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Sunday 11 May 2014

The Miraculous Footprints of Finlay Munro

At Torgyle, Glenmoriston, is a set of footprints on which no grass grows. The story behind them was told to Calum Maclean from James ‘Jimmy’ Warren, a farmer then aged around sixty, which he later transcribed on the 8th of September 1952:

Well, my grandmother, she was a little girl. She wasn’t there at this service, but she remembered him. It is not so very long ago, you know. He was the Rev. Mr. Finlay Munro. Well, of course, at that time there was no churches, nothing, not Bibles or anything else. Well, it was outside. Well, there was a tree growing there, a birch tree.
There was three branches out of this tree. And he took that as his text, the Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost in one. That was his text. So he preached. And there were scoffs there. And he turned round and told them that none of them would die a natural death. And none of them did die a natural death. They all died a violent death. And he finished off his sermon by saying:
“To show,” he says, “a testimony,” he says, “that I am speaking the truth, these footprints will remain forever. And there’s never been a blade of grass there. Now in 1907. I think we had an awful storm of wind, a terrible storm it was. And the top was blown o! this tree. The top was just blown right off. Now, strange to say that one of the roots was going through the instep of the step, one of the steps. Well, if the tree was uprooted, it would have uprooted the footprints. It was just the point that broke off. So it shows you there must have been something in it. Of course, I heard ministers saying they were sceptical of it, but you can’t get away. There’s not a blade of grass. And they are there since. I remember them. And my grandmother remembered him. She was a little girl at the time, Rev. Finlay Munro. I have heard stories about graves on which grass would not grow. It is something like that factor in Sutherlandshire. I think it was at that great clearances. Well, they buried him and he wouldn’t stay down. And at last they put a stake through him to keep him down. That was at that great Sutherland Clearances, you know. The keeper that was here not long ago, he was telling me it was quite true. They put a stake through his body. That was the only thing that would keep him down. The earth wouldn’t take him. He was that wicked, I suppose. They weren’t very good, some of the factors. It wasn’t bad here at all. The Grants weren’t bad at all. Glenmoriston wasn’t a glen for clearances at all. In Invergarry it was bad, yes, very bad. Well, there was a lot of the Glenmoriston people went over to Invergarry. And  every one of them they used to send them back to be buried up here. They all sent them back.
They called that “tìodhlacadh a-measg nan cairdean, còmhla ris na caìrdean.”
There was one not so many years ago from Glengarry. And she was as poor she hadn’t what would take her across, you see, And she was forever praying to get back, that she would be buried at.Clachan Mairicheard with her own people. Well, she got her wish. A few friends collected together and they collected the money and brought her here.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Calum Maclean mentions the very same tradition in The Highlands (1959):

No less mysterious but of a later date are the ‘Miraculous Footprints’ of Glenmoriston. It was towards the end of last century that a noted lay-preacher of the Free Church was conducting an open-air service one Sunday at Torgyle. His name, I am told, was Finlay Munro. He was a huge and powerful man. In the course of his preaching he noticed that a couple of his listeners appeared to scoff at his teaching. He turned angrily to them and predicted that they would come to a violent and untimely end, an end such as all scoffers merited. As a testimony to the truth of his prediction he said that the print of his two feet would remain for ever in the ground on which he stood. The footprints are still there, deeply imprinted in the black soil. They are to be seen about fifty yards north of the roadway as it turns to the west nearing Torgyle. I went to see them one morning in early September. They are huge footprints, three or four inches into the dark soil, and all around there was lush, green grass. The footprints are miraculous without the slightest doubt.

Finlay Munro was, by all accounts, a strange yet charismatic figure. A native of Tain, he became famous for tramping the byways of the Highlands and Islands preaching an evangelical gospel to anyone who would listen. After a productive ministry on the Isle of Lewis, he made a tour of the mainland Highlands during which he preached in Glenmoriston in 1827. His sermon, on the text ‘Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel’ (Amos 4:12), was generally well received but some Catholics from Glengarry heckled him, calling him ‘a cheat and a liar.’ Munro is supposed to have closed his Bible and retorted that the ground on which he stood would bear witness to the truth of what he said until the Day of Judgement comes. Thus the marks on the ground are said to be his footprints, where nothing will grow.

A report published in The Telegraph on the 22nd of September 1976 carried the story that the footprints had been stolen:

A resident of Glen Moriston in Scotland, Hugh Gordon, said, “It must have been tourists who did this terrible thing. We pity them.”
The Sunday People newspaper said, “It is an eerie story,” and offered a case of whisky as a reward for information leading to the return of the cursed footprints.
The story concerns Finlay Munro, a fiery evangelist who preached outdoor sermons some 150 years ago.
At one service, because he was heckled, he put a curse on the spot where he stood. He promised the wrath of heaven would descend upon anyone who desecrated the spot and no grass would ever grow on his footprints.
For those 150 odd years nothing did grow on the spot and people in Glen Moriston, awed by the story, put a fence around the footprints.
But last week the fence was found broken down and the earth dug up. Somebody had stolen the footprints!
The reward offered by the newspaper was accompanied by a statement that, “the winner must not be afraid to face the Curse of Preacher Finlay.”

They seemingly reappeared at some point as Finlay Munro’s footprints can still be seen at Torgyle, Glenmoriston. A protective cairn surrounds them and marks the place where they have been imprinted in the clay since 1827 as ‘a muddy testament to the religious truths proclaimed by an itinerant evangelical preacher.’

The Footprints from ‘A Highland Evangelist’, 1940s
Jimmy Warren Snr and Jimmy Warren Jnr, 1950s, Dulchreichart, Glenmoriston
Protective cairn surrounding the footprints
Close-up of the footprints

Anon., ‘Scottish Legend’, The Telegraph (22 Sep., 1976), 24
Rev. Murdo Macaulay. Aspects of the Religious History of Lewis: Up to the Disruption of 1843 (S.l.: s.n., 1986)
Fraser MacDonald, ‘A Muddy Testimony: Finlay Munro’s Footprints and other Calvinist Landscapes’, [] <posted: 03 Dec 2012>
Calum Maclean, The Highlands (London: B. T. Batsford, 1959)
John Macleod, ‘A Highland Evangelist’ in Rev. G.N. M. Collins (ed.), Principal John Macleod D.D. (Edinburgh: Free Church Publications Committee, 1951)
SSS CIM NB 18, ‘Glenmoriston Footprints’, 1584–86. Transcribed by Calum Maclean on the 8th of September 1952 from James ‘Jimmy’ Warren (Dulchreichart, Glenmoriston)

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