The district of Ness, in the parish of Cross, by the Butt of Lewis, at the north-western extremity of Lewis. It's a flat, windswept place, oddly beautiful and still well peopled. There are rows of houses with adjoining peatstacks everywhere and the visitor feels constantly watched.

Ness is, even today, a stronghold of the Free Church of Scotland, where the gospel that swept Lewis with such power in the nineteenth century has not lost its stamp on community values. By night, when the television is off and the stove is warm, they still remember a stern Victorian minister, a godly man with a gift for prophecy.

As a child, Duncan MacBeath dreamed of planting flowers here. As a portly, white-haired cleric, he was finally driven to tether's end by a bunch of insolent critics. So he said, before witnesses: ''None of those people will die lying down.''

It was no curse or malediction. But, in time, and indisputably, none of them did. Four men and one woman perished as he predicted. And so what was to become known as MacBeath's Controversy began. It is a story of a divided church, fierce convictions and mysterious deaths.

The Rev Duncan MacBeath was born in Applecross in 1830. By 1850 he was a lay preacher in Inverness and in 1870 he decided to train for the ministry. In 1878 he was sent to the pastorless Free Church at Ness. Unfortunately, Kenneth MacPherson had beaten MacBeath to the place. Like almost everyone involved in MacBeath's Controversy, Kenneth MacPherson was not a native of Ness. He was born in Stornoway about 1825, and is remembered as a very tall man with a strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln.

He had three brothers who went to sea. In three different storms, all were lost. Kenneth MacPherson became a schoolteacher, first in the Point area of Lewis and then at Galson, at the very south of Ness. In 1853, two years before the village was savagely cleared, MacPherson quit Galson for Lionel, in the north of Ness parish. He became a catechist, salaried to go about houses and interrogate folk on doctrine.

He kept services with some skill. He also treated the sick; for Ness folk were lucky if they saw a doctor four times a year. His treatments were Epsom salts, cream of tartar, and blood-letting, and not too many people died. As if all this were not enough, MacPherson eventually became the district's postmaster.

It was very much at MacPherson's directive that Duncan MacBeath became minister of the Free Church, for by 1879 the schoolmaster had acquired great airs and powers that were not rightly his.

It is Presbyterian custom that each year a kirk session elects a different elder to represent a parish at presbytery and synod. MacPherson came to hold the honour in perpetuity. He also held irregular kirk session meetings in Lionel, often with deacons present - which is improper - and without an elder from the south end of the parish, which is most improper, indeed. Without even a congregational meeting, MacPherson and his cronies decided to make MacBeath minister of Ness. A petition was duly presented, signed by 1,328 and sent all the way to the General Assembly in Edinburgh.

Impressed by this display of devotion, the Free Church gave them MacBeath. His tests for ordination included two sermons and he was examined in theology and church history. Oddly, he was not examined in Greek or Hebrew. It would be unkind to suggest he was rather thick; but in Victorian Scotland there were more ministers abegging than there were congregations, so his installation is all the odder.

Yet, to this day MacBeath's name is revered. He was an experimental preacher, more inclined to discuss Christian experience than to teach deep doctrine. He was given to anecdotes and little verses and was inclined to rebuke. He had another gift, too. There was a girl from Lionel, Annie Murray, who worked in MacBeath's manse, and one Sabbath they were clean out of water. She sneaked to the well while no one was looking and drew a pail. There was no earthly way the minister could have known of the Sabbath-breaking. But he took one sip, turned and firmly ticked her off.

However, a handful of good but self-important men - men who had been among his most ardent supporters, including MacPherson - turned against him when he refused to be their puppet. They miscalled the pastor in their houses. They resisted him at kirk session. Anything MacBeath proposed they automatically resisted. There were little digs, in public prayer and in the testimonies of Christian men on the Friday of a Communion.

Things soon centred on MacBeath's dream of a new church. He wanted a big, new church built at Cross, a more central location. MacPherson and his group opposed this. They wanted improvements to the old, thatched church

at Lionel. MacPherson even held an illicit

deacon's court there, to order fund-raising for the Lionel building. He began to hold Lionel services in competition with Mr MacBeath's endeavours at Dell.

And so, in exasperated Gaelic, MacBeath prophesied that none of his bugbears - not Kenneth MacPherson; not Anne MacPherson, with her clattering tongue; not Murdo MacKay and Malcolm MacDonald from Bragar; not the fiery James Finlayson from Back - would die in their beds. Nothing daunted, their criticism mounted. Generations later, stories of it are retold. ''Now it's said Mr MacBeath had agreed to baptise the schoolmaster's baby daughter at home,'' says Norman Smith, ''but earlier he had refused to do the same for another child, though the mother was too ill to go to church. My great-grandfather objected and so did Malcolm MacDonald. That's the story, anyway.''

Norman is a great-grandson of Murdo MacKay and lives on the site of his house. Norman is a veteran of Anzio and a keen local historian. He regularly tends the counter of the wonderful village store, the sort of little Highland emporium that has stacked shelves, a mighty counter and sells pandrops, paraffin and the Free Presbyterian magazine.

But Norman is careful when he talks about MacBeath's Controversy. ''That's still a sensitive subject in these parts,'' he says with a soft smile. ''But, you know, Mr MacBeath's memory is

fragrant in all the churches in Ness. I never heard a word in my own family against him. He was a man of God and they say that gift of prophecy ran in his people.''

Norman leans on his elbow. ''You know,'' he says, ''it is said that when Mr MacBeath was a little boy, he had a dream. He went to his grandfather, a good man, and the child said, 'Seanair, I dreamed that I was planting flowers in a place called Ness'. And the old man said to the boy, 'Well, maybe one day you will'.''

MacDonald and MacKay preferred sheep to flowers. In what, for less gracious men, one would be tempted to describe as a decided huff against the minister, they sailed in June 1884 for a winter's shepherding on the deserted island of North Rona, 45 miles north-west of the Butt.

It is said omens were ignored; dead Rona sheep had been washed up by the waves. One daughter had twice unpacked her father's clothes from his chest to put him off the trip.

Twice that August a boatload sailed to Rona to visit them. The two men were well, but upset after sailors had landed and stolen a sheep. So the storms of winter came in and Rona and its two residents were cut off from the world.

A Ness expedition that October had to be

cancelled. The weather, too, put paid to a November trip. In Ness the days shortened, nights lengthened. MacBeath's critics defiantly extended the Lionel services. They were now held every Sabbath, morning and evening.

Someone noticed that the MacPhersons had not gone to Dell to hear the minister for weeks. ''I haven't the clothes,'' said Anne MacPherson, less than convincingly.

On October 25 her body was found in a ditch in Cross, beside what is now the car park of the modern church. Unseen in the night, she had collapsed and died. Mrs MacPherson was 65. The unease in the district mounted.

There was a family in the Habost township who were notorious for seeing ghosts. One night the father called to a lad: ''I am expecting a knock in an hour's time - it came last night. Go to the door when it comes, but don't approach him.'' The knock came. The son opened the door; the visitor took a step back and vanished. ''Did you recognise him?'' called the father. ''No, unless he was one of the men on Rona. There's something wrong on Rona.''

Donald MacKenzie, from Tolsta, a good man married to a Ness woman, prayed regularly for the Rona shepherds and one morning he exclaimed: 'The streams of prayer dried up two days ago,'' as if they were no longer in the land of the living and in need of prayer.

In Barvas lived a woman called Fionnaghal Bheag, eminent for holiness, and one night in the spring of 1885 she was constrained to pray for the men on Rona. She strongly sensed that MacKay was dead. Urgently she sent word to Dr Ross at Borve that there had been a death in Rona and someone should set sail immediately.

On April 22 the smack Lilly sailed from Port of Ness with a fresh party of shepherds in some alarm. Concern grew as they approached the landing place; no one was on the shore to greet them, no smoke rose from the bothy. They splashed ashore and ran up, and there, on the ground outside the door, lay the body of Malcolm MacDonald.

He had been dead for weeks. Inside, on the floor by the dead fire, lay the remains of Murdo MacKay. His face had been neatly covered with a shirt and the corpse wrapped in a plaid.

The visitors panicked. They hastily wrapped the bodies in canvas, buried them in Rona's ancient graveyard, and returned to Ness with the news. Within a few days the Daily Mail had sensational reports of the deaths. Irritation grew in Ness that the remains had not been brought home; questions were even asked in parliament. The Crown Office directed Stornoway's procurator fiscal to investigate.

On May 26 a party returned to the island - the depute fiscal, a policeman, two doctors and Donald MacDonald, Malcolm's son, who had brought two coffins.

The bodies were exhumed for what must have been, by then, most unpleasant autopsies. The house was examined. It held an abundance of food and even a small, wooden, homemade calendar. The last notches were fainter, as if the marker was growing weak. It was calculated that the last was cut on February 17. The doctors reported that MacKay and MacDonald had died of natural causes; the remains were coffined and reburied.

The crew of a Grimsby trawler were later prosecuted at Stornoway for stealing seal oil, groceries and other effects from Rona that May. They seem to have looted the island between the two Ness visits. A gravestone, today much weathered and illegible, marks where MacKay and MacDonald lie.

It seems MacKay fell ill and died. MacDonald was able to dress the remains, but too weak to remove them for burial. At length horror drove him outside and he succumbed to exposure.

Mr MacBeath and his deacons' court pressed on for the new Cross church. MacPherson and Finlayson continued to resist. The widowed teacher, who had doted on his wife, repaired miserably to his daughter's house in Galson.

On July 28, 1886, a neighbour saw the old man wander from the house towards the shore. He was the last soul to see MacPherson alive. And, indeed, the last who saw MacPherson at

all. Nothing was ever found. The catechist, schoolmaster and would-be physician had disappeared into thin air.

It seems probable that MacPherson, 72 and ailing, blundered into the sea. The currents around the Butt are strong and many lost over the years have never been recovered.

As the new church rose, the church at Dell was substantially reduced. When the roof went on at Cross, MacBeath went to test the acoustics. He stood and prayed, and gave his opinion that it would be a hard church to preach in. He never tried. Mr MacBeath died, rather suddenly, on October 9, 1891. He is buried at the top of the Swainbost cemetery. The MacPherson grave is at the bottom.

Completed, the new Free Church was opened in 1892, and to this day is the largest church built in Lewis. It seats 1,400 in comfort and once, in 1968, held 2,000.

Reduced to only a quarter of its size, there was much slate left over from the diminished Free Church at Dell. But when Finlayson and friends came from the north of Ness with their carts, eager to haul off slate for their cherished meeting house at Lionel, the folk of Dell drove them off. Finlayson, in high dudgeon, demanded a meeting of the deacon's court. It met, and failed to agree with him. He walked out and never returned.

It is very easy to find Peggy Gillies's house on the road behind Lionel because it has a sign on the gable saying Peggy Gillies in big letters. Mrs Gillies is the widow of the Rev Donald Gillies. Her father was lost in the dreadful Iolaire disaster of January 1, 1919. He was one of nearly 200 Lewis survivors of the Great War who drowned in a calamitous shipwreck at the mouth of Stornoway harbour.

Peggy can still remember that night and is often interviewed on the tragedy. She has a jotter full of Gaelic love-songs her husband made for her and a head full of lore. She has striking green eyes.

''Mr MacBeath wasn't a learned man, you know, and they held that against him, though they weren't learned themselves. So there they were, and it was agreed - well, they claimed it was agreed - that the Lionel people would get half the roof at Dell. So the Lionel crowd went up to Dell, and the Dell people came after them and drove them away. And Finlayson was in a row at the Session. He stormed out and never came back, and they say that is how the Free Presbyterians started in Skigersta.''

Finlayson died in 1909; a Gaelic lament appears in the Free Presbyterian Magazine. ''They were saying, you know, 'Well, here's one who's going to die in his bed after all'. He wasn't well,'' says Peggy. ''But on his deathbed he saw the sun on the shore, at Skigersta, a lovely day. So out he went, to sit by the sea - and there he died, outside the house.''

And that was that.

Mr MacBeath's manse still stands at Dell, derelict for almost a century, but remarkably intact. No one has dared to occupy or to demolish the last home of the ferocious old minister.

Not far away, just over the brow of the hill, bulldozers dig and claw the ground as blocks rise on the foundations of a most recent schism; a new church for the witness of the Free Church Continuing.

High at Swainbost, his grave, the marble plaque still remarkably bright, watches over the rest. The sea breaks by the Butt; somewhere, perhaps, amid summer's dancing grass, a little boy is gathering flowers. n