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The Battle of Rullion Green


In the last episode of our History of 16th Century Scotland, we looked at the expulsion of the ministers in 1662, and we looked at one example, the expulsion of Alexander Peden from New Luce.  We continue…



Enforcing the eviction of the ministers and pursuing the field preachers was the task of the Dragoons.  These soldiers, under the leadership of SIR JAMES TURNER, were sent to ‘dragoon’ the people into the churches, or to force them to pay fines for attending the conventicles.  Their severity is legendary, and Turner took full advantage of the new laws, exacting huge fines, most of which found their way into the pockets of the dragoons themselves.  People were beaten and imprisoned in chains; many were detained for months.  A new prison was built on the Bass Rock to contain the prisoners.  There was no legal redress, and the nobility often used religion as a pretext to plunder the lands and homes of the Covenanters.


In 1666 the military build up on both sides continued.  The oppressive activities of the Dragoons caused anger and resentment among the common people.  At Dalry in Galloway, a platoon of soldiers under Corporal George Deanes had claimed the corn of an old farmer called Grier in lieu of payment of a fine.  Grier had tried to escape, but the dragoons had caught up with him, and had tied his hands and feet together, intending to sling him on a stick as an animal.  They intended to roast him on a hot gridiron.  Some Covenanters, including an ousted laird, John McClellan of Barscobe, were at a nearby inn, and seeing the incident as they left the local inn, where they had been eating breakfast, went to the farmer’s aid.  When they challenged the soldiers as to their actions, an argument ensued, and the soldiers drew their swords.  This in turn prompted one of the Covenanters to discharge a pistol. (All of the histories record that McClelland’s pistol was filled with pieces of broken tobacco pipe!) Corporal  Deanes, was shot by McClelland and injured.   The authorities were enraged, and out of this petty scuffle in a remote village in the Ayrshire hills, sprang unplanned a rebellion.


Meanwhile some one hundred and fifty Covenanters had gathered near Dumfries, determined to do something to lighten the burden of oppression.  The incident at Dalry, they knew, would only serve as an excuse for the government to exact vengeance.  They agreed on a bold plan.  James Turner had taken ill, and was lying in a house at Dumfries, and the band of Covenanters, determined that they would take him prisoner.  With almost two hundred men, they entered Dumfries, where Turner only had some seventy men quartered, and of these only around twelve were actually in Dumfries at the time.  Turner was taken captive, (The leader of this band of men was one Andrew Gray.  Gray found a sum of money at Turner’s home, and sent it ahead of the march for ‘safe keeping’.  By the time that the Covenanters had reached the outskirts of Edinburgh Gray had absconded, and neither he nor the money were ever seen again.) and the band of Covenanters left Dumfries and marched to Ayr, turned east toward Lanark, determined to reach Edinburgh, where, with such a famous hostage to bargain with, they would attempt to petition the government for a relaxation of the regime.


Along the way, the treatment meted out to Turner varied.  At first he was clothed only in his night attire, and was led along on horse, with no saddle, just a halter.  A number of his captors wanted to put him to death but they were overruled.  It is said that Sharp was more burdened with the Presbyterian habit of saying grace before and after their meals than he was with the poor quality of their food!  (Smellie, A, Men of the Covenant, Banner of Truth, Pg 161)


Some of the ministers among the Covenanters would witness to Sharp, and plead with him to turn from his sinful ways.  John Welsh himself prayed with him, assuring him that they earnestly sought the salvation of his soul.  Later, Turner would comment that’ “To what they spoke of my conversion I said, it would be hard to turn a Turner!”

General James Wallace joined the insurgents at the Bridge of Doon.  He was a good man and a professional soldier who had fought for Parliament in the civil wars and he moulded the rabble that he found into a good functional platoon.  He was courteous to Turner, and soon earned the man’s admiration for his military abilities.


At Lanark, on 25th November, the marchers crowded around the tollbooth, and published a Declaration, in which they renewed the Covenants, and deplored the burning of the Solemn League and Covenant by the government.  They justified their march, by pointing out that episcopacy had been established, while fines and imprisonments had been levied on Presbyterian worshippers.  The military activities of the dragoons and the judgements of the High Commission were all cited as reason enough for their actions.


Yet they remained a sorry spectacle.  After Lanark they were plagued with bad weather, and arrived at Bathgate, having trodden across sodden moors, and were unable to find any accommodation.  By midnight they were forced to march on, and when morning found them five miles from Edinburgh they were hardly recognisable as the fighting force, which Wallace had been training at Lanark.  Although the Covenanters had little military knowledge, and few weapons, the authorities feared an armed insurrection, and placed cannon at the gates of the city.  Among the marching Covenanters was HUGH McKAIL, a young minister who had preached against the actions of the king, and against the bishops.  By the time the band of Covenanters reached Edinburgh they numbered around one thousand.  Their entrance was barred and their request for an audience with the Council was refused.   A retreat seemed the only course.



The Covenanters retreated to RULLION GREEN on Wednesday 28th November 1666, under General Wallace.  Whether their intention was to rest, or to take stock of the actions of Thomas Dalziel we do not know, (Dane Love in ‘Stories of the Scottish Covenanters’ is convinced that the Covenanters never actually expected their march to ever result in battle.  They simply thought that the Council would listen to their requests and be reasonable in their response.) but the hapless Covenanters was ambushed by around three thousand government troops, all of them regular troops, and all armed and ready for action.  Only nine hundred men of the Covenant were there, with only sixty muskets between them, facing overwhelming odds.  The battle raged fiercely, and twice it looked as though the Covenanters would prevail.  But the numbers were too much for the Covenanters.  Ill equipped and exhausted they were overwhelmed.  Fifty Covenanters were killed, (including two brave Ulster ministers, John Cruikshank and Andrew McCormick) and some seventy or eighty were taken captive to Edinburgh, hung, drawn and quartered.   Those not captured or killed made their way over the hills to freedom.


Turner had been brought to the battlefield with the Covenanter army, and when it was seen that Dalziel had won the day, the Covenanters set him free.  Prior to the battle, Turner had struck a bargain with his gaolers.  In event of a defeat, they were to go unpunished; on the condition that Turner was not mistreated during his time in captivity.  Turner did stick to the bargain, and at the hour of victory he went, with his captors to the government soldiers, where the two men surrendered. Turner however was over-ruled by the Privy Council in Edinburgh, who had the men in question executed.


Among those captured was Hugh McKail, who although subjected to a most painful form of torture, refused to disown his Lord or the Presbyterian cause.  He was sentenced to death and hung in the Grassmarket.  Other trials and executions took place throughout the lowlands.  A number of local courts were set up, so that men captured at Rullion Green could be tried and executed near their homes, thus deterring others from embarking on similar rebellious activities.  One such court operated at Ayr, where twelve Covenanters were sentenced to die, eight to be hanged at Ayr, two at Irvine and two at Dumfries.


The men to be hanged at Ayr caused some problems for the authorities, as the local hangman refused to hang the men, and fled from the district instead.  A highlander, William Sutherland, also a hangman, from Stonehaven, was asked to perform the hanging, but he had been reading his Bible, and nothing would persuade him to do the task either.  He was placed in the stocks, threatened with the boot, and preached at by the curate, all to no avail.  Eventually the magistrates persuaded one of the condemned men that his life would be spared if he executed the others.  He agreed, on the condition that each of the others would forgive him.  This they agreed to, and the executions were carried out.  The traitor’s name was Cornelius Anderson, and he was later so much overcome with guilt that he suffered extreme depression.  He fled to Ireland, where, his notoriety having preceded him, he was refused food and lodgings.  He was sheltering in a field outside Dublin when he was found dead, his shelter having burnt down, with him still inside.



To be continued…

From → Covenanters, History

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