The Covenanter John Dempster and the Killing Times in Carsphairn
He has a stone named after him high up on Meaul, a hill near Carsphairn in Kirkcudbrightshire. However, the only evidence for John Dempster are traditions about his numerous escapes and death in the Killing Times collected by Simpson and published in 1846.
Dempster is said to have been a tailor in Garryaird, aka. Garryyard or Garryard, a farm that appears on the 1843 OS map as a ruin to the north of the Black Water in Dalry parish, Kirkcudbrightshire.
The story of Dempster shows us how some people liked to remember the Covenanters in the nineteenth century. It is literature, rather than history, and the following account should be read in that spirit.
Nonetheless, the traditions about Dempster are invaluable. In particular, they brilliantly demonstrate how the stories of local Covenanters became attached to features in the landscape. We will never know the reality of Dempster’s flight through the heather or even whether he existed, as there is no evidence of Dempster in the historical sources.
So sit back and enjoy Simpson’s version of the story of John Dempster. I have inserted photos of the locations and an occasional comment.
‘John Dempster, the Covenanter, lived at Garryyard, in the parish of Dalry, in Galloway. He followed the occupation of a tailor, and was one of the patriots who fought at Bothwell Bridge. Being a noted Nonconformist, a strict search was frequently made for him in the district where he resided. So intent were his enemies on his apprehension, that he was obliged to leave his house, and to seek an abode in the woods and caves of the neighbourhood. He selected a hiding-place in the rugged sides of the Black Water, a stream which empties itself into the silvery Ken a few miles above the village of Dalry. The cave of the rock in which he lodged was the place where, in the summer months, he plied his trade, while his wife conveyed to him his food by stealth.’
Dempster’s Cave is said to have been beside the Black Water.
‘On one occasion his wife, in the evening dusk, had brought him a supply of provisions, and having learned that the enemy was not in the neighbourhood, she persuaded him to leave his retreat, and to seek shelter for one night under his own roof. The worthy man was induced to visit his household, in the hope that he might be permitted to remain for a few hours in his own lowly hut without interruption, and then to return in the morning to his rocky cell. The night, accordingly, was spent without the intrusion of the military, and John, after the morning’s repast, and after the accustomed family devotions, was preparing to return to his hiding-place by the purling brook. It was a fine morning; and his wife, ‘whose solicitude for her husband’s welfare was incessant, went to the front of the house to ascertain if the space within the field of her vision was clear of the wandering troopers, who were frequently abroad at all seasons seeking to surprise the helpless and unwary. As she cast her anxious eye afar over the landscape, she noticed a band of dragoons marching at their utmost speed in the direction of the house. The unwelcome tidings were communicated to John, who lost not a moment in making his escape. As he was running at his full stretch, having thrown off his shoes to facilitate his flight, he was observed by the horsemen, who pursued him hotly, and fired several times without effect. John fled in the direction of Earndarrock Wood, a thicket about the distance of half a mile from his house.’
The farm at Arndarroch, aka. Earndarrock or Arndarrogh, is also depicted in ruins on the 1843 OS map. It lies to the north of Black Water and to the south of the present farm at Arndarroch. The wood presumably lay on the east side of the glen which held the Water of Ken. The creation of the hydro scheme has considerably altered the landscape.
Back to the story:
‘Between him and the wood there lay a moss or space of boggy ground, to which, when the dragoons approached, their progress was suddenly arrested. One of their number, however, found his way round by the end of the morass, and spurring furiously his war-steed, came up to John as he was attempting to scramble over the dyke that surrounded the wood. He had no weapons of defence; but remembering that he had with him the large scissors which were employed in cutting the good broad cloth, he drew them from his pocket, and just when the horse had neared him so close that he felt his head rubbing and pressing on his shoulder, he drove, with the force of desperation, the sharp-pointed instrument into the animal’s forehead. The violent stroke made the horse rear and spring to the one side, so that his rider, who had uplifted his sword to strike, was cast impetuously on the ground. This overthrow afforded John time to dart into the wood before the party reached the spot. The troopers, leaving their horses at the edge of the wood, pursued him on foot to the brink of a deep ravine, down the rugged sides of which he made his way with all possible haste. His pursuers, finding it inconvenient to descend after him, employed themselves in tumbling large fragments of rock after him; but John escaped unhurt, and having reached the opposite side of the ravine, concealed himself among the bushes.
His wife witnessed the pursuit, from the door of her house, with intense anxiety. It is impossible to describe her feelings at the moment she saw the dragoon reach him, before he succeeded in entering the wood. When, however, she observed the fall of the trooper, and perceived her husband running into the thicket, her hopes revived. Her fears, however, were renewed, when she saw the party dismount and dive into the wood, hunting among the trees, and yelling like bloodhounds after their prey.
In a short time they emerged from the plantation, and returned to the house, where the afflicted wife and children were lamenting the loss of the husband and the father. The disappointed troopers declared that they had killed the rebel in the ravine, and had left his mangled body among the underwood. They enjoyed a malignant satisfaction in lacerating the good woman’s feelings to the uttermost, who had no difficulty in believing their assertions respecting the murder. Such incidents were of daily occurrence, and the death of John was considered as nothing new nor incredible. The soldiers, on witnessing the excessive affliction of the family, wrought all manner of mischief, eating and drinking at their will, and destroying what they could not use.
When the troopers were gone, the household gave vent, without restraint, to sincere and uncontrollable sorrow. “Come, my children,” said the mother, “let us go into the wood and seek the bleeding body of your father, who has fallen an honoured witness for Jesus Christ by the hands of these cruel men.” The sun was now advancing to his meridian height; and the family, a weeping company, was preparing to go to traverse the wood in every direction. The dragoons were now out of sight, and it might be supposed that nothing was to be dreaded from them, as they had declared they had now perpetrated the murder they had so long sought to accomplish. When the mother, with her children, was on the eve of departure, a new thought struck her in a moment, and she stood still and considered. “My dear children,” said she, “it has even now occurred to me that this account of your father’s death by the dragoons is probably, after all, a mere fabrication of their own, to serve a purpose. Perhaps your father yet lives, and is in safety in some undiscovered hiding-place in the ravine; and the object of these unprincipled men may be to send us in search of him whom they could not find, and then to trace our steps and capture him. No trust can be put in the statements of these men; and perchance there is a snare laid to entrap us.” It was exactly as the honest woman opined; the troopers invented the story for the purpose of imposing on the simplehearted cottagers, that through their means they might the more easily accomplish their purpose.
Still it was a matter of uncertainty; and the surmises of the mother, though amounting to a high probability, were not fully satisfactory, and the afflicted household earnestly longed for the shadows of the evening. John, in his cavern, was greatly solicitous about his family. He knew that the soldiers would be chagrined and exasperated at the disappointment they had met with, and that, therefore, they might vent their fury on his helpless wife and children. He durst not move from his retreat so long as the light of day continued, lest his enemies should be lying in wait in the skirts of the wood, ready to shoot or apprehend him on his first appearance. With impatient look he watched the progress of the descending sun, that under the cloud of night he might steal cautiously to his cottage to see how matters stood there, and to impart the joyful intelligence of his safety. As the distressed inmates of the cottage were making preparation for an instant departure to the wood, the sound of footsteps was heard at the door, and the object of their solicitude stood before them. The surprise and the gladness of the household were indescribable; the affectionate wife fainted in her husband’s arms, being overpowered by the strength of her emotions, and the children were bathed in tears of joy. The state of matters was fully rehearsed on both sides, and the liveliest gratitude was expressed to the great Preserver of life by this pious company.
As John’s place of concealment within the precincts of the wood was now known to the enemy, it was obvious that they would not cease to frequent the spot till they finally succeeded in their object; and, therefore, it was agreed that he should seek a place of shelter in another quarter. There was an intimate friend of his, a sufferer under hiding, who had a cave in a hill above New Galloway, and to this man our worthy resolved to pay a visit. He accordingly left his family for a season—went in quest of his friend—found him in his hiding-place, and was warmly received by him.’
The action has moved south to Kells parish on the opposite side of the Water of Ken. The highest point in the bleak wilds to the west of New Galloway is the black brooding presence of Cairnsmore in the Galloway Forest.
‘He had not long remained here till he received information that a strict search was to be made on the mountain by the soldiers, who, it was supposed, were conducted by a spy who seemed to have some notion of the hiding-place. On the reception of this friendly caution,’John and his friend left the cave to seek concealment elsewhere. As they were traversing the hill they observed a company of troopers who, guided by an informer, were coming directly to the cavern which they had just abandoned. They now plainly perceived that the warning they had received was not without ground, and that their only security lay in the speed of their flight. The dragoons, who by this time had them fully in their view, commenced a vigorous pursuit. The fugitives directed their course towards Loch Ken, a beautiful sheet of water which stretches along the valley, in the line of the River Ken, below New Galloway.
They next turned [north] in the direction of Balmaclellan, and were about to ascend the little eminence that leads to the village, when they perceived that they were out of their enemies’ view; and seizing the advantage, they turned to a linn in the Garple Glen, at a short distance from the place where they were, in which they had formerly found shelter, and which had been a place of retreat to many a wanderer in those fearful times. They reached the cave in safety; and the troopers arrived at Balmaclellan, where they searched every house in which they supposed the men might have taken refuge, but without success, and they were obliged to return to their quarters without their prey. The place in which the cave was situated was a deep rugged recess, in the retirement of which the Gospel had often been preached by the outed ministers. The Rev. Mr [Thomas] Verner, the ejected minister of Balmaclellan, on one occasion preached to a small audience in this place, and baptized, it is said, no fewer than six-and-thirty children at one time. The baptismal water was contained in the hollow basin of a rock; from which circumstance the spot received the name of “The Holy Linn,” which it retains till this day.’
The Holy Linn lies on the boundary between the parishes of Balmaclellan and Dalry.
‘Mr Verner was one of those excellent men who maintained the standard of truth in a degenerate age, and who was subjected to many privations in his Master’s cause. It is said that he accounted the union of his daughter in marriage with the curate of the parish as one of the greatest trials which befell him in those troublous times. Nor is this to be wondered at; for John Row, the curate, if he it was to whom she was united, was a very bad man, and one who in the end apostatized to Popery. Mr Verner was again minister of Balmaclellan after the Revolution.’
The story now moves north to Carsphairn parish which lay to the west of Dempster’s home.
Sir Robert Grierson of Lag enters the story. According to tradition, he was a notorious persecutor of the Covenanters. While in Carsphairn parish, he is said to have stayed at the farm at Garryhorn just to the west of Carsphairn village.
‘We come now to the incidents which led to the martyrdom of John Dempster, by the cruel hands of the infamous [Grierson of] Lagg. On one occasion, when he was returning in the evening twilight from his place of concealment, he was met by a party of Lagg’s men on Knockgree Hill, as they were returning to their garrison in the vicinity of the persecutor’s residence. John descended the mountain closely pursued by his enemies, and crossed the Water of Deuch. The gloom of the evening, however, and the dark heath over which he was fleeing, perplexed his enemies, and in their bewilderment they lost his track. They rode round and round, backward and forward, in expectation of stumbling upon him in some lurking-place, but were disappointed, and obliged to abandon the search. ‘John sped to the lofty mountain of Craighit, where he found shelter for the night among the crevices of the rocks.’
Craighit lies to the west of Garryhorn.
‘Craighit was not a proper place for persons in John’s condition, as it was full in the view of Lagg Castle; and had it not been that he was greatly fatigued and overpowered, and perhaps sickly, he never would have allowed the light of day to dawn on him in this situation. Next morning Lagg was at the head of his troopers for the purpose of searching for wanderers in the neighbourhood. He had his eye on, Craighit, and thinking that he saw an object in the distance, he brought his telescope to assist his vision, and by this means he obtained a distinct view of John cowering behind a rock on the hill. On this welcome discovery he instantly divided his men into two companies—the one made a circuit to the south, and the other to the west, with a view to circumvent the fugitive. John saw their movements, and instantly left his last place of shelter on earth. The scene of the pursuit was in full view of the people of Carsphairn, who looked on with absorbing interest, and with deep sorrow, to see the worthy man pursued like a partridge on the mountain. He left Craighit, crossed the Garry Burn, and hastened to reach the Bow Hill, with the intention of sliding down the back part of it into Loch Doon, if perchance he might there find another hiding-place.’
‘The dragoons were pursuing with the utmost eagerness, and as hilariously as if they had been in keen chase after the furtive reynard. Lagg stood below in sight of his men, where he had a full view of all that was passing on the hill; and when, owing to the inequalities of the ground, the soldiers lost sight of the object of their pursuit, he made signs to them, and pointed out the direction in which they were to follow. When John reached the Bow Hill, he became fully aware of his situation, and saw that it was impossible to escape, as his pursuers were just at hand. He gained the height, however, and ran along it to a considerable distance to a point called the Meaul Hill.’
Dempster’s Stone is half way along the ridge between Bow and Meaul, i.e., is it around the kink in the purple line.
‘Here the dragoons in two divisions met and closed him in. He was now entirely in the power of his ferocious enemies, who exulted in their success as joyously as if they had seized the richest prize. The poor captive, panting and exhausted, was allowed no time to kneel on the heath in prayer, nor to commit his soul formally to Him in whose presence he was about to appear as a sufferer in His cause. But though this favour was not granted, he was not unprepared. He had sought the Saviour before, and he had found him, and now he was ready when called on to die in defence of his truth. His capture and death were almost instantaneous, for the merciless troopers shot him dead on the spot.
Thus fell a good man who had endured many hardships, and braved many storms of persecution, for a number of years. He died an honoured witness for Christ, and sincerely lamented by the worthy people of the district in which he was known.
There is to be seen on the solitary mountain a rude stone which marks the place where he fell, and under which, in all likelihood, his ashes repose; as it was common in those times to bury the mangled body of the martyrs in the identical spot where their blood was shed. “The mosses and the moors of Scotland are flowered with martyrs.’
There the story ends.
In 1986, the Scottish Covenanting Memorial Association place a plaque beside Dempster’s Stone.
‘On this spot was martyred
By Grierson of Lag’s dragoons
Addition Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.