Open Country by Erica Hume Niven

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The killing times – this phrase as it reads could refer to many things. Although I have seen this leaflet many times, something about those words particularly struck me today. I stopped and just looked at those words and pondered why they were so pertinent to me at that moment.

Initially, the way I felt inside was that something I had kindled some hope for had been slain in my mind. Of course, like the phoenix rising from the fire, I know a new situation will emerge. However, a few layers into the box of leaflets that had been stored in a stone outhouse, I found a small dead tortoiseshell butterfly.

I picked it up and could barely feel the fragile wings. They had lost some of the scales that create their pattern. The touch, barely perceptible, was a metaphor for the aspirations that had filled my mind then scattered like ashes. The butterfly in Christian symbolism is a sign of resurrection. Therefore, a butterfly fluttering about in church is considered to be the spirit of one who has passed – the killing times.

When I parked up the ranger vehicle in the afternoon I saw a dead female greenfinch lying on the ground. I assumed she had flown into a window due to her position by an office building. I seemed to stand there for an inordinate amount of time looking at her wee body – the killing times.

Another thought that drifted through my mind as I looked at the leaflet was people’s fear of the death card in tarot cards literally foretelling a death. However, it more commonly refers to the death of a situation. Seeing the butterfly and the bird, their images still mixed in with my emotions, there were strange uncomfortable poignant signs of the delicacy of some situations in life.

What are the killing times as discussed in the leaflet? They are the violent clash between Charles II’s troops and the covenanters. The covenanters were Scottish Presbyterians who objected to English Episcopalian interference in their form of worship. Their name was given because they were supporters of the National Covenant of 1638, which asked followers to oppose English bishops.

When Charles II was restored in1660 many ministers left their parishes and began holding open-air services. The legendary sites where these clandestine meetings were held are celebrated in history. Though many of the stories associated with the sites tell of execution. A series of interpretative leaflets for the Southern Upland Way includes the killing times.

Along the way there are 17 places of interest linked with covenanting history – 15 are on the western section, only two on the eastern section. In 1645 the Marquis of Montrose knocked on the door of Traquair House, but was not admitted. He had fled a Covenanting Army at Philiphaugh who had routed his Royalist troops. He followed the high Minchmoor Road.

In between Melrose and Lauder is the Covenanter’s Well. The structure of the well is no longer there, but the spring that fed it still issues forth. There is something symbolic about the water continuing to flow and the kirk in Scotland surviving despite pressures from other denominations. Nowadays, the churches of Selkirk support each other rather than working against their historical differences.

One of the most emotive stories about the execution of covenanters is marked by the Martyr’s Tomb at the Caldons in the west. The memorial in the woods commemorates six covenanters who were shot as they prayed.

So even before I had looked more closely at the history behind the phrase I had conjured up some deeply set personal meaning.

The killing times had linked what seemed like inconsequential tiny happenings during my day.

The evocative nature of the words combined with my tender emotions, imprinted on my thoughts. The phrase the killing times conjured up anger, hate, desire to find peace, the abrupt end of something, and at the same time made every small experience seem huge.