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Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
A Preacher of the Covenant in the Killing Times


HE CAME OF GENTLEFOLK, THIS SAME John Blackader of Troqueer. For, he was of that namely family in Berwickshire which was far and widely kenned during the fifteenth century as the Black Band of the Blackaders. They were fell fighters and worried the Englishers to death again and again. It was old Cuthbert Blackader and his seven strapping sons who went bravely out to fight at Bosworth Field, all accoutred in their armour of fine-made steel and dour Scots courage. But, three of them fell with their doughty father, and only four returned in dool to the bonny Berwickshire merse. King James of Scotland, with a proper pride in their great adventures, gave leave to the living Blackaders to commemorate the dead, by carrying, for ever after, on their shields a red rose and a white—and to this day their crest is a right hand holding a sword, with this for a family text below: Courage helps fortune.

It was out of that siccar Scots fighting family, that John Blackader of Tulliallan, two centuries after, came—not to fight with sword and whinger, but to wage the better war of his Captain, Jesus Christ, in the killing times of persecution when the Blue Banner of the Covenant was dipped in the blood of the martyrs.

All through his wandering, hunted life you can hear the jingling of horses' bits, the clash of swords, and the thud of hoofs on the heather, as the redcoats ride down with a curse those clean-souled men with their innocent wives and bairns whose memory today makes Scotland dirl with pride.

A patient, scholarly saint himself, he was settled at Troqueer in Dumfriesshire over a parish of wild, godless folk in 1653. But soon he cleansed his flock and his session from evil ways, and took inspection into their behaviour, until he garred them curb their profanity by the help of God's own grace. If old Cuthbert, the Berwickshire laird, was a captain of the foray, young John of Troqueer was a non-such Captain of Christ.

But, after nine years of this good gospel drill in the parish of Troqueer, John Blackader was outed with the rest for conscience and the Covenant.

He was off for the moors at the first sound of the galloping dragoons, determined henceforth to give his life to the wide, windy diocese of Scotland's outed folk, rather than bow the knee to the usurper of Christ's crown and Covenant.

Hear them, clattering up to the little whitewashed manse of Troqueer at two o'clock in the morning— these coarse-grained, red-coated soldiery, to whom the names of Sir James Turner, Auld Tarn Dalzell of the Binns, and the Bloody Clavers himself were all in all. When they found that the brave man had gone, they wreaked their rage on his innocent wife and bairns.

The ruffians drag the wee ones from their warm beds and threaten with a curse to roast them alive. Stools and chairs are broken up with a dreadful smashery, and heaped in the yard to make a fire. One of the little lads is made to hold a candle in his father's study, while a great dragoon throws down all the precious books from the cupboard to see if any of them are tainted with Whiggery. They stab all the beds and bedding through and through with their swords, in hope of finding the outed preacher. And while all this is going on inby, there are others who are outby wrecking the henroost, where they thraw the neck of every hen and leave the poor, harmless creatures lying dead on the cold clay floor.

It is then that one of the little bairns, wild with terror, creeps quietly out of the house in his shirt, and runs barefooted in the bogle-haunted night all the way to the Brigend of Mennihyvie, where he climbs the steps of the market cross and lies down, faint and forfochen, and sleeps.

Betimes, in the early morning, an old wife in a mutch comes out at her door and spies the wee white shivering bairn.

"Save us! What art thou?"

"I'm Mr. Blackader's son."

"O my puir bairn! What brocht ye here?"

"There's a hantle o' fearful men with red coats have burnt all our house."

"O puir bit thing! Come in, come in, and lie doon in my warm bed."

And the wee one was soon fast asleep between the blankets of old Widow Weir.

The other bairns, "bag and baggatch," were put into cadgers' creels and carried off to Dumfries, where, coming to the bridge in the early morn, one of them cried out in a perfect drollery of fright," I'm banisht! I'm banisht!"

For, the old whitewashed, thackit-roofed manse was all alowe with fire, the precious personalities of the happy household were lying in a heap of ashes, black and burned, and the sound of the psalm would never be heard again round John Blackader's little family altar at Troqueer.

It was this that clinched the faith of many a douce Scots presbyter more than anything else—the break-ingand burning and banishing of his own family roof-tree in the name of a king and a council that flouted Christ and cursed His children with an oath.

So John Blackader, the faithful but cautious preacher of the Covenant, felt the blood of old Cuthbert of the Black Band running hot within him that day, as he fled for the moors which were for fifteen years to be his only home.

Galloway, Ayrshire, Lanark, and the Lothians, with trips to the Borders and Fife—he was known in every glen and on every hillside wherever the huddled flock of Christ gathered for prayer and praise. His pony carried him everywhere. When, in times of danger, he had to leave it at some farm place and take to the wilds, he would walk or crawl over the peat bogs and heather from place to place.

See him, skulking from one moss dub to another, as he sees the figure of a man coming over the brow of the moor, looking this way and that on the dull wintry afternoon. Then the sound of a well-known voice actually singing a psalm in that danger zone, and John Blackader runs across the heather to his friend in exile.

"It is Alexander Peden himself!"

And with that, the two great men meet.

"What news?" says Blackader, as he surveys the weird, dreamy-looking figure standing on the moor before him.

"Waesome news, John—waesome news! For Clavers and his men are out on the hill this very day after the Lord's anointed. There have been more murder-ings in Galloway, and a wee bit laddie was shot up-by yestreen. Lord, how long, how long? But God is our Refuge and our Strength."

The two preachers knelt down in the heather, which was wringing wet with rain, and prayed for the cause of Christ in the land. Were not their hearts bleeding for many of their martyred friends? Then they sat and talked for a long time of many things, forgetting in their eagerness where they were.

"Eh! what was that?" said Blackader.

"Methought I heard the tramp of a horse," replied Peden, with a calm unconcern, as he looked round the moor.

"Ay—quick. There they are. They have seen us. They are galloping this way!"

It was Clavers and his men on Peden's track at last.

But the prophet only closed his eyes, and kneeling calmly down, began to pray again in the peat-hag.

"O Lord, who hast never failed them that lippen to Thee, cast the lap o' Thy cloak over puir auld Sandy."

And the mist came down, and shrouded the moor in its thick white folds.

They heard the jingling of the horses' bits, and the sound of the men cursing the poor brutes that kept stumbling into the peaty sludge in the mist. Once Clavers' own voice was raised in command quite close to them. But the two preachers never moved in their hiding-place. Then the sounds grew fainter as the dragoons rode farther and farther away. And when the mist lifted John Blackader saw the glint of the sun on a helmet far down the glen.

See him again in the Lothians, with headquarters in Edinburgh and a good horse always at hand.

It is a summer Sunday at Hill o' Beath in Fife. John Dickson is with him, and at eight o'clock in the morning he stands up to preach to the great assemblage. The long service is finished by eleven o'clock in the forenoon. Then a second one begins, and while John Blackader is speaking a young lieutenant of militia rides up, dismounts, and listens. But it is a composing and winsome address, and there is nothing to haggle over. The lieutenant mounts again, amid some show of resentment, and rides off. The news goes round that John Blackader is in danger of arrest. The boatman at Queensferry refuses him a passage in the evening. So, utterly wearied with the long day's work, he mounts his horse and rides away by Stirling through the night, continuing by Linlithgow to Edinburgh, which he reaches before the kitchen fires are lit in Auld Reekie. Sixty miles from dusk to dawn!

At Paisley he preaches to twelve hundred souls. At Fenwick he lies in hiding at death's door for sixteen weeks, for his hardships in the open are many and severe. Yet he never girns at Providence, this good soldier of Christ's Crown and Covenant.

At Livingston and Linlithgow we hear soughs of him holding conventicles. For the faithful folk smell-ed him out wherever he was, despite his caution. He would preach in snowy moors with nothing but a chair from a herd's kitchen to stand on, while the devout folks pulled bunches of heather from the hillside and sat on them in the snow.

It is on the bleak hills round Torphichen we see him flying one day from the horsemen of Bloody Tarn Dalzell. The going is rough for his little beast, and on his way he finds a woman running for her life with a baby wrapped in a shawl.

"What ails ye, my woman?"

"The red-coats hae killed my man; but they winna get my wee bit bairn. O Lord, whither can I flee wi' him?"

"Lay him in that whin bush, and jump up with me."

So she laid the bairn down, all wrapped in a shawl, in the middle of a great whin bush, and rode off with the preacher. They soon reached a farm where a true son of the Covenant took charge of the horse and hid the two fugitives in a safe place.

Next morning, when danger was past, the woman went early to the whin bush, and there — sleeping sound and cosh—she found her babe unharmed.

That day John Blackader held a conventicle on a little green hill near Torphichen. The sentries were placed on the high points to the north and south and east and west, and down in a hollow many mothers brought their bairns after sermon to the baptism. Among them was the woman whose little babe had slept all night in the whin bush. There they were all baptized by the same name of John, after the great preacher of the Covenant. And the little green hill is called Johnshill to this very day.

Later on he ventured down to the ancient seaport town of Borrowstounness, which even then was old in history and tradition. There he preached and baptized twenty-six bairns. But ere the conventicle was over Dalzell of the Binns and his butcher dragoons were on their way from Blackness to arrest the preacher. His son Adam was with him, and was taken prisoner by some soldiers, who told him he would be thrown into a dungeon in Blackness Castle that was full of puddocks and toads. John Blackader himself, now almost crippled with rheumatic pains, escaped by the merest chance. For, despite the rheums and weaknesses of approaching age, he had to climb dykes and plunge through hedges and scramble in the dark from one backyard to another, till he managed to gain the braes and cow parks above the town. There he found shelter in a barn all night.

The very last conventicle he held was at Newhouse Moor, near Livingston, in the year 1681. Then, full of rheumatics and almost blind with the constant glare of the sun and exposure, he retired to a house in Edinburgh. The Council summoned him for trial, and one April day of that same year the officers of the Council climbed the stairs of his house in the High Street and seized him.

It was the beginning of the end for John Blackader, as it had been for many another preacher of the Covenant in the Killing Times. A voyage down the stormy waters of the Forth to the Bass Rock, and there he was confined for five years, with the seamaws screaming every day about him, and other faithful martyrs of the Cross lying in the cells beside him.

Then, release from all his troubles, and a resting-place beneath the shadow of Berwick Law, where, with some others who loved the Blue Banner, he a-waits the coming of his Lord in a neuk of the old kirkyard.


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