THE COMING OF THE SCOTS
PART 3 of 3
About 1610 a portion of the ruined Abbey at Comber was fitted out as a church. We don’t know a lot about this old church, although there is a description from the 1830s. “There is no tower or steeple. It is built like a common house with merely a small arch erected on its southern gable, in which is a bell”. We also know that it had a wooden roof, as a report by a Commission in1625 states that the roof of the church at Comber had been taken from the woods. Hugh Montgomery was Episcopalian in his religious views; that is to say he believed in the rule by bishops. He ensured that all churches and clergy under his patronage also adhered to these views, including, we must assume, James Fresall, appointed in 1622. Hamilton paid for one-third of the rebuilding, as he owned one-third of Comber Parish. Montgomery supplied bells for the churches on his estate. These were very necessary items in the days when few people possessed a clock. Unfortunately the Comber one was lost at the time of the Rebellion of 1641. He also provided a Geneva or “Breeches” bible for use in each of the churches. This English translation had been printed in Geneva in 1560 and took its nickname from the word “breeches” used in Genesis chapter 3 verse 7 instead of “aprons”. “They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves breeches”.
Then in 1641 the Roman Catholics rebelled. They felt aggrieved about the loss of their lands and the suppression of their religion. This was a bitter religious war and there were tales of great cruelty being meted out by the rebels. Just how much of thiswas true is debatable, but it was believed and caused great panic in places such as Comber. Montgomery had died in 1636, but his son, the 2nd Viscount, received a commission as Colonel of 1000 foot and five troops of horse, all of which he would have had to pay out of his own pocket. Hamilton, now in his 80s, was also authorised to raise a regiment from his tenants. In February 1642 the rebels approached from the Killinchy direction to within a couple of miles of Comber. But the settlers were victorious. At a place named as Battletown by the author of the Montgomery Manuscripts, the rebels were defeated and put to flight. Battletown is an old name for Drumreagh.
The English now paid a Scots army to come over to Ulster and put down the rebellion. This was largely a Presbyterian army, and so Presbyterianism once more found itself in the driving seat. In 1642 the army formed the first presbytery on Irish soil to provide for their spiritual needs. Applications were made by a number of parishes to be taken under the care of this presbytery, and Comber was one of them. And so in 1645 James Gordon came to Comber as a Presbyterian minister. He began as minister at St Mary’s, as this was the only church in Comber. However, it is interesting that the congregation of 1st Comber dates its formation from Gordon’s arrival. There was probably no Presbyterian church in Comber until about 1670 and the lease of the present 1st Comber dates from 1686. The property is described as “Two tenements and a half in the Coo Vennel”. The Coo Vennel or Cow Lane was High Street.
Gordon took charge of this first Presbyterian congregation, having been thrown out of the parish church in 1661 by Jeremy Taylor, the bishop of Down. He was replaced by William Dowdall, who conformed to orthodox Episcopalian views. Dowdall had a rough reception, having his surplice pulled off in the church by a crowd of women. But Gordon was fortunate that the Lady Montgomery of this period was a Presbyterian and she was able to provide him with some support through these difficult times. This was the widow of the 2nd Viscount, the former Lady Jean Alexander, who had been a daughter of James I’s Secretary of State for Scotland.
The townland of Mount Alexander takes its name from her, because here was Mount Alexander castle, not really a castle at all but rather a large manor house. The 1st Viscount had built it around 1622 as a wedding present for his son and Lady Jean. Much of the stone came from the old abbey. Today it has long gone, but the Kennel Bridge takes its name from the kennels for the castle’s hunting dogs which were nearby.
Lady Jean later re-married, and her new husband was General Munro, who had been commander of the Scots army that came to Ulster in 1642. He was to live with her in Comber. Lady Jean’s son was now the 3rd Viscount. He seems to have been rather a curiosity because, due to an accident when young, he had an opening in his side through which his heart could be seen beating. This was covered over by a silver plate. His condition had come to the attention of the king, who showed him to William Harvey, the man who discovered the circulation of the blood. He became General of the Royalist forces in Ulster and in 1646 was imprisoned by Owen Roe O’Neill after defeat at the battle of Benburb. Later he suffered much in the time of Oliver Cromwell with exile for a period followed by heavy fines and constant persecution. On top of this came heartbreak with the death of his young wife in 1655. The Viscount’s health deteriorated and he eventually suffered a stroke. However, when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 his fortunes changed and great honours were showered upon him. Among other things he became Earl of Mount Alexander, where he had come back to live with his mother, and this title descended with the Montgomeries until the line came to an end with the 5th Earl in 1757.
By this time the Montgomery family no longer owned Comber, apart from the manor of Mount Alexander itself and the land attached to it. They had fallen on hard times, beginning with the burning down of Newtown House in 1663. In 1675 the 2nd Earl was forced to sell the whole parish of Newtownards, along with land at Greyabbey, to Sir Robert Colvil, and in 1679 the lands at Comber followed. In 1743 the Colvils in turn sold out to Alexander Stewart, father of the 1st Lord Londonderry, and so Comber came into the hands of the Londonderry family.
It was the 2nd Earl of Mount Alexander to whom the famous Comber letter of 1688 was addressed. It was found on the streets of the town and warned of a general massacre of Protestants planned for the following Sunday. The events of 1641 were still fresh in people’s minds and a sense of panic resulted. A series of events was triggered off which led to the shutting of the gates of Derry by the apprentice boys in the face of the Jacobite army. Many people fled the country at this time, including Sir Robert Colvil, John Hamilton the Presbyterian minister and John Binning the schoolmaster.
But the Earl of Mount Alexander remained to take command of the Protestant forces of Antrim and Down. In March 1689 the half-trained troops were scattered at Dromore and North Down was taken over by the Catholic followers of Magennis of Iveagh from the Mourne region. They were in turn thrown out by a makeshift force put together by an experienced soldier called Henry Hunter, who rescued Comber among other towns from the Jacobites. Relief was short-lived and, after a rout of the Protestants at Killyleagh, the Jacobites were back. Permanent relief eventually came with the landing of Schomberg’s army at Groomsport in August.
I don’t intend to go into a full history of the Montgomery and Hamilton families. Just a quick word about the Hamiltons. James Hamilton, Viscount Claneboye, died in 1643.
What is there today in Comber to remind us of these first settlers from Scotland?
Take a look in the graveyard of St Mary’s parish church. Many of them lie buried here, both Anglican and Presbyterian side by side, for this was the only graveyard. Their headstones were simple e.g. “Here lyeth the body of Hugh McCaie who died the 18 of Dec. 1685”. And of course there is the slab of red limestone fixed to the wall of the church commemorating Isaac Meredith of Kilbreght who, if we are to believe all that we see, had a grand old innings of 127 years, dying in 1723.
A badly worn memorial stone at the gable end of the church was recently restored. “Near this place lyeth the body of ye Rev Mr E.B., ye late learned and pious minister of this congregation and chaplain to the Earle of Mount Alexander. He died on 15th February 1710, very much lamented”. This was Edmund Bennett, rector from 1699.
Some monuments were transferred over from the old church. One such can today be seen on the inside wall of the tower. It bears two dates – 1633 and 1637, along with two coats of arms and two sets of letters. Likewise there are two mottoes – “thus unjoyned by God” and “there is no way which vertue gois not through”.
The names of the early Scots remain common today – names like Hamilton and Montgomery, Andrews, Maxwell, Johnston, Henderson, McMurray and Thompson. And until recent years there was more than a hint of the old Scots dialect to be heard. That seems to be disappearing fast. As indeed is much of the old character of the Scots market town which lasted well into the 20th century. The pace of life gets ever faster. However, I hope that this talk has helped us to re-establish a link with our past, and that in future, whenever we pass St Mary’s, we will give more than a passing thought to our ancestors of 400 years ago who risked their future by coming over from Scotland to this beautiful part of Ulster.
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