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Significant Scots
Rev James Guthrie


Rev James Guthrie GUTHRIE, JAMES, one of the most zealous of the protesters, as they were called, during the religious troubles in the 17th century, was the son of the laird of Guthrie, an ancient and highly respectable family. Guthrie was educated at St Andrews, where, having gone through the regular course of classical learning, he commenced teacher of philosophy, and was much esteemed, as well for the equanimity of his temper as for his erudition. His religious principles in the earlier part of his life are said to have been highly prelatical, and, of course, opposite to those which he afterwards adopted, and for which, in the spirit of a martyr, he afterwards died. His conversion from the forms in which he was first bred, is attributed principally to the influence of Mr Samuel Rutherford, minister of Anwoth, himself a zealous and able defender of the Scottish church, with whom he had many opportunities of conversing.

In 1638 Mr Guthrie was appointed minister of Lauder, where he remained for several years, and where he had already become so celebrated as to be appointed one of the several ministers selected by the committee of estates, then sitting in Edinburgh, to wait upon the unfortunate Charles I. at Newcastle, when it was learned that the unhappy monarch had delivered himself up to the Scottish army encamped at Newark.

In 1649, Mr Guthrie was translated from, Lauder to Stirling, where he remained until his death. While in this charge he continued to distinguish himself by the zeal and boldness with which he defended the covenant, and opposed the resolutions in favour of the king (Charles II.). He was now considered leader of the protesters, a party opposed to monarchy, and to certain indulgences proposed by the sovereign and sanctioned by the committee of estates, and who were thus contra-distinguished from the resolutioners, which comprehended the greater part of the more moderate of the clergy.

Mr Guthrie had, in the meantime, created himself a powerful enemy in the earl of Middleton, by proposing to the commission of the General Assembly to excommunicate him for his hostility to the church; the proposal was entertained, and Guthrie himself was employed to carry it into execution in a public manner in the church of Stirling. It is related by those who were certainly no friends to Guthrie, regarding this circumstance, that on the morning of the Sabbath on which the sentence of excommunication was to be carried into effect against Middleton, a messenger, a nobleman it is said, arrived at Mr Guthrie’s house with a letter from the king, earnestly requesting him to delay the sentence for that Sabbath. The bearer, waiting until he had read the letter, demanded an answer. Guthrie is said to have replied, "you had better come to church and hear sermon, and after that you shall have your answer." The messenger complied; but what was his surprise, when he heard the sentence pronounced in the usual course of things, as if no negotiation regarding it had taken place. On the dismission of the congregation, he is said to have taken horse and departed in the utmost indignation, and without seeking any further interview with Guthrie. It is certain that a letter was delivered to Guthrie, of the tenor and under the circumstances just mentioned, but it was not from the king, but, according to Wodrow, on the authority of his father who had every opportunity of knowing the fact, from a nobleman. Who this nobleman was, however, he does not state, nor does he take it upon him to say, even that it was written by the king’s order, or that he was in any way privy to it.. However this may be, it is stated further, on the authority just alluded to, that the letter in question was put into Mr Guthrie’s hands in the hall of his own house, after he had got his gown on, and was about to proceed to church, the last bell having just ceased ringing; having little time to decide on the contents of the letter, he gave no positive answer to the messenger, nor came under any promise to postpone the sentence of excommunication: with this exception the circumstance took place as already related.

Soon after the Restoration, Mr Guthrie and some others of his brethren, who had assembled at Edinburgh, for the purpose of drawing up what they called a supplication to his majesty, and who had already rendered themselves exceedingly obnoxious to the government, were apprehended and lodged in the castle of Edinburgh; from thence Mr Guthrie was removed to Dundee, and afterwards back again to Edinburgh, where he was finally brought to trial for high treason, on the 20th of February, 1661; and, notwithstanding an able and ingenious defence, was condemned to death, a result in no small degree owing to the dishlike which Middleton bore him for his officiousness in the matter of his excommunication, and which that nobleman had not forgotten.

It is said that Guthrie had been long impressed with the belief that he should die by the hands of the executioner, and many singular circumstances which he himself noted from time to time, and pointed out to his friends, strengthened him in this melancholy belief. Amongst these it is related, that when he came to Edinburgh to sign the solemn league and covenant, the first person he met as he entered at the West Port was the public executioner. On this occasion, struck with the singularity of the circumstance, and looking upon it as another intimation of the fate which awaited him, he openly expressed his conviction, that he would one day suffer for the things contained in that document which he had come to subscribe.

Whilst under sentence of death, Guthrie conducted himself with all the heroism of a martyr. Sincere and enthusiastic in the cause which he had espoused, he did not shrink from the last penalty to which his adherence to it could subject him, but, on the contrary, met it with cheerfulness and magnanimity. On the night before his execution he supped with some friends, and conducted himself throughout the repast as if he had been in his own house. He ate heartily, and after supper asked for cheese, a luxury which he had been long forbidden by his physicians; saying jocularly, that he need not now fear gravel, the complaint for which he had been restricted from it. Soon after supper he retired to bed, and slept soundly till four o’clock in the morning, when he raised himself up and prayed fervently. On the night before, he wrote some letters to his friends, and sealed them with his coat of arms, but while the wax was yet soft, he turned the seal round and round so as to mar the impression, and when asked why he did so, replied, that he had now nothing to do with these vanities. A little before coming out of the tolbooth to proceed to execution, his wife embracing him said, "Now, my heart," her usual way of addressing him, "your time is drawing nigh, and I must take my last farewell of you."—"Ay, you must," he answered, "for henceforth I know no man after the flesh." Before being brought out to suffer, a request was made to the authorities by his friends, to allow him to wear his hat on the way to the scaffold, and also that they would not pinion him until he reached the place of execution. Both requests were at first denied; the former absolutely, because, as was alleged, the marquis of Argyle, who had been executed a short while before, had worn his hat, in going to the scaffold; in a manner markedly indicative of defiance and contempt, and which had given much offence. To the latter request, that he might not be pinioned, they gave way so far, on a representation being made that he could not walk without his staff, on account of the rose being in one of his legs, as to allow him so much freedom in his arms as to enable him to make use of that support, but they would not altogether dispense with that fatal preparation. Having ascended the scaffold, he delivered with a calm and serene countenance an impressive address to those around him; justified all for which he was about to suffer, and recommended all who heard him to adhere firmly to the covenant. After hanging for some time, his head was struck off and placed on the Netherbow Port, where it remained for seven and twenty years, when it was taken down and buried by a Mr Alexander Hamilton at the hazard of his own life. The body, after being beheaded, was carried to the Old Kirk, where it was dressed by a number of ladies who waited its arrival for that purpose; many of whom, besides, dipped their napkins in his blood, that they might preserve them as memorials of so admired a martyr. While these gentlewomen were in the act of discharging this pious duty, a young gentleman suddenly appeared amongst them, and without any explanation, proceeded to pour out a bottle of rich perfume on the dead body. "God bless you, sir, for this labour of love," said one of the ladies, and then without uttering a word, this singular visitor departed. He was, however, afterwards discovered to be a surgeon in Edinburgh named George Stirling. Guthrie was executed on the 1st of June, 1661.


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