The Covenanters

 A Noble Cause

In Edinburgh, daddy and I set off to find the Covenanter Memorial, marking the spot where many of them died in Grassmarket. We found the Grassmarket, looked up and down for a monument. We saw nothing, and so started asking around. No one knew where it was. We walked toward where the guidebook said it might be, but all we saw was raised round stonework people were using as a place to eat lunch. Nearby was the black stone “shadow” of the gallows, marking where it had once stood.

Then I realized that what everyone was sitting on was the monument. I admit I was rather upset. You don’t sit on memorials to some of the bravest men and women ever to live. This was a spot where I felt one should weep, pray, and remember men like Hugh M’Kail. The memorial reads, “Many Martyrs and Covenanters died for the Protestant Faith on this spot.” But sadly, they are oft forgotten.

If you read a secular history book about Scotland, you may read of trouble during the reign of Charles I and Charles II (and James VII/II).The Covenanters are forgotten in the turmoil of the Civil Wars, in which they had a part. They are thrown in with “religious wars,” but what exactly they were fighting for is not mentioned.

Charles I believed in the divine right of Kings. This meant he thought himself to be above the people, parliament, and the church. He imposed rules upon the church. The Scots did not want – or believe it biblical to have – ministers appointed by the state or prayer books. They were angry that King Charles should think himself head of the church, whose only head is Christ. In using his “crown rights,” Charles was taking Christ’s crown rights. Many may have even supported King Charles, except in this matter. Their fight was not against Charles as king, but as head of the church. In other matters, they submitted to his rule.

On February 28 1638, faithful churchmembers gathered in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard in Edinburgh, where many of them would later be held prisoner. There, they signed a covenant drawn up and approved by leaders of the church, saying they opposed the Stuart kings as head of the church. This covenant became known as the National Covenant. It stated their faithfulness to the scriptures, the wrongs done by Charles I, and they also promised to support and defend Charles I as best they could, and as their conscience allowed. It was not a rebellious covenant by any means. When copies had been made, more and more people signed the covenant. They and those who sided with them became known as the Covenanters. Their situation was difficult. They did not seek to disobey the laws of men, but to obey God, even when His will conflicted with the laws of the country. Ministers whose preaching showed Covenanter sympathies were removed from their parishes. They turned to preaching in Covenanticles, open air meetings. These were made illegal, and attendance was punishable by death. In addition to the danger of death, Covenanters were often fined for not attending the state church. Dragoons scoured the land for “rebels,” as they called anyone who would not acknowledge Charles as head of the church.

Their trials grew as time went on, and it became more and more dangerous for them to remain in Scotland. Some left for Ulster in Ireland (we’re from Ulster, so it’s possible we have some Covenanter blood!), some left for America. But many remained, some saying they stayed so as not to leave Scotland to devils. They had to decide whether or not to fight. They knew they must protect their families, but also that Charles was their king and they must submit to him, and pray for him. There was much disagreement among the Covenanters, more in the 1660s than earlier, but even early on they were divided. Some said it was right to kill to stop further wrongs (I disagree. Stopping a worse wrong doesn’t make a wrong right). However, I do think it right for men to fight to defend their families, especially when there is more at stake than just lives. Even so, killing in cold blood is never justified. (I’ve written some about this in my review of the Hunger Games. Douglas Bond writes extensively on it in his series, Crown and Covenant).

Under pretenses of the King breaking covenant (similar to reasons the Americans began the war for Independence. They did not mean the National Covenant, but laws from James VI and his parliament, not to mention Arbroath), many rallied to fight, and eventually they joined forces with Cromwell and the Parliamentarians in the Civil War in 1648. Even so, many were appalled by Charles’ execution. They were not seeking for him to be dethroned, only for him to allow Christ to be head of His kirk. But, there was hope for them. Perhaps his successor would listen to them.

Their hope was short-lived, for Charles II was worse than his predecessor. He sought out the help of highlanders to fight and torment the Covenanters. Ruthless men like Claverhouse led Charles’s men, and there was no mercy, even for children.

Over 50 years, under Charles I, Charles II, and then James VII/II, some 18,000 were martyred or suffered for their faith. Some were killed or deported, many were imprisoned, all gave up earthly things for God. Their trials ended with William of Orange and the Glorious Revolution in 1688, when Protestantism was restored in Scotland and England. All over Scotland, there are 300+ monuments marking battles, covenanticles, and places where Covenanters lived and died.

I don’t agree with every action every Covenanter took. I’m not sure it was right to fight. But I do believe their cause was just and godly, and pray I would have had the same steadfastness and faith, even unto death. As a group, the Covenanters are inspiring. But as individuals, some of them have even more to say to us. They knew this life was passing away, and death would only mean they were with their true King.

The Faithful

William Sutherland was a hangman for the town of Ayr. In 1666, he refused to carry out the execution. They threw him in the Tollbooth prison, tried to bribe him, and still he refused. He would not hang the Covenanters, and himself became one if he was not one already.

In 1661, the Marquis of Argyle was beheaded. He had crowned the King. This is what he said: “I set the crown on the King’s head. he hastens me to a better crown then his own.”

One of the first covenanters I knew of was Margaret Wilson. In 1685, she and a 60-year old widow were condemned to be drowned for worshiping at Covenanticles. The older Margaret was staked farther out, so the tide would overwhelm her first, giving 18-year-old Margaret Wilson a chance to recant. Soldiers taunted her, but she was bold and faithful. “What do I see but Christ wrestling out yonder. Think ye that we are sufferers, not it is Christ in us,” she said. Before she died, she took out her Bible and read Romans 8 and Psalm 25.

The last martyr to die in Grassmarket was James Renwick. His last words were astounding. “Keep your ground and the Lord will send you teachers and ministers and then, these despised truths shall become glorious in the land again… Lord, I die in the faith that thou wilt not leave Scotland at this time, but will make the blood of the martyrs the seed of the Church.”

There were many others, such as Matthew Paton, James Paton, and John Crookshanks. If every story were told, this would go on for years. Everyone who signed the Covenant, did not attend church services, or fought against Charles put their lives on the line, but there was a group of men whose lives were even more at risk. They made themselves targets by faithful preaching of the word. They refused to preach other than the true gospel, and held fast to scripture, rather than preach what Charles would have them preach. They knew their lives were not in their hands, nor in the hands of the dragoons, but in the hands of God, and so they preached faithfully. May every pastor be given such faith!

One pastor who was hung was 26. His name was Hugh M’Kail. His ambition was to preach “Christ, the power of God, and the wisdom of God, unto salvation.” He died in Grassmarket, on the very spot where I sat and stood. After he was taken captive, they tortured him with the boot, which crushed the shin bone into a pulp. Yet still he refused to own Charles as head of the church. He was sentenced to die, but his response was joy.  “Only four more days till I see Jesus,” he said.

When they took him to Grassmarket for his hanging, he spoke to the crowd. Usually the drummers would drown out whatever the condemned said, but today they were silent while M’Kail spoke. He told them not to mourn for his youth, for his blood might cause more to repent than many sermons would have.

He sang a part of the 31st Psalm, prayed, and then ascended the ladder.”I care no more to go up this ladder and over it, than if I were going home to my father’s house… Friends and fellow-sufferers, be not afraid; every step of this ladder is a degree nearer heaven.” He seated himself and addressed the crowd again. His whole speech is moving; here are excerpts.

“I do willingly lay down my life for the truth and cause of God, the covenants and work of reformation, which were once counted the glory of this nation; and it is for endeavouring to defend this, and to extirpate that bitter root of prelacy, that I embrace this rope.”

“There is a great solemnity here, of a confluence of people, a scaffold, a gallows, a people looking out at windows; so there is a greater and more solemn preparation of angels to carry my soul to Christ’s bosom; again this is my comfort, that it is to come to Christ’s hand, and he will present it blameless and faultless to the Father, and then shall I be ever with the Lord. And now I leave off to speak any more to creatures, and begin my intercourse with God, which shall never be broken off:—Farewel father and mother, friends and relations; farewel the world and all delights; farewel meat and drink; farewel sun, moon and stars; welcome God and Father; welcome sweet Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the new covenant; welcome blessed Spirit of grace, and God of all consolation; welcome glory; welcome eternal life; and welcome death.”

The Covenanters: Crown and Covenant

I would be one of the people who knows little of the Covenanters but for a series of books by Douglas Bond that I have devoured again and again. It’s a series called “Crown and Covenant.” I won’t do a full review here, but if you’ve enjoyed my short post on the Covenanters, you’ll love meeting more of them and learning about the situation in more depth. I don’t know that I agree with him on everything – like if it’s right to take back something stolen from you by stealing it back, or if it’s alright to lie if the false witness you bear isn’t against your neighbor (the situation he used this justification I felt was justified in another way, but that’s another story).

I love the characters Mr. Bond builds, especially Sandy M’Kethe. His patience and calmness in the midst of trials, his unwavering trust in the Lord, his going out to pray alone early in the morning and deep communion with the Lord, and his steadfastness to fight only in defense.

Here are some excerpts for your encouragement, and perhaps to pique your interest.

“It’s not a rising. We are in arms for a broken Covenant and a persecuted Kirk. We are loyal to the king as God’s servant in civil matters, but loyal to Christ in all matters of the Kirk. We are in defensive arms only. This is not to be mistaken for a rebellion. Remember, lad, make clear – this is no rebellious rising. Our goal is peace with the English, not war.”

“I cannae bear this.”
“Aye, but Christ bears all.”

“Duncan, ye or I donnae ken the ways of the Lord, now do we? … we so want our heaven just now and here on this earth. But God has ordained crosses for our greater sanctification, lad. Worthy Mr. Rutherford put it this way: ‘The cross of Christ is the sweetest burden that ever I bear; it is such a burden as wings to a bird or sails to a ship, to carry me forward to my harbor.’”

Duties are ours, events are God’s – but we are always wanting to grab the helm and steer our own course. (paraphrase)

“When our enemy prevails over us – as he has done, aye, and will do again – Christ is mine. When I or mine are brought to the wheel, the rack, the gallows, Christ is mine. If he destroys, Christ is mine. If he slay me, Christ is mine. If he cast me into hell, I would shout down the very shriekings of the devil: Christ is mine! I’d cry, ‘Christ died for me!’ Aye, and even if Christ should hide his face and frown upon me, O it is Christ, and it is good, for Christ is mine!” – Rebel’s Keep.



Electric Scotland: Hugh M’Kail

Snippets on the Covenanters

The National Covenant (you should read it… it’s really good)

About Sutherland 

List of Martyrs

More on M’Kail


6 thoughts on “The Covenanters

  1. Ezra Dunn says:

    And they will all be their with us when we are done with this life. Then you will be able to meet M’Kail in person, along with so many others! But I wonder if this is where we are headed, and if so, whether it will be two decades or two centuries for us to get there.


  2. Lostariel says:

    “Stopping a worse wrong doesn’t make a worse wrong right.” Was this sentence meant to say that? Or perhaps “Stopping a wrong doesn’t make a worse wrong right”? Or “Stopping a worse wrong doesn’t make a wrong right”?
    Other than that, I love this post.


  3. gold account says:

    It was Cromwell’s fear of a Scots invasion of England to restore Charles and impose Presbyterianism that led to his own invasion and occupation of Scotland in 1650. Cromwell was much less hostile to Scottish Presbyterians , some of whom had been his allies in the First English Civil War, than he was to Irish Catholics. He made a famous appeal to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland , urging them to see the error of the royal alliance: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken!”. The Scots’ reply was robust: “would you have us to be sceptics in our religion?” This rebuff and the decision to negotiate with Charles II led Cromwell to believe that war was necessary. His forces’ victory at the Battle of Dunbar on 3rd September 1650 saw 4,000 Scottish soldiers killed and 10,000 taken prisoner, following which he quickly captured Edinburgh. Scotland was now under English rule.


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