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Issue 17 - No compromise

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 17
November 2004


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No compromise

James Irvine Robertson on the struggles of the Covenanters

The Covenanters are not in the conventional mould of Scottish heroes. There’s no romance here, just hard people willing to fight and die for a hard religion that eschewed symbolism – no Easter, no Christmas, no altars, no crucifixes.

Theirs was the God of Calvin. The Word of God was in the New Testament; no priest was required to intercede. Believers were destined for Paradise; everyone else for Hell.

They emerged from the Scottish Reformation whose Presbyterianism created one of the most democratic churches in Europe. But politics and religion were inextricably intertwined.

In 1603, James VI, King of Scots, inherited the throne of England where the monarch was head of the church and he saw the control that he could exercise through his bishops. This was the blueprint he wished for Scotland.

His son Charles I tried to introduced a new Prayer Book in 1637. In Edinburgh, an Orchestrated riot followed in St Giles Kirk when it was first read from the pulpit. And in 1638 this led to the signing by some 300,000 men of the National Covenant of Scotland which affirmed the independence of the Scottish church.

In the Bishop’s Wars of 1639-40, the King tried to seize control by force but was defeated. In 1643, during the Civil Wars between King and Parliament, the Scots Presbyterians and the English Puritans signed an alliance, the Solemn League and Covenant.

This should have established a theocratic state after the King’s defeat but Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector – a polite term for dictator – took a grip of Scotland which had never before been so tight or effective.

Then came the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and back swung the pendulum. Charles repudiated the National Covenant, reintroduced bishops and a period of persecution of dissenters ensued. It is these dissenters who are often termed the Covenanters today.

Some 270 non-conforming ministers who refused to accept the authority of bishop or king were ejected from their parishes and this caused an immediate crisis.

They held services in the open air – called conventicles – and thousands could sometimes join them. This became too much for the authorities. By 1663 such meetings were made illegal and soon afterwards attendance at such services was declared treason and punishable by death. The killing times began.

In 1666 some thousand Covenanters from their heartland in south west Scotland made their way towards Edinburgh to seek support against the brutality of the treatment being meted out by the Government. The army met them at Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills and a good half of the protesters were killed, captured and later executed or transported overseas.

But secular authority finds it hard to root out religious conviction. An attempt to marginalise the Covenanters in remote parts of the country failed. Radical preachers held armed conventicles attracting thousands in places such as Fife where bishops supposedly held control.

In the dissenters’ heartland in the South West up to 6 or 7,000 people would meet in the hills with sentries posted to watch out for soldiers. Skirmishes were frequent and brutality the norm. An extremist group calling itself the United Societies or the Cameronians soon emerged and, in 1678, Archbishop Sharpe was assassinated in St Andrews. The Highland Host, 9,000 militia from the southern Highlands, was sent south by the Government to suppress dissent.

Gaelic-speaking, in their tartan plaids, they were from an alien culture. In five weeks they did their best to eat and steal the entire substance of the country, but casualties were virtually non-existent and, on their way home, the students of Glasgow relieved them of most of their plunder.

In 1679 the men of Galloway signed the Rutherglen Declaration condemning the Government’s actions. John Graham of Claverhouse, later Viscount Dundee – Bloody Clavers to the Covenanters and Bonnie Dundee to their opponents – took a couple of hundred dragoons south to quash them.

The troops were routed at the battle of Drumclog, a dozen miles east of Kilmarnock. This was full-scale rebellion and the victors marched north. Glasgow barred them; their leaders began to argue and at Bothwell Bridge north of Hamilton, what had degenerated into a rabble was defeated with a loss of some 2,000 men.

James VII succeeded his brother Charles as king in 1685 and the persecution intensified.

The King’s Catholicism led to even greater pressure from the Government to conform toepiscopacy and the Killing Times began in earnest. Many of the old burial grounds of south west Scotland hold gravestones which testify to the brutal deaths of those beneath.

One of the most ruthless was Sir Robert Grierson of Lag whose dragoons killed people on the merest suspicion of being Covenanters.

It is estimated that some 18,000 people died for their faith during these religious upheavals. When James fled and his son-in-law, the Protestant William of Orange came to the throne in 1688, the Presbyterian Church was once again enshrined as the established Church of Scotland. In a neat reversal of fate it was Claverhouse who died in battle, a rebel at Killiecrankie trying to overthrow the new regime.

The Highlanders who supported him, many of whom had been in the Highland Host a decade previously, were themselves soundly drubbed a few days later in a battle at Dunkeld, by the Cameronians in the first engagement of what went on to become one of the great Scottish regiments of the British Army.


1603 James VI of Scotland becomes King James I of England and reintroduces Bishops and exiles leading Presbyterians

1625 Charles I succeeds to throne in 1625 and continues anti-Presbyterian policies with the assistance of Archbishop Laud

1637 New form of service prepared by Archbishop Laud rejected in St Giles riot

1638 The National Covenant signed at Greyfriars Kirk.

1639-40 Charles tries to seize control by force but is defeated in both the First and the Second Bishops’ Wars

1643 Civil War King v Parliament. English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians form an alliance and sign the Solemn League and Covenant

1649 Charles I executed

1651 Oliver Cromwell appointed Lord Protector

1660 Restoration of Charles II. He becomes head of the church and reintroduces the Bishops

1662 Dissident ministers ejected from their churches and preach in the open, known as conventicles. Attendance at church enforced with fines and military force

1666 The Pentland Rising by Presbyterians routed at Rullion Green

1670 Conventicles banned. Death penalty for ministers preaching at them

1678 Highland Host

1679 Battle of Drumclog and victory for the Covenanters. Defeat at Bothwell Brig

1684-5 The Killing Time

1685 Charles II dies and succeeded by his Catholic brother, James II

1688 Glorious Revolution. James flees and Protestant William of Orange and Mary succeed to the throne. Presbyteriansim and the Church of Scotland has its freedom restored