‘The Smoke and Utter Ruin of Edinburgh’: The Sweet Singers Await the Apocalypse in the Pentland Hills

The Sweet Singers of Bo’ness can claim many firsts in Scottish history. They were the first temperance movement, the first anti-tobacco movement and the first clean-living movement (They verged on vegetarianism). One could also argue that they were Scotland’s first feminist movement. However, in April, 1681, the Sweet Singers headed for the hills to await the destruction of ‘sinful bloody’ Edinburgh and to confess to ‘Sins that the World had not heard’…

Pentland Hills  © Adam Ward and licensed for reuse.

The origin of the Sweet Singers, their early beliefs and their involvement with the Society people was dealt with in an earlier post on the execution of William Gogar and Robert Sangster in March 1681.

The Sweet Singers, aka. the Gibbites, were a prayer society in Bo’ness which had come under the influence of John Gibb, a master of a ship or sailor from Bo’ness. Following the execution of two of their number, Gogar and Sangster, Gibb spread their martyrs’ testimony against the shire of Stirlingshire. At that point, the Bo’ness society seem to have held similar views to other Society people. However, that position changed in April, 1681, when the Sweet Singers left Bo’ness for the wild moors to escape from all of the sins of the land.

Their departure was an emotionally charged moment, as some of the women abandoned their husbands and children. According to Patrick Walker:

‘Thus … [Sweet Singers] continued from the Beginning of the Year until April; then all with one Consent, that they might be free of all these foresaid Things, left their Houses, warm soft Beds, cover’d Tables; some of them their Husbands and Children, weeping upon them to stay with them; some Women taking the sucking Children in their Arms to Desert places, to be free of all Snares and Sins, and Communion with all others, and mourn for their own Sins, the Land’s Tyranny and Defections, and there be safe from the Land’s utter Ruin and Desolations by Judgments; some of them going to Pentland-hills, with a Resolution to sit there to see the Smoke and utter Ruin of. the sinful bloody City Edinburgh’. (Walker, BP, II, 16-17.)

According to Walker, husbands were prevented from “recovering” their wives, as ‘[John] Gibb and [David] Jamie carried Pistols upon them, and threatned all who came to seek their Wives or others from them; which frighted some.’ (Walker, BP, II, 19.)

The Sweet Singers antipathy to Edinburgh, the centre of government where Several society people had been martyred, was later shared by James Renwick in late 1687 and early 1688. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, I, 185.)

Intriguingly, the Sweet Singer men suggested that they were driven out of Bo’ness by persecution, rather than left by choice:

‘When we were driven … [out of Bo’ness] by persecution, we took ourselves to the fields, holding still by our duty, where many women did offer themselves to the work, with whom our spirits were many a time burdened, whom we could not put away (as our blessed Lord dealt with Judas, whom he knew would betray him) without manifest causes:’ (Wodrow, History, III, 353n.)

‘Immediately after they came to these Desert-places [in the Pentland Hills], they kept a Day of Fasting, and confessing of their Sins one to another; Yea, some of them confest Sins that the World had not heard of, and so not call’d to confess them to Men’. (Walker, BP, II, 17.)

The moderate presbyterian minister, Robert Law, wrote a lurid account of that meeting in the Pentland Hills which clearly implied that they were witches:

‘These people that lately keept the fields under pretence of praying and fasting, who rejects magistrats and ministers, when on a night lying on Pentland-hills, made confession to ane another of their sins. Ane Anna Stewart confessed adulterie and incest; this is she who forsook her husband and adhered to John Gibb as her husband, one of that number. She confessed also her converse with Sathan. Another woman of that company, sirnamed Russell, confessed the like adultery and incest, and, generally, all gross sins. Ane Janet Elphistoun confessed fornication with her husband before marriage; this was related by an ear-witness, a woman who went in amongst them to see their way, and was afterwards confirmed by some of their confessions in the tolbooth after their taking. The devil was seen amongst them in the shape of a dog, of a black collour, which John Gibb sets off fairly, by telling the rest of the company, when they saw him in this shape, that the devil appeared only to affright them from their duty. It was said also amongst them to these that reported it, that the hill on which they were lying that night did shake and tremble under them, which John Gibb blasphemously called the sign of God’s presence with them.’ (Law, Memorials, 197.)

It is possible that Law’s account may genuinely reflect some of what took place in the Pentland Hills. The probable purpose of the Sweet Singers’ fast was to confess all of their sins in order to purify themselves in preparation for the impending Apocalypse. According to Walker, they had expected divine intervention, as they had entered the Pentland Hills ‘with a Resolution to sit there to see the Smoke and utter Ruin of. the sinful bloody City Edinburgh’.

The Sweet Singer men were keen to refute allegations that anything scandalous had taken place with the women who made up the vast majority of the Sweet Singers:

‘We stayed not with them but on solemn days, such as Sabbaths, and appointed times for public meeting; but when they took their rest betwixt hands, we continued still in fields, nights and days, fasting and praying, for two or three days together, several times; and it was always their fear we should propose some question, to try them for separation’. (Wodrow, History, III, 353n.)

On the Road to Eaglesham Moor
From the Pentland Hills, the Sweet Singers headed west.

According to Wodrow:

‘When things were in this posture, John Gib, and some few with him, laid aside all business, pretending to spend all their time in fasting, prayer, and other acts of devotion, came out from Borrowstouness taking their way south [to the Pentland Hills] and west. Where they came they enjoined public acknowledgments to be made by all persons guilty of compliance, hearing the curates, and the like; and Gib, as spokesman, took on him to rebuke, reject, or receive into fellowship with them. Their zeal and seeming devotion made many run to them, and they came the length of the parish of Strathaven making proselytes’.

Wodrow acknowledged the pull of the Sweet Singers, but he was also keen to state how they were stopped by orthodox Presbyterians:

‘There happened to be in the neighbourhood [of Strathaven parish] three worthy and judicious men upon their hiding, I think, or business, James Gray of Chryston, James Sloss, afterwards bailie in Glasgow, and James Baird: some of their acquaintances besought them to go with them to a meeting where Gib was to be. They yielded, and when they came, Gib was with a considerable company toward Eaglesham muirs. (Wodrow, History, III, 349.)

The Ayrsmoss or Airdsmoss Monument commemorates Gray’s son © Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse.

Two of the men Wodrow credited with halting the progress of the Sweet Singers, James Gray and James Baird, were both from Lanarkshire.

James Gray of Chryston’s eldest son, James, younger of Chryston, had been killed at Ayrsmoss in July 1680. Gray, elder, who lived in Calder parish suffered considerably at the hands of the dragoons and his house was quartered by Captain John Strachan’s dragoons. In 1682, it was alleged that he was involved in the proclamation of the Society people’s Lanark Declaration. He was banished to Jamaica aboard Captain Love’s ship with 140 others in August 1685. (Wodrow, History, III, 220, 263-4, 391-3; NLS. MSS. Wod.Fol.L. item 113; Dalton, Scots Army, 24.)

Google Street View of Chryston           Bing OS map of Chryston

One of the others involved in confronting the Sweet Singers was James Baird, younger, of Dungeonhill in Old Monkland parish, Lanarkshire. He had been forfeited for his part in Bothwell on 6 July, 1680. He was also cited for attacking the Town Major of Edinburgh, Robert Johnston. He was declared a fugitive at Glasgow on 12 June, 1683, and was listed on the published Fugitive Roll of 1684. His forfeiture was later rescinded by act of Parliament in 1690. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 527; Wodrow, History, III, 180; IV 489n; Dalton, Scots Army, 54.)

The farm at Dungeonhill has vanished, but it lay in what is now Easterhouse in Glasgow.

Bing OS map of location of Dungeonhill            Google Street View of Dungeonhill

Baird would probably have known his near neighbour, Gavin Witherspoon of Heatheryknowe, who was involved in the Society people.

According to Wodrow, during the western progress of the Sweet Singers:

‘[Gibb] was entertaining the people with calls to leave their business, and join with him in extraordinary acts of fasting, &c. and that in a very insolent and authoritative way. These three [Baird, Gray and Sloss] entered a little upon reasoning with him, but found nothing but haughty ignorance and no reasoning. He and his followers withdrew a little, to rebuke a man for compliance. James Gray followed, and hearing him rebuke the man authoritatively, publicly questioned him, how he took on him such an act, not being a minister, adding, we had a gospel ministry, and church officers to manage that work, and commanded the country man (who was of his acquaintance) to be gone.’ (Wodrow, History, III, 349.)

Gibb did not take kindly to Gray’s defence of the moderate presbyterian ministry:

‘Upon this Gib’s countenance changed, and his eyes kindled and spoke like a madman: “your ministers, your ministers, we will curse them to hell, we will damn them and you to hell, we will pray you to hell;” with many other horrid expressions, which frighted the people so much as they left him, and came about Mr Gray and the other two, who warned them of the hazard of separation, and heights they were leading them to, and prayed a while with them, and advised them to go home, and mind their callings. Thus Gib’s folly being made manifest, his progress was stopped in that country, and he proceeded no further; … And Mr Gray of Christoun frequently used to say he did take him at that meeting to be possessed with a devil. This account I have given at more length, because I have it from the worthy persons present. (Wodrow, History, III, 349.)

Lochgoin Monument © Iain Thompson and licensed for reuse. The inscription is as follows ‘In Memory of John Howie, Author of The Scottish Worthies. Born 1735. Died 1793. I Have Considered the Days of Old, Psalms LXXVII 5. Erected 1896.’

John Howie of Lochgoin, whose family supported the militant Society people, also recorded the appearance of the Sweet Singers at his family home on the western edge of Eaglesham Moor. He was keen to point out the Society people’s role in discovering the Sweet Singers’ extremities:

‘John Gibb, from the largeness of his body, commonly called meikle John Gibb, shipmaster and sailor in Borrowstounness, set out amongst the most zealous of the sufferers; but being but badly founded in principle, about the year 1681, he associated three men and twenty-six women to himself, and, on a pretence of religious zeal to serve God, took to the desert places towards the weft of Scotland; where, from their often singing the mournful psalms, they were called the sweet singers. But they had not long continued thus, till they fell into fearful delusions, disowning all but themselves; for, laying more stress upon their own duties of fasting and devotion than upon the obedience, satisfaction, and righteousness of Christ, … which began first to be discovered at Lochgoin in Fenwick parish.’ (Howie, Biographia Scoticana, 627.)

Bing OS Map of Lochgoin

Having reached Eaglesham Moor, the Sweet Singers turned back east. On 24 April they held a conference with Donald Cargill in Cambusnethan parish which resulted in their expulsion from the Society people and adopting an even more extreme position.

For the next installment of the Sweet Singer story, see here.

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on September 27, 2011.

3 Responses to “‘The Smoke and Utter Ruin of Edinburgh’: The Sweet Singers Await the Apocalypse in the Pentland Hills”

  1. Great article, looking forward to the next installment. I’d read about the Gibbites before. Long live Christopher Hill for explaining that the ideals of people in the 17th century were basically religious, with Puritanism as the complex and paradoxical revolutionary force of its day! He would be proud of you 😉 Hardly anyone has equalled his ability to focus and incredible understanding of the poor and unlearned with an amazing knowledge of religious doctrine and struggle. No Way to the Old Way!

  2. […] that, in April, 1681, they were driven out of Bo’ness. After a brief spell preparing for the Apocalypse in the Pentland Hills, they moved west to Eaglesham Moor. Encountering hostility from other Presbyterians, the Sweet […]

  3. […] the emergence of the Sweet Singers can be found here, and their progress until they were captured here, here and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.