John Carswell, Bishop of the Isles - 150? - 1572

John Carswell was born about the beginning of the sixteenth century in the old Carnaserie Castle, his father having been Constable of Carnasarie for the Earl of Argyll. There is apparently a local tradition that the family had possession of Carnaserie for a number of generations previously .

John Carswell was one of the most eminent men the Highlands has produced, and his name is well worthy of being held in reverence by a race for whom he translated, and had published in Edinburgh, on the 24 th day of April 1567, a Gaelic edition of the book known as John Knox's Liturgy: the first book printed in Gaelic or, indeed, in any Celtic tongue. This book contained a compendium of the doctrines of the Presbyterian Church, and was, during the seventy years following, practically the only spiritual guide which the Highlanders of Argyll and the Isles possessed. After the first flame of enthusiasm among the Reformers had subsided, the loss of revenue, due to the spoliation of the estates of the older church and other causes, made the supply of ministers difficult to obtain. It was not until the ardour inspired by the Covenant had revived the interest of the people in religious affairs, that an attempt was made to give a proper supply of clergymen to these parishes; and it was during this interval that Carswell's publication proved of inestimable value to the Gaelic-speaking Protestant of Scotland.

Of this book there are only three copies in existence: an almost perfect copy is carefully treasured in Inverary Castle; the second, but imperfect one, is in the Library of Edinburgh University; and the third, also imperfect, in the British Museum.

Carswell received his training for the priesthood in St Andrews, taking the degree of M.A. there in 1544; but after serving as rector of his native parish, and, subsequently, as Chancellor of the Chapel Royal at Stirling, he was in 1560, after the Reformation in Scotland had become an accomplished fact, appointed Superintendent of Argyll. The duties of superintendents were much the same as those of bishops—to create new charges, to visit churches and schools, to suspend or deprive ministers, to confer benefices, and to eradicate all monuments of idolatry in the bounds assigned them.

His first wife was Margaret, daughter of Campbell of Inverawe. His daughter by the second marriage, Christian, became the second wife of Dougall Campbell of Inverawe whose first wife and children had been hung by a raiding Maclean. She later married Bishop Neill Campbell, Carswell's successor at Carnasserie.

It is very probable that Carswell, who was deeply attached to Queen Mary and her cause, had strong leanings towards the old religion. He appears, however, to have made the change from the old church to the new without much difficulty, having been appointed, in 1560, as one of the five superintendents who ruled the former dioceses of Argyll and the Isles.

Earlier, in 1559, as the Earl of Argyll's 'Domine', he was given a grant of the eight merklands of the two Carnasseries, with the custody of the castle, and the six merklands of Auchinellan, as well as other lands in the same area to be held in 'blencheferme' (a small or nominal quit-rent). The following month, in March 1559, for a certain sum of money and for services rendered, the 5th Earl sold Carswell one merkland of Pennycastle; the islands called 'the Three Resyis'; the custody and captaincy of the Castle of Craignish; and the offices of 'Marty' (maor tigh - church leader ) and 'Brewster' (license to produce alcohol) for all Craignish.

We find him in 1566 appointed by the Queen to the temporality of the Bishopric of Argyll and the Isles, and the Abbey of Iona. He was never consecrated, however; and although rebuked in the Assembly for accepting the appointment, he remained Titular Bishop until the end of his days.

His assumption of the Bishopric was offensive to the church, and in the general assembly of 1569 a formal complaint was made against him for having assumed the episcopal dignity and 'Mr. John Kersewell (sic), Supt. of Argyll, was rebuked for accepting the Bishopric of the Isles without making the Assembly foreseen'. He seems also to have taken the side of the Queen Mary in the civil dissensions of the time, and was rebuked for 'ryding at and assisting of the Parliament holden by the Queen, after the murder of the King'.

On March 18, 1564, Queen Mary confirmed several charters given by the Earl of Argyle to M. Johanni Carswell, rector of Kilmartyne and his heirs, etc. of a large amount of land in different parts of Knapdale and Lorne together with the Keepership of Carnassary Castle, on certain rent payable partly in money and partly in produce and also of maintaining six soldiers, while all these lands should be protected from all scattis, 107soirning and obligation for the food of dogs and horses." In this same year Duncan McCaws of Dun-ArdRigh is also on record as giving lands to John Carswell of Carnassary Castle

The enormous extent of his diocese imposed a vast amount of labour upon the good bishop, but he was a man of herculean frame and iron endurance: he was known as "An Carsalach Mor" (the Big Carswell). Apparently an immensely tall man, Carswell was known widely as 'The Crane' due to his height and a distinctive stoop.The income derived by the bishop in those days would consist, besides money, of many exactions in kind from the parishioners in the neighbourhood of the castle; and the payment of tithes in the shape of eggs, butter, chickens, and other farm produce caused much irritation amongst the good wives of the strath, grumbling which found expression, still surviving, in the following lampoon:-

"An Carsalach mor tha 'n Carnasarie,
Tha na coig cairt 'n a osain,
Tha dhroll mar dhruinnin na corra,
'S a sgroban lom, gionach, farsuing.

(The Big Carswell in Carnasarie, There are five quarters (45 inches) in his hose, His rump is like the back of a crane, His stomach empty, greedy, and unfortunately capacious).

After his censure by the Assembly, Carswell withdrew from Court and retired to Carnasarie, where he died in the year 1572. He was buried, by his own desire, at the Priory of Ardchattan. The leaden coffin lies below the floor of the kitchen of the present mansion-house, which was, with a spirit of desecration hard to excuse, built over a part of the old graveyard. Such was the weight of the coffin, the violence of the storm which prevailed on the funeral day, and the consequent hardships endured by the mourners, that a saying is still current when any extraordinary event happens, "Cha d 'thainig a leithid bho latha adhlaic a Charsalaich" (" There has not been the like since Carswell's funeral day"). As the funeral barge was rowed across Loch Etive, a sudden tempest blew up and severed the towrope of the funeral barge which, to the consternation of the mourners, vanished in the murk. Several days later, the wind had gone, the loch was mirror-calm and the coffin was found washed up on the point some three hundred yards from the Priory, which goes by the name of 'Carswell's Point' to this day.

In the early 1900s, when workmen were carrying out alterations to the east end of the priory, they uncovered a skeleton said to be at least seven foot tall, which caused the workmen to drop their tools and flee. The late Colonel Bobby Campbell-Preston, Laird of Ardchattan, stated that the actual site was 'just this side of the washing up machine in the scullery'.

Bishop Carswell's daughter Christian married a son of the Earl of Argyll, Neil Campbell who also lived at Carnasserie and was later Vicar of Kilmartin. Two of their sons were bishops, one of Argyll and another of the Isles, while the third followed in his father's footsteps as vicar of Kilmartin. They were proprietors of the lands of Kilmartin until 1647 when they became owners of Auchinellan. They themselves claimed to be descended from Neil, Dean of Argyll, son of Colin Iongantach, but, although supported by 'Ane Accompt' and quite possibly true, the exact details cannot be substantiated. In any case, they were a remarkable race of churchmen, long known as Slioch an Easbuig, 'the Descendants of the Bishop'. This line appears to have become extinct, as does the Bishop's male line. Carnasserie had remained in the hands of the Bishop's son and grandson before passing to the Campbells of Auchinbreck in 1643.

There is a record, shortly after the Earl of Morton became regent, of a 'bond of man-rent' to the 6th Earl of Argyll from Malcolm Carswell, Captain of Craignish, and his brother, Mr. Donald Carswell, Vicar of Kilmartin. This apparently was following the death of Bishop Carswell.