This was a minor event of primarily symbolic importance. It was sandwiched between other happenings of considerably greater import. These being the cold-blooded murder of Archbishop Sharp on Magus Moor on 3 May by a handful of Covenanter lairds and the comprehensive defeat of assembled Covenanters at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge on 22 June.
By the spring of 1679 the enthusiasm of those committed to the Covenant increased by a degree as more and younger people were drawn to the cause and as the voice of the more extreme veterans of the movement, men such as Donald Cargill, an inveterate enemy of compromise, moved to the fore.
Claverhouse had been sent “to the west” some months before, in command of a newly raised troop of government horse in order to assist in the process of keeping the peace. He had then been promoted to Sheriff-depute for Dumfries and Annandale in reflection of the poor fist that was being made of the peace-keeping process by the local, heritable sheriffs who were, by and large, entirely sympathetic with the lawless if not fully involved in the law-breaking process themselves.
The elements for escalation were now in place but the spark that set the kindling ablaze didn’t happen down on the south-west as might have been expected but many miles to the east in Fife.
The murder of Archbishop Sharp, was, now as then, utterly indefensible. A prelate, a holder of one of the major offices of the state, ambushed in broad daylight by a gang of thugs who then hacked him to death while one of them held his daughter back to prevent her interference in the deed and that she might better bear witness to the hideous death inflicted on her father.
Even by the standards of the time it was shocking. Although there were many prepared to defend it and even now, two hundred and thirty odd years later there are those who would view it as not unreasonable. Having carried out the deed, the culprits immediately mounted their horses and fled south-west in the hope that they might conceal themselves in the heartland of their support.
In the immediate aftermath there were a number among the extremists who saw this event as a sign, as a justification for the escalation of further extreme action. Amongst their number was the 29-year-old Robert Hamilton who saw the need to carry out some further public demonstration of their cause in order to rally the faithful and to further wave an angry fist in the direction of the Privy Council.
They waited a short time until 29 May, the birthday of the King, Charles II, when public celebrations, bonfires and suchlike, were happening in the monarch’s honour. Hamilton and his 80 odd mounted support initially planned on carrying out their demonstration in Glasgow but on hearing of the presence there of Government troops, took the more cautious option of Rutherglen. There they dramatically extinguished such bonfires that had been lit in the King’s honour then created their own and on to these tossed copies of the various pieces of recent Government legislation and Royal Proclamations that they deemed to be offensive to honest Covenanting folk. Then they fixed their Declaration to the Market Cross, a reiteration of there endless, baseless complaints, the content of which does not seem to have survived the passage of time. And having made their point, they once again, in time-honoured fashion, fled the scene.
So once more, as with the Pentland Rising, thirteen years previously, extreme and brutal action carried out by hot heads was then fanned by the even more extremist covenant clergy into some indication of divinely inspired justification for full-scale rebellion and before you knew it there were a mob of heavily armed men and women fully assembled and ready to take whatever action was determined to be in the best interests of their cause. And once more, in a holy mob where each individual was essentially a party of one, collective agreement as to unity of purpose was impossible.
News reached Claverhouse in Falkirk that same evening concerning the events in Rutherglen and he immediately moved his troops to take the necessary action. Two days later at Drumclog, while searching for an illegal conventicle he ran headlong into some 200 heavily armed covenanters and his force was defeated and driven from the field.
With that the full weight of the forces of law and order were brought to bear and on 22 June at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge order was finally restored.