In his first year at Urquhart his wife died, but he insisted on performing the annual communion service that was due to be taken. This was celebrated in a natural amphitheatre called the ‘Burn of Ferintosh.’ Around 10,000 attended the service there. The congregation, knowing the loss of their pastor, were quiet and often tearful as he spoke. According to his biographer this was the beginning of an awakening, ‘in the evening he appealed to the unconverted…The excitement at last was very great, the groans and outcries of the stricken ones sometimes drowning the voice of the preacher. During the closing services on Monday the same scene was repeated. In his diary, which he began at the start of 1816, he notes that within two years 58 came to the Lord, with only 12 from his own parish.
This is how William Laidlaw, Sir Walter Scott's friend, writes of a communion service at the famous Burn' near Ferintosh, in Ross-shire:
The people here gather in thousands to the Sacraments, as they did in Ettrick in Boston's time We set out on Sabbath to the communion at Ferintosh, near Dingwall, to which the people resort from fifty miles distant. Dr. MacDonald, the minister, who attracts this concourse of persons, was the son of a weaver in Caithness (but from the Celtic population of the mountains there). He preached the sermon in the church in English, with a command of language, and a justness of tone, action, and reasoning—keeping close to the pure metaphysics of Calvin —that I have seldom, if ever, heard surpassed. He had great energy on all points, but it never touched on extravagance.
'The Gaelic congregation sat in a dell or "cleuch" of a long, hollow, oval shape bordered with hazel, birch and wild roses. It seemed to be formed for the purpose. We walked around the outside of the congregated thousands and looked down on the glen from the upper end, and the scene was really indescribable.
'Two-thirds of those present were women, dressed mostly in large, high, wide, muslin caps, the back part standing up like the head of a paper kite, and ornamented with ribbons. They had wrapped around them bright coloured plaid shawls, the predominant hue being scarlet.
‘It was a warm breezy day, one of the most glorious in June. The place will be about half a mile from the Firth, on the south side, and at an elevation of five hundred feet. Dingwall was just obvious at the foot of Ben Wyvis, still spotted with wreaths of snow. Over the town, with its modern castle, its church, and Lombardy poplars, we saw imp the richly cultivated valley of Strathpeffer.
‘The tufted rocks and woods of Brahan were a few miles to the south, and fields of wheat and potatoes, separated by hedgerows of trees, intervened. Farther off, the high peaked mountains that divide the county of Inverness from Ross-shire towered in the distance.
‘I never saw such a scene. We sat down on the brae among the people, the long white communion tables being conspicuous at the bottom. The congregation began singing the psalm to one of the old plaintive wild tunes that I am told are only sung in the Gaelic service. The people all sing, but in such an extended multitude they could not sing together. They chanted, as it were, in masses or large groups. I can compare the singing to nothing earthly, except it be imagining what would be the effect of a gigantic and tremendous Aeolian harp, with hundreds of strings! There was, no resisting the impression. 'After coming a little to myself I went and paced the length and breadth of the amphitheatre, taking averages and carefully noting, as well as I could, how the people were sitting together, and I could not in this way make less than nine thousand five hundred, besides those in the church, amounting, perhaps, to one thousand five hundred.
'Most of the gentlemen of the neighbourhood, with their families, were there. I enjoyed the scene as something perfect in its way, and of rare beauty and excellence.'
Many ministers have held meetings in this natural amphitheatre.