Burntisland's Churches - Part 4

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by Iain Sommerville

Part 4 - The Covenant, Cromwell and The Killing Time

The new Parish Church in East Leven Street opened for business in 1594, thirty-four years after the start of the Reformation in Scotland. Over the next hundred years, the ministers in the new church would have no easy task - they would have to cope, not only with their own eccentricities, but also with frequent and quite unpredictable changes in the national religious climate.

1601 was a significant year for Burntisland. We have recently celebrated the holding of the Church of Scotland's General Assembly in the Parish Church, and the decision to proceed with the new version of the Bible. But the General Assembly also took another decision with implications for the town - the ratifying of the demotion of the Rev William Watson and his transfer from the high profile charge of St Giles in Edinburgh to the very church where the Assembly was being held.

And so it was that, later in 1601, William Watson became Minister of Burntisland. He came with a track record of opposition to King James VI, and as a result had already found himself in jail on several occasions. The year 1606 saw him in trouble again, when he was one of eight Church of Scotland ministers to visit the King in London. The Church of Scotland might have been a reformed church, but James VI was keen to reintroduce bishops. The high powered delegation comprised Scotland's leading Presbyterian ministers, and they were hoping to persuade James of the error of his ways.

But they had been tricked, and instead found themselves on trial. Two were never allowed to return to Scotland. The other six, including William Watson of Burntisland, were jailed. They were released after a few months, and allowed to return home - although subject to strict conditions, including that they must not travel outside their parishes.

William Watson certainly found plenty to occupy himself with locally, and in due course was reckoned to be the most influential person in the town. He continued to be a thorn in the flesh of the establishment, and something of a champion of the ordinary folk. When a number of local people were threatened with eviction from their homes in 1615, he led a violent demonstration against the authorities. This was ground breaking behaviour in itself, but so was the fact that the demonstrators comprised "ane multitude of weemen of the Amazone kind". Clearly the women of Burntisland in 1615 were not content to sit at home, knitting socks and making the tea.

This direct action was, unfortunately, the last straw as far as his tenure of Burntisland was concerned. The King decided that he should be demoted again, and in 1616 he was transferred to Markinch.

John Michaelson was appointed Minister of Burntisland in that year. One of Scotland's most distinguished churchmen, he had nevertheless done a theological U-turn and abandoned his Presbyterian beliefs. He now supported the concept of church government with bishops, which James VI had gradually reintroduced between 1606 and 1612. This immediately placed him at odds with most of his congregation, for Burntisland was a Presbyterian town.

Charles I became King in 1625, and arranged a separate Scottish Coronation for 1633. On his way home, of course, he lost a fortune which we can still only guess at, when one of the Burntisland ferries which he had chartered sank in a storm.

Throughout this period, the Rev Dr Michaelson and his congregation maintained an uneasy truce, but matters were to come to a head in 1638 - the year of the National Covenant (see box).

The National Covenant

The signing of the National Covenant on 28 February 1638 in Greyfriars Churchyard was one of the most significant events in the history of Scotland. Scotland had been growing ever more mistrustful of Charles I, in particular his introduction of a new prayer book "verging on Roman Catholicism". Alexander Henderson, Minister of Leuchars, was the prime mover in the drawing up of the National Covenant, which, while careful to acknowledge the authority of the King, reaffirmed the struggle against "popery"; declared resistance to changes in worship made without the agreement of the people's representatives; and pledged the signatories to defend their religion against all comers. The nobles signed on 28 February, the ministers and representatives of the burghs on the following day, and then the general population. Within a few weeks it had been signed by representatives of all the counties and all but three of the towns. In Burntisland it was signed "with tearis of great joy". Rarely before or since has Scotland been so united.

In the early Covenanting days, Burntisland was a zealous stronghold of the movement. However, not only did Dr Michaelson ignore the views of his flock, but he also ignored instructions from the Kirkcaldy Presbytery of the Church of Scotland to subscribe to the Covenant and to read it in church. On five successive Sundays in May and June, 1638, his services were boycotted by the congregation. When the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, meeting in Glasgow in November 1638, abolished episcopacy and excommunicated the bishops, Dr Michaelson again refused to accept the decision.

The local folk and the Kirkcaldy Presbytery had had enough. Dr Michaelson was found guilty of various charges, and removed from office. By then an old man, he continued to live in Burntisland, at his daughter's house in the High Street. He was treated with a fair measure of tolerance in his final years.

In 1643, the notorious witch hunter, John Smith, was appointed to Burntisland. Smith's exploits in tracking down witches struck fear into the older women of Burntisland, and I will return to these in a later article.

By the time of the Rev Smith's appointment, both Scotland and England were engaged in civil war against King Charles. Initially Cromwell in England had the support of the Scottish Army of the Covenant under General Leslie, and the Rev Smith was called into service as an army padre.

However, the Scots were becoming increasingly nervous about the growing power of Cromwell. In 1647, in a dramatic U-turn, they struck a secret deal with the King in which he committed himself to a Presbyterian Britain. Cromwell's execution of the King in 1649 horrified the Scots and accelerated their alienation from Cromwell. They immediately proclaimed Charles II King of Scots, having secured from him a commitment to maintain Presbyterianism.

Cromwell invaded Scotland in 1650 and made rapid progress. In July 1651 his forces crossed the Forth at Queensferry, routed the Scottish army at Pitreavie, and advanced on Burntisland. The town was prepared for an assault, with 40 cannon and 500 men ready to defend it. By 27 July, the enemy had taken up position in the Grange Road area. Facing them were cannon mounted on the East and West Broomhills. It is unlikely these were fired, however, because negotiations between the two sides began immediately. There seems to have been little criticism of the subsequent Burntisland surrender - the town was facing a far superior enemy, the most efficient fighting force in Europe. The surrender saved lives, and left the town intact. The occupation of Burntisland, and of Scotland, lasted for nine years.

Puritan rule became increasingly unpopular throughout Britain. With the death of Cromwell in 1658, the restoration of the Monarchy seemed inevitable and Charles II returned from exile in 1660. Initially popular in Scotland, he soon forgot his promises made 11 years before and set about rebuilding an episcopal form of church government. In 1662, Church of Scotland ministers were obliged to subject themselves to examination and approval by a bishop, or they could no longer continue in office. George Nairne, Minister of Burntisland from 1649 and who had been imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle two years earlier for criticising the King, was one of some 300 ministers who were banned for failure to subject themselves to the new ruling.

During the 1660s and 1670s, persecution of the dissenting ministers and their congregations increased markedly. It became an offence punishable by death to preach at a conventicle. The murder of Archbishop Sharp in 1679 near St Andrews led to "The Killing Time" of the 1680s. Covenanters were hunted down ruthlessly, and summarily executed. One of their leaders, David Hackston from Cupar, was used to provide a grisly reminder to the people of Burntisland that they should toe the line.

Hackston was captured at the Battle of Airds Moss in 1680, taken to Edinburgh naked on horseback, interrogated, condemned, and sentenced as follows: "That his body be drawn backward on a hurdle to the Cross of Edinburgh; that there be a high scaffold erected a little above the Cross, where in the first place his right hand is to be struck off, and after some time his left hand; that he is to be hanged up and cut down alive, his bowels to be taken out, and his heart to be shown by the hangman to the people; then his heart and his bowels to be burned in a fire prepared for that purpose on the scaffold; that afterward his head be cut off, and his body divided into four quarters, his head to be fixed on the Netherbow, one of his quarters with both his hands to be affixed at St. Andrews, another quarter at Glasgow, a third at Leith, a fourth at Burntisland."

Hackston was executed on 30 July 1680. A quarter part of his body was ferried to Burntisland and put on public display at the East Port, at the east end of the High Street.

The other end of Burntisland High Street was the scene of another distressing event involving Covenanter prisoners in May 1685. 224 men and women were brought to Burntisland by ferry from Leith and imprisoned for two days and two nights in the Tolbooth at the west end of the High Street. The conditions were appalling. The prisoners were packed into the very restricted space, and denied food and water. They were then asked to swear an oath of allegiance, acknowledging the King's supremacy over religious opinions.

A handful agreed. The remainder, including the old, infirm and pregnant, and with their hands tied behind their backs, were escorted from Burntisland through the East Port, on the first stage of a forced march to Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven. They were imprisoned there in equally deplorable conditions. Three months later, the survivors were marched back to Burntisland and ferried to Leith. Most were banished, as slave labour, to the American plantations, and many died on that final journey.

In 1685, James VII succeeded his father as King. But the Stuarts' days were numbered. In November 1688, William, Prince of Orange, landed at Torbay, and James VII fled in December. The Killing Time ended, and Presbyterianism was secure. On 8 January 1689, the Declaration of the Prince of Orange was read at the Market Cross, Burntisland.


Andrew Young’s drawing of Burntisland Tolbooth, where 224 Covenanter prisoners were incarcerated in May 1685. John Blyth commented: "Had the weather been hot, these two 'strait' rooms in Burntisland Tolbooth might easily have set a precedent for the Black Hole of Calcutta." The Tolbooth was built between 1606 and 1621 to replace an older structure which was probably in Forth Place. The King's High Street was defined by the new Tolbooth at its west end and the East Port at its east end. Both were demolished in 1843, to allow better access to the new Prince Albert Pier. The other buildings in the picture have all gone too. The only tangible reminder is the new Green Tree, built in 1884, probably replacing the two buildings on the left of the picture. It was the third alehouse of the same name on that site, and a reminder of the days when you could arrive home from the Baltic, step off your ship, pop into the Green Tree for a drink, create a disturbance, get arrested, and jailed in the Tolbooth, all within a radius of 50 yards.

Iain Sommerville 2002

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