Lays of the Covenanters: ‘Renwick in the Cottage of John Brown of Priesthill’ #History #Poetry #Scotland

The following poem by Reverend James Dodds of Dunbar (1813–1874) appeared in a collection of his works, Lays of the Covenanters, published in 1880.

The poem is set at the home of John Brown (d.1685) at Priesthill, a farm in Muirkirk parish, Ayrshire. It is based on a passage in The History of John Brown of Priesthill (Edinburgh, 1839) in which James Renwick meets Brown and his family.

As well as Brown and his wife, Isobel Weir, and daughter, Janet, it features the outlawed Covenanter, James Renwick, soon after he had been ordained to the ministry.

There is no historical evidence that Renwick visited Priesthill in 1683. However, Renwick had previously visited the farm as the clerk of the Societies’ second convention in March, 1682, and appears to have hidden in the vicinity in 1684 to 1685.

November, 1683.


November winds are loud and chill
Round thy roof-tree, lone Priesthill!
Earth is wound in her shroud of snow,
And the clouds toss to and fro.
All around the moorland’s rim
Day is closing dungeon-dim;
Scarce doth twilight intervene,
Night at once engulfs the scene:
Storm and darkness, fear and danger,
Woe’s me for the homeless stranger!

But in Priesthill’s humble dwelling,
While without the storm is swelling,
The hearth-stone glows with cheerful heat
From well-dried turf and fragrant peat;
In midst the candle-coal is set,
And flames with many a lambent jet.
The shepherd lads and maidens fair
With busy hands the wool prepare,
And caird and spin the white and black
For hoddin’ gray to ploughman’s back.
The mother, meek and sweet of face,
With matron charms and inbred grace,
Sits with her first-born on her knee,
Singing her artless lullaby!
Her little step-child, Janet, dear
As daughter of her own she were,
With flaxen ringlets waving light
Around a brow so lily white,
And blue eyes laughing to a cheek
Where rosebuds blow so fresh and sleek,
Sometimes with demurest art
Awhile she acts the housewife’s part,
Then, dancing off with nod and beck,
Hangs on her new-found mother’s neck.

Old Colly basking in the blaze,
Well hast thou spanned the heights and braes,
And threaded through the whirling drift,
By rough moss-hag and craggy clift,
And homeward brought the bleating herd,
While scarce from the door thy master stirred.
Such human forethought moves in thee,
And more than human constancy!

With sudden start he pricks his ears;
Is it his master’s step he hears?
Some hours agone he crossed the heath,
Regardless of the frost-wind’s breath,
The sweets of Gospel truth to shed
Around a neighbour’s dying bed;
‘Tis nigh the time of his return.
No! stranger feet are hither borne;
For Colly growls in under tone,
Mingling with the night-wind’s moan,
And guards the door with sentinel’s frown;
But Janet kindly pats him down,
And hies her boldly forth to see
Who there in such a night should be.
She soon returns, with looks so bland,
Leading a stranger by the hand,
Whose tatter’d garb and feeble form
Seem all unfit to bide the storm.
She guides him to her father’s chair,
Whilst those within their tasks forbear,
Each to bestow, in their degree,
Some mark of hospitality.

The good wife gives him welcome cheer,
For all in need find welcome here,
The wanderer’s home, a resting sweet
To wayfaring and wearied feet;
And here the poor make daily moan,
And daily leave their benison.
The young from hill and dale repair,
Here is their school and house of prayer;
Here oft the dead in sin have leapt,
And tears of dawning hope been wept,
And pierced and bleeding souls been bound,
And sliding feet new strength have found;
And the saints of God, in trial and fear,
Seek the Urim and the Thummim here!

But with her welcome doubts arise;
For troubled times breed jealousies,
And villain spies on every hand
Glide like serpents through the land.
In cities, midst the throng of men,
In furthest nook and loneliest glen,
On the sea where the good ships fly,
In the haven where they lie,
To the far sequestered cot,
Where roaming beggar travels not,
In bogs which scarce the bitterns haunt,
On steeps that know not bush or plant,
Through tangled forest, pathless waste,
Where the coney ne’er was chased,
By the day which blazons all,
Under midnight’s deepest pall,
At the selfsame table fed,
Harboured in the selfsame bed,
They lurk and creep, and watch and mark,
Strike unseen, and shoot i’ the dark,
And follow still, with bloodhound’s scent,
The children of the Covenant!
Oft they take Devotion’s guise,
And, Judas-like, betray their prize.
Thus, rob’d like minister of light,
Satan plies his ancient spite!

When terror stalks by dale and town,
Well may the wife of godly Brown
Feel some misgivings at the sight
Of unknown guest in such a plight,
With haggard mien and uncouth dress;
Is this from guile or wretchedness?
Deep in her memory hath she stored
Peden’s dark foreshadowing word,
When she and her partner plighted their faith
By the mountain-stream to be one till death:
“Bridegroom! cherish well thy bride!
Bride! rejoice thee at his side;
But keep the linen clean and meet
To be a martyr’s winding-sheet.”

To hide the throbbings of her heart,
And the tear that to her eye would start,
She rocks her first-born on her knee,
And sings his evening lullaby,
Some antique snatches, quaint and wild,
That oft have stilled the cottar’s child.

The Mother’s Song.

“Hush thee, baby! hush thee,
Till the morning break!
Sweetly may’st thou slumber,
Softly may’st thou wake!
Hush, my little baby,
Till the morning break!”

“Where’s the way, mother?
Whither shall I go?”
“Stay at home, my darling!
The hills are deep with snow;
And bitter through the hawthorn
The blasts of winter blow.”

“Where are all the heather-bells
That daddie brought to me?”
“Spring will come, my bonny bird!
With flowers upon the lea,
And big a bower by yon burn-side
For the linnet and for thee!”

“Hush thee, baby! hush thee,
Till the morning break!
Sweetly may’st thou slumber,
Softly may’st thou wake!
Hush, my little baby,
Till the morning break!”

“Caird the black, and caird the white,
Weave the speckled gray!
Garment meet for man to wear
Through his chequered day;
But they who wear’t with patience
Shall shine in bright array!”

“Hush thee, baby! hush thee,
Till the morning break!
Sweetly may’st thou slumber,
Softly may’st thou wake!
Come, sweet spring!
And sweet lark sing,
And thy nest in the moorland make!
The lambs shall leap,
Where the blaeberries peep,
And softly my baby shall wake!”


The stranger mark! how altered now!
Whence the flush upon his brow,
And the flush upon his cheek,
And tears that more than language speak?
As the quick’ning breath of morn
Rustles through the mountain thorn;
So, whilst the mother’s voice is stealing
O’er his ear, all thought and feeling
Thrill beneath that homely ditty,
Her cradle-song of love and pity!

Fond dreams, lov’d gleams of youth revive:
He sees the home by Minnyhive,
“Where erst he felt a mother’s care,
Where she would comb his golden hair,
And sing to him some olden strain,
“Fair Margaret,” or the “Young Tamlane;”
Or, when the thickening shades came on,
Some holy history would she con
By the merry evening fire.
He sees again his godly sire,
Remov’d by an untimely blow,
Like the sheltering oak laid low.
He kneels with him in prayer, and now
He wipes the death-dew from his brow;
But while his tears anew are shed,
He whispers: “Blessed are the dead!”
Blithe visions, too, now pass before him,
Glad sounds of other years come o’er him:
Dalwhat’s melodious murmur swells
By heath-clad steeps and broomy dells,
Where oft the wild-brier’s bud he sought,
And caroll’d to the blackbird’s note.
O blissful visions! short relief
To bosoms crushed by wrongs or grief,
A balsam even, for the time,
To the conscience gnaw’d by crime!
Why so swiftly pass away?
Come not at all, or ever stay!
Delusions all! unreal and vain!
No, not in vain; for still remain
The blest ideas thus impress’d,
Which, finding here no place of rest,
Seek it in the realms above,
Where centre perfect truth and love!

While thus his fancy bee-like skips,
And honey from each blossom sips,
The door is open’d: Yes! ‘tis he,
The master of the family!
Sweet to his home as summer gale,
Known and belov’d through all the dale;
For all revere, and all obey
His holy, patriarchal sway.
Of firm and stalwart frame is he,
And aspect grave, yet mild and free;
His cheek with hardy lustre glows,
Such as the mountain-breeze bestows;
And here and there a furrow’s trace
Flings its shadow o’er his face.
His locks, now tipp’d with silvery sheen,
Fall o’er a forehead clear, serene;
And his the blue and glintin’ eye
Of Scotland’s noblest peasantry.
But as the sun, though sunk from view,
Still sheds a calm celestial hue
Upon some lofty mountain’s height;
So all in him of good and bright
Which Nature’s genial hand supplies,
The human-strong, the human-wise,
Is hallowed by a light Divine,
Streaming from the heavenly shrine.
He greets the stranger, and he gazes,
The face some deep emotion raises.
He knows him through his rude disguise,
A brother’s love beams in his eyes;
He doffs his bonnet reverently,
And thus, in tend’rest courtesy,
His stammering tongue hath found a vent;
“The Angel of the Covenant
Take thee underneath his wing,
And thy feet to safety bring!
No prince or peer in Christendom
Were half so welcome to my home!”
‘Tis RENWICK! Ah! how changed from him.
Of rosy cheek and graceful limb,
Who but a year before had passed
Some happy days as Priesthill’s guest!
Such havoc in so short a space
Have toil, and thought, and watchfulness,
Stormy seas, and travel long,
And adder-stings from the evil tongue,
And the burning spirit’s bane,
Hours of rapture, months of pain,
Wrought upon the beauteous youth.
But deeper insight into truth,
Peace that passeth human lore,
Strength and faith unfelt before,
Calmer, clearer, loftier mind,
Earthly passions heaven-refined,
These have come to him instead,
If the roses from his cheek are fled.
Oh! who can tell the pure delight
Which shower’d its blessings on that night?
When heart to heart responsive beat,
And soul with soul held converse sweet.
Themes, dearer prized than treasur’d gold,
The labouring tongue strove to unfold;
And long-pent feelings found their way,
Like well-springs in the month of May.
As husbandman delights to view
The blade refresh’d with vernal dew;
As the shepherd on the rock
Counts with joy his spreading flock,
Free from taint, and fleecy fair;
As the nighted traveller,
Lost within the forest maze,
When first the morning meets his gaze,
Forgets his weary wandering
To hear the lark and merlin sing,
While the village chanticleer
Proclaims some place of shelter near:
Such, yea, far exceeding this,
Were those joys of holiness
Which around that household shone,
On their hill-side bleak and lone,
While the youthful priest and the shepherd saint
Spoke with heavenliest ravishment
Of God’s long dealings with the land,
And the wonders of His hand!
O’er those who spake and those who listened
The Rainbow of the Covenant glisten’d!
The pious host, with speech benign,
Where love and wisdom both combine,
Himself by sharp experience taught,
Returns his every inmost thought,
And, like a stream, receives impress’d
Within a clear and glassy breast,
Those eddying joys and fears which roll
In Renwick’s more impassioned soul.
The lowlier acts of household care
The goodwife and her maidens share.
She now prepares their evening meal;
The shepherd lads, with modest zeal,
Bring forth their holiday attire,
And give whate’er his wants require;
The maidens stooping, homely, neat,
Bring water for his aching feet;
Whilst little Janet’s failing eye
Folds at length in dreams of joy,
With her head so lovingly
Pillow’d on the stranger’s knee,
On her parted lips a smile
Enough his sorrows to beguile.
| Unearthly splendours light his eye,
His soul is lost in ecstacy:
Back as in a swoon he sinketh,
But his soaring spirit drinketh
At the crystal fount of life,
Pure from human sin and strife,
Where the shadow never flew,
Where the earth- wind never blew,
Where it flows in ebbless tide
From eternal springs supplied!

Peace with you all, household blest!
Peace with you all, and heavenly rest!
Be peace and rest vouchsafed a while,
Not to relax, but nerve for toil!
A tempest lies before you all,
Already deep to deep doth call;
But with your sufferings ye shall find
The valiant and submissive mind.
And now your record is on high,
Your recompense is in the sky;
And what ye sought not shall be given,
Fame wide as is the cope of heaven.
Your land, though late, shall know your worth,
And boast the honour of your birth.
When prince and warrior are forgot,
Or known but as a nation’s blot,
Then Brown and Renwick’s fame shall be
Remember’d in our history.
When battlefield and palace gay
Sink in oblivion and decay,
The Patriot and the Christian still
Shall pilgrims be to loved Priesthill!

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Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to this post on Facebook or other social networks or retweet it, but do not reblog in FULL without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine

~ by drmarkjardine on March 12, 2016.

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