Anyone familiar with the work of Walter Scott is aware of the importance of the Covenanters in Scottish history. In Old Mortality, published in 1816, the eponymous character lovingly restores the gravestones and monuments erected to commemorate the Covenanters executed by the Stuart regime in the late seventeenth century. ‘Old Mortality’ was based on a real person: an elderly mason from Closeburn, Dumfriesshire, who travelled from grave to grave on a white pony ‘fulfilling a sacred duty’.
By subscribing to the National Covenant (1638) and Solemn League and Covenant (1643), many Scots pledged to uphold the Presbyterian form of church government in Scotland, in defiance of King Charles I. On his return to the throne after the civil war, Charles II re-instituted Episcopalianism and established royal supremacy in church and state. Staunch Covenanters who believed that Jesus Christ was the only head of the church refused to swear the Abjuration Oath, which testified to Charles’ legitimacy. They assembled with arms in the moors and on the hills of the Southern Uplands and declared war against the king. Several were executed by royal forces for their disloyalty.
Memorials marking the graves and celebrating the sacrifices of the Restoration martyrs – many of whom were civilians – can be found all over the southwestern landscape of Scotland; they are the country’s first war memorials. The first batch was erected by the United Societies, the groupings who inherited the Covenanting legacy and who were in many cases directly descended from the original martyrs. In 1701 the General Meeting of the Societies decided to search for the unmarked graves of the dead in order to put ‘signs of honour’ on them. Later that year the Meeting urged that stones were to be made ready with inscriptions as soon as possible. The members of the Societies – who were mostly very humble people – probably constructed each memorial themselves. More monuments – several of which replaced the originals – were erected in the Victorian period, and in 1966 the Scottish Covenanters Memorials Association was established to conserve the relics.
Many of the inscriptions on the stones are faded, the lettering is crude and the information provided is sometimes inaccurate. It is difficult to determine when a stone was erected and who erected it. The memorial to the martyrs at Wigtown was probably erected some years after the alleged drowning of Margaret Wilson and Margaret MacLachlan. The gravestones can’t be used as irrefutable proof of the time and place of executions. They bear witness, it has been argued, only to the lasting appeal of Covenanting folklore, to the enduring desire of local residents to mourn their Covenanting forebears.
But the early memorials also performed a political function. The effort to erect stones was part of a project not only to honour the deceased, but to perpetuate the agenda of the surviving Covenanting movement. They can be read as political texts.
Even after the Revolution of 1688-89, which overthrew the Stuarts and re-instituted Presbyterianism in Scotland, the United Societies remained a menacing presence at the margins of society. They refused to join the mainstream Church of Scotland, since it had failed to adopt the Covenants as its foundational constitution. In 1712 at Auchensaugh, the United Societies renewed the Covenants, declaring their loyalty not to the reigning Queen Anne, but to ‘the lawful supreme magistrate when obtained’. The Societies were armed and, on one occasion at least, threatened to rebel against the British state. The erection of monuments to the martyred dead was another act of political defiance. A letter written by the Societies to a local vandal who had tampered with a gravestone in Nithsdale provides further evidence of the aggressive nature of the Covenanting movement at this period. The letter threatened the perpetrator with violent retribution. The Societies took their gravestones seriously:
We having received information from our friends in Nithsdale how you retaining your old malignity and enmity against the people of God have in pursuance [thereof] adventured to run the risque of meddling with the monument of the dead, demolishing and breaking the gravestone of a sufferer for the cause of Christ which is highly criminal in the eyes of the law, and is more than your neck is worth…And now ye seem to be longing for a visit for your old murthering actions, which if you would evite [invite], we strictly charge and command you, upon your peril to repair that stone…with the same precise motto as well engraven…if it be not done against May day first, which is a sufficient time, we promise to pay you a visit, perhaps to your cost, and if you oblige us you are to assure yourself that your old deeds will be remembered to purpose.
The Societies renewed the Covenants with oral pledges and written documents, but they complemented these actions by erecting gravestones as material records of their continued commitment to Covenant obligations. Several memorials bore inscriptions which referenced Covenant pledges and the righteous nature of armed resistance to unholy tyranny. A stone in Durisdeer commemorated the sacrifice of Daniel McMichael on behalf of ‘Christ’s kingly government’. Indeed, the Societies envisaged that their memorials would be read alongside the Cloud of Witnesses, a collection, published in 1714, of the final speeches delivered by Covenanters on the scaffold. The Societies produced the Cloud of Witnesses not just to pay tribute to the dead but to underline the binding nature of the Covenants in the present and in the future. They hoped that the ‘dying speeches’ would ‘animate all the lovers of the reformed religion, with the like Christian magnanimity and resolution, to stand up for its defence against a Popish, Prelatic, and Jacobitish faction’. In 1711 the General Meeting of the Societies instructed its members to take down copies of the inscriptions on the gravestones within their respective bounds. These inscriptions were then collated for publication in the appendix of the Cloud of Witnesses volume.
The inscription of a stone later erected in Kilmarnock commemorating the death of John Nesbit, points the viewer to the Cloud of Witnesses for more information on Nesbit’s sacrifice for the Covenanting cause.
The gravestones and Witnesses are thus intertextual: the spoken speeches, the written documents and the chiselled gravestones were all constitutive of the Societies’ subversive political testimony. ‘Old Mortality’, Scott tells us, aimed to renew ‘to the eyes of posterity the decaying emblems of the zeal and sufferings of their forefathers’. By physically repairing these gravestones, the concrete statement of the Covenanters’ political ideals, ‘Old Mortality’ trimmed a ‘beacon-light’ for future generations, warning them ‘to defend their religion even unto blood’.
Valerie Wallace is a Lecturer in History at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand/ Aotearoa. She is currently writing a book on Scottish Presbyterianism and reform politics in the early nineteenth-century British Empire. Valerie tweets from @History_Hobo.