Scotsman Obituaries: Rev Alexander Murray, Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and politician

The Reverend Alexander Murray MA. Born: 1 November 1925 in Aultnagar, Sutherland. Died: 11 December 2022 in Bonar Bridge, aged 97

Alexander Murray was a noted Highland clergyman and proved, too, a local councillor of signal achievement.

But he won global attention in 1989 as the Free Presbyterian minister who had asked a priest to pray. The incident fed into the simultaneous ordeal of Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and was handled so ineptly that it split their Church.

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Alexander Murray was born at Aultnagar Lodge, Sutherland, in 1925. Mr Murray’s father was groundskeeper; his grandfather, who had laid most Skibo estate roads for Andrew Carnegie, was memorably nicknamed “Sandy Level” and Mr Murray’s uncle, Rev Professor John Murray, became a notable Reformed theologian.

The Rev Cllr Alexander Murray pictured at an event in 1992The Rev Cllr Alexander Murray pictured at an event in 1992
The Rev Cllr Alexander Murray pictured at an event in 1992

After schooling in Invershin and Bonar, and amidst RAF war service, Mr Murray publicly professed faith at Bonar in August 1945. Demobbed in 1947, he studied for the ministry, with Glasgow University, taking divinity courses and Gaelic.

In January 1954 he marriedMarjory Graham from Lochinver and a month later was ordained for locum ministry in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 1956 Mr Murray was inducted to Applecross, Wester Ross. It was practically an island, accessible only by the daunting single-track Bealach na Bà road from Kishorn: 2,054 feet high, not fully tarred till the 1970s, prone to heavy snow and of such gradients and zig-zags that, still, signage beseeches inexperienced drivers not to attempt it.

MacBrayne’s Stornoway mailboat – more accurately, the Applecross row-boat that made fraught passage to and fro as the vessel hove to – and, by 1960, a dedicated passenger ferry from Kyle of Lochalsh to Toscaig was otherwise Applecross’s lifeline. Then, as the 1970 County Council elections neared, MacBraynes announced its withdrawal. Given late fright over his daughter Alison – who succumbed to appendicitis just as the Bealach threw a wintry hissy-fit, and was borne to hospital just in time – Mr Murray yielded to parish clamour and won election to Ross and Cromarty County Council.

There were objections at the Free Presbyterian Synod in 1971, but fathers and brethren moved on – Mr Murray pointed out that most electors in the Applecross ward were Free Presbyterians; it is today doubtful if most are Scots – and his achievements for his constituents were signal.

A dapper Rev Alexander Murray in the 1960sA dapper Rev Alexander Murray in the 1960s
A dapper Rev Alexander Murray in the 1960s

A coastal road from Shieldaig, by Kenmore, was completed in 1975. The ferry was till then reprieved and Bealach snowploughs were finally equipped with radio, undoubtedly saving lives. More controversially, Mr Murray supported an oilrig fabrication yard at Drumbuie (it was seen off by a Public Inquiry) – and the new torpedo testing-station at Kyle. But the minister of Applecross eschewed 1974 election to the new Highland Regional Council.

Mr Murray was a happy Christian of massive physical presence who took in good humour jokes about his vast eyebrows. Fishing and peat-cutting were his chief relaxations.

He loathed the dog-collar – “never had one around my neck” – and preferred traditional clerical attire, a white bow-tie tucked under the collar-points. Early in his pastorate, he made his rounds by roaring motorcycle. A beautiful salmon always reached the manse for the twice-yearly Communion season. Inquiries as to its provenance were discouraged.

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In 1984 Mr Murray accepted a call to the splendidly named Sutherland charge of Lairg, Bonar, Dornoch, Rogart and Helmsdale. But that same year the Murrays were bereaved of their firstborn to brain cancer – Morag, but 29, left a three-month-old baby girl – and, perhaps seeking distraction, in 1986 he was elected to Highland Regional Council as the member for Fleet.

“Politics is like a bug,” he remarked in 1989. “It gets a hold of you...” And he was good at it. But in 1988 word spread that, while chairing an Education Committee, he had asked the Roman Catholic priest of Glenroy – the late Monsignor Thomas Wynne – to open proceedings with prayer. The matter fetched up at the 1988 Synod and Mr Murray declared he would do it again. He was duly suspended from the ministry for three months and without stipend. This was a painful decade for Free Presbyterians as two factions – one less than herbivorous; one less than candid – fought for control and, late in 1988, Lord Mackay of Clashfern (now Lord Chancellor, no less) was disciplined by the Southern Presbytery for having attended the Requiem Mass of the late Lord Russell of Killowen.

He appealed to Synod and the same diet in May 1989 – among other entertainments – also revisited Mr Murray’s case. However had he resumed his ministry without any show of contrition? The debate descended into disgraceful confusion and Mr Murray found himself suspended sine die. Days earlier, the prospect of schism had seemed laughable. From that Tuesday evening, it was inevitable, even before Lord Mackay’s final censure.

Fourteen ministers and many adherents shortly seceded to form the Associated Presbyterian Churches and among its first acts was to restore Mr Murray to the ministry. He would neither quit the manse in Lairg nor relinquish the Northern Presbytery records and, in 1990, won re-election to the Council.

But reverse-migration flowed against him: the “Gentle Giant” lost Fleet in 1994 and, standing as an unabashed Liberal Democrat in 1995 for the new unitary authority, was again defeated in a straight fight.

He had, though, been central to establishing in 1994 what is now Highland Theological College – today, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands – and, strong as an ox, continued to go about doing good. Mr Murray finally retired from his Sutherland charge in 2005 and, in August 2015, mourned Marjory, his wife of 61 years.

Had he not broken with the Free Presbyterian Church, he would have been the longest-ordained minister in its history. Mr Murray would fast have retorted that, in fact, it had broken with him.

But his mind was largely on ultimate things. “It doesn’t matter what I have done or not done,” he told a friend this month, “what I have achieved or not achieved. What really matters is what Christ has done.”

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His death marks not just the passing of a generation but of a world: when folk murmured in Gaelic in Wester Ross shops, when the Highland Sabbath was universally still, when a burly young minister on his motorbike wound his way regularly up the Bealach na Bà.

The Reverend Alexander Murray is survived by his children Mhairi, George, Alison, Hugh, Christine and John, 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. In prayer, days before the end, he murmured, “The Lord knows what He is doing and does what He says.”


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