The Covenanter Prison in Greyfriars Kirk Yard.
Precis from The Flodden Wall, the Covenanter`s Prison in the Greyfriars Yard Edinburgh.
 by W Moir Bryce (1910),

On the day of the battle of Bothwell Brig, 22 June 1679, the Edinburgh militia regiment, under the command of Sir John Nicolson, was quartered at Corstorphine, from where a convoy with 30 men was sent with arms and ammunition for the army in the west. In their absence, the 1200 or so prisoners taken at the battle, were handed over on Hamilton Moor to the charge of Archibald Cockburn of Langtoune, Colonel of the Berwickshire Regiment of Militia, with instructions to escort them to Edinburgh. On arrival he was to hand them over to the custody of the magistrates, who had undertaken to secure them with the Town Guards.

Colonel Cockburn’s force consisted of two militia regiments and Captain Strachan’s troop of dragoons. After a wearying journey, the prisoners reached Edinburgh on the evening of the 24th of June, when they were handed over and incarcerated. The terms of instructions from the Privy  Council, required they be locked in the Inner Greyfriars Yard, described as an enclosure, with high walls round it, at the back of the Greyfriars Church. The letter of instructions is specific about the guarding of the prisoners:

The Council give Orders to the Magistrates of Edinburgh to receive the Prisoners taken at the late fight from the commanding officer, and recommend them to their Custody; and that for that end they put them into the inner Grayfriars Churchyard, with convenient Guards to wait upon them, who are to have at least twenty four Centries in the Night Time, and Eight in the Day Time; of which Centries the Officers shall keep a particular List, that if any of the Prisoners escape the Centries may assure themselves to cast the Dice, and answer Body for Body for the Fugitives, without any Exception; and the Officers are to answer for the Centries, and the Town of Edinburgh for the Officers. And, if any of the Prisoners escape, the Council will require a particular Account, and make them answerable for them.

On the following day, an Order by the Council was published by beat of drum throughout the town, forbidding any of the citizens to approach the Greyfriars Yard, except those who brought charitable gifts of meat and drink for the prisoners. The gifts were to be delivered at the gate, and divided equally among the prisoners by persons appointed for that purpose. The Army Accounts show that £172 Scots was disbursed for two men to look after the distribution of the prisoners’ bread, and for one other man to supervise, this covered the period 25th June to the 15 November. The daily food supplied by order of the benevolent and professedly religious Privy Council, for each prisoner, was one penny loaf per day. The City Fathers, who, no doubt, owed their position to those then in power, contributed nothing.

The only related entry in the Town Council records is that of 10th September :

`‘ The said day, appoints the toun tresaurer to furnish coall and candle

The magistrates with cold weather to come, therefore made provision for the comfort of the military guard, and almost as an afterthought provided a proper supply of water to their prisoners.

On 1st July there were no fewer than 1184 prisoners in the Greyfriars Yard and the adjacent Heriot`s Hospital. From this we can assume that the wounded were attended to by surgeons sent by the magistrates under instructions from the Privy Council. The accounts show a daily return to the 15th November, of the number of persons actually imprisoned in the Greyfriars.

greypr2.jpg (41971 bytes)

On 29 July a letter from the King’s to the Privy Council, signed by Lauderdale, granted warrants for the trial of the prisoners. With it came the express instructions 

‘and that you put them to the torture if they refuse to inform in what you have pregnant presumptions to believe they know. When this is done, We do, in the next place, approve the motion made by you of sending three or four hundred of these prisoners to the Plantations, for which We authorise you to grant a warrant in order to their Transportation.’

It in apparent that the proposal to banish many of the prisoners as white sIaves to the Plantations - if not also to use torture - originated in a suggestion from the Privy Council in Edinburgh. It is highly likely that this action, taken under the arbitrary powers in the King`s  letter, was one of the contributing factors when Scotland joined with the English Parliament in the `Glorious Revolution` of 1688 that replaced King James II by William and Mary.

Meanwhile, in the afterglow of victory, the Duke of Monmouth attended several meetings of the Privy Council, and under his influence it was decided to offer liberty to the majority of the prisoners upon their signing a bond undertaking not to again take up arms against His Majesty. On the 4th of July the Privy Council issued an order to this effect, but specially excepting from its remarkably humane provisions the ‘Ministers, Herittis, and Ringleaders,’ who were to be prosecuted and banished to the Plantations, ‘to the number of three or four hundred, conform to the list brought in by the Committee, and to be approven by the Council.’

Several hundreds of the prisoners must have taken advantage of the amnesty because within a week the number confined in the Greyfriars reduced from 1184 to a total of 338. On the 11th of July the Edinburgh Militia were withdrawn from further guardianship of the prisoners, and replaced by the military; but the magistrates were, at the same time required to provide a list of prisoners names to General Tam Dalziel and guarantee none would escape in the meantime. Dalziel was himself instructed to bring in other prisoners who were held in Stirling, Linlithgow and Glasgow. As a result by 16 July there were some 380 prisoners from Bothwell Brig remaining in custody.

John Govan, of Kirkliston had this to say of the conditions in the open prison.

"This is now the sixth week that I have dwelt in this dreary place. Oh, happy they who lie beneath! they are covered, and feel not our privations, and pains, and sufferings; and yet freedom and home is offered to us, and accepted by many. God forgive them, if it be his will !—but John Govan will never accept his liberty on such terms. His mother's shade would rise up in judgment. Shall I take their infamous oaths, or subscribe their no less infamous bonds ? Shall I swear that the bishop's death is murder, and that the resistance of an oppressed and persecuted people is rebellion ? Shall I ' bind, oblige, and enact, myself,' that I shall not hereafter take up arms in so good a cause ? No ! I will sooner perish, inch by inch ; I will sooner suffer the tortures of the boot, and the final judgment of the maiden. Men are yet unborn that will bless us —a whole people, happy in a pure religion and a free government, will adore the memory of the most humble son of the Covenant ; they will build and erect pillars and monuments to our memory ; they will count, anxiously count, kindred with us; they will record and register our deeds and our sufferings ; and, when this world, with all its interests, shall have ceased to exist, we shall be in everlasting remembrance."

On 14 August, in a letter dated 27 July from the King, it was proclaimed at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh that there was a general amnesty for all except ` the ministers, heritors and ringleaders` who had taken part in the Rebellion. This Act of Indemnity as it was called, certainly relieved the crowding in the prison from where many were released on giving bond for their future loyalty and behaviour. 

A tragic pantomime took place as a result of the murder of Archbishop James Sharp on Magus Moor when by the King`s order ( a letter of 26 July 1679) he directed that nine prisoners should be selected and hung in chains at the place in retribution. The Privy Council selected thirty of the most defiant Covenanters to be considered for trial, of whom 21 were ordered to be proceeded against. The selected 9 along with 24 other Covenanters from the tolbooths, appeared before the Justiciary Court on 10 November and whittled down to six who faced the capital charge. Of these the five martyrs were taken and hanged at Magus Moor on 25 November 1679 - Andrew Sword, Thomas Brown, John Weddall, John Clyd and James Wood. None of them had anything whatsoever to do with the murder - they were hung for sheer spite.

The remnant of some 210 prisoners in the Greyfriars Prison were destined, with others from the tolbooths, for transportation on board the ill fated "Crown" which sank off Deerness in the Orkney Isles on 10 December 1679  and over 200 were drowned.

A modern brass plate has been added to the wall adjoining the Covenanter`s Prison:


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