Taken from the book Inscriptions on the Tombstones and Monuments erected in memory of the Covenanters; with historical introduction and notes, by James Gibson, and published c.1881. The people of the Stewartry were, in general, staunch supporters of the Covenant, and the happenings of this time form an important part of our county's history. This article serves as an introduction to that history.


"The lover of freedom can never forget
The glorious peasant band
His sires that on Scotia's moorlands met ;
Each name like a seal on the heart is set,
I'he pride of his Fatherland."

THE twenty-eight years' persecution of the Scottish Covenanters, from the Restoration of Charles II. to the Revolution of 1688, is a memorable chapter in the history of civil and religious freedom, and to no passage in her history do genuine Scotsmen look back with such national pride as to this brave protest and resistance against foreign control and aggression. We can neither forget their sufferings nor underrate their services, and as the years roll past, the memory of the Covenanters is regarded with deeper gratitude and reverence.

The Covenant is now a feeble sound, and is only curious as a historical document, whose bond of union ceased when the conflict ended; for, like all popular standards, it had something local and special, narrow and one-sided, and with the imperfection of the age which inspired it, but it had also something universal and perpetual, adapted for a better life. The motive power was a temporary and insufficient instrument, but the principle involved, and the results to be wrought out, were of lasting benefit to mankind, as the seeds of a more expansive life were being sown in the free, pure exercise of religious belief and worship.

It is only fair to admit that along with a terrible earnestness there mingled many elements of blindness and bigotry among the Covenanters; but the power of suffering and adversity developed a rare moral courage, aroused a burning zeal and devotion, and awakened Scotland to a spiritual consciousness which has never since been permitted to die away. From that day forward the current set in, slowly but surely, toward a truer recognition of and a larger concession to the rights of conscience; and in these days, when all men are free to exercise the right of private judgment in matters of faith, and the support of a State church, like religion itself, must be accepted as a purely personal responsibility, accountable to no earthly tribunal, we cannot but feel thankful to the men whose stern unyielding determination was remarkable, who suffered, bled, and triumphed in a struggle which not only saved Scotland, but really secured the religious freedom of England.

The history of the Covenanters has been frequently written, and their lives and times very differently estimated; but for many years past the tone of Scottish literature in reference to them has been in general sound and healthy. Scotland's great son, Sir Walter Scott, had imbibed strong prejudices against the Covenanters, which found utterance in his celebrated novel of "Old Mortality," a work that excited a profound sensation on its appearance in the year 1816, and did more than any other publication, either before or since, to throw an air of ridicule on the sayings and doings of the Covenanters, and to picture their deeds in the garb of fanaticism. It provoked numerous reviews and pamphlets, and created a thorough discussion of the whole history not the least important of which was Dr McCrie's masterly "Vindication of the Covenanters," a defence which produced a deep and lasting impression on the public and told with tremendous effect, so much so that Scott, then the Great Unknown, had to defend his own book by the singular method of a review of it in " The Quarterly; " but it failed most signally in shaking the popular belief that those men who had suffered so bravely for conscience sake were worthy of the highest esteem.

Our intention, however, is not to review the controversy, but to content ourselves at present with the records to be gleaned from the tombstones in the Auld Kirkyard, on the hill-side, among the moss, or far away in the solitary dell. These recall to our mind the men and their deeds with a simple, touching pathos, which appeals to the understanding, and thrills the heart. Very rude and unlettered the inscriptions mostly are, "like the voice of one crying in the wilderness," but their very simplicity is more in keeping with the characters of the unassuming, long-suffering men than a more stately structure with an elaborate dedication. No inscriptions throughout the land seem to tell so much in so few, plain, unadorned lines. There is a severe truthfulness about them which strikes home, and they differ from all others in this particular distinction, that they are a memorial of glory and of infamy the names of the martyr and the persecutor in conjunction on the same stone “the weary at rest," with a nation's blessing as the remembrance of the “killing times," as they were aptly designated, and a nation's execration on the chief actors in an age of savage cruelty.

The name for ever associated as the leading spirit in the history of these ruthless campaigns, was Graham of Claverhouse, best known in Scotland as "Bloody Claverhouse," who, for his zeal in hunting down the Covenanters, was created Viscount Dundee, and made a Privy Councillor. Another not less notorious, whose name is found on many a gravestone, was Sir Thomas Dalzell, of Binns, a ferocious ruffian, worse in some respects, if that were possible, than Claverhouse himself. The military apostle of the persecution was Sir James Turner, who, savage by nature, and usually half drunk, swept like a whirlwind over Nithsdale and Galloway, at the head of his "lambs " (as in bitter irony they were termed), dragging people to church, devouring the substance of families, binding prisoners with iron chains, applying thumbscrews and instruments of torture, and carrying ruin and desolation in his train. Turner was a soldier of fortune, who had once fought for the Covenants. He was fierce and imperious, and when drunk (which was a common thing) his fury amounted to madness.

Another name on some of the gravestones is familiar to every Scotsman, the notorious Sir Robert Grierson, the Laird of Lagg, whose wanton cruelties and savage manners will never be uprooted from the Galloway traditions. No deed of ruffianism was too daring, and no atrocity too revolting for him and his troopers, who brought terror and ruin to many a family. Lagg lived forty-five years after the Revolution a dreaded and hated object, after his power of mischief was taken from him.

There are other names connected with the inscriptions: Captain Bruce was as ruthless a tool of the Privy Council as could be wished; Captain Inglis was cruel and remorseless Strachan, Sir James Johnston, and Colonel James Douglas (brother of the Duke of Queensberry) were active and zealous against the Covenanters, and proved worthy of the commissions entrusted to them; although there is in the character of Douglas the redeeming feature that he forsook his party, served with distinction under William III., and bitterly lamented the cruelties of which he had been the agent. In addition to the names of the persecutors on the gravestones, some mention is recorded of the memorable scenes of conflict, the rising at Pentland, Drumclog, and the battle of Bothwell Bridge. The references will be better understood by giving a brief outline of the history.

Charles the Second had scarcely been restored to the throne, when he utterly repudiated the engagements into which he had entered in the days of his adversity to uphold and maintain the Presbyterian form of Church Government, and the Covenanted work of Reformation. He resolved to overturn the whole fabric of Presbyterianism, and to set up Prelacy in its stead, which the great majority of the Scottish people hated as much as Popery itself. The Covenants were declared unlawful, and the Acts of Assembly approving of them abrogated as seditious; the opposition to Episcopal Church government was denounced as seditious; the clergy who had been admitted to livings subsequent to the abolition of patronage were declared to have no title to them, and were required within four months to obtain presentations from the patrons and collation from the bishop, with assurance that if they did not comply they would be ejected by military force. The consequence of this edict was that about the end of 1662, no fewer than 400 clergymen threw up their livings, rather than do violence to their convictions; hence arose the practice of holding meetings for public worship in the fields, which became so obnoxious to Government that an Act was passed prohibiting the ejected ministers from approaching within twenty miles of their former parishes, and declaring it seditious for any person to contribute to their support.

The people disregarded the edict of the drunken and infuriated Earl of Middleton, the King's Commissioner, who at that time swayed the destinies of Scotland, and whose chief colleague in the administration was Archbishop Sharp, between whom a despotism was set up such as Scotland had never suffered from before. Sharp was the moving power of the persecution, he was formerly parish minister of Crail, had sworn to uphold the Covenant, and was chosen confidential commissioner to plead the Presbyterian cause in London, instead of which he acted with treacherous duplicity, assuring his friends that the rumoured intention of the King to set up Prelacy in Scotland was "a malicious lie" while it is more than probable its attempted restoration took place at his suggestion. He received the reward of his apostacy in being raised to the Archiepiscopal See of St Andrews, and Primate of Scotland, but his countrymen canonised him as "Judas Sharp."

Notwithstanding the unrelenting severity of the times, the great body of the people remained faithful; they refused to abandon their old pastors and wait on the ministrations of the ignorant curates who occupied their pulpits. Hence fines, imprisonments, tortures, and death were resorted to, and the people on several occasions were goaded to repel aggression, and assert their rights and liberties with arms in their hands. Bishop Burnet writes of the curates generally, "That they were the worst preachers he ever heard; they were ignorant to a reproach, and many of them openly vicious; they were a disgrace to their order, and to the sacred function, and were indeed the dregs and refuse of the northern parts."

Armed conventicles now began to spring up, as the people were forced to carry arms for safety and self-defence. The Government determined to crush them; and for this purpose a standing army of 3000 infantry, and 8 troops of cavalry, were sent to the insubordinate districts, with orders to maintain their forces by free quarters from Nonconformists. General Dalziel assumed the chief command, his congenial subordinate being Sir James Turner. As time rolled on it brought new rigour, and by the year 1666 the reign of terror instituted by the Privy Council had reached a stage of refinement and perfection not previously attained.

On the 13th November of that year the flames of insurrection broke out without any premeditation or concert, and were purely accidental, but ultimately led to serious consequences. A party of Turner's soldiers stationed at St John's clachan of Dalry, in Galloway, confiscated a patch of corn belonging to a poor old man, and threatened him with personal vengeance unless he paid the balance of Church fines charged against him. At this juncture four covenanting refugees entered the village in search of food. One of these had suffered much persecution, and felt sympathy for his fellow- sufferer; but they smothered their feelings and withdrew. Soon after, tidings reached them that the soldiers had stripped the poor man naked in his own house, with the intention of subjecting him to torture. They could remain patient no longer, but hastened to remonstrate with the soldiers, who told them not to interfere. After a brief altercation, several countrymen entered the house. A general fight of short duration ensued, and the troopers were made prisoners and disarmed. A council of war was held, a march was resolved upon, and the day after the council a force of 200 infantry and 50 horsemen mustered at Irongray Church, the place of rendezvous. Sir James Turner was taken prisoner at Dumfries on the 15th November, the Government troops captured and disarmed, without injury to any of them, except one man who offered resistance and was severely wounded. They afterwards went to the Cross and drank the King's health.

When the Edinburgh Covenanters heard of the rising at Dalry, many thought it premature, but since it had occurred that it ought to be supported. A resolution was adopted to march towards the capital. The irregular force gained accessions as they passed through Cumnock and Muirkirk, and had increased to 2000 men as they reached Lanark; but when they came near Edinburgh had fallen off, and suffered from numerous desertions. In this dilemma, they learned that General Dalziel was following on their track, and in the dead of night the wandering host, faint with hunger and fatigue, retreated to the Pentland Hills, and encamped on the celebrated table land of Rullion Green, where they were encountered on the 28th November by Dalziel, at the head of 3000 soldiers, and after a gallant resistance were put to flight. About 50 were killed on the field, and some 130 taken prisoners, the half of whom were afterwards executed as traitors, and the rest banished. Of those who escaped, the greater number refused to take the oath of indemnity, and were thenceforth pursued as fugitives and outlaws. Those who spared Sir James Turner's life had no such mercy meted out to them. The scaffold was set up, and Archbishop Sharp was determined that it should not be cheated of its victims.

"Pentland's dark day was victory for Dalzell,
Gospel for Sharp, and law for Lauderdale."

The King's Advocate was ordered to proceed against 11 prisoners, when quick despatch was made. They were found guilty and hanged, their heads and right hands to be cut off the latter because they had been raised up in renewing the covenant at Lanark.

No information could be obtained which showed the rebellion other than a sudden rising, unconcerted and unprepared; yet, notwithstanding, they were determined to extract a confession from some prisoners to suit their purpose, and selected two for torture with the "Boots." These were Neilson Corsack and Hugh McKail the latter a young man 26 years of age, the ousted minister of Bothwell.

At this time the Earl of Rothes had supplanted Middleton as King's Commissioner. He had some kindliness in his nature, but his education had been neglected and his habits were dissipated and licentious; and he was compelled against his better sense to continue the system of violence and oppression to which he succeeded, for with Sharp as his colleague there was no hope of mercy. McKail was found guilty of treason, and sentenced to be executed at Edinburgh Market Cross, on the 22nd December. After this Rothes made a progress through the west, and many persons were executed.

A gleam of hope came to Scotland in 1667, when the Earls of Lauderdale, Tweedale, and Kincardine, with Sir Robert Murray, were placed at the head of affairs; Sharp disgraced for proven duplicity; the Earl of Rothes removed from office as Commissioner, and the gentle-minded Leighton, Bishop of Dunblane, taken into confidence, while Turner was dismissed, and an indemnity proclaimed to those who had fought at Rullion Green. A searching examination was made into military excesses. Dalziel, the hoary old ruffian, was screened, and the storm descended upon subordidinates. Turner admitted the charges, but he pleaded the authority of letters from Rothes and Sharp.

The calm, however, was treacherous, and soon broken. The Indulgence Act was passed, which reappointed to their parishes those ousted ministers who had not been guilty of any breach of the peace; permitted them to meet in Presbytery; put them under strict surveillance, and enjoined them to keep to the bounds of their own parishes. Some accepted the conditions, but a far larger number contended for the Covenant. Field meetings became more common, and were watched with peculiar jealousy. An edict was passed prohibiting conventicles, and making a preacher's attendance a capital crime. Notwithstanding, they grew and multiplied, and for nearly ten years the authorities durst only proceed against those who frequented them by the occasional exaction of a heavy fine.

But fiercer elements began soon to mingle with and embitter those comparatively peaceful scenes. Lauderdale had climbed the summit of glory of which his sordid nature was capable, entered the English Cabinet, and been created a Duke; married that notorious profligate, the Countess of Dysart, his first wife having died neglected and forsaken in Paris. He visited Scotland with his Duchess in such pomp and state as were never before witnessed in the kingdom. Sharp, the Primate, was conspicuous for his fawning attendance. The Duchess was a common huckster - places, posts, and offices were sold to the highest bidder. The accession of Lord Danby as head of the English Ministry changed affairs for Scotland; but Lauderdale determined to retain power at any price made terms with the Scottish Prelatists, and the all-powerful Governor of Scotland was in reality a bond slave in the hands of the crafty Sharp.

Lauderdale had not only signed the Covenant, but had been a representative of the Church at the Westminster Assembly; of whom it was said, at a later period of his life, that he swore by Jehovah, at the Council table, that he would crush the Westland shires into submission to Episcopacy by still greater severities than those under which they groaned. Can it be wondered at that such a reign of terror should create bitter hatred and recrimination, and that the country soon began to assume the appearance it had before the insurrection at Pentland? The sword of persecution was turned against armed conventicles a "secret committee" was formed for short, sharp practice. The soldiers were again let loose on the people, in garrison parties; hailstorms of proclamations were showered upon the devoted heads of the Covenanters, who staggered under these merciless blows.

The assassination of Archbishop Sharp, on the 3rd May, 1679, furnished the Government with a new test to be applied to all suspected persons "Is Sharp's death murder or not?" The persecution waxed hotter and hotter. To Sharp, in the council and court, succeeded the celebrated advocate, Sir George Mackenzie, a distinguished lawyer and law reformer, appointed Lord Advocate in 1674, and promoted to the Privy Council in 1677. He was a fierce despot in his persecution of the Covenanters, and unscrupulous in his disregard of the laws to answer the purpose of the Government, which he carried out with such a peculiar energy of hatred as to become best known in Scotland as the "Bluidye Mackenzie." It was soon after this time that Graham of Claverhouse appeared in the field: a man fitted for gathering up the gleanings of a harvest of confiscation and blood.

Garrisons were placed in the west and south-west of Scotland to scour the country in search of field-meetings, and summarily to put to death all that offered resistance. On the wild district between Lanark and Ayr a series of meetings had been held from the beginning of February for no less than twenty weeks in succession. Oftener than once they were approached by the soldiers, but their numbers and armed condition kept them at bay. At last it was determined to take steps to vindicate their conduct.

On the 25th May a conventicle was held on a moor in Avondale. After the sermon, it was resolved that something further should be done as a testimony against the iniquity of the times. Two days after the declaration was published, Graham of Claverhouse, armed with full powers, set off in search of its publishers. His first service in Scotland was to surprise a conventicle at Galashiels; his next exploit was at Drumclog. He had heard of a conventicle to be held at Loudon Hill, and was determined to suppress it. Robert Hamilton, of Preston, as leader of the Covenanters, with 250 horse and foot, set out to meet him. At the swamps of Drumclog they met face to face with Claverhouse and his dragoons. The troops fired first; the Covenanters accepted the challenge, splashed across the swamp, and grappled with the enemy hand to hand and foot to foot, fighting for all that man holds dear. The dragoons wavered and broke, and Claverhouse fled with the shattered remains of his troopers. There were about forty killed, and a considerable number wounded and taken prisoners. The loss to the Covenanters was probably ten or twelve men. It was the first and last battle ever lost by Claverhouse.

The success at Drumclog took the Covenanters as well as the public by surprise, but it soon became evident they were not equal to the crisis they had created. Thousands joined their ranks, but they were mostly undisciplined. They had some able officers, but no leading mind. Discord and disputed points of controversy weakened their councils, they were a force of badly armed men, had made no preparation in providing ammunition or procuring provisions for the dreadful contest in which they were engaged, but wasted their opportunity in furious discussions on Church polemics, and galling recriminations.

Only three weeks elapsed and the Royalists improved their forces to the best advantage. They turned out of the way and recruited their ranks to 15,000 men, with four pieces of artillery, under the Duke of Monmouth. With the Covenanters the three weeks had been spent in the worst possible manner. They were weary and chafed, and dissension sprung up among them as bitter as against the common foe. Alas for that doomed host! The leader, Robert Hamilton, appointed by his own presumption, was a brave, well-disposed, but narrow-minded man, entirely wanting in the qualifications necessary for a prudent commander; a panic spreading decimated their numbers, as it turned out, ill provided with ammunition; and in this sad state they had to meet a disciplined army at Bothwell Bridge on the 22nd June. For an hour they defended the Bridge bravely, but they were over-powered by numbers and driven off. After that they yielded like snow to the charge of the Life Guards. It soon ceased to be a battle, and became a butchery. Claverhouse encouraged his men to excess of cruelty. 1200 men threw down their arms. They were stripped nearly naked and forced to lie on the ground. If one raised his head he was instantly shot. About 400 perished in all; some of whom had no arms, but had come to the camp to hear a sermon. The victory was complete, and but for Monmouth's interference the carnage would have been frightful.

The results of the battle were most disastrous. It led to a more severe and systematic oppression on the part of the Government. It drove the persecuted into deeper seclusion, and produced extravagance of action and language, which can only be excused by the barbarous treatment. The execution of the laws was committed wholly and absolutely to soldiers. They had no limited instructions, but had power and express orders to go through the country and kill, with full indemnity against consequences. These dark days are still known in Scotland as "The Killing Times." Some of the incidents will appear in notes to the Gravestone Inscriptions, and need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that nearly twenty thousand is the number estimated to have perished by fire, or sword, or water, or on the scaffold, or to have been banished. Many died from hunger and exposure within the caves and dens in which they secreted themselves. It seemed as if some plague had passed over the country, so great was the sacrifice of life, and so deep and bitter the desolation.

The storms of a long night passed when James II. fled to St Germains at the Revolution of 1688, and William, Prince of Orange, reigned in his stead. Scotland's reign of terror was over. Presbyterianism was restored, Episcopacy abolished, the hateful had fled, and many of the ejected pastors were reinstated in their parishes. The moors and kirkyards were visited only for the purpose of planting stones of remembrance, and to them we now turn, as not the least interesting chapter of the history:

"Read our Covenant fathers' faith
In the Auld Kirkyard;
On the chronicles o' death,
In the Auld Kirkyard.
See the Bible and the sword,
O'er the persecuting horde;
Tell the triumphs of the Lord,
In the Auld Kirkyard."