By a Highland Minister
Extracted from The Original Secession Magazine, March 1890, and edited, this article was only one of a series of articles in the magazine on the religion of the Highlands of Scotland.
WHILE Covenanters in Northern Scotland were being smitten by the rod of the oppressor in the beginning of 1685, there was a Ross-shire proprietor, Mr John Fraser, the young Laird of Pitcalzean, lying in Newgate prison.
The events which led to his being imprisoned are these: after he finished his arts curriculum at Aberdeen in 1678 he went to London the following year, and remained there for four or five years. He desired to escape the persecution that was so hot in his native land, and to avail himself of the greater facilities for attending in secret on the means of grace, and making progress in theological knowledge, which were afforded in the city.
He lodged in the house of a Baptist minister, whose godly conversation, with that of sundry members of his flock, so delighted him that he felt a strong inclination to join that body of Christians. He consulted his worthy host, who listened with patience to his young friend’s reasoning, and replied: “Mr Fraser, I love you, because I think you love Christ. You love our society because you think God is amongst us, and I trust He is so in truth. But, I must tell you, if we have our beauties we have our blemishes. The congregations of our way are but very few when compared with those in that Church in which you have been educated and brought up. The Church of Scotland, whose principles you have hitherto professed, is at present in the furnace, but the Lord will in due time bring her out of it. You are but young, and should you join yourself to our society your sphere of usefulness must be very small and contracted. You know not as yet what work God may have in reserve for you in your native land, where you may have a large circle to move in. My advice therefore to you is this: forbear at present to join yourself to us. Consider further of the matter, and seek light and direction from the Lord. When you have done so, if you continue still of the same mind, then acquaint me, and I will receive you and embrace you in the arms of love and affection.”
These noble “words of truth and soberness” made a deep impression on the young laird. He took the generous advice, and often said later that he saw much of the hand of God in it, especially when he came afterwards to the work of the ministry in Scotland.
Fraser continued in regular and close attendance upon the meetings of dissenting ministers in London. In 1683 greater severities were brought to bear on nonconformists, and rewards were offered to informers of private meetings or conventicles. On the 11th January 1685, Fraser and a number of others, nearly all Scotsmen, attended a quiet meeting in Foster Lane near the Guildhall. The talented Alexander Shields, author of A Hind Let Loose, was the preacher. Soon after the service began, the house was surrounded by soldiers, and Shields, Fraser, and most of the hearers were made prisoners.
On their being brought before the Lord Mayor, the City Recorder insisted “that special notice should be taken of the criminals because mostly Scotchmen, and more than ordinarily seditious and rebellious against the King’s majesty and his laws”. Some were allowed to leave the court on payment of fines, but ten or twelve, including Shields and Fraser, were sent to Newgate prison, and thrust into a loathsome cell among the vilest of malefactors. After further examination, it was resolved to send them all back to Scotland, to be tried there according to the laws of the kingdom.
About the beginning of March they were manacled two and two as the worst felons, and led through the streets of London. Fraser had the honour of being bound to Shields. In this fashion they were put on board the royal kitchen yacht and conveyed to Leith. Arrived at Edinburgh they were strictly examined by the Privy Council, and as of course they failed to give such answers to the usual ensnaring questions as would satisfy their inquisitors, they were flung into the Edinburgh Tolbooth and the Canongate Tolbooth, both of which were already overcrowded with similar sufferers for conscience’ sake.
After they were imprisoned for a week, tidings reached Edinburgh of the Earl of Argyle’s invasion. The Privy Council consequently decided to send “the prisoners for religion” to Dunnottar Castle, a recently acquired state prison which for security rivalled the Bass. On the 18th of May, towards evening, the doors of the Edinburgh jails were opened, and the surprised inmates, 240 in number and many of them women, were hurried down to Leith, escorted by soldiers. Denied any communication with friends or sympathisers, they were forthwith packed into open boats and landed at Burntisland at daybreak. They were crowded into two rooms of the Burntisland Tolbooth, and shut up for two days and nights without food or water assigned them. Any who would swear the entangling oaths of allegiance and supremacy were sent back to Edinburgh, and about forty in their sore distress complied. The rest were willing to take the oath of allegiance, but they firmly refused to accept the oath of supremacy, as it involved the acknowledgment of an avowed Papist, James VII of Scotland and II of England, to be the head of the Church.
Those were the days of tender consciences. How readily our modern “church leaders” would subscribe the oath, with mental reservations and in a non-natural sense. What would they not swear to retain a whole skin and emoluments? We need not wonder at the want of sympathy with the conscientious scruples of our Covenanting fathers which certain recent Presbyterian writers glaringly display.
With their hands tied with strong cords behind their backs, the prisoners were driven on from Burntisland to Freuchie near Falkland, surrounded by rude unfeeling soldiers who heaped all manner of abuse upon the suffering group. Old women and invalids who lagged behind were beaten and threatened with death for moving on so slowly. They were anxious to hire horses at their own expense, but to this reasonable proposal the merciless drivers would not listen. After a distressful night at Freuchie the prisoners were urged on to the Tay. There, waiting the rising of the tide, they were shut up in three small rooms, and at daybreak ferried across to Dundee, where they were offered a few hours’ rest in the Tolbooth. Here “they were allowed refreshments for their own money.” They were then handed over to the Earl of Strathmore’s regiment and the Angus Militia, and marched on through Forfar and Brechin to North Esk bridge. On that bridge they were forced, weary and faint as they were, to stand or crouch all that tempestuous and cold Saturday night, the soldiers keeping strict guard at both ends. At four o’clock on Sabbath morning (24th May) they resumed their march to Dunnottar, which they reached in the course of the day.
This notorious fortress, the stronghold of the great historic house of the Keiths, Earls Marischal of Scotland, stands on the top of a rock four acres in extent and 160 feet high, overhanging the sea, and separated from the mainland by a deep but dry chasm. It lies about 15 miles south of Aberdeen. The ruins, for the castle was dismantled after the rebellion of 1715, are among the most extensive in Scotland, and the prison vaults still remain as grim memorials of the almost incredible atrocities that indelibly stain the horrible tyranny of the “killing time.” Here, on that sad Sabbath the Covenanters were handed over to the tender mercies of the governor.
What a name of infamy that governor – George Keith of Whiteridge, Sheriff-Depute of the Mearns – bears! The age was fruitful in monsters of “horrid cruelty,” and among them all no one’s claim to be the very elixir of inhumanity is stronger than that of the governor of this Scottish Bastille. We fancy we see this “master-fiend” exultingly superintending the thrusting of 167 men and women into a dark, dank dungeon or vault, fifty-four and three quarter feet long by fifteen and a half feet broad. The floor was covered over with mud or mire ankle deep. There was but one window looking out on the moaning ocean. There was not the slightest provision made for the requirements of decency. “So throng were they in it,” says Wodrow (History, iv. 324), “that they could not sit without leaning one upon another. They had not the least accommodation for sitting, leaning, or lying, and they were stifled for want of air.” There they were, helpless, afflicted, tormented, in a condition of wretchedness resembling, if not exceeding “the horrors of the Black Hole of Calcutta or of the dungeons of Naples” in later generations. In the words of Sir Walter Scott: “Here the prisoners were without distinction packed into a large dungeon. They were allowed neither bedding nor provisions, except what they bought, and were treated by their keepers with the utmost rigour. The walls of this place, still called the Whigs’ Vault, bear token to the severities inflicted on those unhappy persons. There are in particular a number of apertures cut in the wall about a man’s height, and it was the custom, when such was the jailor’s pleasure, that any prisoner who was accounted refractory, should be obliged to stand up with his arms extended and his fingers secured by wedges in the crevices I have described. It appears that some of these apertures or crevices which are lower than the others have been intended for women and even for children. In this cruel confinement, many died, and some were deprived of the use of their limbs by rheumatism and other diseases.”
A row of hooks ran along the roof, and tradition asserts that prisoners who were deemed by their jailors to be refractory were suspended from them by the wrists, while a stool full of iron spikes was placed beneath their feet, so that they had the alternative either of this painful suspension, or piercing their feet should they have sought relief by placing them on the stool. Bread and water were sold to them for their own money. The country people around came in offering to sell victuals, but they were sternly refused access, for the governor’s brother had a monopoly of the provision supply, and he charged exorbitant prices for “very insufficient” food. Even in worshipping God the poor prisoners “were sadly disturbed by the sentinels”.
In the course of a few days the governor removed forty-two of the sufferers to a dungeon, fifteen and a quarter feet by eight and three quarters feet, below the vault. Here there was no window at all: only a small aperture in the wall close to the floor. So stifling was the atmosphere that the sickened inmates used to lie down on the floor by turns to breathe the fresh air rushing in at this opening. Mr John Fraser was one of the separated party. When lying thus on his face breathing in the fresh air, “he contracted a violent cold and dysentery”. A troublesome cough consequently clung to him all his days. Others similarly suffered, and it is a wonder that any of them survived such barbarous treatment.
Undoubted evidence of the dismal condition of the sufferers is supplied by the following Act of the Privy Council. It refers to a petition sent to the Council by the wives of two of the prisoners:
Anent a petition presented by Grizel Cairns and Alison Johnston on behalf of Mr William M’Millan, and Robert Young, wright in Edinburgh, their husbands, and the rest of the prisoners in the Castle of Dunnottar, showing that the petitioners’ said husbands who are under sentence with many others, having been sent prisoners to the said Castle, they are in a most lamentable condition, there being a hundred and ten of them in one vault where there is little or no daylight at all, and, contrary to all modesty, men and women promiscuously together, and forty-two were in another room in the same condition, and no person allowed to come near them with meat or drink, but such meat and drink as scarce any rational creature can live upon, and yet at extraordinary rates, being twenty pennies each pint of ale, which is not worth a plack the pint, and the peck of sandy, dusty meal is afforded them at eighteen shillings the peck, and not so much as a drink of water allowed to be carried to them, whereby they are not only in a starving condition, but must inevitably incur a plague or other fearful diseases, without the Council provide a speedy remedy; and therefore humbly supplicating that warrant might be granted to the effect under-written. The Lords of His Majesty’s Privy Council, having heard and considered the foresaid petition, do hereby continue that part of the desire for liberty till they consider further of the petitioners’ cause; but in the meantime give order and warrant to the deputy-governor of the Castle of Dunnottar, to suffer and permit meat and drink and other necessaries to be brought in to the petitioners by their friends or servants at the ordinary easy rates, and to allow the said Mr William M’Millan and Robert Young a distinct room from the rest; and in regard of the heat of the season of the year, that all the prisoners may be so accommodated without throng that their health be endangered as little as possible.
Good reason had Grizel Cairns to complain. Her husband, a native of Galloway, had been licensed to preach in 1663, and his life ever since had been one of unspeakable hardships. But the Council’s decision “enraged the governor exceedingly”. It seemed an utterly uncalled-for interference with his own and his brother’s vested rights in inhumanity and extortion. He actually tried by threats and promises to induce the prisoners to sign a declaration, “that they were gently treated and wanted not conveniences”, and he was exasperated at their peremptory refusal. The Act seems to have remained a dead letter, but the governor’s wife interposed. She “came in to see the prisoners in the two vaults, and prevailed with her husband to make them a little more easy”. The women, forty-eight in number, were removed from the large vault and had two separate rooms assigned them, while twelve of the inmates of the lower dungeon were allowed a less dismal place of confinement.
Still, they all had much misery to encounter. The vault was becoming daily increasingly loathsome. Only think of nearly a hundred human beings of high respectability, moving up and down for three months in that pestilential den, with the floor covered with inches of the most foul and vile mire. No wonder that some of the strongest of them tried to escape! Twenty-five of them one night succeeded in forcing their way through the window overhanging the sea. They crept along the face of the precipice at the utmost hazard of their lives. Two of them lost their footing, and fell over. The rest might have succeeded in making their escape but for some women at work in the washing-house who noticed the movement and gave the alarm forthwith to the guard. Eight eluded their pursuers, but fifteen, weakened by the severity of their confinement, were unable to run far and were caught. One of the captured has left us a vivid description of his own and companions’ treatment. They were thrust into the guard house. Bound to forms and laid on their backs, on the floor, they were most dreadfully tortured, with the result that some of them died and others were maimed for life. A tombstone in the neighbouring churchyard of Dunnottar marks the spot where the dust of some of these martyrs rests in peace. The inscription is as follows: Here lie John Stot, James Aitchison, James Russell, and William Brown, and one whose name we have not gotten; and two women whose names also we know not; and two who perished coming down the rock, one whose name was James Watson, the other not known, who all died prisoners in Dunnottar Castle, anno 1685, for their adherence to the Word of God and Scotland’s Covenanted Work of Reformation. Rev. 11th Chapter, 12th Verse.
Several accounts of the hardships endured by the prisoners are preserved among the Wodrow Manuscripts. Wodrow, in his history, repeatedly expresses his indebtedness to the narrative written by Mr John Fraser. These accounts were all written when the imprisonment was over. One letter written in the Castle survives, and is full of interest. It was sent by Janet Linton to her husband, and the few sentences we quote show that God heard “the groanings of the prisoners.” It is dated 17th July 1685.
My dear and loving husband,
These are to show you that I have had the fever since I heard from you which has weakened my body very much, but I have been strengthened from my Master who has failed nothing of His promise to me; for He told me that His grace should be sufficient for me, and that His strength should be made perfect in my weakness. My dear heart, bless the Lord on my behalf that ever it should have pleased such a holy God to have looked on such an unworthy sinner as I am, or to have honoured the like of me to suffer anything for His name’s sake, or bear His cross in a day when there is so few longing to wear His livery; and He has kept me from denying His name before a godless generation that is fitting fast for destruction, when He has suffered many that spent their time better nor I did to fall: But it is free mercy; and O, my dear heart, if I could speak to the commendation of free mercy! for the Lord hath made all things easy to me, and He has been so kind to my soul sometimes since I came to prison that I counted all things nothing in comparison with Him; and He has made me so to rejoice in Him that I have thought I was beyond doubts in my condition; but it is free mercy indeed, for I have nothing of mine own; but I desire to believe in my kind Master, that has begun anything of grace in my heart, that He will also finish it.
She then goes on to mention a remark in a letter from her husband: that he intended to come and see her if they were all banished. She with good reason discourages his coming. She knew too well that some sympathising relatives who had come to see other prisoners had been iniquitously seized, and confined without form of trial with the rest in the prison vaults. She urges him to encourage himself in the Lord, taking His word for his support in affliction.
I entreat you further to close work in spearing the cause why the Lord is contending so sharply with His poor people, in giving the dearly beloved of His soul to the hands of our enemies; but we have no reason to complain, for if He had given us what we deserved, our portion had been in hell. And that is my comfort that our stock is in His hand, and He will let our enemies do nothing, but what I hope will be for His own glory and His people’s good. Now, my dear, ye are dear indeed unto me, but not so dear as Christ.
Then she urges him to make cheerful surrender of everything for Christ, and to care not for shame and reproach incurred in the path of duty. She hears some in his district are getting the gospel, and adds:
I entreat you to follow the gospel, my dear, and be valiant for the truth on earth, and prepare for death and judgment, and neglect not heart work. Now my dear, I can say no more for your encouragement, but leave you and my children to the Lord’s protection and guiding, and believe He will be father and mother to you according to His promise.
After sending loving regards to a number of friends and relatives, and mentioning that “James Aitchison is won to glory,” she concludes:
Farewell to you it may be in time but not in eternity.
I rest your loving wife, Janet Linton.
The letter is a remarkable illustration of calm endurance of wrong for Christ’s sake. Torn from her husband and children for the crime of nonconformity, immured for two months in a comfortless vault with the prospect of banishment, she writes not a syllable that can be construed into murmuring. How terrible was the tyranny under which Scotland groaned when for multitudes of the heroic spirit of Janet Linton there was no place found but a prison cell! Whether we have today any cause for gratitude to those leaders in Church and State, who are doing all they can to bring about a condition of things in which the atrocities of the “killing time” may be repeated, time will tell.
At this time the prisoners were cheered by a letter from the great Alexander Peden, which was preserved by Patrick Walker, himself then a prisoner in Dunnottar. Peden was at the time hunted upon the mountains, but he was soon “to be with Ritchie”, in the rest denied him on earth. The letter is full of consolation, and concludes with an earnest exhortation:
Keep under the shadow of God’s wings, and to cast the lap of Christ’s cloak over your head until ye hear Him say that the brunt of the battle is over and the shower is slacked. . . . Keep within His doors until the violence of the storm, which is not yet full tide, begin to ebb. Christ deals tenderly with His young plants and waters them oft lest they go back. Be painful and lose not life for the seeking. Grace, mercy, and peace be with you.
By authority of the Privy Council the Earls Marischal and Kintore came in the middle of July to examine the prisoners, but they found them all united in their determination to refuse the oath of supremacy. Finding them so resolute, the Council ordered them all back to Leith about the middle of August, with the view of banishing them “to the plantations” as slaves. Thus the doors of the dungeons were opened and the return march began. It is easy to picture the pitiable plight in which the weak and emaciated prisoners were, and their unfitness for a journey of eighty-two miles. A few of the most helpless were “allowed horses upon their own charges.” Mr John Fraser was very infirm and weak, but the commanding officer of the escort would on no account allow him the benefit of a hired horse. Like the rest, he had his hands bound with cords behind his back. They were driven on mercilessly the first day to Montrose Tolbooth. The following night was passed in Arbroath. Then Dundee was reached. The following day was Sabbath, but it brought them no rest, for they had to trudge on to Cupar. From there they were conducted to Burntisland, and after being ferried over the firth were confined in the Tolbooth of Leith.
Endnote: The article ends here, and we have been unable to procure the next instalment. However, Religious Life in Ross records that in September, 1685, John Fraser was sentenced by the Privy Council to banishment to the American Plantations. In New England he was licensed to preach the gospel and became a noted preacher there. After the Revolution of 1688 he returned to Scotland and was appointed to the ministerial charge of Glencorse. In 1696 he became the minister of the parish of Alness, Ross-shire. There, and in pastorless congregations in the area, he laboured with amazing zeal until bodily infirmity forced him to desist. “After a life of great vicissitude and suffering in the early part of it, and much usefulness in the latter part, he rested from his labours on 7th November, 1711.” -Ed