Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine

The following is from Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine:

Magus Muir

By W.E.A.

The subject of the following ballad is the atrocious and dastardly assassination of James Sharp, Archbishop of St Andrews and Primate of Scotland.

More than one attempt was made upon the life of that eminent prelate. On the 11th of July, 1668, a shot was fired into his carriage in the High Street of Edinburgh, by one James Mitchell, a fanatical field preacher, and an associate of the infamous Major Weir. The primate escaped unharmed, but his colleague Honyman, Bishop of Orkney, received a severe wound, from the effects of which he died in the following year. The assassin Mitchell fled to Holland, but subsequently returned, and was arrested in the midst of his preparations for another diabolical attempt. This man, who afterwards suffered for his crimes, and who in consequence has obtained a place in the book of "Covenanting Martyrology," described his motive "as an impulse of the Holy Spirit, and justified it from Phinehas killing Cosbi and Zimri, and from that law in Deuteronomy commanding to kill false prophets!" This is no matter of surprise, when it is recollected that the "principles of assassination," as Mr C. K. Sharp observes, "were strongly recommended in Naphthali, Jus Populi Vindicatum, and afterwards in The Hind let Loose, which books were in almost as much esteem with the Presbyterians as their Bibles." Sir George Mackenzie states, "These irreligious and heterodox books, called Naphthali and Jus Populi, had made the killing of all dissenters from Presbytery seem not only lawful, but a duty among many of that profession: and in a postscript to Jus Populi, it was told that the sending of the Archbishop of St Andrews' head to the king would be the best present that could be made to Jesus Christ." [LAWSON'S History of the Episcopal Church of Scotland.]

These principles, at first received with doubt, were afterwards carried out to the utmost extent by the more violent of the insurgent party. Murder and assault, frequently perpetrated upon unoffending and defenceless persons, became so common, that the ordinary course of the law was suspended, and its execution devolved upon the military. Scotland was indeed in a complete state of terrorism. Gangs of armed fanatics, who had openly renounced their allegiance, perambulated the country, committing every sort of atrocity, and directing their attacks promiscuously against the clerical incumbents and the civil magistracy.

But the crowning act of guilt was the murder of the unfortunate Archbishop. On the 3d of May 1679, a party of the Fife non-conformists were prowling near the village of Ceres, on the outlook, it is said, for Carmichael the Sheriff-substitute of the county, against whom they had sworn vengeance if he should ever fall into their hands. This party consisted of twelve persons, at the head of whom were John Balfour of Kinloch, better known by his soubriquet of Burley, and his brother-in-law, David Hackstoun of Rathillet. Balfour, whose moral character had never stood high, though his religious fanaticism was undoubted, had been at one time chamberlain to the Archbishop, and had failed to account for a considerable portion of the rents, which it was his official duty to levy. Hackstoun, whose earlier life had been in little accordance with the ostensible tenets of his party, was also in debt to the Archbishop, and had been arrested by the new chamberlain. "These two persons," says Mr Lawson, "had most substantial reasons for their rancour and hatred towards the Archbishop, apart from their religious animosities."

It does not seem to be clearly ascertained, whether Carmichael was the real object of their search, or whether their design from the first had been directed against the person of the Primate. It would appear, however, from the depositions taken shortly after the murder, that the deed had been long premeditated, and that three days previously some of the assassins had met at a house in Ceres and concerted their plans. The incumbent of Ceres, the Rev. Alexander Leslie, was also to have been made a victim if found in company with the Prelate.

Fortunately for himself, Carmichael eluded their search, but towards evening the carriage of the Archbishop was seen approaching the waste ground near St Andrews, which is still known by the name of Magus Muir. A hurried council was then held. Hackstoun, probably from some remnant of compunction, declined to take the lead; but Balfour, whose bloodthirsty disposition was noted even in those unhappy times, assumed the command, and called upon the others to follow him. The consummation of the tragedy can best be told in the words of the historian already quoted.

"When the Primate's servants saw their master followed by a band of men on horseback, they drove rapidly, but they were overtaken on the muir about three miles west of St Andrews; the murderers having previously satisfied themselves, by asking a female domestic of the neighbouring farmer, who refused to inform them himself, that it was really the Archbishop's coach.

"Russell first came up, and recognised the Primate sitting with his daughter. The Archbishop looked out of the coach, and Russell cast his cloak from him, exclaiming,--'Judas, be taken!' The Primate ordered the postilion to drive, at which Russell fired at the man, and called to his associates to join him. With the exception of Hackstoun, they threw off their cloaks, and continued firing at the coach for nearly half a mile. A domestic of the Archbishop presented a carbine, but was seized by the neck, and it was pulled out of his hands. One of the assassins outrun the coach, and struck one of the horses on the head with a sword. The postilion was ordered to stop, and for refusing he was cut on the face and ankle. They soon rendered it impossible to proceed further with the coach. Disregarding the screams, entreaties, and tears of his daughter, a pistol was discharged at the Primate beneath his left arm, and the young lady was seen removing the smoking combustibles from her father's black gown. Another shot was fired, and James Russell seized a sword from one of his associates, dismounted, and at the coach-door called to the Archbishop, whom he designated Judas, to come forth." Sir William Sharp's account of what now occurred, which would be doubtless related to him by his sister, is as follows:--"They fired several shots at the coach, and commanded my dearest father to come out, which he said he would.--When he had come out, not being yet wounded, he said,--'Gentlemen, I beg my life!' 'No--bloody villain, betrayer of the cause of Christ--no mercy!' Then said he,--'I ask none for myself, but have mercy on my poor child!' and, holding up his hand to one of them to get his, that he would spare his child, he cut him on the wrist. Then falling down upon his knees, and holding up his hands, he prayed that God would forgive them; and begging mercy for his sins from his Saviour, they murdered him by sixteen great wounds in his back, head, and one above his left eye, three in his left hand when he was holding it up, with a shot above his left breast, which was found to be powder.  After this damnable deed they took the papers out of his pocket, robbed my sister and their servants of all their papers, gold, and money, and one of these hellish rascals cut my sister on the thumb, when she had him by the bridle begging her father's life."

So died with the calmness and intrepidity of a martyr this reverend and learned prelate, maligned indeed by the fanatics of his own and succeeding ages, but reverenced and beloved by those who best knew his innate worth, unostentatious charity, and pure piety of soul. In the words of a worthy Presbyterian divine of last century,--"His inveterate enemies are agreed in ascribing to him the high praise of abeneficent and humane disposition. He bestowed a considerable part of his income in ministering to pressing indigence, and relieving the wants of private distress. In the exercise of his charity, he had no contracted views. The widows and orphans of the Presbyterian brethren richly shared his bounty without knowing whence it came. He died with the intrepidity of a hero, and the piety of a Christian, praying for the assassins with his latest breath."

Gently ye fall, ye summer showers,
  On blade, and leaf, and tree;
Ye bring a blessing to the earth,
  But nane--O nane, to me!

Ye cannot wash this red right hand
  Free from its deadly stain,
Ye cannot cool the burning ban
  That lies within my brain.

O be ye still, ye blithesome birds,
  Within the woodland spray,
And keep your songs within your hearts
  Until another day:

And cease to fill the blooming brae
  With warblings light and clear,
For there's a sweeter song than yours
  That I maun never hear.

It was upon the Magus Muir
  Within the lanesome glen,
That in the gloaming hour I met
  Wi' Burley and his men.

Our hearts were hard as was the steel
  We bore within the hand;
But harder was the heart of him
  That led that bluidy band.

Dark lay the clouds upon the west
  Like mountains huge and still:
And fast the summer lightning leaped
  Behind the distant hill.

It shone on grim Rathillet's brow
  With pale and ghastly glare:
I caught the glimpse of his cold gray eye--
  There was MURDER glittering there!

*   *   *   *   *

Away, away! o'er bent and hill,
  Through moss and muir we sped:
Around us roared the midnight storm,
  Behind us lay the dead.

We spoke no word, we made no sign
  But blindly rade we on,
For an angry voice was in our ears
  That bade us to begone,
We were brothers all baptised in blood,
  Yet sought to be alone!

Away, away! with headlong speed
  We rade through wind and rain,
And never more upon the earth
  Did we all meet again.

There's some have died upon the field,
  And some upon the tree,
And some are bent and broken men
  Within a far countrie,
But the heaviest curse hath lighted down
  On him that tempted me!

O hame, hame, hame!--that holy place--
  There is nae hame for me!
There's not a child that sees my face
  But runs to its mither's knee.

There's not a man of woman born
  That dares to call me kin--
O grave! wert thou but deep enough
  To hide me and my sin!

I wander east, I wander west,
  I neither can stop nor stay,
But I dread the night when all men rest
  Far more than the glint of day.

O weary night, wi' all its stars
Sae clear, and pure, and hie!
Like the eyes of angels up in heaven
That will not weep for me!

O weary night, when the silence lies
  Around me, broad and deep,
And dreams of earth, and dreams of heaven,
  That vex me in my sleep.

For aye I see the murdered man,
  As on the muir he lay,
With his pale white face, and reverend head,
  And his locks sae thin and gray;
And my hand grows red with the holy blude
  I shed that bitter day!

O were I but a water drop
  To melt into the sea--
But never water yet came down
  Could wash that blude from me!

And O! to dream of that dear heaven
  That I had hoped to win--
And the heavy gates o' the burning gowd
  That will not let me in!

I hear the psalm that's sung in heaven,
  When the morning breaks sae fair,
And my soul is sick wi' the melodie
  Of the angels quiring there.

I feel the breath of God's ain flowers
  From out that happy land,
But the fairest flower o' Paradise
  Would wither in my hand.

And aye before me gapes a pit
  Far deeper than the sea,
And waefn' sounds rise up below,
  And deid men call on me.

O that I never had been born,
  And ne'er the light had seen!
Dear God--to look on yonder gates
  And this dark gulf between!

O that a wee wee bird wad come
  Though 'twere but ance a-year!
And bring but sae much mool and earth
  As its sma' feet could bear,

And drap it in the ugsome hole
  That lies 'twixt heaven and me,
I yet might hope, ere the warld were dune,
  My soul might saved be!

The Maid of Ulva

Copyright Scotland from the Roadside 2016