The Covenanting Years

The Covenanting Years

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In the secular society in which we live, it is difficult for us to understand how important religious belief and practice were to the people living in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was often a case of life or death.

During the Reformation, Catholic doctrine and observance were suppressed often with severe penalties for non compliance. Eventually however, the Presbyterian form of Church governance was accepted and when James VI  imposed the episcopal system of government of the church by bishops  it was a blow to the church and the people of Scotland.

When Charles l later approved the imposition of the reading of Laud’s liturgy in churches throughout the country, replacing the Book of Common Order, the opposition became stronger.

In 1557 a National Covenant had been signed “for the mutual action of Protestants”. This was renewed in 1638 when the General Assembly of the Church agreed to the abolition of episcopacy, bishops, canons and the liturgy. Those who supported the National Covenant were known as Covenanters and those who agreed with the supposed changes were known as Royalists. A Scottish army was raised in 1639 to defend the Covenant and local landowners had to raise money to support the cause. The Covenanting army surrounded Caerlaverock Castle, the seat of Robert Lord Maxwell who was opposed to the Covenanters and after a siege of thirteen weeks he had to surrender. The castle was captured and demolished.

Initial success was followed by disillusion and disappointment and eventually the Scots joined with Cromwell and Renfrewshire men fought on the side of the Roundheads at Marston Moor in 1644.  Cromwell subsequently imposed his rule in Scotland and the billeting of troops caused the people severe hardship.

When Charles ll was restored in 1660, he passed an Act to abolish Presbyterianism. Severe fines were imposed on Covenanters and amongst those fined in Mearns were John Rankin of Newton and John Smith of Malletsheugh. The episcopal system was re-established and non conforming ministers were turned out of their churches and homes. This included William Thomson minister of Mearns.  

The Covenanters now had nowhere to hold their meetings and they held secret meetings called “Conventicles”. Government troops were stationed in and around Mearns to enforce the church law and stop the illegal meetings.

Despite the threat of danger, hundreds of worshippers would meet in secret locations in hollows on the moors with lookout sentries posted to warn of the approach of Government soldiers. Anyone suspected of being a Covenanter sympathiser was punished with ever increasing severity and suspicion of attending a conventicle was also sufficient reason to merit punishment. This however made the Covenanters more determined.

In 1666 the Covenanter army was defeated by General Dalyell at Rullion Green near Edinburgh. Ten Covenanters were beheaded in Edinburgh, one of whom was John Shields of Titwood, thought to be of Mearns. William Mure of Caldwell had supported the Covenanters and was forced to escape into exile. His lands of Capelrig were confiscated and given to General Dalyell. They were not restored to the Mure family until 1690.

In 1675, an Act of Parliament decreed that additional troops were to be allocated to each area to continue to suppress illegal meetings. Troops were garrisoned in Mearns Castle at this time. In 1676, a further Act of repression levied penalties on anyone allowing a conventicle to be held on their premises. Covenanters then met on the moors as this was common ground and only the participants could be punished if caught.

Further persecution came with the “Test Act” of 1678. It required all landowners to take an oath of loyalty which meant denying the Covenant. Failure to take the oath, led to troops being billeted on the landowner. These troops were not well disciplined and unruly and in addition to his property being damaged the landowner had to maintain them.

The result of the increased persecution was an uprising which resulted in the Battle of Drumclog in 1679, a victory for the Covenanters but their success was short lived and they were severely defeated at Bothwell Brig just months later. Twelve hundred men were taken prisoner and four hundred were killed.

More troops were deployed in the west of Scotland and imprisonment and killing became an everyday occurrence. These were referred to as “The Killing Times”. Huge fines were imposed on landowners and two we know of in Mearns are John Pollok of Fa’side and Matthew Stuart of Newton.

In 1688, the “Glorious Revolution led to William and Mary coming to the throne and Presbyterianism once again became the government of the Church of Scotland. Many good men had lost their lives for their beliefs and the Covenanting times lived long in the memories of the people of Mearns.

The Covenanter Gravestone at Eaglesham Churchyard
The Covenanter Gravestone at Eaglesham Churchyard

 

Eaglesham Churchyard
Eaglesham Churchyard
The Covenanter Memorial
The Covenanter Memorial commemorates John Howie of Lochgoin, author of “The Scots Worthies”, a standard classic on Scottish Covenanters and the famous men whose lives he documented. It was erected in 1896 on the “Top” near Lochgoin Farm at the point where Covenanting guards kept watch for the troops.

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