Scotland: Peeps at History - G. E. Mitton

The Covenanters

One Sunday morning in July, 1637, there was an unusual stir in the narrow street outside St. Giles's Cathedral, Edinburgh, and a kind of subdued buzz among all the church-going folk, like the hum in a hive of bees that has been disturbed. The Scots are good church-goers, but the congregation gathering together that Sunday morning was larger than any ordinary one, and the excitement was quite unusual. The people when they passed in under the solemn grey arches and found their places, settled themselves where they pleased on what we should call "camp-stools," then known as "fauldstools," because they folded, which they had carried with them.

Among the congregation was a fair number of maids, who had come to keep the places for their mistresses, who entered as service began. The minister, Mr. Patrick Henderson, read the prayers as on an ordinary Sunday, and nothing at first seemed to account for the unwonted disturbance. But when he had sat down, and Dean Hanna appeared with a new large Prayer Book in his hand, and began to read in a grave and sonorous voice, the buzz rose to a cry, hands were clapped, women called out, and such a babel succeeded that he could not make himself heard. In the midst of all the confusion an old woman, called Jenny Geddes, sprang up, and, seizing the little stool on which she had been seated, hurled it at the Dean with all her force. This was the signal for a frightful riot; clothes were torn off people's backs, even Bibles went spinning through the air, and the service came abruptly to an end.

What was it all about? It had its root in the Scottish people's horror of Popery, as they called Roman Catholicism; nowhere had the Reformation been felt with greater force than in Scotland. With the doing away of all the vestments and ceremonies of Rome had come a passionate devotion to the simplest methods for the service of God, and a dislike of all forms or ritual. In the earliest days the people of Scotland had been Christianized by missionaries from Ireland, as we heard in the first chapter of this book, while the greater part of England had been Christianized by missionaries from Rome. After a while there had been a clash between these two branches of the same Church, and eventually Rome, with its more elaborate ceremonies, had won. Now none can say how deep the roots of these things go, and it may be that from the first the stern spirit of the northern people was not in harmony with the more highly colored, fanciful methods of the south. Anyway, as I said, the Reformation cleared away all the practices that had gradually grown up, and restored the purer form of the old religion. The Scots even went so far as to dislike set forms of any kind in public worship. They had, it is true, a sort of Prayer Book, which served as a guide to their ministers, and this had been drawn up partly by John Knox, whom Queen Mary had been unable to win over with her blandishments, but it was very simple.

[Conventicle] from Peeps at History - Scotland  by G. E. Mitton


When the son of James VI. and I. (Charles I.) had ascended the throne he had passed a law compelling the Scottish Church to conform to the practices of the English Church, and had caused to be sent up to Scotland English Prayer Books, and had established the system of Bishops to rule the Church, as in England. These new laws the people fiercely resented. In the first place, they were not at all sure that there were not "Popish "doctrines in the new Prayer-Book, and they feared it; in the second, they could not bear to have their religion dictated to them; they were just going to do as they pleased about it, and thus it was that when the Dean, following Henderson, who had read the accustomed service, attempted to read the prayers from the new book, the whole congregation had risen, and refused to hear him.

Those of you who are so unfortunate as never to have visited Edinburgh do not know what a very striking situation it has. On the long ridge of rock which runs downhill from the castle to Holyrood Palace is the main street of the old town, which at that time, of course, was all that existed, and on the side of this ridge, which slopes away, the streets fall down as steeply as the roofs of houses, so that by descending one of them and looking back from the bottom one can see the houses in the High Street and the Castle towering high above as if they stood on a mountain-side. In the low part of the town, lying on a slope of its own, and facing the Castle Hill, is the old graveyard of Grey-friars Church.

Not long after the strange scene in the church, another, almost as peculiar, took place here. All through the long summer days crowds of people, old and young, rich and poor, strong and feeble, varying from well-clad townfolk to rough shepherds from the country, flocked into the gates, and made their way to a flat tombstone, where lay a parchment ready for the signing. In rows and rows they stood and sat awaiting their turn; women fell on their knees in prayer; even greybeards stood with the tears rolling down their cheeks, moved by an emotion too deep for restraint; and when it came to their turn, strong men, gashing their arms, signed with their own blood, while others kissed the pen. This was the sequel to the scene in the church. Determined to band themselves together against any attempt to change their religion, the Scots had sought out an old covenant, signed long ago by James VI. and I., protesting against Popery and idolatrous practices; to this they had added new clauses, binding one and all to resist "innovations and evils," meaning the new Prayer Books, and, thus revised, they called the parchment the National Covenant. Copies of this document were sent all over Scotland, and signed by thousands of people in the Highlands and Lowlands alike. This was a direct challenge to the King, who began to think of subduing his rebellious subjects by force. In fact, it soon began to be clear that civil war would result, because when the General Assembly, or the Parliament of the Church of Scotland, met, they were forbidden by the King's Lord High Commissioner to sit at all; yet, in spite of this, they not only sat, but defied him, passing resolutions against the King's Acts.

By this time King Charles and his English Parliament were quarrelling with each other, and the Parliament took the side of the Scottish Covenanters. Another Covenant was therefore drawn up between the General Assembly of Scotland and the Parliament of England, and this was called the Solemn League and Covenant. When civil war broke out between the King and the Parliamentarians, the Scots actually helped the Parliament against their King, for by this time they had gone so far as to hope to establish their own form of religion in England, instead of having the English form imposed on them!

The Scots sent an army into England to help the Parliamentarians against their King, and when at last Charles I., trusting more to his own country-men than to the English, surrendered himself to them at Newark, they basely sold him to the English Parliament, an act which has left a deep stain on Scottish honor; hence arose the rhyme:

"Traitor Scot, Traitor Scot,

Sold his king for a groat."

Now, there is one figure which stands out in all that follows, a young gallant figure, that of the Earl of Montrose, who was made a Marquess by the King, and is generally known by that title. Montrose at first joined the majority of his countrymen, and signed the Covenant. He even fought on the side of the Covenanters, but, though he had the talents of a great general, he was always very humane, and always more ready to bring both sides to a mutual agreement than to fight. Later, when the King had given in to the uproar in Scotland, and promised the people their demands, Montrose began to see that he was on the wrong side, and an interview with King Charles convinced him; henceforward he was heart and soul on the Royalist side. His explanation may be given in his own words: "The covenant which I took, I own it and adhere to it," he said. "Bishops, I care not for them. I never intended to advance their interest. But when the King had granted you all your desires, and you were every one sitting under his vine and under his fig-tree, that then you should have taken a party in England by the hand, and entered into a league and covenant with them against the King, was the thing I judged my duty to oppose to the yondmost."

When this grave, tender-hearted man heard of the execution of King Charles, he fainted with horror. Before this, however, he had raised an army of Highlanders, and, by the brilliancy of his victories over the Covenanters, had soon shown what a good General could do even with wild undisciplined men. The difficulty with the Highlanders was to make them obey any but their own chiefs, and also after a victory, whenever there was plunder, they all wanted to disperse to their own homes with the booty.

However, in spite of all difficulties, the young Marquess inflicted defeats on the Covenanters at four or five places, but he was to meet his own great disaster at Philiphaugh, close by Selkirk. His army was on the haugh, or flat piece of ground, by the side of the River Ettrick, and so completely was the General for once caught napping that it was not until he heard the firing of the enemy that he dreamed of an attack. Such a surprise could only end in a defeat, and the confusion was increased by the mist rising from the river. It was undoubtedly a grave mistake for Montrose to have put his Highlanders on a flat plain when there were hills, covered with elm and oak and beech, close by. Highlanders were always at a disadvantage on flat ground, preferring to come down a hill full charge at their enemies. General David Leslie was the leader of the victorious army, and so great was the cruelty practiced by his troops, who butchered wounded men and those women and children who were following the camp, that even yet the name of Philiphaugh is always associated with cruelty. Montrose escaped with a small remnant of his army; but as a price had been put on his head, he went over to the Continent for a while.

It was after the death of the King, when Cromwell was ruling in England, that he came back on behalf of Charles II., son of the first Charles, who was not then twenty. Montrose landed in the Orkneys, and raised a small force. His army was set upon by a detachment of the enemy, and was broken and dispersed; he himself, accompanied by Lord Kinnoull, escaped, and wandered amid snow and cold and hardship, for the weather was bitterly cold though it was April. Kinnoull was never seen again, and no doubt succumbed on the mountains, but Montrose was captured by Macleod of Assynt, and carried off a prisoner. He was eventually condemned to be hanged, and was brought in a cart to the place of execution, which was in the long narrow High Street of Edinburgh. To make up for the indignity, his friends subscribed to clothe him in fine scarlet with silver lace, a golden hat-band, and silk stockings. Thus went to his death a man who was singularly honest and without fear.

The son of Charles I. landed in Scotland, and, having subscribed to the Covenant, was crowned at Scone; but he was a very different man from his conscientious father, and there were not wanting those who mistrusted him from the first. It is impossible here to go into the details of the Civil War between the King and Cromwell's army, but in the end, after the death of Cromwell, Charles came to his own, and was acknowledged King both of England and Scotland. Thereupon he quickly began to forget what he owed his Scottish friends, and the Presbyterian religion, for which so many had staked their lives, was thrust into the background. The Presbyterians therefore sent a minister named James Sharp to plead their cause at the English Court, but it needed little to buy him over. Charles II. simply made him Archbishop of St. Andrews, and sent him back again to work at restoring Bishops to Scotland, the very policy he had come up pledged to support. No wonder the Presbyterians hated Sharp with a bitter hatred! It was not long before the Scottish Bishops were restored, and a declaration was made that the National League and Covenant were "unlawful oaths." All this roused the temper of the people, and there began to be rebellious and angry meetings against the King and his Government. The first serious affair took place at Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills.

The Covenanters had been at first a large body of men, between 2,000 and 3,000 in number, but the weather was bitter, and snow lay on the hills, and many slipped away under the trials of cold and hunger. Sir Thomas Dalziel, one of the sternest of the Government leaders, was sent to disperse the rest, which he did without difficulty, though, owing to their knowledge of the fastnesses of the hills, the slaughter was not great among the Covenanters who fled. About eighty prisoners were taken and carried to Edinburgh; some were executed, and some, according to the cruel custom of the day, tortured first. It was hardly likely that an affair of this kind would make the Covenanters settle down quietly.

The Presbyterian form of worship was now forbidden altogether, and not only so, but any persons meeting in any house or field to carry on their religion in the form they preferred, were subject to hideous penalties. "Whoever without license shall preach or pray at any meeting in the field, called a 'field conventicle,' shall be punished with death," so ran the law. Certain indulgences were granted, however, to the ejected ministers—that is, the ministers who had been turned out of their livings—if they would go back to their manses and preach according to the Episcopal or English form; and a good many did so, hoping for better things. But the bitterness grew, and at last found vent in a terrible act.

A party of men, mostly of the peasant class, but with one gentleman, Hackston of Rathillet, among them, agreed to seize a sheriff-substitute who had been especially cruel in carrying out the severe laws, in order to force him to promise to do better. For this purpose they met on a lonely moor in Fifeshire, where they expected he was to pass. When they were there waiting they suddenly saw a lumbering coach, heavily hung according to the pattern of those days, coming toward them, and one of their number, who had ridden on to investigate, came back, crying out it was not the sheriff-substitute, but none other than the hated Archbishop of St. Andrews, Sharp, who was in the coach with his daughter! Accustomed as the Covenanters were to refer everything to Divine Providence, and being rather of the spirit of the Old Testament than of the New, they saw in this a direct invitation to murder. "The Lord hath delivered him into our hands," was their thought.

The story is almost too horrible to continue, for they set on the old man in the coach and with their clumsy blunderbusses tried to shoot him, but failed, only wounding the terrified daughter, who had flung herself in front of her father. Then they dragged the Archbishop out, and shot at him again and again, and were riding away, leaving him for dead, when he moved, and they returned to complete their awful work! One man held aside the nearly maddened daughter, another, Hacket, took no part, but sat on his horse, saying he owed the Archbishop a personal grudge, and therefore could have no hand in the actual murder. At length, hacking and hewing at him with their swords, the inexperienced men finished their deed and fled. One wonders that the daughter did not indeed go out of her mind. For this brutal deed, eventually, only two of the band were caught and executed, and they happened to be Hacket and the man who had held Miss Sharp—the two who had actually taken no part in the crime, though their presence was sufficiently bad.

[Murder of Archbishop Sharp] from Peeps at History - Scotland  by G. E. Mitton


After this, things went from bad to worse. The chief scat of the disturbances was in Galloway in the southwest, a sort of miniature Highlands. Here the Covenanters might have met at "conventicles" or meetings in the open air without attracting attention, but they openly courted it, and even sent a message to Glasgow saying when and where they intended to gather in thousands to defy the laws.

Graham of Claverhouse, who earned, a name for desperate cruelty, was sent against them, but was defeated at a place called Drumclog. Thereupon the Covenanters grew bolder, and, gathering in thousands, marched toward Glasgow. They had reached Bothwell Brig, across the Clyde, when they encountered an English army under the Duke of Monmouth. It was a curious place for a battle. The bridge was narrow and rose to a hump it the middle, where there was a strong gate. It was a place that a few could have held against many; but as the Covenanters' aim was attack, and not defense, it was a bad place for them.

For a while Hackston of Rathillet, the same who had been present at the murder of the Archbishop, held the bridge with a band of men, but when his ammunition was exhausted he drew back. The Duke of Monmouth was not afraid to cross, and he fell upon the Covenanters, and smote them terribly. Five hundred at least were killed, and as many taken prisoners. Some, indeed, say that double the number were carried prisoners to Edinburgh. At any rate there were so many that there was no place to house them, and they were penned up in Greyfriars Churchyard, where the first Covenant had been signed, like sheep in a pen. It was in the height of the summer, and the sufferings these poor men endured were terrible; in the end many were shipped off to work in the plantations and some were released.

Various laws were passed which weighed heavily on the Covenanters; there was even an attempt to compel people to go to church whether they would or no, but the difficulty was to find out who did go. At length two women were taken, and condemned to death by drowning for refusing to take one of the oaths prescribed by the Government. These were an old woman and a girl of eighteen, and they were drowned in the Solway, where the tides come racing in at unusual speed. There they were tied to stakes, and left to their fate for the high tide to cover them. You will remember in "Young Lochinvar" the line

"Love swells like the Solway, but ebbs like its tide."

The old woman was placed farther out to sea, so that she might be overcome first, and perhaps thereby the other be induced to recant—but no: the two died for what they believed to be a principle, and rightly earned the name of the Wigtown Martyrs, from Wigtown, which was near the scene of their death.

When James VII. came to the throne he was Roman Catholic in sympathy, and all through his reign the riots and repression continued; but even with a Protestant King like William III., who replaced him, the rebellion was not soothed. Full of distrust, from the remembrance of having been betrayed, the fierce spirit of the Scottish people burnt more fiercely.

A strong body of the Covenanters, calling them-selves the Cameronians, were armed and trained, and they began to threaten the country by civil war. They were so narrow-minded that they not only wanted to practice their own religion in their own way, which was natural enough, but they wanted to force their own methods on everyone else, and they broke away even from the Covenanters.

Through the stormy years that followed, their bitter intolerance did much harm to the cause they really loved. Numerous Acts were passed. Good Queen Anne was most anxious to make peace within her dominions, and when the House of Hanover came to the throne, the Kings of that line cared far too little about religion to be cruel to those who differed from them.

Gradually, as time went on, things were settled, and the Scottish people ruled themselves, so far as form was concerned. The General Assembly decided matters for them, and those who had peculiar ideas split off into separate factions, and thus the land had peace. But even in later days religion has always caused far more bitterness in Scotland than England; men take it more seriously, and are narrower in their views. Many a split has been made, and even after a breach has been healed another has appeared. It is perhaps safe to say that this state of things will continue to the end. Nevertheless, in all essential matters the two kingdoms are one—one at heart as well as one in government. Scotsmen carry the British flag as far and as often as Englishmen do, Scotsmen hold high places in the governance of the Realm; indeed, it is an oft-repeated joke that England has been annexed by Scotland.