Near the path by the river, is a stone erected to the seven martyrs who were hanged in Ayr, 1666, for religious dissension.
The last few weeks before he died, Cornelius Anderson wasn’t himself. It is argued that he wasn’t, in fact, himself for years and that ‘his condition’ had deteriorated over time. His neighbour had said that he looked demented in the weeks leading up to his death and one night not long before he was found dead, screams and shots could be heard coming from his house. One thing that is certain is that the mystery surrounding his death on the 4th of June 1670 in Ireland was unsettling. It took eight men two days to uncover his charred corpse from his incinerated house. Every single remaining section of wall in his home had seven names scratched into them; James Smith, Alexander MacMillan, James McMillan, John Short, George MacCartney, John Graham and John Muirhead. They said from what it looked like it would have taken Anderson years to do that to his home. The man who discovered Anderson’s body in the living room said it was like nothing he’d ever seen… it felt like he was in a waiting room to hell.
The courtroom was alive with the mumbling of voices. The noblemen who were to pass judgement arrived back into the courtroom and looked upon the twelve men, chained and dirty. A man ordered quiet in the room – and silence there was. One of the noblemen fixed his robes and looked down his long stern nose to the prisoners before him.
“We here in the town of Ayr are a people of morals and faith. We live and die by the word of God and for you in front of me… Well, you fight against this. On the battlefield your ideals were defeated and now, on this day in court, you have refused a chance to repent. This court has decided that James Smith, Alexander MacMillan, James McMillan, John Short, George MacCartney, John Graham, John Muirhead and Cornelius Anderson, on refusing to re-join the church and refute the covenant will be hanged in Ayr until you are dead.”
The room remained silent as the nobleman decreed that two others would be hung in Irvine, and the remaining two in Dumfries. The prisoners all had their heads bowed, some of them shaking. On the wooden floor, underneath their feet, their tears formed small puddles. Cornelius Anderson raised his head and looked the judge dead in the eyes: “I speak for us all when I say we will never betray our ideals, Sir.” All the men were silent.
The court room erupted, some in outrage, some in support and others with the excitement of a public hanging.
In the cell that night the moon cast scintillations of light through the bars and onto the brick floor. The jail was only a mere one-story high at the bottom of the Tollbooth so the men could see out and look down onto the street. The cell was quiet with the men’s terror. Eight of them sitting in darkness and in silence.
“I can hear you all sitting with your thoughts. Someone speak! I think we should break out of here,” Cornelius said. No one spoke for a long pause.
“I’m not risking my life on the battlefield to run away now. I’ve accepted my fate,” said James McMillan.
“Aye. I agree. There’s no use in running now, we’d only get caught and it’d be worse for us.”
The men let out grunts of resignation and agreement.
“Where are your balls! These are not the men who I fought with on Rullion Green – only weeks ago. Where are the men who screamed and slashed their swords in the face of adversity? Because they are not here!” shouted Cornelius.
The guard rattled the cell for quiet.
“Where would we go? What would we do? Scotland is not Presbyterian. We have lost. And how do you propose we escape!?” said George MacCartney as he pulled his beard. “As long as we are together it doesn’t matter. We are opposition. We are protest. As long as we breathe and we hold to our beliefs our voices will be heard. In life and in death.”
Inspired by this true story: Auld Kirk Church History
You can find a commemorative headstone of the 7 martyrs near the river in the Auld Kirk graveyard which was erected by the Incorporated Trades of Ayr.
Here lie seven Martyrs for our Covenants,
A sacred number of triumphant Saints,
Pontius McAdam the unjust Sentence past,
What is his own the world will know at last,
And Herod Drummond caus’d their Heads affix,
Heav’n keeps a record of the sixty-six.
Boots, thumbkins, gibbets were in fashion then,
LORD, let us never see such Days again.
Covenanters were members of a 17th Century Scottish religious and political movement, who supported a Presbyterian Church of Scotland. For 25 years, the Covenanters suffered brutal persecution and were cruelly suppressed.
Written by: Neil Boyle
Illustrations by: Lori Isabella McColl
Audio by: Liam Stewart
Audio recording and mixing by: Scott Andrew