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

‘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

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

“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 suffer
and yet freedom and home is offered to us, and ac
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, my
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 judg
of the maiden. Men are yet unborn that will bless us

—a whole people, happy in
a pure religion and a free govern
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:


Blackness Castle

Bass Rock

Dunnottar Castle