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Scenes of the Scottish Covenanters


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The Scottish Covenanting conflict covered a period of half a century - between the years 1637 and 1688. Scotland never witnessed a blacker or a bloodier episode in her whole history. The love of freedom has ever burned itself deeply in upon the soul of the Scottish people, and it was this sense of freedom which lay at the root of the great Covenanting struggle. Its one contention was for liberty to worship in the manner which most appealed to the national conscience, and which the national conscience considered to be in harmony with the mind and will of God and the teaching of the Scriptures. Prelacy and Popery were utterly abhorrent to the Scottish ideal. Whatever savoured of priestcraft and the Mass was anathema to those who believed there could be no human medium intervening between the soul and its Maker.

Under the Reformed Church, set up in 1560 by John Knox and his associates, the country was cut adrift from the curse of Roman Catholicism and the Presbyterian system acclaimed as the religion of the land. There were those, however, who adhered to the old order, and who hoped for the time when it would be resuscitated in something like its ancient power. Episcopacy prevailed in England, and to bring the northern half of the kingdom into line with the religion of the south was their constant aim and firm resolve.

The most determined of those instruments was King James VI himself, aided and abetted by prelatic sympathisers in both countries. James accepted not only the dogma of the divine right of kingcraft, but episcopacy, he held, was no less according to God's appointment. It was, he said, "the religion of a gentleman." Under James's regime the order of bishops was fully restored in the Church and in the councils of the State, and very soon the Church of Scotland was as Episcopal as it had been Roman Catholic in pre-Reformation days. No betterness came with the advent of Charles I - matters grew worse and worse. It was Charles's attempt to foist upon the Church the use of a liturgy prepared by Archbishop Laud, and little better than the Roman breviary, which became the fons et origo of the Covenanting Cause.

On Sunday, July 23, 1637, the new manual was ordered to be introduced into all the churches. Dean Hannay officiated in the High Kirk of Edinburgh - S. Giles Cathedral. He had read but a few sentences when the pent-up anger of his congregation manifested itself in unmistakable fashion. Audible whispers stole through the building, followed by the debacle in which Jenny Geddes figured so conspicuously. Constant tradition affirms how a humble vegetable-hawker hurled her creepy-stool at the Dean's head, shouting out: "Thou false thief, dost thou say Mass at my lug?" An unseemly brawl, perhaps, but it served its purpose, a tocsin sounding forth its summons to the nation. For so was the first blow struck in that mighty battle for religious and civil liberty which did not cease till the whole obnoxious system of Prelacy-cum-Papacy was swept away, and with it the Stuart dynasty.

On February 28, 1638, the National Covenant was signed in Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh. Dr. Hay Fleming claims to have disproved the popular tradition of a flat stone in the churchyard having been utilised as a table for signatures, many of these being written, not in ink, but in the witness's own blood. Dr. Fleming maintains the Covenant was signed in the church alone. But tradition is not easily slain, even if it has been shown that by the light of candles and cruisies the sacred edifice was used for this purpose, long after nightfall. No unanswerable argument has been adduced against the oft-repeated, romantic story of the stone. A General Assembly held at Glasgow in November drove the bishops from their sees and restored Presbyterian-ism. "We have cast down the walls of Jericho," said the Moderator. Alexander Henderson, minister of Leuchars, "let him that rebuildeth them beware of the curse of Hiel the Bethelite." Charles's threat of Civil War was speedily extinguished, although the royal army and the forces of the Covenanters (camped upon Duns Law, in Berwickshire, where the Covenanters' Stone is still seen) faced each other for some days.

In 1643 a new bond - the Scottish League and Covenant (often confused with that of 1638) was approved by Parliament, and provided for the extiration of Popery and Prelacy within the three Kingdoms. The execution of the king proved a backward stroke to peace. The Scots proclaimed Charles II, and dispatched an embassy to interview him at The Hague. Charles (not so good a man as his father) declined the conditions under which the great Marquess of Argyll and his coadjutors laid the crown at his feet. With a handful of foreign mercenaries the Marquess of Montrose hastened to raise the country against Argyll and the League, a foolish and disastrous adventure which brought about the unmerited death of one of the gallantest men who ever handled a sword.

In 1651 Charles was crowned at Scone, solemnly swearing to uphold the Covenant. The Cromwellian dictatorship (tolerant to Scotland, although Oliver inhibited meetings of the General Assembly) saw Charles an exile in France. On May 29, 1660, he re-entered London, and June 19 was celebrated in Edinburgh as a Thanksgiving for the Restoration. On New Year's Day, 1661, Middleton's notorious "Drunken Parliament" met, to pass, in the course of its brief career, numerous Acts, the most execrable and hateful in the annals of the Scottish Statute-book. Everything became centred in the supremacy of Charles. He was given absolute despotism over Church and State, and on September 6 Episcopacy was re-established.

Meanwhile sinister events had occurred even while Middleton's Parliament was in progress. Some of Scotland's best sons were marked out for martyrdom. On May 27, 1661, Argyll, his country's sagest statesman, the foremost citizen in Scotland, sealed his testimony with his blood. "I could die like a Roman," he said on his way to the scaffold, "but I choose to die like a Christian." Ere another week had passed James Guthrie, minister of Stirling, was hanged at the Cross of Edinburgh. His last words were, "The Covenants, the Covenants shall yet be Scotland's reviving."

The saint and scholar of the Covenant, Samuel Rutherford, marked out for a similar fate, was mercifully delivered from it by illness and death supervening. Of all the shrines of the Covenant none is better known than "fair Anwoth by the Sol way," Rutherford's beautiful parish, from which he was ejected and banished to Aberdeen, where he penned those celebrated Letters which exercised a more potent religious influence than all his pulpit prelections. His "Lex Rex" was the text-book of the Covenanters of Scotland.

With the rehabilitation of Prelacy there appeared on the scene the most prominent and most unprincipled of those turncoat divines for whom a traitorous trimming to the circumstances of the hour probably never cost them a moment's thought. James Sharp, minister of Crail, sent to London to safeguard the interests of the Kirk and to seek the goodwill of the king, returned to Scotland as head of the new hierarchy - Archbishop of St. Andrews. No emissary of the powers of darkness could have been more hostile or more vindictive. Sharp's hand can be traced in all the horrible and despicable incidents of his eighteen years of Primacy. With his connivance, and often at his express orders, severities were heaped on severities upon the Presbyterians, who numbered the great majority of the people, especially in the centre and south and west of Scotland. Persecution opened its voracious maw day by day, until in 1662 Parliament decreed that all ministers appointed after 1649 (when patronage was abolished) could hold their charges only on a fresh presentation from the patron and collation by the Bishop. A third of the incumbents, about 400, forsook their benefices rather than betray conscience. "Scotland," says Robert Wodrow, "was never witness to such a Sunday as the last on which the ministers preached."

When Alexander Peden, known as the "Prophet of the Covenant," parted with his people at New Luce, after shutting his pulpit door he struck it three times with his Bible, dramatically exclaiming, "I arrest thee in my Master's name that none enter thee but such as come by the door as I have done."

Many of the deprived ministers continued to reside in their parishes, giving origin to the memorable Conventicle movement, those secret proscribed meetings in private houses and among sequestered nooks of the hills and fields, which constituted the most tragic yet the most splendidly heroic feature of Covenant times. Not seldom thousands of people participated. The spot selected was usually a remote solitude; a stretch of heathery moorland, the edge of a broad morass, the lee of a thick plantation, a secluded slope or "hope" among the mountains, or the bend of a stream, and always where keen-sighted watchers could be told off to give the alarm to the worshippers in case of need.

No assembly could have been more solemn or more uplifting. Round about the company of reverent-minded worshippers lay the grand sublimities of Nature. Near by might be the hallowing presence of a martyr's grave. The preacher and precentor took up a position from which they could be seen and heard by all. With full-throated voice of praise the familiar psalm was sung, and in the hush of prayer the bleating of a sheep, the flapping of a wild bird's wing, the cry of an infant, alone broke the stillness.

The celebration of the most impressive of the Church's ordinances - the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper - became almost more a heavenly feast when men and women partook of it not knowing what might happen before the night mists fell.

Though the utmost precaution was taken, and distant watchers maintained a steady eye, conventicles were spied out by the enemy and dispersed; preachers and people were captured, or wounded, or slain. Quiet worshippers returning homeward, ecstatic in the joy of sweet communion with one another, were interrupted and questioned; some were put under arrest; some cruelly maltreated; some ruthlessly murdered, as the martyr stones on many a Lowland moor silently testify.

Every sort of expedient was employed to crush the conventicle spirit and to bring the nonconforming element within the sweep of the numberless Acts passed against them. The intruded "curates" piled up "black lists" of church absentees and acted the part of informers. Spies disguised as pedlars, minstrels and ballad-mongers, beggars, and even as fugitive Covenanters, wandered from place to place, ferreting out information and conveying intelligence to the authorities, for whom the military were the main instruments of oppression. Soldiers, reckless, profane, pitiless, brutal, were given liberty to act as they pleased - to fine, imprison, ill-treat, shoot, in merciless scourings of the country which shook the whole south-west of Scotland with a blast of terror.

In 1666 that "fierce and dissolute tyrant," Sir James Turner, had been ordered into Galloway to support the curates where the opposition of the people was strongest. Some of his troopers laid hold of an old man in the village of Dairy, threatening to roast him alive, he having refused to pay a fine for not attending church. At that juncture four Covenanters who had been hiding among the Glenkens Hills appeared on the scene, resolved at a rescue. A scuffle followed: a shot was fired, and one of the soldiers fell. The psychological moment had come. Joined by "above nine-score men, more than the half whereof consisted of horsemen indifferently well mounted, with swords, pistols, and carbines, the rest afoot, armed with muskets, pikes, scythes, and forks," the company mustered at Irongray and marched to Dumfries, where Turner was taken while still in bed. Continuing, they made for Ayr and Lanark, under the command of Wallace of Auchans, with Major Learmonth, Captain Arnot, the redoubtable John Paton of Meadowhead, and others. They had now increased to 2,000 strong, enough, they thought, for a bolder stroke. A rumour (false) that Edinburgh was ready to join them, led them in that direction.

On reaching Rullion Green, on the slopes of the Pentlands (some eight miles from the city), while reduced unhappily to a famished and half-spirited condition, they were met by the forces of "Bloody Dalyell" of Binns and put to flight, leaving about fifty killed and a hundred prisoners. The latter were tried for treason. John Neilson of Corsock and Hugh McKail were put to the torture of "the Boot," and hanged. Between thirty and forty were executed and the rest were banished. At Rullion Green an insignificant tombstone marks the spot where the battle took place and the slain were buried.

Sharp was the real author of the retribution meted out to the Rullion prisoners. Their lives might have been spared on a promise of quarter upon surrendering, but the relentless Primate retaliated at the bare suggestion, "You are pardoned as soldiers, you are not acquitted as subjects." The die was cast, and at the same time Sharp's own fate rendered certain. For thirteen years he lived under a dread of assassination. An attempt was made on his life in the High Street of Edinburgh in 1668, but he pursued his nefarious rule and persecuted the unfortunate Covenanters for eleven years longer.

On May 3, 1679, while on his way to St. Andrews, and in crossing Magus Moor, he was dragged from his carriage by a band of nine zealots, headed by Hackston of Rathillet and Balfour of Kinloch, known as "Burly," men of his own shire, and stabbed to death, notwithstanding his daughter's presence and an escort of soldiers powerless to interfere. The deed was murder foul and cannot be condoned, and was at once condemned by the Covenanting leaders. But it was an age of desperate deeds, and Sharp's conduct was of such a character and his acts of infamy so revolting, that the marvel is he escaped so long. Interred in the Church of the Holy Trinity at St. Andrews, a highly ornate memorial covers the spot where his bones reposed, for the tomb seems to have been rifled, and nothing remains except the handles of his coffin.

Rathillet and Burly fled to the West Country and quickly attracted a following. On May 29, led by Hamilton of Preston, they declared their policy in a poster affixed to the market cross of Rutherglen, where they publicly burned all Acts directed against the Reformation "as our enemies perfidiously and blasphemously have burned our holy Covenants."

The pre-eminently evil genius in the Government's military excesses came now to the front in the person of John Graham of Claverhouse, afterwards Viscount Dundee. Graham had been a soldier of fortune on the Continent, but in 1677 he was back in Scotland, a lieutenant under Montrose. To him was assigned the task of coping with the Rutherglen rebels. Within a week he was at their heels, surprising them at a great conventicle at Drumclog, on a desolate moor near Strathaven. Graham never anticipated defeat. His charger was disembowelled under him with a hayfork, and his forces were heavily routed, himself escaping on a borrowed horse, drawing rein only when Glasgow was in sight. It was the only battle the Covenanters won - the only one Claverhouse lost.

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Pictures for Scenes of the Scottish Covenanters

THE MONUMENT AT BOTHWELL BRIDGE, WHERE THE COVENANTERS MET DISASTER
THE MONUMENT AT BOTHWELL BRIDGE, WHERE THE COVENANTERS MET DISASTER >>>>
TO THE COVENANTERS
TO THE COVENANTERS >>>>
THE MARQUESS OF ARGYLL
THE MARQUESS OF ARGYLL >>>>
ARCHBISHOP SHARP
ARCHBISHOP SHARP >>>>
A PROSCRIBED MEETING OF COVENANTERS BEING HELD IN A MOORLAND SOLITUDE
A PROSCRIBED MEETING OF COVENANTERS BEING HELD IN A MOORLAND SOLITUDE >>>>
GRAVE OF WILLIAM DINGWALL, AND THE DRUMCLOG VICTORY
GRAVE OF WILLIAM DINGWALL, AND THE DRUMCLOG VICTORY >>>>
THE COVENANTERS' ONE VICTORY OBELISK AND BATTLEFIELD OF DRUMCLOG
THE COVENANTERS' ONE VICTORY OBELISK AND BATTLEFIELD OF DRUMCLOG >>>>
THE CASTLE AT STRATHAVEN, WHERE MANY CAPTIVE COVENANTERS SUFFERED AND DIED
THE CASTLE AT STRATHAVEN, WHERE MANY CAPTIVE COVENANTERS SUFFERED AND DIED >>>>
THE STREET AND BRIDGE IN OLD STRATHAVEN, A FAMOUS COVENANTING TOWN
THE STREET AND BRIDGE IN OLD STRATHAVEN, A FAMOUS COVENANTING TOWN >>>>
THE SIGNING OF THE COVENANT AT GREYFRIARS
THE SIGNING OF THE COVENANT AT GREYFRIARS >>>>

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