The Laird of Culzean: Tales of the Covenanters #History

In the nineteenth century, stories of the Covenanters appeared in popular fiction. Generally, they repeated the black legend of ruthless soldiers hunting down the pious Covenanters. They represent how people wanted to remember the Killing Times, rather than what actually took place. A classic example is Ellen Jane Guthrie’s Tales of the Covenanters, which was first published in c.1880 and ran through at least eleven editions by 1920.

The following is one of Guthrie’s tales:

Gilbert MacAdam Covenanters

THE LAIRD OF CULZEAN

“I think,” said Mrs. Anderson, as she carefully restored the Scots’ Worthies to its late position on the book-shelf, “that whoever got the disposal of the souls and bodies of these persecutors after their death seems to have treated them wi’ a’ the respect becoming their high station in this world, for it was always coaches and six, and coaches and four that came for them. You see, it was a coach and six that came for the Duke o’ Drumlanrig, and there was the Laird of Culzean, a wickeder old fellow never lived, and just the same kind o’ thing occurred at the time o’ his death.”

“Tush, nonsense, wife,” interrupted Mr. Anderson.

“But it’s no nonsense,” rejoined the dame, “for my forefathers lived a long time near Culzean Castle, and many and many a time have they told me when a child of what was seen the night the Laird died; and as the lady seems to wish to hear all she can about these things, I’ll just give her the account given me by my grandfather, who was as decent an old man as ever lived, though I say it that shouldna’ say it.”

Having expressed the pleasure I should feel in listening to her story, Mrs. Anderson put away her sewing, and, resting her arms comfortably on her knees, related the following wild tale, which, illustrating as it does the strange superstitions of the times in which these men lived, I here render as nearly as possible in the words of the narrator:–

The old Castle of Culzean, standing as it does on a rock rising two or three hundred feet above the level of the sea, is probably one of the finest marine seats in the kingdom. At the foot of the rock on which the castle stands, there are some romantic caves, more familiarly known as the “Fairy coves of Culzean.” Many and many a night have I played about there, when the setting sun caused the dancing waves to glitter like gold, as they rippled over the pebbled beach towards the entrance to the caves. It was said that King Robert Bruce and his followers took refuge there, after landing from Arran, until all was in readiness for their enterprise. They are also particularly mentioned by Burns in his well-known “Hallowe’en.” But still, for all that they were so beautiful, there were few o’ the country people that cared to venture near them after it was dark, on account of the many strange things that were said to have been done there during the time of the wicked Laird of Culzean. Ay, but it was he that was the cruel man! It would make the very hairs on your head stand on end could ye but hear tell of all the cruelties he practised towards the Covenanters, while permitted to remain on earth. Oh, dearie me, how people in these days could dare to ask the Almighty’s blessing on their dark deeds beats my comprehension altogether; but now to begin wi’ my tale:–In the parish of Kirkmichael there lived an aged widow, called Mrs. M’Adam, who had an only son named Gilbert; and a nice quiet young man he was, and greatly beloved of his mother, for she was a lone woman, and had no one in the world to look to but him; and well did he repay her affection, poor lad, for there was nothing he thought too good for his mother. When these dreadful religious disturbances broke out, like many other young men who were at all given to think seriously about their spiritual welfare, Gilbert M’Adam was a Covenanter; but he did not join the body, as numbers did, merely for diversion, or from a hatred to the higher authorities, but simply from a sincere belief in the soundness of their doctrine and sympathy for their wrongs. His mother was also o’ that way o’ thinking, and, being a godly living person, she was greatly respected in the neighbourhood where she resided. Well, one wild stormy night, as Mrs. M’Adam and her son were seated by the side of the kitchen fire, the door opened and in entered their minister, a most worthy man, who had been forced, like many others, to leave his church, and wander up and down the country, teaching and ministering to the spiritual wants of his people whenever an opportunity presented itself. Greeting them with the blessing of peace, Mr. Weir–I think that was the minister’s name–proceeded to encumber himself of his dripping cloak, while Gilbert flew to place a chair for him near the blazing hearth, and Mrs. M’Adam proceeded to put on the table the best her store afforded, to succour her esteemed guest. After having partaken of the eatables set before him, Mr. Weir informed his kind entertainers that he intended holding a prayer meeting on the following morning, in a retired glen near Kirkmichael, where he expected a numerous attendance, as the inhabitants of the surrounding districts had been apprized of his intention, and expressed great joy at the intelligence, as they had lately been like sheep without a shepherd. In reply to some anxious inquiries on the part of Mrs. M’Adam, regarding the aspect of affairs throughout the country. Mr. Weir informed her that as yet the hand of the smiter was not stayed, but rather on the contrary, as their persecutors seemed more than ever zealous in their bloody work; and that, in the course of his wanderings in Dumfriesshire, many cruel murders had come under his knowledge, two of which, from the melancholy circumstances attending them, had made an indelible impression on his mind. At the request of Mrs. M’Adam, Mr. Weir related the following:–

“Late one evening, during the month of last February, while an aged woman of the name of Martin, who resides in the parish of Barr, was sitting by her hearth conversing with her son David, and a young man named Edward Kyan, who had but recently come from Galloway, a party of dragoons, under the command of Lieutenant Douglas, surrounded the house. Kyan, on being made aware of their approach, leaped through a side window, and took refuge behind the wall of the cottage. But his retreat being discovered by the soldiers, they dragged him forth into an adjoining yard. After being asked where he lived, without any further questions, or even being allowed to prepare for eternity, the said lieutenant shot him through the head, and then discharging his other pistol, shot him again as he lay on the ground quivering in the agonies of death. Not contented with this, one of the dragoons, pretending he was still alive, shot him again. After having glutted their vengeance on this unfortunate youth–whose only crime was that of concealing himself–the dragoons rushed into the house, and, bringing forth David Martin, tore off his coat, and placed him beside the mangled body of his friend. One of the soldiers more compassionate than the others, and moved at the sight of the mother’s tears, besought his officer to spare him another day, and stepped in between the kneeling man and his executioners, who stood with their pieces levelled, awaiting the signal of destruction. After much entreaty, the lieutenant was prevailed upon to spare his life; but so great was the terror of the poor man, that he lost his reason, and is now a helpless bed-ridden maniac. And now,” continued Mr. Weir, “the other sad affair I am about to relate–the particulars of which came under my own observation–will serve, in some measure, to enlighten you as to the manner in which these cruel men perform their bloody work:–

“In the course of the same month, I went with a friend, in whose house I was then staying, to attend communion service in a secluded part of the parish of Irongray. The morning was cold and damp, and a dull leaden mist overshadowed the landscape, as if nature had donned her saddest garments on this melancholy occasion–still the meeting was numerously attended. It was indeed an impressive sight to witness these poor people–many of whom seemed overcome with fatigue from the distance they had travelled–assembled on this sequestered heath, to hear the word of God, and partake of his blessed ordinance.

“The service had just commenced, when the sentinels stationed on the heights gave notice that a party of dragoons were approaching.

“On receipt of this warning, the meeting instantly dispersed. Some fled towards the banks of the Cairn, and others towards the moor of Lochen-Kit, in the parish of Urr. Here the six poor men who suffered on this occasion were captured by their pursuers. Four of them were shot dead on the spot. The other two, whose names were Alexander M’Cubbin, of the parish of Glencairn, and Edward Gordon, from Galloway, were taken by the captain to the bridge of Orr, where the Laird of Lag was busily employed in carrying on the work of persecution. Immediately on their arrival, Lag wished to pass sentence of death upon them, because they refused to swear; but the captain insisted that, as four of them had been summarily despatched, an assize should be called to judge and condemn them. Lag swore fiercely that he should call no assizes, still the captain got the matter deferred till another day. On the following morning they were conveyed to the parish of Irongray, by Lag and his party, and hanged on an oak tree near the church of Irongray, at the foot of which they lie interred. When about to suffer death, an acquaintance of M’Cubin’s inquired of him if he had any message to send to his wife, upon which he answered, that he commended her and his two children to the care of a merciful God; and, having bestowed his forgiveness on the person employed to hang him, he, with his companion, suffered death with much cheerfulness.

“Immediately on the departure of the soldiers, the bodies of these martyrs received Christian burial, and a simple stone was erected on the solitary heath to mark the spot where they fell.”[#]

[#] Epitaph upon a stone in a moor near Lochon-Kit, on the grave of John Gordon, William Stuart, William Heron, and John Wallace, shot by Captain Bruce:–

“Behold here in this Wilderness we lie,
Four Witnesses of hellish cruelty.
Our eyes and blood could not their ire assuage
But when we’re dead they did against us rage,
That match the like we think ye scarcely can;
Except the Turks, or Duke de Alva’s men.”

Epitaph on the grave-stone lying on Edward Gordon, and Alexander M’Cubin, executed at the Church of Irongray, at the command of the laird of Lag and Captain Bruce:–

“As Lag and bloody Bruce command,
We were hung up by hellish hand,
And thus their furious rage to stay,
We died at Kirk of Irongray.
Here now in peace sweet rest we take,
Once murder’d for religion’s sake.”

“Puir murdered things,” sobbed forth Mrs. M’Adam at the close of the minister’s narration, raising her handkerchief to her eyes as she spoke. “Oh dear, dear! is’na it sad to think that religion, whilk ought to make men sae peaceful and godly in their lives, should, in many cases, just hae the contrary effect. See now at the present time, a’ men are set by the ears, and what is it all about?–a mere trifle–just a difference o’ opinion. How true are the words of Him that knew all things, ‘I am come not to bring peace on earth, but a sword!’”

“Yes,” was the reply, “but I am afraid religion is often made a cloak to cover bitter feelings engendered by party strife. No one possessing the meek Christian feeling of brotherly love and charity towards all men, could thus wantonly imbrue his hands in the blood of a fellow-creature.”

“‘Deed no, Mr. Weir, you say very true; they are no’ the richt sort o’ Christians who delight in bloodshed and warfare; a wheen apostates are they; wolves in sheep’s clothing, whom we are expressly warned against—-“

Here Gilbert, who knew from experience that whenever his mother got upon these topics she could continue, without pausing to draw her breath, until pretty near midnight, suggested to her the propriety of Mr. Weir retiring early to rest, as he would need to rise betimes in the following morning. The worthy minister, homeless and ill-provided for as he was, accepted with gratitude the humble accommodation offered to him by the poor but hospitable widow, and shortly afterwards withdrew to his sleeping apartment. By the early hour of six o’clock, Mr. Weir, accompanied by Mrs. M’Adam and her son, was on his way to the place of meeting. The morning was fine, and a numerous concourse of people, many of whom had come from a great distance, were assembled to hear their beloved Clergyman. The incense of praise had been offered up, and Mr. Weir was about to commence his sermon, when a party of soldiers appeared in sight. These proved to be a body of militia, under the command of Sir Archibald Kennedy of Culzean, then scouring the country in search of prey. Mr. Weir on perceiving their approach, closed his Bible, and exhorting his hearers to remain quietly in their seats, went forward to meet the hostile band.

“Why come ye thus to interrupt us in our devotions?” he inquired, when the rapid advance of the soldiers brought them within hearing.

“You shall soon see that, you old canting hypocrite,” thundered forth Sir Archibald Kennedy in his fiercest tones. “I’ll teach you to come here with your psalm-singing, dismal faced companions. Come, be off with you, or I will this instant send a brace of bullets through that thick head-piece of yours!”

“Not at thy command, thou man of Belial,” said Mr. Weir, “shall I abandon my post in the hour of danger! These are the souls the Lord hath committed to my charge, and woe be unto me or any other of my brethren who shall neglect their sacred trust—-“

“Cease your prating, you old dotard: soldiers, do your duty;” so saying, the fiery leader wheeled his horse round, and stood with his back purposely placed towards Mr. Weir, who, seizing him by the arm, exclaimed, “Do unto me even as ye list, but let these go their way. Oh, slay them not!”

“Men, do your duty!” was the only answer vouchsafed to this request; and Sir Archibald Kennedy, as if to set an example to his followers, drew his sword from its scabbard, and advanced towards the Covenanters, who, in accordance with their minister’s wishes, had remained quietly seated, awaiting the issue in breathless suspense.

“Fly, my children, fly!” cried Mr. Weir, perceiving that offensive measures were about to be taken by the soldiers. “Oh God! it is too late,” he exclaimed, as the blood-thirsty men rushed eagerly on the helpless group; and covering his face with his hands, to shut out the bloody scene about to ensue, he remained for a few moments motionless as a statue, while his lips moved, as though he was engaged in prayer.

In the meantime, Gilbert M’Adam, armed with a stout walking-stick, prepared to defend his aged mother, who clung to his arm in an agony of terror; but just as he raised it to ward off a blow from the butt-end of a musket, it was stricken from his grasp, and he was left at the mercy of his foe. Fortunately for his safety, a man stationed near him that instant darted on the soldier, and wrenched the gun out of his hand, which went off in the struggle, wounding a woman standing near the combatants. Perceiving the folly of attempting self-defence, Gilbert M’Adam seized his mother in his arms, and, making his way out of the affray, ran hastily towards a hill, situated a little way off. He had gained the foot of the eminence, when the clatter of a horse’s feet behind them causing the young man to turn round, a pistol bullet, discharged by the advancing horseman, entered his brain, and Gilbert M’Adam fell dead at his mother’s feet. With a loud laugh of insolent triumph, Sir Archibald Kennedy–for it was he who fired the deadly shot–was about to return to the scene of action, when, with a scream that in its agony resembled nothing earthly, the frenzied mother, with a strength almost supernatural, seized the horse’s bridle, and compelled him to remain stationary, while she burst forth thus:–

“Hence to your stronghold, you cruel bird of prey! Back to your proud towers, ye accursed of the Lord! but think not, in the pride of your heart, that this day’s work will pass unavenged, for a day of retribution awaits you. In the silence of the night, when the meanest hind in the land is locked in slumber, shall a mother’s curse ring in your ears till ye madden at the thought. From this day henceforward life shall be a burden to you: then–then, when the hour of death approaches, shall your horrors be redoubled ten-fold. No priest will be able to quench the ceaseless flames which burn in your bosom, and no words of affection soothe your dying pillow; for the torments of a lost soul will be yours, and in your last moments let the thoughts of this day’s work add another drop to your cup of misery.”

[Illustration [See above]: “Having given vent to these terrible maledictions, Mrs M’Adam withdrew her hand from the horse’s bridle, and motioning Sir Archbald Kennedy to begone, threw himself sobbing and screaming on the corpse of her son.”]

Having given vent to these terrible maledictions, Mrs. M’Adam withdrew her hand from the horse’s bridle, and motioning Sir Archibald Kennedy to begone, threw herself sobbing and screaming on the corpse of her son. It was noticed by many then present that Sir Archibald looked scared and discomposed on his return to join his men; and that, contrary to his general mode of acting, he contented himself with taking a few prisoners, and rode off at a much slower and more thoughtful pace, than was his wont. Well, the persecuting work went on with unabated zeal, and Sir Archibald Kennedy, or, as he was more commonly styled, the Laird o’ Culzean, was a noted man among them all. Wherever blood was to be shed, there was the Laird, grim and dark, wi’ the marks o’ an evil conscience on his face. (Some people said that the older he got, the more crimes he committed, just to drown his remorse for some cruel deeds he had done in his youth; but if that was the case, it was a queer way he took to do it, for as the old proverb has it, “every single stick adds to a burden.”) Although the Laird was, to all outward appearances, as bold and daring like as ever, yet the servants about the house said it was a very different thing wi’ him when alone; for many and many a time in the long winter nights, did they see him pacing up and down his hall, as if he would fain, by the loudness of his step, drown the voice of conscience within; and often, when the wind rose louder than usual, and moaned and shrieked through the passages, he would start hastily from his seat and demand in a furious tone what woman it was who dared to scream so within the walls o’ Culzean Castle. These are the kind o’ things his servants told about him, so my grandfather said; but whether they were true or false, I canna pretend to say. Well, time rolled on, and the decree was sent forth that the wicked Laird o’ Culzean must prepare to meet his Maker–a summons which the now aged persecutor seemed in no way anxious to obey, for them that were near him declared that he threatened to knock off the doctors’ heads, because they couldna promise him that he should get better. The people who went about his room at that time, recalled to mind the curse of the bereaved widow, for, somehow or another, the story had got about, and many wondered when it came to the push, how the Laird would meet his end. Sir Archibald, as Mrs. M’Adam prophesied, seemed in his last moments to derive comfort from nothing. In vain the physicians exercised their skill to the utmost; in vain the attendant clergymen whispered words of consolation and hope, he scorned them all, and drove them from the room because they could not quench the flames which burned in his breast. (You see the widow’s curse was beginning to work.) As the hour of death approached his agony was fearful. The drops of perspiration stood like beads on his brow; and his eyes which seemed like to start from their sockets wi’ mortal agony, were fixed wi’ a horrible stare on the foot o’ his bed. Some who were present at that time said they were convinced that something, not meant for other e’en to see, was standing there, for every now and again he pointed wi’ his finger and laughed; but the laugh was like that o’ ane in despair. At length he died, and the night o’ his death was one of the most fearful that ever occurred in the memory of man. The wind roared round the castle wi’ a force that threathened to lay it in ruins; while the thunder rolled, and the lightning flashed in a manner awful to witness. The servants always maintained that the powers of darkness were let loose that night; for at the moment the Laird died, such shrieks of laughter, mingled with wild screams of agony, rang through the whole house, that overwhelmed with fear, they fell on their knees and prayed for protection against the horrors which surrounded them. Then came the day of his funeral; and, by all accounts, sair, sair work they had to get the hearse from the door. First there were four white horses put to the bier; but no sooner were they yoked-to, than one of them fell dead on the spot, and the others kicked and plunged so, they had to be taken out. Then four black ones were put in their place; but still they wadna go, until the coffin was taken from the hearse, and the priest muttered some prayers over it. Then, when they had proceeded a few steps wi’ their burden, a dreadful tempest of thunder arose to the terror and amazement of all present–many of whom talked of returning; but the storm having now ceased, they were dissuaded from doing so. However, on nearing the place of interment, it again burst forth in such a fearful manner that the flashes of fire seemed to run along the coffin. Owing to the extreme lightness of the bier after this terrific outburst of the elements, it was conjectured, either that the body had been consumed by the lightning, or that it had been taken away by the master whom the Laird served so well while on earth, from among their hands, ere ever they got to the church-yard.

But now I must tell you o’ what took place on the night o’ the Laird’s death, to the great horror of a ship’s crew who chanced to be at sea. Just as they were sailing past the coves of Culzean, the fearful tempest, I mentioned before, arose, and the ship was tossed by the waves in such a manner, that the sailors gave themselves up for lost. Well, in the very midst of this awful turmoil o’ the elements, when even the mightiest vessel was in danger of perishing, the man at the helm cried aloud, “a boat, a boat!”

“Nonsense,” replied the Captain, “what boat could live in a night like this?”

Just as they were speaking, a fearful flash of lightning lit up the darkness, thereby permitting the terror-stricken crew to perceive a coach and four coming along the sea. Again the blue lightning flew down the mast, while onward pranced the horses, whose black plumes waved, as the ghastly-looking driver urged them onwards. The hair of each individual sailor stood on end as he gazed on the appalling sight; when, just as they were passing the side of the vessel, the Captain hailed the spectral-looking coachman with, “From whence to were?”

And the answer was, “From h–ll to Culzean’s burial!”

“Well done,” said Mr. Anderson, at the close of this harrowing narration; “this is indeed a most probable story, and quite in keeping with ‘open, open to the Duke of Drumlanrig.’ Surely,” he added more seriously, “you do not believe any such nonsense?”

“Never you mind whether I do or not,” replied Mrs. Anderson, evidently enjoying her husband’s look of astonishment; “but just go your ways to that small drawer on the left there, and bring me the little box tied round wi’ red tape, which you will find in the farthest back corner.”

Mr. Anderson, in obedience to his wife’s request, proceeded to the drawer, and in a few seconds placed in her hands the wished-for article.

After fumbling for a short space of time amongst its varied contents, Mrs. Anderson succeeded in fishing out, from its mysterious depths, a sheet of paper carefully folded up, which she opened and placed in my hands, saying, “there now, that was written by a friend of mine while studying at the College of Edinburgh.” Glancing my eyes over the verses, I perceived that they bore immediate reference to the legend Mrs. A. had just been narrating, and so wrote them down, as an appropriate finish to the Legend of Culzean:–

THE LAIRD OF CULZEAN.

Around Culzean Castle the wild winds did howl,
And the trees bent like leaves to the blast;
Whilst the heavens looked black with an angry scowl,
The wild clouds were careering on fast.

Dark, dark was that night, and yet darker the hour
When Culzean’s lord did yield up his breath;
You’d have thought that the fiends of hell had power
To preside o’er the wizard’s death!

The thunder roll’d loud, while the lightning flashed,
And by tempest the Castle was shook;
Wild shrieks of despair echo’d loud in the blast,
And from fear none dared upward to look.

The dying man toss’d, and oft did he turn,
But for him was no rest or sleep;
Fierce flames of remorse in his breast did burn,
And his curses were loud and deep.

When reverend fathers sought to cheer,
And smooth down the way to heaven,
He mocked them all with a taunt and jeer;
They from the room were driven.

He died–though for him the black banner wav’d
And nodded the sable plume;
By no rich nor poor was a blessing craved
For him who that night met his doom.

* * * * *

The wild winds rag’d and the lightnings flashed,
While the sea ran mountains high;
And the good ship’s crew all stood aghast
As they gaz’d on the stormy sky.

“Haste haste, my men,” the bold Captain cried,
“Haste, haste! make no delay!
We’ll bravely steer through the foaming tide,
And trust in God our stay.”

The death lights do burn this night in Culzean,
The old lord is dead at last;
And the powers of darkness are there I ween.
Careering on the blast!

With a crash the thunder o’er them peal’d,
And its harsh and sullen roar;
Though to fear the sailors hearts were steel’d,
Caus’d them tremble more and more.

“A boat! a boat!” the steersman cried,
“I see by the flashes bright.”
“NO BOAT,” the Captain quick replied,
“Could live on this awful night!”

Then the heavens burst, and a flood of light
Lit up all with its ghastly glare;
And the ship’s crew gaz’d on a fearful sight,
For a funeral train was there!

Four coal-black horses drew each coach,
And they pranced upon the sea;
As each driver caus’d them swift approach,
What a ghastly look had he!

Soon as they reach’d the vessel’s side,
That awful train funereal,
“FROM WHENCE–to where?” the Captain cried
“From H–ll to Culzean’s burial!”

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~ by drmarkjardine on October 22, 2015.

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