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Significant Scots
Hugh M'Kail


M’KAIL, HUGH.—Of this young martyr for the cause of religious liberty little has been recorded, except his martyrdom itself. That, however, was an event so striking, that it stands out in strong relief among the similar events of the period, filled though it was with such atrocities of religious persecution as made Scotland for the time an Aceldama among the nations.

Hugh M’Kail was born about the year 1640. His boyhood and youth were thus spent among the most stirring incidents of the Covenant, when the patriotic and religious spirit of our country made a life of ease or indifference almost an impossibility. His studies were prosecuted, with a view to the ministry, at the university of Edinburgh, and when he had entered his twenty-first year he was licensed as a preacher by the presbytery. At this time, also, he appears to have lived with Sir James Stuart of Kirkfield, as his chaplain.

In those days preaching behoved to be a very different matter from what it generally is at present; and when we wonder at the frequency with which public measures were introduced into the pulpit, as well as the severity with which they were often reprobated, we must remember that this was nothing more than what necessity required and duty justified. The age of journalism had not yet fully commenced; and those political movements by which the interests of religion were affected, had no place of discussion or reprobation but the church, so that to "preach to the times" was reckoned the duty of the minister, not only in Scotland, but in England. The pulpit was thus constrained to occupy that place from which the public press has happily relieved it. Besides, a war at this time was going on in Scotland, that proposed nothing short of the utter annihilation of the national church; and every faithful minister, therefore, felt himself standing upon a watch-tower, from which he was to look anxiously over the whole country, and sound the alarm whenever danger approached, let the quarter from which it issued be what it might.

To this duty, so full of imminent peril, M’Kail, as a preacher, was soon summoned. The bishops, who had been imposed upon the country by royal authority, complained that their offices were not respected, nor their behests obeyed; and Middleton’s mad parliament had passed, under the inspiration of wine and strong drink, that sweeping decree by which 400 ministers were ejected from their charges for non-compliance. It was in September, 1662, while this measure was impending, by which the best pulpits of Edinburgh as well as Scotland at large were soon to be deprived of their ministers, that Hugh M’Kail, who had frequently officiated in the city as a preacher with great acceptance, delivered his last public sermon in the High church, on the Sabbath before the edict was to take effect. His text was from Canticles I. 7; and in illustrating this passage as applicable to the persecutions which religion had generally endured, he declared 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." He made no particular or personal application of this general truth; he merely stated it as a well-known historical fact; but so close was the parallel to the present state of affairs, that Charles II. was found to be the Ahab, the persecuting royal favourite, Lord Middleton, to be the Haman, and the apostate Sharp, now Archbishop of St. Andrews, to be the Judas Iscariot whom the preacher meant. To suspect was to convict and condemn, and a party of horse was sent to his residence near Edinburgh to apprehend him. But having received a hasty notice a moment previous to their arrival, he escaped from his bed into another chamber, and managed to elude the pursuers. He fled, in the first instance, to his father’s house, where for a time he was safe from detection. But, as some victim was necessary, M’Kail’s patron, Sir James Stuart, and Walter Stuart, his second son, were apprehended instead of the preacher, and accused of having listened to, or at least having been informed of, the aforesaid sermon, which "had maliciously inveighed against, and abused his sacred majesty, and the present government in church and state, to the great offence of God, and stumbling of the people;" and that, notwithstanding their knowledge of it, they had still continued to harbour and entertain its author. Both were imprisoned, and did not obtain their liberty until they had cleared themselves of the charge. In the meantime, M’Kail went abroad, and, as Wodrow informs us, "accomplished himself in travelling for some years."

After a residence of four years upon the continent, Mr. M’Kail returned to Scotland in 1660. It was not to a peaceful home that he returned, for the persecution was hotter than ever; and in the desperate insurrection which commenced at Dumfries, and ended in the defeat at Pentland, he joined the devoted band, and shared in the toils and privations of their march until they came to Cramond, on their way to Rullion Green, where his strength, unfitted for such rough service, broke down, so that he was left behind. He then endeavoured to shift for himself; but while on his way to Libberton, he was set upon by some peasants on the watch for stragglers, and apprehended, his enfeebled state, and the light rapier which he wore, being insufficient for the least resistance.

This was upon the 27th of November; and on the following day he was examined by a committee of the secret council. He refused to criminate himself by answering their questions or subscribing to their charges; but on the following day he complied so far as to confess that he had joined in the insurrection. This, however, was not enough: the rulers of Scotland were determined, for their own purposes, to prove that the rising of Pentland was a great national conspiracy, abetted by the Presbyterians of England and our enemies upon the continent; and if proof could not be obtained from the confessions of the prisoners, it was resolved to wring it from them by torture. The selection of their victims from among the prisoners for this experiment was in keeping with the injustice of the infliction; for these were Hugh M’Kail, who had not been at Pentland at all, and John Neilson, of Corsack, in Galloway, a gentleman who, though he had been plundered of his all, and driven to the fields for his adherence to the covenant, had yet saved the life of Sir James Turner when the latter was taken prisoner, and behaved throughout the insurrection with gentleness and clemency. It was in vain they protested that they had already confessed all, and knew nothing of a conspiracy; the boot, the instrument of torture, was laid upon the council table, and they were assured that on the morrow, if they still refused to confess, they should undergo its infliction. The very name of that engine can still raise a shudder in Scotland, though few are acquainted with its peculiar construction. It was a wooden frame composed of four pieces of narrow board hooped with iron, into which the leg was inserted; wooden plugs of different sizes were then successively introduced between the boards and the limb, and driven home by the executioner with the blows of a heavy mallet, while at each stroke the sufferer was exhorted to confess whatever might be demanded by the judges. In this way the anguish of the victim was increased or prolonged at pleasure, until it often happened that nature could endure no more, so that for present relief he was ready to confess whatever might bring him to the more merciful alternative of the axe or the halter. On the following day the council assembled, and, true to their promise, they proceeded to examine the prisoners by torture. The experiment was first tried upon Mr. Neilson, and as the wedges proceeded to crush his leg at each descent of the mallet, his cries were so loud and piteous, that even savages would have melted with compassion to hear them. But not so the judges: bent upon learning the particulars of a plot that had no existence except in their own craven fears, their command at each interval was, "Give him the other touch!" As no confession was forthcoming after their worst had been inflicted, they next proceeded to deal with M’Kail, hoping, perhaps, to find greater compliance, from his youth and gentleness of disposition. It was in vain for him to allege that he was aware of no conspiracy—that he had confessed all that he knew already: although so much time had elapsed, they still remembered what he had said about an "Ahab on the throne." His leg was placed in the boot, and after the first blow, while every nerve was tingling with the shock, the usual questions were put to him; but he was silent: the strokes were repeated, until seven or eight had been given; but to the questions he solemnly declared, in the sight of God, that he could reveal nothing further, though every joint of his body should be subjected to the same torture as his poor leg. This was unsatisfactory to the judges, who ordered another and another "touch," which their victim endured without a murmur of impatience or bitterness; and after ten or eleven strokes in all, and given at considerable intervals, he swooned, and was carried back to prison.

Thus, no crime had been either discovered or confessed, and even according to the barbarous law of torture, it might have been thought that M’Kail should have been set at liberty, as one against whom no offence could be proved. And had he not suffered enough already to satisfy the most vindictive? But such was not the reasoning of the day, and the judges resolved to fall back upon the fact that he had joined the insurgents, and accompanied them to Ayr, Ochiltree, Lanark, and other places. It mattered not to them that he had not been present at the battle of Pentland; it was enough that he would have been there if he could, and therefore must be punished as a convicted traitor for his traitorous intentions. The day after his examination, ten of these unfortunate insurgents were tried and sentenced to execution; and only five days afterwards, other seven were ordered to prepare for trial. It was resolved that among these already foredoomed victims, M’Kail should be impanelled; but the torture he had undergone had thrown him into a fever, accompanied with such debility, that compearance was impossible, and this he represented, while he craved a few days of delay. Nothing could be more natural than his present condition after the treatment he had experienced, or more reasonable than his request; and yet his judges would not be satisfied until they had sent two physicians and two surgeons to examine the patient, and attest, "upon soul and conscience," that his case was as he had stated. Of what did these men think the bones and flesh of Covenanters to be composed, that they could endure so much, and yet recover so quickly? It would be well, we opine, if no judges were to inflict torture, until they had previously tried its effect upon themselves. In this way, William III. adventured upon a taste of the thumbscrew, and declared that under it a man might confess anything.

On the 18th of December, while still a sufferer, M’Kail was brought out to trial. Into this we do not enter more particularly, as it was a matter of daily occurrence in the justiciary proceedings of the period. The answers he gave, and the arguments by which he justified his conduct, were such as his judges cared nothing about; and while he talked of conscience and the Divine law as binding upon every community, they silenced him with the statute-book, and charged him with rebellion. The sentence, which was probably nothing else than he expected, was, that on Saturday, the 20th of December (only two days after), he should be taken to the market-cross of Edinburgh, there to be hanged on a gibbet till dead, and his goods and lands to be escheated for his Highness’s use. This was summary work; and three others, who were tried along with him, were sentenced to the same doom. He was then led back to the Tolbooth, the people lamenting him as he passed by, to whom he addressed the words of consolation and comfort, as if they, and not himself, were to suffer. Among others, to some tender-hearted women, who bewailed such an untimely termination of his labours, 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." As the time allowed him to dissolve the affectionate ties of nature was so brief, he requested that his father might be allowed to visit him in prison, which was granted. And of how many such tender yet heroic partings, were the cells of the Tolbooth of Edinburgh to be witnesses at this period! The meeting of father and son was accompanied with much affectionate endearment, as well as earnest Christian prayers for support and resignation. "Hugh," said the senior, "I called thee a goodly olive-tree of fair fruit, and now a storm hath destroyed the tree and his fruit." The son deprecated this estimation as too high; but the other burst forth into the declaration that he had spoken only the truth, and that it was assuredly his own sins, and not those of his amiable boy, that had brought the latter to such a close. "It is I," he cried, "who have sinned; but thou, poor sheep, what hast thou done?" The other blamed himself that, for failure in the observance of the fifth commandment, his days were to be short in the land. He added also his fear, that God had a controversy with his father for over-valuing his children, and especially himself.

During his short stay in prison, M’Kail was employed in private devotion, and in the duty of encouraging and confirming his fellow-sufferers. At times, also, such was his cheerfulness, that his language was full of humour. To a friend who visited him in prison, and condoled with him upon his mangled limb, he replied, "The fear of my neck makes me forget my leg." On the evening of the 19th of December, while eating his final supper with those who were to be executed with him on the following day, he said to them merrily, "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." He comforted himself, however, with the thought that he would soon be in that place where even Scripture is no longer necessary. After writing his will, which was an easy work, as it consisted of the bequest of the few books he possessed to his friends, he slept soundly, and on wakening his comrade at five o’clock in the morning, 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 going to execution, he bade farewell to his father, with the assurance that his sufferings would do more hurt to the prelates, and be more edifying to God’s people, than if he were to continue in the ministry twenty years. Such was his heroic hope, and the history of Scotland has told us how fully it was verified.

As soon as M’Kail appeared on the scaffold, a sound of wailing arose from the numerous spectators. And indeed it was no wander, for he had a high reputation for learning and talent, such as was rare among the persecuted of this period. He was also in much estimation for his fervent piety and steadfast devotedness. And then, too, there were other circumstances that never fail to deepen the popular sympathy at such a tragic spectacle, for besides being still in the bloom of early youth, we are told that he was a "very comely, graceful person." "There was scarce ever seen," it is added, "so much sorrow in onlookers; scarce was there a dry cheek in the whole street or windows at the cross of Edinburgh." With gentleness and dignity he prepared for his departure, and after delivering his testimony, which he had written out, and sung his last psalm, he exclaimed to his friends as he ascended the ladder, "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."

Having seated himself mid-way, M’Kail addressed the spectators with his parting farewell. He expressed his belief that all this cruelty which drove so many to the scaffold, was not so much owing to the Scottish statesmen and rulers, as to the prelates, by whom the persecution was urged onward, and at whose hands the blood of the sufferers would be required. He then declared his cheerful readiness to die for the cause of God, the covenants, and the work of reformation, once the glory of Scotland. Here, on being interrupted by loud weeping, he told the people that it was their prayers not their tears which were needed now. After expressing his triumphant assurance of the bliss into which he was about to enter, and consoling them with the thought, he suddenly broke off into the following sublime, prophet-like declaration, which has so often stirred the heart of Scottish piety to its lowest depths: "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 departure of Hugh M’Kail, standing upon an ignominious ladder, and yet upon the threshold of heaven, and all but glorified before he had departed. And below was a crowd among whom nothing was heard but heavy groans and loud lamentation. It was a death such as only a martyr can die, and which the living might well have envied.


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