John Barbour from the 14th century once said:'Freedome is a noble thing.' Usually it comes at a great price; such has often been the case in Scottish history. How true this was for this nation in the 17th century!

Exactly one hundred years to the very day after the six had been martyred by fire on Edinburgh’s Castlehill, a document was signed by Christian leaders in Edinburgh called the National Covenant on 28th February, 1638. It was a long document, portions of which say the following:

‘We all and every one of us under written protest, that after long and due examination of our own consciences in matters of true and false religion, are now thoroughly resolved in the truth by the Word and Spirit of God, and therefore we believe with our hearts, confess with our mouths, subscribe with our hands, and constantly affirm before God and the whole world, that this only is the true Christian faith and religion pleasing to God and bringing salvation to man, that is now by the mercy of God revealed to the world by the preaching of the blessed Gospel, and is now received, believed and defended by many and sundry notable kirks and realms, but chiefly by the kirk of Scotland, the King’s majesty, and three estates of this realm, as God’s eternal truth and only ground of our salvation… And therefore we abhor and detest all contrary religion and doctrine, but chiefly all kind of Papistry in general... We protest and promise solemnly with our hearts under the same oath, handwritten and with pain, that we shall defend His Person (i.e. God) and authority with our goods, bodies, and lives in defence of Christ’s Gospel, liberty of our country, administration of justice, and punishment of wickedness, against all enemies within this realm or without, as we desire our God to be strong and merciful defender to us in the day of our death and coming of our Lord Jesus to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory eternally, Amen.’ 1

Much of the Covenant document lists the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, such as praying to the saints and angels and trusting in our good works for eternal salvation, rather than in Christ. As such, it shows a very real concern that Scotland might be brought back under papal tyranny and lose its freedom gained through the Reformation. But how did it come to this?

Charles I, supported by his Anglo-Catholic Archbishop, William Laud, came up to Scotland for his belated coronation, created a hierarchy of bishops and turned St Giles’ Kirk into a cathedral. He also later issued a book of canons reaffirming his own authority as Head of the Scottish Church. The final straw was when he forced the Scottish people to have an Anglicised Prayer Book.

When it was read in St Giles’ in 1637 a riot broke out, and in the following year the National Covenant was signed by Scottish leaders who were concerned that King Charles’ policies were to bring back the nation to papal tyranny.

The Covenant was actually signed inside Greyfriars Kirk in the area of the Grassmarket by the barons and nobles. The following day it was signed by the clergy and merchants in the Tailors’ Hall in the Cowgate, after which copies were signed in churches throughout Edinburgh and Scotland. In 1640 a Scottish Parliament met without authorisation of the King, and this was seen as open defiance and rebellion; this led to the outbreak of the Civil War between King Charles I and the Royalists,and the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell from England, who forged an alliance with the Scottish Covenanters.

After Charles I was executed, the Scots proclaimed Charles II as the new king and he was crowned at Scone after signing the National Covenants (there were two by now). This angered Cromwell who wanted no royal authority at all, even if it followed a Reformed position, and Civil War came to Scotland between Cromwell and the Covenanters. Charles II was enthroned in London and promptly forgot about his allegiance to the National Covenant, and decided that he would become the Head of the Church of Scotland.

He declared private gatherings (‘Conventicles’) of Christians unlawful and began persecuting the Church. From 1670 onwards any minister caught preaching in these gatherings would be executed. Thus began the ‘Killing Times’ in which over 18,000 Covenanters perished, over a hundred of them being executed here in Edinburgh. Some of them were executed for taking an armed stand for freedom of speech; most were murdered for simply practising their faith.

Many are the tales of the Covenanters. It was a brave but sad period of Scottish history. Often a Christian’s only crime was to be at a prayer meeting or to be found with a Bible; regularly the soldiers shot them on the spot for these unlawful things. James White was caught at a prayer meeting near Kilmarnock and the soldiers shot him, then the Captain cut off his head with an axe and used his head as a makeshift ‘football’ on the grass.

In Wigton Bay Margaret Milliken and Margaret Wilson were tied with ropes and staked into the sand to be drowned by the incoming tide. In 1686 David Steel was caught at his farmhouse by soldiers who said he would have a fair trial. Instead they took him outside and blew off his head with their guns in front of his wife and child, and left his poor wife, Mary, to pick up the pieces of his head in a cloth. She cried out:

‘The archers have shot at thee, my husband, but they could not reach thy soul; it has escaped like a dove far away, and is at rest.’ 2

Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll, was led to his execution by guillotine in the Edinburgh Grassmarket in 1661. On the scaffold he told the crowd: ‘I had the honour to place the crown upon the king’s brow; now he hastens me away to a better crown than his own.’ 3

Stooping to kiss the guillotine, which in those days was called ‘The Maiden’, he said: ‘That’s the sweetest maiden I’ve ever kissed!’ And then he was executed and his severed head impaled on a pole at Mercat Cross on the Royal Mile as a warning to others.

The Revd James Guthrie tried everything to bring about peace, but as he would not compromise his faith he was executed, and his head was driven onto a spike on the Netherbow Port (the city gates next to John Knox’s House) and displayed there for 27 years. Often the Covenanters’ hands and heads were placed there in a mock position of prayer.

John Wharry went cheerfully to his death. He put his head on the block but the executioner told him he wanted his right hand. Wharry called out: ‘I am most willing to lay down my neck, hand and any other limbs of my body for the cause of Christ.’ 4

After his hand had been cut off he held up his bloody stump to the crowd and shouted jubilantly: 'This blood now seals our Covenant!'

The Revd Alexander Peden was regarded as a prophet and would often predict events accurately. He was continually hunted by the soldiers and tales of his escapes are legion. Sometimes he would use disguises, like wigs, or sometimes God would warn him of traps and so he would avoid being caught.

Miracles occurred at his open air meetings. He was leading a Conventicle in the Carrick Hills when soldiers came upon the believers. Suddenly from a clear sky a thick mist appeared from nowhere and surrounded the Covenanters so they could escape.

In his old age Peden often hid in a cave near Ochiltree and people sought him out for counsel and prayer; sometimes he would prophesy over them. He died of natural causes but the soldiers were so angry that he had died before execution that they dug him up after 40 days and buried him instead at the foot of a gallows tree.

Not all of the Covenanters lived peaceably. Many thought it was their duty to defend freedom of speech with arms and several battles ensued. The last one, the Battle of Bothwell Brig in 1679, was a great tragedy. They were defeated and the 1400 survivors were rounded up and taken to a makeshift prison next to Greyfriars Kirk, where the National Covenant had been signed. Crowded in what has been called the ‘world’s first concentration camp’, many died of suffocation. The rest were either executed or sold into slavery, where most perished in a shipwreck.

Finally, in 1688, with the arrival of William of Orange, ‘The Glorious Revolution’ ensured the freedom of speech and religion that the Covenanters had longed for.

Today, if you visit the Grassmarket or Greyfriars Kirk, do pause for a minute by their monuments, and reflect on the Covenanters. Freedom is indeed a noble thing, and very costly.


  1. Steele, Alan J., The National Covenant in its Historical Setting, p. 14-17, © 2003, published by the Society of Friends of the Kirk of the Greyfriars. [back]
  2. Love, Dane, Scottish Covenanter Stories: Tales from the Killing Times, p. 221, Neil Wilson Publishing © 2005. [back]
  3. Ibid., p. 2. [back]
  4. Ibid., p. 99-100. [back]