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The Covenanters

It is difficult to live where we do in Scotland and not be aware of the Covenanters - there are
memorials on the hill tops and at the site of battles; a Covenanters' flag is kept safe in the parish
church of Drumclog; there are solitary grave stones to be found unexpectedly when out walking
hereabouts - like the one near Dunsyre. That particular Covenanter asked to be buried high
enough up so that the hills of his native Galloway could be seen on a clear day. The grandparents
of two of John's keyboard pupils live on the farm where a Covenanter of note, Donald Cargill,
was captured before his trial and execution in Edinburgh. Local congregations, including the one
for which John plays the organ, every year walk over the hills to hold services at sites of special
significance to the Covenanters.

At first glance the Covenanters might seem to be a narrow minded group of religious fanatics -
and some undoubtedly were. But this could not be said about the three women of this story
and of countless others like them. To put it at its simplest, they could not and would not
acknowledge that any human being was the head of the church - no matter that it was the king -
for only Jesus Christ was Lord. And they wished to worship in their own way - as had been
promised by the king - and rely on simple, direct teaching from Scripture.

But the "authorities"- both church and state - thought differently.
Persecution took place and battles were fought all through the latter half of the 17th century -
at Drumclog the Covenanters were victorious, at Bothwell Bridge they were defeated.
Heavy fines were imposed and whole communities suffered but still the Covenanters met together
for worship, not in church buildings but out in the hills, in what became known as Conventicles.
(Some descendants of Covenanters today still have their children baptised, not in a church,
but at a "Covenanters' Stone".)

Those who lived in Galloway, in Southwest Scotland bore the brunt of the persecution culminating
in the "Killing Years" which began in the autumn of 1684 and continued all through 1685.
That was the year when King Charles 2nd died and his brother James succeeded him.
The Covenanters thought things would improve but in fact they worsened and this was when
the two Margarets died.

The Covenanters compiled a document stating what they believed

- that the Lord Jesus was head of the church and that,
therefore, King Charles did not have the power to make them worship in the way he wished;
- that is was wrong to kill those whose religious beliefs did not conform.

That was on 8th November 1684 and by 22nd of the same month a furious government had passed
an Act that required everyone to declare publicly that they did not agree in any way with the
Covenanters. This was the infamous Abjuration Oath, which the women refused to swear.

Ironically it was when King James brought in his Acts of Tolerance and Indulgence which were
designed to help the Catholic Church - and these were extended to other non-conformists -
that the persecution eased off.

Many of the Covenanters would probably have been difficult people to live with - and some
undoubtedly were fanatics - but we in Scotland owe them a debt of gratitude for the freedom
in church matters that the Church of Scotland enjoys today.

Several copies of the original Covenant, signed in 1645, still exist. They are huge vellum document
being some 3 feet (1 m.) wide and 6 feet (2 m.)long. The top half consists of the tightly written clauses
of the Covenant - ranging from those requesting religious freedom, to those requesting that the Scottish Parliament should still meet in Edinburgh.(After the Act of Union this did not happen for
almost 300 years until the Scottish Parliament was re-convened on 1st May 1999.)
The lower half of the Covenant is the list of the original signatories.
One of the Covenant copies is owned by a girls school and recently put on display there.
Almost all the students took the opportunity to view it during its brief appearance for safekeeping
(there was no compulsion to do so!) and were amazed that the list of names could easily have been a present day roll call for the school.

© copyright: Elizabeth Tolson 1st November 1999

Three Women Called Margaret
Background | Covenanters | Conclusion
Margaret MacLachlan | Margaret Wilson | Margaret Maxwell

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