Nearly two years ago we moved our lives 200 miles north (from Manchester to Dumfriesshire), and became immigrants in a new country. It was of course a dream come true in so many ways and for so many reasons, but suddenly I found myself surrounded by an intricately woven web of history which I knew next to nothing about. Looking back I suppose I did feel quite overwhelmed by it all in those first few months.
In order to try and understand the history of our local area, I needed to be able to understand how historical events which took place here link into the bigger picture of Scottish history. This is the first in a series of blogs where I will be sharing some of the things I am learning along the way as I explore my local area and fill in the history jigsaw all around me. Like many places in Scotland, the area we moved to is filled with tales of saints and sinners; men of Christ and royal dragoons, battles on bleak moorlands and all the stories of courage and barbarity which accompany them and I needed to understand what all of this meant, both historically and in how it all affects the present.
In the villages, hilltops and glens all around our home you’ll find gravestones and monuments dedicated to men and women, known at Covenanters, who were killed in the 1600’s during a religious and political power struggle (this being a very simplified way of explaining a very complicated time). It is this period of Scottish history which I want to explore, to understand who those names on the graves stones and monuments really were and how they connect to this area. When you spend time at the places where certain events took place, suddenly this part of history feels not-so-distant at all, and indeed, those names on the gravestones “Tho Dead, Yet Speaketh”.
I’ll admit that when I first heard the term ‘Covenanters’ I knew absolutely nothing about what it meant. I’m not even sure if I’d ever even heard the word before and I still have trouble pronouncing it properly even now. But because I was now living in an area which was once the center of much of the action during these turbulent times, I felt I now had a duty to learn the stories connected to the places all around me. Every day I walk the same land these people trod – I ascend hills where the battles and the mass outdoor sermons took place and I visit the final resting places of people who were killed over 350 years ago in an effort to understand what these people went through.
Initially I had dismissed the stories of the Covenanters and assumed that it was all just dull religious history which I had zero connections to. Being a non-Christian myself, and with no Scottish ancestors that I know of, I didn’t see how I could relate to this part of Scottish history at all. But I now realise that you don’t have to be religious to have at least some degree of empathy and sadness when you learn what these people went through for their faith. You just need to be human. To me, any form of organised religion seems rather ridiculous, but, as I will go on to explain in further blogs, the Covenanters themselves shunned structured, planned worship and pre-scripted prayers and fought to be able to worship freely, away from control of the King’s enforced rules over the church. Of course I admire their rebellious spirit, no matter the reason for it.
Many people’s interest in the Covenanters, understandably, comes from a religious angle – fellow believers who want to keep the memories of their fellow Christians alive and celebrate the faith these martyrs had. I simply want to know where these people lived, and how they lived, and how they were willing to suffer so horrifically for something they believed in (I suppose Christians may find that last part easier to grasp). I visit old ruined farms all the time and I often wonder if any one of them might once have been the home to a Covenanting family, or perhaps where someone was once given shelter. If only the tumble-down walls could talk.
For the next post I’ll be writing a summary of all the major events in Scottish history during the 1600’s which connect to the Covenanter’s struggle – the events which lead up to it and the battles during the darkest times. Because the massacre was so huge (18,000 recorded killed, but many thousands more unrecorded), it would be difficult to summarise all the Covenanting tales from around Scotland, so in further blogs I will instead be focusing on some of the 57 names known as ‘The Nithsdale Martyrs’.
Of course, I am learning all of the information I am sharing as I go so there will be some blanks and errors which I will fill in and correct as I go. But I hope that my posts will inspire other people to understand what these people did for Scotland – not just in a religious sense, but also a political one. Not matter what you believe or don’t believe, or where you come from, it is difficult to not be moved and inspired by the stories of these people who lived only a handful of generations ago.
For a timeline of Scottish history relating to events surrounding the Covenanters, please see my following post: https://thescottishdream.com/2019/04/22/the-covenanting-era-scottish-history-timeline-1600-1688/