For two minutes on a night in early November, 1685, a very bright near earth object, probably a large meteor, entered and traversed through the atmosphere above Scotland. The five men who witnessed it had no idea what it was, but thought that it was a significant providential sign…
From its relatively long duration and trajectory across the sky, the meteor appears to have entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a shallow angle. It is possible that it was one of the rare fireballs which traverse through the atmosphere before reentering space, an Earth-grazing fireball, or like the Great Meteor of 1783. There is no indication from the observers’ vantage point that it struck the Earth, although it may have ended in an airburst.
Given the appearance of the meteor on a wintry, cloudy and wet night, and the sparse sources for such phenomena in seventeenth-century Scotland and the record of it in an obscure pamphlet and manuscript, it hardly surprising that the meteor has not attracted wider attention before now.
Whether the object was a small asteroid, or perhaps a comet fragment, is not known, but the bright fireball it produced was observed by James Nisbet, a young militant-presbyterian fugitive who was involved in the United Societies, or later Covenanters, in the 1680s. Nisbet survived into the eighteenth century when he wrote up an account of the meteor in both his manuscript spiritual autobiography and in a published memoir of his father in 1717.
Where and when was the Great Meteor sighted?
From the contextual evidence discussed in an earlier post, it appears that the meteor was sighted somewhere in the vicinity of the boundary between Ayrshire and Renfrewshire, probably near Eaglesham Moor or Newmilns, as that was the area where James Nisbet and his father, John Nisbet in Hardhill, were in hiding from government forces in late 1685.
Map of Eaglesham Moor
Midland Farm © Becky Williamson and licensed for reuse.
The meteor was observed at night in November, 1685, but a more precise date for it can be determined through examining the historical sources. The date for the Great Scottish Meteor depends on when James Nisbet’s father, John Nisbet of Hardhill, was captured. In an earlier post, I suggested that the historical evidence pointed to Hardhill’s capture, either on Sunday 1 November, or Sunday 8 November, 1685, at Midland in Fenwick parish, Ayrshire. Hardhill was hanged in Edinburgh in December.
Map of Midland Street View of Midland
The text of Nisbet’s printed memoir of his father does not make it clear either when his father was captured, or when the meteor appeared. From other historical sources it is clear that Hardhill was captured in early November, 1685.
The wording of the memoir is also vague about how long elapsed between the meteor and the capture, but it appears to indicate that a week passed between the two events.
The memoir describes the meteor as follows:
‘The Sabbath night before he [i.e., Hardhill] was taken, as he and four more were travelling, it being exceeding dark, no wind, but a thick, small rain, no moon, for that was not her season, behold, suddenly the clouds clave asunder towards the east and west, above our heads, and there sprang out a light beyond that of the sun, which lasted above the space of two minutes. They heard a noise, and were much amazed.’ (Select Biographies, II, 384.)
The second source, the manuscript of Nisbet’s spiritual autobiography which is found in the Signet Library in Edinburgh, adds significantly to our knowledge of the event. It has not been published.
First, it contains precise dates for both the meteor and the capture of Hardhill, which challenges Nisbet’s linkage of the meteor to a new moon.
Second, it clarifies that James Nisbet was an eyewitness to the meteor.
Third, it contains new and different details about the meteor.
Fourth, it identifies another individual who witnessed the meteor.
Fifth, it establishes a precise date for the killing of the three Midland martyrs who were shot when Hardhill was captured.
Of the two sources, the evidence of Nisbet’s manuscript autobiography is probably more reliable, as it is not clear who copy edited the memoir. The memoir’s account of the meteor appears to be based on the version found in the manuscript autobiography, but there are crucial differences between them. The main aim of both sources was to discuss the providential dealings of God with either James or John Nisbet, rather than to scientifically record a meteor over Scotland.
The Capture of Hardhill
The key section in Nisbet’s manuscript for the capture of his father begins on 7 November, 1685, the day before the capture of his father:
‘(8.) On [Saturday] the 7th of November, my father, who was with other three being desired to go mend a controversy in one of their Christian societies raised by a person of a turbulent & divisive spirit, upon which he left me to the kind care of providence & went upon his intended journey; but behold the wonderful disposal of a wonder working God, for early on a Sabbath morning [8 November], he & the other three [>p81] were seized by forty of the Enemy [of Mar’s Regiment of Foot under the command of Lieutenant Robert Nisbet].
The night before [i.e., on 7 November] I went to [Hugh Campbell] the Earl of Loudon’s house, & being concealed all night in one of the office houses [near the castle], in my sleep I dreamed of all the passages of trouble my father was in. I awoke with much sorrow of spirit & immediately rose & [went to?] prayer: But alas! alas! I was both dead lifeless and overwhelmed with such a flood of sinking sorrow, that I could do nothing at all that day, but sigh to the breaking of my heart.
At night [on Sunday 8 November] I was taken into the hynds house [i.e., a farm servant’s house], where two of the young ladies, viz Lady Mary & Lady Jean [Campbell, the earl’s sisters], came & sat down by me, & seeing me in much sorrow asked if I had got any meal? It was told them, I could eat none all that day; upon which they opened their skirts wherein they had some meat & both very friendly urged me to eat; but I could eat none. They asked me what was the matter with me? I told their ladyships I know not but I was waiting till the Lord in his kind providence would send me an interpreter. At which the Young Ladies burst forth into tears, and then one of them says Then I must be that sorrowful interpreter for says she early this morning [>p82.] 40 of the enemy came upon you Father, George Woodburn, John Ferguson [aka. Fergushill] & Peter Gemmell [at Midland] near to Fenwick Kirk they have killed the other three, and your Father has received seven wounds, & is taken prisoner, & he is that night in Kilmarnock Tolbooth. At the hearing of which and news, I was struck to the heart; but the hon[oura]ble and worthy Ladies were hearty sympathizers with me, and did all they could to comfort me.’
Nisbet then arose and went to visit his father’s ‘much honoured friend’, William Woodburn. (Nisbet. ‘Narrative’, 80-2.)
The above passage is important for the history of the Killing Times, as it is the only source which dates the deaths of the three Midland Martyrs specifically to the morning of Sunday, 8 November, 1685, rather than to early November or the month of November in general.
It also sets a baseline date to determine when the Great Meteor appeared.
The Great Scottish Meteor
A few pages later in the autobiography, Nisbet gives his eyewitness account of the meteor:
‘a second Instance is the Sabbath Night seventh night before [i.e. the night of 1 November, 1685] he was taken [i.e., on the morning of Sunday 8 November] and he I and three more were travelling it being exceeding dark no wind but a little small rain and no moon for that was not her season, behold suddenly by the clouds clove above our heads from the southwest to the north east [>p90.] and there sprung forth a light as bright as that of the sun at noon day, yea it was much more pleasant, tho’ much more amazing and astonishing, which light continued about the space of two minutes, we all heard a noise and were much affraid surprized saying one to another what may this mean but he spake none only uttered three deep and heavy groans. Wm Woodburn his friend asked him what it might mean…’ (Nisbet. ‘Narrative’, 89-90.)
The manuscript autobiography confirms that a week had passed between the meteor and the capture of Hardhill. In the published memoir, he had only alluded to ‘the Sabbath night’ before Hardhill ‘was taken’ as the date of the meteor, rather than seven nights before. The manuscript autobiography establishes a firm date in the Julian Calendar for the Great Meteor on the night of Sunday 1 to Monday 2 November, 1685.
Nisbet’s descriptions of the weather conditions when the meteor appeared are very similar, but the manuscript describes ‘a little small rain’, rather than a ‘thick, small rain’.
Substantial differences appear in the description of the meteor. In the manuscript autobiography, Nisbet states that the clouds suddenly ‘clove above our heads from the southwest to the north east’, while in the published memoir he states that the clouds suddenly ‘clave asunder towards the east and west, above our heads’. The meteor followed a different trajectory in the manuscript source from that which was reported in the published memoir. Instead of travelling from east to west, the meteor’s trajectory took it in a north-easterly direction from the South West. That suggests that the meteor headed across Scotland towards Norway, rather than out over the Atlantic Ocean.
In both descriptions of the meteor the brightness of the object is compared to sun. However, in the manuscript autobiography, he compares it to ‘that of the sun at noon day’ and gives some idea of the quality of the light: ‘yea it was much more pleasant, tho’ much more amazing and astonishing’.
The duration of the event is also subtly different in each source. In the published memoir Nisbet had recorded that the light lasted ‘above’ the space of two minutes. In the manuscript autobiography, he states that the light had only ‘continued about the space of two minutes’. The ‘Great Daylight Fireball’ of 1972 survived a transit through the atmosphere of 100 seconds.
One final detail of the meteor is the noise that it made. In the published memoir, Nisbet had reported that ‘they’ had ‘heard a noise, and were much amazed’. However, in the manuscript version, Nisbet reports that ‘we all heard a noise’ and that it had a more terrifying impact on them, as they were ‘much affraid surprized’ by it. The duration of the noise is not clear. It may have been related to sonic booms caused by the meteor as it traversed through the atmosphere, or have been the noise of an explosive airburst as the meteor disintegrated.
Nisbet’s manuscript confirms that both he and his father were travelling with three others. One of them was William Woodburn, an activist in the United Societies. In the published memoir, Nisbet had only mentioned that his father and ‘four more were travelling’.
William Woodburn is listed on the published fugitive roll of May, 1684, as ‘William Woodburn, in Mains of Loudoun’, i.e., Loudoun Mains in Loudoun parish, Ayrshire.
Map of Loudoun Mains
Loudoun Mains farm lay near both Loudoun Castle, the home of the earl of Loudoun’s family, and Hardhill, Nisbet’s family home in the same parish.
Map of Loudoun Castle
William Woodburn was close kin to the George Woodburn killed at Midland in Fenwick parish when Hardhill was captured. William is later recorded at a general meeting of the United Societies on 23 October, 1690, when he was delegated, alongside Thomas Latimer, James Muir, William Swanston and Robert Cowan, to take a paper subscribed by William Spence from the Societies to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. (Shields, FCD, 445-8.)
Julian to Gregorian Dates
Nisbet’s manuscript indicates that the meteor appeared on the night Sunday 1 to Monday 2 November, 1685. When he wrote his manuscript at some point in the early eighteenth century, he was using the Julian, rather than the Gregorian, calendar. Scotland had moved the beginning of the year to 1 January at the beginning of the 1600s, but had continued using the Julian calendar. The dates given by Nisbet for the capture of his father and the Great Meteor are correct in the historical context of the times, but they do not accord with when the meteor appeared in astronomical terms, which is based on the modern Gregorian calendar. In 1685, the Gregorian calendar was ten days ahead of the Julian calendar, which means that Nisbet’s record of the Great Meteor on Sunday 1 November in the Julian Calendar, dates to 11 November in the Gregorian Calendar.
In astronomical terms, the Great Scottish Meteor appeared on the night of Sunday 11, or early in the morning of Monday 12 November, 1685.
That date for the Great Meteor is reasonably secure in historical terms. It seems unlikely that Nisbet failed to remember when his father was captured and thus the date for the meteor, but it is possible. However, there is a problem with Nisbet’s accounts of the night of the meteor, as in both versions he states that there was ‘no moon for that was not her season’, i.e., it was around the time of a new moon. According to timeanddate.com, the night of 1 November (Julian) /11 November (Gregorian) was a full moon. The clouds and rain may have distorted Nisbet’s memory of the moon, but it does cast a shadow of doubt over the precise date that Nisbet gives for the Great Scottish Meteor of 1685.
For other wonders in Scotland of the 1680s, see here.
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