Knox and the Convenanters, Edinburgh’s Bloody role in Scotland’s Faith Story

Standing in front of the gates of the black mausoleum, our guide turned and ripped three times on the grills “Damned Bloody Mackenzie, I dare you to show yourself.”

A expectant hush fell on all of us, our breaths held in as if waiting for the poltergeist to show himself.

The sky had already turned dark by the time we walked into the Greyfriars Kirk, one of the most haunted cemeteries in the world, a cemetery that is the tomb of many souls piled over centuries one on top of the other. A repose of consolation and a gaol of condemnation. Greyfriars Kirk, was homed to the dignified dead, and the wretched of pestilence; it was the first concentration camp in the world, the trapped souls still chained in by the presence of their fiendish jailer – George MacKenzie.

“Looks like he’s not coming out today,” our guide heaved, “but maybe if you take off your clothes tonight, check carefully, MacKenzie’s poletergeist might have already scarred you.”

Scotland’s religious story is a bloody one, where people fought, killed and were martyred for their beliefs.The national flag of Scotland, the blue and white of St Andrew’s Cross says a lot of the defining heritage of the Scots, the original apostle among the twelve of Jesus that was believed to have arrived in Scotland, built a church in the county of Fife – modern day St Andrews, Scotland.

It was introduced to Scotland after the Romans settled in present day England. Missionaries from the Roman Empire made trips to the untamed north to preach the people about Jesus, their Christ and convince them to worshiped Him instead of the amalgam of pagan and Celtic gods that were on their pantheon. These preachers had come from the Irish coast, saints such as Ninian, Kertigen and Columba. The efforts of these saints, untold numbers of other missionaries as well as political considerations led to the gradual conversion of Scotland to Christianity in the 5th century.

Christianity grew through the presence of abbeys and priories with monks in them, the most notable in Iona. Over time, these monks would go on to convert the rest of Europe in a series of uncoordinated missions collectively called the Hiberson-Scottish missions, among the missionaries was St Gall, who founded the Swiss city of St Gallen.

The Christian religion would go on to be a mainstay in the country, the temporal power of bishops and religious would go unchallenged for centuries (until the 16th century) Great monuments of religion such as St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh would be constructed in the cities all over Scotland towards the worship of God, Scots such as Robert de Quincy, William the Lion, Robert Bruce and members of the Balliol family, would participate lion-heartedly at the frontlines of the crusades. Over the thousands years of unchallenged influence, Christianity would evolve and shape the very fabric of society, it formed the moral basis of society and delivered holy legitimacy of the kings.

Scotland’s Christian history diverges from the continental Catholic story in the 16th century. Catholicism of the 16th century was drunk on the corruptible influence of temporal power and had evolved into a plaything for rich continental families (it can be said that for all its troubles today, the Popes of the last century have been good but flawed human beings) selling indulgences for money to build lavish cathedrals and monuments.

Leaders were required for the reformations, just as the northern Germanic peoples were undergoing a reformation under the guidance of Martin Luther and the Swiss under John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, Scotland’s reformation would be inspired by John Knox. Knox was trained as a priest like all these other men were, and was not the first rebel in the Scottish Church (two other men, Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart were), he was however the most effective. He was influenced by the early reformers, filled by a religious fervour to reform the religion, he stood at the Pulpit in Bristol and riled against Catholic practices such as the veneration of Mary. Religion by then was politics, and attacking the Catholic Church was an attack on God – a heretical act that was deserving of persecution. For his courage, Knox was a wanted man, he was forced to recant, and an effigy of him was burned in the Bristol cathedral.

Knox unsurprisingly fled to seek shelter in Germany and Switzerland, where the Protestant movement as gaining traction. His return to Scotland in 1544 was poorly timed for it was a time of great political upheaval, a new set off leaders had taken over with James Hamilton serving as regent for the infant Mary. Together with Mary’s mother and the Catholic Cardinal David Beaton began a violent persecution of the protestants, the early leaders such as George Wishart were burnt at the stake on a charge of heresy.

Knox and the other protestant leaders were chained on French galleys and made to row the boat. He stayed in the boat for 18 months and was released in England after the French decided he would soon be dead. But Knox recovered and lived, going on to be an itinerant preacher, the fire in his belly no doubt further fueled by his treatment. He continued his preaching in Zurich and soon began to build arguments in his mind against the rule of young Queen Mary (the future Queen of the Scots) – arguing that an infant, girl, who worshipped idols had no right to reign under God and those who feared God would join his ‘party’. In 1558, Knox published one of his fiercest polemics, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women, pamphleting against the rule of Women as against the bible. He wasn’t against all women, just Catholic women, namely Queen Mary I of England, Mary Guise and Mary Queen of the Scots. The Anglican Elizabeth I of England, who succeed Mary I, was fine by him.

John Knox’s burial located at an active carpark (Lot 23) just outside of St Giles

With an Anglican Queen on the thrown, backing them up, the Protestant reformers returned home to Edinburgh. This was to be Knox’s final return to Scotland and his presence incited an uprising of the peasants against the rulers all over the country. Two years of violence ensued before a Scottish Confession was drawn up by the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh on 1st August 1560, the Scottish Presbyterian Church (the Kirk) was born.

Knox had one more battle however, the young girl he hated upon her birth had grown up into a beautiful, smart, brave and charismatic leader – Mary, Queen of the Scots.

Think of a yesteryear Rachel Riley, with the coolness of Soairse Ronan, equipped with all the power in the world – that was Mary. She governed from Hollyrood against him and barely a mile away at St Giles Cathedral preached against her.

Knox would win the battle in Edinburgh and Scotland. But the war of religions, had only just begun.

Catholicism would persist in finding its way back to Scotland and Presbyterians would keep banding together to fight back. The hierarchy was turning Catholic but the common folk were not ready and so a group of educated citizens met in the Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh in 1638 to sign a Covenant.

These convenanters promised to keep the religion of the country as it was in 1580 and not to be influenced by superstition (read: Catholicism), this launched a civil war in Scotland.

A band of 1200 covenanter were imprisoned in a small jail outside Greyfriars Kirk and left to the elements. Their royalist jailer, George MacKenzie, that small jail was the fore-runner of a concentration camp. But perhaps most perversely, MacKenzie requested that his family burial site be located just outside the Covenanters Prison. A series of disturbances in his mausoleum (including a group of young boys playing rugby with his skull in 2003), led to the dead man becoming a malevolent poltergeist who haunts the cemetery today…

The blood of yesteryear continues to linger on in the common psyche today. Although Europe, Scotland included, is not extremely religious, the debts of religion are still present, the civil war still continues in a more civil form – football.

But that is a story for another time.

My hair stood on end just as the tour had ended, I gave the guide a token and turned to leave…

As I turned, I saw something move behind the guide…


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