BY midday on Saturday

May 3, 1679, James Sharp,

Archbishop of St Andrews, planned to complete a leisurely journey home from a meeting of the Privy Council in Edinburgh.

He had spent Friday night as the guest of an old friend at Kennoway in Fife and, because he liked a drink

and a smoke, had also made a mid-

morning halt with another crony near Ceres. Now, seated comfortably in his coach, accompanied by his daughter Isabel, with a driver in front, a

postilion behind and three mounted

servants trotting alongside, he was on the final lap, travelling by the road, still there today, which leads down from Strathkinness over Magus Muir to St Andrews.

Suddenly the postilion, looking back, was alarmed to see a band of riders fast closing with them. The coach had just passed through the hamlet of Magus and faced, for the last two miles of the route, a bleak and lonely stretch. But the towers of

St Andrews were already in sight. Sharp ordered the coachman to whip up the horses and make a run for it.

Like all Scottish roads of the time this was no more than a rutted track. Still, the archbishop had good, strong, healthy horses, and for half a mile or so it seemed they might be able to keep ahead. But one pursuer outran the rest.

As he drew level with the lurching, rumbling coach, he slashed at the

postilion with his sword and, leaning sideways, fired his pistols at Sharp. Then he pulled in front, ignoring blows from the coachman's whip and shots from another of the servants.

He wounded the leading horse and grabbed the reins. The coach shuddered to a halt.

The rest of the gang caught up. There were nine of them, two local lairds, John Balfour of Burleigh and David Hackstone of Rathillet, six farmer lads, George Balfour, William Dingwall, George Fleming, James Russell, Alexander and Andrew Henderson, and a weaver from Balmerino, Andrew Gillan.

They had been looking for trouble all morning. They were really after the Sheriff of Fife, the man in charge of the troops sent to the county to suppress conventicles, illegal services held in the open air by Presbyterians who would not conform to the

government's religious policy. They hoped to surprise him out hunting, but he had got wind of them and shut himself up in Cupar. Then someone told them Sharp was passing by in his coach. They took it as a sign that God meant them to punish him.

The archbishop had not yet been hurt, except for a bullet which grazed his chest from such close range that the heat scorched his clothes, but Isabel dabbed out the smoulder. The gang wrenched open the door of the coach and dragged him to the ground, stabbing him in the kidneys as they did so. Two of them hustled Isabel aside and disarmed the servants, who could only look on at the horrible scene which followed.

The pack had murder in their eyes. Sharp fell on his knees and begged them for his life. In reply, one viciously cut him across the forehead. Isabel screamed so loud that she was heard in Magus back down the road.

The attackers worked themselves up into a frenzy, bawling at Sharp that he was about to get his just deserts for his own cruelty and injustice. He began to pray, which provoked them to slash at his arms, then hack at his head again and again, with such force that they split his skull and exposed his brain. And so, in brutal fashion, the archbishop died.

The assassins paused only to search Isabel and the servants, then rifle through the luggage, before they rode off the way they had come. Sharp was left to return to his archiepiscopal seat as a battered, bloody corpse.

He was 61 years old. Born at Banff, son of the town's sheriff clerk, he had been educated at King's College, Aberdeen, then become a regent, a junior academic, at St Andrews. But he meant to enter the ministry, and was called to Crail in 1648.

The effigy on his tomb shows a sharp-set, foxy little man, and it soon grew clear that he was more interested in politics than in theology. At first a Covenanter, he advanced himself fast enough to get on the committee appointed to look after the affairs of the Church of Scotland when the General Assembly broke up in the face of Oliver Cromwell's invasion in 1651. He and the other members were cornered and captured at Alyth, before being sent prisoner to London.

Scotland's calamity was Sharp's opportunity. Diligent, discreet and persuasive, he got himself noticed. And, after his release a year later, he became one of the Kirk's diplomats, shuttling back and forth to London in efforts to ease its plight under a suspicious government. He worked for George Monck, commander of the English occupying army, and went south with him in January 1660. Monck trusted him enough to send him over to Holland with the party that negotiated the return of Charles II.

Not many ministers of Crail had looked at a king. When Sharp returned to Edinburgh in August, with a royal letter favourable to the moderate Presbyterians, he came as the man of the hour, relieving fears and uncertainties at a time when legitimate government had yet to be restored in Scotland.

It is fair to say that there was then still a chance that the moderate

Presbyterians would win back what they regarded as their rightful place, in charge of the Kirk. But these hopes were dashed. Instead came the return of the bishops, a solution favoured only by a royalist minority.

And suddenly Sharp appeared at the head of the lot, as Archbishop of

St Andrews and Primate of All Scotland. Here was an example of that never popular figure, a Scotsman on the make. His countrymen just called him Judas.

But he did try, under his political boss, the Duke of Lauderdale, to heal the wounds in the Kirk. More than 270 ministers who would not accept bishops had been deprived of their charges. That so enraged their flocks that the first rising of the Covenanters resulted. It ended with defeat at the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666, and the cold-blooded execution of 30 captives by Tam Dalyell of the Binns.

In 1669 Lauderdale changed tack, and issued an indulgence which restored 42 ministers to their parishes. A second, in 1672, allowed 90 more to preach. The consequence was only to widen the Presbyterian split. If moderates reconciled themselves to the new order, others flew to the extreme in their opposition, and many ordinary Scots followed them.

Sharp had already suffered one attempt on his life. One afternoon in July 1668 he was in Edinburgh with the Bishop of Orkney, Andrew

Honeyman. As they entered their coach in the High Street, they paused to scatter coins to a clamouring crowd of the poor. One suddenly pulled out a gun and fired at the archbishop. The bullet missed him but shattered Honeyman's arm. Their servants were too shocked to do anything but stare as the disguised beggar took to his heels. And Sharp was so hated that nobody else tried to stop him.

But an assassin's face is doubtless hard to forget for the victim who

survives. In February 1674, the archbishop was again in Edinburgh, and during an idle moment happened to look in the window of a shop selling brandy and tobacco. Staring back at him was the shopkeeper, a ''lean

hollow-cheeked man of a truculent countenance'', in whom he recognised his would-be killer. It was one James Mitchell, who had studied but failed to become a minister, and now ran this humble business with his wife. Sharp had him arrested.

The Privy Council examined Mitchell in camera. He denied everything till Sharp and Lauderdale offered him a pardon in exchange for a confession. He was sent to the Bass Rock, used as a prison for Covenanters. Four years passed.

Suddenly Mitchell was brought back, to be tried for his life. His counsel protested that this broke his bargain. Sharp and Lauderdale claimed there had never been one, though the register of the Privy

Council showed they were perjuring

themselves. The judges ruled such evidence inadmissible anyway, and condemned the prisoner. Lauderdale quipped cruelly: ''Let Mitchell glorify God in the Grassmarket'' - the place where the gibbet stood.

By now Scotland was seething. In the Highlands, ferocious warfare went on between Clan Campbell and Clan MacLean, as the Earl of Argyll conquered Morvern, Mull, and Tiree. The government in Edinburgh left them to it, having its own hands full with the conventicles. Lauderdale was sick, about to have a stroke

and losing his grip. The members of the Privy Council were at one another's throats.

Parliament voted #1.8m for military action against the conventicles, some now attracting 10,000 of the faithful. The money went on the so-called Highland Host of 8000 troops (most actually from the Lowlands) sent to the rebellious areas. They spent much of their time plundering, and in

any case made little difference to the security of Scotland.

The Covenanters were even able to form opposing forces. Their most famous preachers, Richard Cameron and John Welsh, grandson of John Knox, went about with bodyguards of their own. There was no shortage of volunteers to stand sentry while the conventicles worshipped, and armed clashes were frequent.

Seething Scotland finally boiled over with the assassination of Sharp. One day soon afterwards in Falkirk,

a Covenanter casually walked up

and fired at royal soldiers eating

their rations outside in the sunshine. They chased and captured him, then brought him to be interrogated by their commander, John Grahame

of Claverhouse.

This grimly handsome soldier, 31 years old, had come back from

soldiering in Europe to rejoin the Scottish army. The interrogation was no doubt a ruthless and efficient one. Claverhouse learned that a conventicle for people from 18 parishes was about to be summoned at Glasgow. He rushed his troops there.

The Covenanting leaders, joined now by the murderers of Sharp, were indeed preparing for a showdown. Claverhouse's move forced them to stop short at Rutherglen, just in time for the king's birthday on May 29, a public holiday. They used it to stage a show of defiance.

Into the traditional celebratory bonfires they threw copies of all the oppressive Acts of Parliament. They then nailed to the town's market cross a Declaration and Testimony denouncing every violation of the Covenant over the past 20 years.

Two days later, Claverhouse went on the offensive, riding out of Glasgow with some hundreds of soldiers. The Covenanters, thousands strong, were holding an armed conventicle at Drumclog, on moorland to the south of Strathaven. He attacked as soon as he caught sight of them, and scattered their sentries.

At that, the whole body of Covenanters brokers off their prayers and turned to face the assault. Men and women seized what weapons they had, a few swords and pistols, but mostly pikes and pitchforks. Singing their metrical psalms, they advanced fearlessly down a hillside. The ground at the foot was sodden - it is described in various accounts as a bog or a stank or even a loch.

The Covenanters waded right through, as if it was not there, and set on Claverhouse's cavalry drawn up along the other side. They began to fall to his blades and bullets. Among the first was Dingwall, one of Sharp's assassins, who died ''ravished with joy in his assurance of glory in heaven''. Even so, this huge mass of people, inexperienced and ill-armed as they were, threatened to overwhelm the soldiers.

A wound to Claverhouse's horse decided the battle. Gashed in the belly, it bolted from the field carrying him with it. His men lost no

time in following. They left behind about 30 dead or wounded. One was called Patrick Graham; when the Covenanters found out his name they mutilated him and mashed his head to jelly, thinking he was Claverhouse.

By the time the real Claverhouse got back to Strathaven and found himself a second horse, it was too late to save the day. He and his men trailed abjectly out of town, pelted by the

people with stones and the contents of their middens, raising hoots of mocking laughter when he menaced these civilians with a rearguard action.

There was now no chance of defending Glasgow either. Claverhouse erected a few barricades, but at the appearance of the insurgents, swelled after their victory by thousands more, he withdrew towards Stirling. The city largely supported the Covenanters anyway, so there was no real

danger to it.

They vandalised the cathedral, because Alexander Burnet, Archbishop of Glasgow, figured among their most militant enemies. They had burned down his and other royalists' houses. The one chance they had to indulge their taste for gruesomeness was when they came upon the recent graves of two of his infants: they exhumed the tiny corpses and despoiled them.

The turn of events was extraordinary. The whole West of Scotland had broken out in revolt. The rebels

had seized the second city almost unopposed. Nothing like this had been seen since the glorious days of the Covenant.

In 1638, however, the Scots had at once readied themselves, and very effectively, for a long fight. This time they fell to their other favourite occupation, and argued. The most fanatical, those round Cameron, would not recognise an uncovenanted government or even work with anybody

who did. The somewhat milder

mainstream led by Welsh called for a free Parliament and General Assembly, presumably to ratify the Covenants all over again. A third

faction under John Blackadder called for passive resistance.

The arguments became academic with the approach of a new royal army hastily gathered and sent out from Edinburgh under the Duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II. Married to the Duchess of Buccleuch, he was thus also a Scottish magnate, though he had never before set foot in the country. As good-looking as Claverhouse, but much more debonair, he was also the darling of the Whig party, as a foe of the creeping Popish influences at the king's court in London.

So he was a man some Covenanters thought they could talk to, and they sent a delegation to meet him. He refused to negotiate but promised, if they would lay down their arms and ask for mercy, to intercede on their behalf with the king. This only set off fresh argument among them.

Meanwhile, on June 22, he reached Bothwell Brig, where the main body of 4000 rebels stood guard over the passage of the River Clyde. They were expected to defend it yet instead, accordingly to the Whig historian, Gilbert Burnet, ''they stood looking down on it, like men who had lost their senses, till the duke made himself master of it, and upon the first charge threw down their arms and ran away''. Monmouth's own forces set straight about a massacre, but he put a stop to it: ''He could not, he said, kill men in cold blood; that was the work of a butcher.''

With that the second Covenanters' rising in effect ended. But Monmouth was lenient. He had only a few

executed, five of them on Magus

Muir, where their hanged bodies

were left to rot in chains. Prisoners who refused a promise not to bear arms again were transported to the West Indies, most of them perishing in a shipwreck off Orkney. The rest, after some weeks of imprisonment

in the kirkyard of Greyfriars in

Edinburgh, were allowed to go home.

Monmouth issued a fresh indulgence to Presbyterian ministers and

even legalised conventicles, if held inside private houses.

But the respite proved brief. Charles II tired of his wayward son's habit of encouraging his opponents, and exiled him to Holland. Scotland was to be ruled instead by the king's brother, the Duke of Albany, the future James VII. He arrived in Edinburgh just as the decade was about to close, on December 4, 1679, with his wife, Mary of Modena, suffering from a heavy cold after a tedious journey through early snow.

The corporation invited the royal couple to a civic reception, which must have been a lively evening as

36 glass ashets, 16 glass plates, and

12 jelly glasses were smashed. But at his first meeting of the Privy Council, Albany refused to take the oath of allegiance because it contained a declaration against Roman Catholicism repugnant to him, a convert of some years' standing. Mass was heard at Holyroodhouse for the first time in more than a century.

Albany seemed an unlikely solution to Scotland's problems, at this point as desperate as they had ever been: the nation in misery or uproar, rulers and ruled at daggers drawn, violence, tyranny, and oppression apparently the sole available policies. Where would it all end?

n The next instalment of Michael Fry's 40-part history of Scotland will appear on May 31.