Thursday, July 17, 2008

Murdoch Nisbet, the Lollards of Kyle, the Covenanters and the New Testament in Scots

Some time in the late 1400s there was a man in the district of Kyle in Ayrshire (to be precise, in Hardhill in the parish of Loudon) called Murdoch Nisbet (1470? - 1558). Not much is known about him, but he had a mighty impact in his day. He is believed to have been a "notary", a high-ranking civil servant. But he had another, some might say subversive, side. Because Murdoch Nisbet's faith and personal conviction led him to defy the norms of his time. Murdoch was a Protestant, to be precise, a Lollard.

Protestant ideas were not new to Scotland - there had been some Protestants in Scotland before Murdoch's time. For example, an English ex-Franciscan monk, James Resby had been burned at the stake in Perth in 1407, and around 1433, a Bohemian/Czech Protestant called Paul Craw had been burned at the stake in St Andrews.

Nisbet was a Lollard (a follower of the teachings of John Wycliffe) - specifically he was one of the Lollards of Kyle. In 1494 a group of 30 Lollards of Kyle were summoned by the Archibishop of Glasgow to stand before King James IV of Scotland on a charge of heresy. The charges were dismissed, but it was a sign of the times. Murdoch Nisbet is known to have "fled over seas". Now if you were living in Ayrshire, about 12 miles from the coast at Troon, where would "over seas" be? Hmmm....

Murdoch's Manuscript:
Anyway, wherever Murdoch Nisbet ended up, whether it was England, Germany or Ulster, he took with him a manuscript that he'd been secretly working on - a translation of the New Testament into vernacular Scots. He translated from Purvey's 1395 revision of Wycliffe's Bible. It's not known how long Murdoch was away from Scotland, but when he came back with some other Lollards who had also fled, the persecution was still underway.

Nisbet probably returned to Ayrshire in the 1520s, to a Scotland where Patrick Hamilton would be burned at the stake in 1528, and where two other Lollards - Jerome Russell and 18 year old Alexander Kennedy - would be burned in Glasgow in 1538, and the renowned George Wishart also burned in St Andrews in 1546. In between these famous Scottish martyrs were many more, but lesser-known: Henry Forrest (1533), David Stratton and Norman Gourlay (1534) and the five Edinburgh martyrs Thomas Forrest, Keillor, Beverage, Duncan Simpson and Robert Forrester (1539). So:

"... Murdoch, being in the same danger, digged and built a vault in the bottom of his own house, to which he retired himself, serving God and reading his new book. Thus he continued, instructing some few that had access to him, until the death of King James the V (note: James V of Scotland died in 1542, aged just 30, probably from cholera) ... Murdoch, tho' then an old man, crept out of his vault and joining himself with others of the Lord's people, lent his helping hand to this work through many places of the land, demolishing idolatry where ever they came..."

Nisbet's house had been sited on land that later became Loudoun manse glebe, at the curve of a burn. Apparently there are old foundations still there, marking the location of the building.

John Nisbet the Covenanter
Murdoch died in 1558 (the year before John Knox's tumultuous return to Scotland from Geneva) and left his New Testament manuscript to his son Alexander Nisbet, who left it to his son James, who left it to his son John. This John Nisbet was a soldier of renown, and was at Scone when the duplicitous King Charles II swore the Covenants in 1650 as part of his scheme to exploit the Covenanters and to use the Scottish throne as a stepping stone to what become his Restoration in 1660. John became a famous Covenanter hero, he was at Lanark in 1666 as the Covenanters marched toward Edinburgh and ultimately the Battle of Rullion Green.

At Rullion Green, John Nisbet
"received 17 wounds, was stript naked and left for dead, yet as much strength and life reserved, as enabled him to make his escape in the night, tho' it was a twelve month before he recovered. At Drumclog he did good service, behaved to a wonder, yet was preserved; at Bothwell he fought openly and boldly..."

Time went on and John Nisbet listened to great Covenanter preachers like Donald Cargill, Richard Cameron and James Renwick, and through the persecutions of the early 1680s "...he contended against the sinful compliance of these times..." He was martyred aged 58 at the Grassmarket of Edinburgh on 4 December 1685, leaving three sons, Hugh, James and Alexander.

1905: Manuscript published
Anyway, Murdoch's old manuscript was passed down to James, who was a Sergeant at Edinburgh Castle, who gave it to Sir Alexander Boswell to keep in his library at Auchinleck in Ayrshire (only 10 miles away from where Murdoch had written it nearly 200 years before). It stayed here until 1900 when Lord Amherst of Hackney allowed it to be published by the Scottish Text Society. The manuscript is today in the collection of the British Museum.

These 1905 editions are rarer than hen's teeth, but here's the cover of my copy:

Nisbet Scots Testament.jpg

Murdoch Nisbet is remembered today in his home town of NewMilns in a number of ways - a small award-winning housing development is named after him, there's a plaque inside the local church, which is also the same church that has a number of Covenanter memorials, including one to Murdoch's descendant John Nisbet mentioned above.

(italic quotes above are from A True Relation of the Life and Sufferings of John Nisbet in Hardhill, first published 1718, which had been written by the James Nisbet mentioned above)

Wikipedia on Murdoch Nisbet
1949 Newmilns Reenactment of Murdoch Nisbet
1949 Newmilns Reenactment of John Nisbet and Covenanter martyrs

Good to see there were what we now call "living history" projects on Covenanter themes over 60 years ago! Here's a photo of John Nisbet's memorial at Loudoun Parish Kirk in Newmilns, photographed back in February.


Anonymous said...

No heads resting below the parapet here! No excuses for their faith made.And no compromise.

May The lord shortly raise such men in Ulster.

Keeper of the Flame said...

Just found out I am directly related to him. So proud! This too is my heritage as it has my ancesters

Unknown said...

My name is Jeff Nisbett. I live in Alabama. I am searching my ancestors. I am very excited to find these great men as ancestors.

Unknown said...

Related to this wonderful person so proud of him and others mentioned