Belmont House
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Mr (but not Mrs) Smith by Wendy Scott

March 3rd 2019



In 1688 John Smith of Insista in Bressay was an elder of the kirk. He came from Unst, where in May of that year he had sold 3 merks land in Skigga, in the north parish of the island, to William Bruce of Turhoul; but he held on to other lands in Hamar Ska, possibly in case the Bressay move did not pan out. However he did settle successfully and was involved with the church, a tradition continued by his family who, over several generations, continued to take a leading role in church administration - several John Smiths figure as presbytery clerk over the years - and farmed their portion at Insista no doubt just as the original Eystein had done.

He seems to have been a bit of a firebrand. That same autumn Smith and his fellow elders (Gilbert Gifhart and John Smythe of Keldabister,) wrote to the tax commissioners regarding attempts by over-zealous collectors to bully the Bressay minister into paying "as if he had been a heritor, tenant or possessor" for the four merks udal land which had been gifted by the late Rev Umphray "kindly, freely and irrevocably" for the pious uses of the kirk and parish. The elders pointed out their own poverty - they can hardly afford to bury the poor of the parish; the land in question is very “weastie" and has often lain ley (uncultivated), except for one small part laboured by a poor old man "which the kirk has given to him in charity"; and that since the death of the Rev Umphray some twenty years previously, no cess nor any public burden has been levied upon it. Having prepared their position, they fire their heavy gun. "No mortified land in Scotland is liable for any public duty, for if the land be considerable in itself, it is confirmed by Act of Parliament, and if it be of a small value, it is always overseen (ie overlooked, not liable); the king (God bless him) still dispensing with his right when the heritor has given the whole."
With some subtlety they suggest that the commissioners, "their honourable wisdoms", had not intended to distress the kirk, nor alter the will of the dead, the Rev Umphray, in converting to a civil use something "which was, and still is, dedicate to a holy and pious use, for fear of sacrilege". This whole affair, in fact, is a misunderstanding stemming from insufficient information. The elders conclude by declaring their intent to send their minister (a significant choice of words) to hear the commissioners’ decision and demonstrate “our dutifull obedience to our gracious soveraigne (the King's most excellent majesty) and our undenyable respects to your honourable wisedoms his commissioners”.
The self-confidence, the evaluation of fact, and the facesaving option offered, show down the years a man of intelligence and resolution, buttressed by the authority of a democratic kirk.

Quotes spelled as the original documents