Crichope Linn and the Covenanter’s Cave: Building Tradition
Today, it is hard to spot Crichope Linn. Even from the road, there is little sign that this sublime site was visited by tourists such as Sir Walter Scott and Jane and Thomas Carlyle. However, hidden in the woods is a remarkable waterfall, chasm and a Covenanter’s cave. What path remains has to be negotiated with care.
Crichope Linn lies in Closeburn parish, Dumfriesshire.
The site first appears in connection with the Covenanters in Walter Scott’s novel, Old Mortality, of 1816. Scott used Crichope Linn as a setting for his fanatical Covenanter, Balfour of Burley, a character based on the assassin of Archbishop Sharp, John Balfour of Kinloch.
Scott’s novel led to the naming of ‘Burley’s Leap’, a narrow part of the chasm above the Crichope Burn.
Scott’s influence on the site was noted in the Transactions of the Highland Society in 1845.
Nivison of Closeburnmill
In 1846, Simpson published a tradition that James Nivison (d.1704) and his wife had hidden at Crichope Linn.
According to Simpson, Nivison had lived at Closeburnmill:
‘The farm of Closeburn Mill was, in the times of persecution, tenanted by James Nivison, a man of a saintly character and of unbending integrity. His house was an occasional resort to the wanderers that frequented the district. The curate of Closeburn had no good-will to this worthy man, and he sought every opportunity to injure him. James refused to attend his church —a circumstance which gave unpardonable offence to that Prelatic underling— and he failed not to lodge information against him, as being a disaffected and disloyal person. He had one friend in the parish, however, in the person of Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick, whose lenity to the sufferers that crept into the woods and glens near him was displayed on various occasions. When the worthy knight learned the determination of the curate respecting James Nivison, and knowing the vindictive disposition of the man, he entreated James to yield so far as to consent to enter the church, though it were only to go in by the one door and out by the other. With this, however, he would by no means comply; alleging that it would be a compromise of his principles to yield even this apparently trifling matter. The knight could not but admire the firmness and honesty of purpose displayed by this virtuous man, in a case in which he deemed his conscience concerned. Anxious, however, to protect his tenant, he made another proposal, and assured him, if he would come only to the “kirk-stile,” it might still be in his power to save him; but Nivison continued firm in his determination, and even went so far as to declare, that if the turning of a straw, in obedience to the unprincipled rulers of the time, would save him from trouble, he would not comply. He was resolved to follow what he conceived to be the plain line of his duty, and to preserve a good conscience, whatever might betide. This decision of mind, which some may probably be inclined to call obstinacy, did not lessen him in the estimation of the laird of Closebirrn, who determined, since he could make no more of it, to communicate to his honest tenant whatever he knew of the designs of the enemy respecting him, and by this means to afford him opportune warning of the danger that threatened him.
Sir Thomas had a domestic servant, whose leanings towards the Covenanters were no secret to his master, and him he instructed to understand the import of certain signs, by which, when he could not hold conversation with him, he wished to communicate the designs formed against the Covenanters who at the time might happen to be lurking in the neighbourhood, and especially against his friend James Nivison. When, therefore, any proposal was made to Sir Thomas to lend assistance to the persecutors in searching the woods and linns on his estate for persons under hiding, information of the circumstance was instantly communicated, by means of the servant, to Nivison, and others concerned. In this way much mischief was prevented, and the purposes of the enemy in many, instances defeated. When these occasional warnings were given to Nivision, he had one place of resort to which he generally fled, and this was the darkly wooded sides of Crichope Linn.
Crichope Linn is, perhaps, one of the most striking scenes of the kind in the south of Scotland, and the caverns in its precipitous banks are well calculated to afford a concealment, which few who know the danger of the attempt will care to invade.’
Simpson then relates the inevitable stories of Nivison’s cunning and narrow escapes from government forces at Closeburnmill:
‘One day, however, the dragoons came upon James without warning, and on his first view of their approach he saw that they were too near the house to admit of his making an escape to the woods. In his perplexity he ran into the mill, crying he was now in the power of his enemies, as the soldiers were just at hand.
“Not so fast,” replied the miller; “doff your coat, and here is mine in exchange.”
The miller having hastily arrayed his master in his dusty coat, next took a mealy sack, and powdered him all over from head to foot, and left him busily engaged in his own occupation. The soldiers who saw him enter the mill soon followed in the pursuit. Having entered the lower apartment, they examined every corner with the closest scrutiny; they next ascended the upper story in quest of him who, they were certain, was somewhere within. This place they searched with equal care, and with equal want of success. It never occurred to them that the man who was working at the mill was the individual whom they were seeking, and therefore they paid no attention to him. When they found that all their efforts to find the fugitive were fruitless, and probably supposing that he had left the building by some way unknown to them, they were about to retire, when one of the party, looking in the miller’s face, exclaimed:
“Here he is! — the very man we have been seeking!”
On hearing this, James, who seemed to the soldiers to be entirely absorbed in his employment, turned round, and, with a dauntless countenance and apparent surprise at the affirmation, said, with a firm and deliberate tone:
“I think the devil seems to be in these men.”
Such an expression, they thought, could never proceed from the mouth of a douce Covenanter, and therefore they interfered no further, believing, at the same time, that his habiliments indicated the presence of an entirely different person from him of whom they were in quest. What James said was true; they were actuated by the spirit of evil in promoting the interests of Satan, to whose service they seemed to have sold themselves; and when these worthless men heard any one use the name of their master in conversation, they thought they recognised in him a fellow-servant. On the present occasion they left the mill without having accomplished their purpose.’ […]
‘James Nivison, notwithstanding the hints which he occasionally received to provide for his safety, was often surprised by the visits of the soldiers who came in quest of him. One day, when he was least expecting it, a party of troopers approached his house; and he, having no other place to flee to, darted through a window in a back part of his cottage, and sought refuge in the garden. The little plot of herbs was at this time in its most luxuriant state, and the large stocks of green kail — a vegetable indispensable in the gardens of the Scottish peasantry — meeting at the tops in lengthened rows, formed a long vaulted cavity so large as to admit, underneath the broad and verdant blades, the body of a fullgrown man without being perceived. It was into one of these deep furrows, and beneath the green arch, that James Nivison crept, that in this earthly bed he might lie secure from the prying eyes of the soldiers. The dragoons arrived, and proceeded to the search as formerly; and, as formerly, were unsuccessful. Having questioned his family respecting his place of concealment without expiscating anything satisfactory, they departed, expressing their determination to repeat their visits till they found him. Had the dragoons entered the garden with the slightest suspicion of his being concealed within its precincts, there is little doubt that he would have been discovered.’ […]
Nivison Heads For Crichope Linn
‘James Nivison now saw that there was to be no peace nor safety for him in his own house; and that, therefore, it would be necessary for him to resort to some place of more permanent security among the woods and lonely caves of the hills, and to associate with other wanderers who frequented the deserts and dreary glens far from the abodes of men. His life hung in doubt every day before his eyes; and therefore he deemed it better to retire to the solitudes than to be teased with incessant anxiety and uncertainty. He communicated his intention to his wife, and showed her the necessity now imposed on him of leaving her and the sweet babe behind him for a season, under the more especial protection of Providence, seeing his presence was the occasion of so much disquietude to the household.
“And, my dear wife,” says he, “comfort yourself, since it is stern necessity that forces us to a temporary separation. God will be with us both — with me in the wilderness, and with you in. this house, in which, though solitary, you shall not be alone. In removing for a season, I will thereby provide both for your safety and my own.”
But the wife of James Nivison was, in a moral sense, a heroine, and she was not to be deterred from following the fortunes of her husband, from the consideration that she must lodge in the cold damp cavern, or in the dark forest, exposed to unwanted hunger and fatigue. The thought that she was to be with her husband compensated for all, and she was resolved to follow him, and to suffer with him in the same common cause. No remonstrance, on the part of her husband, could induce her to remain behind him.
“I will accompany you,” said she, firmly, “I will accompany you; and if the archers should hit you, I will be present to staunch your wounds, and to bind up your bleeding head; in whatever danger you may be, I will be at your side, your affectionate wife in life or in death.”
How valuable are virtuous love and genuine Christian attachment! Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. Thus James Nivison and his wife, too happy in each others affection to complain of hardship, and happier still in the love of their Saviour, left their home to wander they knew not whither, but safe under the guidance of Him who never leaves nor forsakes his own people, and more especially when they are suffering for his sake.
Their first place of retreat was the woods and caves of Crichope Linn. The mother carried the babe, the companion of their sufferings and their wanderings. The tender infant, exposed to hardship in common with its parents for Christ’s sake, could ill endure the cold and other inconveniences to which the household was now subjected. To protect the child, however, from the keen and inclement air, James employed part of his time in preparing a portable cradle, of pliant twigs cut from the willow bushes that grew in the linns and by the sides of the mountain stream. In this little basket was the infant, wrapped in a warm blanket, deposited and rocked asleep, while the soft lullaby, chanted by the affectionate mother, filled with a sweet plaintive music the dark recesses of the cave, the sound of which, wafted stealthily on the fitful breeze, was carried adown the gloomy ravine, and died away among the distant woods. When they removed from cave to cave, the wicker bed was carried with them, and was found to be of great use for the accommodation of the babe, over whom the hearts of the parents yearned with the fondest solicitude.
This pious and devoted pair, with their offspring, were shielded, during the years of persecution that remained, from the malice of their foes. They left their all on earth for Christ’s sake, and, by the kindness of the people in the moorlands, they were never suffered to want, God providing for them in the day when they could not provide for themselves. What were the varied incidents which during their wanderings befell them, tradition does not say; but they outlived the reign of oppression, and at last, with glad hearts, returned to their home, from which they had formerly departed in sadness. This worthy man met with his death in the following manner: While he was working among some horses before his own door, one of them struck him violently on the breast, and killed him on the spot. Thus was he, who had weathered many a storm, and escaped the perils of a protracted persecution, killed by accident before his own house, in circumstances in which no danger was apprehended. When the worthy knight of Closeburn was informed of his death, he exclaimed:
“Now has God, who sustained this good man in all his tribulations, taken him to heaven by a stun and gentle surprise.”
“Be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh.”
James Nivison died in 1704, and was buried in the ancient churchyard of Dalgarnock, in the parish of Closeburn.’ (Simpson, Traditions, 271-8.)
There is no record of a James Nivison being a fugitive in the mid 1680s. However, there was a fugitive in the area called John Nivison in late 1684.
Simpson’s story of Nivison was republished in volume two of the Christian Treasury in 1847 and in a ‘Our Children’s Corner’ section of the second volume of the Christian Miscellany and Family Visiter of 1847.
Two years after Simpson published his tradition of James Nivison, the Covenanter’s Cave is first recorded.
According to the OS Name Book for Dumfriesshire of 1848 to 1858: ‘A Deep Crevice in the rock overhanging Crichope Linn, where as tradition asserts the Covenanters concealed themselves during the times of persecution.’
The site of the remains of the cave is misplaced in a field near the Linn on the Canmore website, as the first OS map does not align with the google map. It is not clear if anything of the Covenanter’s Cave remains.
In 1856, Simpson published a further tradition of a raid by Claverhouse which mentions that Thomas Harkness in Mitchellslacks hid at Crichope Linn.
Did the tradition of the Covenanters at Crichope Linn begin with Walter Scott or in the Killing Times? You decide.
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