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Significant Scots
John Winram


WINRAM, JOHN, superintendent of Fife and Stratherne, was descended of the Fifeshire family of the Winrams of Ratho. He is supposed to have entered the university of St Andrews (St Leonard’s college) in 1513, and in 1515 he took the degree of B. A., on which occasion he is designated a pauper; that is, one who paid the lowest rate of fees. From that period till 1532, no trace has been discovered of him, but at the last mentioned date he is noticed under the title of "Canonicum ac baccalarium in Theologia" as one of the rector’s assessors, and in a deed dated the same year he is called a canon regular of the monastery of St Andrews. Two years afterwards he is mentioned as third prior, and in 1536, as subprior, in which situation he continued till the Reformation.

The first occasion on which we have found Mr John Winram making a public appearance was the trial of George Wishart, the martyr. On that occasion he was appointed to open the proceedings by a sermon, and he accordingly preached on the parable of the wheat and tares: he mentioned that the word of God is "the only and undoubted foundation of trying heresy without any superadded traditions," but held that heretics should be put down,—a position strangely inconsistent with the command to let the tares and wheat grow together till harvest. About the same period, archbishop Hamilton ordered the subprior to call a convention of Black and Grey friars for the discussion of certain articles of heretical doctrine. At this meeting, John Knox demanded from Winram a public acknowledgment of his opinion, whether these heretical articles were consistent or inconsistent with God’s word; but this the wary subprior avoided. "I came not here as a judge," he replied, "but familiarly to talk, and therefore I will neither allow nor disallow, but if ye list, I will reason;" and accordingly he did reason, till Knox drove him from all his positions, and he then laid the burden upon Arbuckle, one of the friars. Winram attended the provincial councils of the Scottish clergy, held in 1549 and 1559, and, on the first of these occasions at least, took an active part in the proceedings. Thus, up to the very period of the establishment of the Reformation, he continued to act a decided part with the catholic clergy. "There have been, and are," says Wodrow, "some of God’s children, and hidden ones, in Babylon, * * and no doubt Mr Winram was useful even in this period." May it not be asked, whether he did not, by a bad example, and a pertinacious adherence to a system which he knew to be erroneous, greatly more weaken the hands of his brethren, than he could possibly strengthen them by his private exertions?

Winram, as prior of Portmoak, attended the parliament of August, 1560, which ratified the protestant Confession of Faith. The first General Assembly held in December following, declared him fit for and apt to minister the word and sacraments; and on Sunday, April 13, 1561, he was elected superintendent of Fife, Fothrick, and Stratherne, "be the common consent of lordis, baronis, ministeris, elderis, of the saidis bowndis, and otheris common pepill," &c. The transactions in which he was engaged in this capacity present so little variety that we shall merely take a short general view of them.

One of Winram’s earliest acts as superintendent was the reversal of a sentence of condemnation which had been passed on Sir John Borthwick, in 1540, for heresy. This gentleman had saved himself by flight, but appears to have returned to Scotland in or before 1560, for, at the first General Assembly, we find one of the members "presented by Sir John Borthwick to the kirks of Aberdour and Torrie." It is sufficiently singular that Winram was one of "those plain enemies to the truth" described in the reversal of the sentence, who had assisted at the trial and condemnation of the man whom he even then must have considered as a friend, although he had not the courage or the honesty to avow it. The notices of Winram in the records of the General Assembly consist, almost without exception, of complaints against him, for negligence in visiting the district or diocese committed to his charge. [These charges were brought forward in December, 1562; December, 1564; December, 1565; December, 1567; July, 1569; July, 1570; March, 1572.] This is a charge which was brought more or less frequently against all the superintendents: the people on the one hand seem to have been unreasonable in their expectations, and the government, beyond all question, gave the clergy but little encouragement by a liberal or even moderate provision for their wants. In Winram’s case, however, the frequency of these complaints leaves on the mind a suspicion that he was to a considerable extent in fault, and, on one occasion at least, the complaint was accompanied with a charge of a covetous, worldly-minded disposition,—a charge which circumstances we shall mention in our general remarks on his character lead us to conclude were not unfounded. He was several times employed in reconciling party and private disputes. In 1571, he was ordered by the General Assembly to inhibit Mr John Douglas, who was appointed archbishop of St Andrews, to vote in parliament in name of the church. In January, 1572, he attended the convention at Leith, at which Tulchan bishops were authorized, and in the following month he was employed as superintendent of the bounds to inaugurate the archbishop of St Andrews. There are no subsequent notices of him of the slightest interest or importance. He died on the 18th or 28th of September, 1582, (the date seems uncertain,) leaving by his will James Winram and John Winram of Craigton, sons of Mr Robert Winram of Ratho his brother, his principal heirs.

The character of Winram is by no means free from suspicion. He was an early convert to the protestant doctrines, but he neither abandoned his situation nor emoluments in the catholic church; he did not, like almost all his brother superintendents, expose himself to danger or to suffering by a public profession of his sentiments, and when Knox, at the meeting of the Black and Grey friars, demanded whether he conscientiously considered the doctrines then called heretical contrary to God’s word, he not only evaded the question, but argued on the popish side; he assisted at the trials of at least two of the reformers, of whom one suffered, and the other only saved himself by flight. It may perhaps be said that Winram expected to be thus able to advance the reformation more effectually than by an open abandonment or opposition of the popish church, but this is an argument which would in any case be liable to strong suspicion, and which in Winram’s is rendered everything but inadmissible by the other facts which are known respecting him. The truth seems to be, and candour requires that it should be stated, that he generally displayed a covetous, interested disposition. On this account he was sometimes treated with no great respect, even by persons of inferior rank: one person, indeed, was charged in 1561, before the kirk session of St Andrews, with saying that he was a "fals, dissaitful, greedy, and dissemblit smaik, for he wes ane of tham that maist oppressed, smored, and held doun the word (kirk?) of God, and now he is cam into it and professes the same for grediness of geir, lurkand and watchand quhill he may se ane other tym." Nor does he seem to have possessed in any considerable degree the confidence of his clerical brethren. It has been remarked that, in the records of the proceedings of the first General Assembly, his name appears but seventeenth on the list of persons considered fit to minister, and is placed after those of men greatly his juniors. This is a circumstance which mere accident may have occasioned, and is not of itself entitled to much consideration; but of one fact there can be no doubt, that in the whole course of thirty-six Assemblies, which, according to Wodrow, he attended, he was never appointed moderator, nor intrusted even with a share in the management of their more important transactions.

Winram married Margaret Stewart, widow of . . . . Ayton of Kinnaldy, but she predeceased him without having any family except by her first husband. Many passages in the books of the commissariot of St Andrews show that the superintendent and his wife’s sons were on indifferent terms, and leave one not without suspicion that he made some attempt to deprive them of their just rights or property. In the remarks which we have made on this and other parts of his conduct we have been actuated by no other motive but a desire to draw a fair and impartial conclusion from the facts which time has spared to us. At the same time, we are sensible, and we mention it in justice to the memory of Winram and many others, that, did the history of the period admit a fuller investigation, considerations might arise which would probably place many transactions in a different point of view. [Abridged from Wodrow’s Biographical Collections, printed by the Maitland Club., i.] The only work known to have been written by Winram is a catechism, which has long disappeared, and of which not even a description is now known to exist.


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