Robert Howie Comes Home and Lives Quietly in 1686
Martyrdoms, field shootings and sufferings are a mainstay of Covenanter narratives, but not every one of them chose that path…
One such individual was Robert Howie in Fenwick parish, Ayrshire. In early November, 1685, Howie’s home at Midland was raided by Lieutenant Robert Nisbet.
In a violent firefight in the farm house, three Covenanters, George Woodburn, John Ferguson and Patrick Gemmell were killed, and a fourth, John Nisbet of Hardhill was captured. What is hardly ever mentioned in accounts of the raid is that Robert Howie escaped from Midland.
There is little doubt that Howie faced serious punishment if he was captured after four ringleaders of the Societies were discovered in his house. However, Howie took a bold step to avert that fate. On 15 July, 1686, Robert Howie was listed as a former prisoner in Edinburgh who had ‘now com hom’:
‘Robert Howg in Midland in Finwick parish, in whose hous fowr rogs was taken, thrie of which feld on the pla[c]e, the fowrt being Nisbitt Hardhill being carried to Edinburgh was hanged ther. (RPCS, XII, 342.)
The irregular spelling used by ‘James Maffit’, the author of the information on Howg, creates doubt over which surname ‘Howg’ denotes. It is possible that he was called Robert Hogg, but later evidence from Fenwick parish indicates that it was probably Robert Howie, as a ‘Jeane Howy in Midlan’ was buried at Fenwick in May, 1701. Howie was a relatively common surname in sparsely populated parish of Fenwick. It is possible that Robert Howie was related to either James, John or Isobel Howie in Lochgoin or the Robert Howie in Floak who all hid John Paton of Meadowhead.
Howie escaped the raid on Midland, but later came to Edinburgh to throw himself on the mercy of the privy council. Before 13 May, 1686, he had succeeded in obtaining his release after accepting royal authority: ‘Howg having mad his escapt went to Edinburgh, his goten himself relaxt, and is now lewing qwetly at hom’ (RPCS, XII, 342.)
The story of Howie says a lot about the changed nature of repression in late 1685 and early 1686. The violence of the Killing Times had ended with the collapse of the Argyll and Monmonth Risings in July. In the months which followed, the southern shires were quiet. In August and September, James Renwick was able to field preach without interruption on thirteen occasions in the South West and in October he preached at Auchengilloch, Eaglesham Moor and Cambusnethan. At the same time, the number of field shootings dramatically tailed off. Between late 1685 and the end of 1687, only two incidents, the one at Midland and an other involving the killing of David Steel, resulted in deaths. Both incidents were raids on farmhouses in which high-profile Society people resisted capture. Banishments, too, were in decline. Mid 1685 had witnessed mass banishments of Society people and Argyll rebels, but later banishments were on a smaller scale. That decline took place against a backdrop of increased numbers attending Renwick’s field preachings. However, when prisoners were taken after his preachings in 1686, nearly all of those who were seized were released after giving their allegiance to the crown and promises of good behaviour. Only the most intransigent Society people were banished, but even they received relatively lenient treatment in comparison to their brethren captured before mid 1685 who were frequently executed.
It is clear that after the Argyll Rising that the government eased the intensity of repression, drew back from field shootings and tacitly reduced the punishments for those captured. The Midland raid took place after several months of relative calm.
At the same time, the Societies were wracked by internal strife over reunion with the followers of Argyll. The increasingly bitter dispute between the rival factions led to questioning of the Societies’s public platform and undermining of the authority of its leadership. It took nearly a year after the attempted reunification of the presbyterian movement failed in January, 1686, for the Societies to coalesce around a new public platform, the Informatory Vindication. When the Midland raid took place, the Societies were in the depths of that internal feud and what they stood for was in flux.
It is clear that Howie was prepared to hide ringleaders of the Societies, but whether his commitment extended to the Societies’ cause is not known. Reduced punishments and internal divisions within the Societies may have influenced Howie’s decision to hand himself over to the mercy of the authorities, rather than remain a fugitive. However, other factors may have swayed him. What we can say with some confidence is that Howie was not the only member of the Societies to hand himself in, as several other Society people also made their peace with the regime in 1686.
It appears that Hardhill and the others had gone to Midland in relation to settling a dispute among the Society people in Fenwick parish. According to his son, James Nisbet, ‘my father, who was with other three being desired to go mend a controversy in one of their Christian societies raised by a person of a turbulent & divisive spirit’. Was Robert Howie the ‘turbulent & divisive spirit’? He may have been, or he may have been another member of the society seeking the help of Hardhill. (Nisbet. ‘Narrative’, 80.)
Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reblog without the express permission of the author.