The name Covenanter derives from the Scottish people who signed the National Covenant of 1638. In doing this they were effectively refusing to accept the belief of the Stuart kings – the so-called Divine right of the Monarch – that the spiritual Head of the Kirk was the king. These Scots knew only one head of the Kirk – and that was Jesus Christ. No man, not even a king, could claim that right. Stuart kings wished to replace the Scots Presbyterian form of religion with English Episcopalianism, in order to control the populace through bishops and this was strongly resented. For instance James VI of Scotland (and I of England) opined that “Nae bishops – Nae King”.
This was the nub of the Covenanting struggle. The Scots were, and would have been, loyal to the Stuart dynasty but for that vital sticking point. The National Covenant included an expression of such loyalty. Very many Scots signed the Covenant, and from 1638 until 1688 many sanctions, persecutions and punishments, were the weapons used in an attempt to quell this “rebellion”. Hundreds of Ministers were “outed” from their parishes, because they refused to conduct Episcopalian church services. Fines, torture, executions, transportation to the colonies, mutilation, even murder were commonplace. As a result, very many graves and memorials of the Covenanters are to be found across much of Scotland. Daniel Defoe reported to the Parliament in London, that “above 18,000 people have suffered the utmost extremities their enemies could inflict”.
The above paragraphs refer to the national situation. But when we focus on individual districts, we begin to appreciate just how cruel and unbending were the authorities on ordinary people. The township of Cumnock was at the centre of an area which was determined to cling to its Presbyterian religion. Many of its inhabitants suffered as a result. The Privy Council records of that time reveal that many Cumnockians were listed as “forfeited”, – that is, they were liable to arrest and imprisonment or worse! In other words, they were outlaws, and many had to leave their homes, and live as fugitives. Let us look at some of the people who were martyred for their religious beliefs in the Cumnock district. If we travel to the old graveyard on Barrhill Road, we can view the graves of four Covenanters, just to the left of the gateway.
Peden the Prophet
Pedens EnclosureThe most famous of the local Covenanters was the Rev Alexander Peden who, despite not having been put to death, was nevertheless a victim of persecution, and harassment for most of his adult life. For a period of several years he was incarcerated on the bleak Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. His life was probably curtailed by the many privations and the cold, suffered as he wandered the country, preaching (illegally) the doctrines of the Presbyterian Kirk. Peden has the doubtful distinction of being buried twice! He died in Auchinleck Parish but, the dragoons who had been unsuccessful in capturing him – having got to hear of his burial in Auchinleck Kirkyard, dug up his body after six weeks, and transported it to Cumnock, with the aim of hanging it in chains on the gibbet. They were prevented from doing this, but they buried his body in the shadow of the scaffold – a terrible insult to the memory of a holy man, whose name will always be associated with the history of the Covenanters. This is the reason for the phrase on his gravestone inscription, “Buried here out of contempt”. His burial place was once the place of execution in Cumnock.
Close to Peden’s grave is the resting place of Thomas Richard, an 80-year-old Muirkirk farmer, who was executed for giving shelter and food to fugitive Covenanters. His inscription tells us that he was shot, – this was probably by a firing squad under the command of Colonel James Douglas.
Dun and Paterson
Behind the Richard stone are two stones marking the graves of David Dun and Simon Paterson. One stone is the original marker, but is now badly eroded. The other is a recently crafted duplicate stone, commissioned by the Scottish Covenanter Memorials Association. Dun and Paterson were captured, while returning from a Conventicle, brought to Cumnock, and shot near their present resting place by a party of Highlanders in 1685. Conventicles were Presbyterian religious services, held in private homes, barns, or remote open-air sites. They were declared illegal by the authorities, and attendance at such services was ordained as a capital offence. The ministers who conducted these services were mainly those who had been outed from their parishes in 1662.
A few miles south-west of the above stones, Corsegellioch Hill overlooks our township. In a hollow, on top of this now-afforested hill, stands a large memorial to three Covenanters, who were shot without trial in 1685. They were Joseph Wilson, John Jamieson and John Humphrey and they had been attending a Conventicle in Galloway, where the Rev. James Renwick had preached, and were resting on their return journey. Discovered by a party of Highlanders, they were instantly put to death. Buried by sympathizers on the spot where they fell, their bodies were unearthed 142 years later, when digging commenced to erect the present monument. The bodies were very well preserved, due to the antiseptic qualities of the peaty ground.
Two miles east of Cumnock, on the farm of Wee Auchengibbert, stands a memorial to John McGeachan, Covenanter. McGeachan’s Stane stands in the middle of a fairly small field which goes under the name of Stonepark. McGeachan was tenant of the nearby farm, Meikle Auchengibbert, and he, along with local Covenanters, had planned to carry out an audacious attack on a company of dragoons. These redcoats were escorting a captured Presbyterian minister, the Rev. David Houston, from Ireland where he had been apprehended, to Edinburgh, for trial and probable execution. They broke their journey at Cumnock, and spent the night in the Blue Tower Inn. The local Covenanters got to hear of this and resolved to rescue the captive minister on the morrow. On 28th July, 1688, they ambushed the redcoats at the Bello Pass (now “Path”). They were successful in their action, and several royalist soldiers were killed. However, the Rev. Houston was injured. Also injured – mortally so – was John McGeachan. He made his way towards his farm, Meikle Auchengibbert, but was unable to approach it – presumably because the redcoats were scouring the district, looking for the small Covenanter force – and McGeachan was already known as a rebel. He took shelter in a turfed enclosure, in the Stonepark, but died of his wounds a day or so later.
No description of the Covenanting times is fully complete without mention of Old Mortality – the now historic name of Robert Paterson who, some 50 years after the end of the Struggle, commenced to erect and maintain many of the gravestones, marking the last resting-place of Covenanting martyrs. Paterson, was a stone-mason, working from Gatelawbridge Quarry, near Thornhill, Dumfries-shire. He left home in 1758 and, it is said, never returned home to his wife and children for 40 years! He preferred to roam a large part of the country, carrying out his trade, and shaping and erecting simple stones to individual martyrs. His work so inspired Sir Walter Scott, that he wrote the novel Old Mortality, which, later, gave Robert Paterson his name and place in history. He was born near Hawick in 1715, and died at Bankhead of Caerlaverock, where he is buried, in 1801. His devoted work endured that the grave of so many Covenanter martyrs were properly marked and recorded for future generations.
The History of Old Cumnock – Rev John Warrick
The Martyr Graves of Scotland – Rev J H Thomson
Covenanting Pilgrimages and Studies – A. B. Todd
The Scottish Covenanters – Rev. James Barr
A large collection of Covenanting titles, owned by the Scottish Covenanter Memorials Association, is held in the Reference Section of Carnegie Library, Main Street, Ayr, and is available for study in the Library. The Cumnock Covenanting Flag and other covenanting artefacts are in the Baird, 3 Lugar Street, Cumnock, KA18 1AD.
The web-site of the above Memorials Association is :- www.covenanter.org.uk
The Hon Secretary of the Association is:
Dane Love, Lochnoran House, Commondyke, Auchinleck, Ayrshire KA18 3JW
The hard core of the Covenanting movement was in the radical south-west of Scotland. A number of Cumnock men were involved in the Pentland Rising – the Covenanting march from Dumfries via Mauchline, Ochiltree and Cumnock to the debacle of a battle at Rullion Green in 1666. This was followed by repression, and two local men were amongst those who paid for insurrection. Patrick McNaught was indicted in 1667, and George Crawford, a Cumnock weaver, was executed in December 1666.
Unrest in 1678 brought a billeting of some of the Highland Host in the parish. An armed uprising followed, which ended disastrously with the Covenanters` defeat at the battle of Bothwell Brig. Two Cumnock men, John Gemill and James Mirrie, were taken prisoner, incarcerated in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, sentenced to transportation to the American Colonies and drowned – with many others – when their prison ship, The Crown of London, went down off the coast of Orkney.