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The Remarkable Rev Robert Kirk

Today's kirk at BalquhidderIt is not often that fairies kidnap a minister, or that thereafter he has been said to be in perpetual charge of his parish since he may return from fairyland at any moment, but this fate has befallen Robert Kirk (1644–1692). He was the seventh son of James Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle   In November 1664 he became the minister of Balquhidder, and in June 1685 he was appointed to his father's old charge. In both parishes he studied his parishioners’ beliefs, particularly about second sight, supposedly possessed by seventh sons, and about fairies.

Kirk's parishes were entirely Gaelic speaking, and the minister was the scholarly author of the first complete metrical psalter in Gaelic in 1684. But Kirk was not ‘a one-trick pony’; thereafter he became involved in two projects financed by the scientist Robert Boyle. The first was a Bible in Irish type, but the Irish characters were unfamiliar, and Kirk proposed that it should be transliterated into roman characters and carried out the task himself. This was during the time of considerable uncertainty in the Scottish church, which succeeded the political events of 1688. Kirk, who was something of a ‘Vicar of Bray’, had been permitted to continue in the ministry despite his unrepentant episcopalianism. The intrepid minister then went to London for eight months to supervise the printing of what came to be known as Kirk's Bible, of 1690. In addition to the Bible, a vocabulary of 464 difficult words foreshadowed future Gaelic dictionaries. 


 

While in London, Kirk, who still had a keen interest in fairy superstitions, met Bishop Edward Stillingfleet and his wife, Elizabeth. The bishop was a seventh son, and the couple, who were to have seven sons, asked what this might imply.  In response Kirk wrote, and the curious Secret Commonwealth, addressed to Elizabeth Stillingfleet, Should you wish to be appraised of seventeenth century brawls in Killin, or second sight for widows, and much else, the Secret Commonwealth is for you.

Kirk married twice. His second wife was pregnant with their second child, Marjorie, when Kirk died, at Aberfoyle, on 14 May 1692. Interest in Kirk has persisted, partly because a successor at Aberfoyle, Patrick Graham (1750–1835), drew him to the attention of Sir Walter Scott who mentioned him in Rob Roy (1818). In his Sketches of Perthshire (1812), Graham related that Kirk did not die, but was ‘taken’ by the fairies whose secrets he had betrayed. According to Graham, Kirk reappeared at the baptism of his posthumous child. Manifesting himself to a ‘mutual relation’, the minister had asked that his brother-in-law, Thomas Graham of Duchray, cast a dagger above his head, to release him from fairyland, but, at the baptism, ‘in his astonishment’, Duchray failed to throw the weapon, leaving Kirk captive in fairyland. 

The Old Kirk at AberfoyleSince then many distinguished folklorists have investigated the Fairy Minister, but this has meant that the importance of Kirk's work, as the scholar who was among the first to record highland folk-beliefs and to make the Bible accessible to highlanders, has sometimes been underestimated.

Louis Stott wrote the entry in the New Oxford Dictionary of Biography about Robert Kirk.