By the time Thomas was holding secret religious meetings in the Moray countryside, the Ross boys were grown men. Both followed in their father’s footsteps. In 1670, after studying at St Andrews, Alexander took over the charge of Fearn where the congregation met in the restored ruins of the medieval abbey. This parish included the family lands at Nether Pitkerrie which he eventually inherited. George studied at Kings College and in about 1671 he became minister of his father’s old parish of Kincardine.
Thomas and his fellow Covenanters were unmolested, and possibly tacitly ignored, by the authorities from 1669, but their good fortune ran out in 1675. The carrot and stick approach of the mid-seventies provided opportunities for ministers to be reincorporated into the church while the laws against conventicles were tightened. Field preaching now carried the death penalty and anyone who harboured the preachers faced harsh punishment. The nemesis of Thomas Ross’s Moray conventicle was the Bishop of Moray. This Murdo Mackenzie had a politic attitude to the religious disputes of the age. Connected to the Seaforths, he had served as chaplain in the army of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden during the Thirty Years War and, on his return worked for the church at Contin, then Inverness, then Elgin. It seems unlikely that MacKenzie was unaware of what Thomas Ross and his friends were getting up to, especially once Lady Kilravock was involved. So it is probable that he had initially tolerated their activities then reported them as measures against conventicles were intensified. He informed the Privy Council who required the Earl of Moray to implement the law. The Earl acted immediately. Thomas was arrested and thrown into the tolbooth at Nairn.
The sixty one year old preacher did not find the tolbooth congenial. He petitioned the Privy Council explaining that it was ‘very insufficient, and not able, from want of roof and repairing, to shelter him from the rains and storm; that he being a sickly and tender person was in hazard of his life.’ Thomas requested his freedom. It was not so easily won, but the Privy Council compromised. The Earl was to transfer him to the tolbooth at Tain and there he remained until at least May 1676. His jailers in Tain treated him kindly and permitted at least one visit from his wife who had presumably moved north again. Lilias came with her maid Jane Taylor. Jane had exciting news for Thomas. It seems likely that Lilias and Thomas had shared their faith with their servant and encouraged her to consider her own spiritual situation. During his imprisonment Jane had a conversion experience. As she later became a stalwart of the movement in Easter Ross, her own description of this meeting was preserved:
‘When I told him how my will was broken, and faith wrought and Jesus Christ manifested to me, he wept for joy.’
This was the high point of a captivity which continued until 1677. Some evidence suggests he was transferred to the Bass Rock off the coast of East Lothian with other Covenanter prisoners. He was back in the north before the end of 1677 when he submitted a petition requesting his release from Tain on grounds of ill health. He had developed a painful throat condition which kept him from speaking. The Privy Council permitted
‘him to be set at liberty, he finding caution, under the pain of two thousand merks Scots, to re-enter himself in prison when he shall be called, and that in the meantime he shall live orderly, in obedience to law’.
His final year was spent at home in Tain with Lilias. His two sons lived only a short journey away and he had many friends in the area. In January 1679 his illness worsened. He developed a fever and on Monday 7th and Tuesday 8th he told his friends he was dying. His inability to speak must have been a temporary affliction as, ever the preacher, he used his last days to encourage his friends and relatives in their faith as they came to visit him. He finally died on Sunday 13th January 1679 having earned his place among the Evangelical heroes of the north.
Hew Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae Vol. 7 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1928)
Donald Beaton, Some Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1929, 1985)
J.H.S. Burleigh, A Church History of Scotland (London: Oxford University Press, 1960)