The term Wee Free was an epithet commonly used to distinguish two Scottish Presbyterian Churches after the union of 1900: The Free Kirk and The United Free Kirk. Since the United Free were approximately 25 times larger, but hard to distinguish without some knowledge of Scottish history and theology, the rhyming Scottish diminutive became used as an epithet of the post 1900 Free Kirk. The epithet Wee Free was also applied to a small group in the 1918 Liberal Party who on principle did not want to go into coalition with the Conservative Party. The Wee Free Liberals either did not get, or refused, the coupon signed by David Lloyd George of the Liberals and Bonar Law of the Conservatives.[1] The Wee Free in modern usage is used, usually in a pejorative way, of any small group who because of their, arguably obscure, religious principles choose to remain outside or separate from a larger body. A Wee Free attitude might show as a preference for being part of a smaller but ideologically sound group rather than a larger compromised one.[2] Terry Pratchet’s Wee Free Men is an epithet for his Nac Mac Feegle who appear in some of his Discworld novels. He denied they are caricatures of Scots or churchmen saying “The Nac Mac Feegle are not Scottish. There is no Scotland on Discworld. They may, in subtle ways, suggest some aspects of the Scottish character as filtered through the media, but that's because of quantum.".[3]


In 1900 the Free Church was the second largest Presbyterian church in Scotland after its exit from the Auld Kirk in 1843 known as the Disruption.[4] In the years leading up to 1900 the Free Kirk and the more theologically liberal United Presbyterian Church aligned themselves with each other with full union as the goal. This led to Declaratory Articles being passed by their General Assemblies, changing or clarifying their doctrine so that there would be no barrier to union. The Free Kirk’s Declaratory Act of 1892 was objected to by a minority some of whom formed the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which continues to this day. Eight years later when Scotland’s second and third largest Presbyterian denominations formally unified, a small group chose to stay outside the union. They were given the epithet the Wee Free Church (or Wee Frees) and, since they appealed to Caesar[5] through the Scottish Courts and right up to the House of Lords, they became well known and the phrase passed into common usage. The Lords decision in the case of Bannatyne v Overtoun was in favour of the small body, a decision which surprised many.


A pair of rhyming jibes remain from the time of the heated split of the Disruption in 1843 when about a third[6] of the Auld Kirk of Scotland left to form the Free Kirk. The Free Kirkers who had sometimes given up homes as well as church buildings and started financially from scratch were taunted with the rhyme: “The Free Kirk, the wee kirk the kirk without the steeple.” This rhyme linking the Free Kirk with the derogatory diminutive "wee" was offensive and a reply was devised in: “The Auld Kirk, the cauld kirk, the kirk without the people.” It may even have been known in America.[7]


The Wee Free Liberals[8] included Donald Maclean who were Liberals but did not go into the coalition of David Lloyd George with the Conservatives of Bonar Law when he took over from H. H. Asquith as leader of the Liberals. There were around 31 Wee Free MPs although political boundaries were not black and white.[9]

Modern UsageEdit

Terry Pratchet’s Wee Free Men or Nac Mac Feegles are about 6 inches tall, have blue skin being heavily tattooed and all have red hair. The Feegles are often drunkards, who are niggardly[10] and enjoy fighting and stealing. The immense strength and rowdiness of these pictsies (from Picts)[11] means that they will fight anything, and they have a fondness for headbutting creatures far larger than themselves. The Wee Free Men is currently being adapted into a film by Terry’s daughter Rhianna[12] along with The Jim Henson Company famous for their muppets. Denominations other than the Free Church are also regularly called Wee Frees in the press. For example the Free Presbyterians,[13][14] and even the United Free[15][16] (the very body the name was supposed to distinguish from) are called by the epithet. The Free Church has publicly tried to distance itself from the name calling it a "derogatory and offensive slur".[17][18] However some people inside[19] the denomination and outside[20] don’t mind, even if it causes some to cringe. David Robertson, a Free Church minister, uses a version of it in his blog after being called a flea by a well known atheist.[21]

The Wee Wee FreesEdit

Timeline showing the evolution of the churches of Scotland from 1560 including pejorative epithets

There is no group specifically known as the Wee Wee Frees. Groups coming out of the Free Church include the Free Presbyterian Church[22][23] in 1893 from which the Associated Presbyterian Churches split in 1989. The Free Church (Continuing) sometimes is labelled with the derogatory Wee Wee Free or even Wee Wee Wee Free term.[24]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Beaverbrook, Lord (1963). The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George (first ed.). New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce. p. 14. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  2. ^ Maguire, Patrick (18 September 2018). "Vince Cable's "exotic spresm" moment disguises bigger questions for the Liberal Democrats". New Statesman. Retrieved 18 September 2018.
  3. ^ Breebaart, Leo; Kew, Mike. "The Wee Free Men Annotations". APF. The L-space web. Retrieved 1 May 2017.
  4. ^ "Church at crossroads over issue of gays in the clergy". The Scotsman. 23 May 2011. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  5. ^ Moncrieff, A. R. Hope (1922). Bonnie Scotland (2nd ed.). London: A. & C. Black. p. 240. Retrieved 27 April 2017.
  6. ^ Moffat, Alistair (31 January 2000). "Good riddance to the Wee Frees". New Statesman. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  7. ^ Mills, Frank Moody (1914). Home-made jinglets cast in the rough at odd times. Sioux Falls, South Dakota: Sessions-Mannix Co. p. 63. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  8. ^ The Campaign Guide (14 ed.). London: The National Unionist Association. 1922. pp. 80–82. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  9. ^ Douglas, Roy (2005). A History of the Liberal and Liberal Democratic Parties. London: A&C Black. p. 185. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  10. ^ Breebaart, Leo; Kew, Mike. "The Wee Free Men Annotations". APF. The L-space web. Retrieved 1 May 2017.
  11. ^ "'My Wee Frees are Glasgow smurfs' Pratchett denies trying to parody Scottish churches". The Herald. 25 April 2003. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  12. ^ "Wee Free Men announcement". Retrieved 2016-07-19.
  13. ^ Munro, Alasdair (19 June 2012). "Scottish independence: Self rule would be a 'provocation of God' say Wee Frees". The Scotsman. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  14. ^ Burns, Janice (1 July 2012). "Bible-basher Beat Children With Leather Belt". The Daily Record. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  15. ^ Duke, Barry (11 November 2010). "'Wee Frees' minister wins lottery but his church won't see a penny of the dosh". The Free Thinker. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  16. ^ "Obituary - Craigie Aitchison". The Telegraph. 21 December 2009. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  17. ^ "Media enquiries". Free Church of Scotland. Retrieved 23 April 2017.
  18. ^ "Free Church in plea over nickname "Wee Frees"". BBC News. 22 February 2013. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  19. ^ "Such a messy schism". The Herald. 1 February 2000. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  20. ^ "Spendidly Pointless Second City Debate". The Financial Times. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  21. ^ Robertson, David. "The Wee Flea". Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  22. ^ Evans, Andrew. "Sabbath on Skye". Digital Nomad 20 September 2013. National Geographic. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  23. ^ Peterkin, Tom (16 December 2002). "Spinster's £1m to Wee Wee Frees". The Telegraph. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  24. ^ Cramb, Auslan (13 April 2006). "The 'sinners' set sail for the Hebrides". Telegraph Media Group Limited. The Telegraph. Retrieved 18 September 2018.