The last object in our series which tells the Covenanting story in the North Lanarkshire collections is the East Monkland banner.
This banner or flag is said to have been carried at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679 by John Main, of Ballochney, a farmland to the east of Airdrie and near modern-day Plains. By the 1800s it was displayed in an Airdrie pub owned by Main’s descendants before its donation to Airdrie Museum in the 1890s.
Without a doubt it is one of the most important pre-industrial objects in the collection and one of national significance for the history of Scotland’s Covenanters.
Its high level of detail – combining slogans and multidimensional symbolism – demonstrates that its original users had a sophisticated understanding and expression of their ideas. The person (or people) who produced it were relatively skilled in design, dyeing, and painting too.
Currently on display at Airdrie Local Studies, this flag originally came to Airdrie Museum through John Main’s descendants in the 1890s. It has something of a life story to tell.
According to the family history, John Main was the ‘laird’ (small landowner) of Ballochney farm and carried this banner at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.
Alongside him marched a band of Covenanting volunteers recruited from the small farms scattered across the remote moorland to the east of Airdrie. Main escaped the battle, taking this banner with him, from whence it was passed down through the family.
Aside from the family tradition, we only know a little bit about him.
A “John Main, in Balochney” is recorded in John MacArthur’s New Monkland Parish: Its History, Industries, and People (1890) as being fined £333/6/8 Scots for non-compliance and resetting.
‘Non-compliance’ indicates he was seen as not conforming with the established Church. Covenanters and other dissenters from the state religion – including Roman Catholics – were often identified and punished because of their refusal to attend ‘official Church’ services.
‘Resetting’ is an old Scots Law term for receiving stolen goods or – as may be the case here – to harbour or give shelter to people, including known or suspected criminals. This may have been for hiding someone on the Fugitive Roll or alternately as punishment for allowing dissenting preachers on his property.
A John Murray “in Ballachney, in East-Monkland” is recorded in the May 1684 Fugitive Roll, quite possibly because of involvement at Bothwell Bridge. Perhaps this was Main’s harboured fugitive?
Incidentally Main shares his name with the martyred John Main of Old Monkland, a Covenanter hanged at Glasgow Cross in 1684. Despite the coincidences it appears that they were likely different people [link to blogpost].
Main avoided fugitive status or property forfeiture for his involvement at Bothwell Bridge, which one might expect if he were known locally as a prominent Covenanter.
However not everyone among the estimated 6000 Covenanters at Bothwell Bridge was identified by the authorities. 1200 or so were taken prisoner, the rest scattered. Perhaps because of its remoteness and evidently strong Covenanting loyalties the people of East Monkland were able to maintain a conspiracy of silence.
Fellow New Monkland rebel John Whitelaw of Stand also attended Bothwell Bridge. Stand is about 2.3 miles (3.7km) north-west from Ballochney. The nearby farmland of Arbuckle is also recorded as a place of conventicles. It is quite possible the two knew each other through local Covenanter networks.
After the battle Main returned to Ballochney and quietly went back to plough and field; the banner furtively rolled up and hidden, a family secret to be passed on. With the overthrow of the Stuarts in 1688 repression of Covenanters ceased. You can imagine that such an object changed status from guarded illegal secret to noble remnant of a proud recent past.
By the 1800s the flag was on display in a west Airdrie pub owned by the Main family, the Gushet House, which existed c.1840-1930. This stood at the intersection (‘gushet’) of Aitchison and Alexander Streets near the present-day Monklands Hospital.
In the ‘Memoirs of Rev James Begg, D.D.’, by Rev. Thomas Smith, D.D. (published 1885) Begg describes the banner as he knew it and the group it accompanied:
“The people of New Monkland sent a detachment of men to the battle of Bothwell Bridge, John Main, elder, Ballochnie, being the standard-bearer. He carried a handsome yellow silk banner emblazoned with inscriptions and emblems in gold, which is still preserved by his descendants, and which I have often seen – indeed, which I got some time ago repaired…Eleven men from New Monkland were killed at Bothwell Bridge, including Andrew Yuill, the gardener of Rochsoles, which is close to my father’s manse, and others with names and from places still equally well known in the parish.”
The Airdrie Museum register records that it was donated to the museum in c.1895 by a James Main, who is also described as the factor for a Mr Rankin of Cleddens. The Rankins were well-established local landowners and coalmasters, featuring in the remarkable painting ‘The Curlers at Rawyards’, on display at Summerlee Museum.
By the late 1990s, after hanging on various walls, the flag was in very poor condition and had badly faded. Between 1999 and 2002 it underwent assessment and extensive conservation by conservators from the Scottish Museums Council (now Museums Galleries Scotland) to save it from disappearing altogether.
Subsequently it has been displayed flat in an environmentally controlled case and protected from light to prevent further degradation.
Thanks to this work the banner has been safely on display for nearly 20 years – quite fittingly so in Airdrie, where it has been exhibited for the better part of 200 years.
Looking at the banner itself, its form and symbolism are broad expressions of Covenanter ideals and share much in common with other surviving banners. There are also specific details that express aspects of different Covenanter views, giving us a more detailed glimpse into the East Monkland group and their particular beliefs.
The banner could alternately be described as a flag, with a sleeve on the left-hand side for sliding onto a flagpole – rather than a banner which might carried in a procession between two pole-bearers. This would theoretically fit with it being used as a standard at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. Its balanced size – 1670mm long x 1400mm high – likewise fits the profile of use as a battle standard.
Such banners or flags were not simply a decorative or propaganda tool. These were a means of identification on the battlefield, allowing commanders to see the position of those on the field.
The capture of these ‘colours’ by the enemy was considered a shameful submission – probably even more so for the fervent Covenanter army, given their contempt for the Government forces. Main presumably fled the field of battle with the banner when defeat looked likely, rescuing it from being a trophy of war for “the King’s bastard”, the Duke of Monmouth.
The flag is made from a fine plain-woven silk, which according to the 1999 conservation report was most likely originally dyed blue. It has faded to a dark cream colour and has been since at least the late 1800s, being described in Rev. James Begg’s memoirs (1885) as “a handsome yellow silk banner.”
Blue would fit as the original colour, being the shade of the saltire and closely associated with the colours flown and worn by earlier Covenanter armies. Quite a few of the surviving Covenanter banners are a similar dark cream hue, such as the ‘Kilbryd’ flag of Kilbride Parish, South Lanarkshire, which is held by Glasgow Museums. This is also thought to have been at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.
Logically the Kilbryd flag would not have been cream originally given its saltire, and indeed the blue tinge to the fabric is not dissimilar to that of the East Monkland flag.
It is not known exactly what dye was used in the banner, but natural blue dyes such as woad would have been plentiful in Britain during the 1600s. This was beginning to be superseded by more colourfast ‘true indigo’ imports from India.
In some accounts the flag is described as bloodstained – including in an 1860s poem, ‘The Banner of Blood’, by Airdrie poet William McHutchison. Victorian chroniclers certainly enjoyed hyping the poetic duality of the blood of battles and sacred oaths that Covenanters supposedly represented, these literary flourishes no doubt giving us an excessively sanguineous perception.
There are faint red patches in the top-left, above the Bible.
However these look more like red paint pigmentation than brown (the colour of dried blood). They are somewhat symmetrical with one another, suggesting that folds in the banner caused wet paint – or perhaps blood – to be ‘printed’ onto the other side of the fold.
Rev. James Begg also mentions that he had commissioned ‘repairs’ on the banner. The conservation work showed that it had been glued to a canvas backing which contributed to the dark staining down the centre.
It is unclear to what extent these ‘repairs’ might have added to or painted over the original design or when they occurred. However a sketch of the flag, from an 1858 article on Covenanter banners in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, shows it had much the same appearance then as now.
The East Monkland banner employs a rich use of imagery to supplement its central message.
Whilst this shares much in common with other surviving flags and banners, in its symbolism East Monkland is among the most elaborate, multi-layered and refined of later Scottish Covenanting banners. This deserves special attention.
Religion was central to the way people in the 17th century understood the world and themselves. These were deeply felt beliefs.
In the top left is painted an open book, a Bible. This is not an uncommon motif on surviving Covenanter flags/banners. It is a symbol of the Covenanters’ commitment to the active study of Bible as the Word of God, unsullied by human adaptations – a key part of Calvinist beliefs.
Looking closer there are further layers of deeper meaning imparted by its stylistic choices and how the makers of the banner viewed their cause.
The left hand page indicates references to Psalms LXXXVI (86) and LXXXVII (87), from the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament.
The opening words of these are painted, ‘Bow dow[n]’ and ‘His f[…]’, matching the 1611 King James Version Bible – as opposed to the 1599 English-translation Geneva Bible, which was also in popular circulation in Scotland during the 1600s.
A closer look at this choice of passages reveals a Covenanting message. Psalm 86 is known as ‘a prayer of David’ and reflects David’s faithful appeal to God: “Bow down thine ear, O Lord, hear me: for I am poor and needy…”.
Psalm 87 is a celebration of Zion, the Holy Land: “His foundation is in the holy mountains. The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob…”. Together, it would appear these describe the plight of the Covenanters as they saw it and their aspiration to live as God’s faithful ‘Chosen People’, with Covenanted Scotland as their Zion.
The right hand page appears to read ‘Ephis[…]’. Below which is painted ‘Chap. II’ with the word ‘And’ clearly painted. This is followed by ‘Chap.III’ with ‘For’.
This is referring to Chapters 2 and 3 of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, drawn from the New Testament.
Chapter 1 is not noted, nor do the Epistles immediately follow on from the Book of Psalms in the books of the Bible. This underlines the deliberate choice of these particular verses on the part of the banner’s designer. As with the left hand page, these choices are ones of particular Covenanting significance.
Ephesians Chapter 2 talks of the healing of divides between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews, in this sense ‘non-believers’) through Jesus, and even makes use of the word ‘covenant’, referring to Gentiles as “strangers from the covenants of promise”.
In Chapter 3, Paul says how he is “the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles”, that he has suffered persecution for a righteous cause that is for the deliverance of all humanity, whether they know it or not.
The neat combination of Old Testament on the left and New on the right – as one would read through the Bible – is presumably a deliberate design illustrating the importance of study in a broad range of Biblical scripture. Nor is it unlike the manner of readings chosen for a sermon.
The selection of passages is certainly not accidental either. They complement one another in communicating a definitively Covenanter message, conveying the desire to win others to support of the Covenants as a way of achieving a better, more Godly, society. The Biblical allegory is deliberate in making direct comparisons between the persecution and personal trials of Biblical figures such as David and St. Paul with those of Restoration-era Covenanters.
The Kilbryd banner also uses a Bible with scriptural reference added, in this instance the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, Chapters XXX (30) and XXXI (31). These are also passages with key Covenanter significance, talking of God’s ‘Chosen People’ and their sacred contract of trust in one another.
The use of this motif – Bible plus specific Biblical references – across several banners from different parishes illustrates the communication between Covenanter groups and the adoption of ideas from one another.
These scriptural references demonstrate a deep understanding of the books of the Bible by the designer(s) of the East Monkland banner. As a propaganda device it communicates recognisable ideas that would galvanise supporters – other Covenanters – or motivate backing from potential sympathisers in the battle with the Stuart regime.
Underneath the text sits a mailed fist emerging from a cloud, grasping a sword with a rippling blade.
The blade is unusual. Whilst swords with rippled blades (flamberge) existed in the 17th century, this image is evidently depicting a supernatural or spiritual force. The cloud illustrates this as a heavenly body and not of this earth.
There are numerous Biblical references that this could signify. It could quite possibly represent “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17), or Ephesians 6:11 and 6:13, which discuss wearing “the armour of God”. These are statements of faith as the foremost protection against wrongdoing.
It could also be a reference to the Book of Genesis, which describes the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden being guarded by a cherubim (angel) with a flaming sword after Adam and Eve had committed sin by taking its fruit.
Either analogy represent the defence of the works of God from human transgressions, a clear allusion to how supporters of the Covenants saw their plight. Again it shows the the ways in which the Covenanters drew upon religious imagery to express and contextualise their own struggle, a fight waged with swords “of the spirit” – and steel.
In the top-right of the banner is an enclosed thistle topped by the tattered remnants of a crown, surrounded by the Latin motto “NEMO ME IM[…]VNE LAC[…]”. Logically there is only one phrase this could represent: nemo me impune lacessit – ‘no one harrasses me with impunity’.
Whilst one might think this defiant slogan and thistly image are apt for stubbornly Scottish Covenanters, this symbol and motto had a prior, and very extensive, association with Scottish royalty, including the Stuarts.
Given their hostility to the Covenanters, its use could be to represent support for the idea of ‘legitimate’ royal authority, as opposed to uncritical support for the reigning Stuart monarch. This was a consistent position within much of Covenanter politics.
Alternately, this motif might be used in this instance to represent Scotland as a sovereign nation-state.
Broadly speaking, Covenanter thought supported a contractual theory of monarchy. The Covenants were seen as the theologically-backed expression of this contract. Through a more secular modern lens they are clearly political too. If a monarch broke their bond with their subjects, their subjects had the right to correct them.
The interpretation of this varied in post-1660 Covenanter politics. State repression and resentment pushed many latter-day Covenanters in a much more radical direction than before. If its provenance is true, then the circumstances in which this banner was painted were incredibly heated.
On 3rd May 1679 Archbishop James Sharp, the most prominent ‘official Church’ figure in Scotland, was travelling with his daughter when he was shot and stabbed to death by a group of Covenanters. One of these assassins, John Weddell (or Waddell), hailed from New Monkland. He was captured at Bothwell Bridge and hanged later that year.
On 29th May a group of around 70 armed Covenanters issued a ‘Testimony’ at the cross of Rutherglen, South Lanarkshire. Coinciding with the anniversary of the Restoration of Charles II, the declarants added to the sense of theatre by extinguishing celebratory bonfires and burning copies of various anti-presbyterian Acts of the Stuart monarchy. The collision course was set for the Battle of Bothwell Bridge less than four weeks later.
The lettering and motifs of the East Monkland flag are painted on in what are thought to be oil-based paints. These are longer-lasting, especially on a textile medium such as silk. There is some tarnished metallic paint – perhaps even gilding – evident in the script.
Most battle standards at this time were based on simple visual symbols. However, as with many Covenanter flags, slogans are central to the design of East Monkland.
This is a reflection of literacy programmes that came from the Calvinist ideal of encouraging godliness through self-study of the Bible. The average Covenanter, regardless of background, would have been able to read and understand these sometimes-complex statements and what they stood for.
With the exception of ‘Munkland’ – the spellings of place names were less standardised – the text is plainly modern. Its slightly-frayed message is otherwise clear: “East Munkland For R[e]formatio[n] In Church And Sta[te], According To The Word Of [God] And Our Covenants.” The slogan is a reaffirmation of ‘the Covenants’, both Biblical and political.
The noting of ‘East Munkland’ is significant in indicating John Main of Ballochney’s home parish, better known as New Monkland.
In contrast with the earlier state-led Covenanter movement, the Covenanter volunteers at Bothwell Bridge 1679 were less hierarchically organised and drawn from covert local networks. The noting of this local identity on the flag would be consistent with how the Bothwell rebels were recruited and organised.
Main the militant?
The slogan itself is intriguing. It raises questions about the politics of the group who bore the East Monkland flag and to which faction or tendency they belonged within the broader Covenanter spectrum.
The Covenanting movement was not uniform in its politics, especially by the late 1670s. The build-up to the Battle of Bothwell Bridge was (in)famously marked by heated disputes between various ‘moderate’ and ‘militant’ factions in the rebel camp, reflecting the different divisions that existed.
Many other Covenanter banners declare support for ‘Croun’ (such as the Mauchline flag) or ‘King’, such as the “For God King and Covenants” used in the Kilbryd flag. These show a more obvious level of deference to the idea of the ‘legitimate’ monarch, perhaps one who needed correcting by their subjects.
With the East Monkland flag, ‘King’ or ‘Crown’ is conspicuous by its absence from the central slogan. Royal authority is alluded to with the crowned thistle, but this is ambiguous. As mentioned, it could also be used to represent the sovereign Kingdom of Scotland.
Instead, the more detailed demand of ‘For Reformation in Church and State, According to the Word of God and Our Covenants’ is most prominent.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that these were republican Covenanters, but the language and prominence of different elements in this banner would suggest the East Monkland banner was created by a group with a less conciliatory, more radical outlook. The slogan echoes the language of the more militant Cameronian or later United Societies Covenanters.
This ‘revolutionary wing’ of the Covenanter movement – largely composed of small farmers and other labouring classes – was very anti-aristocratic and anti-clerical in its outlook, seeing these elements as vacillatory and having ‘sold out’ to the Restoration state.
In the same spirit the slogan indicates the ideological commitment to a fully Covenanted state and Church, completing, as they saw it, the revolution that the Reformation had only half-finished in both.
As explored in Part 2, we know that John Whitelaw of Stand was associated with the United Societies in the 1680s. It is not a stretch to imagine that this flag might reflect ‘militant’ attitudes that existed among at least some of the East Monkland Covenanters at Bothwell Bridge.
A militant network?
Other examples which use the “Reformation in Church and State…” slogan or a variation are the now-lost Loudoun flag from East Ayrshire and the ‘Avendaill’ Banner from Avondale (or Strathaven) Parish, South Lanarkshire, which is held by National Museums Scotland.
Like East Monkland, ‘Avendaill’ refers it to its parish of origin, another area where militancy was strong before and after 1679. The banner uses both an open Bible and the wording “Avendaill For Reformation In Church And State According To The Word of God And Our Covenants”. This slogan is not just a similarity, but a word-for-word duplication.
The most similar surviving example – which also uses the exact same phrase, an open Bible and a crowned thistle in an almost identical layout – is a flag from Shotts, a neighbour to East (New) Monkland Parish. This is also held by National Museums Scotland.
Whilst it appears to lack a blade, and as with Avendaill (and Kilbryd) uses red lettering instead of the black-outlined gold lettering of East Monkland, the Shotts banner is so remarkably similar it looks as if it could have been painted side by side with East Monkland.
Given their geographical closeness it is not inconceivable that close networks of contact existed between these groups, and that one banner was inspired by the other in its design.
There are at least two other quite different Avondale flags which survive, both of which are thought to have been at Bothwell Bridge. These are held by South Lanarkshire Museums (see them here: Link 1 Link 2).
This would suggest that there were different groups from within these parishes who attended the battle. It could be that the different outlooks of these groups is reflected in their banners.
This certainly raises the question: was there a dialogue or ideological closeness between these East Monkland, Shotts, and Avondale groups that informed the similarities in their message?
The Covenanters of East Monkland who rallied around this banner – mostly an assortment of farmers, craft workers and labourers – were clearly very coherent and articulate in identifying and expressing their beliefs, and creative in the ways of communicating them too.
The design both references other banners and plays around with recognisable motifs to relay a particular message. It embodies key aspects of the Covenanters’ politico-religious beliefs, agitation, and conflict with the Restoration state. The banner also indicates the East Monkland group at Bothwell Bridge were part of a wider network and perhaps part of a more radical tendency within the Covenanter movement.
From the perspective of the study of Covenanting material culture it is an invaluable contributor for comparison with the surviving flags scattered across museums, churches and private collections in Scotland.
Likewise it intersects with the Nationally Significant collection of flags and banners in North Lanarkshire museums’ collection – the expression of hundreds of years of different collective identities and causes, from friendly and co-operative societies to trade unionism and political reform.
As part of this diverse body of material the East Monkland flag gives us a close glimpse into the beliefs of a group of Covenanters and how they expressed themselves. Their use of banners as a means of collective identity and protest are very recognisable today, and form a crucial part in the beginnings of these traditions in both Lanarkshire and wider Scotland.
With thanks to Lyndsay McGill and David Forsyth, National Museums Scotland, for the Shotts flag image and the very useful article on NMS’ Covenanting flags ‘Thistles and Thrissels‘.
‘Rebel Religion’ is a 3-part series on objects relating to Covenanters in the North Lanarkshire museum collections:
Part 1: Introduction – Meet the Covenanters
Part 2: the death shroud of John Whitelaw, the ‘Monklands Martyr’
Part 3: The East Monkland Banner, carried at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge
Blog: John Main, Martyr?