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Wilson's Border Tales
Gleanings of the Covenant

No. 2. The Covenanter's March

The narratives of the Rev. Mr Frazer of Alness, as well as those of Quentin Dick, William M’Millan, and Mr Robert M’Lellan, laird of Balmagechan—all sufferers by, and MS. historians of the same events—we have carefully perused; and it is from a collection of these hitherto unpublished MSS. that the following paper is composed:—

Mr Fraser had gone to London about the end of the year 1676, and had continued there till 1685, when he was seized, along with the laird of Balmagechan, in Galloway, whilst they were listening to the instructions of the Rev. Mr Alexander Shields, the celebrated author of the "Hind let Loose," and forwarded by sea, under fetter and hatchway, to Leith. After a variety of tossing and council-questioning, as was the order of the day at this time, they were marched from the Canongate Tolbooth, along with upwards of 200 prisoners, to Dunottar Castle in Kincardineshire.

Of the sudden and unexpected summoning which they experienced, the reverend autobiographer speaks in these terms:—

"We were engaged, as was usual with us in our Babel captivity, in singing a psalm. It was our evening sacrifice, and whilst the sun was sinking ayont the Pentlands, the voice of a godly and much-tried woman, Euphan Thriepland, ascended clear and full of heavenly melody above the rest. The prison door was suddenly thrown open, and we at first imagined—alas!—that our captivity had ended; but it was not so. The Lord saw meet to put us to still severer trials. We were marched, under the command of Colonel Douglas, to Leith. This poor woman, who was labouring under great bodily weakness, pled hard and strove sore for leave to stay behind. But she was mounted behind a corporal, and, amidst many an obscene jest, and much blasphemous language, conveyed to the pier at Leith."

Next morning, we find the whole prisoners put up in the most indecent and uncomfortable manner in two rooms of the Tolbooth at Burntisland, and undergoing an examination before the laird of Gosford, as to their opinions of allegiance and absolute supremacy. Forty acknowledged King James as head of our Presbyterian Church, and superior lord over all law and authority in the kingdom; and the forty-first was standing in the presence of the oath-administrator, with his hand uplifted, and in the very act of following the example of his brethren, when his aunt, Euphan Thriepland, alias M’Birnie, (for her husband’s name was such,) advancing with difficulty towards the table, thus proceeded, with violent gesticulation, and in a firm tone of voice, to address her nephew. Here we use the words of the laird of Balmagechan, who has given the whole scene with singular force and fidelity:--

"Jamie M’Birnie, what’s that ye’re about? Down wi’ yer hand, man!—down wi’ yer hand, this moment!—or ye may weel expect it to rot off by the shackle-bane, man! Ye’re but a young man, Jamie, and meikle atweel ye seem to require counsel. Had Peter M’Birnie, yer worthy faither— now with his Maker—stood where I now (though with tottering joints and a feeble voice) stand, he would neither have held his peace nor withheld his admonition. He would rather hae seen that hand—now stretched out to abjure Christ and His Covenanted Kirk—burning and frying in the hottest flame; than hae witnessed the waefu sicht I now see. It’s weel wi’ him!—oh, it’s weel wi’ him, that his eyes are shut on earth, and that, in heaven, there is nae annoyance; otherwise, sair, sair wad his heart hae been to see my sister’s wean devoting himsel wi’ his ain uplifted hand to Satan. O Jamie, what says the Bible? It says awfu things to you, Jamie— it says, ‘if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, for it is better to go into heaven with one eye, than that the whole body’— Jamie, mark that! the whole body—‘should be cast into hell fire.’ And is not an eye dearer than a hand, and must not the dearest member be sacrificed, if it stand in the way of the soul’s salvation? Ye may own King James, and muckle thanks ye’ll get for’t; and ye may abjure and renounce Christ, and ye’ll sune see wha will gain or lose by that. An’ ye may adhere to the King’s curates, or to the bishops’ curates, and starve at the breast o’ a yeld, a milkless mither; but tak tent that ye dinna feed and nourish in your bosom a fearful worm, that winna die nor lie still, but will gnaw and gnaw as long as the fire burns and isna quenched."

Jamie M’Birnie’s hand continued to fall gradually during this address, and, when his aunt had concluded, his arm hung pendulous and seemingly powerless by his side. At this instant, a young woman of uncommon personal attractions was seen hurrying from a boat which had just landed. She had scarcely set foot on shore when a commotion was observed in the court, and a face full of anguish and despair was presented to the party assembled in the Tolbooth. The laird of Gosford, after cursing the aunt for an old covenanting hag, had just put the question of abjuration to Jamie, for the last time. Jamie now remained inflexible, and was immediately ordered to be handcuffed, and marched with the rest to Dunottar Castle. Hereupon, as the laird of Balmagechan expresses it—"The maiden, who was fair to look upon, pushed herself suddenly forward, and rushed into the arms of her lover—for such he behoved, from her words and her conduct, to be.

"‘O Jamie, Jamie, tak the oath—tak the oath—tak ony oath—tak onything; do a’ that they bid you do; say a’ that they bid ye say—rather than leave yer ain Jeanie Wilson to break her heart wi’ downright greeting. O Jamie, we were to be married, ye ken, at Martinmas; and I have a’thing ready, and the bit house is taen, and ye can work outby, an’ I can spin within, an’—an’—but, O Jamie, speak man, just speak, and say ye’ll take the oath. Haud up yer hand!’ Hereupon she lifted his seemingly powerless right hand, till it came to a level with his head. ‘Look there, sir,’ addressing Gosford; ‘look there—swear him, man, swear him, man; he’s willing, dinna ye see, to swear—what for dinna ye swear him?"

Being informed that the oath must be voluntary, and his hand not be propped, with great reluctance, and looking in Jamie’s face with a look of inexpressible persuasion, she whispered something in his ear which was inaudible, and retired a few paces from her station. No sooner, however, had she done so, than the hand, as if by the law of gravitation, resumed its former position, and a loud scream indicated that the young heart of Jeanie had found a temporary stillness in insensibility. The poor creature was borne out of court, amidst some sympathy even from the hardened and merciless soldiery; and Jamie, now a stupid, passive clod, was handcuffed and ordered to march.

Lieutenant Beaton of Kilrennie commanded the detachment to which was intrusted the execution of the higher orders. They were all compelled to walk, with the exception of Euphan Thriepland, who was mounted, as formerly, behind a corporal, together with a poor lame schoolmaster, whose feet were closely and most cruelly tied down to the sides of a wild and unbroken colt. Upon these two helpless and tormented beings principally did it please and amuse the commander and his men to exercise their wit and expend their jeers. At one time the schoolmaster was likened to a perched radish, and again he was "riding the stang" for his sins. Euphemia was designated "Dame Grunt," in humane allusion, no doubt, to the painful position which she occupied a la croupe, and which compelled her frequently to groan. Again she was accosted as the "Mother of all Saints," and the "True Blue Whigamore." One observed that the dominie would look wonderfully handsome in boots, (referring, no doubt, to the instrument of torture;) and another observed that the lady would wondrous well become a St Johnstone’s cravat—namely, a halter. The foot soldiers, who were armed with long pikes, made excellent application of their weapons; and, ever and anon, as some weary wretch lagged behind, or some hungry or thirsty one seemed inclined to turn aside to procure food or drink, the "argumentum a posteriori" was applied vigorously and unsparingly. The people of Fife, who were universally favourably disposed towards the prisoners, flocked in upon their retired and out-of-the-way route, with every kind of provision and refreshment; but, instead of being permitted to bestow them where they were needed, they were met with taunts, and, in some cases, with blows; and the food which was intended for the prisoners was uniformly devoured by their tormentors, or wasted and destroyed in the very presence and under the very eyes of those who were almost famishing for hunger. A strolling piper, who happened to be crossing their route, was sportively enlisted into their service, and compelled, like Barton at Bannockburn, to play, very much to his own annoyance, such tunes as "The Whigs o’ Fife," well known to be offensive to the friends of the Covenant.

"It was, indeed," says the Rev. Mr Frazer, with more of naivete and good-humour than might have been expected— "it was, indeed, an uncommon sight to behold a large and mixed company of men and women, but indifferently clad and ill-assorted, marching over moors and hill-sides, with a roaring bagpipe at their tail; the piper puffing and blowing, and, ever and anon, casting a suspicious look behind towards the pike points, which were occasionally applied to his person in a manner the least ceremonious possible." Might not this group form an appropriate subject for an Allan, a Wilkie, or a Harvey? About dusk the party had skirted the Lomonts, and were billeted for the night in the poor but pleasantly situated village of Freuchy. Each head of a family was made answerable with his property and life for the persons of those prisoners who were committed to his charge. And it is worthy of notice that not one of those poor oppressed and insulted sufferers—who were all day long endeavoring to escape—once attempted to implicate a single individual amongst all their kind and hospitable landlords.

Upon rallying their numbers next morning, it was found that one aged individual, a forbear of ours, of the name of Watson, had died of over-fatigue; and that the poor schoolmaster was so much injured by his horsemanship that he could not possibly advance farther. When they arrived at the South Ferry on the Tay, the tide did not serve, and a most cruel and barbarous scene was exhibited. A young man, the son of the Rev. Mr Frazer, with the view of making interest for his father’s release, had endeavored to escape during the night. He was challenged by a sentinel in passing along the rocks, and, not answering instantly, was immediately shot dead on the spot. His head was cut from the body, and, with the return of day, presented to the unfortunate and horrified parent, with these words—"There’s the gallows face of your son!" Mr Frazer’s own reflections on this scene deserve to be extracted from his written manuscripts:— "Oh, my Charles! my dear heart-broken Charles! thy mother’s joy and thy father’s hope, and prop, and comfort! To be thus deprived of thee, and for ever! But I am wrong, very wrong: I had thee only as a loan from the Lord; and I know well that He gives—

"‘And when He takes away,
He takes but what He gave.’

Thou hast perished in the ranks amidst the soldiers of Christ; and I doubt not that when the Captain of our salvation shall appear, thou wilt appear with Him."

It would only fatigue and disgust the reader to give one tithe of the atrocities which were perpetrated during the whole march to Dunottar Castle. Really, the manuscript narratives here concur in such statements as are calculated to make us conceive favourably of Hottentots and cannibals: children torn from their mothers’ arms, and transfixed on pike points; a woman in labour thrown into a pool in the North Esk; lighted matches applied betwixt the fingers of old Euphan Thriepland, because she ventured to denounce such atrocities, &c. &c. &c. Come we, then, after three or four days’ march, to Dunottar Castle.

The castle of Dunottar stands upon a rocky peninsula; and, at the time of which we are writing, was only accessible by a drawbridge. It has been, in successive years, the scene of much contention and bloodshed. It was here that Sir William Wallace is said to have burnt to the death not less than four thousand Southrons in one night It was within these fire-seared and blackened walls that the unfortunate Marquis of Montrose renewed the horrors of conflagration; and it was here, too, that the brave Ogilvy so long and so determinedly defended our Scottish regalia against the soldiers of the Commonwealth. It was, too, from out these walls, that Mrs Granger, wife of the minister of Kinneff, conveyed away, packed up and concealed amidst a bundle of clothes, the emblems of Scottish independence; and that, after having concealed them till the Restoration, at one time beneath the pulpit, and at another betwixt the plies of a double bottomed bed, she returned them, upon the accession of Charles II., to Mr Ogilvy, who, along with the Earl Marischal and keeper of the regalia, Keith, were rewarded for their fidelity, the one with a baronetcy, and the other with the earldom of Kintire; whilst neither this woman nor her husband, nor any of their posterity, have once yet been visited by any mark of royal or national gratitude:--

"Hos ego versiculos feci, tolit alter honores."

It is thus that the great man stands in the light of the small, and that the royal vision is prevented from penetrating beyond the objects in immediate juxtaposition.

This castle of Dunottar, which had so recently been honoured as the receptacle of the regalia, was now about to be converted into a state prison, and, like the Bass, to become subservient to the views of an alarmed and fluctuating council, at a time when the rebellion of the unfortunate Monmouth in England, and of the haughty and ill-advised Argyle in Scotland, had set the whole kingdom in a ferment, either of hope or apprehension. Mr Frazer’s narrative of the entrance of the prisoners into the castle, upon Sabbath the 24th day of May 1685, is sufficiently graphic and intelligible:—

"We passed along," says he, "a narrow way or drawbridge, and from thence ascended under a covered road towards the castle, which stands high up, and looks down upon the sea from three of its sides. A person in the garb of a jailer, with a bunch of large and rusty keys in his hand, opened a door on the seaward side of the building, and we were very rudely and insultingly commanded to enter. ‘Kennel up, there, kennel up, ye dogs of the Covenant!" were amongst the best terms that were applied to us.

"The laird of Balmagechan being amongst the last to penetrate into this abode of stench, damp, darkness, suffocation, and death, a soldier made a lounge at him with the point of his pike. Balmagechan was a peaceable man and a Christian but this was somewhat too much—so, turning round in an instant, and closing at once with his insulting tormentor, he fairly wrested the pike from the soldier’s grasp, and, splintering it in shivers over his head, he added—‘Tak, then. that, in the meantime, thou devil’s gaet, to teach thee better manners!’ The apartment into which, with scarcely room to stand, 177 (our numbers having thus diminished from 200, on the march) human beings were thrust, was, in fact, dug out of the rock, and, unless by a small narrow window towards the sea, had no means of admitting either light or air. As the night advanced, the heat became intolerable, and a sense of suffocation, the most painful of any to which our frail nature can be exposed, seemed to threaten an excruciating, if not an immediate death. In vain we knocked, and called upon the guard, and implored a little air, and asked water, for God and mercy’s sake. We were only answered by scoffs and jeers. At last nature, in many instances, being entirely worn out, gave way. Some turned their heads over upon the shoulder of the persons nearest them, as if in the act of drinking water, and expired—others lost their reason entirely, struck out furiously around them, tore their own hair and that of others, and then went off in strong and hideous convulsions.

Happier were they, at this awful midnight hour, who entered this dungeon with a feeble step and in a wasted state of bodily strength; for their struggle was short, and their death comparatively easy—they died ere midnight. But far otherwise was it with many upon whom God had bestowed youth, health, and unimpaired strength. They stood the contest long; and frequently, after they appeared to be dead, awoke again in renewed strength and ten times increased suffering. After the fatal discovery was made, that the door was not to be opened, the rush toward the opposite window became absolutely intolerable. The feeble were trod down, and even the strong wasted their strength in contending with each other.

"Morning at last dawned, and our prison door flew suddenly open. The governor’s lady had learned our fate; and, even at the risk of giving offence to her lord, she had ordered us air and water, whilst he still slept. ‘O woman, woman,’ exclaims Mr Quentin Dick, in his MS. before me; ‘thou art, and hast ever been, an angel. What does not man— what do not we owe thee!’

"In a word, more than the half perished on that dreadful night, and amongst those who were ultimately liberated by order in council, were the individuals who have been particularised in this narrative."

Reader, we inquire not into thy political creed—we ask not whether thou art a Whig or a Tory, a Conservative or a Radical—we can allow thee to be an honest and conscientious man, on all these suppositions: all we ask of thee is this, "Art thou a man?" The inference is inevitable.

Perhaps some may wish to know what became of Euphan Thriepland, Jamie M’Birnie, and Jeanie Wilson. We are happy that, owing to an accidental occurrence, we can throw some light upon the subject. Last time we were in Dumfriesshire, and in Closeburn, our native parish, we read upon the door of a change-house, in the village of Croalchapel, this inscription, "Whisky, Ale, and British Spirits, sold here, by James M’Birnie." The coincidence of the name revived my long-obscured recollection of the past, and led, in fact, ultimately to the whole of this narrative. We learned, from an old bedrid-woman, the grandmother of this James, that he of Dunottar celebrity had returned to Edinburgh and married Jeanie Wilson; that they had taken auld aunt Euphan home to their dwelling; and had been employed for several years after the Revolution, as nursery and seeds-man, in Edinburgh; that, having realised a competency, they had ultimately retired to their native parish of Closeburn, and had tenanted a small farm called Stepends; that their son had been a drover, and unsuccessful even to bankruptcy; and that the family were now reduced to the condition which we beheld.

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