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A Group of Scottish Women
Chapter 5 - Women of the Covenant - Lady Grisell Baillie

           “Tyrants! Could not misfortune teach
                        That man has rights beyond your reach?
                        Thought ye the torture and the stake
                        Could that intrepid spirit break,
                        Which even in women’s breast withstood
                        The terrors of the fire and flood!”

The Scottish Reformation which proved the outcome of John Knox’s preaching was, as Carlyle observed, “the one epoch in the history of Scotland.” The internal life of the country was then kindled: after a prolonged period of slumber Scotland at length rose from the dead. The Covenants were the natural product of this resurrection, and were destined to be, in the words of the martyr James Guthrie, “Scotland’s reviving.” But a country that was in the throes of such a revival had necessarily to pass through a period of persecution and bloodshed. The lives and liberties of her sons were freely sacrificed upon the altar of patriotism and principle. Nor were her daughters exempt from the persecution of these tyrannical times.

The martyrology of Scotland supplies many examples of feminine heroism: Catherine Douglas, immortalised as the “Kate Barlass” whose self-sacrifice delayed but could not avert the murder of James I.; Isabella, Countess of Buchan, the intrepid old lady who claimed the ancestral privilege of crowning Robert Bruce at Scone in 1305, and thereby suffered four years’ imprisonment in a wooden cage in one of the outer turrets of Berwick Castle; Jane Douglas, Lady Glamis, who was burnt alive on Castle Hill, Edinburgh, in the sight of her husband, on a trumped-up charge of designing to poison James V.; and many others. And, in the Covenanting days, women of all classes were haled to the prison-house or to the stake, languished in the gloomy dungeons of Dunottar Castle, were branded on the cheek and transported to America, or perished in the waters of the Solway, victims of the bigotry and prejudice of a narrow-minded age.

The Scottish Presbyterians of the seventeenth century were engaged in a hard fight for a continuance of that religious liberty which their forefathers had long enjoyed. And when a royal hand attempted to enforce the adoption of the obnoxious English liturgy, they preferred persecution and death itself to admitting the divine right of kings to impose their will upon the conscience of their subjects. They had been strongly attached to Presbytery for many years. It was the form of church government which King Charles I. had promised to preserve. When, therefore, he proceeded to restore Episcopacy, declaring the Solemn League and Covenant unlawful, investing himself with the sole right of deciding all ecclesiastical and civil affairs – an act, as Bishop Burnet says, which was “only fit to be concluded after a drunken bout” [“It shook all possible security for the future, and laid down a most pernicious precedent. It was a roaring time, full of extravagance. And no wonder it was so, when the men of affairs were almost perpetually drunk.” –Burnet’s History of His Own Times.] – he succeeded in arousing in the bosoms of the Covenanters the strongest sense of injustice and a spirit of the most inflexible opposition. Further, when the renegade Sharp, who had gone to London to represent the Presbyterian view of the case, was induced by the offer of the archbishopric of St. Andrews to betray his trust, less venal Scotsmen were fully justified in adopting the most drastic measures to prove their own unswerving loyalty to the sacred Covenant.

A period of religious persecution of an extremely rigorous kind ensued. Parliament, by the king’s command, ordered all ministers who had been admitted to parishes since 1649 to receive collation from the bishops or else leave their churches. The places of the three or four hundred who preferred the latter course were filled by youthful curates, many of them incompetent, some quite unworthy to officiate. As a result, Presbyterians very naturally discontinued their attendance at the parish kirk, flocking instead to the meetings which the dismissed ministers began to hold in the fields. To counteract this desertion, the authorities, moved by the protest of the Episcopalian clergy, decreed in 1663 that all who absented themselves from their parish kirks on the Lord’s Day should incur stringent penalties. [“Each nobleman, gentleman, and heritor, the loss of a fourth of each year’s rent; and each yeoman or tenant the loss of such part of their movables as the Lords of Council shall modify, not exceeding a fourth; and every burgess his liberty, and the fourth of his movables.”] Women were not included in this Act, but, as they were the chief offenders, [The Earl of Rothes, writing to the Earl of Lauderdale in 1665, on the subject of field meetings, declares that the women were mostly to blame, being stirred up by the ministers until they became “worse than devils.” “I dear say, (he adds) if it uear not for the uimin uie should have litile trubell with conventickils or such caynd of stuff, bot ther ar such a ffulith (foolish) jenerasione of pipill in this cuntrie who ar so influensied with ther fanatick uayffs (wives) as I thinck will bring reuin upon them.” (Lauderdale Papers, vol. i. p.234.)] it was soon found necessary to hold their husbands responsible for their misdoings. “Not many gentlemen of estate,” says Kirkton, “durst come to the field meetings, but many ladies, gentlemen, and commons came in great multitude.” Thus it came about that women, whose only crime lay in non-attendance at church, were not only a cause of persecution to their husbands, but were themselves insulted, fined, imprisoned. [The following list of the fines imposed by inferior courts in the single shire of Roxburgh is given in Woodrow’s History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland, vol. iv. p.52. (The penalties imposed by the Council, from which there was no appeal, are not included.)

Lady Chesters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . £14,780
Lady Mangerton . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      8,974
  “          “          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .        500
Lady Castles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  13,500
Lady Tempendean . . . . . . . . . . . . .      1,405
Lady Hassendean Scot . . . . . . . . . .     2,146
Lady Fotherly . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .          540
Lady Cranston . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      19,657
  “        “         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .        1,412
Lady Garinberry  . . . . . . . . . . .            5,700
Lady Craigend . . . . . . . . . . . . .              247

Ill-treatment, however, only served to fan the flame of their enthusiasm to a white heat.

Among those who were most zealous in the Covenanting cause we find the names of the Duchesses of Rothes and Hamilton, the Countess of Wigtown, Lady Kenmure, Lady Colvill, and many another well-known in Scotland. Anne, Duchess of Hamilton, was a particularly active partisan of the Covenanters. After the battle of Bothwell Bridge, when a number of them took refuge in the woods round Hamilton Palace, she successfully interposed to prevent the soldiers from continuing their pursuit of the fugitives. Her grandmother had achieved even greater distinction by the personal resistance she offered to Episcopacy. In 1639 Charles I. sent a fleet to Leith to enforce his views upon the religious enthusiasts of that locality. Lady Hamilton, [Lady Anne Cunningham, daughter of the 7th Earl of Glencairn, and wife of the 2nd Marquis of Hamilton.] whose son was in command of the king’s naval force, appeared on the seashore with a brace of pistols at her saddle-bow, loaded with balls of gold – it was supposed that lead bullets could not pierce the magic armour of the devil’s agents – and personally opposed his landing.

[“The Covenanters conveened in great Numbers of Horse and Foot on both sides of the River Forth, to impede his landing (which he made no great Haste to do) and among the many comical Inventions of theirs for that Purpose one was, That his zealous Mother came riding to Leith, at the Head of some arm’d Troops, with two Cases of Pistols at her sadle, protesting that she would kill her Son with her own two Hands, if he did venture to land in an hostile Manner.” – The History of the Ancient Noble and Illustrious Family of Gordon from the year 1576 to 1699, vol. ii. p.280. (Edin., 1729.)]

But the ladies of the Covenant did not enjoy a monopoly of this militant form of religious partisanship. Another Amazon, Ann Keith, Lady Methven, as keen in her hatred of Presbytery as the King himself, expressed her feelings with equal violence against the Covenanters. While her husband was away in London, it came to her knowledge that a field meeting was being held on his estate. Lady Methven thereupon assembled a force of sixty armed men, and proceeded to charge the conventicler-holders, who were about a thousand strong. With less valour than discretion the Covenanters retired before the attack of this infuriated lady, who celebrated her victory by attending a service at the parish church with her triumphant force. [“My blessed love” (she wrote to her husband of this occasion), “if the fanaticks chance to kill me, it shall not be for noucht  … in the strength of the Lord God of Heaven, I’ll hazard my person with the men of my command, before these rebells rest where ye have power; sore I miss yow, but now mor as ever.” Scott’s Works, vol. xix. Pp.270-1.] Another anti-Covenanting woman, whose husband had been ordered to appear before the court at Glasgow on a charge of attending conventicles, presented herself before the astonished judges and begged them to pass sentence of death upon him. “He is a rebel!” she declared with fervour; “hang him, my lords!” The judges, however, on discovering that it was the culprit’s wife who was making this frantic appeal for his punishment, ordered his name to be scored out of the roll of misdemeanants. “That poor man suffers enough already at home!” they said. [Woodrow’s Analecta, vol. ii. p.114.]

As the resistance of the Covenanters grew more strenuous and determined, the authorised persecution became more bitter. Neither the age nor sex of the victims was any security against ill-treatment. [See A Hind Let Loose, by Alexander Shields, p.15. (1687)] In 1681 a pair of youthful martyrs, Isabel Alison and Marion Harvie – the latter a domestic servant – were sentenced to death by the Justiciary for attending field preachings and commenting adversely upon the barbarity of the soldiers. Both, and Napier says, were “amply gifted with godliness, and the grace of unshaken obstinacy.” [Life and Times of John Graham of Claverhouse, vol, i. p.303. ] On the scaffold they joined in singing the Thirteenth Psalm, thereby drowning the voice of the curate who had been ordered to preach to them. Marion assured the assembled multitude that she was dying with a light heart. “I am come here today,” she said, “for avowing Christ to be head of His Church. O seek Him and ye shall find him! I sought Him and found Him; I held Him, and would not let Him go!”

In 1685 we read of six women being branded and transported to New Jersey for a similar offence. [Woodrow’s History of the Sufferings of the Church, vol, iv. P.218.] This same year saw the tragic death of the two wretched women, Margaret McLauchlin and Margaret Wilson, now known to fame as the Wigtown martyrs.

Margaret Wilson was the elder of the two daughters of Gilbert Wilson, a Lowland farmer of moderate means. He himself had agreed to conform to the Established Church, but both his daughters resolutely declined to do so. As was customary in such cases, the authorities visited the sins of the children upon the father by quartering a large body of troops upon his farm, in whose hands the unfortunate man saw his stock rapidly disappearing, and was finally reduced to beggary. Meanwhile, Margaret, a girl of eighteen, and her small sister Agnes, who was five years younger, ran away from home and lay for some time concealed in the woods near Wigtown. Here they were eventually found by an informer, and presently dragged before the local military tribunal. Gilbert Wilson succeeded in persuading the authorities to reprieve his youngest daughter on payment of a fine of £100. but Margaret was condemned to death, in spite of all her father’s efforts on her behalf. Margaret McLauchlin was an elderly widow of humble rank, whose crime of non-conformity had gained for her a sentence similar to that of her younger co-religionist.

Mark Napier, the self-constituted apologist for the official brutalities inflicted at this time, ingenuously remarks that “a humane order had been issued by the Privy Council that women, if condemned to death, were to suffer simply by drowning, and neither to be hanged nor mangled.” [The Case for the Crown in re the Wigtown Martyrs, by Mark Napier, p.83. (1863.)] But it may be wondered whether the victims themselves were ever sufficiently appreciative of such humanity.

On the day appointed for their execution the two women were led down together to the banks of the Solway and bound to stakes set in the sand on the seashore where the incoming tide would gradually rise and suffocate them. In order to frighten the younger woman – perhaps with a merciful idea of terrifying her into renouncing her obstinate religious opinions and thus gaining a reprieve – she was fastened to a stake nearer the shore than her companion, whose slow struggle with death she was consequently compelled to watch. The sight did not, however, have the desired effect of cooling her ardour; if anything, it seems to have strengthened her convictions. When the waters finally overwhelmed the first victim, Margaret Wilson was asked what she thought of such a fate. “What do I see but Christ wrestling there?” she replied. “Ye think that we are sufferers? No. It is Christ in us, for He will send none a warfare of his own charge.” By this time the waves had risen rapidly about her, and when they reached her lips she fainted away. Whereupon the brutes who had charge of the execution unloosed her from the stake and revived her, bidding her, as a last hope of pardon, pray for the King. Margaret answered that she prayed for all men, since she desired the salvation of all. Some of her friends now approached and earnestly begged her to say “God save the King!” “God save him if He will,” she replied, “for it is his salvation that I desire.” The officer in command, Major Windram by name, then asked her to take the oath, but she stoutly refused. “I am one of Christ’s children,” she declared, “Let me go!” Seeing that it was useless to argue with her any further, the soldiers thrust her back into the water and held her down with their spears until she was drowned. The martyrdom of these two women – of whom it may truly be said that

“Persecution dragged them into fame
And chased them up to heaven”

- is commemorated by two monuments erected in their memory. [The one at Wigtown, in the form of a cone-shaped pillar supporting an urn, is inscribed as follows:-

            “Here lyes Margaret Lachlane, who was by unjust law sentenced to dye by Lagg, surnamed Grier, Strachane, Winram, and Grame, and tyed to a stake within the flood for her adherence to Scotland’s Reformation Covenants, National and Solemn League, aged 63, 1685.”

The other monument, to the memory of Margaret Wilson, is at Stirling, and bears the inscription:-
















Almost synchronously with the date on which the Wigtown martyrs were executed, another woman in an equally humble sphere of life displayed a spirit as courageous as theirs, though under somewhat different circumstances. Isobel Weir was the second wife of John Brown, and Ayrshire peasant, a carrier by profession and the mildest and most harmless of men. She and her husband had been married in 1682 by Alexander Peden. This famous minister had taken the opportunity of including in his address to the bride a prophecy which was scarcely calculated to promote the cheerfulness of the wedding ceremony. “Isobel,” he said, “you have got a good man to be your husband, but you will not enjoy him long. Prize his company, and keep linen by you to be his winding-sheet, for you will need it when you are not looking for it, and it will be a bloody one.” (While admiring the prophetic instinct of Mr. Peden, one may be truly thankful that the clergy of the present day are not addicted to interspersing such remarks into the marriage service.)

Three years later, as John Brown was returning home one evening, he was arrested by Claverhouse’s troopers, and led back to his own house, where his wife and children were awaiting him. The bloodthirsty “Clavers,” who was present, expressed his intention of having the carrier shot at once, but gave the doomed man a few moments to prepare himself for death. Three times did the soldier interrupt Brown in his loud and somewhat protracted devotions, saying that he had given him time to pray, not to preach. “Sir,” answered the condemned man, “you know neither the nature of preaching nor praying if you call this preaching.” Then, turning to his wife, he reminded her of Peden’s gloomy warning, and asked her if she were willing to part with him. “I am heartily willing,” said she. “This is all I desire,” replied her husband, “I have nothing more to do but to die.” He then gave her his blessing, commended his children to her care, and placed himself at the disposal of the dragoons. These men, touched no doubt by so affecting a scene, showed signs of nervousness and seemed unwilling to murder their prisoner. But Claverhouse, whether because he feared that his troopers might bungle the execution, or in the interests of military discipline, drew his pistol and himself shot Brown through the head.

“What do you think of your husband now?” he brutally inquired of Isobel as she knelt over the dead body.

“I aye thocht muckle o’ him, sir,” she replied. “But never sae muckle as I do this day.”

“I would think little to lay thee beside him!”

“If you were permitted, sir, I doubt not you would; but how are ye to answer for this morning’s work?”

“To men I can be answerable,” said Clavers, “and as for God, I will take him in my own hands!”

Mark Napier has drawn a flattering portrait of Graham of Claverhouse, in which that general appears as a polished scholar, a gallant soldier, and a gentleman engaged in an unpleasant duty which he performed with firmness but tolerance. [The bravest commander, and one of the most distinguished and proudest gentlemen who graced the highest society in those days.”- Life and Times of John Graham of Claverhouse, vol. i. p.11.]   Doubtless Graham’s methods were not those of that notorious persecutor, Sir Robert Grierson, laird of Lagg, who held burning matches between the fingers of mere girls in order to make them divulge the whereabouts of their fathers and brothers. Nor was he a murderous ruffian like General Dalziel, who thrust women into pits filled with toads and snakes because they were loyal to their persecuted kinsmen or supplied hunted refugees with food. But if the story of Isobel Weir be true – and doubts have been cast upon it – one must admit that Macauley’s picture [“A soldier of distinguished courage and professional skill, but rapacious and profane, of violent temper and of obdurate heart [who] has left a name which, wherever the Scottish race is settled on the face of the globe, is mentioned with a peculiar energy of hatred.”] of the famous Dundee is more likely to be a correct one that that of his biographer. Sir Walter Scott does not seem able to make up his mind as to the character of the “bloody Clavers.” At one moment he calls him “fierce, unbending, and rigorous,” and declares that “no emotion of compassion prevented his commanding and witnessing every detail of military execution against the nonconformists.” [Border Minstrelsy, vol. ii. p.62.] At another we find him telling a friend that Graham was “every inch a soldier and a gentleman.” [Lockhart’s Life of Scott.] And in Old Mortality [Vol. ii. p54.] he says that he “united the seemingly inconsistent qualities of courage and cruelty, a disinterested and devoted loyalty to his prince, with a disregard of the rights of his fellow-subjects.”

Sir Walter was not at all disinclined to ridicule the Covenanters and laugh at the rigour of the extreme Calvinists, though his sympathetic drawing of the blind widow, Bessie MacClure, sitting in her blue gown by the wayside to warn the hillfolk, makes amends for a few unjust caricatures. No doubt there was many a Gabriel Kettledrummle, many a Habakuk Mucklewraith, in the camp of the Covenanters. [Lord Cockburn in his Journal (vol. ii. p.80) gives an example of the survival of the old covenanting spirit. A poor woman, named Jenny Fraser, occupied a few yards of ground in one of the Duke of Buccleuch’s parishes in Edinburgh, which, it was discovered, were not his, but hers, “being the only spot in that inconvenient condition.” Jenny was offered a huge price for it, but declined, saying, “Na, na. It cam’ frae the Lord, an’ the Lord wants’t again he shall hae’t,” A Free Church was eventually erected on this site.] But the religious enthusiasts of Scotland were not all grim fanatics, devoid of humour and with the narrowest sense of right and wrong. Even in those serious time people could be good without being gloomy. John Knox himself sometimes spoke scornfully of the fair sex, and might well be considered an ascetic. But he, too, as we know from Stevenson, relied very largely upon the sympathy of women, and was in the habit of giving small but by no means unconvivial supper-partied to his friends. Even when he was dying, and some guests turned up unexpectedly, he insisted on trying to join them at table, and ordered a hogshead of wine in the cellar to be broached. The first two martyrs of the Covenant, Dr. James Guthrie and the Marquis of Argyll, were broad-minded men, humorous and without prejudice. “I could die like a Roman,” were the latter’s last words, “but I choose rather to die like a Christian.” And Guthrie, on the eve of his execution, ordered a supper of cheese, a dish which his doctors had long forbidden him, remarking with a smile that he was now well beyond the hazard of all earthly diseases. [See Our Scots Reformers and Covenanters, by the Right Hon. Lord Guthrie, p.13.]

It is not to be wondered at if the dangers to which the Covenanters were hourly exposed, the atmosphere of suspicion and persecution in which they dwelt, the very scenery which surrounded their secret field meetings, engendered a spirit of enthusiasm bordering upon fanaticism. In some cases this took the form of hysterical frenzy, which impressed the devout, but only moved the unbeliever to mirth. In 1638, for instance, we read of one Margaret Mitchelson becoming subject to “fits of distraction” [Napier’s Montrose and His Times, vol. i. p.530.] which had the effect of throwing her face downwards on her bed, where she spoke in favour of the Covenanters with such eloquence that her hearers wept. Bishop Burnet frankly calls her an “impostress,” but we find that “many of the nobility and ministry and well-affected Christians thronged to hear her, being wonderfully moved with her speeches.” [MS. In the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh: A True Relation of the Bishops in Introducing of the Service Book, etc.] They listened attentively to the ravings of one whom they regarded as the mouthpiece of God, declaring that it was the height of bad manners to interrupt their Maker. A selection of her prophecies, taken down by “such as were skilful in brachygraphy,” and headed with a notice to the effect that on such and such a day “Mrs. Mitchelson gloriously spoke as follows,” fell into the hands of the sceptical Earl of Airth. He facetiously altered the word “gloriously” to “gowkedly” (or foolishly), and became, in consequence, so unpopular that he narrowly escaped stoning in the public street.

As a rule the Covenanters were simple, quiet, unassuming folk, whose one desire was to be let alone to worship their God in their own way in accordance with the faith of their fathers. It is a great mistake to suppose that they were chiefly recruited from among the poorer classes of the community. This popular error is due, perhaps, to the fact that it was a poor market-woman, Jenny Geddes, who inaugurated the revolt against the prelacy by hurling her stool at the head of the Dean of Edinburgh. [It may be noted that she subsequently contributed the materials of her stall to the bonfire lighted in honour of the King’s coronation.] As a matter of fact, the labouring classes and peasantry were as often as not as hostile to the Covenanters. The latter were generally well-educated and well-to-do, county gentlefolk, farmers, and their wives. They had much to lose in the way of property and comfort, but they gladly risked all in this great national cause. On the womenfolk the ceaseless persecution fell with especial weight. Some, like Lady Earlston, who wrote the famous Soliloquies, shared their husbands’ imprisonment, being subjected to the same rigorous confinement, though they did not suffer the ignominy of being kept in irons. Some, again, were stripped of their property and turned out of their homes by the villainous Dalziel, as was the case with the wife of William Mure of Caldwell, afterwards imprisoned for three years in a damp cell at Blackness. [It is satisfactory to note that Lady Caldwell was subsequently restored, and after the Revolution, Dalziel’s grandson was forced to return the Caldwell estates to their lawful owners.] Others, Lady Campbell of Auchinleck, Lady Douglas of Cavers, Lady Greenhill, and many more, lived in a perpetual state of panic, while their husbands played an endless game of hide-and-seek with the indefatigable Clavers.

The fate of the Covenanters very often lay in the hands of their womenfolk. It was owing to the cleverness of his stepdaughter, Lady Sophia Lindsay, who smuggled a page’s costume into his cell, that Archibald, 9th Earl of Argyll, escaped from his prison in the Castle of Edinburgh in 1681. His father, the old marquis, could have gained his liberty by a similar ruse, and even went so far as to change clothes with his devoted wife, had not his spirit rebelled at the last moment against the adoption of so ignominious a method of flight.

But perhaps the story of Sir Patrick Hume supplies as good an example of feminine fearlessness as any other, his escape being largely due to the devotion of his favourite daughter, Grisell. The tale of heroism with which her name is indissolubly connected, gives her the right to rank high among the Scottish heroines of the past.

Few women have been called upon to display such courage as was demanded of Grisell Hume from childhood; still fewer have spent themselves so unceasingly or so successfully in the cause of patriotism and filial duty. She lived in an age when, as we have seen, the rights of minorities were unrecognised, when the law was invariably on the side of the party in power, when independence of thought and freedom of speech were looked upon a treasonable, and the name of reformer was synonymous with that of rebel. Her childhood was spent in an atmosphere of political stress and social turmoil, with the shadow of the prison and the still darker silhouette of the scaffold in the background of her landscape, ever threatening the peace and happiness of her home. The peculiar circumstances in which her early life was passed, the hardships she underwent and the adventures she experienced, combined to strengthen a naturally strong character. She was, indeed, provided with many opportunities of proving that intrepid spirit of optimism which was her most priceless possession, and to which her family owed so much of their subsequent welfare.

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