The Killing Time

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This article is about the period in Scottish history. For the film, see The Killing Time (film). For other uses, see Killing Time (disambiguation).
The Killing Time
Part of the Restoration
Execution of the Rev. James Guthrie, Edinburgh 1661.tiff
Rev. James Guthrie, executed in 1661 for criticising Charles II's reintroduction of episcopacy
Date ~1680-1688
Location Kingdom of Scotland, predominantly the South West
Privy Council
(Episcopalians & Catholic Monarchy)
Commanders and leaders
James Renwick Executed
Richard Cameron 
Donald Cargill Executed
John Brown Executed
James VII
(King of Scotland, 1685-1688)
Charles II
(King of Scotland until 1685)
The Earl of Perth
(Lord Chancellor, 1684-1689)
The Earl of Aberdeen
(Lord Chancellor, 1682-1684)
The Duke of Rothes
(Lord Chancellor, 1664-1681)
George Mackenzie
(Lord Advocate, 1677-1687)
Viscount Dundee
Casualties and losses
Numerous executions
Margaret Wilson, one of the 'Wigtown Martyrs', executed by drowning in the incoming tide of the Solway Firth (1685).

The Killing Time was a period of conflict in Scottish history between the Presbyterian Covenanter movement, based largely in the south west of the country, and the government forces of Kings Charles II and James VII. The period, roughly from 1680 to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, was subsequently called The Killing Time by Robert Wodrow in his The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Revolution, published in 1721–1722. It is an important episode in the martyrology of the Church of Scotland.

After the Restoration of 1660, episcopacy was reintroduced into the Church of Scotland, returning church governance to the situation that existed prior to the expulsion of the bishops by the Glasgow General Assembly in 1638 and overthrowing the Presbyterian form of organisation favoured by the Covenanters. Church ministers were confronted with a stark choice: accept the new situation or lose their livings. Although most conformed, up to a third of the ministry refused. Many ministers chose voluntarily to abandon their own parishes rather than wait to be forced out by the government.[1] Most of the vacancies occurred in the south-west of Scotland, an area particularly strong in its Covenanting sympathies. Some of the ministers also took to preaching in the open fields in conventicles, often attracting thousands of worshippers.

The Scottish Privy Council attempted to end the dissent in the form of the First Indulgence of 1669, followed by a Second in 1672. These allowed ministers to return to their churches on condition that they remained silent on the issues dividing the Kirk. The English writer Daniel Defoe, who studied the period, listed the reasons why the more intransigent clergy refused to countenance the offer:

(1) They would not accept of our Indulgence for worshipping God by the licence of the bishops; because they said they had abjured Prelacy in the Covenant, and had declared the bishops to be anti-scriptural and anti-Christian; and to take licence from them was to homologate their authority as legal, which they detested and abhorred.
(2) They would not take the Oath of Supremacy because they could not in conscience allow any king or head of the Church but Jesus Christ.
(3) They would not pray for the king, or swear to him, because he was a persecutor of the Church, and thereby an enemy to God, because he had renounced the oath of God in the Covenant, and until he had repented, they would have nothing to do with him.
(4) Being debarred all manner of liberty to worship God in public, and on the severest penalties forbidden to assemble themselves together, either in the churches or in private families; and believing it at the same time their duty according to the Scriptures, not to forsake assembling, they could not satisfy their consciences to obey man rather than God.[2]

The Stuart regime, worried about the possibility of disorder and rebellion and resentful of the Covenanters' having made their fighting for Charles II during the civil wars conditional upon the maintenance of Scottish Presbyterianism, attempted to stamp this movement out, with varying degrees of success. Fines were levied upon those who failed to attend the parish churches of the "King's curates", the death penalty was imposed for preaching at field conventicles, and torture of suspects with the boot and thumbscrews became a tactic of first resort. In 1678, some 3,000 Lowland militia and 6,000 Highlanders (the 'Highland Host') were billeted in the Covenanting shires and plundered their unwilling hosts.[3] These policies provoked armed rebellions in 1666 and 1679, which were quickly suppressed. The battle of Drumclog and the defeat of the militant Covenanters at the battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679 was followed by further expressions of dissent, such as the 1680 Sanquhar Declaration. Read publicly at Sanquhar by a group of Covenanters led by the Reverend Richard Cameron, it renounced all allegiance to Charles II and opposed the succession of his brother James, Duke of York.

In response to this new element of outright political sedition, the Scottish Privy Council authorised extrajudicial field executions of those caught in arms or those who refused to swear loyalty to the King. The persecution ended with the accession of William II in 1688 and the acceptance of Scottish Presbyterianism by the 1690 Act of Settlement. The execution of James Renwick in 1688 is regarded as closing the period of martyrdom.


  1. ^ J. D. Mackie, A History of Scotland, p. 234 gives the figure as being "at least 270"
  2. ^ D. Defoe, Memoirs of the Church of Scotland, 1717, quoted in J. Barr, The Scottish Covenanters, Glasgow 1946, pp. 58–9.
  3. ^ P. Hume Brown, History of Scotland, p. 406.


  • Raymond Campbell Patterson, A Land Afflicted: Scotland & the Covenanter Wars, 1638–90 (Edinburgh 1998)
  • Ian Cowan, The Scottish Covenanters, 1660–1688 (London, 1976)
  • Tim Harris, Restoration: Charles II and his Kingdoms, 1660–1685 (London, 2005)
  • Tim Harris, Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685–1720 (London, 2006)
  • P Hume Brown, History Of Scotland, vol ii (Cambridge, 1905)
  • J D Mackie, A History of Scotland (London, 1978)

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