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‘I Do Willingly Lay Down My Life’: The Trial and Triumph of Hugh M’Kail

Category Book Excerpts
Date November 28, 2023

On this day in 1666, the infamous Battle of Rullion Green took place six miles outside of Edinburgh. The following excerpt from The Scots Worthiesprovides some of the background to this encounter, and introduces us to a young man whose involvement with the uprising for the sake of faith and conscience cost him his life.

Hugh M’Kail was born about the year 1640, and was educated at the University of Edinburgh, under the inspection of his uncle, Mr Hugh M’Kail, in whose family he resided. In the winter of 1661, he offered himself for trials for the ministry, before the presbytery of Edinburgh, being then about twenty years old; and being by them licensed, he preached several times with great acceptance. He preached his last public sermon, from Cant i. 7 {Song of Solomon 1:7}, in the High Church of Edinburgh, upon the Sabbath immediately preceding the 8th of September 1662, the day fixed by Parliament for the removal of the ministers of Edinburgh. In this sermon, taking occasion to speak of the great and many persecutions to which the Church of God had been and was subjected, and amplifying the point from the persons and powers that had been instrumental therein, he said, that the Church and people of God had been persecuted by a Pharaoh upon the throne, a Haman in the State, and a Judas in the Church; and these characters seemed so similar to those of the rulers of Church and State at the time, that though he made no particular application, he was reputed guilty. Whereupon, a few days after, a party of horse was sent to the place of his residence, near Edinburgh, to apprehend him; but upon little more than a moment’s warning, he escaped out of bed into another chamber, where he was preserved from the search. After this, he was obliged to return to his father’s house, near Liberton1Now a suburb of Edinburgh – Banner Ed., and having lurked there for some time, he spent other four years in several other places before his death.

While he lived at his father’s house, troubles arose in the west; and the news thereof having alarmed him, for such motives and considerations as he himself afterwards more fully declares, he joined himself, upon the 18th of November 1666, to those who rose in these parts for the assistance of that poor afflicted party. [The reference here is to what was afterwards known as the ” Pentland Rising,” which was regarded as formidable enough at the time, but which originated in the following very simple and unpremeditated manner. Sir James Turner, who had distinguished himself by his military exactions and cruelty, had sent some of his soldiers to a small village about twenty miles from Dumfries, to seize the property of an old man who had incurred his displeasure for some religious offence. While they were maltreating him in the most brutal manner, some of the villagers ventured to remonstrate; but the soldiers having resented the interference, a scuffle ensued, and the old man was set free. It was now impossible to stop here, without exposing themselves, and the inhabitants of the district, to summary vengeance. Accordingly, many of their friends having joined them, they marched to Dumfries, where they surprised Sir James Turner and his garrison, and made them prisoners. Up till this time the movement had been quite accidental and unpremeditated, but now there came a necessity for more deliberate and determined action. Having received considerable reinforcements, and having been joined by many of the ablest and most influential of the Presbyterians, among whom was Lieutenant-Colonel Wallace, a gallant and distinguished officer, they marched under his command to Lanark, where they arrived on the evening of the 25th; and where, on the following day, they renewed the Covenants2The National Covenant of 1638, and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. in the most solemn manner. Their number at this time was about 1,500, the horsemen being armed for the most part with sword and pistol, but many of the foot soldiers only with scythes and pitchforks. Unfortunately, however, and as so often happened, difference of opinion sprang up among themselves, some wishing to give battle at once, and others urging the expediency of continuing their march eastwards, in the hope of receiving reinforcements in the Lothians.

After deliberation, the second course was adopted as the best; but, in consequence, many left for their homes. And when, after a terrible march in extremely tempestuous weather, the army arrived in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, it was reduced to a handful of about 900 men. To oppose them, General Dalyell had been sent out by the Government with a force of 3,000 fully equipped and disciplined soldiers. The battle, which followed on the 28th, and which took place on Rullion Green, one of the slopes of the Pentlands,

Wintery scene showing, in the middle-ground, the likely site of the stand of the Covenanters at Rullion Green.

was nobly fought by the insurgents; although, with their disadvantages, the result could not be doubtful. The loss to the royal army was never known; but, on the side of the Presbyterians, about 50 were killed, and 100 surrendered on promise of quarter; which promise was, however, in many cases, shamefully violated. The killed were buried in trenches on the battle-field; and a monument, with the following inscription, still marks the spot where they fell:

“A cloud of witnesses lie here,
Who, for Christ’s interests, did appear;
For to restore true liberty,
O’ertumed then by tyranny.
These heroes fought with great renown;
By falling got the Martyr’s Crown!”

We shall not presume to say how far it was prudent, in their circumstances, to continue in arms, and brave the fury of the Government; but, in the words of Defoe, “we leave all those, who afterwards thought it lawful to join in the Revolution, and in taking arms against the oppressions and arbitrary government of King James, to judge whether these good men had not the same individual reasons and more for this Pentland expedition. And it is answer enough to all that shall read these sheets to say, that those men died for that lawful resisting of arbitrary power which has been justified as legal, and acknowledged to be justifiable by the practice and declaration of the respective Parliaments of both kingdoms.”-ED.]

Being of a tender constitution, by the toil, fatigue, and continual marching in tempestuous weather, Hugh M’Kail was so disabled and weakened, that he could no longer endure; and upon the 27th, the day before the battle, he was obliged to leave his comrades near Cramond water. On his way to Liberton parish, passing through Braid’s Craigs, he was taken without any resistance (having only a small ordinary sword) by some of the countrymen who were sent out to view the fields. And here it is observable that his former escape was no more miraculous than his present taking was fatal; for the least caution might have prevented this misfortune; but God, who gave him the full experience of His turning all things to the good of them that love Him, did thus prepare the way for His own glory, and His servant’s joy and victory. He was brought to Edinburgh, first to the Town Council house, where he was searched for letters; but none being found, he was committed prisoner to the Tolbooth. Upon Wednesday the 28th, he was, by order of the Secret Council, brought before the Earl of Dumfries, Lord Sinclair, Sir Robert Murray of Priestfield, and others, in order to his examination. Being interrogated concerning his joining the westland forces, he, conceiving himself not obliged by any law or reason to be his own accuser, did decline the question. After some reasoning, he was desired to subscribe his name, but refused; and this fact, when reported to the Council, gave them great offence, and brought him under some suspicion of being a dissembler. On the 29th he was again called, when, to allay this prejudice, he gave in a declaration under his own hand, testifying that he had been with the westland forces. Though it was certainly known that he had both formed and subscribed this acknowledgment the night before, yet they still persisted in their jealousy. Suspecting him to have been privy to all the designs of that party, they dealt with him with the greater importunity to declare an account of the whole business; and upon December 3, the Boots (a most terrible instrument of torture) were laid on the council-house table before him, and he was certified, that, if he would not confess, he would be tortured next day. Accordingly he was called before them, and, being urged to confess, he solemnly declared, that he knew no more than what he had already confessed; whereupon they ordered the executioner to put his leg in the Boot, and to proceed to the torture, to the number of ten or eleven strokes, with considerable intervals; yet all did not move him to express any impatience or bitterness. This torture was the cause of his not being indicted with the first ten, who were arraigned and sentenced on Wednesday, December 5, to be hanged on the Friday following. Many thought that his slight connection with the rising, and what he had suffered by torture, should have procured him some favour; but it was otherwise determined, for his former sermon was not forgotten, especially the words, “A Pharaoh upon the throne,” etc. Upon December 8, his brother went from Edinburgh to Glasgow, with a letter in his favour from the Marchioness of Douglas, and another from the Duchess of Hamilton, to the Lord Commissioner, but both proved ineffectual. His cousin, Mr Matthew M’Kail, carried another letter from the Marchioness of Douglas to the Archbishop of St Andrews for the same purpose, but with no better success. On Monday the 10th, he and other seven received their indictment of treason, and were summoned to appear before the Justices on Wednesday, December 12; but his torture and close imprisonment (for so it was ordered) had cast him into a fever, whereby he was utterly unable to make his appearance. Therefore, upon Tuesday the 11th, he gave in to the Lords of the Council a supplication, declaring his weak and sickly condition, craving that they would surcease any legal procedure against him, and that they would discharge him of the foresaid appearance. Hereupon the Council ordered two physicians and two chirurgeons to visit him, and to return their attestations, upon soul and conscience, betwixt that time and the morrow at ten o’clock, to the Justices. On December 16, he, being indifferently recovered, was with other three brought before the Justices, where the general indictment was read, founded both on old and recent Acts of Parliament, made against rising in arms, entering into leagues and covenants, and renewing the Solemn League and Covenant, without and against the King’s authority. Hugh M’Kail was particularly charged with joining the rebels at Ayr, Ochiltree, Lanark, and other places, on horseback. Hereupon, being permitted to answer, he spoke in his own defence, both concerning the charge laid against him, and likewise of the ties and obligations that were upon this land to God; commending the institution, dignity, and blessing of Presbyterian government; and said, that the last words of the national Covenant had always a great weight upon his spirit. Here he was interrupted by the King’s Advocate, who bade him forbear that discourse, and answer the question for the crime of rebellion. To this he answered, that the thing which moved him to declare as he had done, was that weighty important saying of our Lord Jesus: ” Whosoever shall confess Me before men, him shall the Son of Man also confess before the angels of God.” After the depositions of those examined anent him were read, with his replies to the same, the assize was inclosed; after which they gave their verdict unanimously, and by the mouth of Sir William Murray, their chancellor, reported him guilty. This being done, doom was pronounced, declaring and adjudging him and the rest to be taken on Saturday, December 20, to the market cross of Edinburgh, there to be hanged on a gibbet till dead, and their goods and lands to be escheated and forfeited for his Highness’ use. At the hearing of the sentence, he cheerfully said, ” The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord;” and he was then carried back to the Tolbooth through the guards, the people making lamentations for him by the way. After he came to his chamber, he immediately addressed himself to God in prayer, with great enlargement of heart, in behalf of himself and those who were condemned with him. Afterwards, he said to a friend, “O how good news; to be within four days’ journey to enjoy the sight of Jesus Christ;” and protested that he was not so cumbered how to die as he had sometimes been to preach a sermon. To some women lamenting for him, he said, that his condition, though he was but young, and in the budding of his hopes and labours in the ministry, was not to be mourned; “for one drop of my blood,” added he, “through the grace of God, may make more hearts contrite than many years’ sermons might have done.”  This afternoon he supplicated the Council for liberty to his father to visit him; which being granted, his father came next night, to whom he discoursed a little from the fifth commandment, concerning obedience to parents. After prayer, his father said to him, “Hugh, I have called thee a goodly olive-tree of fair fruit, and now a storm hath destroyed the tree and his fruit.” He answered, that his too good thought had afflicted him. His father said, that he was persuaded God was visiting not his own sins, but his parents’ sins, so that he might say, “Our fathers have sinned, and we have borne their inquity;” and added, “I have sinned; thou poor sheep, what hast thou done?” Hugh answered with many groans, that, through coming short of the fifth commandment, he had come short of the promise, that his days should be prolonged in the land of the living; and that God’s controversy with his father was for overvaluing his children, especially himself. Upon the 20th of December, through the importunity of friends, more than his own ‘inclination, he gave in a petition to the Council, craving their clemency, after having declared his own innocence; but it proved altogether ineffectual. During his abode in prison, the Lord was very graciously present with him, both to sustain him against the fears of death, and to expel the overcloudings of terror, unto which the best of men, through the frailty of flesh and blood, are sometimes subject. He was also wonderfully assisted in prayer and praise, to the admiration of all. On Thursday night, being at supper with his fellow-prisoners, his father, and one or two more, he said merrily to the former, “Eat to the full, and cherish your bodies, that we may be a fat Christmas-pie to the prelates.” After supper, in thanksgiving, he broke forth into several expressions, both concerning himself and the Church of God, and at last used that exclamation in the book of Daniel, “What, Lord, shall be the end of these wonders?” The last night of his life he propounded and answered several questions for the strengthening of his fellow-prisoners, among others the following:

“How should I go from the Tolbooth through a multitude of gazing people, and guards of soldiers, to a scaffold and gibbet, and overcome the impression of all this?” The answer was, “By conceiving a deeper impression of a multitude of angels, who are on-lookers; according to that saying, ‘We are a gazing-stock to the world, angels, and men:’ for the angels, rejoicing at our good confession, are present to convoy and carry our souls, as the soul of Lazarus, to Abraham’s bosom; not to receive them, for that is Jesus Christ’s work alone, who will welcome them to heaven Himself, with the songs of angels and blessed spirits; the angels are but ministering spirits, always ready to serve and strengthen dying believers.” “What is the way for us, who are hastening to it, to conceive of heaven, seeing the word saith, ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard?'” To this he answered, “that the Scripture helps us two ways to conceive of heaven : (1.) By way of similitude, as in Revelation 21, where heaven is held forth by the representation of a glorious city, there described; ( 2.) By holding forth the love of the saints to Jesus Christ, and teaching us to love Him in sincerity, which is the very joy and exultation of heaven (Revelation 5:12); and no other thing than the soul breathing forth love to Jesus Christ can rightly apprehend the joys of heaven.” The last words he spoke at supper were in commendation of love above knowledge. “Oh! notions of knowledge without love are of small worth, evanishing in nothing, and very dangerous.” After supper, his father having given thanks, he read the 16th Psalm, and then said, “If there be anything in the world sadly and unwillingly to be left, it were the reading of the Scriptures. I said, that I shall not see the Lord in the land of the living; but this needs not make us sad, for, where we go, the Lamb is the book of Scripture, and the light of the city; and there is life; even the River of the Water of Life, and living springs.” He then called for a pen, saying, it was to write his testament, wherein he ordered some few books he had to be delivered to several persons. He went to bed about eleven o’clock, and slept till five in the morning, when he arose and called for his comrade John Wodrow, saying pleasantly, “Up, John, for you are too long in bed; you and I look not like men going to be hanged this day, seeing we lie so long.” Then he spake to him in the words of Isaiah 43:24; and after some short discourse, John said to him, “You and I shall be chambered shortly beside Mr Robertson.” He answered, “John, I fear you bar me out, because you were more free before the Council than I was; but I shall be as free as any of you upon the scaffold;” adding, “I have got a clear ray of the majesty of the Lord after his awakening, but it was a little overclouded thereafter.” He then prayed with great fervency, pleading his covenant relation with Him, and that they might be enabled that day to witness a good confession before many witnesses. His father, coming to him, bade him farewell; to whom his last words were, that his sufferings would do more hurt to the prelates, and be more edifying to God’s people, than if he were to continue in the ministry twenty years. Then he desired his father to go to his chamber, and pray earnestly to the Lord to be with him on the scaffold; “for how to carry there,” said he, “is my care; even that I may be strengthened to endure to the end.” About two o’clock afternoon, he was brought to the scaffold, with other five who suffered with him; where, to the conviction of all that formerly knew him, he had a fairer and more stayed countenance than ever they had before observed. Being come to the foot of the ladder, he directed his speech to the multitude northward, saying, that as his years in the world had been but few, his words then should not be many, and he then addressed to the people the speech and testimony which he had before written and subscribed. Having done speaking, he sung a part of the 31st Psalm, and prayed with such power and fervency, as caused many to weep bitterly. Then he gave his hat and cloak from him; and taking hold of the ladder to go up, he said with an audible voice, “I care no more to go up this ladder, and over it, than if I were going home to my father’s house.” Hearing a noise among the people, he called down to his fellow-sufferers, saying, “Friends and fellow sufferers, be not afraid; every step of this ladder is a degree nearer heaven: “and having seated himself thereon, he said, “I do partly believe that the noble counsellors and rulers of this land would have used some mitigation of this punishment, had they not been instigated by the prelates, so that our blood lies principally at the prelates’ door; but this is my comfort, I know that my Redeemer liveth. And now I do willingly lay down my life for the truth and cause of God, the Covenants and work of Reformation, which were once counted the glory of this nation; and it is for endeavouring to defend this, and to extirpate that bitter root of Prelacy, that I embrace this rope” the executioner then putting the rope about his neck.  Hearing the people weep, he said, “Your work is not to weep but to pray, that we may be honourably borne through; and blessed be the Lord that supports me now. As I have been beholden to the prayers and kindness of many since my imprisonment and sentence, so I hope you will not be wanting to me now in the last step of my journey, that I may witness a good confession; and that ye may know what the ground of my encouragement in this work is, I shall read to you in the last chapter of the Bible;” which having read,  he said, “Here you see the glory that is to be revealed on me; a ‘pure river of water of life;’ and here you see my access to the glory and reward; ‘Let him that is athirst, come;’ and here you see my welcome; ‘The Spirit and the Bride say, Come.'” Then he said, “I have one word more to say to my friends. Ye need neither to lament nor be ashamed of me in this condition, for I may make use of that expression of Christ’s, ‘I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,’ to my King and your King, to the blessed apostles and martyrs, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly of the first-born, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant; and I bid you all farewell, for God will be more comfortable to you than I could be, and He will be now more refreshing to me than you can be. Farewell, farewell in the Lord!” The napkin being put on his face, he prayed a little, and putting it up with his hand, he said that he had a word more to say concerning what comfort he had in his death: “I hope you perceive no alteration or discouragement in my countenance and carriage, and as it may be your wonder, so I profess it is a wonder to myself: and I will tell you the reason of it. Besides the justice of my cause, my comfort is, what was said of Lazarus when he died, that the angels did carry his soul to Abraham’s bosom; so that as there is a great solemnity here, a confluence of people, a scaffold, a gallows, a people looking out of windows; so there is a greater and more solemn preparation of angels to carry my soul to Christ’s bosom. Again this is my comfort, that it is to come to Christ’s hand; He will present it blameless and faultless to the Father, and then shall I be ever with the Lord. And now I leave off to speak any more to creatures, and begin my intercourse with God, which shall never be broken off. Farewell father and mother, friends and relations; farewell the world and all delights; farewell meat and drink; farewell sun, moon, and stars; welcome God and Father; welcome sweet Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the new covenant; welcome blessed Spirit of grace, and God of all consolation; welcome glory; welcome eternal life; and welcome death!” Then he desired the executioner not to turm him over until he himself should put over his shoulders; which, after praying a little in private, he did, saying, “O Lord, into thy hands I commit my spirit, for thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.” And thus, in the 26th year of his age, he died, as he lived, in the Lord. His death was so much lamented by the onlookers and spectators, that there was scarcely a dry cheek seen in all the streets and windows about the Cross of Edinburgh, at the time of his execution. A late historian gives him this character, that “he was a youth of twenty-six years of age, universally beloved, singularly pious, and of very considerable learning. He had seen the world, and travelled some years abroad, and was of a very comely and graceful person. I am told,” says he, “that he used to fast one day every week, and had frequently, before this, signified to his friends his impression of such a death as he now underwent. His share in the Pentland rising was known to be but small; and when he spoke of comfort and joy in his death, heavy were the groans of those present.”

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