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date: 25 February 2021

Participants in the Pentland risingfree

(act. 1666)
  • Caroline Erskine

Participants in the Pentland rising (act. 1666), were a group of committed presbyterians of the south and west of Scotland who in 1666, smarting from military and fiscal oppression and led by ministers and former army officers, launched a rebellion against the government of Charles II and the episcopal regime in Scotland.

The background to the rising lies in the teething troubles experienced by the Restoration regime in Scotland. When Charles II returned from exile in May 1660 he remembered that, while a faction of Scottish presbyterians had been among his only supporters following his father's execution, he had in 1651 been crowned by the presbyterians as king of Scots in an unconventional and humiliating ceremony wherein he had been forced to subscribe to the covenants. Covenanted presbyterians considered their own obligations to the national covenant (1638) and the solemn league and covenant (1643), to the extirpation of episcopacy and the extension of presbyterianism in the three kingdoms, to be eternally binding. They believed Charles II to be similarly bound, although nine years passed before his rule was firmly established.

From Charles II's point of view, however, covenanting presbyterianism was an inherently rebellious religious culture and could have no future alongside the restored monarchy. Its emergence as a dominant force in Scotland in the late 1630s had, after all, marked the beginning of Charles I's wars with his subjects, and the subsequent invasion of northern England by a covenanting army was a vital lever for the emerging opposition in the English parliament. Therefore Charles II's priority for his three kingdoms was to install bishops who would maintain hierarchical control of the churches while working closely with the crown, upon which they would depend for preferment. A series of acts of the Scottish parliament of 1661–2 annulled all legislation passed by covenanting parliaments, placed the final decision on Scotland's church government in the hands of the king himself, and finally, in 1662, restored the episcopal system. As occurred in England and Wales in the wake of similar legislation [see Participants in the Savoy conference], hundreds of presbyterian ministers were ejected from their livings, and meanwhile many congregations remained committed to presbyterianism and refused to attend episcopal services. It was in the south and west of Scotland, in Dumfries and Galloway, Ayrshire, and Lanarkshire, that commitment to presbyterianism remained strongest. Within months of the ejections recalcitrant presbyterian ministers were holding unsanctioned conventicles in private homes and in the open air, while others had gone into exile to agitate against the Stuart government from abroad.

By 1664 the rooting out of field preachers and repression of the presbyterian nonconformists was a priority of Charles II's Scottish government, which was dominated by James Sharp, archbishop of St Andrews, John Maitland, second earl of Lauderdale, based in London as secretary of state for Scotland, and John Leslie, seventh earl of Rothes, keeper of the privy seal and the principal arm of the king's policy in Edinburgh. In that year and in the two years that followed Sir James Turner led government forces into the south-west to impose fines for non-attendance at episcopal services, to quarter troops on those who could not or would not pay fines, and to apprehend field preachers. The perceived threat posed by presbyterian nonconformity was heightened by the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which effectively began in summer 1664, although war was not declared until March 1665. War with Scotland's principal trading partner deepened economic distress at a time when the government urgently needed to raise supply to fund the war effort. There were also fears that presbyterian exiles in the Dutch republic might ally with the Dutch to encourage a rising of presbyterian dissidents in south-west Scotland. The government's response to these circumstances was to impose still harsher repression—only this, it was believed, could keep money flowing into the treasury while minimizing the risk of rebellion.

Such measures were counter-productive, and contributed to the brewing of the Pentland rising, which broke out in November 1666. The rising took its name from the place where it terminated, at the battle of Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills, outside Edinburgh. It was a localized movement that originated spontaneously in south-west Scotland, and failed to recruit further support in the other areas it passed through. The rebels were to be particularly disappointed by the lack of support they received from presbyterian sympathizers in the city of Edinburgh. The rising began with what the field preacher John Blackadder described as 'the scuffle at Dalry' (Memoirs, 120). On 12 November a number of members of the Kirkcudbrightshire gentry—already driven into hiding by the exactions of the soldiers—came upon a group of Turner's troops threatening to torture an old man over non-payment of fines for nonconformity. John Maclellan of Barscobe surprised the soldiers and forced them to surrender. Word of this spread to the neighbouring community of Balmaclellen where a similar feat, the capture of some of Turner's soldiers, was undertaken. Realizing that reprisals would soon follow, Barscobe rallied as many local men as he could to march on Turner's headquarters in Dumfries. Sir James was captured by the rebel forces and promised quarter by John Neilson of Corsock. As a prisoner, Turner accompanied the rebels on their journey towards Pentland. On 16 November the Scottish privy council heard the report of a baillie of Dumfries who named 'a considerable number of men in armes, amongst whom he did sie Neilson of Corsack, the Laird [Balmaclellan] of Barscob, Mr Alexander Robison, a ministers sone' (Reg. PCS, 3rd ser., 2.210). At this early stage the rising appears to have been led by the shadowy figure of Andrew Gray, whom the presbyterian historian James Kirkton named as an Edinburgh merchant, and to whom Turner ascribed the rank of captain. Some days later, however, Gray abandoned his command and disappeared into the night, leaving Turner to conclude that his object in the scheme had been the theft of Turner's own effects, and that he had 'resolvd to retire himself, before the fire grew hotter' (Turner, 154). On 17 November, Turner recorded, the rebels' undertaking was still under the command of Barscobe, Corsock, and Robinson. On 21 November the covenanters' cause was boosted by the arrival of Lieutenant-Colonel James Wallace, an officer who had considerable military experience from serving the army of the covenant in Scotland and Ulster in the 1640s.

In the fortnight between the outbreak of the rising and its defeat at Rullion Green, the rebels, along with their captive Turner, passed from Dumfries to Dalry and then to Ayr, intending to make for Glasgow until they learned that government forces under General Thomas Dalyell of the Binns were coming towards them from there, whereupon they turned east to pass through Lanark before making for Edinburgh. In the opening days of the rising the number of rebels grew quickly. At Ayr on 20 November Turner estimated 700 participants, rising to a peak of 1100 on 26 November at Lanark, where the covenants were renewed. Thereafter the arduous winter marches and the failure of hoped-for reinforcements diminished their ranks as they moved east. General Dalyell caught up with the covenanters in the Pentland Hills, south-west of Edinburgh, on 28 November, and at the battle of Rullion Green defeated and dispersed the rebels, leaving about 50 dead, 80 taken prisoner, and many more consigned to flight and exile.

The participants in the rising fall into three groups: field preachers, aggrieved members of local élites, and men of more plebeian condition. The last group must have made up the bulk of the covenanting forces, and their participation in the rising was probably motivated as much by economic repression as by commitment to the cause of the covenants. However, detail on these men is difficult to come by, as they were not a priority for either the government's pursuit of the most dangerous and wealthy rebels, or for the hagiographers of the covenanting tradition. Scattered references can be found to such individuals as James Hamilton and John Shields, tenants, executed for their parts in the rising on 7 December 1666; George Crawford, yeoman, executed on 14 December; and Matthew Paton, shoemaker, executed on 19 December. Better documented are those from local élites who initiated the rebellion, largely owing to records of their brushes with the law before, during, and after the rising. John Neilson of Corsock, for example, was listed as an exception to the act of indemnity and oblivion of September 1662 on pain of a fine of £600, and had faced repeated fines and quartering of Turner's troops at his home on account of his ongoing presbyterian sympathies. He was captured at Rullion Green and tortured as part of the government's efforts to establish whether the rising had been planned (it had not), and if assistance from the Dutch was a factor (it was not), before his execution on 14 December. Major Joseph Learmont of Newholme (c.1603–1691) was also considered an important target by the government, listed in the exceptions to the act of indemnity on payment of a fine of £1200, although government intelligence at the time of the Pentland rising recorded him as 'a foolish fellow, not worth £500' (Everett Green, 294–5). Learmont, who had acted as an officer in the covenanting forces, led a troop of horse at Rullion Green and survived the battle to go into hiding. Lieutenant-Colonel James Wallace, in contrast, had not personally experienced harassment at the hands of the government in the years after the Restoration, and it appears from his personal account of the rising that his decision to join it, made in concert with presbyterian ministers, was one of conscience (M'Crie, 389). He survived Rullion Green and made his escape to the Netherlands, where he died in 1678.

The field preachers are among the best-known of participants in the Pentland rising, largely because of the ease with which they could be retrospectively cast as folk heroes by the hagiographers of the covenanting tradition. John Welsh and Gabriel Semple (who also used the alias Brysson; d. 1706) had been active in field preaching in the south-west since their ejection from the parishes in 1662, and made their way to join the rising when it broke out. Also present were two Irish preachers who had made their way to Scotland following the reintroduction of episcopacy in their homeland. Andrew MacCormack and John Cruickshanks were accounted 'great instruments to perswade the people to this undertaking' (Kirkton, 140). The preachers appear to have acted in quasi-military roles during the rising, as is attested by Kirkton on the presbyterian side and by Turner as a captive eyewitness. Kirkton recorded a council of war held on 23 November to debate whether the rebels should disband, and its consensus reveals the significance of the preachers alongside Wallace in decision making. 'The ministers first gave their opinion, and afterwards the commanders. All agreed in this, that they believed the Lord hade called them to this undertaking' (ibid., 136). Turner recorded the deliberations of the rebels' 'councell or committee' on whether they should execute him or not (Turner, 168). Certainly, the participants in the Pentland rising did not experience the sort of divisions and disputes that splintered the covenanting movement at the time of the Bothwell Bridge rising of 1679.

It is notable that the preachers, aside from the Irishmen Cruickshanks and MacCormack, who died in battle, and Alexander Robinson, who was executed on 14 December, had an impressive survival rate following the rebellion, probably owing to their skills in living rough and their knowledge of friendly havens. John Welsh continued to preach and was a thorn in the side of the government for the next fifteen years. John Blackadder, a preacher who had lain low in Edinburgh during the rising, although his Memoirs constitute a valuable record of it, resurfaced to preach in the fields afterwards. And William Veitch, whose Memoirs narrate his colourful experience of his mission to Edinburgh on the eve of Rullion Green, his search for intelligence and reinforcements, and his capture and then release by government forces, fled to Newcastle to live and preach in exile. The principal exception to this trend was Hugh MacKail, the young probationer preacher who had only recently arrived in Scotland from the Netherlands when the rising broke out. He lacked the hardiness required for life as a field preacher, and the skills to be valuable in the military context, and failing health forced him to withdraw from the main rebel force on 27 November. As one of the only preachers to be captured by Dalyell's forces, he was assumed to have been of greater importance to the planning and conduct of the rising than he actually was, and was tortured before his execution on 22 December.

The legacy of the Pentland rising therefore lies largely in its propaganda value. Some political change came about as a consequence of it, as Sharp and Rothes were isolated and Lauderdale sought to pursue a more moderate policy on presbyterian nonconformity, but this was short-lived. The repression would be revived and the covenanters rose again in 1679, following the assassination of Archbishop Sharp, in a rebellion that was more chaotic and divided than that of 1666. But as the covenanting tradition continued to develop the Pentland rising became central to its narrative of oppression and martyrdom. The execution in the early 1660s of Archibald Campbell, marquess of Argyll, James Guthrie, and Archibald Johnston of Wariston—all major players in mid-century covenanting conflicts—were followed by those in the wake of the Pentland rising, and then came the rising of 1679 and the ‘killing times’ of the 1680s. Naphtali, by James Stewart and James Stirling and published within a year of the Pentland rising, was only the first of many covenanting martyrologies, and such texts were highly popular and highly influential in the shaping of Scottish presbyterian identity down to the nineteenth century.


  • G. Burnet, Burnet's history of his own time (1883)
  • J. Kirkton, A history of the Church of Scotland, 1660–1679, ed. R. Stewart (1992)
  • The Lauderdale papers, ed. O. Airy, 3 vols., CS, new ser., 34, 36, 38 (1884–5)
  • T. M'Crie, ed., Memoirs of Mr. William Veitch, and George Brysson (1825)
  • A. Crichton, ed., Memoirs of the Rev. John Blackader (1826)
  • J. Nicoll, A diary of public transactions and other occurrences, chiefly in Scotland, from January 1650 to June 1667, ed. D. Laing, Bannatyne Club, 52 (1836)
  • records of the parliaments of Scotland,, 28 Aug 2008
  • Reg. PCS, 3rd ser., 2 (1909)
  • J. Stewart and J. Stirling, Naphtali, or, The wrestlings of the Church of Scotland for the kingdom of Christ (1667)
  • J. Turner, Memoirs of his own life and times, 1632–1670 (1829)
  • R. Wodrow, The history of the sufferings of the Church of Scotland, from the Restauration to the revolution, 1 (1721)
  • J. Buckroyd, Church and state in Scotland, 1660–1681 (1980)
  • I. B. Cowan, The Scottish covenanters, 1660–1688 (1976)
  • R. L. Greaves, Enemies under his feet: radicals and nonconformists in Britain, 1664–1677 (1990)
  • G. H. MacIntosh, The Scottish parliament under Charles II, 1660–1685 (2007)
  • R. C. Paterson, King Lauderdale: the corruption of power (2003)
  • C. S. Terry, The Pentland rising and Rullion Green (1905)
Camden Society
J. H. Burton & others, eds., (1877–1970)