Monumental Folly – the “Covenanters’ Monument”

If you’re going to splash out on a monument, you might as well get your money’s worth.  A fine  example of parsimonious memorial-building is the “Covenanters’ Monument” outside the gates of Dreghorn Barracks.

The monument is one of the few remaining traces of Dreghorn Castle,  an impressive mansion built in 1658 by Sir Williame Murray.  Murray had been appointed Master of Works to King Charles II – crowned in Scotland in 1651, but in England not until 1660 due to the monarchy’s run-in with Cromwell’s Parliament – and decided that  his courtly status required a suitable country house.  The castle changed hands among Edinburgh’s great and good with dizzying speed for nearly 250 years, before being  taken over by the War Department early in the 20th century for use as a training area.  You can still find the remains of ‘practice trenches’ in a large area of the former castle grounds which is nowadays open to the public and offers some attractive and little-known Pentland walks – it’s just south of the city bypass, marked ‘Dreghorn Ranges’ off the sliproad by Dreghorn Services.  The castle was demolished by the Army (“comprehensively” – apparently it was a very big bang) in 1955.

In 1871 the property was acquired by Robert Macfie, the MP for Leith:  perhaps he was looking for somewhere to escape from his constituents.  One of Macfie’s hobbies was the construction of a variety of monuments and follies in the castle grounds, and the “Covenanters’ Monument” is the only one still standing.  When the Royal Infirmary moved to purpose-built premises in Lauriston Place in 1879, the William Adam-designed original building in Infirmary Street was eventually dismantled.  Robert Macfie snapped up the ornamental stonework for a song, and set about distributing it around his Dreghorn property.  The “Covenanters’ Monument” was erected in 1885 and incorporates four massive Ionic pillars which were part of a colonnade in front of the old medical building.

Having shelled out for his nearly-new building materials, Macfie decided to commemorate not just one historical episode but four.  The monument’s popular name comes from the visible face of the entablature at the top of the monument, which reads ‘Covenanters 1666’,  but the other sides are inscribed ‘Charles 1745’  (when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army marched into Edinburgh),  ‘Cromwell 1650’ (when the Roundheads occupied the city),  and, more vaguely, ‘Romans’.

The best known covenanters’ memorial is in Greyfriars Churchyard, where the Covenant was signed in 1638 and many covenanters were later imprisoned.  But like most wild areas of southern Scotland the Pentlands have many graves and reminders of the ‘conventicles’ – clandestine Presbyterian services, at which attendance was once punishable by death.   The Dreghorn monument is close to Rullion Green, site of a pitched battle where 900 covenanters were defeated by 3000 government troops with appalling reprisals to follow. The covenanters are regarded as freedom fighters by some, religious fanatics by others:  of course it was all less clear-cut than that, but for sure it was a bloody and divisive time.  Well worth a monument …

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