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The History of Burntisland
 Chapter XIV. Ecclesiastical


The worthy burgesses of Burntisland were from the first in a cronic state of discontent about the ministry—praying for a minister at all costs, objecting to bis being placed, or scheming to bring about, his dismissal. At the Reformation in 1558 only a few of the Roman priests became Protestant, and for many years there was a scarcity of ministers. It was not until 1503, on the establishment of Presbyterianism, that the first Protestant minister was settled at Burntisland, the Church being still at the Kirkton. His name cannot be found from the Session Records in Burntisland, as these begin later, but William "Watson was minister on the King’s visit to the General Assembly. For an account of this visit we have to be content with what Speed gives as a quotation i'roni the Council Records. A repeated search tailed to reveal this entry, and I think it must be from such of the Session Records as are now in Edinburgh :—“Apud Bruntiland testio Midi, 1001. The baillies and Counsall quhais names follow, viz. : . . . being coil veil it to-gidder in Counsall ord.iines ane convenient house to be provided for ye convention of ye niinistrie with his magisty and his commissioners to lie lialden wtin ye Burgh on ye tent day of Mcli instant, and ordains cuils to be providit to serve for fyre for ye said house, and all in ane voice thinks Andro "Wilson his lodging most convenient for yt purpose . . Andro Wilson was tlie Town Clerk, and liis house was at the South Hill. This liouse would merely be used as a refreshment place for the ministers, the convention being held in the new church, a few steps distant. As has been seen in Chapter III., the King had visited Burntisland Castle on more than one occasion, and was very partial to the Melvilles, so that it is more than probable he chose to be entertaiued there a‘fain during1 the several days lie passed at Burntisland at this time.” In Calderwood’s “History of tlie Church of Scotland,” there appears the following:—“But because the King' had fallen from his horse and hurt his left shoulder, it (the Assembly) was appointed to be holden at Brunt-iland the 12th of May (1001) whereupon suudrie were disappointed.”

The eyes of the sincerer sort were upon Mr Patrick Thom non, who was in leets with Patrick Galloway & others. The King would needs have the leets changed, and a neutral man chosen. So Mr John Hall was chosen, not a neutral man, but a secret advancer of the King’s course.

A letter which Mr James Melvine sent to be read to the Assemblie, the King taketh out of the Moderator’s hand, & suffered it not to be read, but putteth it up in his pocket.” . . .

“In the last Session (of Assembly) it was men lied by sundrie of the Brethren, that there were snndrie errours in the vulgar translation of the Bible, and of the Psalms in meeter, which required correcting;, etc.” “It was therefore concluded, that for the translation of the Bible, every one of the Brethren, who bad greatest skill in the languages, employ their travels, in snndrie parts of the vulgar translation of the Bible, which need to be amended, and to confer the same together at the next Assemblie.”

The King was present at this “last Session,” and made a speech, but does not appear, according to Calderwood, to have made any reference to the proposed new translation.

The “gift” from the King of 500 merks per annum, for the minister’s salary, was apparently g-one into again on this visit, the Couucil supplementing- it in March, 1602, by £200 Scots.

This William 'Watson, according to the Privy Couucil Records, was one of the eight Presbyterian ministers from Scotland who met in conference with the King- at Greenwich in August 1606, on the question of Episcopacy which was reintroduced in 1610. Mr Watson held tenaciously to Presbytery, and alter a great deal of trouble was, in 1615, removed from his charge and warned never again to appear within eight miles of Burntisland.

The heritors, until 1632, refused to pay their part of the minister's stipend, except he officiated occasionally at the Ivirkton; and the manse was there till 11)57, when a new one was provided in the town of the yearly value of £35. That at the Kirkton was said to he worth £60.

In 1638 came the Covenant, which many of tlie inhabitants of Burntisland signed “with teams of great joy,” but the minister, John Mitchelson, would not sign, and refused to read it in the Church, or allow it to be signed there. It was ultimately read by the church “doeter,” and Mitchelson deposed.

In 1660 the minister was confined in Edinburgh Castle, and the town was making repeated applications for his release. In an entry in the Session Records of August 28, there occurs the expression “our own minister Mr George Xairne being' restrained and keeped in the Cast ell of Edi’.” The following may be seen in Lamont’s Diary under date June 1670—“Mr George Xairne, late M. att Bruntillande depairted out of this life att Einglassie in Eyfte . . But the services kept up well at this time, and on one Sunday in 1662, Speed states that a collection at the church door, for the repairs of Peterhead harbour, amounted to 53 lbs.” Episcopacy was being strongly pressed under Lauderdale and Rothes, and shepherdless flocks met in private houses, or in the country, to hear what was forbidden in the church. Speed says, under date 1677, “for many years there were unsuccessful attempts to get a minister.” Lauderdale had just sent strict orders to the Council to prosecute all frequenters of Conventicles.

The minister in 1GS9 was a Mr Johnstone, an Kpiseopalian, and in that year Bailie Seton was pulled up because £84 paid to him for meat and drink to the minister” had been used by him for “a stand of colours for the town’s militia.” William of Orange, while again establishing Presbytery in Scotland, refused to allow the Episcopalians to be deprived of their charges, except something could be brought against their moral character. So, in 1691), ‘‘the pretended minister of Burntisland,” Mr .Johnstone, was suspended. But there were those in the town who resented this fiercely. When a Mr Shepherd was sent by the Presbytery to preach in his place “he found Mr Johnstone in the pulpit and the men of the congregation armed with staA'es, and he was forced to conduct his service at the Castle. It has been stated that Johnstone was restored by the influence of the King, hut this lacks confirmation. However this was, the Session Records show that Mr James Inglis, also an Episcopalian, was admitted in 1G93, and that the amount of dissatisfaction with Episcopacy led to his deposition in 1G99. All this appears strange when we read that the Prince of Orange abolished patronage. There was, however, an important condition. If the patron—in the case of Burntisland the Crown—had built or sustained the Church it was necessary to pay him 600 merks. Burntisland was entitled to a grant of 500 merks annually for the minister's stipend. The town could barely afford to drop this Crown grant.

I am indebted for the following' condensed account of a religious riot, to Mr John Blytli, Ivirkton, who made a complete extract of it from such of the Session Records as are in Edinburgh— In 1711 a Mr Cleghorn was minister. In 1712, after bis translation to Wemyss, Mr Ebenezer Erskine, afterwards founder of the Secession Church, “was called, but Mr "William Duguid, licensed by the Presbytery in 1710, was also called, and obtained in addition a presentation from Queen Anne,” who had fully restored patronage. To meet the difficulty, the General Assembly bluntly “declared his (Duguid’s) license null and void, and presented a memorial to Her Majesty through Jolm Duke of Athol.” During the silting of the Assembly, Mr Russell of Kennowa\ was sent by the Synod to preach at Burntisland. On landing at the pier “he was opposed in a very tumultuous manner by a mob,” who laid hands on him and tried to get him to mount a horse they had ready for him, and leave the town “by the back side.” He refused, and attempted to delay matters by begging “libertie to get a drink of ale.” He must have dispatched a messenger for assistance when in the tavern, as “immediately after his asking a blessing-”the crowd came and pulled him out again. Shortly afterwards “Bailie Thaland came up and took him by the hand, promising to protect him,” but immediately “the rabble, gripping both, made them part hands, and gript the Bailie making his hat go one way and his wig another.” At this time “Mr Colin Mackenzie, Rossend, and Bailie Anderson, came up and Mr Russell appealed to them to protect him. But they, using big words, did ask him how he could come there to occasion such a rabble. He answered he came by the authority ol' his Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, by appointment of the Synod of Fife. They replied, “Begone, sir,” and desired him to mount his horse and prevent the effusion of blood. This Mr Russell did. This Duguid was said to be a Jacobite, and Burntisland at that time reputed to be ruled by Jacobites.

Two years later, in I714, I find the Council warning the Presbytery that King George was now their patron, and refusing to recognise their nominees. It was not till 1719 a minister was obtained, who, at first, seemed likely to be acceptable to both parties—the Rev. James Thomson. He remained till 1737 when he joined the Secoders. He had refused to read from the pulpit a proclamation for the discovery of the murderers of Porteons, Captain of the City Guard of Edinburgh. “James Thomson, minister of the Gospel” appears frequently and at great length in the Council Records, and prosecuted several law cases with great vigour. One of these was about a ruinous house on which he had, out of kindness, advanced money to William Ged. Tlie house was on the “North side of the High Street, fronting the Midgate” (the present Kirkgate, or a vennel then existing between Kirkgate and Cockle Wyml). On Ged’s death the house fell into Mr Thomson’s hands, when he was asked by the Council to render it habitable. This he, at first and for long, refused to do “for all the King’s horses and all the King’s men.”

Sheriff Mackay portrays Fife as the nursery of Secession. The Cameroniaiis originated with Hishard Cameron, a native of Falkland. The Seceders, under Ebenezer Erskine, very soon divided into Burghers and anti-Burghers, and again into Auld Lichts and New Liclits. There was the Belief Church arising in Dunfermline. The Sandemanians owed their existence to Glas, son of a minister of Auchtermuchty. The Bereans too, thrived in Fife, and the Catholic Apostolic Church was founded by Edward Irving, sometime schoolmaster in Kirkcaldy.

After the Secession the Church in Burntisland entered on a long period of peace. The Rev. Robert Spears was appointed in 1743, and laboured for 36 years with great acceptance. The Rev. James Wemyss followed in 1779, ministering for 43 years.

This welcome calm continued till the arrival of Dr Couper in 1834, the beginning of the “ten years’ conflict. Dr Couper “came out” in 1843, and brought nearly all the members with him. A church was built for him, at the very door of the Parish Church, by Kobert Young- of the Grange. Of the handful left “behind” in the Parish Church, not even one would go to hear the newly-appointed minister. He was accused of everything bad, even playing- “bools” in the Kirk passages. However, he continued for some considerable time to deliver his sermons to the Beadle and Precentor.

Hard as the people were to please with a minister yet difficulty was found in paying his stipend. It was often in arrears. This stinginess may have led the minister in 1684 to “ demand the tiend of fish.” The Council went in a flutter about this to the Archbishop of St Andrews, and were greatly relieved to find that the Archbishop was not at the bottom of the proposal, and emphatically refused to countenHnce it. Impecuniosity abounded. This was not the only case of the “ cat licking the dowg's mouth.” In 16T4 the town’s officers—part of whose duties was to show people into the pews on Sunday, for which they were promised a share in the collections, had received nothing for some time—were constrained dramatically to bring themselves to public recollection by faking a collection on their own account.

After the trials of the Commonwealth the Session had much trouble with law-breakers of various sorts. They instituted what were called searchers, and reports were made weekly of the •state of morals. “Vaging” the fields, the Castle Brae, or the “Shoar” were forbidden. So were toasting bread and bringing water on Sunday. (hie pint of water was allowed. Hiring horses or carrying passengers by the Ferry 011 Sunday were subject to forfeiture of the horses or boats, but were by and by suffered, under supervision, on payment of considerable fines, which were given to the poor. A very strong breath of freedom must have been blowing through “society ” at this time. Conciliatory measures seemed a waste of good temper, and the Council became so alarmed at this ‘‘progress of an age of reason” that they held a special meeting and "“declared they would see the Act” as regards the Sabbath put in force “within the Che,” and warned all against “ frequenting ale houses or taverns.” Those alisent from the Kirk without a “ lawful excuse” were fined os, and “ anyone brewing upon ye Sabotli nycht at even sail pay Gs 8d.” About 1670 the Tuesday’s sermon and sometimes the Wednesday’s preaching are mentioned. Cateehisings of particular persons took place nearly every week day, and all appeared in rotation on Sundays for that purpose.

In 1676 Barbara Thaland appeared before the pulpit and confessed to having indulged in the luxury of “flyting,” to the hurt of her neighbours, “craved God’s forgiveness, and promised not to do the lyke again.” That required a lot of courage. We lift our hat. Due to the spread of disease in 1684 the Session and Council prohibited nil persons from attending “lykewalks of dead corpses,” and in 1689 no person was allowed to go to the house of a deceased person nor “eat, drink, nor smoke tobacco before a funeral.”

Witches, too. played the mischief with church and town. As early as 1598 Robert Brown accused Janet Allan of causing the death of his son by witchcraft. She was tried by the town’s jury of 15, found guilty, and sentenced to be “brunt quick.” She must have been pardoned, as shortly after she is accused of another death, and again sentenced. Lamont says in 1649:—“This summer there were very many witch taken and brunt in seuerall parts of this Kingdom, as in Lothian and Fyfte, viz., in Emlerkething, Aberdoure, Bruiitillamle, Deysert, Duiifermling.” A very remarkable case occurred in 1G73, recorded in the Session Records now in the Register Ilouse. The case is very voluminous, but a long extract has been made by Mr John lUyth, Ivirkton, who has been kind enough to allow me to take from it the following very condensed account:—

Elspeth Finlay appeared before the Session and confessed in great detail to having seen the “devill in bodilie shape, on a moonlight night, when she was going for a pynte of aill ” for the Town Clerk, to whom she was a servant. She appears to have resented the tricks and practical jokes of another curious female (Margaret Couper), and Elspeth’s stories about her are calculated to prove her friendly with Satan. She said Margaret Couper accosted her, when out for the usual aill, and bade her steal widow Baiue’s bairn’s snood off his head, and thereafter swear that Jon Moncrieff’s wife gave her it. On another occasion at night she was following the crowd which was marching with the “pype and drum,” when she lost her shoe in the sand, and, seaivhing for it, saw “ Margaret Couper, at Jon Halkston’s well, who came up to her, took her by the hand, and brought her to the Devil.” She saw “ye foule theefe standing at ye barn door like ane high man, and higher, with black cloathes, and a blew bonnet.” . . . He and Margaret went a little distance' from her “ till a consultation.” “ Margaret then took out a little black cuttie spoon” and poured a spoonful of water on the middle finger of Elspeth’s left hand, and while this rite was taking up her attention the “foule theefe” suddenly “ laid his hands heavy and cold as iron on hers.” With that she fell, got up aĞ>ain, but she could not speak, and her legs almost failed her. Margaret Couper said “sillie facile thing,” and laughed along with the devil. Again, Margaret Couper took her to her house one night and went through some eerie encantations. She lighted a little stick which she took from a “niugg with briniston . . . that blented, blented with a blew low,” etc. The Devil then appeared again, “white” this time “except his face and lumds.” She made a great to do, and did not know how she got out of the house; but she saw him again “all in black at ye cheik of ye door,” and as she staggered on the way home to the Town Clerk’s she passed the “ foule tlieefe again all in black on the top of the crag.” Her legs failed her, and she foundered going up her master’s stair. The Clerk must have been “dry,” and would probably not observe (if there was any of his “pynte of aill ” left after these athletics) that it was mulled and strongly sulphurous.

It seems the ministers of Burntisland and Kinghorn were acknowledged authorities in the now lost art of witch-finding. The Kinghorn minister is described a,s having been an absolute terror to the wretched creatures who appeared before him. This appears to have been due to the fact that, somewhat like Willie Wastel’s wife, of whom Burns wrote “ she had an e’e, she had but ane, the cat had twa the very colour,” he had a black mask over one eye which gave to the other, though not situated like Cyclop’s in the centre of the forehead, an uncanny and prodigious penetration. This time he met his match. Meeting after meeting was held over these two hussies without their judges being able to decide which was telling the truth. They were completely baffled. Elspeth had the better of them all. She appears never to have forgiven Margaret for frightening her, and especially for calling- her a “silly facile thing-.”

In all, from the year 1563 to 1722 there are figures to show that in Scotland alone over '4000 persons were burned for practising witchcraft. Thirty were burned on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh on account- of their supposed attempt to persuade the Devil to raise a storm to destroy the ship in which James YI. was bringing home his Danish bride. Dangerous as the reputation for having dealings with Satan was, it seems strange that in many cases women so accused seemed rather to enjoy the charge; stranger still, to us, that most ministers should have been strong believers in it. Even to a late period the belief held on. "When the Statutes against witchcraft were repealed in 1735 a section of the Seceders were greatly offended, and made efforts to show in an Act of Presbytery in 1743 that this repeal was contrary to the express law of God, “ thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

If there are any stray magicians left, no Government is bold enough to burn them, or even to heap coals of fire on their head by feeding them. One thing is certain, we may safely go abroad o’ nights, the present fashion in skirts making aerial excursions astride broomsticks impossible.


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