…Every point was a point of no return
for those who had signed the Covenant in blood.
Every fern was a maidenhead fern
that gave every eye an eyeful of mud…
Paul Muldoon, from his poem “The Old Country”
In Scotland you encounter the legacies of the Covenanters as often as tartan knickknacks.
As far back as the 16th century groups of people, inspired by John Knox’s Calvinist preaching, bound themselves under a series of written covenants. These covenants denounced “Popery” and decried the exigencies of episcopal religions (this included Anglicanism, along with Roman Catholicism), maintaining that Presbyterianism was the only doctrine right for Scotland.
St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. If the “Covenanters” had a shrine, this would be it.
St Giles Cathedral along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh echoes with Covenanter history. John Knox preached here in the 1560s, and in 1637 it was in this church that Jenny Geddes threw a stool at the minister; his crime was introducing the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to that place of worship. Geddes’ actions against the imposition of episcopal religion on the Presbyterian laity resulted in riots that led to the signing of the National Covenant in 1638 (it is on display in the narthex of St Giles) and the creation of a Covenanter-led government for Scotland. This, in turn, led to the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s seizure of English authority.
Ultimately, after the restoration of the English monarchy, the Covenanters were defeated and the King’s religion was restored. Not surprisingly (to anyone who studies history) vicious reaction followed the Restoration. Covenanter preachers and followers alike were persecuted with intense barbarity, during a period mythologized in songs and stories as the “Killing Time”.
Peden’s Cove, along the River Ayr, where Alexander Peden preached clandestine sermons to his Covenanter followers.
As you travel around Scotland you see frequent memorials to Covenanter heroes and martyrs. For example, in Greyfriars Churchyard there’s a large stone memorial to Covenanter martyrs. Meanwhile, on the Finlaystone Country Estate west of Glasgow (the “seat” of the Clan MacMillan) you can see the “John Knox Tree”, a large Yew under which the old man preached in secret to his faithful. As well, along the Ayr Gorge nature trail in Failford, Ayrshire, you will find Peden’s Cove. This series of steps carved into the sandstone riverbank leads to a primitive pulpit where Alexander Peden preached clandestinely to fellow Covenanters gathered on the opposite bank. My people come from this area and seeing Peden’s Cove made me wonder whether my family history featured examples of this fervor.
Contemporary “Covenanters” march down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, accompanied by security forces and curious tourists.
You can also see more recent examples of the Covenanters in action. On a quiet Saturday morning while staying in Edinburgh, I awoke to the sound of a fife and drum procession along the Royal Mile. At first I imagined it as the Armed Forces Day parade, but quickly realized that it was a group of militant Protestant marchers, broadcasting their defiant message to the tourist masses. Ornate embroidered banners hailed the spirit of Jenny Geddes and the martyrs of the Killing Time; others denounced “creeping Popery” (last year’s UK visit by Pope Benedict still stuck in some peoples’ craw…). The parade, such as it was, dwindled toward Edinburgh Castle, under the watchful gaze of a squad of public security officers.
A few days later, as I rode a commuter train out of Glasgow, a trio of young Glasgow Ranger sots bellowed anti-Catholic ditties in between sips of “Bucky” (a.k.a. ‘Buckfast Tonic Wine’ a noxious potable containing equal slops of alcohol and caffeine; produced, ironically, by Benedictine monks). Fortunately no equally drunk Glasgow Celtic supporters rode the train, or we would have witnessed a bloody, sectarian fight.
I found myself depressed by these examples of the contemporary Covenanters. Both echoed worse things I’d seen during my time in Northern Ireland. I had thought, naively or hopefully, that public expressions of sectarian bellicosity were now either limited to West Belfast, or had petered out entirely after the Good Friday Accord. I suppose both incidents, though particularly the latter bit of nastiness on the train, explain why the current session of the Scottish Parliament is debating anti-sectarian legislation.
So, while the Covenanters might seem merely a mention in tourism books and or a historical anecdote for walking tours, the Covenanters’ defiance continues to inspire, or perhaps to define, parts of Scottish society. To coin Paul Muldoon, many eyes are still getting an eyeful of mud.