Illicit Drilling & the Secret Muster of 260 Covenanters at Cairn Table in 1685 #History #Scotland

In 1685, the Covenanters may have trained for a rising that they later refused to join.

When he was captured by John Graham of Claverhouse, among the things that John Brounen gave intelligence of was a field preaching by James Renwick at the back of Cairn Table hill on the edge of Ayrshire when 260 men mustered for weapons training in early 1685. It is clear that Renwick’s Covenanters were preparing for a confrontation with the Scottish Army, as records of their musters are extremely unusual. The Cairn Table muster was the largest gathering of armed militant Society people between the Battle of Bothwell Bridge and the Revolution. The question is why?

The historical evidence does not make it clear when the muster took place. Can a time frame for the muster be pinned down? Was it on Sunday 22 March, 1685? Why did it take place?

In his letter of 3 May, 1685, Claverhouse gave an account of his interrogation of John Brounen, whom he had captured in the moss around Priesthill in Muirkirk parish on 1 May:

‘He gave account of the names of the most pairt of those that wer there [in the attack on Newmilns Tower on 25 April, 1685]. They were not above sixty, and they wer all Gaston and Neumilles men, saive a feu of Streven parish.

He gave also acount of a conventicle keeped by [James] Renek at the bak of Carantable, where there wer threttin scor [260] of men in armes mustered and exercised, of which number he was with his hallard.

He tells of ane other conventicle about three moneths agoe keeped near Loudon Hille, and gives acount of the persons wer at both [Loudoun Hill and Cairn Table] and what childring wer baptised, particularly that at Carntable, which was about the time that Leiv: [James] Muray and [Lieutenant John] Crichton should have laiten them eskeap’. (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 207-8.)

Brounen provided intelligence on three events.

The Attack on Newmilns Tower
The attack on Newmilns Tower took probably place on 25 April, as on the following day, Brounen fled directly to his uncle’s home at Priesthill.

He also mentioned two field preachings, also known as conventicles.

The Preaching ‘Near’ Loudoun Hill
The first was ‘near’ Loudoun Hill ‘about three moneths’ before the start of May. A later tradition mentions a field preaching in that vicinity, when Renwick preached to a ‘great company’ at the Moor of Evandale ‘a short time before the accession of James [VII]’ in early February, 1685. Loudoun Hill lies on the shire boundary with Evandale parish and adjacent to the Moor to the north of it. Traditional evidence is not reliable, as it was published over a hundred-and-fifty years after the event. (Simpson, Traditions, 29.)

However, it is clear from Brounen’s intelligence that there was a field preaching ‘near’ Loudoun Hill at around the beginning of February, 1685. Renwick’s field preachings often took place before the United Societies’ secret conventions. It is not surprising then to find that the eighteenth convention took place not that far from Loudoun Hill at Auchengilloch, which lies on the southern boundary of Evandale parish. It took place on Thursday 12 February. On that day, troops under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Buchan and Cromwell Lockhart of Lee killed John Smith on his way to Auchengilloch. Smith was shot somewhere in the hills around Auchengilloch and is buried in Muirkirk parish.

The preaching near Loudoun Hill probably took place in the days before the eighteenth convention on 12 February.

The Attack on Newmilns Tower probably took place on 25 April.

Two of the events Brounen mentioned can be pinned down. What about the third?

The Muster at the Back of Cairn Table
We do not know exactly where the muster was held. It is intriguing that Brounen or Claverhouse described the location as ‘at the bak of Carantable’ and ‘at Carntable’. The back of a hill obviously depends on your perspective. Brounen was captured at Priesthill which lies to north of Cairn Table and Claverhouse wrote his letter from Galston to the north-west of it. It is also clear that the illicit muster would probably have been conducted out of sight from prying eyes around Muirkirk. The clearest approaches to the back of Cairn Table in the Seventeenth Century were probably along the old drove road to Sanquhar, that broadly follows the Garpel Water near to the hill, or up the Douglas Water, which leads to the area behind the hill. All of those factors suggest that the muster took place somewhere to the south-east of Cairn Table and close to the hill.

Map of Back of Cairn Table

When did it take place?
Claverhouse did not record a date for the muster that Brounen attended at Cairn Table, but he did leave clues in his letter for when it took place through the chronology of Brounen’s possession of a halberd.

Claverhouse stated that at the muster there ‘wer threttin scor of men in armes mustered and exercised, of which number he [i.e., Brounen] was with his hallard’. Brounen probably possessed the halberd before he attended the muster, as the man who gave it to him, that Claverhouse said he had captured after he had caught Brounen, probably lived somewhere near Claverhouse’s western line of march from Priesthill to Galston.

At the beginning of May, Brounen told Claverhouse how long he had his halberd. According to Claverhouse’s letter, ‘he confessed that he had ane halbart and told who gave him it about a month agoe, and we have the feleou prisoner’, i.e., Brounen had the halberd at the beginning of April.

However, a little later in the letter, Claverhouse stated that Brounen ‘has been but a moneth or tuo with his halbart’, i.e., Brounen could have possessed the halberd from the beginning of March. It appears that Brounen probably obtained his halberd in March.

How long he had the halberd prior to the muster is not known. That suggests the muster could have been held between 1 March and 24 April, the last possible date for it before the Newmilns attack. As Renwick field preached at the muster and baptised children, it was almost certainly held on the Sabbath. The emphasis in the letter was on Brounen getting the halberd either a month, or perhaps up to two months, beforehand. Those factors suggest a date between Sunday 8 March to Sunday 19 April.

The evidence of other preachings that Renwick held suggests that he usually field preached to his followers about once a month. The date of the eighteen convention on Thursday 12 February with its associated field preaching possibly pushes the earliest date for the muster back to Sunday 15 March. That indicates that the muster was probably held on one of the following six days across five weeks:

15 March
22 March
29 March
5 April
12 April
19 April

A Vital Clue
However, Claverhouse also recorded one other detail about the muster, that it was ‘about the time that Leiv: Muray and Crichton should have laiten them eskeap’.

As Claverhouse and Queensberry, the recipient of the letter, both knew from reports when Lieutenant James Murray and Lieutenant John Crichton had failed to catch them, Claverhouse did not need to put a date in the letter.

Murray and Crichton were lieutenants in two different troops of dragoons that were based in the southern half of Lanarkshire. Presumably, while they and their men were going through the hills between Ayrshire and Lanarkshire they must have come close to capturing some of those involved in the muster, otherwise Claverhouse would not have claimed they had let them escape. Claverhouse’s phrase that they had ‘laiten them eskeap’ appears to indicate that he felt that the officers had failed to act in the way he would have expected them to.

However, it is clear from the letter that the mustering of 260 armed Society people at Cairn Table had been noticed by the authorities and that Lieutenants Murray and Crichton had attempted to intercept the Society people involved in it.

That scenario had been played out on many occasions and it fits into the pattern of military operations at that time. The authorities often received intelligence that the Covenanters had gathered in the hills, usually either when it was taking place, or soon after. Several companies of mounted troops were then sent to scour the hills to capture them, but they frequently arrived after the convention or field preaching had ended. It was common for the Covenanters to leave a gathering in a large body for safety that then split up into smaller parties as they made their way home through the hills. The government forces sweeping through the hills would attempt to locate and pursue those parties. Those who helped the Covenanters or had failed to report their presence to the military were to be taken prisoner. The officers in the field coordinated their searches by sending despatches back to their commanders who kept the privy council in Edinburgh up to date through reports. In turn, the privy council would feed their orders back to officers in the field through the same network. An excellent example of that pattern of military operation was the response to Renwick’s Black Loch preaching in 1684, which led to an ‘ambuscade’ at Auchengilloch with 200 rebels.

Although we have little detail about Murray and Crichton’s dragoons having let the Cairn Table Covenanters escape the search for them, we can look for traces of the operation elsewhere in the military’s intelligence network within the 15 March to 19 April time frame.

The privy council did respond to a large party of rebels moving through Ayrshire in that time frame:

‘[Tuesday] March 24th, “The lords of council being informed that a number of desperate rebels in arms hath gone through the shire of Ayr, and no notice is taken of them, colonel [James] Douglas, or the commanders of the garrisons, are empowered immediately to punish the commons who did not inform against them, according to law, and to take bonds of the heritors on whose ground they appeared, to compear before the council in April.” These desperate rebels, now going up and down, were only a few of Mr Renwick’s followers, coming and going to his sermons in arms.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 207-8.)

It is clear that the privy council was responding to reports from the field about a gathering of ‘desperate rebels in arms’  that had ‘gone through the shire of Ayr’ with ‘no notice’ taken of them by the the heritors on whose land they appeared or the common people.

Cairn Table lies in the hills on the eastern edge of Ayrshire. The large number of Covenanters at the muster were armed. Murray and Crichton had come close to capturing some who had been at the meeting, but they had escaped. The council’s response to the reports it had received that the Covenanters had escaped and local inaction was to issue a wide-ranging judicial commission to Colonel James Douglas on 27 March and send him to the area. At the beginning of April, Douglas was conducting trials at Cumnock, which lies to the west of Cairn Table. At the same time, Thomas Richard was captured at Greenock Mains in Muirirk parish and sent to Douglas.

It appears that the privy council were responding to the Cairn Table muster. From their actions on 24 March, it is possible to narrow down the time frame for the muster to just two dates: Sunday 15 March or Sunday 22 March. Given that the privy council usually rapidly reacted to such events, Sunday 22 March was probably the date for Renwick’s preaching and the Cairn Table muster.

It is possible that some of the Cairn Table group raided Lochnorris in Cumnock parish for arms.

It is worth noting that Lieutenant James Murray, one of those who ‘laiten them eskeap’, summarily executed John Brown at Blackwood in March, 1685:

‘Lieutenant [James] Murray was going through the parish of Lesmahago, and met one John Brown in the fields, and promised him quarters at first, he making no resistance, but afterwards changed his mind, and without any process or sentence, shot him in a few minutes near the Blackwood in that parish.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 243.)

His death may have been connected to the mopping up operation after the Cairn Table muster.

The Muster Mystery
Why was the muster held? The evidence above suggests that the muster was part of a concerted effort by the Society people to gather arms and train to use them. The problem is that the surviving historical sources for the Society people do not appear to have ordered the muster. In essence, we have a large-scale event that took place without an explanation for it. We are left examining the context for the muster.

As the eighteen convention was disrupted by Buchan and Lee’s troops in February, James Renwick failed to take part in it. The few delegates who managed to gather together restricted themselves to appointing days of prayer to inform future decision making and a date for the next convention of 6 May. It, too, would be disrupted by government forces.

The two prayer days the eighteenth convention appointed were Wednesday 4 March, that was ‘a day of thanksgiving unto the Lord for the wonderful proofs of his love and goodwill, manifested to a scattered and distressed remnant in this land, by his delivering of them in several places, from the power and rage of the enemies, when they were ready to swallow them up’, and Wednesday 8 April, which was ‘a day of fasting, mourning and humiliation before the Lord, for the unwarrantable out-breakings that have been committed by some, in several places, contrary to our Covenant-engagements and Declarations.’ (Shields, FCD, 163.)

The fast days point to pressures the Society people were experiencing. First, their narrow escapes from government forces pursuing them in the Killing Times. Second, ‘unwarrantable out-breakings’ committed ‘by some’ in ‘several places’. It is not clear if that meant their assassinations and attacks, or the taking of the Abjuration oath, or internal disputes, but it does broadly point to a problem with discipline in the United Societies. Renwick certainly wrote to them to clarify his position about the Abjuration Oath on 27 February. He may also have responded to the 8 April day of humiliation, as a catalogue to Wod.Fol.XXIV. lists a missing letter: ‘Mr J[ames] Renwicks Letter to the Gen: Meeting [Thursday] Apr 9. 1685. Orig.’ (Carslaw (ed.), Letters, 107-112.)

However, it may have been a third pressure on the United Societies that explains the muster. The attack on the eighteenth convention prevented them from discussing the pressing issue of the day: how they would respond to the news that James VII had become king on the death of Charles II on 6 February? By 12 February, that news had spread to Scotland.

To begin to understand the significance of the Cairn Table muster it has to be put into context. It was larger than the armed gatherings that proclaimed the Sanquhar Declaration in June 1680. It was larger than the Covenanter force at the Battle of Airds Moss in July 1680. It was larger than those who proclaimed the Lanark Declaration in January 1682. It was a bit larger than the Covenanter force at the Ambuscade at Auchengilloch in June 1684. It was larger than the armed force that proclaimed the Second Sanquhar Declaration in May 1685. It was larger than the rebel force at the Battle of Muirdykes in June 1685. It was smaller than some later field preachings, but most of them were not armed. Only at the Revolution were larger forces of Society people assembled. It is clear than the Cairn Table muster was a determined effort by the militants, especially as it took place in the Killing Times.

Someone, or rather the leadership of the United Societies, must have ordered and organised it. And yet, we have no sources that tell us why it happened.

There are three obvious candidates for why it happened.

First, was it to prepare for the attack on Newmilns Tower that took place on 25 April or similar attacks? The Newmilns attack involved less than sixty men mainly drawn from two local parishes. Brounen took part in the illicit drilling and was involved in the attack. Covenanters did attack Lochnorris for arms in late March. However, the drilling and exercising 260 men certainly feels like preparation for an open-field encounter.

Second, was it to defend the Societies’ conventions? In 1684 a comparable number of Covenanters had defended their convention from government forces in a field encounter at Auchengilloch. The nineteenth convention on 6 May was also disrupted by Highland forces, but it disbanded after it received warning. The twenty-second convention was also intercepted by government forces who captured fifteen prisoners after it disbanded. The Societies were concerned about the security of their conventions and that they may have to defend themselves when attacked by government forces. However, that had been a problem for a while and at following conventions they disbanded rather than holding their ground.

Third, was it preparation for an armed rising against James VII? It is possible that the Cairn Table muster reflected the initial enthusiasm among radical presbyterians for a rising. Cairn Table was the site where they agreed to meet in the event of a rising. If so, Renwick was actively involved in those preparations. The accession of King James certainly caused the presbyterian factions to discuss a rising. However, ultimately they could not agree terms and the United Societies, although bitterly divided on the issue, did not join the Argyll Rising of May to June 1685.

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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 28, 2018.

5 Responses to “Illicit Drilling & the Secret Muster of 260 Covenanters at Cairn Table in 1685 #History #Scotland”

  1. […] response with parties of dragoons and horse scouring the hills to find those responsible for it. A similar pattern of sweeps had followed a muster by James Renwick and 260 Society people at Cairn Table hill in Muirkirk parish, probably on 22 […]

  2. […] above) on c.2 May, 1685. That he had provided a halberd to John Brounen in March which was used at a muster of Covenanters at Cairn Table. We also know that he was captured at some point after that, probably on 1 or 2 May, 1685, as a […]

  3. […] gave also acount of a conventicle keeped by [James] Renek at the bak of Carantable, where there wer threttin scor [260] of men in armes mustered and exercised, of which number he was with his […]

  4. […] of the Societies in the area may provide a context for Barrie’s execution in the field. The Renwick conventicle and Societies’ muster of 260 men behind Cairntable Hill in late March, and the Societies’ attack on Newmilns tower on c.25 April, would have made the Inglis’ local […]

  5. […] but Colonel Douglas had been given a wide ranging commission a few days earlier following reports that 260 rebels had mustered in Ayrshire, probably on 22 March. Inglis and his dragoons may well have had a good reason to take Richard directly to Douglas at […]

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