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Covenanter Stories – No. 12, Hugh McKail



Hugh McKail was born in 1640, the son of the Rev. Matthew McKail, minister of the Kirk at Bothwell.  A sickly youth, he studied at Edinburgh University, where he lodged with his uncle, also Hugh McKail.  In 1661 young Hugh applied for a license to minister, which was granted.  At the age of twenty-one, he preached his first public sermon at St Giles Church Edinburgh.  He this sermon he made thinly veiled reference to the church and state leaders as, “A Pharaoh on the throne, a Haman in the state and a Judas in the church,” all of whom, at various time had persecuted God’s church.  This sermon was not well received by the authorities, and McKail had to flee Edinburgh and go into exile in Holland, a country that gave safe haven to many Presbyterians and Puritans.[1]  Whilst there he spent his time preparing for his return to Scotland, to rejoin the battle.

We meet with McKail again in 1666, when at the age of twenty-five, he rode with the Covenanter band in the march to Edinburgh, as part of the ill-fated uprising which ended with defeat at Rullion Green.  It is said that by this time Hugh McKail was so weak and sick that he actually had to be tied to his horse, to prevent him from slipping off.[2]  At one stage in the journey, McKail fainted, and was presumed to have died!  Near Cramond Water, McKail realised that he was not going to be physically fit enough to continue in the march, and he turned back, making his way towards the south part of Edinburgh to his father’s home.  Hugh was stopped by a party of dragoons and arrested for being in possession of a sword, and on suspicion of having been among the men of the uprising.  Having been arrested and searched, he was taken to Edinburgh and placed in a cell in the tolbooth.

Now that McKail had been formally charged with being a rebel, and with having spoken seditious words at St. Giles, he was brought before Lord Rothes, who had been appointed by the authorities to interrogate the minister.  Rothes was enraged by McKail’s quiet answers and his patient refusal to reveal the names of others in the uprising.  He ordered the executioner to bring out an implement of torture known as ‘the boot.’  This was a boot-shaped contraption made of cast iron into which was placed a leg of a prisoner.  The torturer would then use a heavy mallet to drive a wedge of cast iron between the ‘boot’ and the knee of the unfortunate victim.  This broke the bones and tore the flesh of the leg, with excruciating agony, leaving the victim unable to stand.  In McKail’s case, the wedge was driven in eleven times before Rothes gave up questioning him and returned him in dreadful agony to the tolbooth.  Throughout the torture, McKail continued to remain silent about his fellow Covenanters.  When asked by Rothes why he did not just give the required information, McKail said, “I protest solemnly in the sight of God.  I can say no more, though all the joints in my body were in such great anguish as my knee.”

Back in his cell, McKail suffered a terrible inflammatory fever, induced by his pain, but yet he remained faithful to God, and prayed constantly, interceding for those outside who were facing the gallows for the sake of Christ and His gospel.

On 18th December a second trial was held, and this time McKail confirmed that he had been with the Covenanters on the march from Ayr to Edinburgh, and that further he had been in possession of a sword.  On those grounds he was sentenced to death at the Mercat Cross.  It is said that at the sentence, McKail was filled with joy, and when being returned to his cell, cried out to the onlookers to trust in God.  A friend enquired after his shattered knee.  McKail replied with a smile, “The fear of my neck has made me forget my leg!”  To another he remarked that he was less in fear of dying, than of preaching a sermon!

The execution took place four days after the sentence, despite last minute pleas from several high-ranking members of the nobility, and a personal plea from his cousin to Archbishop Sharp, who said that he could do nothing.  The cousin, Dr. Matthew McKail, replied, “You mean, you WILL do nothing.”  Sharp remembered the words spoken in St Giles, and was determined to have his revenge.

At the gallows, Hugh McKail read out a testimony of conversion to Christ and declared his continued love for his Saviour.  His final speech was recorded in a volume entitled, “Naphtali” written by one James Stewart, and published in 1667, just a year after McKail’s death.  It has been said that McKail’s final testimony is among the finest examples of personal faith and courage ever recorded.  The hangman swung open the trap door, and as Hugh McKail’s body writhed and twisted on the rope, his cousin Matthew grabbed his legs and held them together, pulling down on them to make death come all the swifter.

After the execution, McKail’s remains were removed from the gallows and taken to the Magdalen Chapel, where they were dressed for burial; the authorities did not often allow this, but Matthew McKail seems to have exercised considerable influence in the matter.  Hugh was later interred in the criminals’ burying ground in Greyfriars Kirkyard, in the plot where the Martyr’s Memorial monument now stands.  Dr. Matthew McKail had arranged with the hangman to receive Hugh’s black coat following the execution, and he wore this coat constantly for many years as a reminder of his dear, godly, cousin and as a symbol of his own sad mourning.

[1]John Brown of Wamphray and Robert McWard were also there at the time, and it is certain that McKail would have come into contact with them.  (Dane Love in “Scottish Covenanter Stories, Pg 18)

[2]Actually, this was not unusual among the Covenanter ‘army’ of 1666.  Jock Purves, writing in ‘Fair Sunshine’ notes that some of the weaker brethren among the Presbyterians in that march had to be tied, hand to hand, with their stronger fellows, to enable them to make the journey at all.  Facing them at Rullion Green was a well-fed and nourished army of professional soldiers.  Pg 25

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