Six months ago I could not have answered this question. And even now, despite attempting to write a post answering that very query, it is still a subject which I struggle to completely understand. This is perhaps why it is a topic which intrigues me so. And I think that because the Covenanters were real people – many of whom lived in the area I now call home, and whom existed here (in the grand scale of things) quite recently, I now feel a strange sort of unexpected connection to them.
My previous post outlined some of the major political events in Scottish history which took place during the Covenanter’s era, focusing on the Stuart monarchy and how the different king’s lust for power resulted in 18,000 recorded deaths in Scotland. Because that is exactly what the problem was during this period – in essence the issues were caused by a power struggle between Scottish Presbyterians who just wanted to worship in the way they always had done and a monarchy who wanted to enforce an Anglican, Roman Catholic-style church upon Scotland. King Charles I, and his son, Charles II, were of the opinion that they had been chosen for their role by God therefore this Divine Rite made them the head of the church, whereas the Scottish Presbyterians were of the firm faith that only Jesus can ever be the top dog.
The years between 1625 (when Charles I became king) up until the tail-end of the century saw much murky goings-on: betrayals and battles, torture and public executions and the displacement of thousands of ordinary people. All in the name of God. I always have difficulty understanding why any person/group/nation fights about religion and their version of ‘God’, either historically or currently. I know its been a pretty standard occurrence since the dawn of time but it just simply doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Fighting for God/Christ etc – an entity of peace, supposedly – is a bit of an oxymoron.
By 1638, the Scottish Presbyterians had had enough of Charles’s desired power over the church and thousands of people from all over Scotland traveled to Greyfriar’s church to sign a document called the National Covenant. Although this document swore loyalty to the monarch, it nevertheless firmly restated the direct relationship between the people and God, with no interference from the king. This was not enough for Charles so he ploughed ahead with his plans. Within months, over 300,000 people had “covenanted” and were prepared to fight for their religious freedom. Which they were soon called upon to do so.
Now this is the point where, for me, the story becomes a bit muddled. The politics between Scotland and England were even more confusing back then than they are today! But back then the church was used as a powerful political weapon and loyalties between people on both sides of the border could be easily swayed, with bloody consequences. James Graham of Claverhouse was one such person who, despite initially signing the Covenant himself, was convinced to switch sides to support the king instead. He became the 1st Marquess of Montrose and in 1645 he lead the king’s army in a number of successful battle against the Covenanters. But by 1646 King Charles I was forced to surrender to the Scottish Covenanter army and was eventually handed over to the English Parliament and executed in 1649. The Marquess of Montrose was sentenced to death without trial by the Scottish parliament.
So, is this a happy ending in the Covenanter’s story now? The king was dead so peace could reign, right? Of course not – the worst times for the Covenanters was yet to come.
King Charles II (King Charles I’s son) was eventually crowned King of Scotland in 1651, receiving the support of the Scottish people only after he agreed to sign the National Covenant. After fleeing to France to escape Oliver Cromwell’s march into Scotland, he returned to Scotland in 1660 and flipped on everything he had previously promised and set out to restore episcopacy (the Divine Rite to rule) in Scotland. If you thought his dad was a wrong ‘un, then this guy is the end-of-level-boss.
After Charles revoked all legislation made by the Scottish parliament since 1633, Presbyterian ministers were forced to either pledge alliance to the king or be banned from their churches with young bishop curates brought in to take their place. The majority of the ministers refused to leave their parishes altogether so instead they would hold large outdoor services for their communities known as ‘conventicles’. These conventicles are of a particular interest to me and will be a topic I will explore in a further post.
By 1679 things had really become bad for the Covenanters. Bloody battles and in-fighting raged across Scotland – primarily across Ayrshire and the area which is now called Dumfries & Galloway. This period later became known as ‘the killing time’, a name which gives you quite a clear picture of what was going on frequently at the time. More battles ensued; the king’s dragoons scouring the hills and moors hunting out suspected Covenanters. It got to the point where people were being shot if they were found in possession of a Bible outdoors. Utter madness. And in a show of history repeating itself on a loop, one of the fiercest of the king’s men was John Graham of Claverhouse, a relation of the Marquess of Montrose who had terrorised the Covenanters forty years previously.
Because of the many connections to the Nithsdale area and East Ayrshire, it will be some of the stories found within this part of the wider story which I’ll be exploring further in later posts. There is much to investigate – many of the important names within the Covenanters’s story of this time were born in villages all over the this part of Scotland, with a number of important events taking place on the streets, hills and moors all across this wild landscape. When you are alone at a place where hundreds of people once prayed before fleeing for their lives, this history really doesn’t seem that far away.
It wasn’t until 1688 when things finally began to calm down for the Covenanters, but not until after the slaying of one local (Sanquhar) minister, the Rev. Richard Cameron at the Battle of Aird’s Moss and the execution of another, the Rev James Renwick at the Edinburgh Grassmarket. The thing that haunts me most is that these men were 32 and 26 respectively when they were killed. And their stories of martyrdom are just two of thousands across Scotland – men and women with faith so strong that they were willing to lay down their lives without fear.
So there we have it – a not-at-all complete, basic explanation of who the Covenanters were, as best as I understand it all right now. I still have many questions, but the thing I ask myself most often is what would Scotland be like now if the Presbyterians hadn’t fought back? Would anything be different nowadays if they had just all accepted what the Charles’s were trying to implement? How much influence do the Nithsdale Covenanters in particular have over the present?
Each of these posts in this series will examine a different person, place or event in Upper Nithsdale (including places within a days walk from Upper Nithsdale) connected to the Covenanters. The end goal is to produce my own personal Upper Nithsdale Covenanter trail, following the leads and connections as I discover them. Follow this blog to join me on my journey through this beautiful and inspiring land of hills and moors which still whisper their sad tales of the past.