Willy’s Covenant: First Steps

scottish covenanters

“Then ‘the lawyer of the Covenant,’ Archibald Johnston, Lord Wariston, later to die a martyr’s death, lifted on high a beautiful ram’s skin, four feet long and three feet eight inches wide, on which had been inscribed the noble words of the ‘National Covenant of Scotland.’ He read every word slowly and clearly, for all to hear. Objectors were invited, but there were none…The signing went on until eight at night. There was many a wet eye, for the Covenanters well knew the sorrows that might follow. There were flat tombstones around the old church, and on these this blessed document may well have been signed. Some signitories added after their names ‘Until death,’ and some ‘did draw their own blood and use it in the place of ink.'”Scottish Heroes by Harry W. Lowe (pg. 18)

Happy New Year! Well, I’m a week late, but they say better late than never, right?

Seeing as how my project, Willy’s Covenant, is going to be a determining factor in whether or not I graduate with honors, you can expect to see lots of posts containing information about my progress for the next few months. And, as the period for research is winding down and its about time for me to put my skills to the test, I thought I’d go ahead and share what I’ve been doing so far.

You don’t hear much about the Covenanters. At least, I had never heard about them until a few years ago when I “discovered” my ancestor, William Gilliland. Though I can’t say they were particularly successful in their efforts, I find the Covenanters to be fascinating, and if there’s one thing I can definitely credit them for, it was their courage. I can hardly think of better “hero models” than them.

The story of the Covenanters starts long before Willy’s Covenant. In his book Scottish Heroes, author Harry W. Lowe writes, “In old Greyfriar’s Churchyard, a hallowed spot in the romantic city of Edinburgh, on a chill day in February, 1638, nigh sixty thousand Scots assembled, from every lowland county, for a day of fasting, prayer, and a noble deed for the faithful” (pg. 17). The “National Covenant of Scotland” was, technically, the mark of the second Covenanter movement (the first Covenanter movement started in the 1500’s). This conflict would continue until William and Mary, both protestants, invaded and took over rule of England, an event which came to be known as the Glorious Revolution.

The primary reason I chose Willy’s Covenant as my honors project was because of one thing, really: I knew it would be hard. In all honesty, I have very little information regarding my ancestor, and what I do have is mostly hearsay. It is estimated that “Willy” was born in or around the year 1660. Some sources say he was the son of a Scottish gentleman, though it was unlikely that he was of noble birth. I have yet to find any documents stating that Willy did indeed participate in the Covenanter movement, but it seems plausible that he might have, as I have found records of other Gillilands who were caught about the time of the Battle of Bothwell Bridge who were then shipped off to North America, most likely as indentured servants. As for his family, I have nothing, so a lot of what will appear in the book will be little more than educated guesses and creative license. It does appear that Willy escaped to Ireland after the battle and he seems to have lived there until about 1688, when he was finally captured and brought back to England. I don’t know how long he was in prison, but he was most likely pardoned shortly after and given a tract of land in Ireland thanks to the Glorious Revolution. He married a girl named Elizabeth (what little I know of her, she was most likely Scottish as well) and their first son John Gilliland was born in Londonderry, Ireland in 1689 right around the time of the Siege of Derry.

One of the major challenges I face is knowing how Willy would have reacted to the conflict within the Covenanters themselves. One of the primary reasons the Battle of Bothwell Bridge was a failure was the fact that there were two leaders who had differing opinions of how they should react to royalist forces. On one side was Robert Hamilton who, as far as I can tell, was an advocate for a more brutal punishment of the royalists, who he didn’t believe could be true Christians if they were supporting the king. On the other side was James Ure (also spelled Ore in some cases), who was of a more mild opinion. As Ure puts it in his “Narrative of the Rising at Bothwell Bridge,” “…we [Ure and his party] told them [Hamilton and co.], they were more taken up with other men’s sins than they were with their own, and that it were our duty first to begin with ourselves” (pg. 465). Ironically, Ure’s account of the events leading up to the battle, as well as his account of the battle itself, was published after his death and commented on by none other than Robert Hamilton himself. Thus, the narrative contains both viewpoints and has been extraordinarily useful in helping me develop the story. Still, there’s no way to know for sure which side William Gilliland would have been on. I, myself, would most certainly have been on Ure’s side. Here again, though, it may come down to educated guesses and creative license.

So far, I’ve got a lot of great material to get me started on the project. Most of the materials I have are reprints or scanned copies of books written in the 1800’s. For instance, I have a collection of letters written to and from John Grahame, Viscount of Dundee (one of the primary “bad guys” in the story) that create a record of the royalist side of the conflict up until just shortly before the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. Ure’s account of the battle is very descriptive, which will help me with creating a relatively accurate depiction of the conflict, and then there is the ballad that inspired this project, “Willy Gilliland,” which contains a romanticized rendition of the legend of my ancestor. I also have some more recent, factual works that will help me with creating a believable story. Now the only thing left to do is to see if I can successfully weave fact and fiction into an enjoyable narrative.


If you’re interested in looking at the resources I know for sure I’ll be using, here is a short list:


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