If you have read any of my other posts in this blog you will know that I like to find connections and links between seemingly disconnected places and events; it is the synchronicity of life which excites and inspires me. And this week I found an excuse to explore an historical link between Upper Nithsdale and a very lovely little city in the Netherlands.
Between 2002 and 2005 I spent every summer working in Holland, as well as enjoying a couple of Christmases there and as many other mini trips over as I could afford. I loved it so very much and when I wasn’t there I used to try and pretend that the whole country didn’t exist just so that I didn’t feel sad about not being there. It was my crazy wonderland. Since that time, ‘proper’ life started to take over and the Dutch dreams slipped further and further into the past. The stories of my times there started to begin with “when I was in Amsterdam a couple of years ago…”, until all of a sudden it was over a decade since I had last been there and I sometimes wondered if my time there had all been a dream.
When I began researching the history of the Covenanters of Upper Nithsdale I would never of imagined that it would lead me out of Scotland and back to another country that I loved. My research had lead me to lots of rural locations all around Rigg House, as well as across to Edinburgh, but when I learnt that some men were sent over from Scotland to Holland for religious training then I knew I had to see some of the places they would of seen, just to give me a better understanding of their experiences.
It is the story of James Renwick which I am particularly interested in, partly because of his links to many of the places I love around Upper Nithsdale, but also because of a strange, almost motherly feeling of protection towards his memory. Renwick was the last of the Covenanting ministers to be executed at Edinburgh Grassmarket and is buried in a mass grave at Greyfriars Church. Despite playing such an important role in a crucial period in Scottish history, it amazes me to think that he was just 26 years old when he was killed.
James Renwick was born in the village of Moniaive on 15th February 1662; although it should be noted that although Moniaive is in the parish of Glencairn – and not Upper Nithsdale – the two ajoining districts are linked by a wonderful walk over the hills or a fun bike ride along the back roads. Also, my research is centered on the 57 names on the Nithsdale Martyrs cross in Dalgarnock graveyard – which Renwick is not included on (because he was neither born nor killed in Nithsdale), but since he is such an integral character to the story of the Covenanters it felt important to try and understand who this man was.
Whilst studying religion at the University of Edinburgh, in July 1681 Renwick witnessed the execution of the Covenanting leader, Donald Cargill which drove him to joining the Covenanting mission – essentially a bloody power struggle between the Scottish Presbetyrian church and the English monarchy. By 1683 Renwick was sent over to Holland for further religious training and for his ordination.
Renwick ended up in Groningen, a small city in the north of the Netherlands, close to the German border. According to letters he wrote during his time there, it is believed that he lodged above a ‘montremaokker’s huys’, (a watchmaker’s house) on Folkingestraat. This street is one of the main shopping streets in the university city of Groningen and links the train station with the university in a direct line. Nowadays it is a bustling shopping area – although for me it had a wonderful calming effect after spending a couple of days in Amsterdam. I spent a lot of time wandering up and down that street trying to imagine what it must have looked like in Renwick’s day; unfortunately the watchmaker’s business was long gone.
There are two impressive churches still standing in Groningen which Renwick would have undoubtedly visited – The Aa Kerk and the Martinitoren. Unfortunately it was too early to get inside for a look around the churches when I visited but it just gives me a good excuse to revisit wonderful Groningen another time.
(I don’t know who this statue outside the Martinitoren is of, but it reminded me of one of my favourite music videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5uQMwRMHcs)
As part of my visit to Groningen, I had also been kindly invited on a tour of the university by the History professor, Klass van Berkel which proved to be a fascinating insight into the history of both the university and the city itself. Fires and various reconstructions and new buildings means that the university looks very different to how it would have looked in Renwick’s day, but it was good to get a real sense of the depth of history within this institution. I felt very privileged to get to see inside huge rooms with high ceilings and walls neatly crammed with hundreds of portraits of professors from the last couple of hundred years. For me it was just nice to be in such a beautiful place of education for the first time in a long time – although it should be noted that Renwick actually resented the education side of his ministerial training and opted for fervent prayer over scripture study as much as possible. His longing to return to Scotland to preach to his people meant that he perhaps didn’t make the most of his opportunities in Holland; I believe he already knew what he wanted to do and what he wanted to achieve and no amount of books or great hallowed institutions would alter his course in any way.
I explained to Professor van Berkel that my interest in Renwick and the history of the Covenanters first began when I visited locations of their conventicles (places used for secret outdoor worship) and began to feel that this 350 year-old history seemed so relatively recent; like the events had only just happened and that some of the people in the stories were still alive. Trying to explain this to most people makes me sound like a bit of a weirdo, but thankfully the professor completely understood (“of course I understand – I am an historian!”) and he told me that there is even a Dutch phrase for this emotion which translates a having an ‘historical sensation’. I’m looking forward to having another historical sensation on an Upper Nithsdale wilderness walk soon!
My brief visit to Groningen was a wonderful one and I feel very happy to have ‘discovered’ another place that I will certainly visit again. My experience this time in Amsterdam – 14 years after my last visit – was not a particularly enjoyable one, so my one night stop over in Groningen was like a blissful retreat from the manic city madness; Groningen was like being in Dumfries compared to Amsterdam’s London vibe. If you ever do visit Groningen, be sure to go to the inspiring Groninger Museum which its huge collection of Dutch art and changing exhibitions, and be sure to check out the stunning train station which was simply a work of art itself.
I feel pleased in the knowledge that I have, in a small way, experienced another part of Renwick’s life and walked the Dutch streets he walked down in the same way I have crossed the wild Scottish moors he once preached on. Like myself, Renwick knew that his heart and his obligations belonged to Scotland and I think we both experienced a sense of guilt during our time in Groningen, albeit for different reasons; whereas Renwick felt bad for not being in his homeland to support his fellow Covenanters, I felt sad about being away from my family and business (as well as the eternal worry of the ironing pile which was no doubt growing high in my absence). I was sad to leave Groningen, but happy to know it is another place I will one day return to.