Twenty-year-old James Renwick made the two-days’ journey on horseback from his little village of Moniaive to Edinburgh, Scotland—knick-named both the “Athens of the north” for its beautiful architecture and“Auld Reekie” for its stink and continuously smoke-filled streets. Renwick had rented a sleeping room in a new tenement called Traveling House and had set out to meet up with his old school chum, Michael Mure. Little did Renwick know that he was about to witness something that would forever change his life.
As Renwick and Mure strolled what is now “old town” Edinburgh, the chaotic noise and military drumming at the bottom of the hill became impossible to ignore, and so the two young men hurried to the center of Grassmarket just in time to see a pathetic scene.
At the bottom of King’s Stables Road, Grassmarket Square offered the citizenry of Edinburgh, Scotland, a place for public announcements or civic events. On this sultry day in July 1681, however, Grassmarket served as the stage for an infamous event in the city’s history, another Covenanter execution. The jagged, gray granite of castle rock, which rose high above Grassmarket, served as a backdrop to the dramatic events played out at its base, with a regiment of English dragoons positioned to restrain a furious crowd. The second Covenanter execution this year, the event drew a crowd that was on the verge of riot, surging with competing voices and aggressive gestures.
Michael Mure’s eyes widened as he realized the identity of the prisoner about to lose his life.
“Renwick, it’s old Donald Cargill! I knew he’d been captured, but I’d no idea his execution was today! Renwick, what exactly was his crime!?” pleaded Mure.
“Publicly denouncing King Charles the Second as head of the Church. Charles Stuart promised Scotland a church free from English rule when he signed the Covenant at Moray in 1650, remember?” Renwick responded in a tense voice.
Both young men stood transfixed at the pitiful sight before them—five prisoners bound and delivered for immediate hanging, a large hangman’s noose swaying slightly in a gentle breeze.
From his own father, Renwick had heard the sensational stories about Cargill’s defiance, and as Renwick looked up at Cargill, he was captured by the pathos of the scene: the first of the five to die, Cargill stood relaxed and seemingly patient, his face beaming peace uncommon for one about to be hung.
“Look, Michael, the man is going to address the crowd,” Renwick said, obviously captivated.
“Good people of Edinburgh,” Cargill began in a strong and sonorous voice, “I want you to know that as I leave this world, I know that my Redeemer lives and that I go to the safety of His arms!”
Cargill paused here, as if seriously considering his next words. Renwick surged with pity when Cargill opened his mouth but was unable to utter a word. Though his hands were tied, Cargill put his hand on his chest, took a deep breath, and continued his words of farewell.
“Good people, I die acknowledging Charles Stuart as my earthly Sovereign, but he is the head of no church, and his claim to be such is. . ." Cargill again paused, “. . . a wicked usurpation of what belongs only to Christ himself!”
The moment that those defiant words came from Cargill’s mouth, the executioner halted the prisoner’s speech by jerking him toward the ladder and the waiting noose, as Renwick heard the crowd erupt in a chaotic chorus of shouting.
“God will damn you for your seditious words, Cargill!”
“All traitors go to hell, Cargill!”
“God bless you, Reverend Cargill!”
“A martyr, a martyr for God’s true Church!”
As shouts, shoving, and even some fighting broke out among a few in the crowd, the fateful events on the scaffold demanded attention, and so an eerie silence again slowly fell across the assembly, broken moments later by a few quiet sobs and sporadic jeers.
Donald Cargill smiled warmly at the crowd one last time, nodding his head in acceptance of his end while he was pushed up the ladder to submit to the noose being placed around his neck. The noose at first was tightened around Cargill’s long hair, so the executioner slowly ran his hands around the back of Cargill’s neck, pulling the hair out and laying it gently on each side of his face and shoulders. This done, the masked hangman immediately pushed Cargill off of the ladder.
Gasps and sighs rippled across those viewing the spectacle of Cargill’s body violently quivering and convulsing, swaying back and forth in a grotesquely gentle rocking motion.
Renwick felt nauseated. After two minutes, Cargill was still. But only for a moment. The hangman quickly lowered the body, produced a large ax seemingly out of nowhere, and commenced to hack off the head of the limp corpse, bright spots of blood coloring the hangman’s gray tights with each of the three strokes. Renwick felt his knees weaken and remained standing only with conscious effort. Cargill’s head was then stuck on a long pike for immediate transport to the city gate at Netherbow, a vivid warning against all such “traitors.”
James Renwick sensed that somehow his life would never be the same. His stomach churned, his hands perspired, and his body ached from wincing at all he had witnessed. Most importantly, though, his spirit was in turmoil, his mind a blur.
Renwick could not get out of his mind the power and grace of Cargill’s deportment on the scaffold.
“This really has nothing to do with my life,” Renwick tried to tell himself. But he knew better. He had been raised by his father, Robert, on stories of the “ol’ times o’ tha Bishops’ Wars,” when a Covenanter army under Scottish leaders Leslie and Montrose had chased Charles I’s army across the River Tweed, forcing the king to sign the Treaty of Ripon in 1640.
Robert Renwick had labored to instill in his young son the sacredness of these Covenanter exploits and sacrifices, “for the freedom of Scotland and the independence of God’s own kirk!” Robert would shout with conviction at the end of each tale from these times. Though Renwick had dearly loved his recently-deceased father, he had felt little connection to these old stories, dismissing them as fascinating but exaggerated war stories from old men. After all, the Bishops’ Wars were forty years ago.
For young James Renwick, though, seeing Cargill’s execution was a punch in the face, an epiphany forcing Renwick to realize that he had been lying to himself.
When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660—after the Puritans had executed Charles I in 1649 and ruled the country for eleven years—there was great hope for an autonomous Scottish kirk, one not ruled by the king’s liturgical Anglican Church.
But things had not gone well. By 1662, Charles II had renounced the three great promises that Scotland could have its own kirk, the Covenants of 1638, 1643, and 1650, even though the last one bore the king’s own signature. Worse yet, the Church of England was forced on the people of Scotland, requiring public officials to swear loyalty to the king and expelling any minister who refused to recognize the authority of the Anglican bishops.
Two things struck Renwick’s heart at the same time, filling him with shame: powerful memories of his father’s dedication to Scottish independence, and recent abuses by the English government against his Scottish homeland. Since his father’s death two years ago, Renwick had repressed all of this.
Most of all, he had wanted just to enjoy life, while still trying to make a success of his livery business in his little home village of Moniaive, as his father had wished. Those were his only missions in life—until today.
A strange uneasiness gripped Renwick as he sensed the beliefs from his father now trying to reassert themselves in his mind. He rebuked the thoughts.
“I’ve got to get this chaos out of my head,” he said out loud as he looked away from the preparations to execute James Boig, the second condemned Covenanter.
He turned for home. Somehow separated from Mure in the crowd, he didn’t even look for him. He pushed up onto West Bow, onto Victoria Street, and then left in front of St. Giles Cathedral and back on to Canongate.
“Don’t think, just walk,” Renwick muttered under his breath. So he strained to empty his mind as he turned his face upward, imagining that the dim light of the overcast day might brighten his brain and clear his mind.
When he arrived at Market Street and his lodgings—the new Traveline House, one of the tallest buildings in seventeenth-century Europe—Renwick went up to his fourth-floor room, even though he knew it would be insufferably hot. Leaving his door open to create a draft, he removed his shirt, moved his chair in front of his window and looked out at an Edinburgh shrouded below in a somber, cheerless gray. He gazed to his right at the busy Fruit Market, then down to the bustle of horses and coaches on Princes Street, back up to Ramsey Garden, where thousands of witches and wizards had been put to death in the last hundred years, and then to his left at stagnant old Nor Loch, which was smelling worse than usual in the hot July weather.
The dark gray of the overcast kept prompting Renwick to close his eyes, but every time he did he saw Cargill’s haunting, unearthly smile, attaching itself to his mind’s eye and defying his attempts to dispel it. He looked over to Princes Street at people exiting Cheswick Bank, at those entering McIvor Inn, at those clinging to their parcels while exiting Caldonia Shops—all in vain. Try as he would, he could not get the specter of Cargill’s smile out of his head, with the hangman pulling the long brown hair out of the noose as Cargill gently nodded and smiled goodbye to the crowd.
“What the devil is this all about?” he muttered to himself as he retreated to his bed. Feeling deeply confused and a little depressed, Renwick lectured himself, “Sleep, just a little sleep. That’s all I need,” he whispered, hopping into his bed to sleep off the misery of the day’s dismal events—but to no avail.
Renwick lay for over an hour in an uneasy rest, changing from back to side while pulling the sticky sheet off of his damp skin. Finally falling into deep sleep, he saw a disturbing phantasmagoria—myriads of scaffolds, of gently swaying hangmen’s nooses, of disturbing grins and smiles, some African, some Oriental, some Caucasian, some animal, and then the noose being placed around his own neck with him in absolute panic.
Renwick suddenly passed out of his nightmare and bolted upright in bed, his breath coming in deep drafts, with perspiration wet in his armpits and in the creases of his stomach. The phantasm of Cargill’s head fixed on the pike now presented itself in his mind’s eye, and he felt a deep revulsion.
In response, thoughts which Renwick had resisted for years now prodded his mind: “Freedom for Scotland! God’s Church! Not Charles’ Church! End the tyranny! End the tyranny! Pray for God’s help, Renwick!”
Renwick sat motionless for many minutes . . . hesitating . . . unwilling to approach a God from whom he had estranged himself for many months.
Somehow, everything seemed different now. Powerful emotions swept over his heart and mind: “The tyranny of the English government, the murder of this gentle minister, Cargill, the insult to my country, the insult to me, and the affront to God himself.” Renwick felt a steely resolve swell up from his very soul: “All of this must be answered!”
Slowly, timidly, gently, Renwick sat on the side of his bed. The sun was now lower in the sky, breaking through the clouds and casting amber light everywhere, flooding Renwick’s bedroom and casting his silhouette on the wall.
The atmosphere in his room seemed bizarre as he pleaded for understanding, “God, what do you want from me? What do you want from my life?” Renwick whispered.
He closed his eyes, but now he saw a different face—not Cargill’s but his mother’s. He remembered suddenly and with disturbing clarity what he had suppressed for many months, the special calling he suspected was on his life.
His mother, Rachel Renwick, had told him many times of the six brothers and sisters who had come before him, each dying before reaching eighteen months old; of how she had pleaded through tears to God that one child might live to serve His kingdom and Scotland; of how, when James was born, she had solemnly dedicated him “to serve God and our country.”
With these memories coursing through Renwick’s mind, anxiety began to grip him. His breathing quickened and he wanted to run, to flee, to live his life as he saw fit, to simply enjoy life as he wished. But he couldn’t move.
“I cannot do this, God!” he said out loud with great emphasis.
Renwick remained motionless on the side of his bed as his breathing deepened and his mind seemed to go empty. He slowly opened his eyes and looked to his right. The amber light in the room had grown more intense, his silhouette had grown taller on the wall, and somehow stillness began to invade his inner being.
He felt his shoulders relax. His arms and hands seemed limp, his breathing slight. From Princes Street below, the incessant cacophony of voice and carriage-rattle faded until Renwick could hear nothing, only a profound silence.
Finally everything seemed very natural, calm, and certain. Somehow an assurance welled up from deep in Renwick’s soul and spread to every fiber of his being: he would be a Gospel minister, for God’s kingdom and for an independent Scotland.
He would cast his lot with his people, with the reformers and the persecuted kirk in Scotland, and with the true Covenanted Presbyterian Church, and with Donald Cargill and dozens of other martyrs who had in recent years spilled their blood rather than submit to the tyranny of King Charles Stuart's rule as head of the church.
Deep in his soul, James Renwick was suddenly very certain of his calling, and he took a long, deep breath as he got up from his bed, noticing that the clouds had abated and that the sinking sun had set his room ablaze in fiery orange.