A few years ago, at Fotheringhay Church, I attended the first performance of ‘Sunlight on a Pale Green Ocean’, a work written by Christopher Brown who had set some of my Uist poems for four part choir. After the performance someone in the audience asked if I would write a piece on Mary, Queen of Scots who had been executed at Fotheringhay Castle. All that remains of the site is a mound. But as I had stood there that afternoon, I had been filled with great indignation – how dare they, I thought, how dare they execute a Scottish Queen. I was then moved to write a sequence on Mary – in The Goodman’s Daughter – and one thing leading to another, my next collection, The Hammer and the Fire, began with poems on John Knox and the Scottish Reformation. It was just a short step, then, to find myself caught up in stories of the Covenanters and the Killing Times.
A Voyage to Babylon
a story of the Killing Times
There are covenanters buried in our local churchyard – casualties of the action at Rullion Green - and a woman from our hamlet, Old Pentland, prepared the corpse of James Renwick, Minister of the Moors, for burial after his execution in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh in 1688 – the last of the Covenanter martyrs. The final nudge was a visit to the magnificent Dunnottar Castle where, in 1685, 160 Covenanters were incarcerated in appalling conditions for three months before those who remained alive were transported to North America.
In the Vault
A floor of undressed stones.
No tub for the relief of nature.
They stood, took turns to sit,
envied the bold freedom of the rats.
Some passed, in these summer days,
into their mind’s winter…
On the Sabbath they’d sing their Psalms,
take up the precentor’s line,
build a wondrous tracery
intricate as the gothic they’d destroy –
till God’s light burst
into the chambers of their captive hearts.
At one stage, to alleviate conditions in what is now known as the Whig’s Vault, 30 men were moved to an even worse situation. Deprived of light and air...
Man after man
they lie on their bellies
by a slit in the wall,
suck in the summer.
And fears fly
into their heads
like bats into darkness.
A farmer sits
rocking in his excrement
weeping for his mother.
A boy is babbling
by a wall, his scrabbling
to flesh. John Fraser
of Pitcalzean has been seized
by the bloody flux....
I got a list of the prisoners at Dunnottar from The Covenanters Index, stuck a pin in three names and, following a few slender leads, traced John Fraser from Dunnottar to Connecticut and then, after the Glorious Revolution, back to Scotland where, to my astonishment, I discovered he had been Minister at Glencorse Church just two miles from where we live. After his church burned down he was called to Alness, ending his days by the Cromarty Firth where he had been born and raised.
My account of his experiences is almost entirely fictional but I have used some of the graphic details from Robert Wodrow’s ‘A History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland…’. Writing in the seventeenth century, Wodrow was still able to access eye-witness accounts of the hardships and atrocities of what he called, ‘The Killing Times’.
These events arose out of what is often casually designated, the English Civil War but that was only part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms which also engulfed Ireland and Scotland with horrendous loss of life. It has been said that perhaps 9% of the population of Scotland died directly or indirectly as a consequence of these wars, 3.7% of the population of England and a staggering 41% of the population of Ireland.
Arguably, the fault line runs from the Scottish Reformation of 1560 through civil wars and the Killing Times to the debacle at Culloden in 1746 and on into sectarianism in contemporary Scotland. You catch, at moments, how frighteningly close history is. We ignore it at our peril.
A Voyage to Babylon also contains more general poems as well as material written on themes from my beloved Uists. I try to achieve some balance by including poems on my native habitat, the east of Scotland. I keep working away at the differences between west and east coast seascapes. Something to do with wind and light, I think.
This is the sea where night gathers –
where thin-lipped, winter dawns
mouth cold beginnings, where short,
thrawn waves are Sunday-suited,
grey even under the summer sun.
Its seascapes shaped minds that praised
a jealous God. Even its serenities
are deceptions, summon the haars that drew
the dragon ships, their bear-sarks
howling out of the chill. So why
does it lift the heart, disclose
in its turbulence a spirit’s haven?
I remember horizons wider than the edge
of rain, the sea inscrolled in parables of light.