Prophet Peden and ‘Mad Sir Uchtred of the hills’ #History #Literature #Scotland


The following story is from S. R. Crockett’s ‘Mad Sir Uchtred of the hills’ (1894), a Gothic novel set in Restoration-era Galloway. A long passage in chapter four tells a tale about a minister called ‘Alexander Renfield’ that is broadly based on Patrick Walker’s story of Alexander Peden being ejected from his church at New Luce soon after the Restoration.

The setting for Crockett’s story is the ruined church at Kirkchrist, which was abandoned when it was incorporated into Twynholm parish in 1654, i.e., before the Restoration.

Map of Kirkchrist Graveyard

From Chapter Four:

‘For they rode that day to turn out of his kirk and manse Alexander Renfield, the minister of Kirkchrist, whom the people loved. An hour afterwards, clattering in iron and bravery, Uchtred of Garthland turned his bridle and rode up the kirk loaning. As he came under the wall of the manse the lilac blossom hung overhead; and Uchtred, having sword in hand, in wantonness cut a branch of the scented blossom and caught it as it fell.

There was a great silence in the kirk as the men rode forward. A bronze-faced congregation sat listening to one who preached to them from an old black pulpit over which hung a sounding-board. Every man heard the trampling of the horses, yet none so much as turned his head about. The minister who preached was a little fair man, slender and delicate. It seemed as though a breath of wind might blow him away. Yet he swayed the folks’ hearts as the breath of God that blows upon the trees of the forest.

“Christ hath a folk in Scotland that shall not fail Him, though the horse and his rider
trample them under foot, yet shall they that love the Lord not be utterly cast down.” So
ran the sermon, and the people listened.

With that Sir Uchtred of Garthland set the hilt of his sword to the door and drave it open, both leaves of it clashing back against the wall. Then bowing his head, but not for meekness, upon his horse’s neck, he rode in, armed as he was — into the quiet and solemn house of prayer. The spray of cut lilac bloom from the manse wall was in his hand, and the babe in the arms of the minister’s wife crowed to pluck at it as the war-horse clattered up the aisle. Then in the narrow seats the men stood up, grim and silent, while the women sat and trembled, some crying out to God to help them in their trouble.

But the little fair man in the pulpit, that had feared the face of God all his days, feared not the face of man. Perhaps no man who truly does the one can do the other. He put out his hand with a gesture of command to the people and to the intruder, as a general who halts a squadron. “Uchtred Dowall of Garthland, perjured and mansworn, in the name of the Lord I arrest thee from coming further.”

And Sir Uchtred, though a proud man, stayed. But for all that, he cried the King’s commission for the taking of Alexander Renfield, because of nonconformity and resisting the King’s authority for the shutting up of the kirk, and the warranty for the poinding of his goods and chattels which were escheat to the Crown.

So the little fair man came down. But even as he was on the stairway he turned him about and laid his hand on the pulpit door, saying, “Alexander Renfield hath steeked thee in the name of Most High God. See and bide thou shut till the Lord send a man to open thee in his
own good time.”

Then he lifted his hand and got him down. Which thing came to pass to the admiration of the people of Kirkchrist; for the curate of Langloan essaying a year after that to open the door, was hindered by a spirit that withstood him, and perhaps also by the memory of the curse of Alexander Renfield, for all the people of Kirkchrist held him to be a prophet. And, when out of liquor, all the curates were very superstitious.

So they shut to the door of the kirk, and the minister stood quiet and silent between two troopers while they turned the slender gear that was in the manse out upon the green. And
the minister’s wife stood by the little grey sundial and saw all the plenishing that she had brought from her home made into a heap — the goodly cloths she had spun with hope in her heart, and the little lovable things that were of no value to any, but dear to her as her life. She stood with her bairns in her hand, like a hen that gathers her chickens, as near to her husband as they would let her. But when they set the children’s cradle on high a-top of all, and Uchtred of Garthland cried to a soldier to set his match to the rubbish-heap, suddenly she wailed aloud. It was only for the cradle that her foot would rock no more. She had seen so many flaxen heads in it, and some of them were now within the veil. So when the cradle was set on the heap to be burned, she cried aloud as she had not done when God took her bairns themselves out of her arms.

Then Alexander Renfield lifted up his voice from where he stood between two soldiers with his hands tied before him. He pointed with his bound wrists to the knight, who reined his horse and looked on silently, doing the King’s work and Lauderdale’s. “The Lord judge between thee, Uchtred Dowall of Garthland, and me that am but his minister in Kirkchrist. The Lord do so to thee and more also. Thou hast made desolate the sweetest roof-tree that reeked in Galloway this day. See that thou come near thine own in peace this night. A greater than thou art ate grass like an ox. Thou hast built Garthland where it shines fair on the brae. But in his time King Nebuchadnezzar built Babylon, that was of marble and greater than many Garth- lands. Yet the Lord laid him full low. Even so shall he do with thee, thou bloody and deceitful man, for the cry of the mother of my children this day.”

Sir Uchtred of Garthland pointed with his sword at the minister where he stood, but his tongue gave forth no word of command. For even then the Lord’s hand smote him. In a moment he fell from pride, and that in sight of all the people who had seen him ride to the kirk door.

As a strained fiddle-string that snaps, so a chord twanged in his head. He tossed the lilac branch to the roof of the kirk, and so fell to the ground grovelling. His soldiers ran to him to help him, but he struck at them, gnashing his teeth and foaming. His serving-man that was more wicked than himself lifted up his masters head; but Uchtred of Garthland bit him in the palm till the blood ran from the tips of his fingers. After a little they mastered him and set him on the horse which they had brought to carry the minister. And a fear fell on them all, so that they let Alexander Renfield go, and the cavalcade that had ridden up so bravely moved slowly away from the kirkyard of Christ’s kirk. Then all the people rushed forward to put out the fire upon the green. And Millicent Renfield stood with her children’s cradle in her arms and watched the troopers go. Then the people sang, Alexander Renfield leading them:

“For His mercies aye endure,
Ever faithful, ever sure”

But even when they saw as they went the roofs of the New Place of Garthland, which Sir Uchtred had built with the fines and exactions of the Whigs, the word of the Lord by the mouth of Alexander Renfield, whom men called a prophet, fell like a fire-flaught when the thunder gathers on steep Clashdaan. Sir Uchtred, having the power of one possessed with a devil, caught suddenly at the two men that held him on his horse and with the strength of ten he rent them. Then, being filled with an evil spirit, he ran with surprising swiftness across the fields, taking burns and deep linns in his stride, and over-leaping rocks and fences as a deer leaps, so that the horsemen were left far behind and could not by any means lay hands upon him.’

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

Photo: Kirkchrist Graveyard © Richard Sutcliffe and licensed for reuse.

~ by drmarkjardine on November 6, 2016.

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