“Let you and me stand and admire this”: James Renwick’s Letter to Robert Hamilton in Leeuwarden, January, 1684. #History #Scotland

•July 25, 2021 • Leave a Comment

This letter is one of the most revealing James Renwick ever wrote to Robert Hamilton in Leeuwarden. It is also one of the shortest he ever wrote. It shows just how divisive the power struggle in the United Societies had become in early 1684. He rejoiced at the misfortune of others …

In January, 1684, Renwick was with Lady Earlstoun when she was sending away letters to the United Provinces. Presumably he was in Edinburgh. He took advantage of that to send a short note to Hamilton.

He says that when he goes through the countryside ‘at every time there come others aye out who did not come out before’. He also says that the Scottish regime was sending forces to the West. (Houston, Letters, 150-1.)

The brief update over, Renwick got to the meat. He had received word that Alexander Shields (formerly secretary to the leading militant ideologue, Robert MacWard), Andrew Cameron (the brother of the martyred Richard Cameron, d.1680) and John Flint (who had been talked out of seeking ordination by Hamilton) had met with disaster. All three were online to be ordained as ministers at Groningen and to return to preach to the United Societies.

You might imagine that would be good news for the Society people, as they would then have had four ministers to field preach to them.

But no, Renwick rejoiced in their misfortune:

‘Mr [Alexander] Shields is brought to Scotland. I know that he and Mr. Andrew Cameron and Mr. [John] Flint were joined together in seeking after ordination [presumably at Groningen], that they might come home to Scotland. But I when I heard it, I was not satisfied that you [Robert Hamilton] were not owned in it. However, this hath a strange language. The Lord hath crushed it; for their papers anent the same, and many books, were cast away at sea. O! The majesty of your God and my God, that shines in His management of affairs. Let you and me stand and admire this.’ (Houston, Letters, 151.)

This was political. For Renwick and Hamilton it mattered on which platform the field preachers of the United Societies stood on. They suspected that Shields, Cameron and Flint were ideologically suspect, i.e., not militant enough. In the long run, they would be proved correct, as all three rejoined the Church of Scotland after the Revolution. However, Renwick and Hamilton’s attempts to enforce a hardcore militant platform proved very divisive. Control of the Convention was vital. Over the next few years it would swing back and forth. Votes mattered.

This letter is also printed as Letter XXVIII in Carslaw, Life and Letters, p84-5.

A Letter from James Renwick in #Edinburgh to Robert Hamilton in Leeuwarden, 26 September 1683 #History #Scotland

•July 24, 2021 • 2 Comments

James Renwick details his arrival in Scotland to Robert Hamilton after his ordination in Groningen.

He sees the Lord’s hand in every step since he left Hamilton on 25/26 June, 1683. He was kept some days at ‘the Texel’ prior to his departure.

He went across the North Sea but storms forced his small boat to the coast of France before they got to the English coast at Rye Harbour, which is about 7 miles east of Hastings. There they went ashore where they were noticed but not challenged and went back to their boat for safety. After some days, the King’s waiters came to the boat and they were questioned. The skipper became suspicious of them but Monday brought a fair wind that brought them to Dublin. From Dublin a pass was required to leave. The Lord gave a wonderful occasion for George Hill to leave Dublin, but they ship’s captain would not take Renwick.

George Hill attended the tenth convention held on Wednesday 1 August 1683 at Cairntable. He must have brought intelligence of Renwick’s ordination to the ministry and that he was in Dublin.

Some in Dublin entreated him to stay. A minister called Jack was stirred up to speak to him. Disputes followed.
Renwick reached Scotland by the Lord’s providence and was cast on a hillside some few miles below Greenock. /Gourock.

Coming through the countryside, Renwick held two field meetings and notes Alexander Gordon of Earlstoun’s great trials after his capture in the Rye House Plot and return to Scotland.

As for Robert Lawson, he has cast off his former doings to the hardening of backsliders and the grieving of the godly.

He tells Hamilton that Edward Aitkin has escaped and intends to come to you and follow his books:

“but his carriage in the public matters hath been very hurtful to the cause, and in private very unchristian, opening mouths to reproach and blaspheme; therefore I hope you will not move on it, without the General Meetings (i.e., the eleventh convention’s) advice.

Renwick also expected that Thomas Linning will be sent to Hamilton in Groningen, as he has been very satisfying, refreshing and encouraging to Renwick since he arrived home.

He also mentions the execution of John Wilson and Mrs Binning’s admiratiion of him.

Printed as Letter Number XXIV in Carslaw, Life and Letters, 67-71.

The Wigtown Martyrs: Touching the Void between the Reprieve and Execution in 1685 #History #Scotland

•June 28, 2020 • 6 Comments


In the infamous case of the drowning of the two female Wigtown Martyrs in 1685, a question that has not been asked is who could legally confirm that the two women had taken the Abjuration oath after they petitioned to be able take it on 30 April? Who had the power to provide Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan with a testificate (which was also a pass that allowed them to leave their parishes) that confirmed they had taken the oath?

The power of individuals to press the oath in the field was no idle matter for the regime, as it required a valid commission from it in order to do so. That commission granted the power to issue a testificate. It also carried the power of life and death.

After the Trial
Both women were condemned to drowning for refusing the Abjuration oath on 13 April. That is beyond dispute. They almost certainly remained in Wigtown Tolbooth for at least two days and they still appear to have been there when they petitioned and were later summarily executed, unless, in my view, we irresponsibly disregard all the sources that say that they were drowned in Wigtown, which date from 1687 onwards.

We know that one (and probably both) of the women agreed to send a petition to the Privy Council in Edinburgh after the trial of 13 April. The record of the only petition that survives in the registers of the privy council confirms that it came from Wigtown, as it refers to one of the women as ‘now prisoner’ in Wigtown and is subscribed by a Wigtown notary. It was read on 30 April.

There is an assumption that Margaret Wilson also sent a petition to the privy council, as a reprieve was sent to both women, although we do not know for certain that she did send one. It is an intriguing omission from the judicial record. However, she almost certainly did send one.

The petition from Wigtown was read before the council on 30 April and a reprieve was issued to both women giving them time to take the Abjuration oath. (The details of the period that the reprieve lasted were left for the clerks to fill in, which was not unusual. They often lasted three months.)

There is no evidence that the women accompanied the petition to Edinburgh. They were not apparently present when it was read before the privy council. There is no record of them in the extensive prison records for Edinburgh in 1685.

Both women (apparently) had said they were willing to take the Abjuration oath in their petitions. The reprieve gave them time to do that. However, they still had to formally take it before someone who had the power to accept the oath and confirm that they had sworn it.

The council had to have proof that the two women had actually taken the oath in order to move to the next stages beyond a reprieve, which could have ultimately ended in a pardon from King James VII from the death sentence by drowning. From other cases, we know that condemned Presbyterian prisoners who were willing to acknowledge royal authority were usually not executed. Instead they went through the process of taking oaths and giving bonds while imprisoned before their ultimate release months down the line. A good example of that is the case of four men in Cumnock.

However, there is no historical evidence of the following stages of a pardon in the Wigtown case. The judicial record of the case of the Wigtown women abruptly ends in silence on 30 April.

The position that the women were in when all the government records for their case go silent is that they still had to formally take the Abjuration oath before someone with the power to administer the oath.

All the later Presbyterian sources (and the one Episcopalian source that specifically mentions their execution) agree that they were drowned.

Into The Void
Here we have a gap in the historical records from when the judicial sources end on 30 April and the persistent reports of their execution, which was said to be on 11 May.

Is there a way of extending the government sources into the post 30 April period, which begins to fill in the eleven-day void between them and Presbyterian historical sources for execution?

Yes, there is.

That is through a simple question already mentioned above: who had the power after a reprieve was issued suspending the execution of the women on 30 April to legally administer the Abjuration oath and inform the authorities in Edinburgh that they had formally sworn it?

Historians do not agree on where the women were held on 30 April. However, let us put that debate to one side for the moment.

If we can establish who had the power to press the oath in Wigtownshire in May, 1685, then we can ask the question: does the evidence for that back up either the women in Edinburgh theory, or the mainly Presbyterian claims that the women were drowned at Wigtown?

Place your bets.

If we can identify who had the Abjuration power and directly link them to the mainly Presbyterian sources for the summary execution of the women, then one has to ask why the veracity of the Presbyterian and one Episcopal source are so quickly dismissed?

One has to keep in mind that “the-women-were-in-Edinburgh” theory ends in complete silence on 30 April and that it relies on, in my view and those of others, a mass-conspiracy theory that all the mainly Presbyterian sources, witnesses, martyrs’ graves, relatives of the women and those in their local communities were party to a deliberate lie for decades. Is there really any other explanation for all those claims if the women had actually been pardoned and survived? Such a code of silence involved the complicity of hundreds, if not thousands of people. Not one person in the decades after 1685 stepped forward to say “this is a lie”. Why not? What are the chances of that being the case? Virtually nil.

Bridging the Void
If government sources identify someone with the power to press the Abjuration in Wigtownshire after 30 April, whom the mainly Presbyterian sources claim was directly involved in the drowning of the women, then we have circumstantial evidence backing up those later sources that some sceptics allege are either dubious, or dismiss as unreliable.

At the very least, we can establish who was in the position to press the Abjuration that the women had to take (probably, I would say almost certainly) in Wigtown post 30 April. That is a step forward in the debate over the fate of the martyrs.

Expired Judicial Commissions
Let us begin by looking back at who had held judicial commissions to press the Abjuration in Wigtownshire (which is part of Galloway) before 20 April, 1685. From the initial pressing of the Abjuration oath in January, which expired on the death of Charles II., in early February, we have the following commissioned for Galloway:

Alexander Gordon, Viscount Kenmure
Robert Grierson of Lag
David Dunbar of Baldoon
Godfrey McCulloch of Mireton
David Graham, sheriff-depute of Galloway

Under the commission to Colonel Douglas which ran from 27 March until 20 April, we have exactly the same list for Galloway. Two of those men and a military officer, Captain Strachan, sat on the court which condemned the women to drowning. Captain Strachan held a judicial commission to press the Abjuration, but he also held a military power to do so. His presence in the court was not unusual. Not only did he hold a judicial commission, his dragoons almost certainly provided the customary guard for the judges at the court.

What happened after 30 April in the key period for the drownings, as those commissions had expired ten days earlier 20 April?

We know that the women had not formally taken the Abjuration on 30 April, as the petition from Wigtown and the reprieve from Edinburgh make that abundantly clear. They had to take the Abjuration.

Lieutenant General Drummond

It is a fact worthy of remark, that only one man held a judicial commission in the entire South West from 21 April to 1 June. He was Lieutenant-General William Drummond, a senior military man.

The wording of his commission issued on 21 April makes that absolutely plain:

‘we hereby declare all former commissions granted by us or our privy council, for trying or punishing the said crimes in the country, either to noblemen, gentlemen, or officers of our army, to be void and extinct.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 209.)

In other words, all judicial commissions to press the Abjuration were ‘void and extinct’ from 21 April. That is a significant step forward in the case of the two women, if they remained in Wigtown. Only a military officer had the judicial power to confirm the Abjuration there.

Lieutenant-General Drummond, alone, held a judicial commission between 30 April and 1 June, the period when the drownings are said to have taken place.

His wide-ranging commission also differed from that given Colonel Douglas. Drummond had the power to call courts, but only to create “clerks, sergeants, dempsters, and all other members of court needful, to call assizers and witnesses”.

However, he was not empowered to call or appoint judges, i.e., he, alone, was to judge in the courts he called. He could appoint anyone he wished to serve in the court as officials, but not judges.

At first sight, that commission bolsters the sceptic’s case, as no historical source links Drummond to the Wigtown drownings. If Drummond’s involvement can be discounted, who else could have legally pressed the Abjuration oath on the two women? Who legally retained the power of summary execution?

John Borwn of Priesthill

The Letter of Claverhouse, 3 May, 1685.
A letter from John Graham of Claverhouse is highly instructive on that matter. In his letter of 3 May, Claverhouse recorded that he had summarily executed John Brown in Priesthill in the field by firing squad and that he had threatened another at the same time, John Brounen, with summary execution unless he cooperated and identified others.

That letter was sent to Queensberry, probably the most politically powerful man in Scotland below the king. In it, Claverhouse was not admitting to illegal summary executions, as he was reiterating the defacto position in which he found himself. He had the power to summarily execute in the field as an army officer those who refused the Abjuration, although he did NOT hold a judicial commission.

Claverhouse described the capture Brown and Brounen as follows:

‘asked if they would take the Abjuration, the eldest of the tuo, called John Broun, refused it, nor would he swear not to ryse in armes against the King, but said he kneu no King, upon which, and there being found bullets and match in his house and treasonable papers, I caused shot him dead, which he suffered very inconcernedly.’ (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 207.)

Claverhouse still had the problem of what to do with John Brounen, ‘who offered to take the [Abjuration] oath’, but would not swear that he had been armed and involved in the attack on Newmiln’s Tower.

Claverhouse appears to have understood that he did not have the legal grounds to summarily execute Brounen, probably as he had agreed to take the Abjuration. Brounen quickly confessed what he knew about the rebels without confirming that he had actually taken up arms directly against the King’s forces.

Claverhouse left it up to Queensberry to decide if he thought Brounen deserved mercy, adding that ‘I, having no comission of justiciary myself, have delyvered him up to Lieutenent Generall Drummond [probably at Mauchline] to be disposed of as he pleases’. (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 208.)

Drummond hanged Brounen at Mauchline on 6 May, after a court he had called which, apparently, mainly featured soldiers on the jury.

There is no way that Claverhouse would have written to Queensberry, of all people, saying that I have shot someone, even though I do not have a justiciary power. He retained the power to press the Abjuration in the field, as other military officers commissioned to do so did, and to conduct summary executions where the Abjuration was refused. He did not have a justiciary power, yet he retained the power to under the instructions issued to the military at the end of 1684 to summarily shoot Brown.

The end of his letter could be read as a mild complaint that Lieutenant-General Drummond had a judicial commission, while he did not, and that as a result he had to send prisoners like Brounen which he could not summarily execute over to Drummond for justice.

It is an interesting footnote to the above, that at the next summary execution that Claverhouse was said to be involved with in the Presbyterian sources, that of Andrew Hislop, that he initially refused to shoot him, as did the Highlanders who were also apparently ordered to execute him, until Johnston of Westerhall, who had formerly held a judicial commission, insisted on death. Military officers, like Claverhouse, had discretion in interpreting their powers to conduct summary executions. They could also come under pressure.

From Claverhouse’s letter, we know that military officers continued to have the power to summarily execute where the Abjuration was not taken in the field after 21 April. It is possible that other factors, such as refusing to recognise royal authority or using arms against the Army, were taken into account, but refusing the Abjuration seems to have been a key test for summary execution. Officers had some latitude in their interpretation of their powers, but how they chose to use that latitude was down to the individual.

Who were the Military Officers who could press the Abjuration?
If we look back to the judicial proclamation to Colonel Douglas we can see which other officers garrisoned in the South West could press the Abjuration. It is not a comprehensive list of army officers in Scotland, as it only lists those who were garrisoned in the South West at that time. Nearly all of them, with the exception of Captain John Dalziel of Mar’s Regiment of Foot in Dumfriesshire, were officers in the Dragoons garrisoned in either Dumfriesshire, Galloway, Ayrshire or Lanarkshire.

We know that those officers’ judicial commission expired on 20 April, but that their specific commission to press the Abjuration in the field, where they found someone who had evaded taking the oath at the beginning of the year, continued.

The two Wigtown women fell into that category of those who had evaded the Abjuration. They had been captured in Spring and were tried and condemned to drowning on 13 April for that. Both of them (apparently) then petitioned the Privy Council saying they were willing to take the Abjuration, at least one of those petitions came from Wigtown, where the balance of evidence says that they were both prisoners on 30 April.

We know that the only people empowered to press the Abjuration anywhere in the South West post 20 April were military officers, be it either Lieutenant-General Drummond, or other officers in the field. Those officers did not have to refer back to Edinburgh to press the oath in the field. They had the power to press the oath and to conduct summary execution.

From 21 April, or practically from 25 April when Drummond entered the field with his Highland Host, prisoners taken in the South West could only be passed to Drummond for justice until 1 June, or until his commission was replaced. However, existing prisoners, who already had been tried and condemned, such as the two Wigtown women tried on 13 April, did not have to be sent to Drummond. They had to take the Abjuration before someone who had the power to confirm that they had. After 21 April, that meant a military officer, as no civilian judges were empowered to take the oath. Today, we might say that something akin to Martial Law was imposed on the South West during the period of Drummond’s commission. Only a military officer had the power to press the Abjuration on the two Wigtown women when they were said to be executed.

Geography was also a factor in the Wigtown case. The burgh was not garrisoned by soldiers, either before, or immediately after, the trial of the two women. The nearest places known to have been garrisoned at various times before mid 1685 were Stranraer (St Johns Castle), Machermore Castle in Minnigaff parish (January to Spring, 1685) and New Galloway (Kenmure Castle). Of the three, the latter at New Galloway, which was the base for Strachan’s company of dragoons, was the most significant and the only one in continual use. It lay 24 miles from Wigtown.

In order to take the Abjuration, the two women, who were probably held in Wigtown Tolbooth in late April or early May, needed either a military officer to come to them, or troops sent to fetch them to an officer who could legally press the oath. All the mainly Presbyterian evidence indicates that the former took place. An officer came to them.

Wigtown Graves

The Commission to Winram
It is at this point that a new figure enters the Wigtown case, Captain ‘Major’ George Winram, who is definitely recorded, as involved in the summary execution of the two women by all the Presbyterian sources.

He was not commissioned as an officer in the Army deployed in Scotland when Colonel Douglas held his judicial commission that ended on 20 April. He could not have been present when the two women were condemned on 13 April. He was not commissioned when the petitions from the women was read in Edinburgh on 30 April.

Winram was commissioned to replace the disgraced Captain John Inglis, the head of a company of dragoons, who had lost prisoners during a rebel attack on Newmiln’s Tower on 24 April.

According to Lauder of Fountainhall:
‘John Inglis, captain of a troup of dragouns, lying in garrison at New-mills in the West, a house belonging to the Earle of Loudon, having tane some of thesse phanatiques prisoners, and tho he had power to execute them, yet keiping them alive, some of ther desperat comerads breaks in upon the garrison, and rescues them to ther great shame; for which Inglis was degraded, and his place was given to M[ajo]r. George Winrahame, a bigot papist.’ (Lauder, Historical Observes, 160.)

On 3 May, the Earl of Moray, Secretary of State for Scotland in London, wrote to Queensberry, then in Edinburgh at Parliament, that ‘I hope Captain English will be punished as he deserves’ for losing the prisoners [at Newmilns], as ‘I had before I heard of that signed a commission for George Windram for English his troop’. (Dalton, Scots Army, II, 22-23n.)

We can tell from that correspondence that Queensberry had written to Moray about the attack on Newmiln’s at least a few of days earlier, as Moray’s reply was probably in direct response to Queensberry’s letter, i.e., Queensberry’s letter was sent on, or before, 1 May. It took time to reach London even by military express riders.

Captain Inglis was already on the way out of his company as Major George Winram was set to replace him, even before reports of the attack on Newmiln’s Tower (on 24 April) reached London.

We also know that his younger son in the same company, Cornet Peter Inglis, also left the regiment at around the same time, probably in protest at the treatment of his father, and was replaced by Cornet David Garioch.

Part of the reason why Major Winram was commissioned as a captain was, apparently, to get him out of England as he was a Catholic officer:

‘On the 19 of May 1685, sate doune the English Parliament. In preparation theirto, the King sent away to Scotland any popish officers he had about him, (leist the English Parliament should take offence at ther being employed in England,) as the Earle of Dumbarton, Major George Winrame, Captain Maxuell, on[e] Barclay, &c.; and they got all places heir, tho our Test be stricter against them than the English.’ (Lauder, Historical Observes, 170.)

Inglis was probably out of his post by the beginning of May, as he could have been degraded at any point in the previous week. His time in command of his company of dragoons was certainly at an end, as a commission to Winram had already been set in train.

On 3 May, Winram was about to assume command of Inglis’ company of dragoons. A unit on active duty in the South West that needed an experienced commander. In Winram they got one.

He was faced with serious challenges

Winram faced a fresh challenge in the kind of anti-insurgency operations that were being conducted in Scotland, which involved pressing the Abjuration in the field and conducting summary executions. Nothing like that had taken place in England. It was new to him, when he assumed command.

If the mainly Presbyterian sources are to be believed, then one, if not the first, direct experience of his extraordinary, new powers that Winram encountered was dealing with the two women in Wigtown. He was a novice to that, but that does not mean that he out of his depth.

Redeployment to the Coast
The other challenge he faced right at the start of his command certainly required military experience. The Privy Council knew the Earl of Argyll’s small invasion flotilla was on its way to Scotland to try to spark a wider rising. We know that the company under the command of ‘Major’ George Winram was redeployed, as a result of the Argyll Rising. As part of the plan to place the kingdom in a posture of defence due to the threat of Argyll invading, regular army units based in inland garrisons were replaced by the irregulars of the Militia, in particular by Highland militia, in order to allow the Dragoons etc., to hold the coastal areas where Argyll was widely expected to land. Throughout the rising, we know that Argyll’s commanders urged him to land in the South West, where his agents said he could expect significant support. It was not until the rising’s demise, that a remnant of his forces finally broke into the South West, hoping to reach Galloway, and won a minor victory at Muirdykes on 18 June. A few days before that, ‘a considerable Number of Men were gathered together in Arms’ near Wigtown in support of that rising.

Uncanny Timing
The Presbyterian sources identify Captain ‘Major’ George Winram as the officer responsible for the Wigtown drownings (apparently on 11 May). It is all the more remarkable, as the Presbyterian sources almost certainly did not have access to Moray’s correspondence and there is no record of Winram in the surviving registers of the privy council until November, 1685.

If the Presbyterian sources were making up who conducted the drowning, why would they select Winram, rather than one of the other officers known to be in the field? Yet, somehow, the Presbyterian sources pick out Winram as the officer responsible for actually drowning the two women in Wigtown. That would be an extraordinary choice, if one was plucking an officer’s name out of thin air, would it not?

They also correctly identified him as Captain ‘Major’ Winram, as he was commissioned as captain of what was formerly Inglis’s company, but had previously been commissioned as a major and so thus retained the title of being referred to as major. What are the chances of that?

The bottom line is that if the Presbyterian sources were fabricating an officer to drown the Wigtown martyrs, they chose an officer who was newly commissioned and about whom they almost certainly had no access to references to in any government source. If they were fabricating, as some allege, they did so with uncanny accuracy.

Wigtown Hills

Winram in Wigtown
As well as his role in the summary execution of the two women, the Presbyterian sources also record him as hanging three men at Wigtown in the summer of 1685.

Winram was certainly in Wigtown that summer. The burgh records record that his dragoons ‘did eat up the Wholl meadowes of the hills and Clay Crops with their horses at Lambas, 1685 yeirs’, i.e., prior to 1 August, 1685.

He and his dragoons were still garrisoned at Wigtown in the winter of 1685 to 1686.

And in 1686, David Dunbar of Baldoon petitioned the privy council about prior losses due to Winram’s men quartering in the parks of his lands.

Historians do not agree on where the women were held on 30 April. Some believe, presumably on the basis of Napier’s case against the drownings, that they were moved to Edinburgh, issued with a reprieve and ultimately pardoned. Others point out that there is no evidence that the women were in Edinburgh, either in prison or before the privy council, when a petition (which certainly came from Wigtown) was read on 30 April and a reprieve issued. That there is no evidence of a pardon or further steps in the case. Also, that their case rests on mass-conspiracy theory of silence.

We know that the women still had to take the Abjuration oath on 30 April. If they were in Wigtown Tolbooth, that meant that they had to take it before a military officer who could press the oath in the field, as no civilian judges were commissioned to press it after 20 April.

As a military officer, Winram had the power to press the Abjuration oath in the field, which was what the women were required to do in their reprieve of 30 April.

Winram is the only military officer identified in government sources as being in Wigtown in the summer of 1685. He was placed in command of a troop of dragoons on around 3 May. We also know that his dragoons were redeployed to the coast, apparently to Wigtown, to prevent the Earl of Argyll landing in the South West in May.

We do not have a precise date for when Winram arrived in Wigtown, but we do know that he was there that summer and that the Presbyterian sources identify him as responsible for the drownings, apparently on 11 May.

The historical evidence from government sources that only a military officer could press the Abjuration oath after 30 April and that Winram, as one of them, is the only officer recorded in Wigtown that summer, backs up the mainly Presbyterian claims that the two women were drowned by him.

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The Wigtown Martyrs: Provost Cultran’s 73-Day Absence After the Trial #History #Scotland

•June 2, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Mark Napier Historian

In the Nineteenth Century, one prominent historian claimed that Provost William Cultran was ‘in all probability’ absent from Wigtown when the two female martyrs were condemned to be drowned at a trial in the burgh in 1685. In other words, he claimed that the documents ‘in all probability’ proved that Cultran was not present at the trial of the two women, when at least one Presbyterian source definitely said that he took part in the trial.

However, here we are dealing with the historian and neo-Jacobite, Sheriff Mark Napier, who was a denier of the historical evidence for the Killing Times at every turn.

It is worth saying that again, as I believe this to be true. Napier was a Killing-Times denier.

One has to ask what evidence would Napier have accepted for the historicity of the Killing Times? As far as I can tell, the only field death of the Killing Times that he accepted was when his beloved John Graham of Claverhouse wrote in a letter that he actually had John Brown in Priesthill shot by a firing squad. Any other summary execution in the field that crossed his path, he dismissed. There are 92 or 93 summary executions mentioned in the historical sources.

What Napier picked up on in terms of Cultran’s absence seems to be a minor point in case of the Wigtown Martyrs, but that was his strategy. As a good lawyer, he chipped away at every detail in order to cast doubt on the broad evidence and accepted fact that the women were drowned.

Was he right about the fact that Cultran was “in all probability” not at the trial? Let us look back through the evidence …

Witch Trial

The Trial
On 13 April, 1685, a prestige event took place in Wigtown, a justiciary court was held in the burgh. It condemned two women to death by drowning, Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson. The trial was organised under a judicial commission granted to Colonel James Douglas, a senior military officer who had proven highly effective in the field. Those facts are beyond dispute.

The court was presided over by three judges, the number that was legally required in the absence of Colonel James Douglas. They were Sir Robert Grierson of Lag (sheriff), David Graham (sheriff-depute of Galloway and the brother of John Graham of Claverhouse) and Captain John Strachan. All three had been commissioned to hold a court in Galloway if one was called under the wide-ranging powers granted to Colonel Douglas, the brother of one of the most powerful men in the land, Queensberry.

Doubtless having been forewarned by Colonel Douglas in writing that such important figures were coming to Wigtown to dispense justice, it was almost certainly incumbent on the burgh elite, including Provost William Cultran, to be present and put on a “good show”. That was their job. This was the power of the Crown being displayed in Wigtown. It was not just a judicial event, an expression of royal power, it was a social-power event where the rituals of burgh and regional hierarchies were on public display.

As the commission to Colonel Douglas ran from 27 March to 20 April, he could have written to Wigtown at any point after his commission began and a few days before the date for the judges were to sit on 13 April. Given the logistics of organising a justiciary court – witnesses had to be called, the event organised, indictments drafted, etc.– he probably wrote to Wigtown and those concerned in the court earlier in that window to give the Provost, the burgh and judges etc., time to prepare and travel for the trials.

The Actions of Douglas
We know that the primary motive for Douglas’s commission of 27 March was to respond to rebels openly moving in force through Ayrshire. On 22 March, an illicit muster of 260 armed Society people had been held at Cairn Table and just beforehand the seat of the Earl of Dumfries at Lochnorris was raided by rebels for arms. Both of those sites lay near Cumnock, the latter very close to it. The rebels evaded capture.

Douglas and garrison commanders were sent into the field on 24 March with orders ‘immediately to punish the commons who did not inform against them’. The judicial commission to Douglas followed three days later. His first duty was to deal with those who were suspected of either assisting the rebels, or not reporting their presence. To that end, he held a court that tried and condemned four men at Cumnock on 3 April. They were sentenced to be hanged, but as they were prepared to take oaths (recognising royal authority) their sentences were not carried out and they were ultimately pardoned on 25 June after they had taken oaths.

On the following day, 4 April, a prisoner, Thomas Richard, was brought in from the field to Cumnock. Richard had hidden fugitives and refused to take oaths, such as the Abjuration oath that renounced the militant Society people’s ‘war’ of assassinations against crown officials. Douglas appears to have exercised his powers as a commanding officer to press the abjuration in the field. He had Richard summarily executed by firing squad on the following day. Firing squad was a summary military-judicial, rather than a post-trial judicial, form of execution. That tells us which legal jurisdiction Richard was executed under.

Where Douglas went before he attended the Privy Council in Edinburgh on 21 April, the day after his judicial commission expired, is not clear. It is possible that he went to Dumfries, as he put an oath to Euphraim Threpland, who was imprisoned there, and she appeared before him at a court held in the burgh at some point prior to 5 May. (Wodrow, History, IV, 327.)

Douglas’s judicial commission granted him:

‘full Power to him to call Courts at such Times and Places as he shall find expedient and then and there to create Clerk, Sergeants, Dempsters, and other Members of Court needful, [etc.]’.

We do not know how many courts Douglas ordered, beyond those in Cumnock, Wigtown and probably Dumfries. Whether Douglas ordered a court depended on the local need for one, which in practice relied on the head burghs of each locality having Presbyterian prisoners in their tolbooths.

Cumnock, which was not a head burgh of a shire, was chosen as the location for a court to make a statement in the locality where the armed rebels had acted.

His commission listed ten shires (and judges in each) where he could potentially have called a court. Among those areas was Galloway that included both Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbrightshire, which had separate head burghs. It would have been impossible for him to attend courts in all eleven shires during his twenty-four day commission. Douglas certainly ordered a court to be held in Wigtown under his commission, but none of the Presbyterian sources which specifically refer to that court mention him as being present.

Douglas also held the power to appoint court officers as required. We know from later sources the names of at least two members of the burgh elite who were involved in the Wigtown trial of the women. They were Provost Cultran, probably as the dempster (i.e., doomster) as he ordered the women to receive their sentence on their knees, and Baillie John McKeand, who possibly served on the jury.

The Provost must have been appointed by Douglas as a court officer in advance of the trial, i.e., prior to Monday, 13 April.

The Next Day in Wigtown
On the following day, Tuesday 14 April, the judicial show was over in Wigtown, but a further public event followed when a proclamation announced that the recently elected members of Parliament were to attend Queensberry, the chosen representative of the King, at the riding of Parliament in Edinburgh. Parliament would begin in nine days time on Thursday 23 April. Did the newly elected member of Parliament for the burgh of Wigtown, Provost Cultran, attend that proclamation? What do you think? This was his civic moment. It was his public send off. What we do know is that the Provost no longer attended the burgh council from that exact date.

On the following day, Wednesday 15 April, the burgh’s hangman launched a pay dispute over his having to remain in the tolbooth with the prisoners (including the two women), at an extraordinary meeting of the burgh council at which Cultran was not present. It is clear that he had work with the prisoners in the tolbooth following the trial. The council agreed to pay him, presumably as they expected him to remain with the prisoners who were then still in the tolbooth. We know that he was owed wages, as the hangman refered to that matter ‘at ane frequent [rather than extraordinary council] meiting efter the provest’s retourne’ from Edinburgh in late June.

The Logistics of Parliament
Attending Parliament in Edinburgh required organisation. Cultran had to pack a lot. His servants had to get everything he needed onto at least one cart and horses. Who knew how long this parliament would last? As it turned out, he was out of town for 73 days. He had to have his finest clothes and more for every session, daily clothes, the burgh insignia, all the papers required, food for the journey, lodgings in Edinburgh established, everything he needed to politick there. Who knows how long his packing list was, but we can be certain it did not fit in a several saddle bags.

Everything that he needed had to be transported to Edinburgh. He did not simply get on horseback and go. He also had to make it there, unpack, establish himself in his lodgings and be ready for the riding of Parliament when it opened on 23 April. There the pecking order and display of the procession for the rising of Parliament mattered and was the subject of intense disputes.

Cultran had nine days to make it to Edinburgh for the riding of Parliament. We know from the prisoner transportation of Gilbert McIlroy a couple of months later, that it took at about six days (excluding three extra days he spent at Barr Kirk) for a mixed convoy of horse, foot and cart to make it to Edinburgh. If the Provost left on 14 April, as a later burgh document indicates, he may have made it with a couple of days to spare before the riding of Parliament. That makes sense. It was not an event he could miss, as he publicly represented Wigtown and its ancient burgh status at it. We know that he made it there as he was present at the opening of Parliament on 23 April.

That means that Provost Cultran was not present in Wigtown when the execution of the two women took place. He had no role in the actual execution of the two women.


Cultran’s Return
After Parliament ended on 16 June, Provost Cultran returned to Wigtown. That entailed the same logistical tasks in reverse order as the journey to Edinburgh. He officially reappeared in Wigtown on Thursday 25 June, which is, coincidently, the same time frame of nine days that that he had allowed for his journey to Edinburgh. We know that Cultran returned then, as he immediately claimed his expenses:

‘Wigton, June 26. 1685: Convened, the Provost [Cultran], the two Bailies, and of the [burgh] Council, William Clougstoune, Adam Kyneir, Michel Shank, John Dunbar, John M’Keackan, George Kincaid, Antony M’Clure, Antony Dalyell, Adam M’Kie, Alexander Gordon, Mr James Broune, John M’Keand:

The which day, William Coltrane, Provost, who was elected Commissioner to the Parliament, having returned, has made his report as follows: viz. That he was seventy-three days absent, and that he gave in three rex-dollars and ane half dollar with his commission; and that he gave ane dollar to Bartholomew M’Kean for his adverting to the town’s papers; which in haill extends to the sum of two hundred twenty and four pounds and fifteen shillings Scots money, at ane rex dollar ilk day, conform to the former act; which sum of two hundred twenty and four pounds and fifteen shillings Scots money, the Magistrates and Council oblige them and their successors in office to content and pay to the said William Coltrane, Provost, his heirs, executors or assignees, betwixt this date and the term of Lambas next to come, so far as the treasurer shall not produce receipt thereof.’ (Napier, Memorials and Letters, II, 97-8.)

The evidence is precise in placing Provost Cultran in Wigtown on the day of the trial of the two Wigtown martyrs on 13 April, as he left the next day. It is clear that he was not present when they were drowned, as he did not return until 26 June. After his initial role as a court officer, Cultran probably played no further part in their case or their execution.

Contra Sheriff Napier
When Napier examined some, and only some, of the same evidence in the Nineteenth Century, He reached a different conclusion about Cultran’s 73-day absence to that outlined above.

He described the evidence for Cultran’s absence as ‘very handsomely [getting him] out of the scrape’, as he was absent at Parliament when the women were executed.

That is true and is not disputed. Not one of the Presbyterian sources places Cultran at their execution.

However, it does not get Cultran out of his role at the trial, which the Presbyterian sources say he was present at on 13 April.

Napier decided that when Cultran returned did not necessarily imply that he returned on 26 June, when he claimed his expenses, and that he had probably returned ‘a day or two’ earlier.

He may have. He may not have, but we know that it took around six of the nine days before he appeared at the burgh council for his party to return to Wigtown after Parliament. Cultran probably already had a couple of days in hand before he attended the burgh council.

Napier also claims that Wigtown’s burgh council received Cultran’s report ‘the very day after his return’. However, Napier’s shifting of Cultran’s return by a single day is not based on any historical evidence.

Napier knew that the evidence directly stated that Cultran returned after 73 days on 26 June, i.e., since departing on 14 April. He slyly added an extra day, perhaps hoping that his readers missed that.

Napier did that in order to push back the date of Cultran’s departure to the day of the trial.

Thus he falsely concluded that ‘in all probability’ that the Provost was ‘absent from Wigton when the women were condemned’ on 13 April.

The historical evidence says that Cultran was present in Wigtown on the day of the trial that condemned the women, as he left on 14 April, the day after it finished.

The more you examine Napier’s arguments, the more his case against the drownings happening falls apart.

It is worth remembering that almost nobody disputed the evidence for the reality of the Killing Times until Napier did well over a century-and-a-half later.

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Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to this post on Facebook, Twitter or other social networks, but do not reblog in FULL without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine

Covenanter Grave Lesmahagow #History #Scotland

•May 10, 2020 • Leave a Comment

David Steel, Lesmahagow, Lesmahagow parish, Lanarkshire. Died 1686.

Shields in 1690:
‘Liev. Crichton, now prisoner in Edinburgh, did most barbarously after Quarters, shoot David Steel, in the parish of Lesmahago, Decem: 1686.’ (A Short Memorial, 37.)

Stone erected 1702-1714. Inscription:
‘Here lies the body of David Steel martyr who was murdered by Chrichton for his testimony to the Covenants and work of Reformation and because he durst not own the authority of the tyrant destroying the same. He was shot at Skellyhill on the 20th of December 1686 in the 33d year of his age.’

‘David a shepherd first, and then
Advanced to be king of men
Had of his graces in this quarter
This heir, a wand’rer, now a martyr
Who for his constancy and zeal
Still to the back did prove true Steel
Who for Christ’s royal truth and laws
And for the Covenanted cause
Of Scotlands famous Reformation
Declining tyrant’s usurpation
By cruel Chrichton murder’d lies
Whose blood to heaven for vengeance cries.’

Perhaps not based on Shields. The inscription contains new information that he was summarily executed at Skellyhill, an exact date from his death of 20 December, 1686, and that he was thirty-three.

Grave record in Cloud of Witnesses (1st edition, 1714, 287.):
‘Upon the Grave-stone of David Steil in the Church yard of Lesmahago is this motto.’

The lettering form of the inscription probably indicates that the stone ‘renewed’ in the Nineteenth Century actually replaced the original 1702 to 1714 stone.

Map of Steel’s Gravestone at Lesmahagow Old Parish Church (Rough Location)

What3Words (Rough Location)

Photographs of the Covenanters’ gravestone at Lesmahagow are © Copyright Bobby Guthrie @AftonKillie and are reproduced by his very kind permission.