This page was last updated on 29 April 2024

Click here to 
Print this page

Biography finder





























Index of first names

The Covenanting Wars - 'The Killing Time'



Coveranters flagThe Covenanters were ardent supporters of the Presbyterian Church, their faith being based on the teachings of John Calvin and John Knox. Their name comes from the National Covenant of 1638, an oath to resist the attempts by Charles I to introduce a new Prayer Book in Scotland. It was an opposition that would eventually lead to 18,000 of them losing their lives in a bloody struggle and the Presbyterian Church becoming the official religion of Scotland.


The Church had remained through most of the Middle Ages the central focus of people’s lives. Not only promoting the Christian faith, it also supported the poor and punished wrongdoers. By the start of the fifteenth century however it had become corrupt, taking bribes to cover up misdeeds or to confer powerful ecclesiastical positions upon members of already powerful families. These abuses deepened until Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, nailed a ‘Protest’ to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. This was the start of the Protestant movement which rapidly spread across Europe and would in 1560 be declared the official religion of Scotland. Its main aims were to return the Church to its core values, to distance it from the greed and degradation that it had become known for and to allow ordinary people to read the Bible and attend services in their own language rather than in Latin. Within Scotland there was still tremendous resistance from some quarters towards the new religion. People started taking sides; Mary of Guise, the Scottish regent, along with her supporters were Catholic and still held true to the ‘Auld Alliance’ and looked towards France for support. The Protestants reluctantly tried to counter this by allying themselves with Scotland’s ‘Auld Enemy’ – England - and seeking the support of Henry VIII who had no love for the Pope.

Enter John Knox, a Protestant preacher. John Knox became a skilled speaker, promoting the reformation doctrines of the new faith. He had studied in Geneva under the French reformer John Calvin and offered a church administered by courts instead of being ruled by often corrupt Bishops. He became a focus for Protestants and viciously defended their beliefs against Mary Queen of Scots  who tried to enforce her Catholic faith in Scotland when she returned from France in 1561. What followed were several troubled periods as religious differences were contested between the monarchy and its people until 1610, when Presbyterian rule was brought to an end by James VI. James had inherited both the Crown of Scotland and that of England and established Episcopacy as the religion across both countries. James, ‘The Wisest Fool in Christendom’, was yet clever enough not to enforce this too strictly and for a time people were able to worship, more or less, whatever way they liked James VI died in 1625 and his son, Charles I, did not have the tact of his father nor did he understand the Scottish people, having grown up in England. Charles tried to rigidly enforce the change to Episcopacy and promoted many Catholics to positions of high status. The Scots people now feared a return to the abuses of the Catholic Church and in 1638 the King’s attempt to introduce a new Prayer Book was the last straw. Many Scots, rich and poor, gathered in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh to sign a ‘National Covenant’ and to swear to ‘Defend the true religion and recover the purity and liberty of the Gospel’. These ‘Covenanters’ gathered strength and a few months later at a General Assembly in Glasgow, they deposed the Bishops appointed by the crown and swept away Episcopacy.


The Scottish Covenanters, in 1643, also signed the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’, promising to send an army into England to aid the Parliamentary forces against the King. The Parliament, for their part in the bargain, promised to establish the Presbyterian Church, not only in Scotland, but throughout England and Ireland as well. It was the Scottish army which Charles I surrendered to and which was ultimately responsible for handing him over to Cromwell, who had him executed. Cromwell’s Parliament did not keep their promise to the Covenanters, who were later to defy him by restoring the late King’s heir, Charles II, to the throne.

Despite this, Charles II also had no intention of observing the Covenant. He removed the right of Scottish congregations to appoint their own ministers and restored the hated Bishops. Many ministers (most of whom were from south-west Scotland), rather than give in, chose to leave their parishes and assume the role of outlaws, preaching where they could and holding illegal meetings called ‘conventicles’, in the hills under constant threat of fines and attack by Government Dragoons. This caused them to take up arms in defiance and resulted in some of the bloodiest events in Scottish history; it came to be referred to as ‘The Killing Time’.

In 1665 General Thomas Dalziel of Binns was despatched by the King to suppress the unrest in south-west Scotland and he did so with breathtaking brutality. He based himself for a while at Dean Castle and the area suffered several atrocities. In 1666, thirty Covenanters were hanged and hundreds more were deported to Barbados to work as slave labour on the sugar plantations. The brutal ‘pacification’ of the Covenanters continued, but in 1679 they still managed to win a victory over Government forces at Drumclog, near Loudoun Hill, and hold Glasgow for a few days before being completely defeated at the Battle of Bothwell Brig by the Duke of Monmouth. Several men captured at Bothwell Brig were held for a while in the dungeon at Dean Castle before being deported; their ship sank drowning all but one of them. Also captured after the battle was John Nisbet of Loudoun; after his arrest he was put on trial in Kilmarnock and sentenced to death. Instead of executing him in Edinburgh, it was decided to hang him in front of the local townspeople as an example. As always, this type of spectacle which was meant to sap the will out of would-be rebels had the opposite effect. He was buried in the Laigh Kirkyard, but his body was dug up and moved to the criminals’ graveyard at Gallows Knowe. It was removed the same night by furious locals, who reburied it in its original grave in the Laigh Kirkyard, leaving the grave under armed guard in case the authorities tried to move it again. Their resistance continued. In 1680, another local man, Richard Cameron, defied Charles by delivering a proclamation in Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire - declaring war on the King. He was killed by a division of Dragoons at a skirmish at Airds Moss, near Cumnock.

James VII, brother of Charles II who succeeded him in 1685, declared this continued opposition to the Church and attending conventicles treasonable. Another Covenanter uprising led by the Earl of Argyll failed completely. Things changed, however, in 1688 with the arrival of the Protestant William III (William of Orange) in Britain. His army forced James II to flee the country; he restored the Presbyterian Church and ended the persecution of the Scottish rebels. One of the Scottish regiments which fought for William III was the Cameronians who had taken their name from the fallen Covenanter hero, Richard Cameron.
Douglases involved in the Covenanters included William Douglas of Morton (1628-1707), and of Lochrinnie, a Captain of the 9th Company of the Dumfriesshire Militia, and also a Sheriff-Depute. Associated with him, among others was Colonel James Douglas (2), 2nd son of the Earl of Queensberry, Sir Robert Grierson of Lag and Captain William Douglas.

A tombstone of John Bell of Whiteside in Anwoth Churchyard reads:

This monument shall tell posterity
That blessed bell of Whiteside here doth ly
Who at command of bloody Lagg was shot
A murder strange, which should not forgot
Douglas of Morton did him quarters give
Yet cruel Lagg would not let him survive
This martyr sought some time to recommend
His soul to God before his days did end
The tyrannt said: 'What deveil! Ye've pray'd eneuch
These seven long years, on mountain and in cleuch

There is also a monument in Old Dailly (near Girvan) Churchyard:

Here lies
The corpse of John
Semple who was
Shot at Kilerran
at Command of
Cornet James Douglas (1)

The stone for the Caldon Martyrs, six men caught at a prayer meeting and executed on the spot in 1685, was vandalised in 1983 but thankfully the broken stone was taken to the Newton Stewart Museum for safe keeping. This reversed image shows the inscription on the reverse which reads
Caldon memorial stone

covenanters memorial stone John Hunter was shot escaping from a house at Corehead in Annandale in 1685. His death was first recorded by Alexander Shields in 1690: ‘Item, the said Col: James Douglas and his party, shot to Death John Hunter for no alleged Cause, but running out from the house at Corehead, the same year, 1685.’

The officer held responsible for Hunter’s death by the Society people was Colonel James Douglas, the commander of His Majesty’s Regiment of Foot Guards.

  Read more 

Click image to enlarge to read the inscription

The memorial stone (right) is in the churchyard of Tweedsmuir are the graves of some who fell for "The Covenant," one headstone, at least, relettered by "Old Mortality".
John Hunter's memorial stone

The following are recorded as 'Covenanter martyrs':
John Douglas, Drowned near Orkney in shipwrecked slave ship, 1679
Samuel Douglas, Drowned near Orkney in shipwrecked slave ship, 1679, , ,

Charles Douglas, possibly from the Dumfries area, and William Douglas, possibly of Bridge of Ken, were both transported to New Jersey on the Henry & Francis having been held prisoner in Dunottar Castle.

Covenanters were held in many places throughout Scotland, including
•  The Bass Rock
•  Blackness Castle
•  Dunottar Castle
•  St Giles High Church, Edinburgh
•  Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh
•  Kirkcudbright Tolbooth

Covenanters Section
  • The Killing Times
  • Battle of Bothwell Brig
  • The Wreck of The Crown
  • Henry & Francis
  • Jamie Douglas - poem
  • Incident at Martyrs Moss
  • Col James Douglas
  • Battle of Airds Moss
  • Battle of Bothwell Brig
  • Battle of Drumclog
  • List of Covenanters
  • Rev. Thomas Douglas
  • Capt. Thomas Douglas
  • Col Richard Douglas's Regt
  • Sir James Douglas of Mouswald’s Regiment of Foot
  • Colonel Robert Douglas’ Regiment of Foot
  • Colonel William Douglas of Kilhead’s Regiment of Horse
  • The storm of Dundee
  • Sir William Douglas’ Regiment of Foot
  • Sir William Douglas’ Troop of Horse


    1.  Probably William of Morton's son, who went on the become a Colonel of the Scots Footguards, and then a Brigadier in the Dutch Highland Brigade 1709. Fought at Malplaquet, and elsewhere. He may have been involved in the Battle of the Boyne on the side of William of Orange. He owned the Lordship of Knochsting as well as other properties.
    2.  The officer who was said to be involved in the most deaths was one Colonel James Douglas, the brother of the Duke of Queensberry, who, only a few years later, was a Lieutenant-General for William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne.




    Any contributions to this item will be gratefully accepted


    Errors and Omissions

    The Forum

    What's new?

    We are looking for your help to improve the accuracy of The Douglas Archives.

    If you spot errors, or omissions, then please do let us know


    Many articles are stubs which would benefit from re-writing. Can you help?


    You are not authorized to add this page or any images from this page to (or its subsidiaries) or other fee-paying sites without our express permission and then, if given, only by including our copyright and a URL link to the web site.


    If you have met a brick wall with your research, then posting a notice in the Douglas Archives Forum may be the answer. Or, it may help you find the answer!

    You may also be able to help others answer their queries.

    Visit the Douglas Archives Forum.


    2 Minute Survey

    To provide feedback on the website, please take a couple of minutes to complete our survey.


    We try to keep everyone up to date with new entries, via our What's New section on the home page.

    We also use the Community Network to keep researchers abreast of developments in the Douglas Archives.

    Help with costs

    Maintaining the three sections of the site has its costs.  Any contribution the defray them is very welcome



    If you would like to receive a very occasional newsletter - Sign up!
    Temporarily withdrawn.



    Back to top


    The content of this website is a collection of materials gathered from a variety of sources, some of it unedited.

    The webmaster does not intend to claim authorship, but gives credit to the originators for their work.

    As work progresses, some of the content may be re-written and presented in a unique format, to which we would then be able to claim ownership.

    Discussion and contributions from those more knowledgeable is welcome.

    Contact Us

    Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024