“ But for them the tyrannical government of the Stuarts would have thrust upon us a form of ecclesiastical polity which we consider unscriptural and which is certainly unsuited to the genius of the Scottish people”
Thus did the Rev D. Webster congratulate the people of Orkney for the erection of a monument in 1888 to the Covenanters who had drowned at Scarva Taign, Deerness on the way to enslavement in the English colonies in the Americas.
The drowned men were the remnants of 1200 Covenanters who had been captured at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge (1679) and survived being enclosed, without shelter, within the confines of Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh. The Crown of London set sail from Leith in November that same year to take 257 men to be slaves on plantations and called into Deerness Sound, Orkney in December for shelter. A terrific storm ensued and although the captain and crew escaped the men were locked below. They were, however, helped by one of the crew and 47 managed to scramble ashore.
It was not until a visitor to Orkney, Dr Gunning, who had made his fortune in both Edinburgh and Rio de Janiero, suggested a memorial to the drowned Covenanters that the scene of the shipwreck was marked. His idea was then taken up by the Rev W.A. Kyd who suggested that a public subscription be launched.
In 1886 the appeal was launched, however, by this time Rev Kyd had sailed to Tasmania where he was to instil into the populace the benefits to their souls of Presbyterianism. With a starting donation of £50 from Dr Gunning, Provost Reid of Kirkwall and the Presbyterian ministers of Orkney all thought it would be right easy to get enough money for the project.
By 1888, however, only £100 had been raised both in Orkney and beyond despite sermons from the pulpit urging congregations to contribute. Today we would say their Crowdfunder had stalled.
It was decided to erect a “strong plain monument” and that another “substantial handsome“ one be erected in Broad Street Kirkwall where more people would be likely to see it. This prompted angry correspondence to the local papers that the latter might be built first and get the most spent on it.
Despite those fears the building of the Memorial at Deerness went ahead with stone quarried from the beach. Placed within the monument behind the granite plaque inscription was a Bible along with a bottle containing the history of the Covenanters, the daily papers, jubilee coins and the names of the subscribers.
The ceremony was a grand day out and 500 people attended arriving by the S.S.” Lizzie Burroughs” from Stromness for a shilling return or for those who could afford it, by carriage from Kirkwall. At the base of the 40 foot high structure they enjoyed a rather lengthy service with the now ex Provost Reid in charge. There were prayers, singing ‘If the Lord had not been on our side’, a lecture on Covenanting and a few lengthy sermons.
It’s a fair trek to the Covenanters Memorial at Deerness but for those who do the views from it are outstanding. In the adjacent fields are the unmarked graves of the many bodies that washed ashore in December 1679. The story of the shipwreck is retold on 2 display boards erected in 2016 by the Scottish Covenanters Memorial Association.
The Kirkwall monument was eventually built in 1890 with the remaining subscriptions and a fiver from the Earl of Orkney.
It’s a rather smart red granite fountain standing in front of St Magnus Cathedral. Interestingly few look at it or even notice it is there and even fewer linger to wonder about the men that it commemorates.
“On the rough rugged cliffs of this far northern isle, Where soar the wild sea birds, the fearless and free,…some bits of grey stone mark their graves who on Earth, Were hunted like wild-beasts, from homestead and hearth.” Daisy (Poem, 1886, The Orkney Herald)
Reporter: Fiona Grahame
All images: Martin Laird
This article first appeared in iScot magazine