The Killing of William Shillilaw by Dragoons near Tarbolton
The shooting of William Shillilaw in 1684 has been used to highlight the illegal and inherently barbaric nature of the Restoration state’s repression of presbyterians. According to Wodrow, Shillilaw was guilty of no other crime than refusing to attend the church when he was shot by dragoons in Tarbolton parish. However, it appears that Wodrow had the wrong date for Shillilaw’s killing…
His death is first recorded by Alexander Shields in 1690: ‘Liev [Lewis] Lauder shot to death William Shillilaw, at the Wood head in Water of Air, Anno, 1685.’ (Shields, A Short Memorial, 37.)
In 1717, Daniel Defoe, who appears to have used information derived from Shields as a source, recorded that ‘William Skillilaw was shot by one Lieuuenant Saunders in the River Air’. Saunders is plainly a mistake for Lauder. (Defoe, Memoirs, 252.)
Around twenty-five years after Shields’ brief account, Wodrow collected a version of Shillilaw’s death. His version was more detailed, but it dated the killing to 1684:
‘Another instance of the soldiers murdering in the fields, I have before me, attested by several persons yet alive. This summer [in 1684 according to Wodrow], about the month of July, Lewis Lauder, a subaltern officer in the garrison of Sorn, was riding up and down upon some search or other; and at the Woodhead of Tarbolton, in the shire of Ayr, he meets William Shirinlaw in Stairhead, aged eighteen years or under, and consequently could not be either at Pentland or Bothwell, he was not in the Porteous roll, he was indeed of the number of those who were given up to the soldiers by the curate, for mere nonconformity. Lauder seeing him at some distance cross the road, he being about his business, ordered off one of the dragoons, John Guthrie flesher in Ayr, to apprehend him. When he was brought up to the party, after a few of the ordinary questions asked, Lauder ordered him to be shot, which was done on the spot.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 172.)
Late-nineteenth editions of Cloud of Witnesses repeated Shields’ text, but inserted the month that Wodrow had suggested to create a composite date for Shillilaw’s death of ‘[July] 1685.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 548.)
Who Was William Shillilaw?
According to Wodrow, Shillilaw was a servant in Stairhead, which is probably Stairaird, now in Stair parish but then probably in Ochiltree parish, Ayrshire.
The famous ‘Highland Mary’ who planned to elope with the poet Robert Burns in the late eighteenth century is supposed to have worked at Stairaird. (See page 14, here.)
Wodrow also states that Shillilaw was shot at Woodhead in Tarbolton parish. Woodhead lies a little to the east of Failford and on the opposite bank of the River Ayr from Stairaird.
On old OS maps it is marked as a toll point on the road above a farm named Woodhead. It is unmarked on the modern OS Maps, but the junction called Woodhead lies where an unclassified road and the entry to Woodhead Cottages intersect with the B743 just above the River Ayr.
After shooting Shillilaw, Lewis Lauder and his dragoons went to Stairhead [i.e., Stairaird] and seized three men. According to Wodrow, they were only saved from a similar fate to Shillilaw by a rebellion in the ranks:
‘The party went straight to the Stairhead, where the said William had been servant, and seized Paul Lamont and Matthew Bell in Stairhead, with Boswell in Stair, against whom they had nothing I can learn but their nonconformity, and keeping the said William as their servant. Those three were carried out to the fields near by, after their examination upon the ordinary questions, and Lauder ordered them to sit down on the ground upon their knees and cover their faces, in order to be shot presently: but by the good hand of providence he was restrained, his men positively refusing to obey his orders, telling him, one in a day was sufficient.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 172.)
Wodrow was keen to make the point that the killing had taken place before legal powers were granted to officers to conduct field executions:
‘Thus we see, before the council’s inhumane orders for shooting in the fields [at the end of 1684], the soldiers had made experiments of this more than once. And we shall next year [i.e., 1685] have a vast many instances of this black work. Such a procedure obliged the hiding persons to have arms with them, go where they would; and such fearful barbarities drew forth the society’s Apologetical Vindication [i.e., the Apologetical Declaration Against Intelligencers posed in November, 1684.].’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 172.)
However, as discussed below, both Wodrow’s date for the execution and his conclusion that the killing demonstrated the troops natural inclination to illegal violence are probably fatally flawed.
The final piece of evidence regarding Shillilaw comes from his gravestone in Tarbolton kirkyard that was erected in 1727, a decade after Wodrow’s account.
Like Shields, the inscription also dates Shillilaw’s death to 1685:
William Shillilau who
was shot at Woodhead
by Lieut Lauder for his
adherence to the word of
GOD and Scotlands cove
nanted work of REFORMATION
1685 Erected in 1727
Renewed 1812 by Wm Drinnan’
The stone lies on the North wall of the church. (See the Canmore website here.) An image of the grave can be found here. In 2000, the Scottish Covenanters Memorial Association replaced the memorial stone to Shillilaw.
An edited extract of the inscription can be found in Cloud of Witnesses. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 607.)
The Date of Shillilaw’s Execution
Three possible dates have been put forward for Shillilaw’s summary execution: Wodrow’s date of July, 1684; Thomson’s composite date in Cloud of July, 1685, and Shields and the gravestone’s date of 1685.
The most reliable date for the shooting is the latter vague date of 1685. Can that time frame be narrowed down? The evidence from the sources suggests that it can.
All the sources agree on Lauder’s responsibility for Shillilaw’s death. Where they may disagree is on the rank he held at the time of the killing. Both Shields and the inscription on the grave state that Lieutenant Lewis Lauder conducted the execution. However, Wodrow only described Lauder as a ‘subaltern officer in the garrison of Sorn’, which leaves open the possibility that Lauder was an ensign at the time of the shooting.
Lauder served first as an ensign and then as a lieutenant under Captain John Inglis in His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons. (For his career see here.)
He was also in command of the garrison at Sorn Castle. The garrison in the castle was ordered to be established on 9 June, 1681. When Lauder took command of the garrison is not clear, but it was probably after he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
Two key dates in his career narrow down the time scale for Shillilaw’s shooting.
First, Lauder was promoted to lieutenant on 5 December, 1684. If he was a lieutenant when he ordered the execution, as Shields and the grave state, then it must have taken place after 5 December.
Second, in early May, 1685, the captaincy of Inglis’s company was handed to George Winram after the debacle of the prisoner rescue at Newmilns in late April. It seems that Lauder and the company of dragoons quickly left the Sorn/Newmilns area, as Winram and his men were active in Wigtownshire in mid May. Lauder continued to be the lieutenant of the company under Winram.
A date between 5 December, 1684 and early May, 1685, is the most likely time frame for Shillilaw’s execution, rather than the July dates offered by Wodrow or later editions of Cloud.
A More Precise period?
It may be possible to further narrow down that time frame. Wodrow’s account of Shillilaw being stopped, questioned and shot in quick succession bears all the hallmarks of a summary execution after the Abjuration oath was pressed. The Abjuration oath, which renounced the Societies’ war against the state, was pressed in parishes from mid January, 1685, until the news of the death of Charles II spread across Scotland in mid February.
Lauder certainly enforced the oath in nearby Sorn parish, as on 8 February, 1685, he issued a testificate to at least one parishioner for taking the Abjuration oath. However, it is not clear if the Abjuration was pressed in either Tarbolton or Ochiltree parishes. If it was, then Shillilaw would have been required to take the oath as he was over sixteen.
In that context, the key evidence that Wodrow mentions is that both Shillilaw and his employers at Stairaird were informed against by ‘the curate’, i.e., the local minister under episcopacy, for nonconformity, i.e., not attending church.
From the evidence of other parishes, it is clear that lists of nonconformists were submitted by local ministers in October, 1684. Crucially, the commission for the courts which pressed the Abjuration oath in January or February insisted that those courts also dealt with those accused by local ministers of nonconformity. If Shillilaw was a nonconformist, efforts would have been made to apprehend him.
From Wodrow’s account it appears that Shillilaw and the three others had not appeared before the court to answer for their nonconformity and therefore had not taken the Abjuration oath.
Wodrow also mentions that Shillilaw was discovered on the road beyond the bounds of his home parish. After the Abjuration was pressed in a parish in January or early February, 1685, a testificate, or pass, which recorded that an individual had taken the Abjuration was required in order to travel out with the bounds of the parish. If Shillilaw was absent from the Abjuration court that dealt with nonconformists, then he would not have had a testificate that enabled travel beyond his parish.
The approximate date of Shillilaw’s death fundamentally changes the context in which his shooting was ordered. On balance, the circumstances of Shillilaw’s death and the role of Lauder weigh in favour of his execution between early February and early May, 1685.
In other words, when Shillilaw was stopped on the road, he was probably a fugitive from the Abjuration court, a known nonconformist and travelling without a pass. In that context, it is of little surprise that he was put to the questions – would he say God save the King etc – and probably proffered the Abjuration oath. If he failed to immediately take the Abjuration, then Lauder would have been empowered to have him summarily executed on the spot.
“Curate” or Moderate Presbyterian?
One other aspect of Wodrow’s story can be challenged. His claim that ‘the curate’ informed against Shillilaw and the three others may not be accurate. In 1684 or 1685, Stairaird probably lay in Ochiltree parish. According to the Fasti, the teinds of what became Stair parish were separated from the teinds of Ochiltree parish in 1673, but the erection of Stair into a parish was not approved until 1690 or 1709. There is no record of any minister in Stair parish until a call was issued to one in 1708.
It appears that the area which became Stair parish was still part of Ochiltree parish at the time of Shillilaw’s death. That information may undermine that aspect of Wodrow’s story, as the minister of Ochiltree during the Restoration period was not a “curate”, i.e., a minister who had conformed to the Restoration settlement of the church.
According to the Fasti, the minister of Ochiltree in late 1684 or early 1685 was Robert Miller, an indulged moderate presbyterian who appears to have been loyal to the government, although he was brought before the privy council in 1681 and 1683. Miller died at some point in 1685 and the charge at Ochiltree remained vacant until 1690. (Fasti, III, 61, 69-70.)
It is possible that Shillilaw was informed against by the moderate-presbyterian Miller for refusing to attend his sermons. If that was the case, then Shillilaw may have been a militant presbyterian who sympathised with the Society people. That may explain why he failed the questions put to him by Lauder and why he had failed to attend the Abjuration court. It is worth noting that neither Shields, who gathered evidence from Societies’ sources, nor the inscription on the grave, claimed that Shillilaw was an innocent man.
Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.