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Duns and the Covenanters

Charles 1 from shortly after his accession to the throne of Great Britain in 1625 determined to impose Episcopalianism on his Scottish subjects. He did so probably not with a perverted intention that in the matter of religion each and every one of his subjects should be a clone of the other; rather as so often in history the motive was power and domination.

Charles perhaps saw himself as heir and successor to Henry V111 of England who with an arrogance almost defying belief had declared himself Head of the Church. In Scotland however matters had taken a very different route. Here almost uniquely change had come from below springing if not exactly from the people at least being imposed by the body politic upon a resistant monarch.

The consequence of course was that ultimate power resided not with the Monarch but with the Church and indeed George Buchanan had memorably referred to Charles' father James V1 and 1 as " nothing but God’s silly vassal". This no doubt rankled more then somewhat with James particularly after his accession to the joint thrones but he had the wisdom to appreciate the reality of the situation and desist from outright confrontation with his subjects. Charles however was singularly lacking in any such wisdom.

Matters came to a head in 1638 when the English liturgy was preached in the High Kirk of Edinburgh, resulting in rioting, civil disturbance and the signing of the National Covenant. A copy of the Covenant was signed in Duns Castle and is still preserved there.

The Covenant signed by thousands, many with their blood, pledged to uphold the reformed religion "against all sorts of persons whatsoever" and called for free parliaments and assemblies.

Charles would have been well advised to back down. Rather however he chose to lead an army north against his own subjects marching from York and taking up a position on the south bank of the Tweed at Berwick.

In response a Scottish Covenanting army led by General Alexander Leslie took up camp on Duns Law to the north of the Town.

The following is an account of subsequent events as narrated by Thomas Carlyle in his article on 'Baillie the Covenanter' and quoted in R. G. Johnston's book 'Duns Dings A'

This our march (to Duns) did much affray the English Camp ..., Dunse Law was in sight, within six or seven miles, for they lay in pavilions some two miles above Berwick in a fair plain along the River (the Royalist camp lay at Birks near West Orde two miles upstream from Berwick) .." Our hill was garnished on the top towards the south and east, with our cannon mounted well near to the number of forty great and small. Our regiments lay on the sides of the hill almost round about; the place was not a mile in circle ....about a quarter of a mile in length and as much in breadth as I remember capable of tents for forty thousand men. The crowners (colonels) lay in kennous (canvas) lodged, high and wide; their captains about them in lesser ones; the sojours about, all in huts of timber covered with divot or straw. Our crowners for the most part were noblemen; Rothes, Lindsay, Sinclair had among them two full regiments at least from Fife: Balcarres a horse-troop, Loudon etc. etc. our captains were mostly barons or gentlemen of good note, our lieutenants almost all soujours who had served overseas in good charges. Every company had flying at the Captain’s tent door a brave new colour with the Scottish arms and this ditton "For Christ’s Crown and Covenant" in golden letters.

"The Councils of war were kept daily in the Castle of Dunse, the ecclesiastic meetings in Rothes’ large tent; Leslie the General and Baillie his lieutenant came nightly on their horses for the setting of the watch . .. We feared that emulation among our nobles might have done harm when they should be met in the field: but such was the wisdom and authority of that little crooked soldier (General Leslie) that all with ane incredible submission from the beginning to the end gave over themselves to be guided by him as if he had been Great Solomon. He keeped daily in the Castle of Dunse ane honourable table ; for the nobles and strangers with himself; for the gentlemen waiters, thereafter a longside table ....The fare was as became a general in time of war not so curious by far as Arundel’s in the English Camp of our nobles; but ye know that the English sumptuously both in peace and war is despised by all their neighbours bursten poke puddings of Englishers whose daily care is to dine not wisely but too well!"

The result however was not battle but stand-off. Envoys were sent between the two Camps and a Pacification was arranged in terms of which the Covenanting Army was disbanded and the Royalist army withdrew from the Borders.

Charles however, never a man of his word, ignored the terms of the Pacification and again showed signs of launching invasion against his Scottish subjects.

The consequence was that Leslie reformed his army and again took possession of Duns Law with 20,000 men He quartered his horsemen 2,500 at Choiclee under Lord Cassilis.

Leslie than, leaving a Garrison at Duns marched by way of Swinton and Coldstream and took possession of Newcastle effectively thereby setting in train events which were to lead to the English (although truly the British) Civil War.

On 8th. August 1640 the garrison at Berwick, which Leslie had by-passed, thinking they could take the Duns Garrison by surprise made a sortie on Duns. The attackers however were discovered and repelled ignominiously. Per the account of the historian Baillie

"In the cairts they brought for our cannon they returned nought but their own deid bodies"

No blood or very little may have been shed at Duns; there was no battle as such but the events must be one of the most pivotal in our Island’s history.

Over seventy years beforehand on Carberry Hill in another classic stand-off the army of the Confederate Lords of Scotland had taken up arms against their rightful monarch forcing her to surrender into captivity perhaps thereby establishing a principal that kingship can only be with the consent of the subjects or at least of the nobility.

A Dunse a further principal had been established namely the right of the subjects not to have religion imposed upon them but to be able to worship in their own way.

It is interesting that both freedoms should have gained not in armed conflict but rather by a show of resolve and in standing up for principle.

It has been said that Scotland retained her religious freedom not by Canon Law, not by Civil Law but by Duns Law.

Ceremony on Duns Law around the stone commemorating the events of 1640 

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