The Presbyterian Church and Civil authorities of the 16th and 17th Century Scotland were ruthless in the prosecution of their religious certainty and mission. The case of Thomas Aitkenhead in 1696 Edinburgh illustrates the regime that then existed and affected every citizen in Scotland. On 23 December 1696 eighteen year old Thomas Aikenhead was charged in Edinburgh Justiciary Court for blasphemy.
Thomas had said that Christian doctrine was “a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense”. He had called the Old Testament “Fables” and the new testament “the history of the Imposter Christ”. He preferred the teachings of Mahomet to those of Christ and rejected the Trinity, Reincarnation and Redemption.
The prosecution asked for the death sentence “to the example and terror of others to committ the lyke in tyme coming.”
Witnesses (other students) confirmed the charges which were all circumstantial and probably said in jest. Thomas begged for mercy on the grounds of his youth and said he was merely repeating phrases from aetheistical books supplied by one of the witnesses. He confirmed his belief in the Trinity and the scriptures, expressed deep contrition and promised to make amends. If this were the Spanish Inquisition or the Afghan Taliban that contrition would have saved his life but this was Presbyterian Scotland.
With great Christian charity, on Christmas eve the jury found Thomas guilty of railing against God and Christ. He was condemned to be taken to the Gallowlee and hanged. The execution was carried out on 8th January 1697. Before he was hanged, Thomas read from a paper declaring that he had come to doubt the objectivity of good and evil, and to believe that moral laws were really the work of governments or men, and that he was confident Christianity would be utterly exterpat by the year 1800.
In the years following the Reformation (1560) all customs and observances of the people which were directly or by association, connected with the Catholic faith were banned. These included, fasts, holy days, festivals and festivities. Music always attendant on these occasions was deemed the inciter of abominations and consequently common minstrels and pipers were black-listed.
Town Council and presbytery records show how active the attack was on those who continued the customs or observances of their forefathers, in the latter years of the sixteenth century and well into the eighteenth. The marvel is that any folk customs continued to survive. Survive they did. Those who cared for them were as determined and clever as those who banned them. The music and dancing went ‘underground’. Tune titles and songs abound with ambiguity – a secret code developed, which was innocuous to the uninitiated, but humorous and telling to those in the know. Strangely the great service the reformers carried out was in recording the detail of the customs they were persecuting. The records of the punishment unconsciously tell us much of the people and their customs.
However in what the church reformers failed to achieve, the social reformers succeeded. Agricultural improvements enabled more and better food production, population increased, the industrial revolution began, cities grew, people left their farms, burgh towns and old communities and became absorbed in the new cosmopolitan life. Education improved, directing towards a standard concept of reality. An analytical, rational approach to living allows no place for superstition, folk traditions or spontaneity. As the missionary ridicules the witch doctor so the educator and educated, ridicule the eccentric and non-conformist. Everything must accord with the rationalist plan. Music must be performed on ‘the well tempered scale’ else it be not music. Rhythm must be countered and measured but not felt.
Against all this the pipers still pipe on, playing the tunes they always played with a whole lot of ‘new’ ones into the bargain. There are few wind instruments which can boast of an unbroken heritage of at least 600 years in one country. The classical wind are just babies by comparison. Against all the odds, the craziest of instruments, played by the craziest of people still thrives. Its music, most powerful, vital and energetic has sustained people through the many and severe adversities that history has flung at them. Not a false history bedecked in tartan, strewn with thistles and haggis boiled in whisky, but a subsistence; a long hard struggle against nature, disease, poverty, punitive discrimination, torturers and war mongers.
“Ministers are required to give up the names of idle sangsters and minstrellers within the parish to the end they may be called and punished as idle vagabonds, peripatetics of that profession being generally if not actual Papists, at least loose in the faith.” Act of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1605
This tune is now well known in Shetland as a Fiddle tune but it must have been carried there at some time from the Lowlands. At the circuit court in Stirling on June 5th 1683 a man was tried for "reviling a parson by causing a piper to play "De’il stick the minister". Sundry pipers were present as witnesses and declared it was the name of ane spring" ... A spring is the old Scots word for a tune. It seems remarkable that someone should be tried for playing a tune. What would the sentence have been if found guilty? A stickit minister was an old Scots term for someone who had not got on in the world. (Source Chambers,Domestic Annals )
De’il stick the minister’ first appears in Henry Playford’s ‘original Scotch tunes’ 1700. In Bremners Scots Reels or country dances 1760 p71 it is called ‘Shaun Truish Willichan’ and in the Scots Musical Museum it is the tune to the song ‘This is no my ain house.’
The gown and the apron were the sombre black clothes of office of a Presbyterian minister. However the "Gown" was also the colloquial name for the sackcloth robes a penitent had to wear when standing on the Repentance Stool.