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Significant Scots
David Hackston


HACKSTON, DAVID, of Rathillet, is a name of considerable celebrity in the annals of Scotland, from its connexion with the events of 1679-80, and from its pre-eminence in some of the most remarkable transactions of that stormy period. Hackston, though indebted for his celebrity to the zeal and courage which he displayed in the cause of the covenanters, is said to have led an exceedingly irreligious life during his earlier years, from which he was reclaimed by attending some of the field preachings of the period, when he became a sincere and devoted convert.

The first remarkable transaction in which he was engaged in connexion with the party with which he had now associated himself, was the murder of archbishop Sharpe. Hackston of Rathillet formed a conspicuous figure in the group of that prelate’s assassins, although in reality he had no immediate hand in the murder. He seems, however, even previous to this to have gained a considerable ascendency over his more immediate companions, and to have been already looked up to by his party, as a man whose daring courage and enthusiasm promised to be of essential service to their cause. When the archbishop’s carriage came in sight of the conspirators, of whom there were eight besides Hackston, they unanimously chose him their leader, pledging themselves to obey him in every thing in the conduct of the proposed attack on the prelate. This distinction, however, Hackston declined, on the ground that he had a private quarrel with the archbishop, and that, therefore, if he should take an active part in his destruction, the world would allege that he had done it to gratify a personal hatred—a feeling, of which he declared he entertained none whatever towards their intended victim. He further urged scruples of conscience regarding the proposed deed, of the lawfulness of which he said he by no means felt assured, the archbishop, as is well known, having only come accidentally in the way of Hackston and his associates. Hackston having refused the command of the party, another was chosen, and under his directions the murder was perpetrated. Whilst the shocking scene was going forward, Hackston kept altogether aloof, and countenanced it no further than by looking on. He seems, however, to have had little other objection to the commission of the crime, than that he himself should not have an immediate hand in its accomplishment; for when the unfortunate old man, after being compelled to come out of his carriage by the assassins, appealed to him for protection,—saying, "Sir, I know you are a gentleman, you will protect me," he contented himself with replying that he would never lay a hand on him. Rathillet was on horseback, from which he did not alight during the whole time of the murder. Next day, the conspirators divided themselves into two parties—three remaining in Fife, and five, with Rathillet, proceeding north in the direction of Dumblane and Perth.

Soon after they repaired to the west, and finally joined a body of covenanters at Evandale. Here the latter having drawn up a declaration, containing their testimony to the truth, Rathillet with another, Mr Douglas, one of the most intrepid of the covenanting clergymen, was appointed to publish it. For this purpose he proceeded with his colleague to the town of Rutherglen, where, on 29th May, after burning, at the market cross, all those acts of parliament and council which they and their party deemed prejudicial to their interest, they proclaimed the testimony.

Hackston’s next remarkable appearance was at the battle of Drumclog, where he distinguished himself by his bravery. On the alarm being given that Claverhouse was in sight, and approaching the position of the covenanters, who, though they had met there for divine worship, were all well armed, Hackston and Hall of Haugh-head placed themselves at the head of the footmen, and led them gallantly on against the dragoons of Claverhouse. The result of that encounter is well known. The bravery of the covenanters prevailed. The affair of Drumclog was soon after followed by that of Bothwell Brig, where Rathillet again made himself conspicuous by his intrepidity, being, with his troop of horse, the last of the whole army of the covenanters on the field of battle. He had flown from rank to rank, when he saw the confusion which was arising amongst the covenanters, and alternately threatened and besought the men to keep their ground. Finding all his efforts vain, "My friends," he said, addressing his troop, "we can do no more, we are the last upon the field;" and he now, retreating himself, endeavoured as much as possible to cover the rear of the flying covenanters.

Rathillet sought safety in concealment, for, besides what he had to fear from his having carried arms against the government, he had also to apprehend the consequences of a proclamation which had been issued, offering a reward of 10,000 merks for his apprehension, or any of those concerned in the death of the archbishop of St Andrews. For twelve months he contrived to escape, but was at length taken prisoner at Airsmoss, by Bruce of Earlshall. Rathillet, with about sixty other persons, had come to the place just named, to attend a preaching by Richard Cameron, the celebrated founder of the sect called Cameronians, when they were surprised by Bruce with a large body of horse, and after a desperate resistance, during which Hackston was severely wounded, he and several others were taken. Cameron himself was killed in this affair, with nine of his adherents. Hackston gives a very interesting account of this skirmish, and, without the slightest aim at effect, has presented us with as remarkable and striking an instance of the spirit of the times, of the almost romantic bravery and resolution which religious fervour had inspired into the covenanters, as is upon record.

It appears from the account alluded to, that the party to which Hackston was attached, had been informed that the military were in search of them, and that, to avoid the latter, they had spent some days and nights, previous to their encountering them, in the moors. On the day on which the skirmish took place, while wandering through the morasses, they came upon a spot of grass, which tempted them to halt. Here they laid themselves down and took some refreshment, but while thus employed, they were startled with the intelligence that their enemies were approaching them, Hackston conjectures, to the number of at least 112 men, well armed and mounted; while the force of the covenanters did not amount to more than sixty-three, of which forty were on foot, and twenty-three on horseback, and the greater part of them but poorly appointed. Unappalled by those odds, Hackston immediately formed his little host in battle array, and, while doing so, asked them if they were all willing to fight. The reply was readily given in the affirmative, and preparations were instantly made for a desperate conflict. In the meantime the dragoons were fast advancing towards them. Hackston, however, did not wait for the attack, but put his little band also in motion, and bravely marched on to meet their enemy. "Our horse," says Hackston, "advanced to their faces, and we fired on each other. I being foremost, after receiving their fire, and finding the horse behind me broken, rode in amongst them, and went out at a side without any wrong or wound. I was pursued by severals, with whom I fought a good space, sometimes they following me and sometimes I following them. At length my horse bogged, and the foremost of theirs, which was David Ramsay, one of my acquaintance, we both being on foot, fought it with small swords without advantage of one another; but at length closing, I was striken down with those on horseback behind me, and received three sore wounds on the head, and so falling, he saved my life, which I submitted to. They searched me and carried me to their rear, and laid me down, where I bled much,—where were brought severals of their men sore wounded. They gave us all testimony of being brave resolute men."

Hackston with several others were now, his little party having been defeated, carried prisoners to Douglas, and from thence to Lanark. Here he was brought before Dalyell, who, not being satisfied with his answers, threatened in the brutal manner peculiar to him to roast him for his contumacy. Without any regard to the miserable condition in which Hackston was—dreadfully wounded and worn out with fatigue—Dalyell now ordered him to be put in irons, and to be fastened down to the floor of his prison, and would not allow of any medical aid to alleviate his sufferings. On Saturday, two days after the affair of Airsmoss, Rathillet, with other three prisoners, were brought to Edinburgh. On arriving at the city, they were carried round about by the north side of the town, and made to enter at the foot of the Canongate, where they were received by the magistrates. Here the unparalleled cruelties to which Hackston was subjected commenced.

Before entering the town he was placed upon a horse with "his face backward, and the other three were bound on a goad of iron, and Mr Cameron’s head carried on a halbert before him, and another head in a sack on a lad’s back." And thus disposed, the procession moved up the street towards the Parliament Close, where the prisoners were loosed by the hands of the hangman. Rathillet was immediately carried before the council, and examined regarding the murder of archbishop Sharpe, and on several points relative to his religious and political doctrines. Here he conducted himself with the same fortitude which had distinguished him on other perilous occasions, maintaining and defending his opinions, however unpalatable they might be to his judges. After undergoing a second examination by the council, he was handed over to the court of justiciary, with instructions from the former to the latter, to proceed against him with the utmost severity.

On the 29th of July he was brought to trial as an accessory to the murder of the primate, for publishing two seditious papers, and for having carried arms against his sovereign. Rathillet declined the jurisdiction of the court, and refused to plead. This, however, of course, availed him nothing. On the day following he was again brought to the bar, and in obedience to the injunctions of the council, sentenced to suffer a death unsurpassed in cruelty by any upon record, and which had been dictated by the council previous to his trial by the justiciary court, in the certain anticipation of his condemnation. After receiving sentence, the unfortunate man was carried directly from the bar and placed upon a hurdle, on which he was drawn to the place of execution at the cross of Edinburgh. On his ascending the scaffold, where none were permitted to be with him but two magistrates and the executioner, and his attendants, the cruelties to which he had been condemned were begun. His right hand was struck off; but the hangman performing the operation in a tardy and bungling manner, Rathillet, when he came to take off the left hand also, desired him to strike on the joint. This done, he was drawn up to the top of the gallows with a pulley, and allowed to fall again with a sudden and violent jerk. Having been three times subjected to this barbarous proceeding, he was hoisted again to the top of the gibbet, when the executioner with a large knife laid open his breast, before he was yet dead, and pulled out his heart. This he now stuck on the point of a knife, and showed it on all sides to the spectators, crying, "Here is the heart of a traitor." It was then thrown into a fire prepared for the purpose. His body was afterwards quartered. One quarter, together with his hands, were sent to St Andrews, another to Glasgow, a third to Leith, and a fourth to Burntisland; his head being fixed upon the Netherbow. Thus perished Hackston of Rathillet, a man in whose life, and in the manner of whose death, we find at once a remarkable but faithful specimen of the courage and fortitude of the persecuted of the seventeenth century, and of the inhuman and relentless spirit of their persecutors.


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