Covenanters’ Prison

So this isn’t a particularly pleasant piece of writing and it is nowhere what I wanted it to be. Honestly, I’ve really struggled with writing this week, whether due to tiredness or my own malfunctioning brain. This week’s prompt was to write a story using a freytag. A freytag is a plot consisting of five parts – exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and in my case catastrophe. The added option was for it to be a ghost story. This story is based on historical events and I have tried my best to keep it accurate, though several sources say several different things. Anyone who knows me knows how freaked out I am by Covenanters’ Prison in Edinburgh so it felt only fitting to use it as my eventual setting! I hope you “enjoy” it. 🙂 I am genuinely so un-nerved by Covenanters’ Prison I have no photographs of it, despite visiting it three times and having a camera each time. Anyone who knows me will know how weird it is that I don’t have a photograph. So I’ve added a picture of Greyfriars Kirkyard that I’ve taken instead.

I am a simple man. Two bairns, a wife, and a home to keep us warm, though never safe. I love these lands, the lands where my forefathers have lived and died before me. There is no finer sight, than those mornings when the glens warm and are draped in lush ermine mist, brocaded with lines of sunlight. The scent of heather swelling up, of earth, rich nature, and our lands. Some might imagine only the dreich days where cold fingers of wind creep across our floors and our windows are battered by freezing rain. That is not my Scotland. My Scotland is wild, untamed and beautiful, so beautiful.
I was but a boy when the Highlanders came. Punishment for our rebellion, a blade to our throats to remind us exactly what we were. The dissidents, the unwanted, the unlawful. I remember now the desperation in my Maw’s voice as she begged my Faither not to go. As men of principle, we had no choice. Our God was not their God, yet we must worship all the same. Capital offence or no. How can a man be at peace with himself if he is not at peace with his God?
Against our King and against his law we gathered, we few who still held firm the covenant, who would not be bowed by bishops and their ilk. We received the words of the minister, sweet succor for men afeared for their lives. Then on to home, to share our meat and hearth with Highlanders who would wish us dead. Such were our lives, clandestine worship, and public submission.
I was barely a man when they rode Faither down. I can not say who saw him go, how they had come to know our meeting place. Yet they were there, dragoons atop their steaming mounts. Perhaps I should find comfort that his suffering was brief, unlike some of our congregation. I could not forgive them, nor myself as I ran until my lungs would burst, leaving him where he had fallen. Only hours later, under the cover of darkness was I able to return to gather up his body for burial. They would have left him to rot as a reminder that we are lesser. That death is all we are worth.
I am not sure what madness possessed us at Drumclog, perhaps we were men driven too far, too hard, by our love for our God and hatred of our King. Open rebellion seemed too risky but still we met, in greater number than ever before. Then arms spread wide, the Reverend Thomas Douglas from his fiery sermon paused and said: “Ye have got the theory, now for the practice.” Dragoons from Claverhouse had been summoned. So soon the mood had changed, men no longer wishing to run, but to fight. For freedom, for our beliefs and for release from fear.
We stood our ground that day and broke through the line, scattering our enemy to the wind. Drunk with our victory we gathered more men, made promise of a Scotland where we could worship; not like criminals but like free men. Glasgow seemed a thousand miles from us, our dissidence would not reach their ears and bring about our destruction. For a few halcyon weeks, we believed that we could do anything. We had freedom enough to turn upon some of our own, those accepted by the law, those not chased from their churches. It was in such disarray that our army was forged.
As our numbers swelled so did the militia and on the 22nd of June 1679 we came face to face with them across the Clyde. What hope had we? Poor souls with sparse ammunition and no training to our name. We had heart and numbers but they were regulars, steeped in combat. All that separated steel from flesh was a narrow bridge between our armies, built where no bridge could be forged between our hearts.
At Stirling Robert the Bruce had held back an English army numbering a third more than his own. Naively we thought we could write our names into history. An hour we held the narrow strip that separated us from ruin. The plumes of musket fire soon began to sting our eyes, deafening explosions crashed into our chests, vibrating through our souls. Men fell like sheaves of wheat. There is no sound, like that which lifts the rib cage, in the moment before life slips away. You might think that it would be impossible to hear above the booming base of artillery, yet somehow one human soul reaches out to another, tearing into their guts with such a sound.
Driven back we soon were scattered, desperate and broken. I fled, stumbling over roots of trees, reaching up to wrap around my ankles. This was not the glory I had imagined, nor the sweet release, bought by battle I had fervently prayed for.  The sky wheeled above me as suddenly breath was ripped from my lungs, that which hammered in my skull not my own heartbeat but the drum of hooves upon the earth. I was felled, conquered and captured.
It was dark by the time they had gathered us, we numbered over a thousand, battle weary, streaked with mud, blood and other fluids we chose not to explore. Everything I possessed seemed to ache, body, soul and heart. I was a man defeated and could rise no more against my King. Yet further doom lay ahead, near 40 miles at march, boots cracked and men lame; they pushed us on to Edinburgh.
So many were our number, they could not contain us, within Castle nor Tolbooth. Instead, we came to Greyfriars Kirk, some 400 souls were left with nowhere else to go. It was there we were to remain.
On two sides stood the Flodden Wall, the third was blocked by George Heriot’s School, which left escape past guards who wished us dead. No more so than Bluidy George Mackenzie, our dread guard who took special delight in our discomfort. If he could twist us upon the rack he would, for nothing more than the pleasure of our voice made hoarse by tortured screams.
As summer waned cold rain washed down our fading bodies. Like leaves we fell, succumbing to the earth. There was no shelter, nor comfort to be had. Except to pile our bodies close at night, in hopes we would not wake, pressed tight, to some cold corpse. We had but two hand fulls of bread a day, along with what offerings kind people could sneak into the place which was our prison and our grave.
As winter’s frost dug clawed into weary bones, my breath was little more than stuttered spurts of silver mist. Each night felt endless and each dawn was slow to break. Darkness found home within my spirit. Limbs once strong turned to stone, no kicks could rouse me, nor gentle words coax. I did not think then of my God, nor of my struggle, nor of war or rebellion.
I thought of home, and as men had before, hack-lunged and weeping like bairns, I moaned out my loved ones names. Some called only for their Maw, cheeks still downy with the first signs of manhood. Some had no breath with which to call out. With what life I had left I wept for my wife, a good woman who now would have to raise our children alone. I wept for myself and I wept for my country and then I wept no more.
In years to come my grave went unmarked, in the place that became known as Covenanter’s Prison. Hundreds of my kin died there, some were taken to meet a merciful noose, others were to be deported. Some of us remain there still, in that place where we lay down and could rise no more.
There, I watch the ginger steps of men and women I no longer recognise. Upon our graves, words whispered, eyes wide in colourful plaid scarves, with machines which flash and whir. They know not what happened here, I try to warn them, fingers stretching out to grasp them and turn them back. Just beyond the gate, he lurks here still, George Mackenzie, looking for more souls to trap, his mausoleum only yards from my own grave.
From there, he maintains his ghoulish guard, soul ne’er to rest whilst I am a simple man. Two bairns, a wife, and a home to keep us warm, though never safe. I love these lands, the lands where my forefathers have lived and died before me. There is no finer sight, than those mornings when the glens warm and are draped in lush ermine mist, brocaded with lines of sunlight. The scent of heather swelling up, of earth, rich nature, and our lands. Some might imagine only the dreich days where cold fingers of wind creep across our floors and our windows are battered by freezing rain. That is not my Scotland. My Scotland is wild, untamed and beautiful, so beautiful.
I was but a boy when the Highlanders came. Punishment for our rebellion, a blade to our throats to remind us exactly what we were. The dissidents, the unwanted, the unlawful. I remember now the desperation in my Maw’s voice as she begged my Faither not to go. As men of principle, we had no choice. Our God was not their God, yet we must worship all the same. Capital offence or no. How can a man be at peace with himself if he is not at peace with his God?
Against our King and against his law we gathered, we few who still held firm the covenant, who would not be bowed by bishops and their ilk. We received the words of the minister, sweet succor for men afeared for their lives. Then on to home, to share our meat and hearth with Highlanders who would wish us dead. Such were our lives, clandestine worship, and public submission.
I was barely a man when they rode Faither down. I can not say who saw him go, how they had come to know our meeting place. Yet they were there, dragoons atop their steaming mounts. Perhaps I should find comfort that his suffering was brief, unlike some of our congregation. I could not forgive them, nor myself as I ran until my lungs would burst, leaving him where he had fallen. Only hours later, under the cover of darkness was I able to return to gather up his body for burial. They would have left him to rot as a reminder that we are lesser. That death is all we are worth.
I am not sure what madness possessed us at Drumclog, perhaps we were men driven too far, too hard, by our love for our God and hatred of our King. Open rebellion seemed too risky but still we met, in greater number than ever before. Then arms spread wide, the Reverend Thomas Douglas from his fiery sermon paused and said: “Ye have got the theory, now for the practice.” Dragoons from Claverhouse had been summoned. So soon the mood had changed, men no longer wishing to run, but to fight. For freedom, for our beliefs and for release from fear.
We stood our ground that day and broke through the line, scattering our enemy to the wind. Drunk with our victory we gathered more men, made promise of a Scotland where we could worship; not like criminals but like free men. Glasgow seemed a thousand miles from us, our dissidence would not reach their ears and bring about our destruction. For a few halcyon weeks, we believed that we could do anything. We had freedom enough to turn upon some of our own, those accepted by the law, those not chased from their churches. It was in such disarray that our army was forged.
As our numbers swelled so did the militia and on the 22nd of June 1679 we came face to face with them across the Clyde. What hope had we? Poor souls with sparse ammunition and no training to our name. We had heart and numbers but they were regulars, steeped in combat. All that separated steel from flesh was a narrow bridge between our armies, built where no bridge could be forged between our hearts.
At Stirling Robert the Bruce had held back an English army numbering a third more than his own. Naively we thought we could write our names into history. An hour we held the narrow strip that separated us from ruin. The plumes of musket fire soon began to sting our eyes, deafening explosions crashed into our chests, vibrating through our souls. Men fell like sheaves of wheat. There is no sound, like that which lifts the rib cage, in the moment before life slips away. You might think that it would be impossible to hear above the booming base of artillery, yet somehow one human soul reaches out to another, tearing into their guts with such a sound.
Driven back we soon were scattered, desperate and broken. I fled, stumbling over roots of trees, reaching up to wrap around my ankles. This was not the glory I had imagined, nor the sweet release, bought by battle I had fervently prayed for.  The sky wheeled above me as suddenly breath was ripped from my lungs, that which hammered in my skull not my own heartbeat but the drum of hooves upon the earth. I was felled, conquered and captured.
It was dark by the time they had gathered us, we numbered over a thousand, battle weary, streaked with mud, blood and other fluids we chose not to explore. Everything I possessed seemed to ache, body, soul and heart. I was a man defeated and could rise no more against my King. Yet further doom lay ahead, near 40 miles at march, boots cracked and men lame; they pushed us on to Edinburgh.
So many were our number, they could not contain us, within Castle nor Tolbooth. Instead, we came to Greyfriars Kirk, some 400 souls were left with nowhere else to go. It was there we were to remain.
On two sides stood the Flodden Wall, the third was blocked by George Heriot’s School, which left escape past guards who wished us dead. No more so than Bluidy George Mackenzie, our dread guard who took special delight in our discomfort. If he could twist us upon the rack he would, for nothing more than the pleasure of our voice made hoarse by tortured screams.
As summer waned cold rain washed down our fading bodies. Like leaves we fell, succumbing to the earth. There was no shelter, nor comfort to be had. Except to pile our bodies close at night, in hopes we would not wake, pressed tight, to some cold corpse. We had but two hand fulls of bread a day, along with what offerings kind people could sneak into the place which was our prison and our grave.
As winter’s frost dug clawed into weary bones, my breath was little more than stuttered spurts of silver mist. Each night felt endless and each dawn was slow to break. Darkness found home within my spirit. Limbs once strong turned to stone, no kicks could rouse me, nor gentle words coax. I did not think then of my God, nor of my struggle, nor of war or rebellion.
I thought of home, and as men had before, hack-lunged and weeping like bairns, I moaned out my loved ones names. Some called only for their Maw, cheeks still downy with the first signs of manhood. Some had no breath with which to call out. With what life I had left I wept for my wife, a good woman who now would have to raise our children alone. I wept for myself and I wept for my country and then I wept no more.
In years to come my grave went unmarked, in the place that became known as Covenanters’ Prison. Hundreds of my kin died there, some were taken to meet a merciful noose, others were to be deported. Some of us remain there still, in that place where we lay down and could rise no more.
There I watch the ginger steps of men and women I no longer recognise. Upon our graves, words whispered, eyes wide in colourful plaid scarves, with machines which flash and whir. They know not what happened here, I try to warn them, fingers stretching out to grasp them and turn them back. Just beyond the gate, he lurks here still, George Mackenzie, looking for more souls to trap, his mausoleum only yards from my own grave.
From there, he maintains his ghoulish guard, soul ne’er to rest whilst his prisoners remain to tend.

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