To the end of the line.

As an end piece to the Ulster Revival stories here is short story on the imagined journey of my father, Tommy McWilliams, to a mission tent at Ballachulish in Scotland.

Tommy McWilliams 1950.

Tommy hauled his case off the Glasgow train just before noon. The branch line from Oban to Ballachulish would leave in an hour. There was enough time for a cup of tea and a sandwich in the simple station cafe before he boarded the narrow-gauge steam train and settled into an empty carriage, the case taking up a good deal of space. A couple joined him, holiday makers by the cut of their summer clothes. They would get out a few stops along the line.

The prospect of a trip to the remote Highlands near Glencoe had filled him with excitement, but now on the last leg of the journey this was tempered by concerns of leading the mission services for the next fortnight. He had been well prepared and coached, done it all before, but this was far from home on his first trip to Scotland.

The train chugged and swayed its way northwards on the 27-mile journey, the line often hugging the coast, a road squeezed close by. The carriage window framed islands and lochs he didn’t know the names of; water that changed colour in the summer light and passing showers; steep rock cuttings, and the endless trees. The stations and villages were small, a few scattered homesteads in between, with names that were vaguely familiar, Benderloch, Creagan, Duror, Ballachulish; names he repeated in his head in what he took to be a Scottish accent.

When the couple got off, he opened the case and thumbed through his notes, closed it again and looked back to the window.

The landscape became more barren and rugged, the mountains rising to the sky. After the station at Ballachulish Ferry the train swept into Loch Leven and towards the mouth of Glencoe.

Three sharp blasts from the train’s whistle broke through his daydream and there, as the train slowed, was the pegged mission tent in a field between the track and the loch, with its signs “Faith Mission”, “Prayer meetings 7pm”.

Lugging his case down the platform he stopped and through the smoke took in the mountain peaks that dwarfed the large slab faces of the old slate quarry beyond the station. He was thinking of his Glasgow friend and his story of this once thriving quarry village now dwindled to quarter of its size, less than five hundred souls, when he was grabbed by the arm, the suitcase taken from him, and his hand vigorously shaken.

“Guid efternuin. You must be Tommy? A can tell be that case.”


Our Revival peters out.

My family’s connection to the Ulster Revival continued down another generation as I recall my father, Tommy McWilliams and his travels with an old brown suitcase.  

My father, Tommy McWilliams circa 1995.

A large brown battered suitcase appeared to follow us each time we moved house in Ballymena. It was too large and heavy to be of any use to us and lay under a spare bed, rummaged during spells of boredom. The solid clunk of the rusting clasps released the lid with its musty smell, inside there were never any surprises. Over the years the books, tracts and handwritten notes became jumbled, aging in the darkness. Some forty years after its first outing, my father’s case was dumped, a few mementos saved.

As a young man of about thirty Tommy carried the heavy case to villages in Scotland and Ireland. His mission was simple “by all means to reach the lost for Christ”, and he had been taught to “live by faith” and put his “trust in God to provide the necessary resources”.

A leaflet from the brown suitcase, Tommy listed as a speaker at a Faith Mission conference.

Since its formation after the Christian Revivals of the mid-1800s The Faith Mission had organised summertime tent missions. Tommy led some of these services, took bible study and welcomed those willing to commit to their lives to God. His rich tenor voice leading the hymn singing perhaps turned as many heads as his preaching.

Opposition came as a surprise to him, something he had not experienced in his native mid-Antrim and the hostility eventually wore him down. He had a change of heart, or at least a softening of his spiritual mission, and returned home.

Back in Ballymena he began an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic at Moore’s Garage, but left shortly afterwards; the experience put him off tinkering with cars for the rest of his life. He found a vocation as a bread man with Morton and Simpson’s Bakery where fresh bread and his warm personality found a welcome among communities on either side of the River Bann, in Antrim and Derry.

His Wellington Street Church elected him as an Elder, a Christian counsellor to the congregation, in 1951, a role he retained until he retired to Co Leitrim in the late seventies.

One summer Sunday evening I am in church with him, the warm sun slanting through the church’s large plain windows and across the half empty pews. We stood to sing, his mellow tenor voice soaring above the worshippers, through the melancholy of the evening; he too was soaring, fulfilled, without doubt.

Unlike him I would not continue the legacy of the Ulster Revival. Not then, beside him in the church that evening, but after a few years as a leader in various church groups when increasing doubt would set me on the path of the unbeliever.

Tommy as his Princess Street home circa 1950.

If Tommy the missionary, the church elder, portrayed his serious side, Tommy the joker was never too far away. Even as a child he would regularly fool his sisters into mischief, while entertaining with pranks and impressions. The photograph of his mimic from a scene in a Laurel and Hardy film, at his Princess Street home is typical, funny and a little scary. While it was likely he used these skills at his mission meetings, the big brown case divulged no such secrets.


The next blog is a short story based on my father’s travels to Ballachulish, in Scottish Gaelic,  Baile a’ Chaolais or “Village of the narrows”. It is pronounced Ba-la-hoolish.

The Ulster Revival – 2

The second and concluding half of the story of the repentant Robert set during The Ulster Revival.

James McQuilkin, one of the first converts at Connor, Co Antrim.

“By harvest time a had seen many fall down, the preacher takin them up as new men and wemen, born again in Jesus. But some had tay be carried away we little sense about them. A saw a few baduns amongst them too a must say, as well as a papist or two. A was holdin back then, not takin ma final step, a suppose the Devil was still whisperin that a was alright, tay thole it a while longer.

One stormy night after the harvest was in, an like ma first prayer meetin, I felt the Preacher lookin straight at me. I started to sweat, ma clothes itchin on me.  A heard him say loudly and slowly

“The Holy Spirit’s talkin to you and you alone! Jesus or the fires of Hell? You must decide! There’s no other way. This could be your last chance. You might never hear these words again.”

His hand came down on the big Bible way a slap.

“The Holy Spirit’s chosen you! Now’s your time!” and bowing his head he finally says.

“Let us pray together, for the lost souls, that they come to Jesus tonight.”

A chatter a voices filled in the room.

“A’m a poor sinner. Save me. Save me” a hear maself say. A feel a light above me, the heat is awful.

“A’m a poor sinner! Save me Jesus! Save me!” a called out.

Around me amid the babble I hear shouts of “Praise the Lord” “The Lord’s working.” and other voices a canay fathom.

A’m on ma knees afore the preacher ma forehead and arms on the cold earth floor, his arms out above me like the Archangel Gabriel. Tears are flowin freely as I feel the light of Holy Spirit and see the waitin arms of Jesus.

Someone helps me tay ma feet. The Preacher wipes ma tears away with the flats of his hands.

‘Do you repent your worldly sins brother?’

‘A do. A do.’ A say, catchin ma breath.

‘Will you follow Jesus tay the ends of the earth?’

‘A will, a belong tay Jesus.’

‘Your every sin is washed away by Jesus’ blood. Robert, join us, the Saved, Happy in Jesus. By the grace of God you’ve been touched by the work o the Holy Spirit.’ He said and moved on to others and a didnay hear him anymore.

A think am sobbin like a baby as hands touched ma shoulder and ma head, then it’s James way his arms around me.

‘Welcome Robert, into the fold where you belong.’

About twenty of us were saved that night, and many more after. We were full o our new lives, excited an joyful, ready tay praise God.  Some took the prayer meetins but a wasnay cut out for it. A helped out and witnessed ma life’s story and conversion as often as a could.

 A heard that not all the clergy were for The Revival, but none preached agin it, in the Presbyterian churches anyway. They didnay like the strange happenings, the fainting and the like, but that was God and the Holy Spirit workin among us. I heard too that some of them spoke out agin the few women preachers we had and some even suggestin to raise the black man to a higher station than God intended.

West Church Presbyterian Church, Ballymena completed 1863. (Ballymena Old Photos, facebook)

A was a Christian man after that, nere backsliding. An a joined with ma family again. When the Revival spread to Ballymena there was a great excitement, folks meetin everywhere, even in the streets we many youngsters among them. Thousands more were born again in the Lord Jesus. The old churches couldnay hold them all, an in 59 a helped build Ballymena’s new West Church. And a was witnessin whenever a could at some of the hundreds of meetins goin on at the time.

The Lord was good to me and a was never short of a day’s work again. A met a young Christian woman, Eliza from ma homeplace, and we were married in 1867. Although a was getting on in years by then we had four fine children. God blessed our union. They were raised in the strict Christian faith.  Way us, they kept the Sabbath day and went tay Sabbath school, and way all had regular Bible study and prayed together often. Every one of them grew up to have a trade, so they wouldnay end up a day labourer the likes a me. This town values their trades, with honest work and effort, for it is the will of God too.

A hope you hear, and heed this story of an old man, a lost sinner who repented and earned the rewards of a life with Jesus.”



1.  Robert McWilliams was born in 1822 died about 1906. He was a widower of about 45 years when he married Eliza Bamber, aged 25. Both were from Kildowney, Glarryford, 5 ½ miles north west of Ballymena. In 1901 the family were living at 8 Alexander Street in Ballymena.

2. The Ulster Awakening, John Weir, published 1860. A contemporary and sympathetic view of The Revival, with many eyewitness reports.

3. A pictorial History of 1859 Revival, Stanley Barnes, Ambassador Publications, 2008.

4. The 1859 revival and its enemies: opposition to religious revivalism within Ulster Presbyterianism, Daniel Richie, 2016

5.  Medicine and religion: on the physical and mental disorders that accompanied the Ulster Revival of 1859, James G. Donat, published in The Anatomy of Madness, Essays in the History of Psychiatry, ed. Bynum, Porter and Sepherd, Vol III, first published 1988. Donat refers to The Lancet’s response to the Revival: “The Lancet saw no redeeming features in the movement, viewing it instead as an exercise in ‘fanaticism’ and the direct cause of an epidemical outbreak of disease.” Concluding, Donat says that “For the former (the critics, smcw) all cases of ‘religious excitement’ were indicative of faulty religion. And the latter (the apologists, smcw) were obliged to accept the fact that the Ulster Revival did have a few serious mental casualties.”