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(Gerard Cairns)

"Orthodox, Orthodox, wha believe in John Knox",

Let me sound an alarm to your conscience :

There's a heretic blast has been I' the wast

' That what is not sense must be nonsense '


Burns, " The Kirk's Alarm ". (1)                                           Covenanters sketch


In this land of the inferiority complexwinning doesn't come easy. The Scots, it would seem, are born losers. Everything from our national football team to the distinctive piece of cloth that is the kilt seems to embarrass us. We laugh with Billy the Brit Connolly as he laughs at us. Of course it does not have to be like this.


Take the Covenanters. After many years of "struggle" they were able to impose their vision on Scotland (albeit a watered down one.) It was a long road. In Greyfriars Churchyard in 1638 they signed a 'Church in Danger' document which they called the National Covenant. The Union of the Crowns in 1603 had taken the Stuarts to London faster than the proverbial Scottish Labour MP (and with the same intention of not returning!)


The interests of our larger neighbour seemed to predominate in all affairs - be it politics, culture or religion. The Greyfriars signatories had a legitimate grievance in feeling that their Kirk was being anglicised.But let us put this "Scottish Revolution" in perspective. True, the Covenanters act of rebellion was favoured in much of lowland Scotland. Parts of the north east and the Gaeltacht were the exceptions. Charles I'sdomestic Englishproblems had a say in both these outcomes : it gave the Covenanters a free hand to secure their position within Scotland free from any organised royalist resistance until late 1643 - early 1644 by which time England and Ireland were in civil war. Also from theHighlanders point of view Charles I was unable to maintain his father's ( James VI) hostile policies towards the Highlands, which saw a degree of autonomy returning to the Gaeltacht. Charles I was a better option than the anti-Gaelic and anti- Catholic Covenanters. As we shall see in the form of Alasdair MacColla, royalism was a flag of convenience in the highlands. The clans had little choice.


The ascendant Covenanters stood up to the powers of the Crown but never, at any point in time, challenged the Crown's right to rule. Montrose and MacColla rebelled in the name of the king in 1644 against covenanting regime whose head of state was still Charles I even though some of the zealots might have said it was God. This of course raises the question : were the Covenanters really democrats challenging an absolutist regime or just Protestant theocrats? I should state it is the degree of theocracy that is at issue here not the religion. That said, the evidence seems to suggest the latter answer to my question. After Montrose's defeat at Philiphaugh there followed further purges against the clans and Irish Gallowglass soldiers. A split ensued in covenanting ranks between the Engagers, who wanted to reach an agreement with Charles forcing him to accept the Presbyterian ruling class, and Argyll's camp who made a brief deal with Cromwell to smash the Engagement. There was still no republic. Negotiations began in late 1648 with the young Charles II. Even if the covenanting regime had declared for a Presbyterian republic, you wouldn't have wanted to live under its auspices. As Edward J. Cowan puts it:


"The parliament of 1649 set about the creation of the new Zion during Scotland's brief and unhappy experiment in theocracy. Royalists were excluded from office; lay patronage was abolished; death was decreed for blasphemy, idolatry, parent cursing, incest and witchcraft; the codification of Scots law was discussed". (2)


Covenanters BannerAs James Connolly noted, no country has ever quaked under such a regime of intolerance and bigotry as Scotland under the Covenanters. It just didn't matter who was king as long as God's new regime had the power to do as it pleased. The so called "Scottish Revolution" was guilty on three other charges. The Covenanters were guilty of a fascistic policy in the Gaeltacht. It is true to say that the Stuart kings from James I onwards were responsible for an intolerant and repressive approach towards the Gaelic part of their kingdom. The Gaels were treated with contempt but their culture and way of life was not interfered with. The Convenanters, on the other hand waged war on the Gaeltacht. The Covenanters were lowland Presbyterians. This was "civilised" and as a result Scotland was to be shaped in this lowland Presbyterian mould. Like the Stuarts they played off existing Highland divisions. In the house of Argyll they had their very own Gaelic covenanting clan who were given a free hand in the western highlands, cites instances of Covenanting generals being over-ruled by Calvinist ministers who wanted defeated clan armies slaughtered along with the wives and children who followed their menfolk into battle. (3)


The Gaeltacht was being pushed back. It is little wonder that clan bards around this time referred to the "men of Alba" as though they were foreign. Ethnically they were treated as such by the men of the Covenant. Stevenson points out the irony that the clans fought for the king of Scotland while adhering to these sentiments. For my part Brit soldiers and guns in the 1740's only finished the job begun by the Covenanters in the 1640's. As for clan Campbell it is hard not to compare them to those native American scouts who sold out their own people to the settlers of the new US. Though, Jacobite Campbells are well recorded, such as the Breadalbane and Black Isle Campbells. The Campbells were also wrongly blamed for William Ill's ethnic cleansing in Glencoe. The hapless alcoholic Campbell of Glenlyon, commander of the Government militia acted against his will. A Campbell of Glenlyon was "out" in the '15 and the Glencoe Maclans guarded Campbell property from the other Jacobite clans during the uprisings. The Government of today still plays it's divide and rule cards.


Then there was the Covenanters inglorious intervention in Ireland in 1642. A Scots army was commissioned to be sent over to protect English and Scottish Protestant settlers against the Irish uprising. Just like their intervention in England the same year, they were merely trying to extend their Presbyterian sphere of influence. Like the British army of today, the Scots army had no right to be there and joined the forces of reaction in suppressing a legitimate rising. The Scots Covenanters cannot be compared with the English Levellers who refused to go fight for Cromwell in Ireland. As such this episode only highlights their anti-Catholic bigotry even further and points to a strong anti-Irishness as well.


However this intervention did solidify links between the MacDonalds of the western highlands and the MacDonalds (McDonnell's) of Antrim. The earl of Antrim was set to intervene in Scotland with his support for MacColla, himself a MacDonald of Colonsay stock, as he began his premature campaign in 1643. In response to Edinburgh's intervention in Ireland there was a genuine Scots-Irish Gaelic alliance against the Covenant, clan Campbell and lowland Scots-Englishinterference in Ulster. Again we can see that royalism was a banner to wave against their common enemy. Finally, the Covenanters virtually handed Scotland on aplate to Oliver Cromwell. This was not a deliberate process but it happened anyway. We have to remember that politics was always subordinate to the religious zeal of the Covenanters. There was no political 'constant' or principle only the bottom h'ne - defence of the Covenant and Presbyterian-ism. This made them a fount of contradictions : the Covenanters could, at different times, jump from asserting a strong Scottish independence (albeit based on their faith) to reaching some kind of agreement with England; from rebelling against the king of the day to approaching his successor. The Covenanters truly rivalled the Stuarts in their level of opportunism.

 Covenanters Banner

We need only look at the theocratic parliament of 1649. Argyll, as head of government, felt that the parliament had gone too far. News of Charles I's execution was greeted with shock in Scotland which gave Argyll an excuse to approach Charles II at the Hague. The young heir left his options open : negotiating with the Scots government while supporting Montrose's armed attempts at restoration. Montrose was finally defeated at Carbisdale in 1650 while Charles took the Argyll option and became a " covenanted king ". Both Charles and Argyll acted out of pure expediency - the young monarch wanted a title; the politician wanted survival and to paper over the cracks within the regime.


Charles' restoration in Scotland, however hollow it was, brought the Scots into conflict with the Cromwellian regime in England. When Cromwell's army moved into Scotland in 1650 he was outmanoeuvred by the Scots general, David Leslie, who was forcing the English commander back home. There then followed two amazing acts of covenanting self-righteousness. There was a Kirk backed purge of Leslie's army to root out all ' undesirables'; a move which weakened the Scots who were smashed at Dunbar in September. The hard liners of the south-west then blamed Charles for his indifference and his insincerity! Argyll panicked, officially crowned Charles then retreated to Campbell country. Charles' attempted invasion of England was defeated at Worcester and Cromwell incorporated Scotland into his English Commonwealth. Under General Monck, Cromwell's regime had an easy passage in Scotland. True, the English army had no right to be here. But the Highlanders didn't want a covenanting government back and Monck knew not to tread on the Kirk's toes and so upset the Covenanters.



A precedent was set for the later covenanting victory in 1689. Political victory for the men of the National Covenant meant defeat for the national body politic of Scotland. Cromwell's victory would mean that Scotland's fate was tied in with England's upon his death. The restoration period saw a mild form of retribution within Scotland. As Grimble puts it: "Nemesis caught up with the Calvinist Covenanters who had behaved with such consistent intolerance and barbarity during the days of their power, and its instrument was another Graham."(4)


This 'nemesis' was still mild compared to the atrocities of Campbells and lowland Covenanters alike. The so-called "Killing Tunes" in the 1680's saw one side give as good as the other. Claver-house's 'Highland Host' raided the south-west while Covenanters assassinated government supporters. What really aroused the fury of the covenanting conventicles (or field meetings) was James VIPs Tolerance Act of 1685, promising greater fairness and access to government jobs to Catholics and Episcopalians. It seems to say it all that a call for tolerance produced such a reaction from the Covenanters. In July 1680, in Clydesdale, Richard Cameron (who gave his name to the Cameronian regiment so loyal to William) gave this enlightening address to one conventicle : "... the Lord would lift up a standard against anti-Christ, that would go to the gates of Rome and burn it with fire; and that Blood should be their sign, and 'No Quarters' their word, and earnestly wish that it might first begin in Scotland. " (5)


Such speeches still go on every July in public parks across Scotland. This was the background to the lowland Scots acceptance of William of Orange in 1689. There was one major differ ence between 1689 and 1638. The latter was an indigenous lowland Scottish revolt; the former saw Calvinist Scotland accept what was basically an English revolutionary settlement. William was a Calvinist and the feeling in higher political circles was that James had went too far. In true opportunist fashion, James looked to Scotland and Ireland for support. Only events in Scotland can concern me here though William's revolution was finally sealed over the water. Claverhouse responded quickly and with Highland support defeated government forces at Killiecrankie, getting himself killed in the process. The Highlanders sieged Dunkeld which was being held by the Cameronian regiment. The government in Edinburgh prepared to retreat to England to enlist aid in their proposed re-capture of Scotland. Like Knox and the Covenanters of the 1640's the later Covenanters saw England as the key to their political success north of the border. Of course it was all unnecessary as the Jacobite forces were defeated at Dunkeld. This latent unionism within covenanting ranks is significant. Back in the 1640's Argyll had wanted all of one language, in one island, all under one king, one in religion, yea one in Covenant.' (6)


In the early 1690's the Scots had approached the English parliament with a view to Union. They had the support of the king; however the English parliament did not favour taking on their northern neighbours at this stage, certainly not with the Scots economic problems. England's war with France had hit Scots exports to the continent and grain prices fell steeply throughout the decade. Union only became an issue when one of England's neighbours became troublesome. There is an irony in that the Covenanters, in promoting their own independence and securing their right to choose a Presbyterian succession (summed up in the Acts of Security; Succession; Anent Peace & War in the early 1700's) brought about the demise of Scottish parliamentary independence. Bribe, coercion and threat secured this involuntary union. Queen Anne called it her 'design against Scotland.' Now the Covenanters had every right to invoke the wrath of an expansionist English state by asserting their independence. But it was Union that brought the men of the Covenant their ultimate victory - the entrenched position of the Church of Scotland as well as control of the legal and education systems. Again their triumph meant the loss of Scottish national 'democracy'.



Covenanters Banner Lt Cononel's Colour White on Blue There were riots in covenanting and Jacobite towns alike highlighting the anti-Union sentiments of the Scottish people. In some lowland towns, with little or no Jacobite sympathies, people wore tartan sashes to show their opposition. The symbols of Scottish Jacobites were already being used in the lowlands as the symbols of a separate Scottish identity. (7) There was no organised covenanting resistance to the Union. On the contrary Scottish Covenanters became British Unionist Whigs in the period after 1707. They had their new found rights and privileges to defend.



This may seem like dry and dusty political history. But it is crucial to an understanding of our past. It may seem very Marxist to argue that the Covenanters were class warriors, a mass movement against an absolutist regime. That really would be an example of the mechanical Marxism which tries to hammer a square peg into a round hole. Can we really turn bigots into revolutionaries? As an example take the Ulster Workers strike of 1974. Workers struck against their bosses and the British state. There was almost complete solidarity, or so it seemed, amongst Protestant workers. For what end? To bring down the Sunningdale agreement and reinforce the loyalist position in the six counties. This is one strike no Marxist should have supported. And so it is with the Covenanters. A movement from below led by pedagogues on high who wanted a monolithic Scotland and/or Britain based on Presbyterianism. Everything else was secondary. To claim the Covenanters as part of our republican tradition would raise other questions which cannot be answered positively. Was Cromwell progressive in Scotland or Ireland? Is 1690 and all that part of our tradition?



If we really wish to reclaim a hidden 'history from below' then we must look to the vanquished - the clans. This is hard for many on the left (Brits of course!) to swallow. What can be progressive about backward peoples and their struggles? This view is not very Martian. Admittedly the young Angels labelled the Basques, Slavs and Scottish Gaels as 'so much national refuse.' In the later years, under the influence of Lewiss Morgan's anthropological work Marx and Engels began to extol the virtues of 'primitive communism' .


The collectivism communal values of the clans can be seen in the figure of an Alexander MacDonald, or Alasdair MacColla as he is known to history. His father, Coll Ciotach, hailed from Colonsay while his family had connections with the Antrim Mac-Donnells. MacColla was Catholic and staunchly anti-Campbell. Not only was his hatred clan related; it was personal as Colonsay was under Campbell occupation. MacColla left Ireland in 1643 with a mainly Irish army primarily to re-claim Colon-say. Although his force met with initial failure MacColla was pushing at an open door in the western highlands such was the reality of Campbell-Covenanter oppression. Clan Campbell had an indemnity from the parliament in Edinburgh, at Argyll's request, which gave them a free hand. MacLeans, MacDonalds suffered among other clans. One such atrocity was the pillaging and destruction of the earl of Ogilvie's estate at Air lie in 1640. This should be well remembered . The anti-Covenanter clans did not rally to MacColla and Montrose out of feudal obedience. Rather it was against the persecution heaped upon them by the new regime. Royalism was a political banner to wave against that regime. The clans had no choice but to fight for Charles I. Their culture, way of life and territory were under threat as the Covenanters pushed the Gaeltacht back. In these circumstances the Gaels had to take sides.

 Major's Colour, Gold on Blue

MacColla did so. He formed an alliance with James Graham, marquis of Montrose in 1644. This alliance produced six stunning victories during the course of the following year culminating at Kilsyth in August 1645, when many covenanting leaders fled to England and Ireland to recall troops for a fresh assault. Montrose was hailed as one of the finest generals in Europe. The marquis set up base in Glasgow to await orders from Charles I. I find this alliance symbolic in explaining what was at stake during the Scottish civil war. MacColla was an ardent Catholic and Highlander; Montrose was a lowland Protestant. They fought for much more than Charles I. They were fighting (MacColla at any rate) for a multilingual, multi-cultural Scotland against the encroaching monolithic Covenanters.

Two visions of Scotland were being fought over. This defence may have been unwitting. MacColla was a brutal military leader who had his own agenda - that Highland civil war within a civil war, namely the struggle of clan Donald against clan Campbell. This Highland civil war was the undoing of both leaders as MacColla left the marquis to his own devices after Kilsyth to go off to ravage Argyll for a second time. MacColla truly is a fascinating figure in our history. He it was who invented the 'highland charge' at the battle of the Laney in Ireland in 1642. He it was who died fighting for the Irish revolution in 1647 after he was forced out of Argyll. He was truly one of the last great Gaelic heroes in Scotland. Students of Scottish history should all take note of this period. There is much to be learned from the struggles of defeated, so-called 'backward' peoples. No defence can be made of the Stuarts actions. That royal house used the Highlands to win back the throne in London. As I have argued the clans were motivated by bigger things : for their Gaelic culture and against covenanting intolerance in the 1640's; for Scottish independence and against the British state in the 1740's.



It is time to burst the Covenanting bubble. It may seem progressive to defend the 'revolutions' of 1638 and 1689. If so we should do well to remember the legacy of the Covenanters. Their Scotland was defined on ethnic lines: lowland Presbyterian. Episcopalian wasn't good enough; Catholic was unforgivable. They wanted uniformity and not by consent. We could swap the religious labels and the argument would still be the same. The Covenanters legacy can be seen in many small town lowland prejudices, namely anti-highland and anti-Irish prejudices. For my part, the Covenanting tradition belongs to the Orangemen lock, stock and barrel - in bigotry, in language, in defence of the same rights and victories. They signed covenants in 1638; they play flutes and lambeg drums today. For those who believe in a secular Scottish Republic, who adhere to the old United Irishmen maxim of " uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter" then we can have no truck with the intolerance and proto-fascism of the Covenanters. How can we ever re-claim that maxim if we honour those who tried to destroy it.


Notes :

1. Burns, 'The Kirk's Alarm' in "The Works of Robert Burns", 1994 edition.

2. E J Cowan, 'Montrose and Argyle' in G Menzies (ed). "The Scottish Nation" 1972, p!28.

3. I Grimble, "Scottish Clans & Tartans", 1973, p98.

4. I Grimble, ibid, p98.

5. Quoted in W Donaldson, "The Jacobite Song: Political Myth & National Identity", 1988, p20.

6. Quoted by R J Cowan, ibid P131. For a development of this argument see W Donaldson, ibid.

7. See D Stevenson, "Highland Warrior": Alasdair MacColla and the Civil War", 1894 for a first class treatment of the so-called "Highland Problem".