the question of co-operation with dissenters; with special reference to the case of W.L. Alexander, he styles himself: “Peter Hately Waddell, Probationer of the Free Church of Scotland”. On 24th October that year in Protestant Delusion in the Nineteenth Century …, he describes himself in the same way. And on 30th January, 1844, he calls himself “Peter Hately Waddell, Preacher of the Gospel” in The Girvan petitions; or The voluntary question in the Free Church. There can be no doubt about the way he saw his ecclesiastical standing: a probationer in the Establishment, then a probationer in the Free Church; then an independent preacher, free from ecclesiastical affiliations.

The main reason why he left the Free Church is that they continued to embrace the Establishment Principle, though they themselves had left the Establishment. This is amply demonstrated in a petition that Waddell presented to the Free Church Assembly. The first clause of that petition, as published in the last item mentioned above, runs as follows: “That your Petitioners are persuaded, both by history and by present experience, that the connection of a Christian Church with the State is dangerous and fatal to the cause of true, vigorous, and undefiled religion; and, moreover, that they cannot discover, in the Word of God, any distinct, far less any authoritative, recommendation of the same.” This makes it clear that he is still thoroughly committed to the spiritual independence of the church and to non-intrusion principles. The problem was that he opposed the whole Establishment principle whereas the Free Church did not – at least, at that time.



There are a disappointing number of men whom we have not been able to trace. Sometimes we just cannot relate the names on the Roll to anyone we know about. Sometimes we can relate these men to names in the 1841 census but we can’t trace them later than 1843. Almost certainly this is because they either died early or went abroad. Sometimes it is because their names are too common: there were, for example, four John MacDonalds who signed the Roll and two William Scotts.

We can however say of at least four of them, that they were deprived of their licence by the Presbytery of Edinburgh. At the same time we must acknowledge that we have checked some Presbytery records for other unidentifiable men and have not found that action was taken against them. We have not been able to check all Presbyteries so perhaps some others were also deprived of their licence, though we have not been able to identify them as yet.

What we can be sure of is this: that this does not significantly distort the picture of those who remained faithful to their Free Church commitment and those who did not. We say that because we are sure that none of these men became ministers either in the Free Church or in the Church of Scotland.


Those who returned to the Church of Scotland

We know something of the circumstances of those who returned to their former allegiance and it is instructive to refer to each of these ten cases in turn.

Hugh Aird
His case came before the Presbytery of Selkirk at their meeting on 13th June, 1843. Documents received from the General Assembly drew to their attention the fact that several ministers, an elder, and Hugh Aird, preacher, “had signed the protest given in to the General Assembly on eighteenth May last”. Aird was accordingly summoned to appear at the next meeting of Presbytery to answer that charge, “with anticipation that he will be held as confessed in the case of his non-compearance.” He did not appear and was declared to be no longer a probationer of the church and disqualified from receiving any ecclesiastical presentation or appointment until reponed.

However, he subsequently wrote denying that he had signed the Protest. Further dealings with him ensued and finally on 10th October, 1843, he explained his position to his Presbytery. He had donated money to a Building Fund for a Free Church building; he had preached for a seceding minister after he had separated from the Church but before he had been declared by the Church to be no longer a minister of the Establishment. He had entertained intentions of signing the Deed of Demission, but he had not done so. He had also regularly preached for ministers of the Establishment. He was sorry for what he had done: “In so far as I have given countenance to any in their determination to endeavour to overthrow the Church of Scotland, I am sincerely sorry for this also.” This explanation proved acceptable to the majority of the Presbytery and he was restored to the status of a probationer. Subsequently he was ordained in Wishaw.

George Cowans
There is no evidence that he was dealt with by the Presbytery of Dumfries at the time of the Disruption. He was a chaplain in Crichton Royal Infirmary in one census and in the prison of Dumfries according to the National Records of Scotland Index of Wills (NRS SC15/41/15). In 1851, he was a “probationer of the Church of Scotland”; in 1861, a “minister Establishment Church”; and in 1871, “minister E, Church”. We may assume that he quickly went back on his initial commitment to the Free Church. Certainly, he never signed the Deed of Demission. Why he did so is not known at present.

Henry Fairbairn
He died in 1851 so it is impossible to know the nature of his ecclesiastical commitment. He is not mentioned in the Minutes of the Greenock Presbytery in the aftermath of the Disruption. However, in the census of 1851 he is said to be a probationer of the Church of Scotland. Again, we do not know whether in fact he severed his connection with the Church of Scotland.

Thomas Halley
He signed both the Roll and the Deed but he was not dealt with by Edinburgh Presbytery along with the other seceding probationers. His presentation by the Earl of Wemyss to the parish of Rhynd in Perthshire was dated 8th November, 1844. When it came before the Presbytery it was accompanied by a Certificate of Licence and a Presbyterial Certificate. Which Presbytery provided these documents and when they were dated are not stated. It is not clear that Edinburgh Presbytery provided the Presbyterial Certificate, which would be expected as he was living within their bounds. We simply do not know enough about his situation but a quick and public withdrawal from connection with the Free Church, for whatever reason, best explains the situation.

Colin McKenzie
His name appears only on the Roll of Probationers.

On 14th June, 1843, he was cited to appear before the Presbytery of Chanonry to clarify whether or not he had seceded. On 5th July he duly appeared before the Presbytery and the Minutes tell what happened: “Mr Colin Mckenzie, having been interrogated, declared that he did not adhere to the Protest and Deed of Separation from the Church but was resolved to adhere to the Church as by law established and begged to tender to the Presbytery his services as a Licentiate.” The Presbytery transmitted his name to the Standing Committee in Edinburgh as one competent in Gaelic. He then became minister of Petty Parish Church and later of Contin.

George Mclean became minister of Duke Street Gaelic Chapel, in February, 1844, and was shortly thereafter translated to Campbeltown. He is not among the list of probationers called to account by the Aberdeen Presbytery for their attachment to the Free Church. This attachment must have been transient.

Robert Moir
In accordance with the Assembly instructions, he was summoned to appear before the Presbytery of Edinburgh as it was thought he had identified himself with those who had seceded. He did not appear nor did he submit a letter explaining his position and he was accordingly, on 27th December, 1843, declared to be no longer a licentiate of the Church of Scotland. He maintained a school which in the Edinburgh Directory of 1851 is described as “a private classical and mercantile academy”. On 12th August, 1845, he married Margaret Simmie, the daughter of James Simmie, parish minister in Rothiemay, Banffshire. Whether that made a difference to his views or to his standing in the eyes of the Church, I don’t know. But when he applied for a Presbyterial Certificate, with a view to taking up the charge of Careston, the Edinburgh Presbytery, on 27th September, 1854, granted it immediately, no questions asked.

Alexander Shepherd
The Presbytery of Deer acted against probationers within their bounds who were thought to have adhered to the Free Church but the name of Alexander Shepherd is never mentioned. There is no evidence that he ever left the Church of Scotland. The Presbytery of Annan in July, 1844, received a letter in his favour – from whom is not mentioned – and they invited him to preach in the New Church in Annan. A petition that he should be their minister, signed by 74 people, soon followed. Thereafter a call, signed by 34 people, no-one objecting, led to his ordination there on 24th December, 1845. His good standing as a Church of Scotland probationer seems never to have been doubted.

Hugh Skinner
In accordance with the instructions of the General Assembly, the Presbytery of Dornoch cited him to appear before the Presbytery because there was a fama that Skinner had seceded from the Church. On 13th July, 1843, Skinner was present at the Presbytery as cited. He asked for seven more days to consider his situation. If he didn’t reply within that time, they could take it that he had seceded. On 25th July he wrote saying that he adhered to the Church of Scotland and so he retained his status as a probationer – and also his job as a parochial schoolmaster.

William Whyte
The Presbytery of Edinburgh deprived him of his licence on 27th December, 1843, because he adhered to the Free Church. He sought restoration of his licence, first of all from the Presbytery of Haddington, within whose bounds he was residing, and, when they delayed, from the Presbytery of Edinburgh. Edinburgh Presbytery left the matter to Haddington Presbytery who reinstated him as a licentiate of the Church of Scotland on 14th October, 1845.

His letter to Edinburgh Presbytery on 27th August, 1845, is most revealing of his thinking. He admits that he joined the Free Church, and then he says: “The experience of the subsequent twelve months as an office bearer in that church, gave me an opportunity of seeing that the secession was a great sin and will consequently end in disappointments.

“A year ago I reattached myself as a member to the Established Church and by way of doing so more openly, I beg you will pardon my divisive courses and restore me to the status of a probabioner as licensed by yourselves in 1830.

“I shall be happy to pass through any ordeal which your prudence is likely to require.”

We would like to have known more about his reasons for his return: what were his negative experiences in the Free Church that brought him to see the separation in terms of the sin of schism? Did his marriage or his change of employment have any influence on his change of ecclesiastical allegiance?

There is no possibility of identifying any pattern in regard to those who returned to the Church of Scotland. There were only three men who definitely left the Church: Moir, Skinner and Whyte. One changed his mind when first summoned to compear before the Presbytery; one repented abjectly of his sin within a year or two; and one came back, we know not how.

Aird acknowledges that he went so far in an attachment to the Free Church as to sign the Protest, but persuades the Presbytery that he had not gone further than that and so his licence is immediately restored. In regard to the others, there is no sign that they were treated as recalcitrant probationers. We presume that this means they may have signed the Roll but they did not sign the Deed of Demission. They changed their minds before taking an irrevocable step. They should not be treated as returnees because they never actually left.


Roll and Deed

The fact that only 84 signed the Deed of Demission whereas 192 had their names on the Roll of Probationers calls for comment. The immediate question to ask is whether this represents a significant withdrawal of support on the part of probationers. If not, how can we account for the disparity in the number of names on these two documents?

Undoubtedly those who remained in the Church of Scotland or soon returned to it, with one exception, did not sign the Deed of Demission. But we are only talking of 10 men.

There is no evidence that others didn’t sign the Deed because they were less committed to the Free Church cause than they had formerly been. Discounting these ten men, 60% of the probationers on the Roll became Free Church ministers, while 67% of those who signed the Roll and the Deed became Free Church ministers. If that is taken as a measure of commitment, it is not a huge difference – certainly not a sufficiently big difference as to explain the drop from 192 to 84.

I suggest that the difference is largely due to the circumstances in which these documents were prepared. It seems likely that the roll was drawn up partly by correspondence and over a period of time. The signing of the Deed was done in a particular place at a particular time (though some appended their names later). That seems to be the most likely explanation of certain features of these documents.

For example, there are differences in the way the probationers describe themselves. David Mitchell is from Wick according to the Roll; and from Edinburgh according to the Deed; William Andson is from Arbroath on the Roll and from Southwick according to the Deed similarly George Brown, Dundee (Roll) and Edinburgh (Deed); John Burn, Madeira (Roll) and Edinburgh (Deed); John C. McKenzie, Tain (Roll) and Glasgow (Deed). The Roll, I suggest, was not drawn up on the day of the Disruption by people actually present: it had been prepared in part at least beforehand and not necessarily by all these men being together at the one time. It is not a snap-shot of probationers’ support for the Free Church on the day it occurred but in the run-up to the event.

The same can be said if we look at the actual locations of these probationers. On the Deed, there is a marked preponderance of men from Edinburgh or Glasgow. 21.9% of those who signed the Roll were from Edinburgh or Glasgow. The corresponding figure for the Deed is 46%. The Roll was compiled in a way that allowed for wide participation by probationers throughout the country and beyond; the signing of the Deed favoured men resident in the south.

The discrepancy in numbers signing the two documents is explained more by the circumstances in which the documents were created rather than by the degree of commitment of the signatories.


Overall, we may make the following observations on the number of those who went back on their commitment.

It should not surprise us that some probationers went back into the Church of Scotland. James McCosh, the journalist who wrote The Wheat and the Chaff, gives a very clear picture of an evangelical movement that was leaking support. If all those who had at one time or another expressed their commitment to non-instrusion principles had actually left the Establishment at the Disruption, the Free Church at that stage would have had more ministers than the Established Church. Support for the non-intrusionists was waning: many were not happy about the direction in which their leaders were taking them. It is not surprising that that showed itself in a drawing back from a commitment which, in a moment of enthusiasm, probationers may have made.

Moreover, the signing of the Roll of Probationers was not so definitive as the signing of the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission which the ministers signed. Ministers knew precisely what they were doing when they signed away their churches and manses, stipends and glebes. They had counted the cost, else they would not have signed. The probationers did not make such a commitment. They gave up their future prospects, as Chalmers said – which were not secure anyway. What the ministers gave up was felt immediately. It is not surprising that when the probationers counted the cost, a few went back on their commitment.

We may also acknowledge that the Disruption was well stage managed. Emotions were running high. To see older men, learned ministers of high standing, filing out of St Andrew’s church, to be greeted with a great cheer, walking down to Tanfield Hall in procession with a large appreciative crowd in support – it was a moment of high drama. It was easy for young probationers to associate themselves with these men. It is not surprising if a few, in the cold light of day, as it were, saw it not as a glorious act of sacrifice but as a foolish act of schism.

But, all in all, the resolve of the vast majority of the probationers stood firm.