Erskine of Dun.

Erskine of Dun probably ranks only after John Knox in
importance of those who made the Scottish Reformation
happen. Certainly he and the Earl of Moray (the Good
Regent) were most active in openly professing the
Protestant evangel at a critical time, and was
instrumental in getting John Knox to return to Scotland. 

Erskine was born  at Duns House in the parish of
Duns, Forfarshire in 1508/9. Of noble lineage, his father
was of the House of Mar and his mother was the daughter of
William, the 1st Lord Ruthven. He was educated at Aberdeen
university and spent several years abroad in other
colleges. On his return he brought with him a Frenchman,
Pierre de Marsilliers, a Greek scholar, who was set up as
a teacher of it in a school in Montrose. In this way the
town became the first in Scotland to be taught the
language of the New Testament.  A notable student of
the school was Andrew Melville, who would take over
leadership of the Kirk when Knox  died. 
Following the death of his father, Erskine took over
management of the family estate and with it a leading
position in the community. He was regularly elected
Provost, and also a civic and county administrator, and
magistrate who occasionally attended Parliament. In 1547
he raised a local militia that put to flight an attempt by
English forces to land from ships in the bay of Montrose.

It is
likely that he became aware of the Protestant evangelism
from his time on the continent. He was the same age as
John Calvin and may even have come across him, or least
his teachings, in Paris where Calvin resided in 1533. Be
that as it may, the fact was that Erskine became imbued
with the spirit of the Reformation and his home became a
place to visit by scholars and evangelists. Among those
visitors was Straiton of
who was burnt at the stake in 1534. Erskine
was himself a target of the priests but his learning,
status and very considerable influence, held them at bay.
Not so for his neighbour in the adjacent estate –
George Wishart, who went
to the stake in 1546. Another regular visitor to fall foul
of the priests  was the elderly
Walter Mill
who was burnt in 1558. Two other
neighbours who were prominent in later years were James
and Andrew Melville. It would be fair to say that the
locality of Duns was a veritable cradle for the
Reformation in Scotland.

first came across John Knox when the latter came to
Scotland from Geneva towards the end of 1555. Knox was
staying with a James Syme, a burgess of Edinburgh, another
friend of the Reformation whose home was a regular meeting
place for evangelists. Erskine is said to have deeply
moved by the preaching of Knox which was so different 
to any he had ever heard before. He promptly made his
apartments in Edinburgh available to Knox who preached
there several times a day, sometimes into the late evening
such was the demand to hear him. Knox at this time sought
to bring attention to the inconsistency the young men
portrayed by seeking the evangel yet still attended the
priests and even took the mass. It was certainly a
difficult time with fear of persecution everywhere.
Despite this Erskine started to invite leading Protestants
in Edinburgh to supper at his house including the young
Maitland of Lethington. Another clever young man, he and
Knox debated the pros and cons of the mass but in the end
had to admit defeat to Knox`s powerful reasoning. That
supper may well have been the start of a coordinated
movement for Protestantism – the first flock of a reformed
church,  when those present undertook not to attend
the mass or be seen at Romish worship.

On leaving
Edinburgh, Erskine took Knox with him to Duns House. In
the following month Knox was engaged daily in visiting and
preaching to the people and particularly welcomed those of
standing and influence who would be able to spread the
Word. Knox then progressed to Calder House, the home of
Sir James Sandilands,  before going to Kyle in the
early days of 1556 where he preached in Ayr. and also
delivered the Communion of several occasions. He then
retuned to Duns House. It was on this second visit that
Knox preached more openly than before and the `gentlemen
of the Mearns` signed up to what is believed to be the
First written Covenant or
Band of the Reformation, in Edinburgh on 3 December 1557.
The signatories were the Earls of Argyll, Glencairn,
Morton, Archibald, Lord of Lorne, and John Erskine.

status was recognised on 26 June 1558 when he was
appointed by Parliament to be a Commissioner to France 
to witness the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to
Francis, the French Dauphin and later Francis II of
France. On the return trip he was fortunate to survive
what appears to have been an assassination attempt as four
colleagues were poisoned while in Dieppe and died, four
survived. Erskine returned to Parliament in the November
and reported on the French proceedings.  He was
prominent once more, when John Knox returned from Geneva
on 2 May 1559, and he mediated in the argument that broke
out between Mary of Guise (the Queen Regent and mother of
Mary, Queen of Scots) and the Lords of the Congregation.

In the
virtual civil war that erupted Erskine took up his armour
to fight but, perhaps on the urging of Knox, he decided
that he could be more useful  as a preacher. There is
no doubt that he was eminently qualified and even Knox
described him as ” one whom God in those days had
marvellously illuminated.”  After the Reformation
took place in 1560 Erskine was appointed as one of the
five `superintendents` and appointed to oversee Angus and
the Mearns. At the first General Assembly held in December
1560 his appointment was formally ratified and he was
declared to be an ” apt and able to minister.” An
interesting aspect of his appointment was that the Privy
Council passed an Act  on 21 November 1574 that
indemnified him  for non attendance to his duties 
in the Sheriff Court in the past, and exempted him for the
future, so long as he held the post of superintendent.

 He was
always the counsellor of moderate and conciliatory
measures, and thus, even the opponents of the reformed
doctrines could not help respecting him. When Knox had his
celebrated interview with Queen Mary regarding  her
intended marriage with Darnley, (and brought tears into
her eyes by the freedom of his speech),  it was
Erskine, who endeavoured with his characteristic
gentleness, to soothe her feelings. Knox stood silent and
unrelenting, while the Erskine appears to have thus made a
very favourable impression upon the mind of the youthful
Queen.  When she deemed it necessary to have some
regard for the protestant doctrines, (in order to smooth
the way for her marriage), she sent for the
superintendents of Fife, Glasgow, and Lothian. She said to
them that she was not yet persuaded of the truth of their
religion, but she was willing to hear debate on the issue,
and would listen to some of their sermons. Above all
others, she said she would gladly hear the superintendent
of Angus, “for he was a mild and sweet-natured man, with
true honesty and uprightness.”

Erskine`s zeal both for his duties and the Reformation in general was recognised by being elected Moderator of the General Assembly five times.  At the coronation of James VI at Stirling in 1567, he , with the Earl of Morton, took the Coronation Oath on behalf of the infant king. When episcopacy was sought to be intruded on the Church in 1571 he wrote a long but very pointed letter to the Regent, then the Earl of Mar, on the matter. Amongst other things, he pointed out that  “They may be called bishops, but are not bishops, but idols”  (a reference to  Zechariah, xi, v 17 ” Woe to my worthless shepherd,  who deserts the flock !) which he considered  a “high contempt of God”. Even in his later years he continued working hard for the Church and was appointed to the Committee of the General Assembly that reviewed and compiled the Second Book of Discipline.  Having lived
through and played a significant part in the most eventful
period in the history of the Reformation, he died
peacefully, aged eighty one, in 1591, the last of the five
superintendents of the Reformed Church in Scotland.

A latin
poem quoted in Wylie`s Scots Worthies, ends:

” Past
ages gave birth to no better man
No one of his ancient progenitors
Surpassed him in reputation and honour.”