Rev. Hugh M’Kail was martyred at Edinburgh in 1666, at twenty-six years of age. He died during the perilous times that followed the Restoration of Charles II. Despite swearing to uphold the national covenants and the Presbyterian government of the church, Charles imposed his own rule upon the church by way of bishops, ejected faithful ministers, and loosed the cruelties of his dragoons upon the countryside.
In November 1666, there was an uprising against the tyranny of Charles II known as the Pentland Rising, and it was for his connection with this movement that Hugh M’Kail was put to death. Whatever else may be said about the subject of armed resistance to tyranny, it is noteworthy that M’Kail himself was put to death despite never having been a combatant against government forces. He traveled with the Pentland men for nine days, but was forced – before the battle of Rullion Green – to leave them because of his ill health, and was captured without resistance.
M’Kail’s composure and even cheerfulness in facing death contain an edifying testimony. In the days leading up to his martyrdom, while imprisoned, he conversed with his fellow-prisoners, and his godly father also had liberty to visit him. One evening before his death, which took place in late December, as he supped with his friends, he said, “Eat to the full, and cherish your bodies, that we may be a fat Christmas-pie to the prelates.” (The observation of holy days such as Christmas was one of the Five Articles of Perth imposed upon the Scottish church by James VI in 1618.) On the morning of his execution, rising at five in the morning to seek the Lord, M’Kail pleasantly chided his companion, saying, “Up, John, for you are too long in bed: you and I look not like men going to be hanged this day, seeing we lie so long.”
The holy logic that enabled M’Kail to face death with such composure is exemplified in several questions that he proposed and answered for his friends on the night before his execution, a kind of martyr’s catechism. One these was as follows:
“How should I go from the Tolbooth through a multitude of gazing people, and guards of soldiers, to a scaffold and gibbet, and overcome the impression of all this?”
“By conceiving a deeper impression of a multitude of angels, who are on-lookers; according to that saying, ‘We are a gazing-stock to the world, angels, and men:’ for the angels, rejoicing at our good confession, are present to convoy and carry our souls, as the soul of Lazarus, to Abraham’s bosom; not to receive them, for that is Jesus Christ’s work alone, who will welcome them to heaven Himself, with the songs of angels and blessed spirits; the angels are but ministering spirits, always ready to serve and strengthen dying believers.”
Thus, this saint’s dying-in-faith models for us the truth of 2 Corinthians 4:17-18: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”