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Finlay Thomson

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Date May 15, 2007

A few hundred yards beyond the house where Finlay Thomson lived most of his days, there stands prominently, on its own, a place of worship known as Teampaill Moluaidh, a building dating from the twelfth or thirteenth century and which, we are informed, was possibly built on the site of an earlier church. Moluag, as he is known in history, and after whom this building is named, was a sixth-century contemporary of Columba and would doubtless have preached the same gospel as that eminent missionary. That gospel, we are told by such as are competent to judge, was scriptural and not as yet corrupted by Rome; it was that which, at the outset, was entrusted to those commissioned to begin the evangelisation of the world by preaching repentance and remission of sins at Jerusalem. We do not know what form of worship is followed by those who use the building at present, but its presence there to this day bears testimony to the fact that the gospel of salvation was preached in Lewis at an early stage of the Christian era.

Times of darkness no doubt followed over the centuries but one would like to think that the Lord did not permit the light kindled to be totally extinguished. Whatever may have happened over the intervening centuries, it is certain that, in more recent times, Christians of no ordinary stature were raised up within the bounds of the sea-girt parish of Ness, and that is what we believe the subject of this brief obituary proved himself to be in his own day and generation. We are told that all the Thomsons in Lewis may trace their presence in that island to the arrival, in 1739, of a James Thomson, an SSPCK schoolmaster, who taught in a school at Swainbost. The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge was ‘an Edinburgh-based benevolent society which sought to promote Protestantism, chiefly in its Presbyterian form’; so the name Thomson has, in Ness, been associated with the gospel for a long time.

As far as Finlay’s forebears are concerned, his godly great-grandmother Margaret Thomson, or Mairead Donn, as she was popularly known, was one of those who stood faithful in 1893 ‘among the honourable women who followed Christ in His down-trode Cause at that time’ and has left a fragrant memory behind her. Her son, Donald, was to be a stalwart pillar, as Rev William MacLean remarked in his obituary: ‘When Andrew Finlayson, who succeeded Malcolm MacLeod as missionary in Ness, died at the comparatively early age of 52 in January, 1935, the burden of the congregation fell on the shoulders of Donald Thomson and his brother elder, John Morrison, the son of a worthy father who stood in the day of trial … From 1937 until his death (in 1948), the congregation of Ness was favoured to have Donald Thomson to feed them as David did his people, according to the integrity of his heart and to guide them according to the skilfulness of his hands.’

Finlay Thomson was born in Ness, at the family home in Skigersta, on 17 October 1938. Although neither his father nor his mother made a public profession of faith, their life and walk were exemplary to the extent that one would be inclined to cherish the hope that it was well with them at last. Theirs was a Christian home and under its roof the family of five boys and one girl born to them were taught to respect the Sabbath and to attend the means of grace. In those days almost every household in Skigersta was Free Presbyterian, and in that village, as indeed generally throughout the Ness community, there were not a few God-fearing men and women who sought to influence others for good.

The presence of such had its own effect on the rising generation. In this connection, we are told that one Sabbath morning, while Finlay was still a little boy, he was allotted the duty of taking the cow along the road, presumably to pasture. On the way, he happened very briefly to play football with a stone which he came across on the road. This was observed and reported to his father. On Monday, Finlay, after having no doubt received paternal admonition, was summoned to appear before Christina MacDonald (‘Banntrach Rudair’), a widow who lived nearby, and who is still remembered in Ness as a much-beloved, godly matriarch whose smiting did not break the head of any whose misconduct she felt obliged to reprove; on the contrary, it was a kindness remembered, as in Finlay’s case, over a lifetime. It might be said of her what was said by one who appreciated the interest taken in him by the noted Separatist, John Grant: ‘I’ll get the rod from John, but then I’ll get honey with it’. There was also the watchful eye of Rev William MacLean!

At the age of 17, Finlay, like many of his contemporaries, joined the merchant navy, and for some years he was employed as a deckhand by the New Zealand Shipping Company. It appears that at this time he did have some thoughts as to his spiritual state, but these thoughts were transient, like the morning cloud. Out of regard to the minister concerned and also no doubt as a result of his upbringing, he several times, while his ship was berthed in Auckland, attended services conducted in that city by Rev William MacLean; Mr MacLean had visited Australia and New Zealand as a deputy in 1962 and the following year he accepted a call to Gisborne.

In 1963, Finlay elected to give up deep-sea sailing and having, with the help of his family, built a house in Skigersta, he married Catherine MacRitchie, whose home was very near the one in which he was born. For some time, he earned his living working as a weaver, but that was only until the opportunity presented itself of returning to sea, this time as a fisherman. In the port of Stornoway and further afield he, in due course, became well known as a first-class seaman and expert fisherman. Strong in physique, manly and courageous, he was much respected by those who sailed with him, especially after he came to skipper his own boat. For seven years, until he suffered an injury to his right hand, he was a member of the group of intrepid Nessmen who annually visit Sulasgeir to harvest the young of the solan goose (‘an guga’), spending around 14 days on that rocky islet situated 40 miles north of the Butt of Lewis. He used to dwell on the unity and friendship which prevailed among them and how he relished the ‘family’ worship in which they engaged morning and evening. In his time, this worship was conducted by Donald Murray, a much-respected elder in the Free Church, but Finlay took part and often led the singing.

It was after he became a fisherman that the Spirit of God began to strive with him and the salvation of his soul accordingly became the one thing needful. The Bible began to accompany him to the wheelhouse. In seeking to enter into the kingdom, he was to discover that he had to contend, not only with foes present within as a result of his fall in Adam and the corruption of his whole nature, but also the opposition of Satan without.

We are informed that he was much affected by a sermon he heard preached in the Lionel church in October 1972 and that from that time forth he turned his back on the world, although he did not yet have the assurance he sought. At this time, apparently, chapter 23 in the Book of Job became precious to him and he often quoted the words of verse 10: ‘But He knoweth the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold’. He was wont to say that he did not understand the last part of the verse, but towards the end of his life he confided that he was now beginning to do so and was to some extent able to enter into its depth of meaning. The following Spring, the communion seasons in Lewis followed one another in due order and Finlay, if at all possible, was in attendance. We are told that he could never understand how anyone in health and having the opportunity to attend could be absent on such occasions.

He was present at the Stornoway communion in February 1973 and was a guest, with others, in Mary Ann Matheson’s house between the services. Some verses from Psalm 107 were sung, with Dr Hugh Gillies leading the praise, and he was so much affected and overcome by the words of verse 29. ‘The storm is changed into a calm / at His command and will; / So that the waves which raged before, / now quiet are and still,’ that he had to leave the room. It is thought it was then he obtained the assurance that he was indeed within the circle of the divine favour and thus on the way to the desired haven. Throughout his life he felt spiritually bound to the Lord’s people present on that occasion. In March 1973, the Session gladly received him as a communicant member and, over the years which followed, his walk, life and conversation proved that its confidence in him was not misplaced. He was elected a deacon in 1975 and five years later he was ordained to the eldership. As an office-bearer he was exemplary.

He was much attached to Gaelic, his mother tongue, and much preferred to use it, rather than English, when expressing his thoughts and engaging in prayer. He had a way with young people and many became very closely attached to him. The testimony of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland was precious to him and in church courts he was ever anxious to prevent any change being introduced that might adversely affect it. His personal and oft-expressed desire was to leave to posterity what he himself had inherited. The words of Malcolm MacLeod, a missionary in Ness in the 1890s, exactly reflect Finlay’s aim and attitude: ‘When our fishing boats would be leaving for the English fishing grounds, the boats behind would try and keep those in front always in sight; each boat would aim at steering as directly as possible in the line of the one going before’. At times of crisis, as in 1989, He remained rock-firm in his attachment to the Church of his fathers, and his example no doubt influenced others who might have been inclined to waver. His godliness was both sincere and transparent.

Around 1989, his health began to deteriorate and shortly thereafter he had to bring his seafaring days to an end. Over the years which followed, he bore his affliction with remarkable patience, although at times he endured much pain and suffering. The nature of his trouble was such that there was little that physicians could do apart from making the pain more bearable. He was several times hospitalised in Stornoway, Glasgow and Inverness and, in Stornoway at least, if it was at all possible, he conducted family worship in the ward, being joined by other like-minded patients. He was humble and self-effacing above many, but in such circumstances, he did not fail to let his light shine before men, in a manner that earned the respect even of strangers present. In 1997, he was rushed to the Western Isles Hospital after sustaining a heart attack and, for a time, his life was in the balance. However, he recovered and for the next few years he was found, as health permitted, attending the public means of grace.

In July 2003, his youngest daughter Catherine, at the age of 21, suddenly took ill and died. This was an unexpected event, which her loving parents and siblings felt deeply. Finlay sorrowed, but no one heard him murmur. Those closest to him say that this sad event left its mark and it appeared to have the effect of drawing him nearer to his God. It was noticed that, at family worship, he obtained much nearness to Him in prayer.

Over the last period of his sojourning, he suffered much but, as stars shine in the night, so, in very trying circumstances, his light shone before men. His mind was constantly on the truth. In hospital, when his ability to speak was impaired, he wrote down his thoughts on a pad. ‘For me to live is Christ and to die is gain’, he wrote on 3 July 2006, and the following day, ‘He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows – soirbhichidh rùn an Tighearna ’na laimh’ (‘The pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand’). ‘Wednesday was not a good day,’ he wrote on July 7, ‘can’t get near the Lord.’ He complained that he found the world breaking in and taking away his thoughts. The last entry was: ‘I was waiting on the Lord to give me the truth and I opened the Bible at Philippians 1. We have to leave all our worries at the Lord’s feet – the family and everything in the Lord’s hands.’ We are told by his widow that ‘on August 24 he was very conscious that it was his last day on earth. His reply, on being asked how he was feeling was, “It’ll be better when it is all over. It’s not me that’s doing it. It’s Someone else who is doing it for me.” After some sleep, he sat up in bed and said, “It’s good to be in the Lord.”‘ These were the last words she heard from him.

Shortly thereafter his spirit departed to be with Christ, which is far better. The date was 24 August 2006. On the occasion of his funeral, the family worship in the Lionel church was attended by a multitude from all parts of the Western Isles, the number far exceeding the capacity of the building. He was laid to rest in the grave of his fathers in the Habost cemetery, situated within sight of his home in Europie, beside the ocean so familiar to him in life and from which he procured his livelihood over so many years. Not far away lie the graves of Rev William MacLean and Rev Alexander Morrison, faithful ministers whom Finlay loved and respected in life and of whom he often spoke. They sleep in Jesus, as do others there who also were lovely in their lives. Neither the thunderous roar of the Atlantic rollers breaking on the nearby beach nor any other sound shall awake them until ‘the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and the trump of God’. ‘So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.’

The Ness congregation, the whole community and all who love and care for the Cause of Christ have reason to mourn the loss sustained. We can only hope and pray that the Lord will raise up others to fill the breach. To his devoted, like-minded widow we anew extend our sympathy as well as to his two sons, three daughters and, also, to his four siblings, one of whom, Norman, is an elder in the Ness congregation.

This obituary is taken from the May 2007 Free Presbyterian Magazine and reproduced here by permission.

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