Monday, May 26, 2008

The Greatest Chapter in Ulster-Scots History

(this article was published in the News Letter on Monday 26th May 2008; and was simultaneously published in the Carrick Times, Larne Times and Newtownabbey Times of the same week)

Meeting the Wigtown Martyrs
Long before Easyjet and cheap flights to the continent, the few family holidays we ever had were either in Scotland or the Isle of Man. When I was about 14, my parents took us on holiday to Castle Douglas in Galloway. As we drove from the ferry terminal at Stranraer, we diverted down to Wigtown where they took all five of us weans to see the Martyrs Stake - the monument that marks the place where Margaret Wilson (aged just 18) and Margaret MacLachlan refused to denounce their Presbyterian faith. In May 1685 they were drowned in the rising tide of the Solway Firth by the troops of King James II.

Our family isn’t even Presbyterian (we were reared around gospel halls and mission halls), nevertheless the stories of the Covenanters and of their faith, courage and martyrdom were often told in our house, passed on by our parents. Many Ulster-Scots folk have the same experience, with old Victorian novels like “Tales of The Covenanters” in thousands of homes across Ulster. Folk often say that years ago every Ulster-Scots home had two books – a Bible and a copy of Burns. For many people I’ve talked to over the years, there was a Covenanter book on the shelf too.

A Continuous Ulster Thread
This year, the Ulster-Scots Agency ‘s theme story is “The Covenanters in Ulster”. Like so much of our heritage, the Ulster chapter has been almost forgotten, left out of the history books, reducing it to a Scotland-only story. Yet nothing could be further from the truth! From 1638 to 1688, through the “50 Years Struggle” which caused the Covenanters to fight against the state and the monarchy of their day, there is a continuous Ulster thread. Ulster was the Covenanters’ nearest refuge in times of trouble.

For example, the four ministers who sailed for America on “Eagle Wing” in 1636, came home to become instrumental in the Covenanting cause. Over later years, men like Rev Andrew McCormick of Magherally (near Banbridge), Rev John Crookshanks of Raphoe and Rev Michael Bruce of Killinchy were expelled from their pulpits by the authorities. And rather than succumb to the persecution, all three became even more determined – McCormick and Crookshanks died at the Battle of Rullion Green outside Edinburgh in November 1666 (they are the only men named on the monument there) and Bruce preached at large open air services known as “conventicles”. Literally hundreds of monuments across Scotland record the sacrifice and heroism of the Covenanters.

The most famous Ulster link of all is Rev Alexander Peden, “The Prophet of the Covenant”, who was a regular visitor to County Antrim. There is a monument to him at Glenwherry, near Slemish.

During the period known as “The Killing Times”, others like Rev David Houston and Rev James Renwick spent much of their time in Ulster, avoiding capture by the Scottish authorities, and encouraging the people here to remain strong in the face of state oppression. Four brothers of Margaret Wilson, the Wigtown Martyr, are said to have fled to Ulster for refuge.

Re-thinking the Revolution
Every July, hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland and Ulster celebrate “The Glorious Revolution” and King William III’s victory over King James II at the Boyne - an event that is usually stereotyped as nothing more than “Protestant defeats Catholic”. But how many people realize that the Revolution brought an end to 50 years of anti-Presbyterian persecution by three successive Kings - which had seen an estimated 18,000 people either killed or deported for their faith?

Scotland understands – it’s time we did too
In a recent BBC Scotland viewer poll, The Covenanters was voted as one of the Top Ten stories in Scotland’s history; the (some would say) over-hyped “Bonnie Prince Charlie” didn’t make it in at all! Clearly the people of modern, secular Scotland still understand the importance of the Covenanters – it is time for us, on this side of the water, to begin to explain and to understand the Ulster dimension.

This year we’re serialising “The Covenanters in Ulster” in our own monthly newspaper “The Ulster Scot”, and are particularly delighted to be working very closely with today’s Covenanters, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, in a series of events and initiatives. We’ll be producing a “Covenanters in Ulster” heritage trail publication, to be distributed to every Presbyterian church in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

As you know, the skeptics and opponents have dismissed Ulster-Scots as a recent invention, an artificial counterbalance to Irish culture and identity. I would challenge anyone to deny the deep integrity of “The Covenanters in Ulster”. This could be the most important story of all in Ulster-Scots history.

If you have any stories, local folklore, or information about Covenanters links with churches in your area, please get in touch with me. We’d love to hear from you, and perhaps include your information in our projects during this year.


Find out more at

Psalm Singing Evening
“Psalms Sung in Times of Persecution”
Carrickfergus Civic Centre, Antrim Street
Saturday 31 May at 7.30pm

Traditional open air Covenanter “conventicle” service
Carrickfergus Castle Marine Gardens
Sunday 1st June at 3pm.



Anonymous said...

The important role played by The Covenanters in Ulster must never be underestimated.
How they plodded on in the face of cruel and bloody opposition!. But ultimately ensuring the success of the Glorious Revolution.
God does indeed move in mysterious way.
Keep up the good work Mark.