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Before Harriet Beecher Stowe left Scotland she had the opportunity to visit the studio of the painter Sir George Harvey (1806-1876) and saw two of his works there: “The Covenanters’ Communion” and “Quitting the Manse.”

As Stowe describes in Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands:

Mrs. W. and I went to the studio of Hervey [sic], the Scotch artist. Both he and his wife received us with great kindness. I saw there his Covenanters celebrating the Lord’s Suppera picture which I could not look at critically on account of the tears which kept blinding my eyes. It represents a bleak hollow of a mountain side, where a few trembling old men and women, a few young girls and children, with one or two young men, are grouped together, in that moment of hushed prayerful repose which precedes the breaking of the sacramental bread. There is something touching always about that worn, weary look of rest and comfort with which a sick child lies down on a mother’s bosom, and like this is the expression with which these hunted fugitives nestle themselves beneath the shadow of their Redeemer; mothers who had seen their sons “tortured, not accepting deliverance”—wives who had seen the blood of their husbands poured out on their doorstone—children with no father but God—and bereaved old men, from whom, every child had been rent—all gathering for comfort round the cross of a suffering Lord. In such hours they found strength to suffer, and to say to every allurement of worldly sense and pleasure as the drowning Margaret Wilson said to the tempters in her hour of martyrdom, “I am Christ’s child—let me go.”

Another most touching picture of Hervey’s commemorates a later scene of Scottish devotion and martyr endurance scarcely below that of the days of the Covenant. It is called Leaving the Manse.

We in America all felt to our heart’s core a sympathy with that high endurance which led so many Scottish ministers to forsake their churches, their salaries, the happy homes where their children were born and their days passed, rather than violate a principle.

This picture is a monument of this struggle. There rises the manse overgrown with its flowering vines, the image of a lovely, peaceful home. The minister’s wife, a pale, lovely creature, is just locking the door, out of which her husband and family have passed—leaving it forever. The husband and father is supporting on his arm an aged, feeble mother, and the weeping children are gathering sorrowfully round him, each bearing away some memorial of their home; one has the bird cage. But the unequalled look of high, unshaken patience, of heroic faith, and love which seems to spread its light over every face, is what I cannot paint. The painter told me that the faces were portraits, and the scene by no means imaginary.

But did not these sacrifices bring with them, even in their bitterness, a joy the world knoweth not? Yes, they did. I know it full well, not vainly did Christ say, There is no man that hath left houses or lands for my sake and the gospel’s but he shall receive manifold more in this life.

Mr. Hervey kindly gave me the engraving of his Covenanters’ Sacrament, which I shall keep as a memento of him and of Scotland.

His style of painting is forcible and individual. He showed us the studies that he has taken with his palette and brushes out on the mountains and moors of Scotland, painting moss, and stone, and brook, just as it is. This is the way to be a national painter.

Martyr's MonumentMartyrs’ Monument, Greyfriars Kirkyard (Source: geograph: David Dixon / Creative Commons)

Stowe concludes her account of her first visit to Scotland by contemplating the importance of the Covenanters, members of the persecuted 17th-century Scottish Presbyterian movement. As she writes:

One pleasant evening, not long before we left Edinburgh, C., S., and I walked out for a quiet stroll. We went through the Grass Market, where so many defenders of the Covenant have suffered, and turned into the churchyard of the Gray Friars; a gray, old Gothic building, with multitudes of graves around it. Here we saw the tombs of Allan Ramsay and many other distinguished characters. The grim, uncouth sculpture on the old graves, and the quaint epitaphs, interested me much; but I was most moved by coming quite unexpectedly on an ivy-grown slab, in the wall, commemorating the martyrs of the Covenant. The inscription struck me so much, that I got C—— to copy it in his memorandum book.

“Halt, passenger! take heed what you do see.
Here lies interred the dust of those who stood
‘Gainst perjury, resisting unto blood,
Adhering to the Covenant, and laws
Establishing the same; which was the cause
Their lives were sacrificed unto the last
Of prelatists abjured, though here their dust
Lies mixed with murderers and other crew
Whom justice justly did to death pursue;
But as for them, no cause was to be found
Worthy of death, but only they were found
Constant and steadfast, witnessing
For the prerogatives of Christ their King;
Which truths were sealed, by famous Guthrie’s head,
And all along to Mr. Renwick’s blood
They did endure the wrath of enemies,
Reproaches, torments, deaths, and injuries;
But yet they’re those who from such troubles came
And triumph now in glory with the Lamb.

“From May 27, 1681, when the Marquis of Argyle was beheaded, to February 17, 1688, when James Renwick suffered, there were some eighteen thousand one way or other murdered, of whom were executed at Edinburgh about one hundred noblemen, ministers, and gentlemen, and others, noble martyrs for Christ.”

Despite the roughness of the verse, there is a thrilling power in these lines. People in gilded houses, on silken couches, at ease among books, and friends, and literary pastimes, may sneer at the Covenanters; it is much easier to sneer than to die for truth and right, as they died. Whether they were right in all respects is nothing to the purpose; but it is to the purpose that in a crisis of their country’s history they upheld a great principle vital to her existence. Had not these men held up the heart of Scotland, and kept alive the fire of liberty on her altars, the very literature which has been used to defame them could not have had its existence. The very literary celebrity of Scotland has grown out of their grave; for a vigorous and original literature is impossible, except to a strong, free, self-respecting people. The literature of a people must spring from the sense of its nationality; and nationality is impossible without self-respect, and self-respect is impossible without liberty.

It is one of the trials of our mortal state, one of the disciplines of our virtue, that the world’s benefactors and reformers are so often without form or comeliness. The very force necessary to sustain the conflict makes them appear unlovely; they “tread the wine press alone, and of the people there is none with them.” The shrieks, and groans, and agonies of men wrestling in mortal combat are often not graceful or gracious; but the comments that the children of the Puritans, and the children of the Covenanters, make on the ungraceful and severe elements which marked the struggles of their great fathers, are as ill-timed as if a son, whom a mother had just borne from a burning dwelling, should criticize the shrieks with which she sought him, and point out to ridicule the dishevelled hair and singed garments which show how she struggled for his life. But these are they which are “sown in weakness, but raised in power; which are sown in dishonor, but raised in glory:” even in this world they will have their judgment day, and their names which went down in the dust like a gallant banner trodden in the mire, shall rise again all glorious in the sight of nations.

The evening sky, glowing red, threw out the bold outline of the castle, and the quaint old edifices as they seemed to look down on us silently from their rocky heights, and the figure of Salisbury Crags marked itself against the red sky like a couchant lion.

The time of our sojourn in Scotland had drawn towards its close. Though feeble in health, this visit to me has been full of enjoyment; full of lofty, but sad memories; full of sympathies and inspirations. I think there is no nobler land, and I pray God that the old seed here sown in blood and tears may never be rooted out of Scotland.