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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 24 — Protestantism in Scotland

Chapter 25 — The first rising of the Scottish Presbyterians

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Barbarities — Inflexible Spirit of the Scots — Dragoons at Dairy — The Presbyterians of the West take Arms — Capture of Sir James Turner — The March to Lanark — They Swear the Covenant, and Publish a Declaration — Their Sufferings on the March — Arrive near Edinburgh — Battle of the Pentlands — Defeat of the Presbyterians — Prisoners — Their Trial and Execution — Neilson of Corsac and Hugh McKail — The Torture of the Boot — Execution of Hugh McKail — His Farewell

In returning to Scotland, as we once more do, it is necessary to go back some twenty years, and briefly narrate the dismal tragedy which was being enacted in the northern kingdom while the events which have occupied us in the last few chapters were passing in England. The last scene which we witnessed in Scotland was the ejection of four hundred ministers, and the irruption into their parishes and pulpits of an equal number of young men from the northern parts, who were totally devoid of learning, many of them being as devoid of morals; while all, by their glaring unfitness for their office, were objects of contempt to the people. The ejected ministers were followed to the woods and the moors by their parishioners and dragoons were sent out to hunt for these worshippers in the wilderness, and bring them back to fill the churches their desertion had left empty. The men who acted for the Government in Scotland, brutal, unprincipled, and profligate, observed no measure in the cruelties they inflicted on a people whom they were resolved to bend to the yoke of a despotic monarch and an idolatrous Church. Indecencies of all sorts desecrated the hearths, and fines and violence desolated the homes of the Scottish peasantry. The business of life all but stood still. "Virtue fled from the scene of such unhallowed outrage, and many families who had lived till then in affluence, become the sudden prey of greedy informers and riotous spoilers, sank into poverty and beggary. But the spirit of the nation would not yield.

Every new oppression but deepened the resolution of the sufferers to stand by their Church and their country, despite all the attempts to corrupt the one and enslave the other. The glorious days of the past, the uplifted hands of their fathers, the majesty of their General Assemblies, the patriarchal and learned men who had preached the Word of Life to them, their own vows, all these grand memories came back upon them, and made it impossible for them to comply with the mandates of the court. Their resistance had so far been only passive, but now the hour was come when a passive resistance was to be exchanged for an active and organized opposition.

The first rising of the persecuted Presbyterians was owing to an occurrence purely accidental. On Tuesday morning, the 13th of November, 1666, four of the persecuted wanderers, whom cold and hunger had forced to leave their solitude amid the mountains of Glen-Ken, appeared in the village of Dalry, in Kirkcudbrightshire. They came just in time to prevent one of those outrages which were but too common at that time. A party of Sir James Turner's soldiers were levying fines in the village, and having seized an old man whose poverty rendered him unable to discharge his penalties, they were binding him hand and foot, and threatening to strip him naked and roast him on a gridiron. Shocked at the threatened barbarity, the wanderers interposed in behalf of the man. The soldiers drew upon them, and a scuffle ensued. One of the rescuing party fired his pistol, and wounded one of the soldiers, whereupon the party gave up their prisoner and their arms. Having been informed that another party of Turner's men were at that moment engaged in similar outrages at a little distance from the village, they resolved to go thither, and make them prisoners also. This they did with the help of some country people [1] who had joined them on the way, killing one of the soldiers who had offered resistance.

All this was the work of an hour, and had been done on impulse. These countrymen had now time to reflect on what was likely to be the consequence of disarming and capturing the king's soldiers. They knew how vindictive Sir James was, and that he was sure to avenge in his own cruel way on the whole district the disgrace that his soldiers had sustained. They could not think of leaving the helpless people to his fury; they would keep together, and go on with the enterprise in which they had so unexpectedly embarked, though that too was a serious matter, seeing it was virtually to defy the Government. They mustered to the number of fifty horsemen and a few foot, and resolving to be beforehand with Sir James, marched to Dumfries, drank the king's health at the cross, and after this display of loyalty went straight to Turner's house and made him their prisoner. The revolt had broken out, and a special messenger, dispatched from Carlisle, carried the news to the king.

It happened that, a day or two before the occurrence at Dalry, Commissioner Rothes had set out for London. On presenting himself at Whitehall the king asked him, "What news from Scotland?" Rothes replied that "all was going well and that the people were quiet." His majesty instantly handed him the dispatch which he had received of the "horrid rebellion." The commissioner's confusion may be imagined. Charles had set up the machine of episcopacy to amplify his power in Scotland, and procure him a quiet reign; but here was an early presage of the troubles with which it was to fill his life. It had already dethroned him in the hearts of his Scottish subjects, and this was but an earnest of the greater calamities which were to strike his house after he was gone.

The party

who had captured Sir James Turner turned northwards, carrying with them their prisoner, as a trophy of their courage. Their little army swelled in numbers as they advanced, by continual contributions from the towns and villages on the line of their march. Late on the evening of Sunday, the 25th of November, they reached Lanark. Their march thither had been accomplished under many disadvantages: they had to traverse deep moors; they had to endure a drenching rain, and to lie, wet and weary, in churches and barns at night, with a most inadequate supply of victuals. [2]

Their resolution, however, did not flag. On the Monday the horse and foot mustered in the High Street, one of their ministers mounted the Tolbooth stairs, preached, and after sermon read the Covenant, which the whole army, who were joined by several of the citizens, swore with uplifted hands. They next published a declaration setting forth the reason of their appearing in arms, namely, the defense of their Presbyterian government and the liberties of their country. [3] Here," says Kirkton, "this rolling snowball was at the biggest." Their numbers were variously estimated at from 1,500 to 3,000, but they were necessarily deficient in both drill and arms. Sir James Trainer, their enforced comrade, describes them as a set of brave, lusty fellows, well up in their exercises for the short time, and carrying arms of a very miscellaneous description. Besides the usual gun and sword, they were provided with scythes fixed on poles, forks, staves, and other weapons of a rude sort. Had they now joined battle, victory would probably have declared in their favor, and if defeated they were in the midst of a friendly population who would have given them safe hiding.

Unfortunately they gave credit to a report that the people of the Lothians and the citizens of Edinburgh but waited their approach to rise and join them. They continued their march to the east only to find the population less friendly, and their own numbers, instead of increasing as they had expected, rapidly diminishing. The weather again broke. They were buffeted by torrents of rain and occasional snow drifts; they marched along in deep roads, and crossed swollen rivers, to arrive at night foot-sore and hungry, with no place to sleep in, and scarcely any food to recruit their wearied strength. In this condition they advanced within five miles of Edinburgh, only to have their misfortunes crowned by being told that the citizens had closed their gates and mounted cannon on the walls to prevent their entrance. At this point, after several consultations among themselves, and the exchange of some communications with the Privy Council, they came to the resolution of returning to their homes.

With this view they marched round the eastern extremity of the Pentlands — a range of hills about four miles south of Edinburgh with the intent of pursuing their way along the south side of the chain to their homes. It was here that Dalziel with his army came up with them. The insurgents hastily mustered in order of battle, the foot in the center and the horse on the two wings. The action was commenced by Dalziel's sending a troop of cavalry to attack the right wing of the enemy. The insurgents drove them back in confusion. A second attack was followed by the rout of the Government troops. There came still a third, which also ended in victory for the Presbyterians, and had their cavalry been able to pursue, the day would have been won. Dalziel now saw that he had not silly and fanatical countrymen to deal with, but resolute fighters, ill-armed, way-worn, and faint through sleeplessness and hunger, but withal of a tougher spirit than his own well-drilled and well-fed dragoons; and he waited till the main body should arrive, which it now did through a defile in the hills close by the scene of the action.

The odds were now very unequal. The Presbyterian host did not exceed 900, the Government army was not less than 3,000. Dalziel now moved his masses to the assault. The sun had gone down, and the somber shadows of a winter twilight were being projected from the summits above them as the two armies closed in conflict. The insurgents, under their courageous and skillful leader, Captain Wallace, fought gallantly, but they were finally borne down by numbers.

As the night fell the fighting ended; in truth, they had prolonged the contest, not for the coming of victory, which now they dared not hope for, but for the coming of darkness to cover their flight. Leaving fifty of their number dead on the battlefield of Rullion Green -- for such was the name of the spot on which it was fought — the rest, excepting those taken prisoners, who were about 100, made their escape over the hills or along their southern slopes towards their native shires in the west. [4]

The slaughter begun on the battlefield was continued in the courts of law. The prisoners were brought to Edinburgh, crowded into various prisons, and brought to their trial before a tribunal where death more certainly awaited them than on the battlefield. Fifty had fallen by the sword on Rullion Green, but a greater number were to die on the gallows. In the absence of Rothes it fell to the primate, Sharp, to preside in the Council, "and being now a time of war, several of the lords grumbled very much, and spared not to say openly with oaths, "Have we none in Scotland to give orders in such a juncture but a priest?" [5] Sharp, on being told of the rising, was seized with something like panic. In his consternation he wrote urgent letters to have the king's army sent down from the north of England, and, meanwhile, he proposed that the Council should shut themselves up in the castle. His terrified imagination pictured himself surrounded on all sides

by rebels. But when he received the news of the defeat of the insurgents, "then," says Burner, "the common observation that cruelty and cowardice go together, was too visibly verified." [6] The prisoners had been admitted to quarter by the soldiers on the battlefield, and in all common justice this ought to have been held as the king's promise of their lives. The clerical members of Council, however, refused to take that view of the matter, insisting that the quarter to which they had been admitted was no protection, the war being one of rebellion. They were tried, condemned, and executed in batches. With such speed were these judicial murders carried through, that the first ten, who were mostly men of property, suffered only a few days after the battle. They were sentenced to be hanged at the Cross of Edinburgh, their heads to be dispersed over the country, and affixed at monuments in the principal cities, and their right arms to be exposed on the Tolbooth of Lanark, where their hands had been lifted up to swear the National Covenant. They all died with undaunted courage. They might have saved their lives by subscribing the declaration of submission to the bishops, but all of them refused. They fell a sacrifice to Prelacy, giving their blood in opposition to those manifold evils which had rushed in like a torrent upon their country through the destruction of its Presbyterian Government. Nor did their punishment end with their lives. Their families were plundered after their death; their substance was swallowed up in fines, and their lands were confiscated. Their homes were invaded by soldiers, and the inmates driven out to a life of poverty in their own country, or to wander as exiles in a foreign land. [7]

One batch of prisoners succeeded another on the gallows till all were disposed of. "It was a moving sight," says Burner, "to see ten of the prisoners hanged upon one gibbet at Edinburgh. Thirty-five more were sent to their counties, and hanged up before their own doors, their ministers (the curates) all the while abusing them hardly, and declaring them damned for their rebellion." [8]

Among these sufferers there are two over whose last hours we shall pause a little. These are Mr. John Neilson of Corsac, and Mr. Hugh McKail, a minister. Both were made to undergo the torture of the boot in prison, the Council reviving in their case a horrible practice which had not been known in Scotland in the memory of living man. [9] The object of their persecutors in subjecting them to this terrible ordeal was to extort from them information respecting the origin of the insurrection. The rising had beam wholly unpremeditated. Nevertheless the judges continued the infliction, although the two tortured men protested that it was impossible to disclose a plot which never existed. The shrieks of Neilson were heartrending; but the only effect they had upon the judges was to bid the executioner strike yet again. [10] The younger and feebler prisoner stood the infliction better than the other. The slender and delicate leg of the young McKail was laid in the boot; the hammer fell, the wedge was driven down, a pang as of burning fire shot along the leg, making every limb and feature of the prisoner to quiver. McKail uttered no groan. Six, seven, eight, ten strokes were given; the hammer was raised for yet another; the sufferer solemnly protested in the sight of God "that he could say no more, although every joint in his body was in as great torture as that poor leg."

The real offense of McKail was not his joining the insurgents, but his having preached in the high church of Edinburgh on the Sunday preceding that on which the "Four Hundred" were ejected, and having used some expressions which were generally understood to be leveled at the Archbishop of St. Andrews. The young minister took occasion to refer in his sermon to the sufferings of the Church, saying that "the Scripture doth abundantly evidence that the people of God have sometimes been persecuted by a Pharaoh upon the throne, sometimes by a Haman in the State, and sometimes by a Judas in the Church." The hearers had no difficulty in finding the living representatives of all three, and especially of the last, who stood pre-eminent among the dark figures around him for his relentless cruelty and unfathomable perfidy. The words changed Sharp into a pillar oŁ salt: he was henceforth known as "the Judas of the Scottish Kirk."

When Hugh McKail was sentenced to the gallows he was only twenty-six years of age. He was a person of excellent education, great elevation of soul, an impressive eloquence, and his person seemed to have molded itself so as to shadow forth the noble lineaments of the spirit that dwelt within it. He had a freshness and even gaiety of mind which the near approach of a violent death could not extinguish. On entering the prison after his trial, some one asked him how his limb was. "The fear of my neck," he replied, "makes me forget my leg." In prison he discoursed sweetly and encouragingly to his fellow-sufferers. On the night before his execution he laid him down, and sank in quiet sleep. When he appeared on the scaffold it was with a countenance so sweet and grave, and an air so serene and joyous, that he seemed to the spectators rather like one coming out of death than one entering into it. "There was such a lamentation," says Kirkton, "as was never known in Scotland before; not one dry cheek upon all the street, or in all the numberless windows in the marketplace. [11]

Having ended his last words to the people, he took hold of the ladder to go up. He paused, and turning yet again to the crowd, he said, "I care no more to go up that ladder

and over it than if I were going to my father's house." Having mounted to the top of the ladder, he lifted the napkin that covered his face, that he might utter a few more last words. Never was sublimer or more pathetic farewell spoken.

"And now I leave off to speak any more with creatures, and begin my intercourse with God which shall never be broken off! Farewell, father and mother, friends and relations! Farewell, the world and all delights! Farewell, sun, moon, and stars! Welcome, God and Father! Welcome, sweet Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant! Welcome, blessed Spirit of Grace, the God of all consolation! Welcome, glory! Welcome, eternal life! AND WELCOME, DEATH!"

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