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Byways of Scottish Story
A Parish Chronicle of the Seventeenth Century


AMONG materials for a larger history of Scotland which have not yet been fully exploited remain the minutes of kirk sessions throughout the country. Concerning the history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the documents of the higher Court of the Presbyterian Church - the acts and records of the General Assembly - hare furnished a very valuable store of information. There remains, however, this other class of records, hitherto all but unused, though perhaps possessing even greater interest, as containing intimate particulars of the domestic life of the people. The kirk sessions of parishes, down to the latter half of the eighteenth century, exercised jurisdiction of a sort almost as much civil as ecclesiastical, and the records of these Kirk sessions, if carefully examined, could not fail to yield many curious and interesting facts regarding the private manners of their time. Here and there throughout the country, mouldering on the shelves of quiet manses, these volumes lie, looked at once in a generation perhaps by the quick eyes of an incoming minister, only to be thrown aside again for half a lifetime with their silent story.

One of these tomes, the session record of the parish of Kilmaronock, lies before the present writer. A square quarto of a few hundred pages, it has once apparently been a book of some pretensions. Its brown leather cover, however, is blistered and cracked with age, the embossings which once decorated its sides are all but obliterated, and the small brass clasps which once evidently held it together have disappeared. The pages themselves have come apart from the binding, are damp-stained, brown, and ragged, and break like burnt paper at a touch. The writing is small and cramped, and with the use of many archaic letters and combinations of letters, to Say nothing of frequent abbreviations and a liberal freedom of spelling, is not the easiest thing in the world to decipher. Paper cost something handsome in the year 1646, and accordingly the scribe, probably the parish minister, leaves no very ample margin to his page. In consequence of this economy the ends of many lines have been rubbed and broken away, and it is no easy affair sometimes to fill up the hiatus. However, notwithstanding all these obstacles, the contents are worth the trouble of deciphering. The whole business of the kirk appears to have been recorded upon the pages of this single volume. Within its boards are contained, first, minutes of session from 26th April, 1646, to 3rd July, 1650; next, a register of baptisms from November, 1686, to 1724; also an account of the kirk revenues and disbursements from about the same year; and last-as curious an item as any--an account of the sums derived from the public hire of the session's mortcloths.

A meeting of this local ecclesiastical Court appears to have been held every Sunday and fast day after kirk services, the amount of the day's collection, which is generally stated to be "for the poor," invariably forming the opening item of the minutes. The destination of the collection is also frequently added. The entry, for instance, on 3rd May, 1646, runs: "Collectit this day 8s. 6d., quhilk was presentlie given to Elspat M`Nare "; from which it would appear that the session's charities, if not large, were apt to be prompt. A curious custom of the seventeenth century regarding the relief of paupers and those who had suffered from misfortune is revealed by several minutes of Kilmaronock. The Presbyteries, and even the General Assembly, were in the habit, it would appear, of furnishing approved persons in a state of need with credentials, upon the strength of which they made their way throughout the country, obtaining assistance at discretion from the ministers and sessions of parishes. On 31st December, 1648, for example, appears an entry: "This day was delyverit to a stranger woman callit Jonet M`Coll, and upon a recommendation from the General Assemblie to this Presbyterie, threttie shillings." And again, on 22nd February: "Intimatione was maid of ane recommendation from the Presbyterie of ane Matthew M`Indoe, parrocheneur of Strathblane, who had his house and haill goods burnt by fyr, and they were requyrit to help him according to their abilitie"; an appeal which resulted in the following month in a kirk collection to the handsome amount of 47s., supplemented by a contribution of 33s. from the box.

In character the weekly or bi-weekly proceedings of the parish session narrowly resembled those of an inquisitorial committee; minute inquiries into the conduct of suspected persons being made, principals and witnesses of cases formally cited and examined, and fines and penances regularly imposed. On 26th April, 1646, a fast had been appointed, and it had been " ordaind that every elder try who profains the sam by working." Accordingly, upon 3rd May, "it was inquyred diligentlie at the elders who wroght upon the fasting day," and "it was reported there was none known publicklie to be in working." One reprobate, however, *'Wm. M`Goun in Knockour, callit and compeird, acknowledged the profanation of the Sabboth by drinking, and promisit to be present on Sunday nixt," to do penance and he reproved in public. On the 31st of the same month another prosecution for Sabbath-breaking throws a vivid light upon the state of the times. On that day "Wm. Symie, being accusit of the profanation of the Sabboth, contest he carved a load of corne upon necessite for fear the garisoun that Ives in Dumbartan sould have com and taken it from us, as they had formerlie doin both to him and others, quhilk he declared upon his oath, and therefor is ordained to stand one day in the publick place and pay `Os. of silver." At that time the troubles between Charles I. and the Scottish Parliament were at their height. In the previous year the most brilliant of the Royalist generals, the Marquis of Montrose, had been defeated at Philiphaugh; but he was still in the Highlands waging a guerilla warfare with the Presbyterian general, Middleton, and might at any time reappear suddenly in the south at the head of a victorious Highland arm\-, as he had clone more than once before. The fortresses of the country, including the strong castle of Dunbarton, were accordingly in a state of defence. Their method of obtaining supplies appears, from the Kilmaronoch session minute, to have been the simple one of helping themselves. William Symie, at any rate, appears to have thought himself entirely justified in securing his corn, even on the Sabbath day, for lie disregarded the sentence and fine of the session, and in consequence, on 7th June, was ordered to appear before a higher Church Court, the Presbytery. This injunction, however, lie likewise disregarded, and the session accordingly, on 20th July, proceeded against him and Walter Buchanan, an aider and abettor, with "the admonition to excommunication." This was apparently the ultimate penalty which the session could inflict, but that it was felt to be severe and serious enough is proved by the fact that on 10th October Buchanan gave assurance that he had satisfied his own spiritual guides, the session of the neighbouring parish of Buchanan, regarding "his profanand of the Sabbath."

Profanation of the Sabbath, indeed, appears from this record to have been in those days of stern ecclesiastical rule much more common than is now supposed. Cases continually appear in the session minutes, and discipline by fine and public penance is ordered for such offences as abusing a neighbour whose sheep had strayed beyond bounds, or as drinking, flyting, and the like, on the Sabbath day.

By far the most frequent type of case dealt with, however, was that in which men and women were brought to account for too great intimacy of the amorous sort. Hardly a meeting of session is recorded in which some transgressing couple were not found guilty of such dallying, and subjected to admonition, fine, and public appearance before the congregation on the stool of repentance. The number of these cases fully justifies the description a century earlier of AEneas Sylvius, afterwards Pope Julius II., that the women of Scotland were not only fond of gay apparel, a characteristic, perhaps, of the sex everywhere, but were also amorous beyond all others he had known. The ancient session minutes of other parishes fully correspond with those of Kilmaronoch in the frequency with which such cases occur, and the student is driven by this frequency to think either that a very prying habit of espionage must have been in vogue, or, as seems quite as likely, that such transgressions were not popularly looked upon as very serious offences, and were therefore made without much attempt at secrecy. A fine of a few shillings, and a public admonition to repentance, appear to have sufficiently whitewashed the culprits and restored them to social privileges.

The jurisdiction of the session, as has been said above, was by no means limited to spiritual or quasispiritual matters. Cases of slander were not infrequent, and when these appeared they were tried with all the formalities of a regular court of law, parties being sworn and examined, securities demanded, and the matter sifted with a great show of order and dignity. On 6th June, 1648, for instance, "upon a warrand com from the presbyterie, Johne Cunnigham, Beddel, is ordainit to summound Margret M'Aulay to Thursday's session anent a bill given in against hir by Mr. Archibald Camroun; also to summound Walter Gardner in Abir, Kirstan M`Aulay, relict of umquhile Johne Galloway, Margret Speir, spous to Johne Telfurt, Margret M`Aulay, spous to Johne Bulsland in Gargoane, as witnesses in the said bill given in against Margret M'Aulay." Occasionally the plea of libel appears to have had a petty enough foundation, as when a true bill of complaint was found "for William Galloway being scandalised by saying he broke up Margret Anderson's kist and took away her shoe"; and again when, in January and February, 1649, a long and minutelv-detailed case ensues upon the complaint of Edward Bryce of Peturrich, against Umphra Ewing of the same place, for having "scandaled him, calling him a thief, and abusing him with his tongue very filthilie." Sometimes, however, the cases were serious enough.

The reader is constantly reminded by entries in these minutes of the vigorous way in which both doctrinal knowledge and personal profession of godliness were insisted on in those days. The minutes contain regular entries of intimations that members in particular parts of the parish would be visited and examined on certain specified days ; and when any members happen to have been absent from home at the time of visitation, they are duly warned from the pulpit on the following Sunday that they must attend and account for themselves upon another stated day. These personal examinations by the minister were in no particular different from the confessional of the Roman Church, which the Protestant Church had supplanted, except that their searching and not always delicate questions were put under no seal of secrecy, and whatever slips of opinion or conduct they might reveal became at once public property and food for scandal. The institution was part of a system which left as little as possible to the private conscience, but relied for the good conduct and orthodoxy of the people upon a machinery of espionage and outside checks. The minister and session were themselves in turn liable to visitations of the Presbytery, when examinations as rigorous as those of a modern audit or judicial inquiry were made into the efficiency with which the spiritual government of the parish was carried on. One such visitation recorded in these papers is not only valuable for the light which it throws on the social life and church government of the time, but possesses an interest of its own for the dramatic turn of its denouement.


ON 21st January, 1649, a sudden change occurs in the handwriting of the minutes of the kirk session of Kilmaronock, the bold and quaint style of the previous pages giving place to a smaller and lighter hand. At the same time a sudden coup d'etat appears to have been effected against the fortunes of the minister, whose writing was probably that now superseded. When he headed the new page duly with "Visitatioune" in bold letters he was probably unaware that the day's proceedings were to be a visitation of undesirable sort to himself. He had proceeded so far as to set forth how, under Air. Harie Sempell as moderator, the meeting of ministers and elders was constituted "as orderly intimat," when his handwriting abruptly stops. Perhaps his performance was rather slow for the younger men among the zealous visitors. Another pen at all events takes up the record, and proceeds with details as to the material condition of the kirk, which would seem to have been found somewhat dilapidated. At least repairs are "ordained thereanent." The names of carnal transgressors of the sterner sex which have appeared in the previous minutes of the session are then enumerated, and it is added: "The names of those are appointed to be read publickly on Sunday nixt in face of congregation, that if so be any upon solid grounds can object against thair admission they be hard on Monday nixt at the kirk herein present. Those in office are to convene, and if ther be no objectioune mad against any of those, they ar to be admitit on Sunday is eight dayes, and the elders ar to report thereanent on Thursday nixt to the Presbyterie to meet at Buchanane."

It is not till after these ordinary preliminaries that the case of the incumbent himself is dealt with. The proceedings then, however, acquire peculiar interest as an instance of church procedure of that time. "The aged minister, Mr. Luke Stirling, being removed on censure, and the elders one be one inquyred anent his abilities for doing good amongst them, they declaird they ar not his ordinarie hearers, neather will they be tyed thairto. In regard the minister, through great age and sundrie increasing infirmities, is not abill, neather to studie, nor vet to subsist for half an hour at most in congregation when he comes furth amongst them. And sundrie tyme it falls out that through infirmitie, or inconsideratlie, he reads some prayer from book. Wherefore they desyr he may be advysed to ly by, that the wirship of God be not rendered tedious and wearisome both to him and them. The visitors finding by the report mad by the elders and people thair not frequent meting at thair paroch kirk, thayr to ressume doctrine or use discipline, that it were guid the rest of the congregation present wer hard theranent if they have anything to say to the purposs. And being called, compeared" - here follow fifty-one names, curiously enough, of men only, including Alexander Andersoun for the Duke of Lennox, with a following, specifically stated, of the men upon the duke's lands. "All these being inquyred ane by ane anent thair minister, they did earnestly intreat he may be layd by speaking. There can be no edification by his ministrie amongst them no-w in his great age and infirmitie, both of bodie and mynd. And desyred they may be supplied by the Presbyterie in doctrine and discipline, as they may in thair best convenience overtake them with some supplie, and that they may be reckoned as a vaikand church. And they renew also thair offer of joyning with the minister, Mr. Luke, his portioune promised be him to ane helper, and to pay thair originall share by tiends of fyve hundred merks, - whereof the minister finds two hundred and fyftie merks and the paroch als much amongst them It is to be supposed that Mr. Luke Stirling accepted his deposition by the visitors with dignity. His handwriting does not, at any rate, reappear in the book of minutes.

Perhaps, however, the most interesting entries are those which contain allusion to the stirring political movements of that time. From these it is to be gathered that politics were not only matter of even deeper concern to ordinary folk than at the present day, but that these politics were keenly watched and actively engaged in by the Church itself. The conduct of the State was considered a matter no less needful of spiritual oversight than the conduct of the individual, and accordingly even remote parishes like Kilmaronock took an active interest through the machinery of the kirk in the State movements of the hour.

In the beginning of 1647, shortly after the unfortunate Charles I. had been delivered up to the Commissioners of the English Parliament at Newcastle, the troublous state of the country is reflected by an entry in these minutes. The entry embodies a communication from the Scottish Parliament and Council. At the instance of complaints and supplications which have been made regarding "murder and spuilzie of guiddis and burning," the rulers adjure the people to goodwill and stedfastness, with prayer to God to avert further troubles and calamities. Before the end of the year, however, occurs a still more pregnant reference. By a sudden coup at Holmby House in Northamptonshire, on the 4th of June, Charles had been carried off from the Presbyterian Commissioners by the Independents, and, being kept prisoner at Hampton Court, lie seemed to be in danger of seeking to effect his liberty by favouring his new captors and turning his back upon Presbyterianism. Accordingly, in the Kilmaronock session minutes of 28th October "publick intimatione was maid of a fast to be keipit this day aught dayes, appointed be the General assemblie, for the sins of the land, and to intreat the Lord for turning the hinge's heart. The causes thereof wer publicklie read."

On the 30th January of the following year an allusion occurs which shows that the troubles of the time were not confined to the quarrels of Royalists and Presbyterians. " This day," says the chronicle, "publick intimatione was maid to the peopill that they sould watche over themselves diligentlie, and be earnest with the Lord that he wold protect them from the plague of pestilence quhilk is raging in Kilpatrick, and also that they sould bewar of receaving strangers, and especially of hieland beggars, seeing they know quhat inconvenience they have already receavit by them, and how wonderfullie the Lord hes delyverit us quhill it was in the middest of us."

Political affairs, however, are not long left without attention. These were now rapidly approaching a climax. On 11th November Charles had escaped from Hampton Court, only to be again seized and confined by the Independents with greater rigour in Carisbrooke Castle, in the Isle of Wight. In these straits, as a desperate resource he effected a treaty with the Scottish Parliament, by which, in return for certain promised concessions to Presbyterianism, the Parliament undertook to send an army into England to effect his release. This treaty, called the Engagement, was strongly disapproved of by the more zealous of the Scottish clergy, who considered the concessions of Charles altogether insufficient to warrant embroiling the country in a new war. While, therefore, the civil magistrates ordered the people to take up arms, the clergy from their pulpits denounced the proceeding with their utmost vigour. Among these opponents of the Engagement appears to have been the minister of Kilmaronock, and on 29th April his session minutes contain an allusion to the transaction. " This day," runs the record, "the kirk declaratione was red against the unlawfull Ingadging of this kingdome in ane new war with the kingdome of Ingland, and all the congregatione requyred that they sould not joyne in the same, being destructive of the Covenant quhilk we have so solemnlie sworn and subscrybit, and to the worke of reformatione whereto we have spent so much blood and meanes."

Another appeal of the same sort is recorded on 28th May as having furnished a text for the minister's sermon, and at the same time, as matters had apparently now become urgent, an active step was taken: "This day ane supplicatione was drawn up by the session to be sent to the presbyterie for requyring them to supplicate the parliament against the present violent [proceeding] contrar to the Covenant. The same subscrybit be the minister," etc.

Notwithstanding the opposition of the Scottish clergy, an army of fifteen thousand men was raised by Parliament and despatched into England, but it came to grief, chiefly through the vacillation of its general, the Duke of Hamilton. Of this turn of affairs the stricter Presbyterians at once proceeded to take advantage, and the peasantry of the western shires, headed by their ministers, and joined by the Highland forces of the -Marquis of Argyle, swept to Edinburgh in what was called the Whigamore's Raid, and established the dominance of their party. An entry in the Kilmaronock minutes of 31st December probably indicates the local support given to this counter-movement. "This day," runs the minute, "intimatione was maid of a fast to be keipit the nixt Sabboth, and that Air. Johne Stewart, minister at Bonyll, is ordained to preache and to reide the publick papers-to wit, the Kirks' declaration and the Act anent those who went out upon the unlawful Ingadgment; and also that Mr. Harie Sempill is to com and preach heir upon Thursday, and upon Sabboth following, for subscrybing the League and Covenant, and tryall and censuring of those who -went out upon the unlawful Ingadgment to England."

Three weeks later, on the 19th of January, 1649, the unfortunate King Charles was brought to the bar of an informal High Court of Justice, tried by his enemies, and condemned to suffer death. News of the trial, however, could not have reached Scotland on the 21st, and on this day, probably still further to secure the abstention of the people from the Royalist cause, the Solemn League and - Covenant of 1644 was again sworn to by the parishioners. Whether this was a precaution effected generally throughout Scotland at that time, or merely a local precaution owed to the fact that the parish was on the disaffected Highland line, the present writer is unaware. The proceeding, however, is suggestive enough. "This day," runs the minute, "those who could subscrybe themselves within this parishe were requyrit to subscrybe the League and Covenant, quhilk they did unanimouslie. Also those that wer absent the last day of the sweiring therof, as those of Balloch, Galingad, and Merkins, being warnit to be present, corn and publicklie did swear the samyn; and all those who could not subscrybe themselfs did desyr and agrie that the ministor sould insert ther names and subscrybe for them, seeing they had sworne the samyn."

It must be confessed' that the signing of the Covenant, as described in these minutes, backed up, as we know it to have been, by the Kirk's urgent and uncompromising pressure, throws something of a new light on what has usually been considered a voluntary and enthusiastic proceeding on the part of the people. Perhaps, however, these significant warnings and requisitions to sign the document were peculiar to half-Highland, and therefore lukewarm, parishes like Kilmaronoch.

Two further extracts will complete the allusions to historic occurrences contained in these minutes, and throw some additional light on the local bearing of national events of the time.

Charles I. was beheaded on 30th January, 1649, and forthwith the Scottish Government, horrified at the event to which their own action had contributed, and loyal to the dynasty, whatever they may have been to the person, of the late king, resolved to proclaim Charles II. their Sovereign, and sent commissioners to the Continent to treat with him. Here, again, the leaders of the Covenanting party appear to have used the machinery of the Kirk for the purpose of bringing the people to their own view of the conditions under which the young monarch should be admitted to his inheritance. On the 28th of February "intimatione was maid of a fast to be keipit the fyft day of Marche for the [cause of] a Lettir com in this day, the principall cause therof is that the Lord wold be pleasit to give a good successe to the addresses of the Kirk and Stait that is to be maid to the young king, and that the Lord wold mollifie his heart and rid him from the societie of wicked malignants who ar about him. Therfor all the peopill ar ordaind to be present the said day, and to examin themselfs in sinceritie befor the Lord, and to refrain from servill work the said day."

Once more, on the 20th of May, referring probably to some of the acts of vengeance carried out in the Highlands by the Marquis of Argyle against the late followers of his enemy Montrose, appears notification of a general ordinance. "This day was intimatione maid of ane day of thanksgiving appointed by the Commissioun of the Kirk to be keipit upon fryday nixt for the victorie our armie in the north have receavit ovir the Malignant partie ther; and the prented causes wer publicklie read."

On the next page occurs the deposition of the aged minister already quoted; and the minutes end with an account of the raising of money for the settlement of his successor.

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