When I chose “Willy’s Covenant” as my project to complete the requirements for the honors program, I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was just how hard it would actually be.
I am a fantasy writer by trade. Yes, I do research; just not this kind of research. As such, “Willy’s Covenant” has certainly forced me to leave my comfort zone, but I’d say that, so far, leaving my comfort zone has paid off.
As promised, I have posted the first chapter of the story below. Chapter 1 contains a depiction of the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, the fight that my ancestor William Gilliland is said to have participated in right before he had to flee to Ireland. To write this scene, I used James Ure’s first-hand account of the battle, and you will recognize that name as you read since I included him as a minor character in Chapter 1. I did take a few creative liberties with the account because I don’t actually know where William Gilliland was during the various events, and as for his cousin James, I don’t actually know if they were cousins, but there was a James Gilliland who also participated in the battle.
Some of the quotes, such as Mr. Hamilton’s “And hang next!” are direct quotes from Mr. Ure’s account of the battle, and as far as I know, every character mentioned in this first chapter was a real person who participated in the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.
As always, constructive criticism is appreciated, and I hope you enjoy the story!
“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…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)
A fine mist hung low over the Scottish countryside as the sky began to shift from the deep blackness of night to varying hues of cold, wet grey. The dark form of the Clyde River cut a curling swath through the dale, disappearing around the rise of the hills that surrounded it on either side. Its quiet, hissing rush mingled with the pale whinnies of horses and the shifting of over 6,000 pairs of feet in the dew-softened ground of the south bank. The faces that filled the multitude gathered here were solemn, the smooth hands of ministers and the weathered hands of farmers hardly discernible from one another as each supported a musket braced against their shoulders.
From his position at the back of one of the ranks, 19-year-old William Gilliland leaned against the firm shoulder of his grey thoroughbred, Bonnie, as he strained to see above the heads of his comrades, who also seemed to be pressing forward in nervous anticipation of what might come. Though the morning was still rather dark, Willy could just make out the form of what he knew would be the Bothwell Bridge, a sizeable stone structure that spanned the Clyde and separated the solemn gathering from the trouble they were sure would be brewing on the other side.
How long had it been now since Mr. Hume and his fellow envoy had crossed that dark, arching bridge and into the Royalist camp beyond? Perhaps it had only been minutes, but to Willy it seemed like it had been an eternity.
The hurried thumping of footsteps caught the young Scotsman’s ear and he turned his pale blue eyes toward the source of the sound, quickly spotting his older cousin, James, who was now weaving through the other soldiers and heading toward him.
“Any word?” Willy inquired as his cousin trotted to a stop next to him.
“Not yet,” James replied, shaking his head. “Though Mr. Hamilton thinks they’ll fight.”
“After beating them with pitchforks at Drumclog?” Willy laughed. “Do you really think so?”
“It’s what Mr. Hamilton says,” James shrugged. “Though it does seem daft. And on the Sabbath, at that. I hope he’s wrong, but I fear he may be right.”
“Well, then, let them come,” Willy said, stretching nonchalantly. “After all, ‘if God be for us, who can be against us?’”
A sigh escaped James’s lips as he ran one broad hand through his dark brown hair.
“If God be for whom?” he questioned, resting the butt of his musket on the toe of his boot and staring down at his feet. “You and I both know our very ranks are divided.”
Willy drew in a deep, thoughtful breath at his cousin’s comment, casting his gaze to the grey sky above him. It was true, there was quite a bit of tension amongst the troops. It had been brewing for some time, ever since Drumclog three weeks before. On the one hand was Mr. Hamilton, the man in charge of the little force of which Willy was a part. He was the fighting sort, and adamantly held the belief that they should give no quarter where there was no quarter due. On the other hand was Mr. Ure, a minister by trade, who was of a more forgiving sort, willing to give mercy as long as the enemy wouldn’t fight. It should have come as no surprise to any of them, then, that the disagreement had come to a head only just the night before. Actually, Willy thought, if one were be surprised at all, they ought to be surprised it didn’t happen sooner.
“Ah, don’t think too hard on it,” Willy laughed at last, clapping his cousin on the shoulder before looking back to the bridge where a small band of about 300 of their men now waited, crowded around a single cannon. “We may be all out of sorts right now, but why should God not be with us? Should He be with those dogs who worship their king? Why, the battle’s already been won, I think.”
“God willing,” James mumbled, turning his gaze in the same direction as his cousin’s. “God willing.”
Just then there came a commotion from off to the side, and the two young men turned to see Mr. Hamilton making his way between the ranks, his aid leading his bay horse behind him. His gaze was set straight ahead, and as Willy craned his neck to see what his commander might be looking at, he caught a glimpse of two figures walking briskly across the bridge and up the road toward them.
“That looks like Mr. Hume,” Willy said excitedly, thumping James’s chest lightly as he let go of Bonnie’s reins and pushed past his cousin. “Let’s have a look, then.”
“Willy!” James hissed back, catching the younger man by the arm. “They don’t appear be too happy. I don’t think it went particularly well. We should stay in our positions.”
“It’s just a look,” Willy protested, pulling out of his cousin’s grasp. “Come on. See, we’re not the only ones.”
James followed after his cousin grudgingly, and soon the pair found themselves pushing through their comrades in an attempt to get closer to the front. It seemed everyone had the same idea; they all wanted to know what the Royalists had to say.
Mr. Hamilton was leaning up against a gibbet and smoking from a pipe when Willy and James finally pushed to the front. He was a shorter man, but he carried an air of superiority about him, his chest puffed up ever so slightly as though somehow it would make him look bigger and more intimidating than he actually did. His long, dark hair hung in waves about his shoulders, well-groomed despite the crude living quarters the fighters had all stationed themselves in. His face was nicely shaven, save for the Van Dyke beard he wore, and more than once Willy had humorously commented on the way the man’s mustache would quiver if he were the least bit upset or nervous.
The two cousins exchanged wondering glances when they spotted the gibbet the man leaned against, however, as it hadn’t been there when they had come to the bridge and neither one of them had noticed it being constructed. Already a hangman’s noose swayed from the end of the wooden beam, and Willy had no doubt for whom the deadly loop was intended.
“I suppose our dear Lord Monmouth sends his greetings,” Mr. Hamilton mused sarcastically as Mr. Hume and his fellow messenger came to a stop in front of him.
“If you can call it that,” Mr. Hume replied sourly. He didn’t seem to be in the mood for humor.
“And what does he say?” the commander inquired, drawing in a deep breath from his pipe.
The messenger drew in a deep, solemn breath, his steely expression never leaving his face.
“He says that our petition ought to have been more humbly worded,” Mr. Hume said.
“Indeed,” Mr. Hamilton chuckled ruefully, spitting on the ground for emphasis. “And?”
“And that if we are to ‘lay down our arms and come in his mercy, we should be favorably dealt with.’”
Immediately Mr. Hamilton broke out into laughter at this.
“And hang next!” he bellowed in reply. “The faithless dogs. I’ll not go groveling for the likes of them. Send my reply. Quote me, if you like!”
Already a wild hum echoed over the crowd as Willy watched Mr. Hume’s associate turn and hurry off down the hill again.
“To your ranks, men!” Mr. Hamilton shouted, swinging up into the saddle of his mount. “To your ranks!”
A groan escaped James’s lips, but he didn’t say anything as he turned to follow Willy, who was already pushing his way through the crowd to the position he had been assigned.
“Listen up, men!” Mr. Hamilton shouted as Willy and James found their places and braced their muskets to their shoulders. “Today we face the very men who would place a man above God. They scoff when they hear our name, mock the term ‘Covenanter’ and deem us mere radicals. But we have fought these men before, shamed their armies with preachers and pitchforks. We have won against them before and we shall win again! Let this day go down in history as the day the Covenanters won freedom for God! Let them never forget the 22nd of June, 1679!”
A roar burst from the crowd as men shook their muskets in the air. Almost simultaneously, an explosive boom echoed across the river valley, and the Covenanters turned as chunks of earth scattered in all directions further down the hill.
“Now!” Mr. Hamilton shouted, drawing the saber that hung at his belt and raising it high in the air.
“Now for God! Now for Glory!” Willy shouted, his voice joining in with the shouts of the thousands gathered around him.
Already Willy could see the bright red coats of the Royalist soldiers glowing in the dim light at the opposite end of the bridge. Smoke split from the Covenanter cannon and the Redcoats darted out of the way as earth exploded in all directions.
“Hold off until they take the bridge,” Mr. Hamilton commanded.
For a moment they watched as puffs of gunpowder smoke flickered along the bridge beyond. Cannon fire littered the soft ground with potholes, and men on both sides ducked and dodged with each volley of musket fire, some quickly replying, others never getting up.
“We should be down there,” Willy growled, tightening his grip around his musket. “Why do we wait?”
All of a sudden, Mr. Hamilton wheeled his horse around, calling out to a man on foot, “Mr. Lermont, you have control over your men!”
The man to whom he spoke cast a bewildered gaze at their leader as he set off further up the hill. Willy narrowed his eyebrows at the sight. Was it his imagination, or was Mr. Hamilton’s face a shade paler than usual?
A contingent of redcoats rushed the bridge and Willy watched in wonder as they came closer, some making it as far as halfway across the bridge before turning back and fleeing.
“Leave the horses!” Mr. Lermont called out suddenly. “The Royalists must not take the bridge!”
Willy could feel his heart racing as his group charged forward down the hill, the roar of over a hundred voices mixing with his own. Musket balls whizzed by on either side of him as he and James ducked behind a fallen log along the bank of the river.
“Watch the dogs run!” Willy laughed as he braced his gun against the log and fired, a puff of gunpowder smoke momentarily blurring his vision as he ducked back behind the log and began the laborious process of reloading his weapon.
“You’re enjoying this far too much,” James stated breathlessly, his face pulled into something of a grimace as the shot of his musket roared in his ears.
Again Willy laughed, ramming the new musket ball down into the barrel with his rod and turning back to aim. His eyes widened and he hesitated when his eyes turned to the other side of the bridge. Shouting echoed in his ears, the volume nearly matching the sound of musket shot and cannon fire, as what looked to be nearly two hundred Redcoats swarmed the Bothwell Bridge, possibly a hundred horsemen following closely on their heels. For a moment, it looked as though the Covenanters guarding the bridge might be retreating, but a moment later they faced about, a small handful at first, then others, all led by a tall, fair-faced man Willy immediately recognized as James Ure, the Covenanter commander who stood in opposition to Mr. Hamilton.
Quickly the Royalists at the front of the advancing regiment knelt to one knee, leveling their muskets while the soldiers behind them aimed over their kneeling comrades’ shoulders. Mr. Ure’s regiment dove to the ground as the Redcoats fired their muskets. Not a moment later, the Covenanters were back on their feet, rushing like madmen down the length of the bridge toward the Royalist soldiers before them.
“Come on,” Willy said, lightly tapping James’s shoulder to make sure he was listening. “We should help them.”
“No, Willy, we should stay…here.”
But Willy was already rushing up behind Ure’s men as the Royalists turned about and started retreating back the way they had come. With a groan, James darted after him.
“For God’s sake, Willy, would it kill you to stay where you’re told?” James called after his cousin.
“Aye!” Willy grinned over his shoulder. “Perhaps it might!”
The pair paused along with the rest of the Covenanters around them as they all leveled their muskets, firing a volley at the retreating Redcoats. Immediately the enemy turned around, this time joined by the rest of the Royalist forces, and answered with a volley of their own. The whole northern riverbank lit up with flashes of fire and puffs of gunpowder smoke. Willy froze as a musket ball whizzed past his face, and he stumbled slightly as a cannonball exploded only a short distance away from him, killing two of his comrades instantly.
Again the Redcoats swarmed the bridge, this time twice the number. Their starched uniforms glowed a menacing shade of crimson in the first light of the rising sun as it broke through the valley fog.
It was Mr. Ure’s voice, and he didn’t seem to be far off.
“To the moor, men!”
Already the other Covenanters were pivoting on their heels, wasting no time in following their commander away from the deadly shots aimed their way. Willy growled in frustration as he turned back to fire his musket one last time. The Redcoats were already nearly halfway across the bridge and Willy’s jaw dropped slightly as one of the Royalist soldiers at the front of the line paused only long enough to shoot a wounded Covenanter who had been moaning in agony from a wound in his thigh.
A roar of rage escaped Willy’s throat as he lunged forward, aiming his musket at the soldier and ignoring the musket balls that shot past him at nearly every angle. He couldn’t go far, however, before he felt a firm hand grab him by the upper arm, pulling him in the direction of the hill.
“Forget it, Willy!”
It was James.
“He was unarmed!”
Cannon fire erupted only a few feet away, causing both young men to stagger and raise their hands to shield their faces from the flying debris. If Willy had wanted to stay at this point, he wouldn’t have been able to, as the battle-weary Covenanters pressed up on either side of him and James, pushing them along as they all fled away from the bridge, pausing only once or twice to slow the progression of the king’s soldiers.
Mr. Learmont and Mr. Ure were both shouting orders as the cousins came up the hill, and many of Mr. Ure’s men were already hunkered down in the brush, obviously planning some sort of ambush.
“Those who have horses, mount them now!” Mr. Learmont was shouting. “Those on foot, form a line, get down and ready your weapons. Pikes at front, muskets behind.”
“Where is Hamilton?!” Mr. Ure called to his fellow commander as he led his horse over to where the men were hunkering down. “We need assistance. Now.”
“God knows where that scoundrel slunk away to,” Mr. Learmont replied sourly. “Either he turned tail and fled or he’s spiting us for our part in last night’s dispute, but speculating won’t do us any good now. Mr. Ure, send some of your men with mine to guard the horse.”
Willy turned away from the two commanders, his blood boiling.
“Mr. Hamilton. That coward. I knew he was acting strange, but this…,” he said bitterly.
“You heard Mr. Learmont,” James replied, forcing the younger man to turn around again and pushing him forward. “It’ll do us no good to speculate now. Come on. We should get our horses.”
Quickly the cousins pushed their way past their comrades until they came to where their horses were tethered. They swung up into their saddles, trading their muskets for pikes, and waited for whatever might happen next.
For a moment there was silence as they waited, the cool air of the moor hanging limply about them. Then, all of a sudden, the faint, methodical drone of marching feet began to throb in Willy’s ears. Quietly, at first, then growing louder. The whinny of several horses not belonging to the Covenanter ranks echoed up over the rise in the hill. Willy’s horse answered them and danced in position as if anticipating the battle that would soon resume.
Then there! The first row of Royalist soldiers appeared over the horizon, followed by another rank, and then another. To Willy, it seemed that the line of red stretched for miles on either side, and the multitude just kept growing.
“Reinforcements,” James choked. “Lord have mercy on our souls.”
“Lord, let us not see defeat,” Willy replied, tightening his grip on his pike. “Though we have been betrayed by men, God will not betray us. Not while we fight for Him.”
James opened his mouth to reply, but couldn’t say anything before a volley of musket fire rent the still air of the moor. It seemed to be coming from all sides, and Willy turned to see more Royalist soldiers coming up from his left. A few of the riders alongside him bolted forward, and out of instinct, Willy followed suit. There were some who were firing from their hiding places on the ground, the thought of ambush pushed far from their minds with the coming of the reinforcements the Royalists had apparently only recently obtained.
Willy pulled his horse to the side as several of the Redcoats fired their muskets. James brought his horse up beside him a moment later. A contingent of Royalist horsemen met them and pikes flashed wickedly in the sunlight as Willy threw Bonnie’s reins to the side, narrowly avoiding impaling his little grey thoroughbred on an enemy pike, then swung his own weapon up and forward, driving his pike deep into the chest of one of the enemy’s horses. The creature screamed as it fell, yanking the pike out of Willy’s hand and nearly taking him with it.
The young man and his horse doubled back around and James brought his horse up beside them again.
“It’s no good!” he called out above the sound of men shouting, muskets firing, and horses screaming. “Our men are running. We must retreat, Willy!”
The young man clenched his teeth angrily, but he knew his cousin was right. For all their hopes and prayers, a victory at Bothwell Bridge was not to be had.
With a nod, Willy dug his heels into Bonnie’s side and the two riders bolted back the way they had come. It was chaos here. A swarm of men, red and blue-grey coats, rounded on each other, fired muskets, tripped over the bodies of the fallen. The scent of gunpowder hung thick in the clean Scottish air, and dark crimson pooled in the soft earth that had been churned by thousands of feet, both man and beast. No nightmare, Willy thought, could be so real as this one was.
The crack of several muskets firing roared nearby, and Willy yanked hard on Bonnie’s reins when he saw James’s horse go down out of the corner of his eye. He turned to see the creature lying dead on the ground, his cousin’s left leg trapped beneath the heavy body.
The older cousin grit his teeth as he pushed himself up on his elbows.
“Go!” James shouted. “Get out of here!”
“No. Let me-”
Willy’s words caught in his throat as a searing pain shot through his left arm and he cried out as he grasped the place where the musket ball had embedded itself in his flesh.
“Don’t worry about me!” James exclaimed. “Go! Now!”
Trying to ignore the pain, Willy let go of his arm and grabbed hold of Bonnie’s reins once again. Already a large portion of the Covenanters had fled the battlefield. God only knew what would happen to those who didn’t escape.
The young man bent low over his mount’s neck as she charged across the moor and around the bodies of the dead and wounded, guns playing on every side. Men were shouting, but at this point Willy couldn’t tell what they might be saying. His mind was too full of what had just happened: the battle, the betrayal, James…
Already the sounds of the fight were fading. Bonnie was a thoroughbred after all, a fast runner, good at distances. But even she couldn’t run forever, and heaven only knew how long he could hold on, battle-weary and bleeding. Still at a gallop, Willy turned his mount toward the west before burying his right hand in Bonnie’s mane and holding on with every ounce of energy he had left. There was somewhere he could go; one place and one place only that might be safe.
“God,” he choked bitterly as he leaned over Bonnie’s neck. “Where are you now?”