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Deerness Covenanter Memorial

by Rob Close

The Deerness memorial

The inscribed plaque on the Deerness Memorial

Report in The Dundee Advertiser, Friday, August 17, 1888.

There is on the East Mainland of Orkney a memorial to the approximately 210 Covenanters who were drowned there in December 1679.  Of this memorial I knew two things: firstly, that of the victims, most of whom had been captured at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, some must have been from Ayrshire; and secondly that the memorial had been built in 1888 'at the instigation of a South American visitor to Orkney.' [1]   A visit to Orkney in June this year gave me the opportunity not only to visit the memorial, but also to see whether I could learn some more.  I was particularly interested in the fact that none of the standard references, such as Burgher, gave an architect, while the 'South American visitor' seemed too implausible to be true.

Following their defeat at Bothwell Bridge on 22nd June 1679, nearly 1200 Covenanters had been taken prisoner by the Crown armies of Charles II.  Some were executed, and many were subsequently released under an Act of Indemnity proclamation of 14th August that year.  However, an earlier order in the Privy Council, made on 4th July, had ordained that all 'Ministers, Heritors and Ringleaders' were to be prosecuted and banished to slavery in the American plantations.  William Paterson, a merchant in Edinburgh, contracted to undertake the transportation, and it was he who chartered the Crown of London, captain Thomas Teddico, to take the prisoners across the Atlantic.   The Crown sailed from Leith on 27th November, and put in at Deersound, Orkney, on 10th December; she sailed again that evening and was almost immediately wrecked at Scarvataing, about a mile west of the Mull Head of Deerness. [2]    Thomas Brown, a writer in Kirkwall, recorded the event in his diary:  'Dec 10th being Wednesday at 9 in the evening or thrabout the vessel or ship called the Crown wherein was 250 of the wigs or thereby taken at Bothwell Brigge to have been sent to Virginia parroshed at or near by the Moull Head of Deerness.' [3]   The names of the known Ayrshire victims are included below as an appendix.

'It had often been proposed that some fitting memorial should be erected over the graves of those Covenanters, whose sworn adherence to the Protestant faith had cost them their lives, but it was only on 22nd December 1886 that any definite steps were taken.' [4]   On that date a public meeting, chaired by Samuel Reid, [5] Provost of Kirkwall, was held in the Old Town Hall, Kirkwall, and it was agreed that a subscription appeal should be made.  Reporting a subsequent meeting of the Committee, in March 1887, at which the wording of the appeal was approved, it was noted that, 'as our readers will recollect, it is now a considerable time since this matter was first advocated to writers in these columns, in connection with which Dr Gunning of Edinburgh and Rio Janeiro promised a subscription of at least £50.' [6]   It was undoubtedly this promise of £50 which had spurred the people of Orkney into action, and in 'Dr Gunning' we have the 'South American visitor'.

The Deerness Memorial.

Robert Halliday Gunning, (1818-1900) then, is the person who did most to bring about the erection of the Deerness Memorial.  Without his promise of £50 it is unlikely that the project would ever have been begun, especially when it is realised that the total sum subscribed was less than £100.  In a recent article, Thomas W Baillie traces Gunning's life and career. [7]

Gunning was born in Ruthwell, and grew up in Kirkbean, New Abbey and Dumfries.  He qualified as a surgeon at Edinburgh in 1839, and in 1849 he left for Brazil, where he remained in practice for 33 years, returning in 1882.  He described his practice in Rio as 'lucrative', while from 1872 to 1878 he worked at Palmeiras in the gold-rich north-east highlands of Brazil.  His wealth enabled him to support causes he held dear, and bodies to benefit from his largesse include Edinburgh University, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  Many of the awards and lectureships that he endowed, often known as Victoria Jubilee Prizes, are still presented.  He married twice, though there was no issue from either marriage, and he died in London in March 1900.
Gunning was a religious person, and was a close associate of Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), one of the major players in the 1843 Disruption.  While we do not know when Gunning visited Orkney, nor why he was particularly moved to support this project, we can see that an upbringing in south-west Scotland, and an association with Chalmers, would have made Gunning a natural enthusiast for the Covenanters, and for honouring their memory.  Gunning's involvement appears to have been, in part, through the Reverend William A Kyd, 'now in Tasmania, but who had been for some time doing work in Orkney in connection with the United Presbyterian Church.  It was he who first of all corresponded with Dr Gunning, and obtained from him the handsome donation of £50.' [8]

The inscribed plaque on the Deerness Memorial.

In July 1888 it was reported to a meeting of the Memorial Committee that the monument was then being built, and would be completed by early August.  It was described as a 40 foot high obelisk, in Orkney stone, [9] surmounted by a crown, and with a granite slab carrying the inscription.  Subscriptions at that date were £97.  There is no mention of either an architect, or of the contractors for the building. [10]

Report in The Dundee Advertiser, Friday, August 17, 1888.

The inauguration took place on Wednesday 22nd August 1888.  'There was a large and enthusiastic gathering of people from the surrounding districts, and many came great distances.  Five or six brakes carried a number of leading citizens from Kirkwall.  The day & was a characteristic Covenanters' day.  In the morning and forenoon a dense fog hung over the islands, shrouding every object in that mist which so often saved the lives of the Covenanters & but long before the monument was reached the veil had been lifted from the earth, and the ceremony of inauguration took place under a bright sun and a refreshing breeze.' [11]   'By one o'clock over 500 people had assembled round the monument.' [12] According to one report, 'if the weather is favourable the steamer Lizzie Burroughs is to make a special trip from Kirkwall to Deerness.' [13]

At the inauguration, a history of the movement for the erection of the monument, a list of subscribers, a copy of the subscription appeal, local, Edinburgh and Aberdeen papers, and a Bible, as well as a set of jubilee coins were placed in a bottle.  The bottle was placed in a recess in the south-west side of the monument, and over this recess was placed the granite slab with this inscription:

For Christ, His Crown and Covenant.  Erected by public subscription to the memory of 200 Covenanters who were taken prisoners at Bothwell Bridge and sentenced to transportation for life, but who perished by shipwreck near this spot, 10th Dec. 1679.

Unfortunately, the names of the designer and contractors remain unknown.  Although £100 seems a paltry sum, even by the standards of 1888, the Committee had sufficient money left over to erect a further monument.  This is in Kirkwall, and takes the form of a red and grey Aberdeenshire granite drinking fountain almost immediately in front of St Magnus Cathedral.  Put up in 1890, it was not universally loved: 'an absurdity in polished granite, utterly out of keeping with its surroundings.' [14]   The design is by James Hutcheon of Aberdeen, [15] but he is unlikely to have been the designer of the Deerness Memorial.  This fountain is on the site of the Old Town Hall, where the first meetings of the Committee had been held.

Appendix: Ayrshire Victims of the Crown Shipwreck, 1679 [16]

Auchinleck       Andrew Richmond

Barr                  Alexander Burden

Colmonell         John McClellan, Thomas McClurg, John McCornock

Dalmellington   Walter Humper senior, [17] Hugh Simpson

Dalry                David McCubbin,  William McCulloch

Dreghorn          James Bouston

Fenwick            David Bitchet, William Bitchet, Andrew Buckle, David Currie, James Gray, Robert Tod, John White, John Wylie

Galston             George Campbell, James Young

Girvan              William Caldwell

Kilmarnock       James Anderson, Robert Anderson, William Brown, John Cuthbertson, Thomas Finlay [18]

Kirkmichael      John Brice, Robert Douglas, James McConnell, John McTire, RobertRamsay

Kirkoswald       Thomas Germont, John White

Loudoun           Thomas Wylie

Mauchline        William Drips, William Reid

Maybole           Mungo Eccles, Thomas Horn, Robert McGarron, John McHarrie, John McWhirter, William Rodger

Muirkirk           John Campbell, Alexander Paterson

Ochiltree           Andrew Welch

Old Cumnock   John Gemil, James Mirrie

Stewarton         Andrew Wylie, Robert Wylie, Thomas Wylie

Straiton             George Hutcheson, Alexander Lamb, James McMurrie

Rob Close

[1]            Leslie Burgher, Orkney: An Illustrated Architectural Guide, Edinburgh, 1991, p.32

[2]           This paragraph owes much to the work of Robert B Miller, Richmond, VA, who has researched the history of the Crown, and presented a copy of his work to the Orkney Library and Archive.

[3]           Quoted in Harald L Mooney, 'The Wreck of the Crown and the Covenanters in Orkney', in Orkney Miscellany, vol 2, 1954, p.3.

[4]           Dundee Advertiser, 17th August 1888.

[5]           Samuel Reid (1825-1912), a merchant and shipowner, was Provost of Kirkwall from 1876 until 1887.  At the same time as he was chairing the Deerness Memorial Committee, he was also building for himself a house, Braebuster, on Deerness.  The architect of this house was Thomas Smith Peace (1845-1934), Kirkwall.

[6]           Orkney Herald, 2nd March 1887, 4c.  The earlier correspondence in the paper has not been traced.

[7]           Thomas W Baillie, 'Robert Halliday Gunning and the Victoria Jubilee Prizes', in Scottish Medical Journal, 48(2), 2003, pp 54-57.  This and the next paragraphs are based on Baillies work.  See also

[8]           The Orcadian, August 25th1888, 5b.

[9]           'blue stone taken from the beach below':  The Orcadian, 25th August 1888, 5a.

[10]          Orkney Herald, 18th July 1888, 5a.

[11]           Orkney Herald, 29th August 1888, 7a.

[12]          The Orcadian, 25th August 1888, 5a.

[13]          Dundee Advertiser, 17th August 1888.  It is not known if this sailing took place.

[14]          Buchan H Hossack, Kirkwall in the Orkneys, Kirkwall, 1900, p.284.

[15]          John Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland: Highlands and Islands, London, 1992, p.333.

[16]          My thanks are due to Dane Love for providing this list, which appears in his Scottish Covenanter Stories.

[17]          Walter Humper junior survived, as did Hugh Cameron and Quintin McAdam, both also from Dalmellington.   Other Ayrshiremen to survive the wreck were George Dunbar (Craigie), Andrew Thomson (Dundonald), Robert Wallace (Fenwick) and Patrick Watt (Kilmarnock).  Andrew Thomson was among the 9 survivors who are believed to have escaped to Ulster:  see J Thomson, A Cloud of Witnesses, 1714, quoted by Robert Miller (cf fn 2)

[18]          These five are also commemorated by a memorial stone at Kilmarnock Laigh Kirk.  First erected in 1823, the stone was repaired in 1846.  A new stone was put up c.1996.  Information from Stuart Wilson.



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