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The Story of Leith
XXVII. Leith in the "Killing Times"


DURING the years of the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, Leith was the headquarters of Cromwell’s soldiers in Scotland. East and West Cromwell Streets in North Leith, remind us to-day of this long occupation of the town by the English troops, who, Puritans though they were, and therefore associated in our minds with all that is grave and even sour-faced, were not indifferent to the charms and virtues of Leith maids. South Leith Church records and the Mercurius Politicus, the newspaper Cromwell’s men issued from the Citadel, and the first to be printed in Scotland, show that many of them married and settled in the town. Their skill and industry, added to the enterprise and capital of English merchants who had been encouraged to start business in the town, did much to promote the glass and linen trades established in the Citadel after the Restoration.

During the nine years of English rule Scotland had been better governed than ever she had been under her own kings, but it was English rule, and military at that, and the heavy taxation to which she was subjected to support the English occupation had greatly impoverished the country and heavily handicapped Leith’s trade. It was with delight, therefore, that the inhabitants beheld the English garrisons march away from the Citadel to follow the opportunist Monk to the south to bring about the Restoration, which was celebrated in Leith with all the exuberant joy that marked that event else where throughout the kingdom. The celebrations in Leith began with thanksgiving services in the two parish churches. There was great ringing of bells and flourish of trumpets, with bonfires in the streets and fireworks in the Citadel till past midnight; for next to their religion the Leith folk loved and reverenced their ancient line of Stuart kings.

The crown as a decorative feature now became fashionable in honour of the return of the monarchy, and as an emblem of loyalty was much used as an ornament on furniture, especially on chairs. "Crown chairs" are still to be found in old Scots mansions, and in the Picture Gallery at Holyrood at least half the chairs are of this type and date from the Restoration period.

Little did the Leithers foresee they were welcoming to the throne the worst and meanest king who was ever to rule over them. If Cromwell had ruled them with rods, we shall see Charles, even in Leith, ruling the people with scorpions. He soon showed that no faith could be put in his plighted word. All he had promised while wandering in Covenanting company in search of a throne he now turned his back upon, and, by the most sternly repressive measures, sought to crush the Church of Scotland out of existence.

The people of Leith were soon to see this policy in action. Towards the end of December 1660 the English warship Eagle, after a fortnight’s tempestuous voyage, arrived in Leith Roads from London with a State prisoner of high rank aboard in the person of Montrose’s enemy and rival, the Marquis of Argyll, who had crowned King Charles at Scone in 1650. He was received on the Shore by the water-bailie and his deputy, attended by soldiers with displayed colours. Unlike the great Montrose, he was "tenderly convoyed" towards Edinburgh, and, of all who thronged the streets to see Argyll thus humiliated, none showed him any disrespect. Basely betrayed by the unscrupulous Monk, he was sent to his doom five months later.

The struggle against the doctrine of the divine right of kings to do and rule as they pleased had all to be fought over again. The majority in Leith, as elsewhere in Scotland, chose the side of peace and immunity from persecution by conforming outwardly, at least, to the arbitrary decrees enforcing the Church policy of the Government. How untroubled and full of pleasure the lives of such conformists could be, and how gay a place Leith was, even during the torturings and violent deaths of the "killing time," we see from the account books of Sir John Foulis of Ravelston, the nephew of the Ladie Pilrig, who supplied the heather for the smeekers during the plague.

Leith RacesAs we read in Sir John’s pages of his visits to the annual horse races on Leith Sands, of his golf matches on the Links, of his going to the play (enacted in all probability in the tenths court at the King’s Wark), of his dinners, and "sweeties" and oranges for the bairns at Mrs. Kendall’s fashionable tavern in the Kirkgate, and of the refreshments at Rob’s village inn at Restalrig, as they drove home in the great family coach, we would never suspect that men were being hunted and shot down among the hills and moors for no other crime than wishing to worship God as their fathers had done. There is not the faintest reflection of such things all through this record Sir John gives us of his daily life spent in Edinburgh and at Ravelston during this period. and yet even in Leith, while those who, like Sir John Foulis, conformed to the king’s policy in Church matters could and did follow a life of pleasure, men resisted the tyrannous measures of the king and were ready to risk all the penalties the "Bluidy Mackenzie" and his deputy, Sir William Purves of Abbeyhill, one of the elders in South Leith Church, might impose.

Among the four hundred ministers driven from their churches for holding that Christ and not King Charles was head of the Church were the minister of North Leith, and Mr. Hogg, the senior minister of South Leith, who escaped being imprisoned by fleeing to Holland, where he spent the rest of his days as minister of a Scots church in Rotterdam. The "outed" ministers began to preach the Gospel in private houses, where many gathered to hear them. The Conventicle Act declared such meetings illegal, and troops, quartered in the town, went through the streets and closes every Sunday in search of conventicles, and had their zeal in the work stimulated by the knowledge that a Government reward of £50 would be paid for every one they discovered.

Junction Mills and Site of the Ancient Leith Mills of the LogansMillers have always been noted, both in history and tradition, as stout and bold men. Thomas Stark, the miller at Leith Mills, by the waterside opposite Junction Road Station, was no exception to the rule. He was a stalwart supporter of the Covenant. His brother-in-law was the outed minister of Skirling. He went "afield," and held a conventicle, among other places, at Leith Mills in February 1675, when the whole company were arrested by a troop of soldiers under the command of Captain Ogilvie. Fines up to £100 were imposed on each attender, for in those days of corrupt courts of justice the Government depended on such sources for a large part of its revenue. Despite increased efforts on the part of the Privy Council to suppress them, the number of conventicles increased rather than diminished, and even in Leith and Edinburgh, the headquarters of the Government, it was found impossible to prevent the citizens from attending illegal religious meetings. Increasingly stringent measures were adopted to compel the people to attend the two parish churchs, but the conventicles continued nevertheless.

Although none of the great tragic events in this struggle between the king and his Scottish subjects took place in Leith, yet the town was more or less incidentally associated with several of them. The train-bands of Leith and Edinburgh were summoned by tuck of drum to muster on Leith Links and then join Monmouth’s forces against the Covenanters at Bothwell Bridge, when the incorporation of carters and the "poor brewers" of Leith had their horses and carts commandeered to form part of the baggage train. The prisoners captured in the battle, after a weary journey, during which none dared befriend them, were interned in the field then known as the Inner Greyfriar Yard, of which the long narrow southern extension of the famous churchyard, now known as the Covenanters’ Prison, formed only a small part.

After having been confined in their exposed prison for five months, two hundred and seven of the Covenanters were marched to Leith and put aboard a sailing vessel called the Crown, to be carried as slaves to the Plantations. There were sore hearts and streaming eyes among the Leithers as they saw the crowd of staunch but miserable Covenanters hustled through the street.

The captain of the Crown, "a profane, cruel wretch," used them most barbarously, but their sufferings were not to be for long. Their port was nearer than they anticipated, for, as some one has finely said, their sails were set to reach Jerusalem. On a dark and stormy night in December the ship, with her living cargo under closed hatches, was dashed to pieces among the Orkneys, and over two hundred of the wretched prisoners were drowned.

As the weary but undaunted prisoners from the Inner Greyfriar Yard passed down the Easter Road to the Shore of Leith, they might have noticed across the unenclosed fields, as it swung in chains at the Gallow Lee—Leith’s place of execution for all except pirates— part of the body of that once fearless fighter, David Hackston of Rathillet, who held the bridge of Bothwell for hours against the royalist troops, and who witnessed, but took no part in, the foul murder of Archbishop Sharp on Magus Moor in 1679. To the Gallow Lee many of the Covenanters were taken to their doom. It was a place of execution less public than the Grassmarket, where the farewell speeches of the martyrs deeply moved the crowds that came to see them done to death.

At the Gallow Lee the worst criminals were hung, to add reproach and ignominy to their death. Here, after Hackston’s remains had all been pecked away by the kites and crows, five Covenanters were hanged. Their bodies were buried beneath the gibbet, while their heads were spiked above the city gates. But good men and true, among whom was the youthful James Renwick, the last of the martyrs of the Covenant, came in the darkness and silence of night, dug up the headless bodies, and reverently buried them in the West Kirkyard (St. Cuthbert’s). They then boldly took down the heads from the city gates; but, daylight overtaking them before they could place these beside the bodies they buried them beneath two rose trees in a garden near the present Royal Infirmary, where, forty-six years later, they were accidentally discovered and reinterred in Greyfriars’ Churchyard beneath the Martyrs’ Monument.

From 1679 to 1682 James, Duke of York, the king’s brother and heir to the throne, was much in Scotland, where he seemed to divide his leisure between witnessing and encouraging the cruelties of the torturing chamber and playing golf on Leith Links, then one of the chief centres of the game. The Golfer’s Land in the Canongate still survives to remind us of his match on the Links with two English noblemen, when, partnered by John Paterson, a member of a noted golfing family, he won the stakes and handed over the money to his partner, who built with it the great tenement which he decorated with his crest—a dexter hand grasping a golf club, with the motto "Far and Sure."

From this time the persecution became fiercer than ever, and nowhere outside the Netherlands under Alva, could there have been a more complete system of tyranny than that set up for stamping out Presbyterianism. The minister of North Leith, a namesake of the great Reformer, was sent to the Bass Rock, then much used as a State prison for confining outed and disobedient ministers. His successor, like the two ministers of South Leith Church, was an Episcopalian, which would seem to show that the majority of the Sessions and parishioners of both churches, from choice or necessity, more probably the latter, had conformed to Episcopacy. Among the Session members of South Leith who favoured the policy of the king in Church affairs were Lord Balmerino, whose action in doing so was contrary to the traditions of his family, which had hitherto been staunchly Presbyterian. Sir Patrick Nisbet of Craigentinny; Sir William Purves of Abbeyhill, who, as assistant public prosecutor, had the odious duty of assisting "Bluidy Mackenzie" in persecuting the Covenanters; William Mylne, son of the King’s Master Mason; and Robert Moubray, whose great ancestor, Sir Philip Moubray, held Stirling Castle against Bruce, and whose last descendant in Leith, Mr. Robert Moubray, banker, still remembered by many in the town for his courtliness of manner, died in 1882.

Yet there were still those in Leith who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Among the last to be prosecuted for holding conventicles in the Port was Mr. William Wishart, the outed minister of Kinneil, now the parish of Bo’ness. Mr. Wishart was of the same family as the celebrated George Wishart, the famous martyr of the Reformation period. After having suffered much persecution he had taken up his residence in Leith, where, in 1683, he was seized by a party of soldiers while conducting morning prayers in a private house. Though "ane aged and infirm person, broken and disabled with many diseases," he was cast into the Canongate Tolbooth, which, with its picturesque turrets and projecting clock, forms so attractive an old-world feature in the line of the Canongate to-day. He was sentenced to be banished to the Plantations in the following year. He was, however, conditionally set free under heavy sureties.

But the days of persecution in Leith, as elsewhere in Scotland, were about to close. Charles II. died in 1685. For a time after the succession of James II. the persecution was continued with the utmost cruelty. Then, in 1687, in order to defeat the penal laws against Roman Catholics, he issued his three letters of Indulgence, allowing freedom of worship to all save those who persisted in attending field conventicles. The outed ministers were now allowed to preach in meeting-houses. In accordance with this "Liberty," as the Leithers were accustomed to call the Declaration of Indulgence men like Thomas Stark of Leith Mills and Robert Douglas of Coatfield (the most enterprising among the Leith merchants of his time), who were still firm in theft loyalty to the Covenant in North and South Leith, formed themselves into a congregation and set up a meeting-house at the Sheriff Brae, where service was conducted by the aged Mr. Wishart, the outed minister of Kinneil, until a clergyman should be appointed.

The "Liberty" also set free Mr. John Knox from the Bass, who, later, was restored to his charge in North Leith. The Sheriff Brae meeting-house proving too small, a larger one, whose title-deeds name it "The Ark," was rented in the Cables Wynd close by, and fitted up by Alexander Mathieson, whose tombstone, until recently cast aside and neglected, has now, from its association with the meeting-house, been placed for preservation within the ground once set apart as a burial place for the clergy of South Leith Church. Mr. Wishart continued to take the services in the meeting-house until his son had completed his theological studies at Utrecht in Holland, when he became minister to the meeting-house congregation.

On the exile of James II. and the accession of William and Mary the Episcopalian clergy then became "outed," and Mr. Wishart and the meeting-house congregation returned to the old parish church in the Kirkgate. The long conflict between Presbyterianism and Episcopacy came to an end, and the Church of Scotland was established as it now exists. In later years Mr. Wishart was appointed Principal of Edinburgh University. After David Lindsay he is the most noted among the clergy who have ministered in South Leith.

Cables Wynd, showing "The Ark"The old meeting-house still remains, but it is no longer associated with the religious life of the town. Given over to commercial uses, it has for many years formed a store for herring barrels in connection with the fish-curing establishment of Messrs. Davidson and Pirrie in Cables Wynd, where its east gable may be seen immediately adjoining the pend giving entry to the narrow and gloomy alley designated Meeting-house Green. This name not only keeps alive the memory of the old building as a place of worship, but, at the same time, reminds us of the stretch of grassland that lay between it and the town, for the meeting-house then, and for over a century afterwards, stood on the very outskirts of the town. Gardens and cornfields stretched from it towards the Broughton Burn, which ran in the hollow to the south of Swanfield, to join the Water of Leith near Junction Mills, where douce members of the meeting. house, along with other Leithers of the seventeenth century, when not

"Driving their baws frae whins or tee"

at golf on the Links, were wont to take a turn on the green at the "row-bowlis" at Bowling Green, when they would forget for a time, in the excitement of the game the troubles of religious strife and persecution.

Meeting-house Green is now but an obscure and insignificant alley. Yet it bears one of the most historic street names we possess, a name that should ever serve to remind us that in the dark and troublous days of the "killing time" the people of Leith did their part in opposing the tyranny of the Stuart rule and in securing for those who came after them that freedom we enjoy to-day. In resisting the oppressive measures of the Stuart kings, the Leithers of those old and troubled times were fighting for something more than the Covenant.


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