Martyrland: James Hogg’s ‘The Land of the Covenant’ #History #Poetry #Scotland

Martyrland

A fine poem by James Hogg that evokes the landscape of the popular memory of the martyrs of the Killing Times. Today, Hogg’s Land of the Covenant is forgotten, mislaid, or put aside, but that does not mean that we should forget what previous generations of Scots cherished, even, perhaps especially, if it was for uses that we no longer value or agree with.

By Hogg’s day in the early nineteenth century, a landscape of historical memory of the Covenanters had clearly developed. How long that landscape, or parts of it, had resided in the collective imagination of many Lowland Scots is not clear, but the roots of it certainly reach back to the initial wave of martyrs’ gravestones in the very early eighteenth century and to the popularity of Patrick Walker’s life of Peden from the 1720s.

In 1702, the “Continuing” Society people decided to erect gravestones to their fallen brothers and sisters, based in part on the text of Alexander Shields’ list of martyrs in A Short Memorial of 1690. Any claim that Shields fabricated his list in 1690 does not bear up to historical scrutiny, as in many places his list accords with government sources. If he invented it, it was a truly remarkable feat of imaginative scholarship that managed to link “alleged” martyrs back to the correct context found in the government records for their existence and crimes. The sheer complexity of unpicking Shields’ list and uncovering the historical evidence for each martyr has taken me five years with all the advantages of digital technology, access to maps, Scotland’s great libraries and looking through government sources. If he fabricated the martyrs, how did Shields achieve such accuracy in the brief time span he had to compose A Short Memorial? The answer is that he did not invent the martyrs. Shields was selective in the fragments of evidence that he used for those killings. He did spin the “martyrdoms” and omitted inconvenient facts about them. The claim that Shields was a liar, as Napier stated in the mid nineteenth century, or created the martyrs out of nothing, is at once both historically rigorous and utterly ridiculous. It would involve a conspiracy of silence and of complicity on a grand scale. In the 1690s, nobody publically challenged Shields about his published list of around eighty killings. Even the army officers he accused of perpetrating the vast majority of the killings kept silent. The only exception to that rule is that the Lord Advocate, George Mackenzie, stated that only two women, rather than four, were executed on his orders. Whether the two female Wigtown martyrs fell under Mackenzie’s definition is an open question. Shields’ list was also almost certainly created before 1690, as it appears to have been based on information collected from among the Society people from at least 1687 that was first proposed to be gathered together in late 1685, i.e., within three months of the end of the main period of the Killing Times. The arc of time of Hogg’s Land of the Covenant is long and deep, and reaches back to its creation, certainly in monument form from 1702, in published texts from 1690 and probably back to the memory of the violence of the events of 1685.

This is how Hogg remembered…

THE LAND OF THE COVENANT.

Far inland, where the mountain crest
O’erlooks the waters of the west;
And, ‘midst the moorland wilderness,
Dark moss-cleuchs form a drear recess,
Curtained with ceaseless mists that feed
The sources of the Clyde and Tweed —
There injured Scotland’s patriot band
For faith and freedom made their stand,
When traitor Kings, who basely sold
Their country’s fame for Gallic gold —
Too abject o’er the free to reign,
Warned by a father’s fate in vain—
In bigot fury trampled down
The race who oft preserved their crown:
There, worthy of his masters, came
The despots’ champion, bloody Graham,
To stain for aye a warrior’s sword,
And lead a fierce, though fawning horde,
The human bloodhounds of the earth,
To hunt the peasant from his hearth.

Tyrants! could not misfortune teach
That man has rights beyond your reach?
Thought ye the torture and the stake
Could that intrepid spirit break,
Which even in woman’s breast withstood
The terrors of the fire and flood?
Yes — though the sceptic’s tongue deride
Those martyrs who for conscience died;
Though modish history blight their fame,
And sneering courtiers hoot the name
Of men who dared alone be free
Amidst a nation’s slavery,
Yet long for them the poet’s lyre
Shall wake its notes of heavenly fire;
Their names shall nerve the patriot’s hand,
Upraised to save a sinking land,
And piety shall learn to burn
With holier transports o’er their urn.

But now, all sterner thoughts forgot,
Peace broods upon the peasant’s cot;
And if tradition still prolongs
The memory of his father’s wrongs,
‘Tis but the grateful thought that borrows
A blessing from departed sorrows.
How lovely seems the simple vale
Where lives our sires’ heroic tale!
The mossy pass, the mountain flood,
Still hallowed by the patriot’s blood;
The rocky cavern, once his tent.
And now his deathless monument,
Rehearsing to the kindling thought

What Faith inspired and Valour wrought!
Oh, ne’er shall he whose ardent prime
Was fostered in the freeman’s clime,
Though doomed to seek a distant strand,
Forget his glorious native land;
Forget — ‘mid Brahma’s blood-stained groves—
Those sacred scenes of youthful loves;
Sequestered haunts — so still, so fair,
That holy Faith might worship there,
And Error weep away her stains,
And dark Remorse forget his pains;
And homeless hearts, by fortune tost.
Or early hopeless passion crost,
Regain the peace they long had lost.’

Reprinted in McAllister (ed.), Poets and Poetry of the Covenants (Allegheny, PA., 1894), 296-8.

For more stories and poems on the Covenanters of the 1680s, see here.

For more on James Hogg and the Covenanters, see here.

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Photo © Richard Webb and licensed for reuse.

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

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~ by drmarkjardine on March 19, 2016.

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