Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The maverick Presbyterian Rev James Gordon, Scotland, and the Siege of Derry as an Ulster-Scots story

(Above - the Old Parish Church graveyard, Cardross)

In an obscure old graveyard on the banks of the Firth of Clyde is the burial place and eroded gravestone of a key figure from the Siege of Derry. Cardross was where King Robert the Bruce spent the last years of his life and died there on 7 June 1329. Cardross is also just a few miles from Old Kilpatrick where of course Scottish tradition says St Patrick was born and as a youth was kidnapped by slave raiders from Ulster.

The grave is of Rev James Gordon (1645-1693) who was said to have been the man who advised the Shutting of the Gates and who planned the Breaking of the Boom.

• The Siege of Derry as an Ulster-Scots Story
Over the years I've got a bit indignant about history here only ever being told in a "two tribes" way. I think that prism is often untrue, usually unhelpful, and will keep our society trapped in a never-ending rut. The Siege suffers from this. It needs to be re-thought, in a different way yet also a truer way. I have ideas as to how that could or should be done. Gordon is a central figure in that potential re-thinking and re-telling.

• The Story
John Malcolm Bulloch LL.D FSA (1867-1938) was a renowned Scottish historian who had comprehensively researched the Gordon family of Aberdeenshire. In doing so, he uncovered a lot of information about Rev James Gordon. The National Library of Scotland website has a PDF of his pamphlet (link here) entitled Strange adventures of the Reverend James Gordon, Sensualist, Spy, Strategist and Soothsayer, which was published in 1911.

It paints a fascinating picture of Rev Gordon, who it turns out was something of a rogue and maverick minister who flitted between Scotland and Ulster throughout his life, defying Presbyterian norms and rules. It includes the many stories from various sources of him having been present at both the beginning and the end of the Siege of Derry.

• Early Life
Gordon's origins were in the Aberdeen area, where he was born around 1645. He graduated from King's College in Aberdeen in 1663 – which was pretty bad timing given that pretty much all of the Presbyterian ministers across Scotland and Ulster had been ousted from their pulpits by the State in 1661. But theological commitment wouldn't be an issue for Gordon as he manoeuvred his way through life.

• Minister, Elopement and Marriage
He was appointed minister at Glass (south of Keith) and was engaged to "the sister of a gentleman who served the cure of Moville" in Donegal. However, around 1667, he eloped "secretly in the night tyme with some accomplice" with a different woman! She was Helen Gordon, the daughter of John Gordon, the 8th Laird of Cairnburrow. They arrived in Londonderry where Bishop Robert Mossom gave him permission to preach at Glendermott Church. But Gordon was summoned back to Scotland where he was reprimanded and married Helen, but he was banned from ever preaching in the Moray region. Aberdeenshire Epitaphs and Inscriptions (1907) says this of him –
Rev. James Gordon, M.A., was ordained in 1666. On 23rd October, 1667, he was directed to be excommunicated for breach of promise of marriage, running off with another woman, going to Ireland, and deserting his charge. On his subsequently confessing in face of the congregation, the great scandal he had given to God's people by his "ryott" and ''unlawful procedour in marriage with Helen, daughter of John Gordon of Cairnburrow," the sentence was relaxed. He was not reinstated, however — being declared incapable of holding another charge within the diocese. 

• Coull and Cabrach

So Gordon moved to a different Presbytery and in 1671 he became minister of Coull, west of Aberdeen. However he was deposed from this pulpit due to "swearing, drinking, striking, denying his own subscription, and lying". He and Helen settled at "a farm in the Highlands" near Cabrach from which he operated as a kind of rogue freelance minister within the Presbytery of Alford. They summoned him to various Presbyteries to account for his behaviour, but by February 1681 he was set upon leaving Scotland again.

• Dungiven and 'Our Scotch Informer'
He went to London where he met "with some non-conformist preachers" and then ended up back in Ireland again, becoming minister at Bovevagh Presbyterian Church near Dungiven around September 1681. He seems to not have lasted there long and was soon back in Edinburgh, seemingly to appraise his relative George Gordon, the Lord Chancellor of Scotland (who was also the 1st Earl of Aberdeen) of the activities of Presbyterian"fanaticks of Ireland and their brethren in Scotland and England" who were planning to smuggle three shiploads arms from London and Holland into Ireland via Portaferry "or some where thereabout".

If true, the timing is significant. In 1681 the 'Killing Times' had been ongoing for 20 years, with the State and Crown persecution of Presbyterians. The Battles of Drumclog and Bothwell Brig had taken place in 1679; Scottish refugees had poured into Ulster. By 1684 the future King James II, then merely the Duke of York, threatened that "there would never be peace in the country until the whole south of Scotland had been turned into a hunting field". So Presbyterian armed self-defence, and the potential re-arming of Covenanters in Scotland, were highly plausible scenarios.

In sharing this information it looks like Gordon was ingratiating himself with the Crown and government for personal advancement. The Duke of Ormonde said of Gordon that "our Scotch informer is certainly a rascal and frames his intelligence for his profit"; Ormonde's son wrote that Gordon was "the improperest man in the world to be employed under you". Scathingly, the son later wrote, in February 1683, that Gordon "promises to make great discoveries but I believe getting money is what he aims at".

• 1683–1690: Gordon and the Siege of Derry
If timing is everything, Gordon timed his contribution to history perfectly. Gordon's life gets a bit fuzzy here, which is a shame because this is where his legend resides. Renowned Scottish minister and historian Robert Wodrow (1679–1734) recorded traditions about Gordon that "it was he who relieved Derry from its Siege" –

a) At the beginning of the Siege, it was Gordon who had advised the 13 Apprentice Boys to close the gates of the city. Rev Samuel D. Alexander wrote "on the 7th of December, 1688, the inhabitants of Derry, acting on the advice of James Gordon, minister of Glendermot, and in opposition to that of Bishop Ezekiel Hopkins and most of the prelatic clergy, seized the keys of the city and shut the gates against the Earl of Antrim's Red Shanks" (link here)

b) At the end of the Siege, it was Gordon who planned the breaking of the boom. Gordon said he was at Greenock in Scotland in July 1689. He took a voyage to Lough Foyle where he boarded the famous Mountjoy, captained by "Captain Brauny" (Browning). Gordon harangued Major-General Percy Kirke for his inaction, and drew up the plan to break the boom. Thomas Witherow wrote "There can be no doubt that in this interval James Gordon, Minister, of Glendermot, the man who at the outset of the troubles had counselled the apprentices of Derry to shut the gates in face of King James's troops, got aboard the fleet, had an interview with Kirke, and pointed out how the matter could be done" (link here)

As you can see in Strange adventures of the Reverend James Gordon, the author Bulloch is sceptical about these claims. But Mackenzie's Memorials of the Siege of Derry willingly accepts them (online here) and additionally states that "almost all, if not all, the Apprentice Boys who shut the gates were Presbyterians".

• 1690: Back to Scotland, death in 1693
After the Siege was over, Gordon moved to Cardross outside Glasgow in July 1690. It was here that his new parishioners learned of his exploits at the Siege and passed them down in oral tradition. Gordon 'demitted' his role at Glendermott by letter in January 1692 and he died at Cardross around 1693. His weathered gravestone stone is in the Old Parish churchyard there. The Annals of Garelochside (1897, online here) describe it as follows –
Inside the churchyard are some interesting tombs, especially those of the old ministers at the corner of the enclosure nearest the road. The oldest is in memory of the Rev. Robert Watson, who died in 1671, ... Adjoining this is the tomb of Rev. James Gordon who died in 1693, and his tombstone is well preserved, though the lettering is beginning to be obliterated – 
"To the memory of Master James Gordon, minister of Cardross. Gordon fell by the stroke of all-conquering Death, and his distinguished frame lies by this tombstone. He proved by his cleverness that the sublime parts comprehend more wonderful things than belong to nature; high souled, in good things daring as the eagle, but as to praises indifferent, nor did the highest wisdom lie hid from the learned man. Too early did the joys of life above snatch him from us."

• Misc Details

• (see photos below) A carved stone head, said to be of Gordon, is on Ferryquay Gate in Derry.

• Gordon features in Canon S.E. Long's 2013 book Famous Clergy (online here - page 53 onwards) where he describes Gordon as "a notorious reprobate".

• His grandson was the historian Rev James Bentley Gordon who published various histories of Ireland, including a pro-Crown account of the 1798 Rebellion which was published in 1801. His portrait is online here).