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The Covenanters' Graves—THE BATTLE OF KilsyTH-Scottish
Army in England — Montrose - Famine - Pestilence, The
SCATTERED throughout the length and breadth of Scotland, by the side of busy roads and streets where the strong tide of our modern life is ever ebbing and flowing, in the midst of waste moors where there is nothing but moss and heather and the scream of the lapwing and the curlew, in lonely and rocky mountain glens where the bleating of sheep and the roar of the river are the only sounds that invade the silence, among the islands that stud our coasts, and close to shores ever lashed by the surge of the Atlantic and Northern Oceans, are to be found sometimes a grey boulder, sometimes a rude cairn, sometimes a simple slab, and sometimes a costly monument, marking the resting-place of some of our Covenanting forefathers who fought and bled and died, that their sons might participate in that religious freedom they now so richly enjoy.
Amongst all the places consecrated in the memory of the devout and pious Scotsman, there is none filled with such a inournful interest as the battle-field of Kilsyth. The reason of this is easily understood, for if the numbers
shed in the battttish historyandrews, cl
that perished in the “ killing time” of our history be estimated at 18,000, then not less than one-third of that number perished in the battle of Kilsyth! Not the Bass Rock—that Patmos of Scottish history—not Dunnottar Castle, not Airds Moss nor St. Andrews, cluster memories more strongly suggestive of the sufferings of our ancestors in that troublous time.
To understand the battle aright, it is absolutely necessary to grasp intelligently the political situation, and realise the social conditions of the people. It is to be noted, in the first place, that the Covenanting troops, of which General Baillie was the nominal, but Argyll the real, head, cannot be taken as fairly representing the martial ardour or fighting capability of the national army. At that time the Scottish army, to the number of 20,000 men, had been sent to England to prosecute the war against the King, and in defence of the religion so dear to Scotland. On various occasions the English Government thanked this army for their discipline, their gallantry, and heroic achievements. At that juncture the Royalist cause in Scotland seemed entirely crushed. Montrose, however, taking cognisance of the defenceless state of the country, suddenly appeared in the Highlands, and rallying to his standard a very considerable force, rushed down on the Lowlands, carrying everything before him with the impetuosity of a mountain torrent. The question remains, could Montrose, with all his dash, have won a single victory if the Scottish army had been at home to meet him? The field of Philiphaugh, where David Leslie fell upon him like an avalanche, is a perfectly sufficient reply.
Her army in England, and anticipating no internal disturbance, such was the unprotected state of Scotland at this crisis in her chequered history: We must observe, however, in the second place, that at this period the land was groaning under the double Providential visitation of famine and pestilence. The potato and turnip were yet unknown, artificial grasses were not to be introduced for many years yet to come. Slight patches of wheat were grown in one or two fertile straths. Bere and oats were the chief cereals. The year before, the crops had proved a total failure, and in the Annals of Sir James Balfour, Lord Lyon King-at-Arms, there are repeatedly chronicled the petitions addressed to Parliament by the starving people, praying for bread. They came from such far-separated places as Leith, Argyll, and Inverness. The people eked out a wretched subsistence by feeding on slugs and snails. The famine was sore in the land, but there was a greater ill. The plague everywhere was following hard on its footsteps. The pestilence walked at noon-day, and neither gentle nor simple, soldier nor civilian, was free from its foul touch. Parliament ordered the dead to be buried away from the abodes of the living in barren moors and solitary spots. The fumigation of garments and furniture was resorted to, and an order of men—“ smeekers ”— appointed for the purpose. When a member of a family was seized, all communication between him and other members ceased. Society was driven, in self-defence, to exercise this most fearful act of excommunication. The patients had to stay in their homes, and no person was permitted to visit them. Parliament thus thought to stamp out the disease, but it was only very partially successful. On the very month when the battle of Kilsyth was fought, the plague had reached its greatest height.
A more pathetic illustration of the severity and remorselessness of the pestilence there could not be than the romantic story of “Bessie Bell and Mary Gray." Thę daughters of two neighbouring lairds near the city of Perth, they were young in years, and all the country round rang with their beauty. The plague having entered the town and neighbourhood, to free themselves from the chance of contamination they retired to a lonely and romantic spot not far from the banks of the Almond, and built themselves a rude bower, where, in seclusion and secrecy, they resolved to stay till the Providential visitation was overpast. Nor can we wonder at their action. They were young and admired, life was sweet to them, and it was but natural they should wish to live. A young gentleman of Perth city was the only one who shared their counsels. He brought food to their hut, and was perplexed which he could regard the more, so highly did he esteem them both. The curious pestilence found the secret bower, and Bessie Bell and Mary Gray perished in their pride. The Parliament, which was then sitting in Perth, refused them sepulture in the public burygrounds, and so they had to be buried where they died. In Scottish literature I know not a more touching story than theirs, nor a more pathetic ballad than that which celebrates it :
“O, Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses ;
And theekit it ower wi' rashes.
“ They theekit it ower wi' the rashes green
They theekit it ower wi' heather ;
And slew them baith thegither.
“ They thocht to lie in Methven Kirkyard,
Amang their noble kin;
And beek fornent the sun.
“ And Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses,
And theekit it ower wi' rashes."
We can well understand the feelings of men called to battle from the midst of such gloomy scenes. There must have been throughout the whole army a diffused sense of oppression, and the spirits of the soldiers must have been possessed as by some dismal foreboding, or close-pressing calamity. The battle of Kilsyth is a favourite theme for partisan writers, but a temperate and impartial mind will attribute the overthrow of the Covenanters neither wholly to the military genius of Montrose nor the incompetency of the Field Committee of Baillie's army, but to other and deeper causes. These men of the Covenant, drawn from scenes of starvation and misery, were no men at this juncture to encounter the clansmen of Athole and Badenoch, of Rannoch and Aberfeldy, who, in the enjoyment of florid health, impiously jeered at the plague-stricken inhabitants of the Lowland towns they had passed in their march.
When Montrose appeared at Kilsyth he had a series, if not of brilliant, at least dashing and spirited, victories on his banners. Having chosen his time well, he won battle after battle. In the September of 1644 he defeated the Covenanters at Tibbermuir. A fortnight later he was equally successful at the Bridge of Dee. Crossing the Argyll mountains, when they were clad with winter snow, he crushed the Campbells at Inverlochy. Afterwards he captured Elgin and ravaged Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire. On the 3rd May 1645, he won the victory of Auldearn, and a month later he added to it the victory of Alford. Let him now crush Baillie, whose army is encamped against him at