Tales of the Covenanters


The heartland of resistance by the
Covenanters was in Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire and the south
western counties of Dumfries and Galloway. But there were also pockets of
staunch Presbyterians in Stirling, Fife and the Border counties of
Roxburghshire and Berwickshire. It was in all these places that the likes
of John Welch, Samuel Arnot, John Dickinson, John Blackadder and
Alexander Peden, roamed following the ejection from their kirks. They and
many others, including the United Society leaders –  Richard Cameron,
Donald Cargill,  and James Renwick, who preached to open air
congregations or `conventicles` that numbered thousands. This was the land
where military force was used to collect fines; to pursue the illegal
conventicles and the preachers; eventually to seize property, fill their
own pockets with bribes and booty, and kill at will. Hundreds of graves
throughout the south west of Scotland give mute testimony to the gun and
rope policies in the reigns of Charles II and his brother James II.

The south west of Scotland is a region
of rolling hills, deep ravines
Mists come down quickly

and large expanses of moor and bog which in the 17 century was not easily
accessible. Even today it is not a landscape for hiking without the proper
equipment, clothing and stout hiking boots, as swirling mists can descend
without warning. In this beautiful but sometimes harsh surroundings the
shepherds were the masters of travel and knew of the best sites where
conventicles could be held in relative safety. It was here that resistance
to the government was centred after the Act of Uniformity in 1662 in
England  and the Scottish Proclamation reintroduced the rule of the
church by bishops.
Weather change

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was witness to a conventicle in
Nithdale in which an audience of some 7,000 was ranged round the hillside
to listen to a preacher. They had come fifteen miles or more to hear the
sermon that lasted for almost seven hours,  before setting off on the
long walk home.

After the publication by Richard Cameron
and supporters of the Declaration
of Sanqhuar “
in 1680 which openly sought the removal of King Charles,
the military actions against the Covenanters hardened. The main detractors
were John Graham of Claverhouse, later Viscount Dundee, who operated from
his castle at Stranraer and Sir Robert Grierson of Lag. There were at
least 80 summary executions that were witnessed in 1684 – 1685 and many
more not seen. Others were hung without trial such as William Johnstone a
gardener, John Milroy a chapman of Fintilloch, and George Walker a servant
of Kirkala, for simply being Covenanters. The last of the Covenanter
Martyrs was James Renwick who was executed in February 1688 not long
before the last of the Stuart Kings, James II of England ( VII of Scotland
) vacated the throne.

Possibly the worst and most brutish
incident is that of a young woman, Margaret Wilson of Wigtown, aged 18,
and Margaret (Mc)Lachlan
MargaretW.jpg (62611 bytes)

aged 63, who were each tied to a stake in the sea and executed by
drowning. They were both followers of James Renwick and when challenged
had refused to deny their faith or take an ` Abjuration Oath` rejecting a
Declaration of Faith that he had recently distributed in the area. Only a
few weeks prior to their conviction on April 13th 1685 the Privy Council
had ruled that while a man who did not disown James Renwicks Declaration
was to be hung, a woman who ” had been active in the said courses in a
signal manner ” was to be drowned in loch or stream or sea. Despite
representations and documents allegedly recanting their deeds and an
apparent (unsigned)  reprieve sought by the Privy Council on 30 April
, the women were led to the sea on 11 May 1685.

WigPost.jpg (54139 bytes)
is supposition that perhaps the execution party led by Robert

Grierson of Lag and Major Winram still hoped the women
would yield. The women were tied to stakes some distance apart, Margaret
Wilson being nearer to the safety of sandbanks than her companion. Perhaps
they hoped that the sight of the approaching tide taking Margaret (Mc)
Lachlan, would make the young girl take the
Abjuration Oath,
but it was not to be and both women perished rather
than disown their beliefs.

Years after, the tale goes, an old man
was seen wandering the streets of Wigtown, afflicted by a terrible thirst,
and always carrying with him a large jar of water. The local people
believed his affliction was a punishment for he was the Town Officer of
Wigtown and he had pushed the young Margaret Wilson`s head under the foam
with his halbert, saying ” Tak` anither drink,hinny ! ” thus he was
reaping the harvest of his evil doings.

Many of the incidents involving the
Covenanters of south west Scotland have passed into folk lore and make
fascinating reading asThe Troopers arrive as the Covenanters are praying
well as being a social history of the late seventeenth century. The
following description of a trooper bent upon a search of a home although
in flowery language by todays` standards, conveys the fear that the 
soldiers engendered:

No sight was
more appalling to the helpless peasantry than that of a gruff looking,
swearing trooper. roughly clad, sunk to the knees in large boots, with a
grisly helmet on his head, a coarse cloak hanging from his shoulders and a
huge cumbrous scabbard rattling on his heels. These for the most part were
men of blood, who rioted in human sufferings, and to whom the wailings of
humanity were merriment “

Tales vary between those of Divine
deliverance from pursuers to exploits of the ministers and personal
bravery of the people shielding them knowing that if found they would
probably be killed. One Covenanter of renown, John Frazer of Holm of
Dalquhairn , in the Parish of Carsphairn in upper Galloway was safely
delivered from arrest on a number of occasions. Whether by good fortune,
slackness or sympathy on part of the searchers or indeed some Divine power
cannot be determined, but he was a Covenanter who got away more than once.

One incident happened when he was
necessarily supervising some work on his farm when he was unable to make
an escape in full view of oncoming soldiers. He ran inside the house, into
a small closet and concealed himself in a bed stored there. With great
presence of mind a domestic servant quickly piled some wet turfs on the
fire, which in those days was in the centre of the kitchen, and filled the
place with “dense blue smoke which rolled its lazy volumes from the
floor to the roof.
” Despite the smoky atmosphere a soldier found
Frazer and demanded that he sing a profane song to prove he was not a
Covenanter but Frazer responded with the words of a hymn. For reasons
unknown the soldier warned Frazer to be careful of his words else he would
be mistaken for a non conformist and left him, the soldier saying nothing
to others in the search party .

On another occasion he was trapped in
his house and surrounded by troops. In desperation he climbed through a
window to land at the feet of a soldier where the following conversation
is said to have taken place:-

” I am in your power ” said

Yes ” replied the trooper.
but I feel , somehow or other, as if I am not inclined ar present to use
that power; no one is witness to this interview – run to that covert, and
hide yourself; do not flee to the hill, for your flight might perchance be
seen; and though you were as light of foot as a roe, our fleet horses will
outrun you
. “

Frazer was often an exile from his home
and occasionally returned when judged safe to do so. He was finally
captured while sitting down to dinner with his family and quickly taken
prisoner. But the soldiers then helped themselves to the meal and consumed
copious amounts of home made beer. Meanwhile Frazer had been placed in the
barn trussed up ready for transfer to prison where he managed to stand up
and shuffle into a dark corner to await his fate. Providence again
intervened with the, by now drunken, soldiers climbing on their horses and
riding off without him. Frazer, accompanied now by his wife who feared the
revenge of the troops when they realised what they had done, returned to
living in the caves where they remained until the

welcome news of the Revolution
sounded, like the silver trumpet of a hallowed jubilee, through the length
and breadth of a wasted land. The happy tidings that the arm of the
oppressor was broken, and that the children of tribulation were now to
walk forth out of the furnace, reached the dreary caves in the wilderness

This wonderful use of language to paint
a glowing picture of events is symptomatic of a bygone age but even so it
conveys the essential truth of great persecution for having a particular
belief. Sadly persecution seems to appear in every age of man – may the
oppressed be as fortunate as John Frazer and his wife Marion Howatson and
enjoy Divine intervention in their time of trouble.

Quotations from :
Traditions of the Covenanters by the Rev Robert Simpson DD (1867) and Men
of the Covenant, Alexander Smellie (1903)

NOTE: The trials and tribulations of the
people in this period is told in my latest book “The Sojjers are comin` ”
which deals with their oppression and relationships with the detested
curates, with the spies and informers that infested the region ready to
betray at a moments notice, the conventicles that were held despite the
persecutors and the dreaded troopers; and the on the spot executions by
gun, rope  and drowning during the Killing Time

Cameronian Dream

Covenanter Time