XII. Anne Keith, Lady Methven, pp.275-292.

[Heroines of Scotland Contents]

   “I have obstinacy enough to pursue whatever I have once resolved; and a true female courage to oppose anything that resist my will.” – Congreve’s Double-Dealer

HE Civil Wars in England and Scotland developed various phases of female heroism on both sides of the quarrel. We have told the story of “the bonnie house of Airlie;” but as regards the defence of fortified places, English ladies bore away the palm. In 1644, the Countess of Derby kept the royal flag flying on Lathom House, in Lancashire, for three months against a besieging force commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax and other Parliamentarian captains, all of whom she baffled. A far more arduous service was performed in Corse Castle, Dorset, by another royalist dame, Mary Hawtrey, wife of Sir John Bankes, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. She sustained a siege lasting intermittently for nearly three long years, and only succumbed at last to treachery in the spring of 1646. But there was a Scotswoman, Mrs Peirson, a daughter of the Earl of Carnwath, whose fervour for the King’s cause impelled her to take up arms. Being in the north of England with her father, in 1644, she obtained a commission from the Earl of Newcastle, and raised a troop of horse, at the head of which she joined Montrose in his march across the Border to Dumfries; but the expedition failed, and no more is heard of her. And we must not forget a Scottish heroine of another character, Christian Fletcher, spouse of Mr. James Granger, minister of Kineff parish. She it was who, with calm indomitable courage, saved from Cromwell’s hands 

“The Monarchy’s last gems, 

The Sceptre, Sword, and Crown, that graced the brows, 

Since father Fergus, of an hundred Kings.” 

These precious emblems of Scotland’s sovereignty had been deposited for security in Dunnottar Castle, which, in January 1652, was besieged by the troops of the Commonwealth. Mrs. Granger and her maid-servant being permitted to visit the Governor’s lady, Mrs. Ogilvy, contrived to carry out the crown, sword, and sceptre concealed in some lint professedly intended to be spun into thread. The “honours” were speedily buried by the minister in front of his pulpit, and lay there undisturbed until the Restoration. 

   The Restoration, which was hailed with exuberant joy throughout the three kingdoms, soon brought woe to Scotland – brought eight and twenty years of “persecuting times,” the story of which fills so many ensanguined pages of our country’s annals. During that gloomy period heroines were rife, defying 

“A tyrant’s and a bigot’s bloody laws;” 

and some, with noble consistency, suffering unto death for the sacred cause they held so dear. Still, “though a vast multitude of the female sex in Scotland, headed by women of high rank, such as the Duchess of Hamilton, Ladies Rothes, Wigton, Loudon, Colvill, etc., privately encouraged, or openly followed the field preacher,” says the Editor of Kirkton’s History, “there were ladies of the opposite persuasion, whose enthusiasm almost equalled that of the covenanting sisterhood.” And it is the foremost of those lady-antagonists of the Covenant that we shall now introduce. 

   The Smythe family came into the lairdship of Methven, in Perthshire, in the year 1664, when the lands, which in former times had been a royal appanage, were purchased from the Duke of Lennox by Patrick Smythe of Braco, a small property lying near the Palace of Scone. Patrick’s spouse was related to the Duke, she being Anne Keith, daughter of James Keith of Benholm, brother of William, sixth Earl Marischal. She had a son named after his father; but this boy met with an early and violent death, being accidentally shot by his tutor, while fowling on the loch of Methven. Come of a Cavalier house, Lady Methven (called so by courtesy) had fully imbibed the high principles of her family, which she manifested with stern zeal and fiery courage when opportunity came; and she found in her husband a congenial spirit. Lady Margaret Bellenden, in Old Mortality, said she “had rather that the rigs of Tillietudlem bare naething but windle-straes and sandy lavrocks than that they were ploughed by rebels to the King”; and Anne Keith was apparently much of the same mind. Moreover, it was her proudest boast that she had been wounded in the King’s cause though when and how this happened is unknown. In the autumn of 1678, her husband had occasion to go to London; and during his absence she made an extraordinary display of her Amazonian qualities, as we will now relate – our narrative of her exploits in the field of Mars being based on letters which she wrote to the Laird. 

   Conventicles, or field preachings were then common up and down the country, but not in Perthshire, although it was evident that in the district about Perth, as well as in the town itself, no small portion of the population favoured the Covenanting principles and the outed ministers. At the Restoration, the pastorate of Methven parish, a collegiate charge, was in the hands of Mr. John Murray, who supported the Presbyterian cause in the spirit of his father, Mr. Robert Murray, the previous incumbent, and to whom he was for some time colleague. Mr. John’s outspoken zeal speedily brought down upon his head the heavy hand of the new Government. So early as in August 1660, he was thrown into Edinburgh Castle; in June 1661, he was summoned for treason before the Parliament; but fatal disease was preying on his vitals, and he died in the following November. His earnest teaching, his steadfast example, and his persecution and sufferings, must have deeply impressed the minds of his parishioners. His successor was Mr. Hugh Ramsay, whose  principles were in accordance with those prevailing in high quarters. 

   About the beginning of October 1678, people from various quarters, including numbers from Fife (where soldiers were quartered at Falkland and elsewhere) held a conventicle one Sabbath day on ground between the lands of Cultmalandie and Gask, westward of Perth, and at no great distance from Methven village and castle. This gave great umbrage to Lady Methven, who suspected that some of her own tenantry had been present, notwithstanding all she had had done, by precept and example, to train them in the Cavalier faith. She set diligent enquiry on foot, and ascertained that two women at least had been at the field-meeting – the one “a vassal-wife,” and the other a poor widow. The vassal-wife seems to have got off by giving er solemn promise to the lady and the parish minister, Mr. Hugh Ramsay, not to offend in the like manner again. But the widow was more hardly dealt with, being probably a greater recusant, and at any rate she had nobody to give caution for her future good behaviour. Dame Anne called a Baron Court in the hall of Methven Castle – an edifice then newly built; and her husband’s brother, David Smythe, Bailie of the Barony, presided. On the court being lawfully fenced, the lady stood up, and taking speech in hand, conjured the assembled tenants “not to break the laws and statutes of this nation, under the pains of the rigour of punishment.” The widow was then lectured, threatened, and dismissed; but as she had not paid the fee of the Baron-officer for summoning her to the court, she was adjudged to “deliver her apron,” in pledge, “till she should pay!” Dame Anne afterwards learned that “some of the poor vassal-men” had attended the unlawful gathering, and thereupon she determined to take further steps in “handling them to the length of justice.” 

   It might be thought that Lady Methven’s temper and procedure would have deterred the Covenanters from venturing near her borders. On the contrary – probably fancying that she would not resort to violent measures, for want of adequate support, they resolved to outbrave her by meeting almost within sight of her castle! Accordingly, on Sabbath morning, the 13th October, she was aroused from sleep by her maid, who brought the strange tidings that a conventicle was assembling in the immediate vicinity. Dame Anne, scarce crediting the news, started up and rushed to the casement for ocular demonstration; but she saw nothing unusual. Under a serene and bright sky, Sabbath quietude, unbroken save by the redbreast’s note, brooded over the earth. 

“How still the morning of the hallowed day! 

Mute is the voice of rural labour, hush’d 

The plough-boy’s whistle, and the milkmaid’s song.” 

The unclouded sun shone full on the old woods that girdled the eminence crowned by the castle – the thinned foliage wearing the gorgeous hues of autumn, while the wet grass sparkled as if a shower of diamonds had fallen from the blue welkin; and a light wind reft the dead leaves from the boughs, and wafted them to and fro like gaudy butterflies that had outlived the summer. Dame Anne was soon abroad, with her Baron Bailie, and got the ocular demonstration she sought. A capacious preaching-tent was “set up before the sun,” (as she expressed it) on her husband’s grounds, at about the distance of two bow-shots beyond the parish church of Methven; and thitherwards “a multitude of men and women, from east, west, and south,” were busily flocking, some on horseback and some on foot. It was a sight that moved her deepest indignation, and seemed to cause her old wound to smart afresh. 

   The lady took prompt action by sending out an order that all the men on the estate should hasten, with what weapons they had, to the Castle hill, where she and the Baron Bailie would await their coming. In short space sixty armed dependants assembled at the rendezvous. Chance what might, Dame Anne was determined to do what in her lay to disperse the conventicle, and she shrank not from the face of danger. She headed her force, carrying on her left arm a light horseman’s carabine, and in her right hand a drawn tuck or rapier; and by her side was Bailie David, bearing sword and pistol. The retainers were but in differently armed with divers weapons, old muskets, swords, pikes, pitchforks, and staves. The word was given, and the party marched off towards the preached tent, where, however, the services were not begun, as all the people expected to attend had not yet arrived. The Methven band soon adroitly interposed between the crowd around “their tent, which was their standard,” and another numerous party coming from the direction of Perth, and mostly inhabitants of that town and neighbourhood, many of whom were on horseback; but it is not said that they or their friends at the tent were to any extent armed, though probably some of them were so. The Methven band made a detour to drive the approaching party back, and so prevent a junction, the effect of this movement being that not a few of the Perth townsmen fearing to be recognised and reported to their magistrates, turned their horses’s heads, and retreated a good way, but then halted and faced about to see what would happen. The rest came up to them and the whole shaped their course towards Busby. The Methven men followed, still keeping between the two bodies; and now that on the way to Busby sent out a party of 100 men to meet their pursuers and enquire what they meant – was it “to hinder them” assembling for divine worship? 

   Certainly it was “We told them,” says Dame Anne, “if they would not go from the parish of Methven presently, it should be a bloody day; for I protested, and your brother, before God, we would ware our lives upon them before they should preach in our regality or parish. They said they would preach. We charged them either to fight or fly. They drew to a council amongst themselves what to do. At last, about two hours in the afternoon, they would go away if we would let the body that was above the church with the tent march freely after them. We were content, knowing they were ten times as many as we were, and our advantage was keeping the one half a mile from the others, by marching in order betwixt them. They, seeing we were desperate, marched over the Pow,” the small burn which divides Methven parish on the south, from Madderty, Findo Gask, and Tibbermuir. Meanwhile the main body struck their tent and decamped; and the valorous Dame Anne and her men, having thus achieved a bloodless victory, repaired to Methven church, and attended divine service in thankfulness for the success which had been vouchsafed to them. 

   But our heroine’s troubles were scarcely yet over. She was speedily told that the “rebels” whom she had dispersed were not disposed to pocket the “affront” she had put upon them, but purposed holding another conventicle on the same ground at Methven, on the following Sunday, the 20th October, when they would stand by their colours in spite of her teeth. She was somewhat disquieted in mind on account that the neighbouring heritors did not seem inclined to concur with her. She was afraid they were not “all steel to the back;” nevertheless she was resolved in pursuing her own course. “I, in the Lord’s strength,” said she – for she could use Scriptural phraseology as glibly as the Whiggish sisterhood did – “I, in the Lord’s strength, intend to accost the rebels with all the help can make. This is the first encounter in which they have been obliged to fly out of a parish. God grant it be good handsel!” On Monday, the 14th October, she and the Baron Bailie rode to Perth, and had a communing with the Lord Provost, Patrick Hay, who, on being informed that a number of his citizens had travelled to the Methven conventicle, and threatened to do the same again, was indignant thereat, and pledged himself to cause the ports of the town to be guarded on next Saturday and Sunday, “to keep in the rabble of rebels.” Comforted somewhat by this assurance, the lady and her brother-in-law returned home. 

   They next summoned “a solemn court of vassals, tenants, and all within their power” to be held, on Thursday, the 17th October. At this meeting the Dame was present as before. The Baron Bailie took cognizance of the few men amongst the vassals who had attended the Cultmalundie conventicle; they were subjected to fines, and bound to obedience for time to come. This done, the Court ordained the whole tenants to assemble at the West Wood by seven o’clock on Sabbath morning, with the best arms they had, under the penalty of £10 each. “My good-brother and I, with our servants and others who may come to help us, will be there to meet you,” said Dame Anne. “We will march against the rebels, and if the God of heaven will, they shall either fight, or go out of our parish.” She calculated that “if all the heritors in the parish be loyal and stout, we will make 500 men and boys that may carry arms. She sent to Edinburgh for a couple of brass hagbuts or muskets to be forwarded with all despatch; but indeed a supply of proper arms was needed for the half of her men; though doubtless the “rebels” were not any better provided against the chance of coming to blows. “Comfort yourself in this,” wrote Dame Anne to her husband, “that if the fanatics chance to kill me, it shall not be for nought. I was wounded for our gracious King, and now in the strength of the Lord God of heaven, I’ll hazard my person with the men I may command, before these rebels rest where you have power.” The Provost of Methven flattered her by telling all and sundry with whom he spoke that “if every master kept as strict an eye over their ground as the Laird allowed the Lady to do, there would be no conventicles in the land.” 

   Sunday morning came, and the strong-minded Anne had the satisfaction of seeing a powerful muster at the West wood. Besides her own force, the men of Tippermalloch, Bachilton, and Busby were all there at her command, their Lairds having sent them agreeably to her pressing request; but the Laird of Balgowan had “even down refused his men, and declared that if the conventicles were at his gate, he would only protest against them, and no more.” The warlike preparations, however, were made in vain. There was no conventicle. and nobody approached to attempt anything of the kind; so that the quiet of the day of rest at Methven was undisturbed by strife. Would that it had been so elsewhere! But in another quarter – not many miles off – that Sabbath proved “a bloody day.” 

   The Covenanters, desirous of avoiding a collision with the terrible Amazon of Methven, had changed their place of meeting to the hill of Colteuchar, in the parish of Forgandenny, when they assembled, expecting no interruption. It so happened, at the same time, that a party of the Marquis of Athole’s Highlanders, led by the Laird of Ballechin, were roving about the adjacent country; and Ballechin, hearing of this conventicle, sent for the Baron Bailie of Methven to assist him by his presence. The Bailie and a servant rode off at the word. The services at Colteuchar were proceeding, when the people were thrown into confusion by the sudden appearance of Ballechin’s men, who immediately began using their fire-arms. There was a sudden dispersion of the congregation; and unhappily one man, named Andrew Brodie, “a wright by trade, who lived at my Lord Ruthven’s gate, in the green of Freeland,” says Wodrow, was shot dead by the Highlanders while running into the mouth of a rocky cave for shelter. This was the only fatality of the day. Poor Brodie left a widow and four children. His body was interred in Forgandenny kirkyard, the spot being marked to this day by an upright stone bearing legibly the following inscription:- 

HERE Lyes 


HT in Forgundenny who 

at the Break of a Meeting 

Ocbr 1678 was shot by a 

Party of Highlandmen 

Commanded by Ballech- 

in at a caves mouth fly 

ing thither for his life & 

that for his adherence 

to the Word of God and Sco 

tlands Covenanted 

Work of Reformation 

Rev. 12. C vii 

Immediately on this conventicle being dispersed, Ballechin despatched an express to Methven, where the lady and her men were still under arms; and they, on hearing the news, went to church to return thanks, as on the former occasion. The Athole men followed up their success by plundering at will through Forgandenny parish, and, as Lady Methven told her husband, “they went laden home with less or more.” 

   It was not surprising that our heroine incurred much odium by her warlike opposition to conventicles. As she said – “The spirit of revenge boasts against me for beginning their stopping in this parish”; and such was the animosity which she excited that neither she nor any of her household dared venture abroad without a guard or carrying arms. Moreover, she felt much slighted in not being thanked by the Scottish Privy Council for her pains, and therefore considered that “our governors are made up of Machiavelli’s principles.” Still, she was not left altogether without influential recognition of her services. She had the hearty approbation of Archbishop Sharp. One day, Provost Hay and Dean of Guild Glass, or Perth. had occasion to visit the Primate at St. Andrews, concerning the appointment of a new minister in their city; and on their return they told Lady Methven that the Archbishop enquired all about her exploits, with the account of which he was so well pleased that “he drank her good health, and said the clergy of this nation were obliged to her.” This was high praise. “But,” said she, with becoming modesty, “it was the Lord’s doing, who made me His instrument. Praise, honour, and glory, be to His great name!” 

   The Covenanters continued to give Methven parish a wide berth, holding their field-meetings at respectful distances beyond its bounds. But their Amazonian enemy kept herself on the alert in case of surprise. “If they come back again to us,” she wrote to her husband, “they shall go worse away than they did last time, I being better provided of powder and lead, and all except Balgowan are willing to follow me to so just pursuit. Though I have got no thanks from the Council, neither is any parish commanded to do the like, yet my duty and love to his Sacred Majesty shall encourage me to be singular against a powerful enemy, as they are in this nation.” But she found no further need for her store of powder and lead. 

   Mr. Hugh Ramsay having died in March, 1679, Lady Methven wrote to Archbishop Sharp, informing him that her husband, who still remained in London, intended (as patron of the parish), to present Mr. John Omay, minister of Dunbarney, to the vacant charge. The Primate replied by letter, dated 27th March, approving of the choice, and laying the most “flattering unction” to his fair correspondent’s soul. “I am glad,” he said, “to find that your husband, a gentleman noted for his loyalty to his King and affection to the Church, is so happy as to have a consort of the same principles and inclinations for the public settlement, who has given proof of her aversion to join in society with Separatists, and partaking of that sin, to which so many of that sex do tempt their husbands in this evil time.” And he concluded with the assurance that “Your Ladyship, in continuing the course of your exemplary piety and zeal for the Apostolic doctrine and government, shall have approbation from God and all good men.” How deeply must her ladyship have relished this fulsome commendation! 

   His presentee, Mr. Omay, was “placed” in Methven Church on 30th July. But by that time great events had come about in the kingdom. Archbishop Sharp was in his grave – having been assassinated on Magus Moor on 3rd May; and the murder was followed by open rebellion in the west country. Claverhouse suffered defeat at Drumclog on 1st June; and the Covenanting cause was prostrated at Bothwell Bridge on the 22nd of the same month. Not long afterwards – before that dark and fatal year was out – Lady Methven met a lamentable death, which doubtless her enemies regarded as “a judgment” for the inveterate opposition which they had experienced at her hands. She was riding in the vicinity of her castle, and when near the very place where the Covenanters had “had their tent set up before the sun,” her horse stumbled, and she being thrown violently to the ground, her brains were dashed out! So it is stated in Wodrow’s MSS.; but no mention is made of the lady in that grim Appendix to the Scots Worthies headed “The Judgment and Justice of God Exemplified.”

Leave a Reply