It was July 1686 and John Stewart was in trouble.

He was incarcerated in Haddington’s Tolbooth, his fate hanging in the balance. All depended now on how he cooperated with the authorities. If he failed to do so he could be transported to the Barbados islands as a slave. So he was willing to tell all, and because he did, he has been briefly noticed by history.

A man like John Stewart would have normally lived his life unrecorded and unknown by posterity. He was a servant of the minister of Baro, now called Bara. It nestles in the shadow of the Lammermuirs and in John Stewart’s time it was a farming community with its own Kirk and graveyard. It’s difficult to find now. The Kirk roof collapsed in 1743 and since the community was in decline the Kirk was never repaired.

So the folk of Baro attended Garvald instead, making for a healthy walk every Sabbath day. The old kirk at Baro quickly fell into utter ruin. It was enclosed with a wall, along with the graveyard, by the local laird. Trees were planted and so to this day it remains, a faint overgrown and hidden thumbprint of the past.

It was still a thriving community in John Stewart’s time and he had recently arrived to be servant to the minister there. He was originally from Perthshire, and has not long been at Baro when his entry into history began on the night of 17th July.

The sun was setting on this Saturday night, the eve of the Sabbath. when two visitors appeared at Stewart’s door. They were James Baxter and another man named William.

Baxter was from Edinburgh. Perhaps he already knew John Stewart in some way, for they had arrived late in the evening while on a journey with some purpose.

Baxter was very persuasive. “Come wi us tomorrow” he urged John. They were planning to venture into the Lammermuirs for a meeting.

“Ye will think o’ ye travel weel worth it we assure ye” John was told. But his instinct was unsure. It was a dangerous venture. But the men stayed over with John and worked on him. John was a young man, only 22, with no wife or bairns, and so the risk was only his.

So the following morning, John rose with the sun, along with his two guests, and they set off for a place hidden deep in the Lammermuirs. Before they left they were joined by another servant, a man called John Brown, who also lived at Baro.

So this group of four men went by way of Redstone Ridge and then turned west to Byrecleuch, continuing deeper into the hills until they reached a remote moor at Green Cleuch.

Travel that way today and it feels remote and deserted. Beyond Byrecleuch it feels quite wild, with no proper road. But on this day in 1686 the route was being trodden by many, all headed to the same place, for the same reason.

When John Stewart and his companions arrived it was late morning. It was not a huge assembly of people, perhaps a few more than 100, but in the remote backdrop of moorland and hills made the number seem more significant.

A majority of those present were in fact women, and most had, like John, walked for hours to get there. But a dozen horses revealed that some gentry were there too. The crowd waited, some praying some singing psalms. Then there was a murmur and all eyes turned towards a man who arrived with pistols in his belt. He walked amongst the crowd, who milled around him, waiting for him to speak. His name was James Renwick and he was a covenanting preacher, and this was an illegal conventicle.

This was a period that was to become known as The Killing Time. The restored Stuart monarchy had imposed an Episcopal church, and demanded that people worship only in official kirks with ministers who supported the King’s policy. People who defied this were persecuted, and those who refused to take an oath of loyalty would be executed.

But covenanting preachers like Renwick were defiant. They continued to preach illegally, in gatherings known as Conventicles. They took place in secret, and were highly dangerous.

Those attending could face death or banishment. Renwick himself was by 1686 on the most wanted list, hence the reason he was heavily armed.

Renwick delivered two sermons to the gathering. They were passionate, hell and brimstone denunciations of the King and his church, and calling on the faithful to unwavering devotion to the true word of God.

The words which resounded on the moor that day were a potential death sentence. In all, around 18,000 people were killed during the Killing Time. Many were killed at open air Conventicles just like this one. As Renwick continued his sermon, John Stewart began to feel a sense of unease. They were in a remote location, but the arrival of so many people in such an out of the way place must have been noticed. What if someone had informed the authorities? Perhaps at any moment the King’s soldiers could arrive.

And so John actually had a sense of relief when Renwick finished his preaching. But then the preaher conducted a marriage. Finally he was done. He then seemed to dissolve into the hills, leaving his flock to make their way home.

John was unsure where Renwick had gone, but as the crowd began to disperse he headed for home, back across the hills. Hunger was clutching his belly by this time, and he was able, with his neighbour John Brown, to get home just before sunset.

The reckoning was not long in coming. The farmer at Byrecleuch informed the Earl of Tweedale’s son David Hay that two of his shepherds had attended the conventicle. A wave of arrests quickly followed. We must remember that this was a time when torture was used and just the threat of it could make people talk.

John Stewart was arrested on 19th July by the earl’s son and interrogated. John was terrified of the consequences and talked. The next day Hay arrived with soldiers to apprehend John Brown. He was found close to his home breaking stones. When the soldiers arrived he kept calm.

“Naw sire” he said to Hay, “I am not John Broon, ye hae the wrang man. I am John Armour.” He then set the soldiers on a goose chase, saying he’d seen Brown head south. But the deception didn’t last long. A few more enquiries establish Brown’s identity and he was finally arrested.

“They will put me in the Tolbooth sire, please hae mercy and at least allow me time tae say fareweel tae ma wife and get some clean linen”.

And so Brown was allowed to enter his house, which was little more than a hovel. The soldiers stood guard outside the door, there being only one entrance and no windows so no possibility of escape. But he exceeded his time and the soldiers entered, only to discover Brown had indeed escaped by making a hole in the roof at the rear of the house. If he was later captured I cannot tell you.

John Stewart remained in the Tolbooth until September. The thoughts that went through his head as to what may happen to him may be imagined. He had done little wrong to his mind, merely heard a man preach and read from the Bible. But the consequences now could be severe. He must have known that so many had died.

Stewart was brought before the council. He claimed that he had not known who the preacher was, and that he was persuaded to attend the conventicle by Baxter. He begged mercy, and promised never again to be so foolish as to attend such seditious meetings. He claimed he had not understood the severity of the offence and swore allegiance to the King.

He was believed, and to his utter relief was set free. Did he return to Baro, to live out his days there, perhaps to be buried in that now overgrown and hidden graveyard? I cannot say. For Stewart seems to walk off History’s stage at this moment.

James Baxter, the man who persuaded Stewart to attend the Conventicle was arrested in October. He was interrogated and refused to submit, so he was banished to the sugar plantations in Barbados. He managed to escape and return to Scotland, but that’s another story.

And what of the preacher, James Renwick? Well not long after John Stewart had heard him preach, Renwick was captured and taken to Edinburgh. He was interrogated but refused to give the oath to the King. And so on 17th February 1688 he was taken to the Grassmarket and hanged.

He was to be one of the last “Covenanter martyrs” for soon afterwards the King James VII was deposed and a new order arrived. The tables turned, and God’s allegiance was once again changed.

So many people dead, so much suffering, so much intolerance. Religion and power, when combined to any degree at all, is a toxic mix.

Many thanks to historian Mark Jardine, on whose research into documents of the time my story is based.