The Covenanter Ships -

 "Eaglewing", "Crown" 
"Rising Sun" and "Henry & Francis"

 The flow of Scottish migrants to the Province of Ulster who came in search of land and religious freedom was significant in the Plantation of Ireland. Yet, in a short space of 20 years there was a change in the relationships with the government in Dublin: particularly after 1633 when Thomas Wentworth, later Earl of Strafford, became the Lord Deputy in Ireland, and when Archbishop Laud enforced the Bishop's rule and implemented many Catholic practices in the established Anglican Church of Ireland.

The Scots had tried hard to fit in at the start but friction was continuing in Scotland with resentment to the religious policies of James I (James VI of Scotland) and his successor Charles I. There was also the fervour of evangelical groups, especially the Covenanters, that added friction to the Presbyterian communities in both Scotland and Ulster. The thoughts of a few turned to the possibility of joining the exodus to Massachusetts, but whether the impetus came from Scotland (where as early as 1630 there had been discussions about migration) or from Ulster is uncertain .

A group of Planters and the Presbyterian ministers John Livingston, Robert Blair and Robert Cunningham agreed in 1634 to seek information from the Massachusetts settlers about the prospect of acquiring land and the freedoms they desired. Letters were sent to John Winthrop, the governor and seemingly encouraging replies were received as some Planter families prepared to leave for the Colonies.


 Into the scenario came John Winthrop, the son of the Governor who had been to Trinity College, Dublin in 1622-1623. He returned to England in 1635 to purchase livestock to be sent to the colony and is known to have visited Scotland where he had contact with Provost17th century ship John Stewart in Ayr, David Dickson in Irvine and James Murray in Edinburgh. In Ulster one of his contacts was the affluent settler, Sir John Clotworthy. The Clotworthy family had prospered under James I and amongst other things had been granted the licence to sell wine and spirits in most of County Antrim and County Down; it is likely that their wealth supported the planned migration. Sir John wrote to Wentworth that a ship was being built and he was anxious that the migrant party should get under way as soon as possible (as he feared action would be taken to prevent future migration). The ship was the "Eaglewing" its name coming from Exodus Ch 14 v 4

"Ye have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings and brought you unto myself ".

The building of the ship got under way at the small village of Groomsport on the shore of Belfast Lough and it was not until the autumn of 1636 before it was ready. At 150 tons the "Eaglewing" was barely big enough for the 140 passengers who had gathered together to face the dangers of the seas in this small craft. Although stoutly built, the "Eaglewing" was untried in the rough seas that it was to encounter following its departure from Carrickfergus on September 9, 1636. Difficult winds drove the ship into Loch Ryan almost before it had cleared the harbour but at length they set sail once more. John Livingston, minister at Killinchy, who had been at the heart of the migration plans, was to say afterwards that the ship was three or four hundred leagues from Ireland when it was hit by turbulent seas and a hurricane that broke the ships rudder: heavy seas broke over the vessel and poured down into the cabins and the hold. The rudder was repaired but the ministers and the passengers aboard held a meeting and concluded that it was God's will that they should return to Ireland. On November 3, the ship arrived back in Belfast Lough. John Livingstone`s recollections were of quite horrendous conditions with an imminent danger of capsizing.

The Scottish passengers returned home and the Ulster Scots having previously sold their possessions, sought with difficulty to pick up the threads of their former life. There was no further attempt to make the trip to New England. The embarrassment of failure was felt by the ministers no doubt and they were subject of some scathing criticism - "their faith not being answerable to their zeal" as the Bishop of Derry wrote to the arch persecutor Archbishop Laud.

The failure of the expedition also meant that these strong willed Scots were able to bring their influence to bear in subsequent events in Scotland. Amongst these were John Livingston, and Robert Blair, a minister of Calvinist leanings at Bangor, who was largely responsible for a revival of the Presbyterian church in County Antrim and County Down. They and others, such as Robert Cunningham minister of Holywood, eventually fled to Scotland to escape the persecution of Strafford. It meant that these staunch supporters of Presbyterianism were present to add their respected voices to the National Covenant of 1638.

There was, however, a sweet revenge in many ways as Sir John Clotworthy was to play a part in the impeachment of the Earl of Strafford who was subsequently executed at the Tower of London in 1641.


The second of the Covenanting ships in this tale to set out with Covenanters aboard was the "Crown".

In Scotland there was increasing dissent and Covenanting fervour was bloodily persecuted especially in  years from 1679 - 1689 and in "The Killing Time"  when so many were executed or shot out of hand during 1684 -5. 

  Following the Battle of Bothwell Brig on June 22, 1679, some 1200 prisoners were taken and incarcerated in a make shift, open air prison next to the Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. Of these prisoners, 257 erstwhile ringleaders and ministers were sentenced to be transported to the West Indies or Virginia as white slaves.

The vessel set sail on November 27, 1679, but within days was forced by bad weather into the Orkney port of Deersound where despite local advice, she set out once more into the deep swells of the Atlantic Ocean. The ship had hardly cleared land when she struck rocks off of Deerness and was wrecked. It is said that the captain was a heartless and cruel man and despite the pleas of the frightened prisoners he ordered the hatches to be chained. Thus it was on December 10, 1679, that 211 Covenanters went to a watery grave. The crew escaped by cutting down a mast and using it as a bridge to the shore but prisoners who tried to do the same were forced back into the foaming sea. A mere 49 Covenanters survived the wreck only to be transported later.

There is a slight problem with the numbers as the Cloud of Witnesses, the main source of information, lists 49 survivors, thus 208 perished assuming the 257 total was right in the first place.  There was at least one late attempt to save one of the prisoners and some relatives volunteered to take the place of others. A magnificent granite memorial stands at Deerness commemorating the sad event.

"Rising Sun "

The "Rising Sun" was a a vessel of sixty guns, captained by James Gibson, whose brother William was a merchant and bailie in Glasgow. On 27 May 1684 an act was passed by the Council granting prisoners to William Gibson for transportation to America  ( probably Carolina - a favourite destination). On 19 June a report was made to the Council by Sir William Paterson that twenty two prisoners were to be removed from Glasgow Tolbooth. As far as can be ascertained their crime was the usual - refusing to recognise the king`s supremacy and they would not renounce the Covanents.  Twenty one of their number subscribed to a joint testimony and are named by Wodrow as :

Matthew MACHAN; James M`CLINTOCK ; John GIBSON ; Gavin BLACK ; John PATON ; William INGLIS ; John YOUNG ; John GALT; John EDWARDS ; Thomas MARSHAL ; George SMITH ; William SMITH ; Robert URIE ; John BUCHANAN ; Thomas BRICE ; John SIMON ;Hugh SIMON ; William SIMON ; Archibald CUNNINGHAM ; John ALEXANDER ; John MARSHAL

The Rising Sun was one of the ships that took settlers to the ill fated Darien expedition in Panama. When the settlement broke up the Rising Sun  set off homeward and had reached the Gulf  of Florida when she was smashed up in a violent storm, that took away the masts. The crew struggled for ten days with a jury rig before reaching Charleston where she lay at anchor pending her guns being removed so that the vessel could get over the bar. But a hurricane struck on 3 September 1700  and the ship and all her crew were lost. Among the crew lost was a young Hugh Litster, son of Thomas Litster, minister of Aberdour.

It is reported that Captain Gibson was an extremely cruel person. Their daily water ration was a mutchkin  ( less than an English pint ) and an ounce and a quarter of salt beef. It is difficult to conceive of such pettiness; but someone had to measure the rations and cut up and weigh the tiny meat allocation each day and to do so meticulously else they joined the prisoners. That Gibson and his ship was lost can be seen as a just reward for the cruelty towards his fellow man.

"Henry & Francis"

 Covenanter Prison, Greyfriars.It was the practice to commit dissenters, those who refused to take an Oath of Allegiance or recognise the King`s authority, to be imprisoned but there were so many that a policy evolved whereby Covenanters could migrate to the American colonies. If, however, they were convicted they were sent as slaves. The laird of Pitlochie, John Scott, was allowed by a warrant dated  10 March 1685  to select a party of about 100 prisoners to take with him to New Jersey. He was required to land the party in America before September 1686. For this purpose Scott chartered a 350 ton ship, armed with 20 cannon, called the "Henry and Francis" captained by a Richard Hutton. Pitlochie visited the prisons  of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Sterling and also Dunnottar from where he selected about thirty prisoners. Among these was  Patrick Walker, a well known  author also known as Patrick the Pedlar, who managed to escape while the ship was hove to in Leith. This list is from a mixture of sources and there are one or two name variations.

There were other migrants who were required to pay 5 passage money but they could alternatively be indentured servants for four years after which they would receive 25 acres of land. The ship set sail on September 5, 1685, from Leith and made landfall at Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in December. It was a traumatic journey with the ship suffering leaks, shortages of food and water, as well as fever especially among the Dunnottar prisoners who were already much weakened by their imprisonment.  Of the 125 souls on the ship that set out some 31 of their number died, including Scott and his wife. During the voyage, Scott's son-in-law (named John Johnstone) had urged the prisoners to accept a four year servitude so that the costs of the venture could be recovered, which the prisoners resisted. The ship's master wanted to sail for Jamaica or Virginia since a better price would be obtained in either place for the prisoners. Perhaps it was Providence intervening for these Covenanters, but a change of wind forced the ship into New Jersey as originally planned.

The arrival of the prisoners was not apparently welcomed by the residents and it was left to people further in land (thought to be Woodridge) to extend the hand of friendship. The prisoners were given clothing and sustenance and taken in. In the New Year Johnstone, a mercenary man, sought to recover the costs of the exercise in the courts, which could have resulted in the imprisonment and probable  slavery of the ex-prisoners. They were, however, cleared of charges by a jury because they had not come voluntarily nor had they entered into any agreements. Thus the fortunate survivors went their ways - scattered throughout Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut succeeding where their earlier compatriots had failed.

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