Covenanters who Perished at Sea

"The Crown"

Read more about the Battle of Bothwell Bridge which led to the events on The Crown

It was a wild and stormy night off the north coast of Deerness. A blizzard was blowing and the white horses riding the crests of the waves were buffeting the sides of the heaving ship, flinging the 257 prisoners too and fro across the crammed hold of their wretched gaol, the merchant ship 'Crown'.

The Covenanter's Monument at Deerness

Ever since the troops of Charles II had defeated their rabble army five months previously, tile Covenanters had known the meaning of true hardship. However, they had survived the months of confinement without shelter at Greyfriars Churchyard in Edinburgh finding that they would escape death only to be transported to the new colonies in America where they would be sold as slaves.

Now they were more in fear for their lives than they had ever been before, as it seemed at any moment the groaning vessel might be smashed onto the Scarvataing rocks protruding through the foamy sea only a few hundred yards away.

The prisoners begged the captain to let them ashore, where they would gladly stay in any prison of his choice, no matter how miserable, just to get them off the ship until calmer weather. The captain, who had already neglected to take local advice and shelter farther down the coast, similarly spurned the prisoners desperate request. Instead of freeing them from the confines of the ship he locked and chained the hatches, showing them they shared the fate of the ship.

>At 10 p.m. the inevitable happened. The straining anchor chain snapped conclusively, allowing the ship to be carried unprotestingly on to the treacherous saw-tooth rocks, sending the majority of the screaming prisoners to watery graves.

This tale is no work of fiction, though it would be at home in any "Boy's Own" annual. It is merely a recreation, using the facts, of what the wreck of the 'Crown' must have been like when the tragedy happened over 300 years ago on December 10, 1679.

Though the Orkney coastline has been responsible for many shipwrecks in its time, this one is relevant today as recently the pillar built to commemorate the disaster celebrated its centenary, the Covenanters Memorial having been inaugurated on August 22nd. 1888.

The Covenanting movement was a Scottish one. It was formed in the early seventeenth century to oppose the attempts of Charles I to force the beaurocratically dominated ways of the Episcopalian Church of England upon the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and drew its name from a national petition begun in 1638 which carried the signatures of all who pledged resistance to the change. Covenanters were relentlessly persecuted and everything came to a head in 1679 when an armed coup resulted in a minor victory at the Battle of Drumclog.

Inscription on Covenanters' Monument at Deerness

to where a small army of about 6000 was assembling at Lanarkshire with whatever weapons they could find. The King ordered the threat to be eradicated immediately and a large government force was dispatched, resulting in the adversaries confronting each other on opposing banks of the River Clyde.

Unfortunately, Robert Hamilton, the man they had chosen to lead their crusade, was not even at the battle, being content to let God lead them into the foray. While he was busily organising gallows from which to hang the prisoners he was sure victory would bring, his "army" was being routed by the superior numbers and discipline of the 15,000 government troops as they eventually crossed the Bothwell Bridge virtually unopposed.

Thus those on the ship were amongst the 1,200 captured on June 22nd, and in the following months either watched their compatriots sentenced to death or swear an oath of allegiance to the King. There should have been two ships to take them to the colonies but bad weather delayed one and rumours of a planned attempt to forcibly release the prisoners led to a hasty dispatch for the 'Crown'. One survivor tells of how there was barely enough room for 100 men, let alone 257 in the compartment, and that the men had to stand continually to let the sick and dying lie down.

There is speculation that the captain of the 'Crown' cared little about the fate of the men as he was a "papist" and had insured his ship for a greater value than it was worth. Whatever, the entire crew escaped alive by cutting down the mast and using it as a bridge to shore, although reports say that when prisoners attempted a similar crossing they were beaten back and forced into the water. At most only 50 of them survived by floating ashore on pieces of wood, the remaining bodies being washed up over a three mile stretch of coast in the following days. Those who did survive were recaptured and ended their days as slaves in Jamaica and New Jersey.

Exactly why the memorial was left until 200 years after the tragedy is unclear, though the key may be provided by John Tudor's book 'The Orkneys and Shetland', published in 1883, which says, "If a plain grey granite cross should be considered too superstitious an emblem for pious God-fearing Scotland in the 19th century, a simple monolith of the same material could be open to no objection."

The Covenanters' Monument in front of St. Magnus Cathedral

This comment may have instigated the public appeal fund, for which donations came largely from south, that paid for the forty-feet-high monument to be built by three masons in the remarkably short space of only a few weeks. With the money left over, a smaller marble obelisk was placed in front of the Cathedral at the top end of the kirk green in 1891, where it still stands today in the shade of an old sycamore tree.

At the inauguration ceremony a bottle containing, amongst other things, copies of the local papers and a Bible was entered into a special hollow, then sealed with a granite slab bearing the following 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, December 10th, 1679".

The monument, which stands on an elevated piece of ground 300 yards from the position of the wreck, can easily be reached even in its remote position. The route to it is well signposted once the turn off before the Deerness shop is reached. Given its excellent condition, it seems certain that it will be there for many centuries to come.

Read more about the Battle of Bothwell Bridge which led to the events on The Crown

(Source: The Orcadian, Thursday, October 6, 1988)

There is a traditional story handed down, that one of the survivors of the wreck of the "Crown" at the Mull Head of Deerness in the parish of Deerness on the eastern district of the mainland Island of Orkney Islands was named MacGregor. He later went to the Island of Sanday, Orkney Islands and changed his name to "Dearness". The Dearness Families of Townsville all came from the island of Sanday, Orkney Islands.

(Source: William Donald Dearness)