Covenanter Prisons. 

The Covenanter story is very much about imprisonment whether of the many ministers cast into prison for their beliefs and resistance to episcopacy; or the people who took up armed resistance and their life in their hands to attend conventicles. There was also the invidious open imprisonment of banishment to remote places within Scotland when often the family of the prisoner was prohibited from joining him. For the Marquis of Argyll there was the unique `imprisonment` under the Cromwellian regime, of confinement to his estates in Argyllshire for the best part of ten years.

The nature of the prison varied from the Tolbooth  which most towns had, and in which minor criminals were often held pending appearance before a magistrate, to sturdier castles around the country, In the countryside there were the fortified homes and castles of the gentry which might be used. For the Solway Martyrs in Wigton 1685, there was confinement in a coal cellar in total darkness, before being taken out and executed by drowning.  Larger towns and cities had common prisons for thieves, murderers, rogues and vagabonds. And then there were the especially secure, military style, prisons in castles such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Stirling, Blackness, Dunnottar and the Bass Rock. For some there was even the Tower of London.

Andrew Melville was lured to London and was held in The Tower for four years 1607-1611 having previously (1583) been sentenced to confinement in Blackness but escaped to England. Other prisoners in the Tower included the Earl of Loudon in 1639; the Marquis of Argyll in 1660; Archibald Johnstone, Lord Warriston in June 1663 before transfer to Edinburgh Tolbooth and execution; and William Carstares in 1674.

An earlier Presbyterian, Andrew Duncan, was one of the ministers who was harried from pillar to post - he attended the Assembly at Aberdeen in 1605 and was imprisoned in Blackness Castle for fourteen months. He also opposed the Five Articles of Perth and was banished to Dundee and separated from his wife and family. He was later imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle, banished to France and then, after some time, allowed to return. John Welch was a prisoner in Blackness for supporting the Aberdeen Assembly.  Henry Blythe minister of the Cannongate Church, Edinburgh was sent there because of an injudicious sermon about the commitment of Welch and others to prison. William Rigg of Athernie was imprisoned there in 1624 for failing to kneel at Communion.

Edinburgh Castle was used for the ministers of the kirk in 1605 with the nineteen Aberdeen Assembly ministers. John Davidson was there in 1599, John Murray minister of Leith, in 1608; and Robert Bruce in 1621. John Semple, who was arrested with James Guthrie in 1660, spent ten months locked up in Edinburgh Castle where Alexander Moncrieff and Robert Traill joined them for their subscription to the `Paper of 23 August 1660`.Edinburgh had several places of detention primarily the Castle and the Tolbooth and at the lower end of town (previously a separate parish) was the Canongate Tolbooth in which many Covenanters resided - and escaped from as well. 

There were also the ladies of the Covenant who were held in Edinburgh including Mrs Janet Hamilton (Lady Gordon of Earlstoun) in 1687. Lady Caldwel and three daughters were detained in Glasgow Tolbooth for three years and her daughter Jean, for six months, in 1683. Lady Campbell of Auchinbreck and Lady Cavers were incarcerated in the Tolbooth of Stirling. Neither were the ladies excluded from the dreadful Dunnottar which included Mrs Gardiner, widow of the Rev J Gardiner; Janet Fimerton, Janet Linton, and the elderly Euphan Thriepland. who was tortured with lighted matches between the fingers because she dared to denounce the atrocities that were being committed.

Imprisonment could also be very lengthy, and detention pending trial was sometimes prolonged as a means of keeping the prisoner out of circulation and thus from preaching. This happened to some Irish Presbyterian ministers who were incarcerated for six years for simply being Presbyterians. James Mitchell was over two years being prosecuted and made no less than six appearances before the Privy Council, he was subjected to torture, and endured a spell in the Bass before he was finally sentenced and executed at the insistence of Archbishop Sharp. Robert Garnock was held for nearly three years in various prisons before sentencing. But the worst case might be that of Robert Ker of Kersland who was held in Edinburgh Castle for three months, then removed to Dumbarton Castle for a year and a half. He was then transferred to Aberdeen for three months in the depths of winter before being sent to Stirling Castle for some years, and then a second time to Dumbarton. In all he spent eight years shuttling round the prisons before he was finally banished from Scotland.

Blackness Castle

Bass Rock

Dunnottar Castle

Greyfriars Kirk Yard.


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