The Auld Kirk has many links with the timelines of British history and one of these links is with the Covenanters and the “Killing Times”.
Two main turning points in Scottish history were the Reformation of 1560, and the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England in 1603 through James VI of Scotland. The first gave Scotland a protestant church, the second saw a Scottish monarch inherit the English throne, and although both countries were protestant, the major difference in their protestant face was that in England the church recognised the monarch as its supreme head on earth with royal power being controlled through powerful bishops acting as the crown’s agents. Meanwhile in Scotland, with the recent problems of Mary, Queen of Scots being a catholic and a protestant regency for James VI, the church was able to evolve free from state control, but the state did feel that it needed to restore its authority and that’s when all the trouble began.
Note –Today Her Majesty the Queen is still the head of the Church of England but is only a member of the Church of Scotland and as such has no control over the Church of Scotland Assembly.
James VI did not try to disguise the reforming of Scotland’s church into an anglicised way. He was an absentee monarch to Scotland and only visited Scotland once between 1603 and 1625. It was not until Charles I came to the throne that he was more determined than his father and expected absolute power from all nobles and landowners in Scotland. Charles thought the Scots an unmannerly lot and saw himself as a semi divine figure and this the Scots could not accept. He tried to push the book of Canons on to the Church of Scotland by using his royal prerogative and slowly he was trying to diminish the Church of Scotland by interfering with worship and theologian beliefs.
The next step was the new book of prayer. This was introduced on Sunday 23rd July 1637 to Edinburgh and in simple terms it caused a riot. The famous tale of Jenny Geddes throwing her stool in St. Giles Cathedral comes from this era. It is a very interesting fact that when the National Covenant was travelling around the country to be signed, some women managed to sign the document but generally speaking women were not encouraged to put their name to it. The Covenant was put on public display in Greyfriars Church and over 60,000 people signed supporting Presbyterian ideas but also swearing allegiance to the crown. Effectively putting your name to this Covenant was like signing your own death sentence. The “killing times” had started. The whole country was now up in arms and it would seem like that for the next 50 years until the Glorious Revolution when William and Mary came to the throne.
As people now gathered together for prayer meetings or conventicles as they were called, throughout the countryside soldiers were sent out to find them in order that they attend the King’s churches. These soldiers were garrisoned in the towns and castles. Many a person was hunted down, their fields and homes burned and their belongings thrown out and disposed of. Many a husband was killed in front of his family. Fines were imposed, some imprisoned and others banished from their homeland and sent to America. Many of the covenanters grouped together and marched to Edinburgh only to be defeated but in other instances were victorious especially at Drumclog in Lanarkshire. No one seemed to be safe.
After one of the battles at Rullion Green many noblemen were appointed to hold courts to assess the guilt of these covenanters. Ayr became one of these courts and there duly came 12 men from the battlefield. It was decided that 8 would be hanged in Ayr, 2 in Irvine and 2 in Dumfries. Here the problems began. The local hangman refused to take the men to their deaths and left the district quickly. The hangman in Irvine was asked to come to Ayr and hang the men but he too refused. He was thrown into the tollbooth but stood up to his convictions and was eventually set free. The authorities did not know what to do, and then the idea came up that if they could have one of the 8 prisoners take on the responsibility of hanging his fellow covenanters he could be set free. For a time the men refused before one Cornelius Anderson, a tailor from Ayr said he would do the deed. So on the 27th December 1666 seven men were led out of the tollbooth to the town gibbet. The townsfolk gathered there to watch the scene and Anderson was so nervous that he was plied with drink beforehand to help him get through the executions. The 7 men went to their deaths, hung by Anderson. These men were laid to rest in the Auld Kirk graveyard looking over the river Ayr after going through the ritual of having their heads and hands removed and displayed in a public place as a reminder to others. Anderson moved on to Irvine and hung the two there and then he was set free. He went to Ireland but became a sad and demented man. He died in a house fire possibly as an act of suicide but it was never proved that this was the case.
Today you can go down to the riverside and look at the headstone of the 7 martyrs which was erected by the Incorporated Trades of Ayr. It reads:-
Here lie seven Martyrs for our Covenants,
A sacred number of triumphant Saints,
Pontius McAdam the unjust Sentence past,
What is his own the world will know at last,
And Herod Drummond caus’d their Heads affix,
Heav’n keeps a record of the sixty-six.
Boots, thumbkins, gibbets were in fashion then,
LORD, let us never see such Days again.
The men who died were: James Smith, Alexander MacMillan, James Mcmillan, John Short, George MacCartney, John Graham and John Muirhead who all belonged to the south west of Scotland.
Ayr continued to be involved in the Covenanting times with many groups of soldiers being billeted in the town and helping themselves to whatever they could steal. There were other hangings and in 1684 the heritors of the county were summoned to Ayr to appear before a court in the Auld Kirk to await their destiny for their involvement in the covenanting. Some were fined and others freed. One name notoriously linked with the killing times was John Graham of Claverhouse, who was given the Freedom of the Burgh of Ayr.
There are many places in Ayrshire that have Covenanting links, too many to list here. One other church to visit is Fenwick, which has a Covenanting flag and where some covenanters found their final resting place in the churchyard. Not far from Fenwick is Lochgoin. Visit the farmhouse which has a great collection of Covenanting artefacts. Visit the National Museum of Scotland and see Rev. Alexander Peden’s mask and there are many books to be found on the subject. There is also the Scottish Covenanter Memorials Association who looks after all the memorials – memorials to these who died for the freedom of their faith.