XIII. Isobel Alison of Perth; and Marion Harvie of Bo’ness, pp.293-311.

[Heroines of Scotland Contents]

                                                  “Every hour 

They stood prepar’d to die, a people doom’d 

To death; – old men, and youths, and simple maids.” 

                                                                                                            – Grahame’s Sabbath

MMEDIATELY after the slaughter of Archbishop Sharp on Magus Moor, on 3rd May, 1679, the band of horsemen who slew him dispersed, and four of them directed their flight to the neighbourhood of Perth, namely, James Russell, belonging to Kettle; George Balfour, in Gilston; David Hackston of Rathillet; and John Balfour of Kinloch, the redoubtable Burley of Old Mortality. They first found quarters in a widow’s house, east of the Bridge of Earn, where they lodged for three days. George Balfour and the landlady’s brother ventured into Perth, for the evident purpose of communicating with friends there, from whom they might ascertain how affairs went regarding the Archbishop’s death. Burley avoided going near the town, as he was personally known there, and had been a defaulting debtor of one of the burgesses; for in 1677, he was put to the horn by John Glass, merchant (afterwards Dean of Guild and Lord Provost) for non-payment of £47 3s. 4d. Scots, specified in a bond dated in 1672. George Balfour and his companion were not long returned with what news they had picked up, when the appearance of dragoons passing along the high-road from the Fair City, scared the fugitives, and caused them to set off towards Dupplin – just in time to escape seizure. During the next fortnight or so they hovered about the mill of Dupplin, and up and down in the parishes of Aberdalgie and Forteviot, and in other adjacent places, wherever they had trusty well-wishers, and all this without detection. While lurking at “the Chingles at Forteviot kirk,” they were joined by one of their confederates, William Danziel, in Caddam, who had been hiding at Dysart; and he came to them along with “an honest lass, who had sent for him, called Isobel Alison,” – of whom we are to hear more anon. Eventually the party quitted the Chingles, and rode to the west country, where the flames of rebellion were kindling. 

   Bothwell Brig was fought on 22nd June; and here we will note a touching incident of woman’s devoted affection, which occurred on the night of that sanguinary Sabbath. In the Covenanting army was a youth who was betrothed to a bonny lass named Mary Rae, both of whom belonging to the Bothwell district. Mary, with much fear and trembling, watched the battle from a safe distance, and beheld the utter rout of the host for whose success she had fervently prayed. When the soft gloaming fell, she wandered alone towards the fatal field, eager to know the fate of her lover, but dreading the worst; and at length in a hollow of the moorland over which the headlong flight and deadly pursuit had passed, she discovered him whom she sought, stretched among several dead bodies. Happily he still lived, but was sorely wounded and agonized with thirst. In faint accents he implored her for water to moisten his parched lips. Yonder afar ran the Clyde; but the enemy’s soldiery disposed on its banks debarred approach; and though Mary knew that in another direction, and nearer, lay a lonely spring-well, yet she had no vessel in which to fetch water, and no house was within reach. Must the helpless soldier of the Covenant perish? She saw but one way to save him, and that was to strive to carry him to the well. Exerting her utmost nerve, and bore him slowly across the wild moorland, like the Border widow of old carrying her slain knight to his grave. 

“I took his body on my back, 

And whiles I gaed, and whiles I sat.” 

After a weary struggle, how gladly Mary caught the glimmer of the well, with the quivering semblance of a star on its bosom! She laid her lover down on the brink, and gave the cool and limpid element to his lips with her scooped palms. He drank, and was revived. Then she washed his wounds, and bound them up as she best could, hoping that his life might yet be spared. He recovered strength to rise, and in the hush of the Midsummer midnight he was able with Mary’s help to reach a place of safety, where he remained undisturbed till he was convalescent. The sequel of the story can be imagined. In due season he and Mary were wedded: and the country people gave her name to the well, which, indeed, bears it to this day. 

   Bothwell Brig was bitterly bemoaned, we may be sure, by the “honest lass, called Isobel Alison,” who visited the fugitives at “the Chingles, at Forteviot kirk.” She was about five and twenty years of age, and resided in the town of Perth – her domicile being, according to local tradition, in the old double-land of two stories fronting the High Street, on the east side of the Cutlog Vennel, which was pulled down in May 1862, to make way for the Evangelical Union Church. The frontage of the land, with its square projecting staircase, its outside stair, and its roof covered with thick grey slates, gave a fair representation of the common street architecture of the seventeenth century, while it was peculiar for the diverse sizes of its windows. Isobel was unmarried, and lived by herself; but we can tell nothing regarding her parents, both of whom seem to have been dead by the time she emerged into notice. As to how she subsisted – whether by some feminine handicraft, or whether she had a small competency of her own – we are equally ignorant; but, at anyrate, she was not a domestic servant. Her first appearance on record was at the Chingles, in May 1679; and then she relapses into obscurity for the next eighteen months; but at the end of that space she emerges into the broad light, and is on the road to martyrdom. Thus, she was eminently one of those who – 

                     “Lived unknown 

Till persecution dragg’d them into fame, 

And chased them up to heaven.” 

   We gather from her own words that she had been nurtured in the strictest Presbyterian and Covenanting faith, and was well versed in the Scriptures. She “lived very privately in the town of Perth,” says Wodrow, “and was of a sober and religious conversation. She had now and then heard Mr. Cargill preach in the fields, and some few others before Bothwell, but not very often, field conventicles not being common in that country.” Doubtless she attended the Cultmalundie and Methven gatherings, and beheld the portentous apparition of Lady Methven marching forth, with drawn sword and loaded carbine, to hold “a bloody day.” As Isobel was acquainted with a few of the wandering ministers, and of their prominent adherents, it was probably to her house at the Cutlog Vennel that George Balfour and the widow’s brother repaired when they came in from the bridge of Earn; and we have seen that she invited William Danziel to quit his concealment, and conducted him to the Chingles. We may also reasonably suppose that whilst the fugitives lurked about Strathearn, she frequently visited them with intelligence of what was moving in the town. Nevertheless, though thus going about on such errands, she seems to have been entirely overlooked by the lynx-eye of authority, as she remained unchallenged. 

   Through the interval of about eighteen months the persecution raged hotly. The more fiery spirits of the Covenant publicly renounced allegiance to the “Merry Monarch,” excommunicated him, and delivered him over to Satan. Richard Cameron fell sword in hand at Airdsmoss. The Grassmarket of Edinburgh echoed with death-psalms, and crowds of prisoners were doomed to the living death of transportation. In Perth, Mr. Ramsay, Sheriff-depute of the shire, acquired an odious reputation by his keen activity against conventicle-attenders, and non-conformists generally, amongst the town’s people, some of whom he subjected to fines so excessive that the magistrates themselves, though also active in their own way in suppressing non-conformity within the burgh, appealed in form of law against his sentences. Especially was one young man rigorously dealt with by the civic and shrieval rulers. Patrick Couper was the son of parents residing in the old village of Scone, near Perth, and having studied for the Church at the College of St. Andrews, obtained the degree of M.A. in 1678, while only in his eighteenth year. He seems to have lodged frequently in Perth, where he, full of the covenanting fervour, became known for assisting at religious meetings in private houses. For such delinquency he was hunted from the city, and searched for in Scone; and at length, in 1679, the pious stripling was imprisoned for a short term. He was arrested again in 1680, and only obtained release from Perth Tolbooth – a rough old prison overlooking the Tay at the foot of the High Street – by payment of a heavy fine. Still he continued obnoxious to the dominant powers, and was driven to seek refuge abroad, but he never knew rest and peace till the Revolution time, when he was ordained minister of the parish of St. Ninians, adjoining Stirling. Most likely Isobel Alison was among the town’s folk to whom Patrick Couper spake words of hope and trust in the gloomy day. 

   Towards the end of 1680, Isobel, who had hitherto escaped blame, began to attract suspicion by her outspoken sentiments on the tyranny under which the land groaned. It came to this that her “speaking against the severity used upon some religious people” in the town could not be passed over. “She was brought before some of the Magistrates,” (Mr. John Glass, merchant, being then Lord Provost), “and in her simplicity voluntarily confessed converse with some who had been declared rebels.” The magistrates, however, to their credit be it told, were reluctant to drag the young woman into trouble, and therefore cautioning her to be more circumspect in her speech for the future, dismissed her. But what she had said was speedily reported, by some busybodies, to the Privy Council, who issued a warrant for her apprehension and removal to Edinburgh. She was “living peaceably in her chamber at Perth,” says Wodrow, when the Sheriff-Clerk and a posse of officers came and arrested her for treason. Under a military guard she was taken to Edinburgh, and thrown into the Tolbooth – the famous “Heart of Midlothian.” She was immured in “the Women-house, on the east side of the prison.” 

   As a first step, she was brought before the Privy Council and examined; and in that trying position she evinced such a coolness of courage, self-possession, quickness and aptness of reply, and a full knowledge of the principles which she held, as astonished the Lords. “When I was brought before the Council,” she says (in the Cloud of Witnesses), “they asked me, Whether I lived at St. Johnstoun? I answered, Yes. What was your occupation? To which I did not answer. They asked, If I had conversed with David Hackston? I answered, I did converse with him, and I bless the Lord that ever I saw him; for I never saw ought in him but a godly pious youth. They asked me, When saw ye John Balfour, that pious youth? I answered, I have seen him. They asked, When? I answered, Those are frivolous questions; I am not bound to answer them. They asked, If I knew the two Hendersons that murdered the lord at St. Andrews? I answered, I never knew any lord St. Andrews. They said, Mr. James Sharp, if you call him so. I said, I never thought it murder; but if God moved and stirred them up to execute his righteous judgment upon him, I had nothing to say to that.” She owned Mr. Cargill’s “actings against the civil magistrate,” and also the Sanquhar Declaration and the Queensferry Paper, two documents held as being doubly-dyed in treason. Of course, by the law of the day, there was hanging matter in such opinions, though the young woman had done “nothing worthy of death or of bonds.” The Lords “pitied me,” she continues, “for (said they) we find reason and a quick wit in you; and they desired me to take it to advisement. I told them I had been advising on it these seven years, and I hoped not to change now. They asked, If I was distempered? I told them, I was always solid in the wit that God had given me.” She was then remanded for trial before the Justiciary Court. 

   By this time there was another prisoner in the Tolbooth, lying under a like accusation – namely Marion Harvie, a native of Borrowstounness, only twenty years of age, the daughter of a humble but steadfast Covenanter. She had been in domestic service for some time in Bo’ness, and while so had “served the woman that gave Mr. Donald Cargill quarters” there.  But latterly she was a servant in Edinburgh. By her own account, “at fourteen or fifteen she was a hearer of the Curates and indulged ministers, and while she was a hearer of these she was a blasphemer and Sabbath-breaker, and a chapter of the Bible was a burden to her; but since she heard the persecuted Gospel she durst not blaspheme, nor break the Sabbath, and the Bible became her delight.” One Sabbath-day, when going out from Edinburgh to attend a field-preaching, she was arrested by the military at the instigation of a noted informer, named James Henderson, belonging to North Queensferry, “who was the Judas,” she said, “that sold her and others to the bloody soldiers for so much money.” In accordance with the usual judicial procedure, she underwent examination before the Privy Council, who found her as collected, firm, and acute as her elder sister in misfortune; which so displeased General Dalziel, who was present, that he fiercely threatened her with the torture of the “boots” – a threat which in nowise discomposed her. But there was no need for the boots, as Marion frankly admitted as much as imperilled her life – such as, that because the King had broken his Covenant oath, it was just and lawful to disown him. The Lords asked, she tells, – “Do you know what ye say? I said, Yes. They said, Were you ever mad? I answered, I have all the wit that ever God gave me: do you see any mad act in me?” Again they said, “Would I cast away myself so? I answered, I love my life as well as any of you do; but will not redeem it upon sinful terms.” Then one of the Council told her jeeringly that “a rock, the cod and bobbins (for spinning), were more fit for her to meddle with than these matters.” Finally she refused to listen to any ministers whom the Council might send to converse with her. 

   The two young women were next brought for examination before the Lords of Justiciary on 6th December, 1680. They both declined the authority of King and Lords, and adhered to their former statements. Nothing more remained to be done but to put them to trial. Consequently they were both included in an indictment charging them with treason, inasmuch as they had denied the royal authority, and had kept correspondence with Cameron, Cargill, and others, as well as with the murderers of Archbishop Sharp; while Marion Harvie, it was specially libelled, had “most treasonably approven of the execrable excommunication used by Mr. Donald Cargill against his sacred sovereign at Torwood, and likewise owned and approved of the killing of the Archbishop of St. Andrews as lawful, declaring that he was as miserable a wretch as ever betrayed the Kirk of Scotland.” The two prisoners were put to the bar of Justiciary at Edinburgh on Monday, 17th January, 1681, and the prosecution was conducted by the King’s Advocate, the learned Sir George Mackenzie – that “noble wit of Scotland,” as Dryden styled him, but the “bluidy Mackenzie” of the popular rhyme. The jurymen were somewhat disinclined to the odious duty, and two of those summoned failed to appear, and were fined. But the result of the trial was a foregone conclusion. The only evidence adduced was the prisoners’ declarations; there was no other criminating evidence existing; and a verdict of guilty was given. Of a truth, the whole proceeding seems not so much a solemn mockery as a serio-comic travesty of justice. Here were the Justiciary Lords and the jurymen sitting in judgment on two lasses, not because of their having concocted desperate plots against the Church or the State, but only because, with feminine loquacity, they had let their tongues wag rather freely on such casuistical questions as whether an assassination, with which they had had nothing to do, was a murder or not. It was a sorry spectacle. The Court postponed sentence till the following Friday, when the two prisoners were condemned to be hanged in the Grassmarket, on Wednesday, the 26th of the month, betwixt two and four o’clock in the afternoon, “and all their lands, heritages, goods, and gear whatsomever, to be escheat and inbrought to our sovereign lord’s use” – a doom which they heard with the placidity of undaunted fortitude, fearless of death in any form, and ready to be sacrificed for what they held as truth. “Human nature inclines us wisely to that pity which we may one day need; and few pardon the severity of a magistrate, because they know not where it may stop.” It was Sir George Mackenzie who wrote thus in one of his Essays. 

   Isobel and Marion spent the last few days they had to live in the same cell of the Tolbooth, where they cheered each other in the prospect of martyrdom. But the authorities became anxious to avoid the public scandal and horror of such a tragedy; and so they made efforts to obtain some such recantation as would justify a reprieve. By the Council’s order, Mr. Archibald Riddel, one of the Edinburgh ministers, visited the prisoners, and endeavoured to persuade them out of the principles in which they gloried; but he found them invincibly opposed to submission on the slightest point. They would retract nothing: they would not even suffer him to pray for them. With reference to a passage in the Queensferry Paper about executing justice on guilty persons, he “laid by his coat, and said, Would ye stab me with a knife in my breast even now? And we smiled, and said, We never murdered any. But, said he, they (in the Paper) swore to do so. We said, Why did he not debate these things with men, and not with lasses; for, we told him, we never studied debates.” Mr. Riddel wound up a lengthened interview by saying – “If you come to calm blood, desire me, or any other of the ministers, to speak with you.” Then the jailor – the Goodman of the Tolbooth – suggested that the prison surgeon should bleed the women; for he thought they were mad. But they smiled, and asked him – “Saw you any mad action in us?” Then they were left alone. 

   The steadfastness of the women seems to have much troubled the ruling powers; and the advisability of threatening a “private execution” was mooted. “Some thought,” says Lord Fountainhall, in his Historical Observes, “the threatening to drown them privately in the North Loch, without giving them the credit of a public suffering, would have more effectually reclaimed them nor any arguments which were used; and the bringing them to a scaffold but disseminates the infection. However, the women proved very obstinate, and for all the pains taken, would not once acknowledge the king to be their lawful prince, but called him a perjured, bloody man.” It need scarcely be added that Lord Fountainhall was a friend of the Government. 

   Wednesday came, and still our Covenanting heroines had not abated one jot of their opinions, but showed that death, whether in public or in private, had no terrors for them. “The common report through the country is,” said Marion Harvie, “that I might have had my life on very easy terms; but I could have it on no easier terms than the denying of my Lord and Master, Christ. First, they asked, if I would retract my former confession, and particularized all the Papers I had owned before, and if I would not call Charles Stewart an usurper, and the devil’s vicegerent. I told them I would not go back in anything; for ye have nothing (say I) to lay to me but for the avowing Christ to be King in Zion, and Head of his own Church.” Isobel equally disdained to purchase life and liberty at the price of resilience from her profession. The fate of both was now sealed beyond recall; and as if to surround their execution with as much seeming shame as possible, it was ordered that five women, condemned for murdering illegitimate children, should be hung along with them. Truly a startling scene was to be presented to the gaze of the mob! 

   In the afternoon, as the January sun was declining over “auld Edinbro’ toun,” and the Grassmarket was densely crowded with a multitude expectant of a dismal show, Isobel and Marion, and the other unfortunate women, were brought from the Tolbooth to the Council-house. When Marion “came out of the Tolbooth door, several friends attending her,” as we are told, “she was observed to say with a surprising cheerfulness and air of heavenly ravishment, ‘Behold, I hear my beloved saying unto me, Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!’ ” Bishop Paterson of Edinburgh was in the Council-house, among the civic officials, and addressed her in a jeering mood – “Marion, you said you would never hear a curate, but now you shall be forced to hear one.” But he was in a gross mistake, for he failed to force her as he thought. He ordered one of his suffragans to offer up prayer; but whenever he began, Marion said to her fellow-prisoner – “Come, Isobel, let us sing the twenty-third Psalm.” They accordingly raised that sacred, comforting strain, – Marion “repeating the psalm, line by line, without book:” and this “singing drowned the voice of the curate, and extremely confounded the persecutors.” 

   From the Council-house the condemned women emerged into the street, to look their last on wintry sun and sky, ancient city and human faces. The procession, with the soldiers, slowly descended the steep West Bow (where Major Weir, the Warlock’s haunted house frowned darkly on the passers by), and still more slowly made way through the surging crowd in the Grassmarket to the foot of the scaffold. No relatives or friends attended Isobel: and, as would appear, Marion was also fatherless and motherless; for in her “Testimony” she bids farewell to “brethren and sisters,” but not to both or either of her parents. The sufferers, however, needed no consolation from sorrowing friends; for their hearts were sustained by a heavenly influence. They faltered not on coming face to face with “the great tall spectral skeleton,” the scaffold and the gibbet. 

“The Shield of Faith is theirs, which, oft assailed, 

In time of trial never yet hath failed; 

The Helmet of Salvation crowns their head, 

And Righteousness defends their breasts from dread.” 

They held their devotions on the scaffold. Isobel sang the eighty-fourth Psalm and read the sixteenth chapter of Mark, and then engaged in prayer at the foot of the ladder; after which, uttering a few last words, she submitted to her fate. Marion followed. She sang the same Psalm and read the third chapter of Malachi. Then she addressed the spectators at considerable length, exonerating herself from murderous intentions. “They say I would murder,” she cried: “but I declare I am free from all matters of fact. I could never take the life of a chicken but my heart shrinked. But it is only for my judgment of things I am brought here.” When she went up the ladder she continued her address, reiterating – “I am not come here for murder; for they have no matter of fact to charge me with, but only my judgment.” She was still proceeding when “the Major called to the hangman to cast her over, and the murderer presently choked her.” 

   Thus perished the first female martyrs of the Persecution. 

“Ye read their story. 

Take home the lesson with a spirit-smile: 

Darkness and mystery a little while, 

Then – light and glory, 

And ministry ‘mid saint and seraph band, 

And service of high praise in the Eternal Land!” 

   The old Register of the Tolbooth records that on the day above stated, Isobel Alison and Marion Harvie “was set at liberty by being taken to the Grassmarket” and there executed, for disowning the King’s authority: as also Elsa Morrison, Isabella Bell, her daughter, Jean Henderson, Helen Girdwood, and — Donaldson, all hanged the foresaid day, for murdering their children.

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