What You Call Free, part one: ‘You’re a Jezebel and a blight on godly society...’

This novel begins in 1687 but the story stretches back nearly fifty years earlier, long before Helen and Jonet, who were both real women, were born.

Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 7:29 am
What You Call Free

On a short February day in 1638, the National Covenant was first signed in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. Many Scots would go on to add their names to this document, pledging to defend their reformed faith against crown interference and control. Those who supported this and subsequent declarations were soon on a collision course with the Stuart kings, who believed their absolute right to rule as they chose came directly from God.

Decades of conflict followed. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Helen Alexander was a little girl of six, unaware that the hopes of the Covenanters had just been shattered. Charles rejected the Covenants and reintroduced crown-appointed bishops to rule the Scottish kirk. Those who resisted - about a quarter of all ministers - were removed from their parishes. Some fled abroad, while others took part in a campaign of theological persuasion, open-air worship and armed resistance.

A series of flashpoints came in 1679. A group of Covenanters murdered the Archbishop of St Andrews, and amid the turmoil that followed, the Covenanting army was heavily defeated at the battle of Bothwell Brig. By this time, Helen was twenty-five and had become convinced of the Covenanting cause. Her husband did not share her views. The government of Charles II was determined to crush the rebels completely and used extreme force on the Covenanters and their sympathisers. In 1683 the ‘persecuted remnant’, as they saw themselves, gained a new leader in twenty-one-year-old preacher James Renwick.

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St Giles' Cathedral which features in Flora Johnston's debut novel What You Call Free

Two years later, Charles II died and his brother James VII and II succeeded to the throne. The new king wanted to protect and promote his own Roman Catholic faith and so offered some limited freedoms to worship. Many who had previously supported the Covenants complied, but James Renwick and his followers refused to compromise. Known as the Society People, they were hunted more fiercely than ever. By 1687 much ink had been spilled, much blood had been shed, and the struggle continued. James Renwick was on the run, hiding in the hills and preaching at illegal gatherings. He was the most wanted man in the kingdom.

Helen Alexander, now a widow of thirty-three, was one of his most committed supporters. As for Jonet Gothskirk, eighteen years old and pregnant, the affairs of kirk and state couldn’t have been further from her mind.

Chapter One: Sunday 23rd October 1687

This day Jonet Gothskirk entered into the place of public repentance, appearing there in Sackcloth for her Adultery with William Murdoch. Sackcloth on skin. Harsh and unforgiving, it scoured the softness of her body. The coarse material was uncomfortable, aye, but far worse were the things living in it. Biting. Vicious beasts. But she would not move. She would not twitch or scratch or shift on the stool – or no more than was necessary. They would never know how raw this felt.

And yet, far worse than the feel of the thing was the smell. She could pick out the most pungent odours. And the persistent trace of Libby Kerr, that ill-famed woman who was known to wear this sackcloth gown most often. It stank of shame. But Jonet wouldn’t think that. If she thought about shame, she might open her ears, and let that monotonous drone become a series of words, directed at her. She might start to see features, well-kent faces, in the formless, shifting cloud just beyond the horizon of her unfocused gaze.

Just dinna let them in. She was learning fast.

It was a different story a fortnight syne, when they summoned her here to appear before them in private. She’d been sure of herself then, and sure too of him. She still had solid ground beneath her, then. Aye, she was feart, but her crime wasn’t so unusual. She’d opened herself too early to him, that was all. There would be a rebuke, and maybe a Sabbath of humiliation before them, Will at her side. It would be something to laugh over later as they lay in each other’s arms.

Oh, how wrong she had been. She had stood in the hollow dark of the empty kirk. Light flickered up into their faces and not one glimmer of kindness or sympathy could she find amid the restless shadows.

‘Jonet Gothskirk, you are summoned here to answer a charge of adultery with William Murdoch.’

Adultery?

‘Do you admit your guilt?’

In the name of all that was good, what did they mean by adultery?

Then he was leaning forward, the minister, Mr Mackenzie, his eyes glinting in the light of those candles. ‘You’re a Jezebel and a blight on godly society, Jonet Gothskirk, in

your fornication with another woman’s husband. And what’s more, you’re carrying his bastard, are you no?’

Another woman’s husband?

He got to his feet so fast the table near overturned, and came round close beside her, too close beside her, his black gown brushing the earthen floor. He thrust a heap of rough, clarty material into her arms. ‘Put this on and get down on your knees, woman.’

And she was looking round them, bewildered, these men she’d kent all her life. Surely someone would say this was wrong. Will was nobody’s husband, not yet, and soon he

would be hers. A whispered promise.

And the bairn. How could they possibly ken about the bairn? Then someone had hold of her, gripping her with strong fingers, and the gown was hauled over her head. She

was choking on the stour as another set of hands pushed down on her shoulders, pushing her down until she was huddled on the floor, knees and hands both pressed hard into the damp earth, hair brushing the ground.

Dear God, what is this, what is this?

Tomorrow: Exposed. Defenceless. She felt shame

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