The National Covenant

The signing of the National Covenant in 1638 in Greyfriars Kirk is considered by some to be the greatest event in Scotland’s history. In order to understand the meaning of the National Covenant we have to look briefly at the political and religious climate of the period.

The Reformation had taken place in Scotland in 1560 – a part of a movement all across northern Europe that asserted that aspects of the Catholic Church at the time had become corrupted by too much power, money and politics. Specifically, its bishops were amongst the most powerful figures in medieval Europe often appointed not so much for their faith but their political connections. The Bishops and the Kings they worked closely with ruled with a “Divine Right” but often lived in bloated luxury whilst their people lived in poverty and fear.

A great Scottish Bishop of the period, William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, Chancellor of Scotland and founder of the University in 1495 had written that “those who live by the altar must also serve it”. He recognised that corruption within the church was a major problem and that many rose to positions of great prestige and power without any real commitment to Christian Faith and discipleship.

There was therefore, with the Scottish Reformation, a widespread distrust of Bishops, especially if those bishops were appointed by Kings. In 1603 the Union of the Crowns took place and James VI moved his court to London.

His son, Charles I, sought to control the Scottish church and thus the politics of the nation through the appointment of bishops. He also introduced the use of prayer books in the Church further incensing the Presbyterians who had been devising a bottom up structure for the church, the progenitor of democracy or “government of the people by the people and for the people”. When Dean Hannay read from the prayer book in St Giles in 1637, Jenny Geddes, a local street trader is reputed to have thrown her stool at him.

Many church people in Scotland had come to the conclusion that Christ is the only head of the church. They wanted a pure, almost primitive form of Christianity to be established in Scotland that was based upon patterns already apparent in the early church as described in the New Testament. They did not want faith to be mediated by people with a political agenda or controlled by powerful individuals. There was a growing sense amongst people that the reality of God could be encountered by individuals able to read the Bible and think for themselves.

In 1638 the National Covenant (or Solemn League and Covenant) written by Archibald Johnston of Wariston and Alexander Henderson was adopted and signed here at Greyfriars. The document articulates the aspiration of the Scottish people with regard to political and ecclesiastical autonomy, free from the interference of kings and the bishops of the church who so often merely did what was demanded of them by the political powers that had put them in place.

In addition to many ordinary Scottish people the Covenant was signed by many of the Scottish nobles who saw Charles’s promotion of bishops as having the effect of sidelining them from political influence and power in Scotland.

The signing of the National Covenant can be seen as marking a transition from medieval Europe into the early modern period where divinely appointed prince bishops and kings began to be supplanted by fledgling democratic institutions. It is probably no accident that there were many Scottish Presbyterians who were instrumental in the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent drafting of the US Constitution.

The consequence of the National Covenant was the introduction of a harsh regime of discipline. You can see a replica of the “Cutty Stool” or stool of repentance where people convicted of misdemeanours by the Kirk Session were regularly humiliated in church.

Many acts of sinfulness, such as adultery and blasphemy were punishable by death. But the reality that lay behind this movement for freedom, though it began with a harsh, intolerant regime of discipline, also laid the seeds for its ongoing transformation. As people learned to read and think for themselves, with the Scottish Reformers determined to have a school in every parish, Scotland became one of the most literate and well educated nations in Europe. With learning and scholarship came freedom of thought, radical questioning and by the middle of the 1700s Edinburgh was described by Voltaire as the most civilised city in Europe and the nation produced some of those great thinkers who went on to create the idea of the modern world, People such as David Hume, Adam Smith, Walter Scott and other great figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. John Miller, a former moderator of the Church of Scotland wrote recently, “I remember the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria expressing to me his country’s undying gratitude to Scotland for among other things ‘the Presbyterian pattern of engaging lay people as well as clergy in the decision-making of the church, which,’ he said, ‘prepared us for participatory democracy.’”The contribution of the Scottish Reformation to the shaping of the values of the modern world cannot be underestimated.


Address to Graduating Students – Edinburgh University

The world is full of experts. Fairly soon, those of you who are graduating today will join them – that is if you can find a job. This is not straight forward in these difficult economic times.


It is wonderful to be an expert, to be a professional person in a specific field. But, as you proceed into the world of professionalism with your particular expertise, never stop listening to those who have something to say about your sphere of activity, even if they are not qualified.

Do not become a “laboratory hermit”! Do not live in a professional “silo”!

One of the problems we face today is what has been described as “disabling professionalism” – the idea that if you are not qualified, you have no right to an opinion. We should not always defer to experts.

The economic problems we face today, the challenges of climate change, the looming end of the petroleum interval, global poverty, the rise of radical extremism and so much else are not just management problems to be fixed by experts.

The problems the world faces today ask us deep questions about the kind of society we have created and invite us to consider that the solutions we need might not in fact lie in “more of the same” or “business as usual”, but in embracing an alternative imagination using different tools. As Mahatma Ghandi and others have said, you cannot expect the tools that created your problems to be the right tools to use to fix them.

Meeting the challenges of our times invites us not just to be experts and professionals in our particular sphere, but to nurture discernment, understanding and wisdom in order that the world might flourish and humanity survive and thrive. I love the vision of the American beat poet, Gary Snyder who wrote the following not long ago. “We need a religious view that embraces nature and does not fear science; business leaders who know and accept ecological and spiritual limits; political leaders who have spent time working in schools, factories or farms and who still write poems. We need intellectual and academic leaders who have studied both history and ecology and like to dance and cook. We need poets and novelists who pay no attention to literary critics. But what we ultimately need most is human beings who love the world”.

In a world that cries out for better and more gentle governance we need to learn that aliveness and joy are as important if not more important than expertise and professionalism.

Pilgrimage In Scotland

Launch of the Green Pilgrim Network, Assisi, Italy, November 2011

1.       Pilgrimage is making a comeback and it may be that we do not fully realise what the Spirit has in mind by prompting people to consider this as a spiritual activity but there are some key elements:

·         The pilgrim travels light and, in a time of recession and climate change and the realisation that there are limits to growth, it may be that we are being invited to consider an alternative social economy. The present economic system suggests that the only indicator of success is growth. But there may be other “well being” indicators such as deepening community (especially across generations), connecting people to their cultural story, rediscovering hospitality, social enrichment through shared simple activities (such as eating and walking together), discovering that “when you have more on the inside, you need less on the outside”, and that, as in nature, change, evolution and adaptation can come about without using more and more finite resources but by creative transformation. We can learn from the Spirit.

·         Pilgrimage allows the sharing of stories, wisdom and insight across cultural and spiritual traditions as ARC has demonstrated and much can be learned by listening to the wisdom of other “alien” traditions (e.g. Sustainable forest management amongst followers of Shintoism who have been managing “sacred” forests responsibly for centuries). We can learn from each other.

·         Pilgrimage contributes towards a healthier and more active population. We can learn from ourselves by attending to our body’s well being.

·         Pilgrimage enables us to learn our cultural and spiritual story and our place within it. We can learn from our past and rediscover a sense of belonging to an ongoing story.

2.       In Scotland there are many agencies and individuals involved in pilgrimage related activity. Local authorities are obliged to invest in the core path initiative, others seek to preserve some of the ancient paths of Scotland (Roman Roads, Drove Roads etc), others wish to improve access and encourage more rambling and the churches want to ensure that there is scope for the spiritual dimension of pilgrimage and that access to and knowledge of sacred places is maintained and stories told and shared. The importance of working together was emphasised. This requires all to talk, share knowledge and not work against each other or in isolation.


3.       There are a number of layers to the network and these need to be “gently” laid together in order to achieve a kind of synergy and “win win” for all interested groups and ensure that none feel that their noses have been put out of joint. Here are some that I feel would be essential:

·         The path network must become just that, a network (it is 80% there already but linking up is essential so that walkers have options). This means encouraging those links such as one along Glen Dochart to link up the path network in the west linking the West Highland Way with the Rob Roy Way that begins on Loch Tay only 15 miles away.

·         Support for rural access by disadvantaged and excluded groups.

·         “Twists” in the routes that enable less well known areas to be included (such as the shrine of St Margaret at Dunfermline or the ancient capital of the Scots at Dunadd), it is not just about Iona and St Andrews.

·         Educational resources with links to the Curriculum for Excellence and the chance of a “buy in” by schools. The reality is that the vast majority of the young population of Scotland have not even begun to think that going on a pilgrimage might be fun, meaningful or worthwhile. The fundamental issue is an educational one. There are plenty of people talking about pilgrimage but in reality precious few actually doing it in Scotland (even some of those that talk about it!). The whole concept and vision needs some serious marketing, nurturing and promotion.

·         Worship resources need to be developed to enable any chance of a “buy in” by the churches and religious groups both at home and from overseas. Presbyterian Heritage Pilgrimage is one example that we are beginning to explore at Greyfriars enabling overseas groups, many of which already contact us asking for help with organising such a tour. The idea is to create a social enterprise tour company that would create a tailored pilgrimage experience that would include the journey to key destinations/accommodation/ education and history/ worship and hospitality for groups wishing to explore their religious heritage. All of this would be structured to meet with the Green Pilgrim Network guidelines, promoting Green Pilgrimage. Some discussion is already taking place about the creation of a pilgrimage guide to Scotland that would include maps/stories/worship resources etc.

·         It will be important to explore the theology of pilgrimage and find resources that make sense of it in the modern context for all people of faith, especially as pilgrimage is an “open door” within the ecumenical movement in a way that shared Holy Communion for example is not. Andrew Patterson has already done much on this and is planning to write more in the course of 2012.

·         A “one stop”, web based resource should be created for people to access maps and trail guides, transport and accommodation information, ferry times, educational resources, worship and meditation, information about the ARC Green Pilgrimage Network and encouragement about what to do to green our pilgrimage and our pilgrimage places,  material and a forum for discussion and feedback. is already owned by those involved in the ARC initiative. This needs to be a one stop shop, the first place that you are directed to by Google and should give people the opportunity to gain all the information required to undertake a successful and green pilgrimage on any of the Scottish routes as well as enabling people to feedback to others about things they have discovered and useful hints and tips etc. The web resource therefore becomes a dynamic, changing thing. It should become a social media site (such as tripadviser/ facebook etc)

·          A “buy in” from the Scottish Government and its agencies (such as the National Parks and enterprise and tourist authorities) in order to maximise the potential economic and regeneration benefits of supporting the development of the network and its infrastructure. Much learning about this has already been done by Luss Pilgrimage Centre and there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

·         Overlaying all of this should be an effort to make Scotland the World’s first Green Pilgrim Nation as we persuade all participants to buy into the GPN charter.

·         Every element of this initiative I see as a layer that gently overlays all the rest. No single element need have more prominence as all can learn from the others. Perhaps it is like a tartan, weaving many different strands and colours together that ends up being a lovely thing to behold because of the diversity that each strong colour brings and contributes to the whole.