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Women in History of Scots Descent
Women of Covenanting Times


Part I

In order to understand what is meant by "Covenanting Times’ we must imagine ourselves to be watching a scene in the church of St. Giles in Edinburgh in the summer of 1637, when King Charles I. is reigning in England.

The Dean of St. Giles is preaching, in a white surplice, not in the black Geneva gown approved of by those of the Reformed Church. Suddenly, a stool flies at the preacher’s head, not striking it, indeed, but other stools follow till the place is in an uproar ‘and the Dean is fain to come out of the desk and pull off his surplice for fear of being torn to pieces.’ And even when the Bishop tries to speak from the pulpit sticks and stones flew at him till at length both Bishop and Dean were obliged to give over and retire to the vestry.’ So runs an old account of the matter.

We may laugh at such doings, we, in our easy-going tolerant days, but it was all deadly earnest to the citizens of Edinburgh. For here was King Charles, a Stuart too—I knowing his Scots so little that he was ordering them to use the English Prayer-book, to clothe their ministers in white surplices and to conduct church services with such ceremonies as seemed to them just ‘Popery’. And hence some six months later, another scene for us to watch.

* * * * * *

It is February, 1638, and the winds are cold. But a great concourse of people are gathered in the graveyard of the old church of the Greyfriars; so called because of the Friars of St. Francis who possessed it before the Reformation. And the church itself is packed with people too, and all, both within and without, seem pressing to one centre, not to listen but to join in action. On a flat tombstone of the graveyard lies a parchment scroll, and the people are pressing round it to sign it each in turn, some weeping as they write, some writing, we are told, with blood drawn from their own arms. This scroll contains words known as the National Covenant, a solemn pact, binding all who sign it to be loyal to the Church of Scotland and to resist all measures on the part of the English Government to alter its prayer-book or its ceremonies. Hence the men who signed this fact were called ‘Covenanters.’

But the Stuart Kings were not wise enough to learn, through popular resistance, that men’s minds and consciences cannot be forced, and so, not King Charles I. only but others drove the Covenanters into hatred and rebellion.

* * * * * *

Let us pass over the years of Cromwell; it is now 1660 and a Stuart King, Charles II., has returned to Whitehall. A tolerant, easy-going man, very different from his father, he would not himself have persecuted men for their religious views. But members of his Government believed it necessary to enforce one kind of religious observance on the two countries, England and Scotland.

In Scotland, for the most part, there was far less of resistance than in the days of Charles I.; the new generation of men were less stern, and less united against the English law; the great mass of Scotsmen ‘sullenly submitted,’ as Macaulay says.

But in the south-western counties of Ayr, Lanark, Wigtown, Kirkcudbright and Dumfries, the old Covenanting spirit lingered on. The farmers of the countryside, the craftsmen of the little towns, and even some country gentlemen or lairds were resolute in their own way of worship. And equally resolute were magistrates and judges to stop all preaching and all worship other than that allowed by law. The most trivial acts of disloyalty were punished, such as refusal to drink the King’s health. Men and women, and quite young persons suffered imprisonment and death.

The story of two of these is accurately known.

Margaret Wilson was the daughter of a yeoman farmer in Wigtownshire. Her father and mother followed the worship allowed by Government, but as Margaret grew up she became attracted to the teaching of the Covenanters; she persuaded her younger sister and brother, Agnes and Thomas, to go and hear the fervent prayers and sermons which she loved. After a time these three young people—Margaret herself only eighteen—left their home and wandered about, sheltering in woods and caves and begging food from fellow Covenanters. In Wigtown they were befriended by an elderly woman called Margaret McLauchlan who was bitter against the Government, and in the spring of 1685, the latter, and the three Wilsons were arrested on a charge of rebellion. They were lodged in the tower of Wigtown kirk—often used thus in those days—to await their trial. The two younger Wilsons were ‘bailed out’ by their father, but Margaret and her older friend refused to yield.

In April they were condemned to death by drowning.

However, a pardon was asked for from James II., now King of England, and it is probable that such a thing would have been granted—or at least, a lighter sentence. Those in authority were merely enforcing the law as it stood. The request had to be forwarded to Edinburgh and thence to London, some 400 miles and back again, in days when the quickest travelling was on horseback over bad roads. We do not know why, but before pardon or reprieve arrived, the officers of Government in Wigtown decided to carry out the death sentence.

The town of Wigtown stands on the edge of a broad inlet, Wigtown Bay, where the river Blade meets the sea; this is an arm of the Solway Firth. Hence, these brave women are known as ‘The martyrs of the Solway.’ As in many river mouths, there are here wide sands washed by the tide twice every day. This was the place for the death sentence to be carried out.

We can imagine the folk of the little fishing town flocking to the sands on that May morning of 1685, some weeping and praying, some not daring to show sympathy, lest they be classed as rebels. The tide is now far out, but it is just on the turn. The watchers see the stakes being driven into the sand; one, set farther out; one, nearer the shore; ropes are fastened to the stakes. When the water approaches the farther stake, Margaret McLauchlan, the elder woman, is led out across the sand and bound; her hair is grey, her face furrowed, but she is quiet, except that her lips move as she repeats words from the Bible. The younger Margaret watches her, without wavering as her captors had hoped she would; then she is bound to the nearer stake. Her prayers and singing of hymns are heard by all on shore, till the water begins to choke her voice. When the older victim is covered by the water, a strange thing happens, Margaret, the younger, is all but unconscious, her head drooping; but men approach her in a boat, unbind her, try to restore her to consciousness; they appeal to her. ‘Will you deny your beliefs? Will you even say, "God save the King"?’

‘I am Christ’s,’ murmurs the girl: ‘let me go.’ And the waters close over her, for the second time—the last.

* * * * * *

In the churchyard of Wigtown there is a stone to her memory with several lines of epitaph, the last two run thus:

‘Within the sea, tied to a stake
She suffered for Christ Jesus sake.’

Part II

LADY GRIZEL BAILLIE

There were, however, in southern Scotland, in those days, men and women who did not go all lengths with extreme Covenanters, and yet were angry with Government for such persecutions as these, and who were willing to incur danger on account of their sympathies. Of these, there were two close friends, Sir Patrick Hume and Mr. Robert Baillie of Jerviswood; Sir Patrick’s eldest daughter is the subject of this story. We know a good deal about her, because her own daughter wrote the story of her mother’s life.

Let us suppose, however, that Lady Grizel, Sir Patrick’s daughter, is relating her own story to us; let us remember too, that though she was a well-educated girl she must have talked Lowland Scots, and used words which would be strange to us; probably the sound of her speech would be difficult for us to understand.

* * * * * *

My early home was at Redbraes Castle in Berwickshire; the Blackadder river ran close to our house and the country round was hilly; farther away we could see much higher hills. My childhood was very happy, and it was busy because I had so many younger brothers and sisters that I was always helping my mother. We were not rich and had not many servants. It did make me sad sometimes to see my father look so anxious, and to hear him talk about the poor folk, further away to the west, who were being hunted by the King’s troopers. Indeed, my father was not safe, and his greatest friend, Mr. Baillie of Jerviswood, was in prison in Edinburgh on account of his opinions.

One day, when I was about twelve, father said to me: ‘Grizel, I want you to take a letter to Edinburgh for me; Jamie Winter shall go with you and you must go to the Tolbooth prison and give the letter to Mr. Robert Baillie. The guards will let you in but it would be dangerous for me.’

I said, ‘Yes father, sure, I will.’

It was thirty miles from Redbraes to Edinburgh, so we left home on horseback, Jamie and I, at six o’clock and got to the town by mid-day. We took bannock cakes to eat on the way. Then we rode down the High Street to the Tolbooth. It was a fair wide street, and there were mighty great houses on each side. At the prison, we had to wait, Jamie outside with the horses, and I in a sort of passage within. Then there came to speak to me a young man, the son of Mr. Robert Baillie, who asked me what my errand was. I told him all, for his face was kind and honest, so that I trusted him. Then he took me in to Mr. Robert Baillie’s room. Mr. Baillie read the letter I brought, and smiled on me and said: ‘You are but young, Mistress Grizel, to come visiting a poor prisoner.’ He called his son George, and Master George smiled on me too, so I liked them both very well. Then I took Mr. Robert’s letter, and the goaler let me out. Jamie and I rode homewards but we did not hurry much because it was better for us to arrive in the dark.

It was after this that our own troubles began. I cannot count the years that passed, for life was very full and the children and mother needed much helping; but one day father was taken away by the King’s troopers. Sometimes he would come back for a time looking very ill and thin, and stay a while, and then off to prison again.

So it went on till, when I was about eighteen, father being at home, he said to mother: ‘Rachel, Robert Baillie is in prison again, and they will be harder on him this time. They know I am his friend. I must hide myself.’

There was only one place we could think of, our family vault in Polworth Churchyard.

And there father went; it was a dreadful dark place with only a slit to give air. No one knew, except mother and me and Jamie Winter. As for his food, what was to be done? Well, each dinner-time, I had a bag on my lap and into it I slipped some food. When the household had gone to bed, I walked alone to Polworth. I used to stumble over the graves and I shivered for fear of ‘bogies’, what nurse used to talk about. But it was good to see poor father enjoy his food and to talk to him. He liked to hear of all that was happening at home, and he laughed at things the children said. There was a great jest once over a sheep’s head. It was a dish father loved well; so, one dinner time, I managed to slip the whole of it into my bag. But my brother Alexander suddenly said: ‘Mother will ye look at Grizel? While we have been eating our broth, she has eaten up the whole sheep’s head.’ Father laughed at this and said, ‘Next time, it’s Sandy must have the big portion.’ And so it was.

What I minded most was the barking of the ministers’ dogs, as I went by; I thought they would betray us. But mother persuaded the minister to have them destroyed, because, she said, there was a mad dog about the place.

After a few weeks, father got so ill for lack of air that we contrived a new hiding-place. There was a small room in our house opening on the garden; Jamie Winter took up the floor boards, and he and I scraped up the earth underneath till there was space for a bed; and Jamie put back the boards when he had pierced them with holes; there father lay all day and when the troopers came they did not find him.

Four weeks passed thus; then water began to soak up through the earth, and we knew that that plan was useless.

About this time—I being then nineteen—we heard that Mr. Robert Baillie had been hanged at the Market Cross at Edinburgh; it was Christmas time, and very dreadful. Then, father said to mother: ‘Rachel, I must go away.’ She and I made clothes for him as a disguise. And when they were ready, father and John, our grieve, were to start before daylight, riding. Father was to be a surgeon, carrying a lancet, for he was skilled at letting blood, and John told the servants that he was taking goods to Morpeth Fair. All that day and the next, we waited sorely anxious; but John got back at dark the night after. He told mother and me how he had parted from father somewhere south the Border, and how they were once nearly caught. John had lost sight of father, who had rid on ahead, and just then came along a party of red-coats. They asked John for news of ‘that rebel Patrick Hume’, but John muttered he was but a grieve on his way to market and what should he know of rebels? So they let him go, and went off the way John had come. Then John caught up with father, till at dark he was able to find an easier road, and so they parted.

After many weeks, we heard that father was safely in Holland; but though we did thank God, we were sad, because he said we must leave our dear country and go to him in that strange land.

We went across, therefore, after many weeks, and got to Utrecht where father was living and pretending to be a surgeon ‘Dr. Wallace.’

But Julian, one of my sisters, was too sick to travel with us, and when she got well, it was for me to go back to London to fetch her. Oh! the miserable journey! The ship we took was very small and crowded, only one bed in the cabin, and in it two elderly ladies. So Julian and I lay on the floor. Suddenly, in comes the Captain very angry, and very full of drink, methought. What must he do but turn out those two poor ladies and lie in their bed himself? Also, he found our few provisions and ate them all. We were glad enough when the storm increased so terribly that two sailors came down and fetched the captain up on deck. We got to Brill at last; it was still dark, raining fast, and no one to meet us. We set out on foot carrying our bundles; a gentleman from the ship was our companion. Presently, poor Julian, very weakly on her feet, stuck fast in the mud, and left her shoes in it; it was too dark to find them. So I must take her on my back and indeed I was strong enough; our companion obligingly carried our goods, and by daybreak we got to Rotterdam. Oh! the joyful sight! there were father and Patrick to meet us. And you may think we were thankful for rest and food.

* * * * * *

Our life at Utrecht was busy and happy, but we were very poor. We had a fair large house, clean and airy, the floors of brick or tiles, easy to keep clean. We had one servant to help us at times, but when our money did not come from England by the packet-boat, we could not pay a maid, and indeed had to put in pledge our silver things from Scotland.

Every day I rose early and cleaned my father’s study for him, because he could not go out in the streets for fear of informers. In his study he taught my brothers and sisters, and me when I had time to learn. We learned English, and Dutch, and French, and writing.

I loved to play on the harpsichord and to write verses, but hardly had I sat down but I used to hear, ‘Grizel, will ye see to the broth for supper?’ or ‘Grizel, will ye mend my coat?’ Also, we had many visitors, for there were Scots in Utrecht, refugees, and as our house was larger than most, we often asked them to dinner.

Now, my eldest brother had made friends with one George Baillie, who was that son of Mr. Robert Baillie whom I had seen in the prison. And we both remembered that meeting, and indeed we soon became friends.

Now Patrick and George were sent for by the Prince of Orange—the Stadtholder, as he was called—being the ruler of Holland. They were both made officers of the Prince’s bodyguard, and had to be on duty at the palace. Their uniform was very smart and their linen had to be very fine and white. Often I used to sit up late to starch and iron it for both of them.

Thus our lives ran on for some four years; and then a strange thing happened in England.

King James II. had displeased the people of England so much that the leading men invited Prince William of Orange to become King of England, his wife Princess Mary Queen, she being daughter of King James, and both of them Protestants.

Then, my father, with Patrick and George Baillie, went to England in the train of the Prince, and after a time we also made our new home there. Queen Mary, indeed, graciously invited me to be one of her maids of honour, but I begged leave to refuse. I was full of thought now of a happy future, for George Baillie and I were only waiting to be married till we should have more money. Two years later, King William bestowed on George a small estate in Scotland; then we were married and our life was truly happy.

My greatest sorrow after this was the death of my dear mother. Many of us brothers and sisters stood round her as she lay dying, but I could only weep behind the curtain of her bed. When I heard her say, ‘Where is Grizel? ‘ I went to her, and she, holding my hand, spoke thus: ‘Dear Grizel, blessed be you above all, for a helpful child have you been to me.’ And at this I cried all the more, for now, never again should I be able to help her.

Still my dear father was left; he went to live at Marchmont House in Berwickshire, because he had become Earl of Marchmont; and this forced me to be called ‘Lady Grizel’ instead of just ‘Grizel,’ and it seems to be too grand for one who was ever a simple body. I used to travel to Marchmont when I could, and try to get my father’s affairs into order, for he became too feeble to manage his money and his land.

Then, too, I had to look after the children of my brother, Sandy, now Lord Polwarth, because he had to go abroad; and sometimes I had to live in London for George’s sake when Parliament was sitting.

Then came that terrible year, the ‘45, when Prince Charles Edward stirred up trouble for Scotland and for England too. It was a sore time for many. I got no money from Scotland and could hardly pay my butcher and my baker.

* * * * * *

Here we must break off the story told by Lady Grizel, for in the year 1746, she died. Her daughter, Lady Grizel Murray has given us a charming picture of her character and appearance.

‘My mother was of a quick and ready wit, and of a singular modesty. She was well-made and handsome, having a life and sweetness in her eyes very uncommon, with great delicacy of features. Her hair was chestnut coloured, and there was a clear red in her cheeks and lips owing, I think, to her great moderation in diet.’

‘She and my father always treated me and my sister as friends as well as children, and this from our infancy.’

Thus we take leave of this very lovely person, lovely in her courage, her devotion, and her entire simplicity of life and thought. But we shall meet her again in imagination in a future chapter.


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