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The Scottish Nation
M'Kail


M’KAIL, HUGH, a martyr of the covenant, was born about 1640. He studied, with a view to the church, at the university of Edinburgh, under the care of his uncle, one of the ministers of that city, and was afterwards, for some time, chaplain to Sir James Stewart of Coltness, then lord provost of Edinburgh. In 1661, he was licensed to preach, being then in his twenty-first year. On the 1st September 1662, when 400 presbyterian ministers were about to be driven from their charges for non-compliance with episcopacy, he delivered a discourse in the High Church of Edinburgh, from the Song of Solomon, i. 7, in which, speaking of the many persecutions to which the cause of religion had been subjected in all ages, he said that “the church and people of God had been persecuted both by an Ahab on the throne, a Haman in the state, and a Judas in the church.” In those troublous days, such an illustration was sure to find an application, whether the preacher meant it or not, parallel to the times. Accordingly the Ahab on the throne was considered to be Charles II., and Middleton and Archbishop Sharp took the Haman and Judas to themselves. A few days thereafter a party of horse was sent to apprehend him, but he escaped, and went to his father’s house in the parish of Liberton. Soon after, he took refuge in Holland, where he remained four years, during which time he studied at one of the Dutch universities.

      In 1666 he returned to Scotland, and immediately joined the resolute and daring band of covenanters who rose in arms in the west, previous to the defeat at Rullion Green, and continued with them from the 18th to the 27th of November, when not being able to endure the fatigue of constant marching, he left them near Cramond Water. He was on his way to Liberton, when he was taken by an officer of dragoons, and some countrymen, as he passed through a place called Braid’s Craigs. He had then a sword or rapier, which of itself was a circumstance of suspicion against him. He was conveyed to Edinburgh and searched for letters, but none being found, he was committed to the tolbooth. Next day, he was brought before the privy council for examination, and on the 4th December he was subjected to the torture of the boot, with the object of extracting information from him relative to a conspiracy, which the government affected to believe extensively existed; but he declared that he knew of none, and had nothing to confess. The strokes were repeated ten or eleven times, when he swooned away, and was carried back to prison.

      The torture and the close confinement brought on a fever, and as he was ordered to prepare for trial, for having joined in the insurrection, although he had left the party the day previous to the battle of Pentland, he petitioned the council for a delay of a few days, when it was remitted to two physicians and two surgeons to inquire into his case. His cousin, Mr. Matthew M’Kail, an apothecary in Edinburgh, afterwards a doctor of medicine, applied to Archbishop Sharp, to interpose in his behalf, but that treacherous and unprincipled prelate only desired him to assure the prisoner that he would befriend him, if he would reveal the mystery of the plot against the government, and as he was not able to do so, he was put to the torture. Still the cousin was determined to persevere in his efforts to save his unfortunate relative, and even followed the archbishop to St. Andrews. A note to M’Crie’s edition of Veitch’s Life (pp. 35-37) gives the following minute particulars of his fruitless journey to and from the primate’s residence in Fife: “Upon the Thursday thereafter, the bishop went to St. Andrews, and Mr. Matthew followed him on Friday, but reached only Wemyss that night. After dinner, he arrived at the bishop’s house on Saturday, and the servant told that the barber was trimming him, and when he was done, Mr. Matthew would get access. When Mr. Matthew got access, he delivered to the bishop ane letter from the marchioness Douglas, in favour of Mr. Hew (the prisoner) whose brother Mr. Matthew was governor to her son, Lord James Douglas; and another from the bishop’s brother, Sir William Sharp his lady; and when he had read them, he said, ‘The business in now in the justiciaries’ hands, and I can do nothing; but, however, I shall have answers ready against the next morning;’ at which time, when Mr. Matthew came, the bishop called his family together, prayed, and desired Mr. Matthew to come and dine with him, and then he would give the answer; then he went to the church, did preach, and inveigh much against the covenant. Immediately after dinner, he gave the answers to the letters, and Mr. Matthew said, that he hoped that his travelling that day about so serious a business would give no offence; to which the bishop answered that it would give no offence. Then Mr. Matthew went to enquire for his horse, but the stabler’s family were all gone to church, so that he could not travel till Monday morning early, and when he came to Buckhaven, the wind being easterly, the fish-boats were coming into the harbour, and he hired one of them immediately, and arrived at Leith in the evening, having sent his horse to Bruntisland. He went immediately to Archbishop Burnet of Glasgow, and delivered a letter to him, who did read it, and then said that the business was in the justiciaries’ hands.”

     Next day, being the 18th December, the prisoner was brought before the court of justiciary, with other three. When placed at the bar, M’Kail addressed the court, and :Spoke of the ties and engagements that were upon the land to God; and having commended the institution, dignity, and blessing of presbyterian government, he said that the last words of the national covenant had always great weight on his spirit. Whereupon the king’s advocate interrupted him, and desired, he would forbear that discourse, since he was not called in question for his persuasion, but for the crime of rebellion.” As a matter of course he was found guilty of high treason, and condemned to be hanged at the market cross of Edinburgh on December 22, four days after. The three others who were tried along with him were likewise sentenced to death. On his way back to the tolbooth he received the greatest sympathy from the people, and to some women who were lamenting his fate, he said; “Weep not; though I am but young, and in the budding of my hopes and labours in the ministry, I am not to be mourned; for one drop of my blood, through the grace of God, may make more hearts contrite, than many years’ sermons might have done.” At his request, his father was allowed to visit him in prison, and the interview between them was peculiarly affecting. He spent the short time allotted to him in acts of devotion, and in encouraging and supporting those who were to suffer with him. He even at times showed considerable cheerfulness. On a friend, who went to see him, expressing his sorrow for his mangled limb, he answered that the fear of his neck made him forget his leg. On the evening before his execution, while at supper with his fellow prisoners, he said to them gaily, “Eat to the full, and cherish your bodies, that we may be a fat Christmas pie to the prelates.” After supper he read to them the 16th Psalm, and then said. “If there were anything in the world sadly and unwillingly to be left, it were the reading of the Scriptures,” but, he added, it was a source of comfort that he would soon be in that place where even Scripture is no longer necessary. He then wrote his will, bequeathing his few books to his friends. He slept soundly, and on awakening, at five o’clock in the morning, one who was to suffer with him, he said pleasantly, “Up, John, for you are too long in bed; you and I look not like men going to be hanged this day, seeing we lie so long.” Before proceeding to the scaffold he bade farewell to his father, and assured him that his sufferings would no more hurt to the prelates, and be more edifying to God’s people than if he were to continue in the ministry for twenty years. On his appearance on the scaffold the grief of the spectators burst forth in loud expressions of wailing, so that it is recorded “there was scarce ever seen so much sorrow in onlookers; scarce was there a dry cheek in the whole street or windows at the cross of Edinburgh.” On ascending the ladder he said to his friends, “I care no more to go up this ladder 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.”

      Previous to being turned off, he addressed the spectators at some length, imputing the persecution of the church to the prelates, and declaring his readiness to die for the cause of God, the covenants, and the work of reformation, which had been the glory of Scotland. He concluded with the following sublime exclamation: “And now, I leave off to speak any more to creatures, and begin my intercourse with God, which shall never be broken off. Farewell, father and mother, friends and relations, farewell the world and all delights, farewell meat and drink, farewell 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!: Such was the fate of Hugh M’Kail, who was only twenty-six years old at the time of his death, “one of the brightest, purest, and most sanctified spirits,” says Hetherington, “that ever animated a mere human form; a victim to prelatic tyranny, and a rejoicing martyr for Christ’s sole kingly dominion over his church. Till the records of time shall have melted into those of eternity, the name of that young Christian martyr will be held in most affectionate remembrance by every true Scottish presbyterian.”


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