Eleven years ago, as a young journalist, I found myself at the centre of the split in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, following the discipline of Lord Mackay of Clashfern for hearing Requiem Mass. Again, I find myself most close to schism, in this instance in the Free Church of Scotland (the two bodies are entirely separate, though often confused), and the phone rings with the same unedifying tales of disputed buildings, sundered relationships, preposterous soundbites, and inventive journalism.

I once read of a foolish Englishman, of a tiny chapel in a smoky town, who told an acquaintance with glee ''our church was rent for the glory of God''. Churches may be split, but it is seldom to the glory of Christ or the advancement of His kingdom. In Harris, at least, the Free Church is literally a pub joke. You would, after all, have to be a fool to admire the spectacle of the former Free Church minister in Leverburgh preaching last Sabbath, at the nadir of a career so obdurate as to border on the heroic, to a gathering variously reported as five, eight, or nine people. Only their mothers could delight in the outrageous behaviour of the former Free Church elders of Scalpay, who recently crowned a decade of ignorant malevolence by, after a secret meeting late on a Saturday, sending insolent word to the appointed Free Church minister not to come. The elders have since unlawfully occupied

the church building and denied access to the loyal Free Church congregation of that island: the minister, turning up to conduct worship as he was obliged to do, was blocked from the door. (In a Providence which has caused gentle delight in Harris, the church's belfry fell in a gale on Friday, the rubble crashing where those men of God physically barred a minister from entering to preach the Gospel.) The Free Presbyterian division was, at least, swift and largely civilised: protagonists confined their passion to cross letters in the press. The Associated Presbyterian secession was, besides, founded on personal regard for two men whom their admirers genuinely considered had been wronged: Lord Mackay and Rev Alexander Murray. The Free Church split has been several toxic years in the making. Its motivation, notoriously, is manifest hostility to one man, and the business has been messy. Securing

Free Church buildings in North Uist from the secession forced loyalists to bizarre physical actions for a Sabbath: a window had to be broken at one place of worship, at another the door was forced by one man's shoulder-charge, according to one report; by a rabble with a battering-ram, according to another.

The seceders - the body is impudently styled the ''Free Church of Scotland Continuing'': it is composed of 32 ministers, 15 retired or without charge, and 300 members, with perhaps another 200 hangers-on - are not without media cunning. The minister of the tiny Portmahomack congregation, Rev John MacLeod, had no sooner seceded than he called the police, requesting their presence on Sabbath: as he imaginatively put it, another minister was to try to impose himself on his congregation. Mr MacLeod thoughtfully told the press of his fears, with the predictable result that on Sabbath morning Portmahomack heaved with journalists. He had his photo in all the papers and the wider church cringed in shame.

The affair generally has not been to the credit of the fourth estate. News reports repeatedly confuse the Free Church and the Free Presbyterian Church, and there has been much lazy reporting. It is easy for a hack at Radio nan Gaidheal to phone Rev Rentaquote in Glenravin and obediently publicise whatever piece of canon law nonsense Rev Rentaquote is up to this week; much easier than digging into the tangled affairs of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar or investigating the disbursements of Comataidh Telebhisean Gaidhlig but seldom to edification. There have been times in the year past when certain Highland reporters seem almost to be on a propaganda brief for those now seceded, so fulsomely and uncritically did they broadcast their fulminations.

Yet it is still more maddening to read, in London papers and elsewhere, flippant observations on the ''latest Scottish schism'', and colourful descriptions of the fragmented Presbyterian tradition. Scottish Presbyterianism is not nearly as splintered as the ignorant imagine. At least 90% of all Presbyterians in Scotland still adhere to the national Kirk, which despite its woes and stumblings has still a bigger part in the nation's life than the Church of England can claim furth of Hadrian's Wall. The Free Church schism, for all its noise, involves dozens, not hundreds: at least nine-tenths of the membership have stood firm.

One might also observe that when Presbyterian churches have broken in Scotland it has almost always been as the result of English meddling. The Secession of 1733, the creation of the Relief Church in 1761, the great Disruption of 1843: these ruptures were a reaction to ''patronage'': the alien principle of isolating the appointment of parish ministers to lairds, and denying congregations any say in the election. Patronage was imposed on Scotland by Parliament in 1712, in direct breach of the Articles of Union, and was not repealed until 1879.

Likewise, the present Free Church division and, some might argue, the Free Presbyterian split of 1989 owes much to the interference of incomers and outsiders. Assorted Englishmen, Australians, and lowland weirdos have leafleted, demonstrated, and agitated, repeatedly defying the authority of the General Assembly and the decisions of the Free Church's supreme court. These men spring from a different, alien background, schooled in the hysterical hair-splitting of English Independency and strangers both to Scottish toleration and

Highland common sense. They are big on Geneva and far from Galilee. The younger elements are reminiscent of the Trotskyite ''entryists'' who plagued the Labour Party 20 years ago: fanatics who have joined the broad church in search of a meal-ticket and a good rammie.

The term ''Wee Free'' was coined around 1904, when the Free Church won legal title to her name and assets against the much larger United Free Church; the epithet is today used of both Free and Free Presbyterian traditions. It makes many cringe. I have always rather delighted in it. The Wee Free tradition is one of people who put principle before property, and their most cherished beliefs before the good opinion of the world. It is realistic, exemplified in the sonorous praise of the Psalms rather than the sugary syncopation of the hymn book. But it is also most practical, earnest and at its best profoundly Christ-centred. In a Scotland increasingly abandoned to superstition; with a political elite indifferent to the country's Reformed heritage; with Tom Winning measuring up for a white zuchetto - the demise of the Free and Free Presbyterian traditions would be a loss woeful indeed.

My own spirituality is intensely personal, in good measure confused; and I keep a cautious distance from the power of ministers, elders, and church-courts. As a young man I was badly hurt by a spiteful minister now mercifully away with the secession and in recent years I have seen enough hate, malice, and vendetta in the name of Christ; matched only by the uncomprehending indifference of lookers-on. Yet I retain, through the knocks and horrors of life, a stubborn belief in Providence: a belief that all things, in the end, are done well. I mean more than a grim fatalism: I mean belief, somehow, in a final and benevolent intelligence, serene and competent and far beyond our own passions, fears, and failings. In recent years the adherents of the Highland churches have had their fill, and more than their fill, of the wine of astonishment. But the work continues: the Gospel is still preached,

the Psalm still lifted. There is no profit, for any of us, in picking over the irreparable, irrevocable past. ''Child,'' said Aslan, ''did I not explain to you once before that no-one is ever told what would have happened?''