When the National Covenant was drawn up in 1638 virtually the whole nation of Scotland queued up to append their signature (below Montrose’s) to this historic document. By the time the Solemn League and Covenant was drafted in 1643, the tone had become more extreme and the appendants fewer.
By 1660, when Charles II was restored to his throne, signaling the end of that most miserable of periods known as the Cromwellian Interregnum, most Scots had had their fill of covenants, particularly amongst the political leadership, the nobility. And only the hard core remnant in the south west of the country held to the now extremist viewpoint.
During the 25 years between Charles ll’s restoration and his death in 1685, hard core factions in Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Galloway maintained the pot of febrile fanaticism in a boiling condition. Despite the efforts of the authorities to maintain law and order, lawlessness whilst quelled, was never fully eliminated. With conventicles,open air gatherings presided over by kirk ministers where often hysterical behaviour masqueraded as divine worship , the principal mechanism for coordinating community-wide disregard for the law.
Periodically during this quarter century, the enthusiasm of these factions peaked and armed insurrection then ensued. For the most part these efforts displayed common characteristics leading inevitably to disasterous failure: lack of weapons, lack of leadership, lack of a coherent plan, an absence of common agreement as to the specific nature of their divine mission and a grievous failure to ignore minute stratifications of doctrinal disagreement on the eve of battle in order to present a united front to their enemy.
On the one occasion when their ducks fortuitously lined up in a row, at the Battle of Drumclog in 1679, they were able to combine the element of surprise, a local advantage in numbers and favourable terrain, to achieve limited, localised military success. However, this merely encouraged yet more of the unruly to harness their fortunes to a wagon which subsequently careered madly to destruction.
Drumclog stands alone as a covenanting military success during this period, and is balanced out by a litany of failure; the Battles of Bothwell Bridge (June 1679), Airds Moss (1680), and earliest of all, Rullion Green (1666).
Indeed if some of the basic lessons from this initial, sweeping defeat had been absorbed then the future calamities might have been avoided. However, it was not part of the philosophical approach of covenanters to look dispassionately on their failures in order that learnings might be taken from them, since this might too closely require some admission that the chosen sons and daughters of Jacob were mistaken in their analysis or intent. So each subsequent rising saw efforts renewed to re-invent the wheel from its most basic level.
Let us look, specifically then at the train of events that culminated in the Battle of Rullion Green.
After Charles ll’s restoration to the throne in 1660, the various mechanisms of Cromwellian rule were dismantled and things largely returned to they way they were before his father’s disagreements with both his parliaments led to full scale civil war in 1642. In 1663 bishops were re-installed as an estate of the Scottish Parliament, much to the disgruntlement of covenanting folk who held no truck with those appointed to intercede between good Presbyterians and their god.
Soon, the scale of illegal field conventicles was such that the Government felt compelled to take action, passing legislation to fine any and all who failed to attend worship, as it was intended, in their own parish church. Rather than administer this process through the local land-owners, who were often overtly sympathetic, they brought in external support in the shape of Sir James Turner, whose troops were required to be supported in he area. In the face of this escalation of government action against non-conformers, the extent of field conventicles did not diminish.
Things did not improve and further forays by Turner were carried out in the spring of 1666. Shortly thereafter, the Government took the decision to establish a standing army in Scotland. A combined infantry and cavalry force of some 3000 men, with the command given to General Thomas Dalyell, a veteran of the Battle of Worcester (1651) and subsequently the Polish Wars under the Russian Tsar, Alexei l.
The decisive flashpoint occurred on 15 November 1666 when a number of Dumfries-shire lairds with their tenants, who had been involved in a minor confrontation with troopers two days previously decided to strike at Turner before he took any further action.
They surprised him in his pyjamas and took him prisoner. Finding themselves, even at this early stage in the proceedings, without a plan, they paused. Once word of their imprudence was out, however, the full mechanism of government reaction began to move apace. The Privy Council immediately took the appropriate steps to quell what they perceived to be a full-scale rebellion. Tam Dalyell was instructed to march his available force to Glasgow while Stirling bridge and various Forth ferry crossings were guarded to prevent any southward movement of covenant sympathisers.
Turner’s captors were in a difficult position. They perceived of their action as being simply a loyal protest against military oppression. Their options were now to disband and await arrest or move to extend their act into full-scale rebellion. On 21st November, an official proclamation was issued which denounced their action and made no mention of any indemnity for those surrendering. And so they moved for escalation. Their appeals for support fell largely on deaf ears but by close of play on the 22nd they had pulled together a force of over 600 men and command was given to Colonel James Wallace. A soldier not entirely without experience having served as a captain in the Marquis of Argyll’s covenanting army during the Bishop’s War in 1640 and subsequently in Ulster.
Turning to face their perceived oppressor this uncertain body of men began to march towards Edinburgh, hoping to pick up reinforcements on the way. Trudging through the cold, wet, short days they held a council of war at Douglas in Lanarkshire. Loud voices were raised in favour of abandoning their enterprise. However, as was often the case when the extremists met to discuss issues, more fanatical tones held sway. Surely the very sudden and unexpected nature of this mission was, in itself, a sign from God. A purpose was proclaimed – the restoration of the Covenants. With the redoubtable Reverend John Welsh of Irongray present in their midst, anything less would have been the surprise. And renewed somewhat in their vigour, they continued to squelch their way towards the Capital.
Most onlookers, even those who sympathised with their cause, viewed the whole escapade as hopeless and remained indoors. During the next dismal, rain-swept night in Bathgate, around half of them straggled away.
The following day, what was left of them, probably 900 in number, reached Colinton, from where they could see Edinburgh Castle. An emissary from the Duke of Hamilton approached them and pleaded for their surrender. Colonel Wallace, who could recognise a doomed project when he saw one but could not be accused of lacking optimism, sent messages to Hamilton and Dalyell indicating that he and his men were willing to discuss terms of surrender.
The reply duly received from the Privy Council advised them simply to lay down their arms “that they might petition for mercy”. Things were beginning to look pretty bleak indeed for these sodden souls and they began to withdraw whence they came, along the eastern flank of the Pentland Hills, while Dalyell continued to close in on them.
On the 28th they paused again, at Rullion Green to regroup and prepare a fresh parley. Dalyell though had had enough and immediately attacked. The few covenanting horsemen made something of an issue of the fight on their part of the field but Wallace’s infantry, exhausted, ill-armed, ill-prepared, ill-led, so much like their compadres at Bothwell Bridge, succumbed quickly to the musket fire of their regular opponents. The covenanting army dissolved into a terrified rabble and fled in all directions leaving some fifty dead and the same number prisoner. Wallace and Welsh escaped the field, and justice, escaping in the end to Holland to swell the ranks of the disaffected already encamped there. And it was from here some 23 years later that their ultimate salvation would come
Retribution for the prisoners was reflective of the times: balanced but harsh in the end. The Privy Council accorded them the not insignificant legal services of Sir George Lockhart and Sir George Mackenzie, two of the foremost advocates of the day. Mackenzie pleaded for clemency on the basis that they had been offered quarter on the field of battle. A claim supported by Dalyell himself. However, it was determined that the accused had not been involved in a just war but rather an act of sedition and so the accepted rules relating to war did not apply.
Their right arms, which had been raised to support the Covenant at the outset of the rising, were cut off and sent to Lanark for display. A further 30 supporters were hanged in the ensuing days in Glasgow and some 50 odd transported to Barbados. Extensive finings and forfeitures were also carried out.
An unhappy episode in Scotland’s history. However, worth placing in some context. Although ministers were drawn towards it at an early stage, its Covenanting label was only adopted by the rebellion after it had begun. Furthermore the initial spark behind it all was simply long-standing resentment against government fines and the associated aggressive methods used by government forces to enforce these and to obtain quarters and victuals for themselves.
And while the stoking of the flames of hatred by Presbyterian ministers at conventicles led directly to this unhappy finale, as it did indeed at Bothwell Bridge, there was as has been pointed out “a genuine feeling of grievance, a real wish to preserve important things, seen to be under threat. Something precious and pure, personal as well as communal, was perceived within the rites of the Presbyterian Kirk”.
Sadly, for us all, the preciousness and pureness were always drowned out by the hatred and the fanaticism.