Later traditions about the Covenanters are not a reliable guide to history. They are adventure story parables and akin to a form of faction in which fact and fiction seamlessly blend. Somewhere in them there may be a kernel of historical fact, but one can never be sure that it actually exists.
The following passage from Reverend Simpson, the collector of the traditions, sums up the kind of material he was looking for:
‘[The life of Renwick], written by Alexander Shiel[d]s [in 1688], is excellent; but then, it is chiefly a defence of his public character. The great desideratum, which we now-a-days would like to see supplied, is a minute account of his private history—of his wanderings, his escapes, the effects of his ministry, and the providential incidents which befell him. This, however, at this distance of time, it is impossible to supply. In the days of his biographer there existed ample materials for such a history, which to posterity would now be invaluable. There is scarcely an anecdote given by the writer of his life, of the description we would now like to see, though there are general statements made, which show that his history was an eventful one, and fraught with unrecorded incidents of a very stirring nature.’ (Simpson, Traditions, 311-12.)
Simpson attempted to make up that deficit in the 1840s.
One tradition he relayed about James Renwick was his fording the Water of Ken in Galloway. According to Simpson, the story had been handed down from one of Renwick’s companions on that day, John McMillan.
‘The following anecdote of Mr [James] Renwick will be read, perhaps, with some degree of interest: In his wanderings in the wilder parts of Galloway, to elude the vigilance of his enemies, he came to Balmaclellan, and agreed with some of the serious people there to hold a conventicle in a solitary place among the mountains. The news of the projected meeting was circulated with all possible secrecy, and on the day appointed a great assembly convened from all parts of the surrounding district. The morning was lowering, and heavy showers were falling on the distant heights, swelling the mountain streamlets, as they descended with impetuosity into the valleys. Notwithstanding the caution, however, with which the intelligence had been communicated, the enemy received information, and came upon the congregation just as they were going to commence worship. On the approach of the troopers, the people fled in all directions; and Mr Renwick, accompanied by John M’Millan and David Ferguson, fled towards the winding Ken. It was the design of Mr Renwick to escape to the house of a friend, in the parish of Penningham[e in Wigtownshire], and there to conceal himself for a season.’ (Simpson, Traditions, 315-16.)
Renwick in the Glenkens
Renwick is known to have preached in Balmaclellan parish on three occasions in 1684: At Clay Hills in January, the Garple Burn in September and Garcrogo in October. He also preached in the area in the summer of 1685 when he made ‘a progress through Galloway, and found never such an open door for preaching the gospel, the people coming far better out than they did before. We got eight field meetings kept there without any disturbance’. His next recorded appearance in the Galloway area was at some point in the spring of 1686. He also appears to have examined the Society people in the Glenkens later in the year and on 5 December, he preached at Earlstoun Wood in the neighbouring parish of Dalry without interruption. (Houston (ed.), Letters, 192, 228, 244.)
The Mysterious McMillan
Simpson never identifies where John McMillan was from, but he appears to have been in someway connected to the area around Balmaclellan. John McMillan was almost certainly a common name in the Glenkens district. The ‘John M’Millan’ of the tradition may, or may not, be the ‘John McMillan in Arndarroch’ in Dalry parish listed on the Fugitive Roll of 1684. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 217.)
The old farm at Arndarroch lay close to the Water of Ken. Today, the ruins of the farm may lie in the Kendoon Aqueduct.
In 1680, Donald Cargill addressed a letter to an important local activist in Dalry parish called McMillan. Was the John McMillan at Renwick’s side the same man? We do not know.
The Dragoons at the Ford
‘The place where they attempted to ford the stream was at a considerable distance above the village of [St John’s Town of] Dalry.’ (Simpson, Traditions, 316.)
The story implies Renwick and his two companions fled into Dalry parish where they attempted to ford the Water of Ken. According to the story, Renwick’s intention was to cross the ford and travel west to Penninghame parish in Wigtownshire. The landscape has been considerably altered since Renwick’s time, as the hydro power lochs of Earlstoun, Carsfad and Kendoon did not exist.
There are several fords marked on the old OS maps. About a mile above Dalry lay the ‘Stone Ford’ at Earlstoun, which is now drowned by Earlstoun Loch.
About a mile beyond that lay the ‘Grass Holm Ford’ and ‘Carsfad Ford’ above Polharrow Bridge.
However, perhaps the best candidate for the ford which was described as at a ‘considerable distance’ above St John’s Town of Dalry is the one below the confluence of the Water of Ken and the Water of Deugh near Glenhoul. It lies about four miles above Dalry beside the Kendoon Hydro Electric Power Station.
‘The river was greatly swollen by the heavy rains that had fallen among the hills during the morning; and before they entered into its turbid waters, they agreed to engage in prayer among the thick bushes that grew on its margin. When they rose from their knees, and were about to step into the dark rolling tide, they observed, to their amazement, a party of dragoons landing on the opposite bank. They had reached the place in pursuit during the time the three men were at prayer, and without noticing them, or hearing their voice, they rushed into the ford, in haste to cross before the waters became deeper. This occurrence seemed to the party to be a providential interference in their favour, for it was at the moment they were employed in devotion that their enemies arrived and missed them; and there is every likelihood, had they not lingered for a space to implore the divine protection, that they would have been toiling in the midst of the stream at the very time the horsemen reached the place.
John M’Millan, from whose lips this tradition has been transmitted to posterity, used to say that he was never so much impressed, either before or after, with anything he ever heard, as by the remarks made by Mr Renwick on this occasion; and that, moreover, they were the means of directing his attention more particularly to providential occurrences during the after period of his life.
As his two friends were to accompany Mr Renwick no farther than the ford, they resolved not to leave him till they should see him in safety on the other side. As the current was powerful, they resorted to the following means to assist him in crossing: They provided themselves with the long branches of the mountain ash, which were grasped by the three at equal distances, so that if one should be carried off his feet by the strength of the current, the others, standing firm, should accomplish his rescue. Mr Renwick entered the stream first, and the three proceeded in a line as steadily as they could, till he reached the bank in safety; the other two then returned to the place they left.
No sooner, however, had they stepped from the channel of the river, than the flood descended with great violence, covering the banks on both sides, and sweeping every obstacle before it. Such an occurrence is not unfrequent in the upland districts, where the thunder-clouds discharge themselves with great impetuosity among the hills.’ (Simpson, Traditions, 316-17.)
The Death of Ferguson
‘John McMillan and David Ferguson, who returned to the north bank of the Ken, after they parted from Mr Renwick, were hastening along the margin of the river, when they were met by a company of horsemen. They turned to flee; David Ferguson concealed himself under a brow by the water’s edge, and John M’Millan retreated to a thicket at a short distance from the place. The soldiers observing the flight of M’Millan, pursued him, but he escaped. Ferguson, however, was never more heard of; it is supposed that he was swept away by the strength of the stream, and found a watery grave, and thus he died a martyr, though not by the immediate hand of his persecutors.’ (Simpson, Traditions, 319.)
Simpson’s tradition continues with Renwick’s providential adventures on the opposite bank. If you want to read on, see here. How any of Renwick’s escapades on the opposite bank were known to McMillan is, of course, never explained.
If Renwick ever made the walk to Penninghame parish, it would have taken him most of a day to walk the twenty-mile journey through the Galloway hills and the parishes of Kells and Minnigaff to reach his destination. Penninghame was a parish where the Society people were active.
Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.
Filed under: 1685, Arndarroch, Balmaclellan parish, Covenanters, Dalry parish, David Ferguson (Glenkens), Galloway, Glenkens, James Renwick, John McMillan (Arndarroch), Kirkcudbrightshire, Penninghame parish, Scotland, Scottish History, Wigtownshire Tagged: Covenanters, Galloway, History, James Renwick, Scotland, Scottish History, Water of Ken