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Young People’s Day Tour of Edinburgh

Category Articles
Date November 11, 2011

These are some notes of what was said on a tour which took place during a Free Presbyterian Youth Conference in Edinburgh, on Wednesday 13 April 2011.

1. John Knox’s House and Trunk’s Close. John Knox’s house is one of the oldest surviving houses in Edinburgh. It is not definite that Knox lived in the house and, if he did, it was only for the last few years or months of his ministry. Yet the house was certainly around in his day. He lived in various places in Edinburgh, one of which was probably down Trunk’s Close (immediately next to Knox’s House). If you go down Trunk’s Close, look above your head at the old building work that is visible. The Netherbow (just down the Royal Mile from Knox’s House) was where the hands and heads of various martyrs were displayed, including those of James Guthrie and Donald Cargill. Guthrie’s head was taken down by a young man called Alexander Hamilton, at considerable danger to himself; Hamilton was later involved in the Marrow Controversy.

2. The Old Mercat Cross. The Old Mercat Cross (marked by a cross in the pavement, just down the Royal Mile from St Giles’ church) was where most of the Covenanting executions took place between 1661 and the 1680s. The first martyr was the Marquis of Argyll (1661), to be followed by James Guthrie (1661), Hew MacKail (1666), Donald Cargill (27 July 1681), and many others.

The death of James Guthrie was startling. He was the first Protestant minister to be put to death in Scotland since the Reformation. He was found guilty of treason, but he had not led a revolution or anything of that sort. Had he done anything wrong, he could have been imprisoned or banished. He was simply a man who continued to uphold the Covenant which the King and all his judges had themselves taken.

For the execution of Donald Cargill, there were great crowds, and Cargill delivered a long speech. A description of the occasion is given in Maurice Grant’s No King But Christ. One hearer whose life was changed as a result was James Renwick, later martyred himself at the Grassmarket.

3. John Knox’s grave. John Knox’s grave is at the back of St Giles’, where there used to be a graveyard. Parliament House was originally built on the site in about 1632. We will not go into St Giles’, partly because of the time and partly because it is full of scaffolding at the moment. It is worth visiting because it is the original pre-Reformation building, though it contains rather a lot of rubbish: for example, a new stone altar from Italy which must have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Another reformation is urgently needed to clear out all this stuff.

The most famous ministers of St Giles’ were John Knox, Robert Bruce, and Alexander Henderson. John Knox died in 1572 and was buried just to the west of where the statue of Charles II now stands. There was no stone on his grave at first, though one was put up afterwards; it was removed in the 1960s. His first wife, Marjory Bowes, is, presumably, also buried here.

We will not stop there, but beyond the main entrance to St Giles is a heart-shape set in the pavement, which marks the site of the Tolbooth, or prison (the ‘Heart of Midlothian’). Many Covenanters such as Argyll and Renwick were imprisoned there at various times.

4. The Grassmarket. This was where the executions of some of the later Covenanters took place. The other place of execution was Gallowlee on Leith Walk (at Shrub Place Lane, a little beyond the Youth Hostel where the Conference is being held), because the crowds assembling here were too great.

The most famous of the Grassmarket martyrs was James Renwick. He had entered Edinburgh and was staying on Castlehill. The authorities got wind that he was there and came to the front of the house early in the morning. He tried to escape out of the back. There were soldiers stationed there but he distracted them by firing a pistol in the air and he fled down the Grassmarket. He lost his hat and was stopped by a passer-by somewhere near the Magdalen Chapel. He was executed here on 17 February 1688.

5. The Magdalen Chapel. An address was given by Rev Sinclair Horne. The main points were that the Chapel dates from before the Reformation and that at least one General Assembly was held there in the sixteenth century. The Chapel was used for conventicles in Covenanting times. The table was pointed out on which the bodies of some of the Covenanters, such as the Marquis of Argyll, were placed to be dressed for burial.

6. Greyfriars Church. In the north-east corner of the graveyard is the Covenanters Monument, where the remains of many of the Covenanters were buried. The first monument was set up in 1706 and it was replaced by this one in 1771. The original still survives and is apparently in a better state than this one.

Among the remains buried here are those of James Renwick, and also the heads of five Covenanters who were executed at Gallowlee in 1681. Their bodies were buried under the gallows and their heads placed on the Netherbow. James Renwick was one who buried their bodies elsewhere and then took their heads down from the Netherbow – his first ‘public work’. As it was nearly daylight by this time, and they did not wish to be caught carrying heads through the middle of Edinburgh, they buried them in a garden. The heads were rediscovered in 1726 and were reburied here.

Near the south-west corner of the graveyard is the monument to Alexander Henderson. Henderson died in 1646, and the monument was set up soon after his death. It was defaced in July 1662 by order of Parliament at the start of the anti-Covenanting persecution, but it was restored after the Glorious Revolution of 1689. Also in the south-west corner is the so-called Covenanters’ Prison where about 1500 prisoners were held after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679. At the time it was a large walled-in area where they could be penned up in the open for several months. Over 200 prisoners were sentenced to be transported to America but were drowned when their ship was wrecked off Orkney.

Taken with permission from the Young People’s magazine of the Free Presbyterian Church.

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