Scotland’s Protestant Martyrs: David Stratoun

from Apr 11, 2015 Category: Articles

The road which David Stratoun travelled to martyrdom in 1534 was full of unexpected twists and turns. David was a younger son of Scottish nobles. Since his older brother Andrew stood to inherit the family estate and title, David’s parents—Alexander and Janet—gifted him coastal property lying adjacent to the family estate, where he pursued a joint career in farming and salmon fishing. He was apparently rather successful in the latter endeavor, judging by the peculiar events which eventually befell him.

By all accounts, David took little interest in religion or the Kirk (Church), which in his day remained Roman Catholic. The Kirk, however, took an interest in him—not so much in his soul or salvation, but in his income, which was substantial enough to secure such attention. Scottish law required every citizen to contribute one-tenth of his earnings to the Kirk. Since few of Scotland’s citizens actually dealt in currency in their vocations, the Kirk typically collected tithes—called “Teinds” in early modern Scots dialect—in kind. In other words, they took a tenth of produce from agricultural farmers, a tenth of lambs and calves from cattle farmers, etc. Even today in Scotland a handful of “Teind Barns”—buildings where the late-medieval Kirk stored the goods it claimed from the people—remain standing, having been preserved as historic sites or put to other uses.

While the Kirk might have overlooked Scotland’s poorest when it came time to collect Teinds, it was unlikely to overlook a man like David Stratoun, who was reasonably profitable at his trade. Thus, in due course, the local vicar, acting on behalf of the Prior of St. Andrews, came calling for a tenth of David’s salmon catch. David, however, wasn’t particularly inclined to turn over any portion of his catch to a Church which, by his reckoning, didn’t provide any real services to him.

This was no simple reflection of David’s irreligiosity. The Scottish Kirk, by all accounts, was failing to minister in any meaningful way even to those Scottish citizens that desired her ministry. The vast majority of individuals on the Kirk’s payroll were absent from their charges. In theory absentee priests were required to bankroll “vicars” to perform parish duties in their stead. When this actually happened, such vicars, the lowest of the low on the clerical totem-pole, typically lacked the (theological) education necessary to read, preach, or perform the liturgy of the Mass, much less to shepherd people’s souls. Moreover, such vicars were so poorly paid that they commonly resorted to rather dubious methods of fund-raising to stay alive. Thus they might accept multiple, incompatible charges, or start charging parishioners fees to perform religious services that the people required (or at least, believed they required) from the Church—for example, baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

In short, the Kirk was in dire condition, and whatever judgment properly belongs to Stratoun for his apparent disinterest in God and the fate of his own soul, he might perhaps be forgiven for having little time for the Kirk which was demanding a portion of his own means of subsistence.

So David developed a rather ingenious plan to avoid paying his Teind. He instructed the fishermen working for him on the mouth of the River Esk to return every tenth fish they caught to the waters of the North Sea. And when the Kirk again came calling for its Teind, David informed the Teind-collectors that he had stored the Kirk’s portion of his catch in the sea, and invited them to go and retrieve it thence.

Needless to say, the Kirk was not amused. It was so un-amused, in fact, that it excommunicated David, and then, when David proved indifferent to his excommunication, charged him with heresy—a rather peculiar accusation since, by all accounts, David took no notice of doctrine at all.

The charge of heresy, however, seems to have caught David’s attention. His was a day in which “heresy”—that is, reforming ideas originating from such continental figures like Martin Luther—was on the rise in Scotland, and David suddenly took an interest, when charged himself with heresy, in what all the reforming fuss was about. And so “he began,” John Knox writes, “to frequent the company of such as were godly.”

David frequented the company of two particular men who are known to have had Protestant convictions: his nephew George Stratoun, heir apparent of the family estate, and his neighbor John Erskine of Dun, a man who subsequently played a critical role in the Scottish Reformation (serving, for example, as the superintendent of Angus and Mearns and moderator of the Reformed Kirk’s general assembly). These men began to regularly read to David from the English New Testament—presumably William Tyndale’s version which was first published in 1526. Indeed, the reading (or rather hearing, since he himself was unable to read) of Scripture became David’s chief delight, and led to his conversion: “miraculously, as it were, he appeared to be changed.”

In August of 1534, David Stratoun was called to stand trial before a special ecclesiastical tribunal composed of James V, King of Scotland, and leaders of the Kirk in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Abbey. Ironically, he had embraced views which, from Rome’s perspective, were actually “heretical” in the weeks and months since those initial, rather spurious charges of heresy were levelled against him. Hence his death sentence ultimately rested less upon his persistent refusal to deliver his Teind to the Kirk than on his rejection, when questioned, of the doctrine of purgatory, and his concomitant insistence that Christ’s sufferings upon the Cross were more than sufficient to atone for the multitude of his sins.

On the 27th of August, Stratoun’s sentence was carried out on a hill between Edinburgh and the port of Leith. The site was chosen so that the fires which consumed his body might be visible from Fife’s coastal villages across the Firth of Forth, thereby discouraging other fishermen from withholding their own Teinds from the Kirk or embracing their martyred peer’s convictions about the full sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work for his salvation. Whether anyone followed David’s lead in naming the North Sea as the bucket, as it were, where the Kirk’s share of his catch was reserved is unknown. Many followed his lead in rejecting the false doctrine of the medieval Church and embracing the gospel, spurred on in part—no doubt—by David’s own willingness to die in defense of the truth.

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Dr. Aaron Denlinger is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College.