The Circuit Courts were the
continuation of Justice in the shires normally when the Justiciary Court
in Edinburgh was in recess. The particular significance of them was that
they maintained the momentum of oppression and facilitated persecution of
any non conformity, first at local level from allegations received from
spies, the curates and just about anyone with a grievance with
another person. Second, once made, and usually recorded in the Porteous
Rolls ( portable records held by local commissioners) this became cause
for pursuit by the Circuit Courts. In cases of suspicion of rebellion,
treason and the like, referral to the Justiciary Court itself could
follow. Appearance at the latter could mean long imprisonment pending
trial, and a loose word possibly under torture, could end on the gallows.
Thus many thousands accepted the malign judgments of the Circuit Courts,
including loss of all property, outrageous fines, banishment and
transportation, rather than risk their lives further.
Further twists obtained. If
anyone failed to compear they were routinely denounced, declared fugitive,
and added to the Porteous Rolls Two other proclamations closed the
door for escape – instructions to captains of ships to report passengers
to Collectors of Customs who were to examine them. And a pass was required
to travel to another district.
The timing of the courts
usually commenced in the harvest quarter with agreement, in London, during
August. Early in September the king`s letter was read to the Privy Council
with named persons commissioned to be judges of the Courts. The
commissions were soon declared and included detailed instructions of their
role and powers. It was thus October when the various Courts sat to begin
their rule of terror. Simplicity of procedure began with a judicial
summons when the person was called upon to make a public confession
and take the Test. Refusal meant seizure followed by a demand for
caution (bond, guarantee) to compear in Edinburgh when cited.
In Strirling, in June 1683 , 180 failed to compear and were added to the
massive Fugitive Roll of 1683-4.
The 1684 Circuit Courts set
new standards for depravity and persecution. In writing of these hardships
Robert Wodrow, the author of the History of the Sufferings of the
Church of Scotland had to depend on written accounts as he could not
discover the whereabouts of the Court Records or Registers. In alter years
they were found and J K Hewison, author of The Covenanters,
tells us that the minute books and depositions are in Register House.
” The subsidiary documents
and lists of persons `phanatically inclined` prepared by the parish
ministers [curates] are most interesting; (that of Morton, signed by
Greenshields contains 260 names of persons living under the shadow of
Drumlanrig). The minutes of Courts held at Glasgow, 2nd- 25th
October; Ayr 3 October;Tynron 19 September; Dumfries 2 October,
Kirkcudbright 7th and 13th October;Wigtown 14th October; Berwick,
Roxburgh, Peebles, September – October, 1684 are now accessible.”
(Covenanters, vol ii, p439-440)
summarises the effects upon the faithful:
“The Remanant saw the
cordon drawing closer. Their prospects were terrible – the Grassmarket
gibbet or the canebrakes with a free conscience; a perjured oath with an
unpopular King, a hated Church and a detested heir apparent; The felon`s
burial pit in Greyfriars Churchyard was the only refuge for honest men.
Peden prophesied, `The day is coming in these lands that a bloody
scaffold shall be thought a good shelter.` Renwick as truly said ` Death
to me is as a bed to the weary.` Flimsy sophistries` comfortably replies
Mr Andrew Lang` “
of the Circuit Courts 1684.