The Covenanters

The Covenanters

The Catholic Church in Scotland in the 16th century had become steadily more lax and corrupt and according to a Papal investigation at the time, was shamefully depraved. The teachings of Wycliff, Luther, Calvin and others were spreading, and with the Renaissance people welcomed the return of students and teachers from the continental universities.  John Knox returned in May 1559 to a wave of enthusiastic reformers that included about thirty-five preachers able to administer communion in the first year (1560-61) alone.  Initially the main core was in Ayrshire (already a hub of Lollardism) and central Scotland, and the new faith was warmly embraced by noble and peasant alike.  With the introduction of the Protestant Church a number of abbeys and churches were ransacked and severely damaged. A large number of the historical documents they kept were either lost or destroyed in their fanatical zeal notwithstanding the efforts made by the General Assembly to protect them by issuing edicts to preserve the churches.

A conflict between the followers of Knox and the French forces of the Regent, Mary of Guise was narrowly avoided in Perth in 1559 and a Covenant was drawn up there on 31st May stating that the reformers were: 1) to maintain their evangelical confederation, 2) to do al things required by God in Scriptures, 3) to observe pure worship, and 4) to preserve the liberty of the Congregation and each member of it.  This was signed by a number of nobles including the Earl of Argyll and his son, the Earl of Glencairn, Robert Lord Boyd, Lord Ochiltree and Mathew Campbell of Tringzean.  Further Covenants were drawn up in Edinburgh (13th July 1559), in Stirling on 1st August 1559 and in Leith on 27th April 1560.  Although forty-nine powerful laymen and landowners put their names to this bond, though not all appeared at the first General Assembly and some were still practising Catholics.  Two important doctrines were to be found in the document, first, ‘that the people are the custodians of the Word of God’ and second ‘that the people of Scotland are the rightful conservators of their own ancient “freedoms and liberties”, among which is government by native sovereigns and magistrates, according to use, wont, and the will of the governed.’

Although never receiving Royal sanction, Disestablishment Acts were passed in 1560, abolishing the authority and jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church and priests, teachers and officials, loyal to the old faith were summarily evicted from position and home.  Anyone saying or hearing Mass was to be severely punished - even executed for a third offence.  In practice this did not happen very often.

Queen Mary came to the throne in 1561 and immediately ordered that the desecrated church of Holyrood be restored so that she could use it for worship.  Within a week she had persuaded the Privy Council to enact an Edict of Tolerance, which forbade party recriminations or interference with the worship of her Court, under pain of death.  Her advisers were trying to find a way of re-introducing the Catholic faith back into Scotland and naturally the people were very suspicious.  Things were not helped by the behaviour of the Court, singing Mass and holding parties and fetes on the Sabbath, so much so that the Covenanters believed that the devil was running loose in the land.

In 1562, while the Queen was visiting the north of the country, Knox was in Ayrshire thundering  about coming wars and the dangers of Popery.  On September 4th, another Covenant with  a hundred and forty seven subscribers was produced in Ayr supporting the Reformation.  Plot and counter plot continued throughout Mary’s reign, culminating in her abdication on 24th July 1567, following the murder of Darnley and her marriage to Bothwell and she was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle.  The ‘Congregation’ were overjoyed; the Church was freed.

At the first Parliament of King James VI’s reign in December 1567, it was agreed that the individual reformed Churches form a combined Church in Scotland.  The members also ratified the 1560 Disestablishment Acts followed by a number of  Acts establishing the civil and spiritual government of the country.  Discord continued however and the Regent, Moray, was murdered in January 1570.  This led to dissension and more upheaval and many areas were still without ministers. Bishops and archbishops were re-introduced and money meant for the establishment and up-keep of churches and clergy went to the Crown.

In 1574 Andrew Melville arrived back in Scotland having for a number of years been studying and teaching all over Europe.  He eventually managed to persuade the authorities that the Episcopal system was not what was taught in the Scriptures, and presided over the Assembly of April 1578. Here it was decided that no more bishops should be elected until the next Assembly, that they should be considered to be the same as ordinary pastors, they also approved, unopposed, the Book of Policy.  In later life, he clashed with the King and was imprisoned in the Tower, going back to France on his release.  Where Knox had been responsible for drawing up the early constitution of the Kirk in his First Book of Discipline, Melville wrote the Second Book of Discipline emphasising the separation of church and state.  He is regarded as the father of Scottish Presbyterianism.

The Pope was determined to rid Europe of the Protestantism and came up with a number of plans, some of which were partially successful but some, like the invasion of Papal troops into Ireland in 1579 and the proposed attack on England by the Spanish Armada in 1588, failed dismally.  At the same time, the nobles of Scotland had lost much of their interest in the Kirk matters and no longer attended the Assemblies, so that the governance of the Church was left to the clergy.  In addition, the bishops had refused to step down, considering their office to come from the Crown.  King James VI had ratified the 1567 Act at his first Parliament in 1579, but the bishops present didn’t grasp the ramifications of this at the time.  In July1580, the Assembly met in Dundee where an Act was passed finding the office of bishop ‘to have neither warrant nor hint in the Holy Writ…’ and bishops were told to step down and re-apply as ordinary pastors, under pain of excommunication.  

Nevertheless, the bishops, with the approval of the King, hung on to power and the arrival of some Frenchmen in Edinburgh started rumours about Papal gold being sent to buy the noblemen of Scotland.  Catholic conspiracies abounded and finally in 1580 the King realised that he had to do something. He made his household a regular congregation and ruled that the Church was to have full jurisdiction in his palaces.  In addition he had a Confession of Faith drawn up which he signed on 28th January 1581.  This became known as ‘The King’s Confession’ or the ‘National Covenant’.  It affirmed that true religion is revealed in the Gospel, repudiated all contrary religion, i.e. Catholicism, bound subscribers to obedience and defence of the true Reformed Kirk of Scotland, declared that this was a true confession and not an indulgence and bound the subscribers to defend the King, himself the Defender of the Church and of the liberties of his people.  This resulted in the ratification by Parliament of the liberty of the Church as guaranteed by previous statutes.

Peace did not last for long however, and the Church fell out with the King over his appointment of Montgomery to the See of Glasgow, which was his right, but the Church did not agree with his choice.  This disagreement smouldered on culminating in the kidnap of the King at Ruthven by the Earl of Gowrie, the Earl of Mar and the Master of Glamis.  Gowrie was appointed treasurer and ran the country for ten months without Parliament.  The King, now aged 18, finally escaped in June 1582 and Gowrie executed.

In 1584 James wrote to the Pope, promising to be ‘advised by his cousin Guise and to satisfy his Holiness in all other things’.  Having broken with the Presbyterians he decided that all jurisdiction except his own must go and personal freedom must be limited.  A number of Acts (known as the Black Acts) followed making the freedom to preach a the leniency granted by the Crown and re-establishing the Three Estates, thus returning the bishops to power.  Meetings convened without the royal license were outlawed, removing the independence of the Church and made it part of James’s government.

In 1588 another Catholic revolt threatened, intensifying the fear regarding the threat posed by the approaching Spanish Armada, but the King managed to avoid a serious conflict.  In 1589 he married Anne of Denmark. Storms had affected his return from Norway after the wedding and these were blamed on witches. Being very superstitious he gave his backing to the witch-hunts intensifying these appalling practices of the time.  The Church, meanwhile, briefly enjoyed the King’s support, particularly as some of more aggressive nobles were creating problems; he considered the 5th Earl of Bothwell especially, to be in league with the devil.  As a result the Assembly of May 1592 demanded  the abolition of the ‘Black Acts’ of 1584, the return of power to the Church and the representation by ministers in Parliament.  The Parliament in June duly restored the Charter of Freedom to the Church, sanctioned General Assemblies to be held yearly, provided the King or his Commissioners were present, and repealed all Acts favourable to ‘the Papistical Kirk’ and against the true Church.

Elizabeth I died in 1603 and there being no other suitable heir James VI was appointed King of England as James I, shortly thereafter proclaiming himself King of Great Britain.  Although he promised to visit his homeland every three years he only made it back once in 22 years; he died in 1625.  His son Charles was crowned in England in 1625 but was in no hurry to go to Scotland.

At his Scottish Coronation in 1633 Charles I enraged the population by insisting on using the Episcopalian service. In addition, he brought an enormous retinue from London and the coronation celebrations were thought to cost about £40,000 Scots. This put a massive burden on an already impoverished country, adding to the resentment and distrust already felt by many of the people. The reformers were keen to establish the Church along the line of the present day Presbyterian Church.
In 1637 Charles I introduced the Book of Common Prayer to Scotland, making it treasonable to oppose the new liturgy, which, naturally, infuriated the people and cause riots.  As a result in 1643 the Solemn League and Covenant was drawn up; it condemned the Papal and Prelatic system, laid plans for extending the principles of the Reformation, and asked for a constitutional monarchy.  The Covenant drew on the earlier ‘King’s Confession’ and within months had been signed by over 300,000 people.  This was too much for King Charles, who like all the Stuart kings, believed in the divine right of kings to rule in all things.  The Civil War ensued and the king fled to Scotland.

The Scots tried to get him to accept the terms of the Solemn League and Covenant, but he could not, so he was taken by English soldiers and eventually beheaded, in spite of the efforts of the Scottish Commissioners in London.

Six days later Charles II was proclaimed King in Edinburgh provided he accepted the conditions laid down by the General Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.  At first, he refused to do this, but he soon discovered that to ever become King, he would have to accept the terms proposed.  He was crowned in January 1651 having sworn to abide by the terms of the Solemn League and Covenant.  He led an army against Cromwell but was defeated and escaped to the continent.  Cromwell ruled the whole country and Galloway suffered particularly heavily under him with Kenmure Castle being burned to the ground.

After the Restoration, the King restored the Episcopal Church to power and the Solemn League and Covenant was burned.  An Act of Indemnity was passed in 1662; hundreds of people had to pay fines and thousands of pounds was raised in Galloway alone.  Ministers who would not conform to the Episcopal Church were ousted, but most refused to go and took to preaching in the fields and on hillsides, most of their congregations going with them, these were the original conventicles.  

Many of the clergy who were appointed to replace the ousted preachers were illiterate and totally unsuitable for the job and this encouraged even more people to attend the conventicles.  In the Glenkens, feeling was very strong and a number of the ministers appointed to preach found or heard they were not welcome, as their parishioners found various ingenious excuses for not attending!

Anyone discovered to have attended a conventicle was liable to severe penalties, and they were persecuted and hunted like criminals.  A roll was called at services in the churches and anyone not attending was fined.  Sir James Turner had been sent to help quell the people of Galloway, his reputation was horrendous.  Defoe reports “It is impossible to give the details of the cruelties and inhuman usage the poor people suffered from this butcher, for such he was rather than a soldier”.  Even the Bishop of Galloway remonstrated with Turner for all his ‘illegalities’ in Kelton and Girthon in 1666.  The Privy Council eventually dismissed Turner having received an incriminating report of his behaviour.

People took to the hills for fear of their lives and on Tuesday 13th November 1666, John Maclellan, laird of Barscobe, was on his way to Dalry with three other men who had all been hiding in the hills, to find food.  They came on some troopers with an old farmer called Grier who could not pay his fine. His captors were threatening to strip him naked and set him on a hot gridiron.   They challenged the troopers asking why they were doing this to a defenceless old man, but the soldiers replied that they had no right to challenge what they were doing.  Swords were drawn and Maclellan, not having any musket balls, rammed his clay pipe into his pistol and fired wounding the corporal by the name of Deanes, in charge.  The troops put up a spirited defence but eventually surrendered. The following day fearful of reprisal the people of Balmaclellan went on to attack a local garrison nearby, killing one of the soldiers.  Forecasting trouble, they united with the people of Dalry and decided that for their safety they should capture Turner and hold him hostage.  Runners were sent to other parishes to muster people to meet at Irongray the next morning.  The corporal in the meantime had escaped and rode to Dumfries to show his wounds to Turner and tell him he had been attacked for refusing to sign the Covenant.  Turner sent for his men and retired to bed.

Meanwhile the Covenanters marched through the night, fifty-four on Galloway ponies led by Maclellan of Barscobe and one hundred and fifty on foot, led by John Neilson of Corsock.  They were hindered by torrential rain and the dark and did not reach Irongray until dawn on the Thursday.  Someone called Captain (or Mr) Andrew Gray appeared and producing a commission established himself as commander and led the way over Devorgilla’s bridge arrived at the house where Turner was staying, calling for him to surrender.  He appeared at the window clad in his nightcap, nightgown, drawers and socks and a voice was heard calling for quarter.  Neilson promised this and Turner descended between two rows of drawn bladed and primed pistols.  Gray was about to shoot him, but Neilson interposed.  Gray ransacked Turner’s chest securing his papers and over six thousand merks.

Gray then mounted Turner’s charger placing Turner, still in his nightgown, on his bareback pony and led the way to the Cross where the Covenanters swore allegiance to the Covenant, health to the King and reviled the Bishops as was their wont. Afterwards they marched to the Whitesands to hold a Council of War, searches were made for arms and another soldier was killed in a scuffle.  They allowed Turner to dress and subsequently marched off via Glencairn Kirk over the moors back to Dalry.  An alarm was raised so they marched to Carsphairn through part of the next night where Gray mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again.  Messengers were sent to Ayrshire and Edinburgh to try and gain more support.

At the same time, a Dumfries Bailie called Stephen Irvine had ridden to Edinburgh with the news and some 2,500 foot soldiers and six troops of horsemen were ordered to march west, leaving on the 18th of November.  A proclamation on the 21st declared the rising to be a rebellion and ordered that anyone refusing to lay down their arms were ‘incorrigible and desperate traitors incapable of mercy and pardon’.  The troops appear to have gone round in a circle as they went to Glasgow, Kilmarnock, Lanark and were back in Currie and Rullion Green by the 28th of the month.

The Covenanters moved north; it was described as a moving conventicle with prays and sermons.  At Dalmellington, Welsh of Irongray a famous preacher, went to the camp and Turner pledged a tankard of ale to hear him preach.  Welsh went home to try and raise more recruits and the host moved on. At Bridge of Doon James Wallace joined the crowd and being a veteran of the Civil Wars was appointed commander.  He earned Turner’s admiration by drilling his 700 men splendidly!

From Bridge of Doon, fearing an attack, they turned over Ayrsmoss and over Moor Kirk of Kyle in pouring rain and high winds, where they spent the night with no food or fire; this too, earned Turner’s admiration.  At this point, some of the more faint-hearted abandoned the march and went home, but Wallace pushed on into Douglasdale where they found shelter in St Bride’s among the tombs of the Douglases.  Another council was held and a motion to kill Turner rejected and they went on to Lanark.  By this time, they had about 1,000 men, half of whom were mounted and 4 or 5 experienced officers to lead them.  On the 26th, they assembled to renew the Solemn League and Covenant.  A manifesto was drawn up, explaining that they were assembled to maintain a bond of self defence to uphold the trust in the Covenant, to protest against the apostasy of the time and to resist cruel usage.

At Lanark, the factor of the Earl of Douglas turned up to express the Earl of Hamilton’s desire for a peaceful settlement; he then appeared at Newbridge with the same message, but was ignored.  At Colinton, he brought a proposal from Dalyell, the commander-in-chief of the army, that the rebels should accept the terms of the Government, but the Covenanters replied that they were simply going to the Council to petition for redress.  Dalyell, honourably passed this on to the Council, but they replied that the Government could only accept their submission, with the liberty to petition for mercy.  It is probable that this reply never reached the marchers and they thought that they were no longer being pursued.

Camped on Colinton they had expected more to join their ranks from Midlothian, but none arrived. They were awoken in the early morning by the sound of musket fire; the Government troops had opened fire on some of their outposts. The rebels made for the Pentland hills and ended up at  Rullion Green, a place that was probably well known to some of them as it was used as a mart attended by southern herds and drovers.  Government troops hotly pursued by the leading party held back until Dalyell arrived and it was late in the day before they had got themselves organised.  After much prayer and psalm singing the Covenanters resolved to fight should they be attacked, but they were still expecting an answer from the Council, denying any wish for bloodshed.  Turner had made a deal with his captors that in return for his life he would, in the event of the Covenanters losing any battle, give them quarter and plead for their release.

To the sound of trumpets and drums the Government troops opened fire; the covenanters didn’t stand a chance. A manuscript from the time describes them thus:

‘It was a Januar or December,
Or else the end of cauld November,
When I did see the outlaw Whigs
Lye scattered up and down the rigs.
Some had huggers, some straw boots;
Some uncovered legs and coots;
Some had halbards; some had durks;
Some had crooked swords like Turks;
Some had slings, and some had flails
Knit with eel and oxen tails;
Some had spears and some had pikes;
Some had spades which delvyt dykes;
Some had guns with rusty ratches;
Some had firey peats for matches;
Some had bows but wanted arrows;
Some had pistols without marrows;
Some the coulter of a plough;
Some had syths men and horse to hough;
And some with a Lochaber axe
Resolved to give Dalyell his paiks.’

It was reported that the army said they had never seen men fight more gallantly or endure so much. Turner kept his word but the Privy Council would have none of it.  Many of those that survived were hunted down and captured, some were tortured and ten who had been wounded were hung on December 7th, following a trial for treason, at the Mercate Cross in Edinburgh after which their right arms and head were removed.  Their arms were sent to be fixed on the Tolbooth in Lanark and the heads were distributed between Kirkcudbright, Kilmarnock, Watergate and Hamilton.  More prisoners were tried and executed on 22nd December.  This was the Pentland Rising.

People were forced to take an oath - the Test, to prove they were not Covenanters, and in Dalry, Grierson of Lagg locked all the men of the village in the church, surrounded them with soldiers and forced them to take the Test.  They were legally ‘clean’ after that but later he continued to harass several of them and took upwards of 700 merks from three of these men.

There are records of the fines imposed in the area, and many families had to pay for the keep of soldiers imposed on them as well.
In Carsphairn 49 families had to pay fines totalling £4,864.17s.4d Scots
Balmaclellan - 49 families had to pay £6,430.17s. 4d.
Dalry - 43 families had to pay £9,577. 6s.8d. (~ £800 sterling)
Kells (New Galloway) £466.13s. 4d was paid.
Parton - 24 families has to pay £2,838, 18s. 8d.
The total fines at this time in Galloway amounted to £47,860 (Scots), with Dalry and Balmaclellan having to pay out the most.

The people of Dumfriesshire were not immune from having to pay for the soldiers sent to keep the peace in Galloway. Troops were quartered there from early on in the troubles.  According to the Valuation Book of the Shire (Dumfriesshire) 1667 – 1692, the government had sent down numbers of horse and foot soldiers to be quartered there because of the ‘recent troubles’ in Dalry in 1666 and the parishes in and around Dumfries were expected to provide corn, hay and straw for the horses.  This they could ill afford as they struggled to provide enough for their own needs and there were continuous complaints about insufficient forage being available by the troops.

Until 1689, when William and Mary came to the throne many of the people of Galloway were persecuted, fined, murdered, and their houses and businesses destroyed.  Many innocent families suffered and even those who escaped abroad or to Ireland found nothing left when they returned.  Soldiers ransacked properties and people were encouraged to inform on their friends and neighbours.

A sculpture depicting the burning bush was erected in Dalry to commemorate the Covenanters by Scottish Covenanter Memorials Association in 2004 with some of the names of important martyrs carved into the leaves:
William and Alexander Gordon of Earlstoun, Dalry
Margaret MacLauchlan and Margaret Wilson, (drowned at Wigtown, tied to stakes)
John Brown of Priesthill, Muirkirk, Ayrshire
Richard Cameron, who published the 'Sanquhar Declaration'
Captain John Paton of Meadowhead, Fenwick, Ayrshire
Rev. James Renwick,  born Moniaive
Rev. Alexander Peden, born Sorn, Ayrshire.


Most of this information taken from Hewison (1908), Covenanters, Vols 1 & 2.