Spreul on the Bass Rock.

The story
of John Spreul`s incarceration in the Bass Rock prison is
as fantastic as his earlier persecution, since the
government continued to harass him in any way they could
and even brought him back to
to another trial. Within days of his transfer to the Bass
Spreul`s long suffering wife came with a servant and
brought clothes and comforts for him. It seems that she
was allowed to stay at least for a few days, as she
quickly realised how the privations of the prison were
made worse by its isolation. The sea was often rough and
heavy swells made landing on the small quay difficult at
the best of times. This meant that fresh food, meat etc
was at a premium and might easily go off before fresh
supplies arrived. Thus meat was often roasted to keep it
edible longer, especially in summer, although the
prisoners were not allowed to kill sheep that grazed the
upper slopes of the island – their meat was said to be
especially sweet from the diet of heather and grasses and
reserved for the governor and other prestigious persons.
With considerable forethought Mrs Spreul  sent out to
the island with a servant three hens to provide her
husband with fresh eggs. It was remarkable in fact,
perhaps providential, that he was allowed to keep the

Mrs Spreul
returned to Glasgow to see what she could sell in order to
settle debts, and also dispose of what little plenishings
(furniture etc) she could and thus avoid having to pay
rent on a house to keep them in. In this way she managed
to keep her husband with a small but very welcome supply
of food and other comforts.  After some time, and
almost by way of light relief, Spreul was taken to the

Tolbooth where a Major Learmond was a prisoner.  The
Major had confessed that he had seen a John Spreul at
Bothwell Brig  which prompted the Privy Council to
convene and bring  yet another charge against him. 
The Major said that he had seen a John Spreul at Bothwell
muir and had seen him but once, and not since. When
confronted before the Council Spreul enquired when he had
been seen and how could the Major  remember if he was
the person, when he had only seen him once, and in the
dark. Spreul then asked what colour horse he was riding -`
a brown horse` – `in the dark ?` – `it was a grey horse`.
Confused and uncertain Learmond was not a good witness and
Spreul astutely  asked the clerk to mark in
Learmond`s confession about the uncertainty of the horse`s
colour, and also about his dress where there was
uncertainty if he had been wearing a velvet cap or a hat.
A telling comment was that Spreul`s brother had been at
Bothwell Brig and moreover so had two cousins – John
Spreul, a writer (lawyer) and another John Spreul, a
merchant. So whom had Major Learmond actually seen ? The
exasperation of the Privy Council at their failure to
convict Spreul was reflected in his prompt return to the
Bass Rock.

Life on the
Bass was primitive but with so many ministers and
preachers in the company, plus a little freedom of
movement for fresh air and exercise, the worthy gentlemen
were able to meet twice a day for prayer with each
minister taking it in turn to preach and lecture. The
years passed and relief and release for most came with the
death of King Charles II in February 1685. One of the last
to go was Alexander Shields  but not to his liberty.
Shields refused to sign a bond for good behaviour – ` to
live orderly` was the phrase, and was thrown into the
Edinburgh Tolbooth for a further year. Eventually John
Spreul was the last prisoner on the Bass.

Defiant and
conscience stricken to the end, John Spreul recognised the
Toleration edict given by James VII/II ( his former
adversary the Duke of York) as part of a Jesuit prompted
trick to divide the Protestants in England and Scotland.
This was part of the overall plan to restore Popery.
Spreul annoyed his keepers by refusing his freedom for a
further year after everyone else had gone, even though he
had to keep himself and have food and drink brought in by
boat. He was clearly fortunate that his wife had made
provision available else he might have had to concede
defeat in his battle of principle. As it was, he sent word
to King James via the Governor`s son, Charles Maitland,
that he (James II) was spurring his horse too hard and
drawing blood, which he would regret ere long – an
allusion to the Killing Time and the many executions that
had taken place.  And in a jest he also sent James
the message that he was well provided for by his three
little hens, better than any who had the government for
their provider.

probable turning point for Spreul may well have been the
death of his wife from a fever in 1683. She had previously
stayed with him on the Bass in summer and returned to look
after the business in Glasgow during the winter. Without
her visits and occasional company Spreul`s stay on the
Bass  became a battle of wills, the government keen
to be rid of him and Spreul saddled with his conscience.
They  even tried to play on his isolation and the
common beliefs in the supernatural. Captain Charles
Maitland devised a plot whereby a soldier, renowned for
his climbing ability, was dressed up with rams horns on
his head to emulate the Devil, and  climb up to the
prisoner`s cell window in the night.  Spreul was
awoken by a scratching at the window but was not taken in
by it, deciding to see if the visitor was a spirit or a
human being by striking the hands on the window sill with
a water pitcher. The subsequent thump of a falling body
and groans told him it was human. The soldier involved,
William Law, subsequently confessed his part and sought
forgiveness. Some years later he died from a fall when
climbing the cliff face for birds eggs ( the Solan Goose –
a large gannet, nest there in prodigious numbers).

Time and
continuing hardships finally forced Spreul to make a
petition to the Privy Council seeking they release him or
make an allowance for his upkeep. In it  he recited
his sufferings – six years in the Bass; some of his ships
and cargoes lost at sea or taken by Dutch privateers;
house and shop burned in a great fire in Glasgow during
1677; property confiscated by the government; many of his
debtors were dead, and in his absence the business was in
ruins. Perversely the Privy Council refused to accept the
petition ( probably because it did not admit guilt and 
accept the terms of the Toleration). However, Mr George
Bell, a merchant from Edinburgh, who was Spreul`s
cautioner (guarantor for fines etc), made an acceptable
petition. On 13 May 1687 they ordered the release of Spreul from the Bass but stubborn to the bitter end he
refused to leave. He wrote to Sir William Paterson, Clerk
to the Privy Council, protesting that he had not accepted
the Toleration. The Council`s response was to order the
governor to open the cell door and take away the guard –
Spreul could then come and go as he pleased. After ten
days and not having had a reply to the letter. Spreul gave
his three hens to the governor and went to Edinburgh. Here
he sought out the Lord Chancellor and Sir George Mackenzie
to protest again about his not accepting the Tolerance.
His representations were of no avail, but Spreul did have
the good sense not to return to the Bass.  He
returned to Glasgow and went back into business where he
prospered and lived well beyond the Glorious Revolution.