Dumfries and the Lowlands were troubled by religious problems in the 1600s.

In 1625 James VI died and his son Charles became King. Although he had been born in Dunfermline he had spent little time in Scotland and unfortunately knew little about the Scots and what was important to them. Almost his first act as King enraged the nobles. After the Reformation of 1560 much of the land that had been owned by the Roman Catholic Church was taken over by the landed classes for their own use. Charles proposed in his Act of Revocation of 1625 that this land should be restored to the Crown. Robert Maxwell, the Earl of Nithsdale, helped him organise it. As can be imagined there was a considerable outcry and Charles had to give way. A compromise was worked out whereby the nobility were allowed to keep the land in return for small payments of money.

He made more trouble for himself at his Scottish Coronation in 1633. The service, held by Edinburgh, was a Church of England one, much to the affront of the Presbyterians - both gentry and common folk alike. His intention was to introduce the Church of England into Scotland. The principal difference between the two is that the Monarch is head of the Church in England and the Church of Scotland is run by the General Assembly of Ministers and Elders. In 1637 he ordered that the English prayer book be used in Scottish kirks. This caused a riot in St Giles in Edinburgh. More riots followed as the people protested at what they thought was a return to Roman Catholic ways. On 28th February 1638 the National Covenant was signed in the graveyard of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. This stated that the signatories would resist any attempt to make Scotland Roman Catholic again but would defend to the utmost of their power the King's Majesty. They seemed to be making a thin distinction between what the King was doing and what they thought he should be doing. Copies of it were soon signed all over Scotland. The Covenanters began to prepare for war and Scottish mercenaries, such as General Leslie who had learned his soldiering in the Swedish army, were called home. Charles tried to raise an army and to finance this he had to recall the English Parliament which he had dissolved in 1628.

The South-West of Scotland was strongly covenanting and a War Committee was set up in Kirkcudbright to provide money for recruits for the Scottish covenanting army. This sometimes met in Dumfries. Eventually 30,000 men were enrolled and Dumfries became the base for the South Regiment and Lord Kirkcudbright was made its Colonel. The head of the Royalist cause in the area was the Earl of Nithsdale who held the castles of Threave and Caerlaverock, which were in good repair, and also the New Wark in the centre of Dumfries at Queensberry Square. Maxwell carried out improvements to them although he had no support in the area. The Covenanters in Edinburgh looked on these castles as possible Royalist rallying points. They diverted a body of men under Colonel Hume from the main Scottish army which was marching to join Parliamentary forces in England, with order to demolish them. Threave and Caerlaverock both held out for 13 weeks until Maxwell surrendered. He was granted safe passage to Langholm with his household baggage and an inventory was taken of the goods he left.

In 1643 the Covenanters made an alliance with the English parliamentarians and things looked black for Charles. This was the Solemn League and Covenant. Parliament promised to make England Presbyterian although they had no intention of keeping their word. In 1644 for a short time events in Scotland gave Charles a ray of hope. James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose, raised an army of Highland and Irish soldiers to fight for the King. Many of these were Roman Catholics and had no love of the Puritan Parliament. Montrose had signed the National covenant but he felt bound by his promise to fight for the King. He was accompanied by the Earl of Nithsdale. On the 14th April 1644 Montrose surprised Dumfries Town Council by entering the town which was undefended as the South Regiment had left the district. Montrose had hoped to find some support here as the Provost was a Royalist, but the town itself was strongly covenanting and so he moved on. He then won a series of startling victories at Tippermuir, near Perth, at Inverlochy, near Inverary, and at Kilsyth outside Glasgow where he out manoeuvred and outfought his enemies. It seemed for a time that he would win control of all Scotland for Charles. As he moved south, however, many of his Highlanders deserted and returned to the glens. What remained of his army was destroyed by the Covenanters' army at Philiphaugh outside Selkirk. No prisoners were taken and even camp followers were put to the sword. Montrose only just managed to escape. He was captured years later and executed in 1650, just over a year after Charles I was executed.

When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Dumfries together with the rest of Scotland was overjoyed. Charles had promised to defend the Scottish church and in October of that year the Dumfries presbytery sent him a letter of goodwill. Things quickly changed, the Rescissory Act was passed in 1662 which repealed all laws made since 1633. Among other things this meant that the laws abolishing Episcopacy were ended. The Church of Scotland again became a church governed by bishops. Although Charles had the good sense not to try to force an English prayer book on the Scottish church many people were rightly suspicious of his intentions. Over 300 ministers in the Lowlands gave up their churches rather than accept Episcopalianism. More than two-thirds of the Dumfries Presbytery ministers left their posts to hold open air services in the hills, known as 'conventicles'. The new minister at St Michael's was George Chalmers but so few people attended his services that the town council felt obliged to enforce compulsory attendance on Sundays with a fine of 40s Scots for absenteeism.

In that year the fines collected for non-conformity were £164,200 Scots. James Muirhead, a merchant in Dumfries, had to pay £1000. John Gilchrist and John Coupland, burgesses, £360 each. It was then made a crime for any person not licensed by the bishop to preach or to pray except with his own family. To do so outside one's house incurred fines, imprisonment or banishment. To conduct a field conventicle was declared to be a capital offence, punishable by death. A reward of 500 merks was offered to any person who could capture a field preacher and he was excused of any act of murder he might commit in the process. All suspected persons who could not be brought to trial were denounced in their absence, and any person supplying food or shelter to a Covenanter was also regarded as outside the law. The government sent the standing army of over 3000 troops to the South of Scotland in order to crack down on the dissenters. They had orders to support themselves by fines and billet themselves in houses vacated by Covenanters. Dumfries supplied troops for this army as well as 700 foot and 77 horse to a specially enlisted militia. Armed conventicles began to spring up in response. Sir James Turner was put in charge of the government forces, his nickname was "Byte the sheep". There are many reports of cruelty to Covenanters and there are many lonely graves in the hillsides, with curiously worded stones recording their deaths.

In 1666, however, the tables were turned for a short while. Some of Turner's troops were in Dalry when four Covenanters entered the village asking for food. They discovered the soldiers were about to torture an old man called Grier and they went round to his house to stop them. A fight ensued and the troopers were all disarmed. So that the troops stationed at Balmaclellan should not carry out reprisals they too were captured. One trooper died in this skirmish. Encouraged by their successes they succeeded in raising a considerable force in the neighbourhood and decided to march to Dumfries. They rendezvoused at Irongray Church and the force set off for Dumfries. There were 250 of them, all on horseback, and their arrival was a complete surprise. There were only 13 soldiers in town and Sir James Turner himself was captured and paraded round the town in his underclothes on an old nag. The troops then left Dumfries with their prisoner and returned to Dalry. Later they travelled into Lanarkshire where Turner escaped death by one vote at a meeting held at Douglas. They were met on the 28th November by General Dalziel in charge of 3000 troops at Rullion Green in the Pentlands. Fifty were killed and another 130 hanged including those who had spared Turner's life.

One of the biggest conventicles was held at the top of Skeoch Hill, just to the north of Glenkiln, in the summer of 1678. The preachers were John Welsh, the former minister of Irongray parish and a great-grandson of John Knox, and John Blackadder who afterwards died in the government prison on Bass Rock. The congregation is estimated to have numbered more than 6000 people.

In 1678 John Graham of Claverhouse (Bonnie Dundee as he is better known) was commissioned by the Privy council to suppress covenanting and he pursued his task with considerable zeal. This was the start of another bad period for the south and followed the murder of the Archbishop of St Andrews, James Sharp, who was dragged from his coach by twelve Covenanters and killed in front of his daughter.

Claverhouse arrived in Dumfries at the end of December 1678. It was reported to him that many conventicles were being held at the Maxwelltown end of the Old Bridge which is in Galloway. Claverhouse's orders covered only Dumfries and Annandale but the sight of these conventicles being held right under his nose greatly annoyed him and he arranged with the Steward of Kirkcudbright to have the meeting house demolished. The hereditary Steward was at this time the Earl of Nithsdale who was still in his minority, and the Steward Depute was none other than Sir Robert Grierson of Lag. Together they formed a team and for the next few years carried out their mission with enthusiasm. The town council were loyal citizens of Charles and were very keen to court the pair. There are many bills for drinks they had with some o the cruellest officers: Colonel Windram, Captain Strachan, Lieutenant Lauder, Lieutenant Livingstone. These last two shot James Kirk on the Whitesands in Dumfries.

The first two, Windram and Strachan, drowned Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson in Wigtown Bay in May 1685. A month earlier both women had refused to take the Test Act and the Abjuration Act - oaths wholly unacceptable to Presbyterians. They were sentenced "to be tied to palisades fixed in the sand within the flood marks of the sea and there to stand until the flood overflowed them and drowned them". The older woman Margaret McLauchlan was roped to a post which was further out on the sands so that the younger one might see her suffering and repent. These years are known as the killing times.

On 18th December 1684 Sheriff Graham, another persecutor, found six Covenanters walking by the Dee in Girthon. Four were put to death by the sword and left lying. Three of the bodies were carried away by friends and buried at Dalry. This so infuriated Claverhouse that he had them disinterred and exposed in the churchyard. The two others, William Hunter and Robert Smith, were taken to Kirkcudbright and hanged and beheaded. Three other Covenanters, Joseph Wilson, John Jamieson and John Humphrey, were spotted returning from a conventicle in Carsphairn and were shot dead and buried where they fell.

In 1685 Lag shot George Short and David Halliday of Glenap in the parish of Balmaclellan. In Tongland he shot five more. When one of them asked for a moment's respite to pray, Lag, it is said, replied "What the devil have you been doing so many years in these hills. Have you not prayed enough?" and immediately had him shot.

Lag's Castle

Many nonconformists died in exile or in captivity. Baillie Muirhead of Dumfries was incarcerated in Leith prison and died there. James Glover was shot in Tinwald wood, carried to Dumfries and transferred to Edinburgh tolbooth where he died. Andrew Hunter, an old Dumfries man, was locked up in the burgh jail and died there.

In total 82 people were killed in Dumfries and Galloway by government troops under Claverhouse and Lag. In 1685, however, Charles II died and was succeeded by James II or VII who was a Roman Catholic. Two years later James issued the first of two Declarations of Indulgence which allowed Presbyterians and Roman Catholics to worship freely. He put many Catholics into high positions of State and Army. Dumfries had a Catholic provost, John Maxwell, at the insistence of James, the first since the Reformation. When James had a son in 1688 everyone was afraid that rule by Roman Catholic kings in a mainly Protestant country could continue indefinitely.

William of Orange, the Protestant ruler of the Netherlands and his wife Mary, the daughter of James, were secretly invited over to rule. News of his arrival at Torbay reached Dumfries in December 1688 and the Catholic provost, although a popular man, saw fit not to show his face at any more of the council meetings. The baillies had to organise an armed force to preserve the peace of the town on Christmas Day when there was a large anti-Catholic demonstration. "They collected", said Dr Burnside, "from the religious houses in the neighbourhood all the remains of Popish vestments and imagery they could lay their hands on and burnt them altogether, with effigies of the Pope, at the Market Cross". On 26th December the Privy Council told the Town Council that they could henceforth choose their own Magistrates again. This was the start of the "Glorious Revolution". On the 24th April 1689 William was proclaimed King at the Market Cross and the burgh treasurer's accounts show that a good time was had by all. Claverhouse, a supporter of James to the end, was killed at the battle of Killiecrankie in June.

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