In the following years persecution only made conventicles swell to formidable and well-armed gatherings. In July 1678 trickles of folk from all parts of S.W. Scotland quietly crossed the hills, converging to meet in the great natural amphitheatre 1,100 feet high on Skeoch Hill at the top of Irongray parish for one of the most memorable sacramental occasions in Scottish history. Scouts were posted on the neighbouring heights, the blue flag of the Covenant was set a-flying, and over a period of several days 4 outed ministers - John Welsh of Irongray, John Blackadder of Troqueer, Samuel Arnot of Tongland and John Dickson of Rutherglen - dispensed the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to some 3,000 people. The novel ‘Through Flood and Fire’ by R.W. McKenna paints a vivid picture of this episode.
When six Covenanters were captured on Lochenkit moor in 1685 four were shot at once while Edward Gordon and Alexander McCubine, without benefit of trial, were next day ‘hanged upon an oak tree near the Kirk of Irongray, at the foot of which they were buried’ on the orders of Grierson of Lagg, no doubt as a threat to the community.
The Revolution Settlement, re-established Presbyterianism as the form of government of the Church of Scotland in 1690. Today all over S.W. Scotland in lonely places the graves of the martyrs bear testimony to the faith of the Covenanters who secured for Scotland its religious heritage - testimony, too, to the intolerance of the 17th Century and cruelties perpetrated on all sides.
The Reformation, the great religious and political movement of the 16th Century, established Protestantism in Scotland in 1560. It was preceded by awareness of the corruption in the Roman Church, but unlike the English who were satisfied with a mere exchange of Crown for Pope, in Scotland the people were determined on a fundamental change of doctrine, discipline and worship rather than a reform of manners. Rejected were the doctrine of trans-substantiation, adoration of Virgin and saints, and the headship of Rome. Jesus Christ alone was acclaimed King and Head of the Church, with ‘the priesthood of all believers’ - and justification (salvation) by faith alone, the gift of grace.
John Knox (b. 1505) was educated for the Roman priesthood but became influenced by Protestant teaching when in Geneva he met the French Reformer, John Calvin, whose system of Presbyterianism was later adopted by the Scottish Church. Unity was guaranteed not by powerful persons but by a hierarchy of church courts where ruling elders and teaching elders were all of equal rank. The reformers saw the value of a highly trained ministry and of universal education - Knox: “a church and a school in every parish”. There was to be preaching of the Truth, the right administration of the two Sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and exercise of discipline whereby vice was repressed and virtue nourished. The people had the right to worship as they chose; the parish church ‘a system for a free people’ was a blueprint for democracy.
Democracy, however, did not accord with the monarchy of the day, and for almost the whole of the 17th Century there was resistance by the ordinary folk of the Kirk in Scotland against the power of the ill-fated Scottish kings. The wily James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of Elizabeth of England in 1603, and although a convinced Protestant, James was no Presbyterian. His declaration: “Nae bishop, nae King” encompassed that belief in Divine Right which would lead to the downfall of the House of Stewart. The issue was no longer one between the old Catholic faith and the new Reformed Kirk, but rather what form the new religion would take - whether the Church would be governed by Bishops appointed by the King or by Assemblies of ministers and laymen. Charles I inherited his father’s suspicion of democratic assemblies, both religious and parliamentary, and tried to bring the Scottish Kirk in line with episcopacy. When his Book of Common Prayer was read in St. Giles Kirk in Edinburgh in July 1637 Jenny Geddes threw her cutty-stool at the minister, a riot followed, and rebellion swept through Scotland. The following February thousands flocked to Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh to sign the National Covenant drawn up to pledge support for the Presbyterian way. Copies were sent for signatures to Scots in armies abroad and to the fishing fleets - all through the struggles of the years to come the people would look back with deep emotion to the signing (sometimes in blood) of the National Covenant, and proudly took up the name ‘Covenanters’. Later that year the General Assembly met in Glasgow, episcopacy was swept away and the bishops turned out. War with England was inevitable. An army marched under General Leslie and occupied Newcastle where a peace treaty was signed. Cromwell came to power and at first the Scots sided with him but he broke faith with them and executed Charles I in 1649. Loyalty to the Heavenly King and to the earthly King were two separate issues for the Scots, and when Charles II promised support for the Covenant they crowned him King in 1660. But Charles II went back on his promises and restored patronage, requiring all ministers to seek readmission to their parishes from their old patrons and bishops. Failure to do so meant ejection.
More than 300 refused to submit, most of them in Southern Scotland (especially Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Dumfriesshire and Galloway): 16 of the 19 ministers in Dumfries Presbytery were ‘outed’, and all 16 ministers in Kirkcudbright Presbytery. Though the ministers were exiled, hunted and harried, their congregations flocked to hear them at conventicles (field preachings) which took place in secluded sites, often high in the hills. Parish churches with new King’s prelates were all but deserted. In 1663 drastic penalties were imposed for non-attendance at churches, and it was a crime to hear outed ministers or to give them shelter. Sir James Turner was sent to the South West and quartered his soldiers on the people who suffered much as a result. Though the King attempted conciliation the conventicles continued, and with soldiers billetted in the offending areas there was a trail of destruction and torture which served only to confirm the resolve of those with Covenanting sympathies.
Events which occurred in the few months following November 1666 in the small rural parish of Kirkpatrick Irongray 5 miles west of Dumfries give an indication of the fury and upheaval experienced in parishes with strong Covenanting sympathies. The minister, John Welsh, great grandson of John Knox, had been outed in 1662 and the Bishop of Glasgow imposed a ‘King’s curate’, Bernard Sanderson, on the parish. His parishioners ‘did not allow him peaceful access’, hurling stones when he tried to enter the kirk: Margaret Smith was sentenced to banishment in Barbardos, and James Arnott was fined 400 merks. Following a scuffle some few miles west at Dalry, the Covenanters were goaded into open insurrection, plundered Sanderson’s Manse, and with 400 horse assembled under Rev. John Welsh at the door of Irongray Kirk before marching on Dumfries where Sir James Turner was taken prisoner. This incident sparked off the Pentland Rising. On 28th November the Covenanters lost the battle at Rullion Green and many were taken prisoners - James Welsh of Little Clouden had life and property forfeited. The following day it was declared treasonable to harbour the leaders of the rebellion, including Welsh of Scarr and Welsh of Cornlee. On 12th December John Gordon and John Nelson of Irongray were hanged in Edinburgh without trial. In January William Welsh and John Grierson were hanged in Dumfries without trial. On 4th April Sanderson’s Manse was plundered again.
In the following years ruinous fines, confiscation, torture, imprisonment and banishment only made conventicles swell to formidable and well-armed gatherings. In July 1678 trickles of folk from all parts of S.W. Scotland quietly crossed the hills, converging to meet in the great natural amphitheatre 1,100 feet high on Skeoch Hill at the top of Irongray parish for one of the most memorable sacramental occasions in Scottish history. Scouts were posted on the neighbouring heights, the blue flag of the Covenant was set a-flying, and over a period of several days 4 outed ministers - John Welsh of Irongray, John Blackadder of Troqueer, Samuel Arnot of Tongland and John Dickson of Rutherglen - dispensed the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to some 3,000 people. The great grey stone which served as Communion table and 4 rows of stones used as the seating for each ‘sitting’ are there to this day, testifying to the faith of those who risked so much to worship simply in their chosen way, free of prayer-book and liturgy, bishop and king. Legend has it that as the congregation was about to disperse and scouts gave warning of dragoons seen in the distance, a thick mist descended enveloping the landscape, and all the company escaped by the ways they had come.
James VII (& II), an avowed Roman Catholic, became King in 1685 and when, despite his Declarations of liberty of conscience, he acceded to the hanging of the young James Renwick in 1688, the nation rose. Scotland joined with England in driving James VII from the throne. His Dutch son-in-law, William of Orange, brought about the Revolution Settlement, and Presbyterianism was re-established as the form of government of the Church of Scotland in 1690.
All over S.W. Scotland in lonely places the graves of the martyrs bear testimony to the faith of the Covenanters who secured for Scotland its religious heritage - testimony, too, to the intolerance of the 17th Century and cruelties perpetuated on both sides. From far away in exile, Robert Louis Stevenson remembered, and wrote:
‘Blows the wind today, and the sun and the rain are flying,
Blows the wind on the moors today and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,
My heart remembers how!
Grey incumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
Standing stones on the vacant wine-red moor,
Hills of sheep, and the howes of the silent vanished races,
And winds austere and pure: ...’