Stepping Out of Time into Eternity

It is certain that William Tyndale never knew Murdoch Nisbet of Hardhill, Ayrshire, Scotland. However, they both worked in the 1520s; both driven by the same passionate conviction that the bible should be in their own language. Nisbet, a farmer, not a scholar or linguist, took a Wycliffe bible (translated from the Vulgate over a century before into an already outdated English), and transposed it into his Scots vernacular when this was still an act of heresy, punishable at the stake. Had it been published after the Reformation, might it have established Scots as a language, just as Tyndale founded the roots of modern English? Instead the manuscript was kept secret, a family treasure, only to be recognized in modern times.

But we have proof that Nisbet knew about Tyndale. He had almost completed his Scots New Testament, worked on in secrecy over many years, when he saw Tyndale’s translation. It must have been both a thrilling and a galling discovery. Nisbet was a working farmer, with no leisure to begin again. As a compromise, he incorporated Tyndale’s Prologue to Romans (itself mostly a translation from Luther) into his own manuscript.

For the next 150 years Nisbet’s Scots New Testament was kept in the family farmhouse at Hardhill, where he had dug out an underground vault to hide it. The tenacity and belief of old Murdoch persisted in his descendants, and his great-great grandson John was one of the Martyrs of the Covenant. John Nisbet always carried on him a pocket bible, most likely a King James’s version, much of it Tyndale’s original translation.

John was on the run for 6 years before his brutal capture and execution. His son, James tells us that ‘in case he should be taken suddenly’ his father had prepared this last statement:

John Nisbet in Hardhill, his last and dying Testimony, which he delivered to a Friend in the Iron House, when he was taken out to the Scaffold in the Grassmarket of Edinburgh, where he died Friday, December 4th, 1685.

I have always thought that to Live for CHRIST, and Die for CHRIST, is sufficient Testimony for Truth; yet now that I am within a few Hours of Eternity, to prevent Mistakes, and to satisfie my dear Friends, and let them know how it is with me, and to let the World know what I die witnessing for, and testifying against, I judge it proper to leave a few Lines behind me. As for myself, it hath pleased the LORD JEHOVAH of his Superabundant Goodness and Infinite Mercy, powerfully to determine my Heart to close with, and embrace the LORD JESUS CHRIST, as he is made Offer of in the Everlasting Gospel, for my King, Priest and Prophet, and that this Conquest and Captivating of me to his Obedience, (who was an Heir of Wrath, and a Mass of Sin and sinful Corruption) is the Fruit of electing Love, according as it is manifested in the Covenant of free, free, free Grace, will evidently appear from these Scriptures following, which he by the Power and Concurrence of his Holy Spirit, hath made effectual to the convincing, converting, strengthening, and enabling of me to be his, and to be for him thro’ Well, and thro’ Woe, thro’ good Report, and thro’ bad Report; and they are so many sweet Cordials to my Soul, when stepping out of Time into Eternity.

We do not know if this was delivered at the time. The authorities had learned that the condemned gained a lot of sympathy for their cause by gallows speeches. A contemporary account tells us:

At their executions, drums were beat that they might not be heard, a Barbarity never known in Scotland before ... harder could not be found in the Reign of Caligula or Nero.

Mary Clow, March 2001


This article is based on a paper given at the Second Pacific Coast Tyndale Conference, San Diego in February 2000. It forms part of the author’s research carried out for a book (in preparation) on Hardhill.

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