Circuit Courts

The Circuit Courts were the continuation of Justice in the shires normally when the Justiciary Court in Edinburgh was in recess. The particular significance of them was that they maintained the momentum of oppression and facilitated persecution of any non conformity, first at local level from allegations received from spies, the curates and just about anyone with a grievance  with another person. Second, once made, and usually recorded in the Porteous Rolls ( portable records held by local commissioners) this became cause for pursuit by the Circuit Courts. In cases of suspicion of rebellion, treason and the like,  referral to the Justiciary Court itself could follow. Appearance at the latter could mean long imprisonment pending trial, and a loose word possibly under torture, could end on the gallows. Thus many thousands accepted the malign judgments of the Circuit Courts, including loss of all property, outrageous fines, banishment and transportation, rather than risk their lives further.

Further twists obtained. If anyone failed to compear they were routinely denounced, declared fugitive, and added to the Porteous Rolls  Two other proclamations closed the door for escape - instructions to captains of ships to report passengers to Collectors of Customs who were to examine them. And a pass was required to travel to another district.

The timing of the courts usually commenced in the harvest quarter with agreement, in London, during August. Early in September the king`s letter was read to the Privy Council  with named persons  commissioned to be judges of the Courts. The commissions were soon declared and included detailed instructions of their role and powers. It was thus October when the various Courts sat to begin their rule of terror. Simplicity of procedure began with a judicial summons when the person  was called upon to make a public confession and take the Test. Refusal meant seizure  followed by a demand for caution (bond, guarantee)  to compear  in Edinburgh when cited. In Strirling, in June 1683 , 180 failed to compear and were added to the massive Fugitive Roll of 1683-4.

The 1684 Circuit Courts set new standards for depravity and persecution. In writing of these hardships Robert Wodrow, the author of the History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland had to depend on written accounts as he could not discover the whereabouts of the Court Records or Registers. In alter years they were found and  J K Hewison, author of The Covenanters, tells us that the minute books and depositions are in Register House.

" The subsidiary documents and lists of persons `phanatically inclined`  prepared by the parish ministers [curates] are most interesting; (that of Morton, signed by Greenshields contains 260 names of persons living under the shadow of Drumlanrig). The minutes of Courts  held at Glasgow, 2nd- 25th October; Ayr 3 October;Tynron 19 September; Dumfries 2 October, Kirkcudbright 7th and 13th October;Wigtown 14th October; Berwick, Roxburgh, Peebles, September - October, 1684 are now accessible."

Hewison , (Covenanters, vol ii, p439-440) summarises the effects upon the faithful:

"The Remanant saw the cordon drawing closer. Their prospects were terrible - the Grassmarket gibbet or the canebrakes with a free conscience; a perjured oath with an unpopular King, a hated Church and a detested heir apparent; The felon`s burial pit in Greyfriars Churchyard was the only refuge for honest men. Peden prophesied,  `The day is coming in these lands that a bloody scaffold shall be thought a good shelter.` Renwick as truly said ` Death to me is as a bed to the weary.` Flimsy sophistries` comfortably replies Mr Andrew Lang` "

Commission of  the Circuit Courts 1684.


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