The Mysterious Martyrdom of John Smith in Croonan

John Smith, killed late April to early May, 1685.

Without the piece of text above, the John Smith shot in Cunningham in 1685 would have become little more than a historical rumour. Even with it, he is one of the most obscure and confusing martyrs of the Killing Times due to the paucity of evidence about him. His case involves quite a bit of detective work, but the new information it reveals clarifies our understanding of him and gives new insights into some of the more confusing events of the Killing Times.

Until now, only two pieces of evidence were known about John Smith.

His death is first recorded in 1690 by Alexander Shields: ‘Peter Inglis, his son [i.e. the son of Captain Inglis based at Newmilns], killed one John Smith in Cunningham, 1685’. Later, Cloud of Witnesses follows exactly the same wording as Shields. (Shields, A Short Memorial, 37; Thomson (ed.), CW, 546.)

The other evidence about Smith comes from a tradition recorded by the local minister in The New Statistical Account (1845). It reveals that Smith’s death was as result of intelligence gathered after the attack of Newmilns Tower in late April 1685:

‘The soldiers … having ascertained that John Smith of Croonan had given the runaways food, went to Smith’s house, and, meeting with him own door, shot him dead! Within a short period his grave was to be seen in the garden of the old farm house.’ (NSA, V, 838.)

The New Statistical Account was also the first to identify the location where the John Smith in the district of Cunningham was shot as Croonan, now Cronan, which lies in Loudoun parish, Ayrshire.

Map of Cronan

The local tradition about Cronan in the New Statistical Account was not recorded by Simpson in Traditions of the Covenanters (1846), however, the NSA’s text was reproduced in its entirety by James Paterson in his History of Ayrshire (1852), although Paterson goes on to mistakenly link Smith’s death with Wodrow’s story of troops at Newmilns playing with the head of a dead Covenanter in 1686 or 1687, when that incident plainly refers to the death of James White, another of Peter Inglis’s victims, rather than to Smith. (Paterson, History of the County of Ayr, 318.)

The disappearance of Smith’s grave at some point prior 1845 has led to designation of Cronan by Historic Environments Scotland as a ‘possible’ grave site.

The mystery of Smith’s grave and the very limited array of information about him has also caused confusion among historians. In the early Twentieth Century, James King Hewison confused the James Smith who was killed at Burn Anne with John Smith in Cronan, perhaps on account of the obvious parallels between the traditions about their burials and the similar location names of where they were said to killed. More recently, Thorbjörn Campbell confused Smith in Cronan with another martyr named John Smith, who is buried at Muirkirk. (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 142-3.)

The elision of John Smith in Cronan with other martyrs of a similar name may have come from a desire to bring some order to the Killing Times. However, there is no need to rub out Smith from the list of martyrs for the sake of neatness. In fact, the historical records are absolutely clear when they identify John Smith in Cronan as a separate individual from John Smith in Muirkirk and James Smith in Threepwood.

It is possible that the historical records contain some further information on Smith in Cronan. Although his name is not listed on the Fugitive Roll of 1684 under Loudoun parish, there are many other John Smiths on the Roll and frequent references to John Smiths can be found in other records of presbyterian dissent in the period. To date, none of them have been connected to Smith in Cronan.

Recently, a further piece of evidence about Smith has been found in an account of James Nisbet of those who were killed in the fields. It records that John Smith in Newmilns was shot for not having a pass, rather than for helping fugitives as the later New Statistical Account claims.

There is also new evidence about Cronan, which has not previously been used to illuminate the context of Smith’s death, does shed some light on Smith’s situation. It places Smith in the context of a fugitive called Peter Aird in Crimnan (fl. 1682-1688) who had clear links to the United Societies.

Peter Aird in Cronan

Peter Aird in ‘Crimnan’ in Loudoun parish, Ayrshire, was declared a fugitive by the circuit court at Ayr on 19 June 1683 and was listed on the published Fugitive Roll of 1684. Patrick Walker mistakenly claimed that Aird was from Galston parish, while in 1688 James Renwick described him as ‘a man of the country of New-mills, Galston, or Evandale, I knew not whether’. (Carslaw, Letters, 254-6; Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 208; Walker, BP, I, 107.)

‘Crimnan’ is a variation on the placename ‘Croonan’/Cronan. There are no other similar placenames in Loudoun parish or surrounding parishes. On Blaeu’s map of Cunningham of 1654, Cronan is called ‘Krunnen’.

Information provided by Aird was used by Walker in his Life of Alexander Peden. According to Walker, Aird had followed Alexander Peden for some way when Peden was departing for Ireland (possibly in 1679 or 1681) in order to get his child baptised. When Peden returned to Scotland in mid 1682, he baptised Aird’s child. Aird reported to Walker that Peden had advised him on that occasion that if he had used the local indulged presbyterian minister to baptise his child, Aird would have kept his cattle, but now that he had used Peden to perform the baptism, he predicted that Aird would lose them. A few days later government forces took his cattle, although Aird managed to escape with his horses. (Walker, BP, I, 107-8.)

In the passage about the baptism, Walker identifies the indulged minister James Veitch as Peden’s ‘man of the parish’. Either Walker inaccurately thought that James Veitch was indulged at Galston, where Adam Alison was indulged until his death in October 1680, or Peden’s baptism of Aird’s child took place in Mauchline parish where Veitch was indulged. However, Walker had also misidentified Aird’s parish, as he actually belonged to Loudoun parish where Anthony Shaw was indulged from 1674 to 1684. Peden was possibly referring to Anthony Shaw, rather than Veitch. (Fasti, III, 39, 49, 120.)

Aird’s long held desire to obtain his child’s baptism from Peden speaks volumes about his militant presbyterian beliefs and membership of the United Societies. To delay infant baptism by a year or two in an era of high child mortality risked the child’s damnation if it died out with the church. Aird had easy access to Anthony Shaw at Loudoun and to the other indulged ministers in Galston and Mauchline, but chose to avoid them as he saw them as being guilty of the sins of indulgence and of Erastianism. Aird was one of the Society people.

Aird’s involvement with Peden also occurred at the same time as a controversy within the United Societies over a similar issue of whether members of the Societies should accept child baptism from Peden. At the third convention in June 1682 the right of Alexander Gordon of Kinsture/Kilsture to sit in the general convention was challenged by hardliners, as Kilsture had baptised his child with Peden. For hardliners like James Renwick, accepting child baptism from Peden was tantamount to collusion in the sins of the land. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, I, 54; Shields, FCD, 23.)

The information about Aird’s views places him within the more-moderate wing of the Societies, alongside other local Society people such as John Brown of Priesthill and John Browning/Brounen, who were cut from the same ideological cloth, rather than among the hardliners like James Renwick and possibly James Smith in Threepwood.

At some point in 1684, Aird was captured together with Patrick Walker and both were imprisoned in the Iron House in the Canongate Tolbooth in Edinburgh. Later, Aird escaped and rejoined the United Societies. In February 1688, he is recorded in a trusted post within the United Societies, as James Renwick named him under interrogation as a key contact. Aird was not recaptured and probably survived until at least the Revolution later that year, when he may well have tried to reclaim Cronan. (Carslaw, Letters, 254-6; Walker, BP, I, 107.)

Aird probably escaped when John Campbell, the son of William Campbell of Over Welwood, and his cousin, John Campbell in Midwellwood, broke out of the Iron House in the Canongate tolbooth in August 1684 with eleven other presbyterian prisoners. John Campbell and his brother, William, had been seized near their home at Over Welwood, now Upper Wellwood, in Muirkirk parish, Ayrshire, at the beginning of August and initially brought to Newmilns Tower, where Captain John Inglis’ troop of dragoons were probably based after 1 August. (Wodrow, History, IV, 33, 48-51.)

Intriguingly, one of those interrogated for secretly passing letters to John Campbell during his imprisonment was a Margaret Aird. A James Aird, ‘son to James Aird in Greenock town’, now Townhead of Greenock, who was a fugitive for rebellion and treasonable crimes since November 1683, was also Campbell’s near neighbour in Muirkirk parish. (Wodrow, History, IV, 50; Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 209.)

It is worth following the evidence of what John Campbell and his cousin did after their escape for two reasons. First, it is highly likely that Aird would have followed a similar course of action, since he was from the same area and probably part of the same escape. Second, it provides another glimpse into John Graham of Claverhouse’s operations in the Muirkirk/Galston/Loudoun area in the aftermath of the attack on Newmilns Tower and the shooting of John Brown of Priesthill on 1 May, 1685. It was probaably at around the time of those events that John Smith in Croonan was shot.

According to Wodrow, after their escape, John Campbell in Over Wellwood and his cousin, who also called John, returned to the area around Over-Welwood and spent the winter and spring ‘very privately, always lying in the open air, perfectly exposed to rain, snow, and cold. In April, 1685, they had made a little lodge for themselves, in a very retired place in the middle of the mountains. In a little time after [on 1 May 1685], the Highlanders [under Claverhouse] came to that country, and discovered their hiding-place, and they were forced to remove, and separate one from another. In a few days [William Campbell of] Middle-Welwood and his brother [John Campbell, who had escaped from the Canongate Tolbooth] were retaken by Claverhouse [probably c.4 May], and cruelly treated, and with others were sent to Dunottar [in mid May]’. Soon after, John Campbell in Over Wellwood joined up with Alexander Peden and others involved in the Argyll Rising. (Wodrow, History, IV, 48-51; Walker, BP, I, 85, 117.)

The Highlanders had reached Midwellwood by 4 May 1685, as Peter Gillies, who was being transported by the Highlanders to Mauchline where he  was hanged, left a last letter to his wife there on that date.

At the time of Smith’s death, Aird was a fugitive and he had probably returned to the area around Cronan and taken to hiding in the moors. His escape alone, would have drawn Captain Inglis’s garrison at Newmilns Tower more frequently to Cronan.

The relationship, if there was one, between Aird and Smith is not clear, but it is possible that Smith was at Aird’s home at Cronan for some reason in connection with Aird’s fugitive status. Smith’s alleged provisioning of the escapees from Newmilns Tower in late April, 1685, may imply that he was known locally to be sympathetic to the Covenanters. According to James Nisbet, Smith had taken the Abjuration oath and had a pass to prove it.

The local tradition also implies that the Society people involved in the rescue knew that Cronan was a safe place to pick up provisions before they headed for the hills. That implies that Smith was probably a sympathiser known to the rescuers.

The local tradition in the New Statistical Account also states that Smith was informed against for assisting the Newmilns rescuers. This suggests two possible periods for his death. Since Claverhouse made no mention of Smith’s death in his letter from Galston that covered events from 1 to 3 May, it is likely that Smith was betrayed either in the immediate aftermath of the Newmilns rescue in late April or after John Brounen provided Claverhouse with intelligence of those involved in the rescue, i.e., c.4 to c.10 May.

The evidence suggests that the latter scenario maybe the more likely, as one of the rescuers, Brounen was well placed to know that Smith provisioned the rescuers.

The intelligence Brounen gave Claverhouse was far more detailed than the brief summary Claverhouse put in his Galston letter of 3 May. Since Brounen is known to have betrayed those who had given ‘any assistance’ to his uncle, John Brown of Priesthill, he may well have also betrayed those who had assisted the rescuers. As Claverhouse wrote: ‘I dout not but if we had time to stay, good use might be made of his confession’. Smith may have been a ‘good use’ that Claverhouse had in mind, but Claverhouse had to move on to Muirkirk parish where he captured John Campbell’s kin. (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 207-8.)

That Cornet Peter Inglis shot Smith is probably the most secure fact known about Smith, as, unlike the local traditions which were written down 160 years later, it was recorded only five years after the event.

Captain Inglis’ troop of dragoons had been ordered to Ayrshire ‘or anywhere else the commander shall think best for the good of the government’ on 1 August 1684 under the command of Claverhouse and Lieutenant-Colonel Buchan. When Claverhouse arrived in the area of Newmilns/Galston on 1 or 2 May 1685, he would have assumed direct command of Cornet Peter Inglis and Captain Inglis’ dragoons.

Given the premium that Claverhouse plainly placed on Brounen’s intelligence about the Newmiln’s attack, it would have been an uncharacteristic dereliction of duty not to order his local forces to make ‘good use’ of it. (Wodrow History, IV, 33; Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 208.)

The most likely scenario for Smith’s death is that Claverhouse ordered Captain Inglis’ dragoons to follow up Brounen’s intelligence on 2-3 May 1685 and that Cornet Peter Inglis shot Smith at Cronan soon after 3 May, probably on c.4-c.10 May-1685.

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

~ by drmarkjardine on September 18, 2010.

16 Responses to “The Mysterious Martyrdom of John Smith in Croonan”

  1. […] information directly led to the deaths of two Society people, James Smith in Threepwood and John Smith in Cronan, as discussed in following […]

  2. […] and to have killed James White in an action at Little Blackwood, he is said to have shot Barrie and John Smith in Cronan when there is no evidence that they fought back. Inglis was only a cornet, the lowest rank of […]

  3. […] The Campbell brothers’ escape from the Canongate Tolbooth in 21 August 1684 is discussed in the an earlier post on John Smith in Cronan. […]

  4. […] Third, the escape of his neighbours, John and William Campbell of Wellwood, from the Canongate Tolbooth in Edinburgh on 21 August 1684 would have added to the climate of surveillance in Muirkirk parish, especially as the Campbell brothers returned to hide in the hills surrounding their home at Upper Wellwood. Details of their escape are discussed in the post on John Smith in Cronan. […]

  5. […] It is possible that the intelligence from Claverhouse’s prisoner from Priesthill, John Brounen, may have played a part in their recapture. Since Claverhouse’s other known movements at the beginning of May followed up on Brounen’s intelligence and the Priesthill dugout does resemble the Campbells’ ‘little lodge’, it is possible that Claverhouse’s recapture of the two Campbells was also to some extent directed by Brounen’s information. (See John Brounen, James Smith in Threepwood and John Smith in Cronan.) […]

  6. […] during the storming of it. The other ‘innocent’ man that M’Kay referred to was probably John Smith in Cronan, whose shooting in the aftermath of the attack was recorded by […]

  7. […] as a result, including John Brown of Priesthill (1 May), James Smith in Threepwood (4-c.10 May?), John Smith in Cronan (4-c.10 May?), John Brounen or Browning (c.6-10 May?) and perhaps James White and John Law. It is […]

  8. […] of the Campbells of Welwood, who were possibly captured at Renwick’s conventicle at Greenock, escaped from the Canongate Tolbooth and were later pursued as fugitives in 1684 and […]

  9. Dear Sir,

    Regarding John Smith’s death at Cronan Farm. I believe that there was an inscription above the door lintel regarding this. He was supposed to have been buried under the doorstep and later re interred in the garden. I recall seeing an old photograph of the gravestone in the 1960’s.

    There was some confusion over the location, with Wee Threepwood, due to similar events.

    Thank you for placing this information on the web. One thing though, the intelligence from Mr Browning, would have been obtained by more than interrogation. Torture was regularly employed, as you are no doubt aware.

    Thank you

    Bob Smith

    • Dear Bob,

      Thanks for all the information. It is fascinating that you remember seeing an old photo of of the gravestone in the 60s. Do you have any idea where where that photo is? The inscription on the lintel is also of great interest. There are other covenanting traditions related to doorstep burials. From memory, I think there was one in Carrick with a similar type of burial/grave. I think it is in Simpson’s Traditions of the Covenanters.

      Judicial torture was employed against the Covenanters, but not that often. However, the seventeenth century definition of torture was different from today. The use of torture was legitimate under specific legal circumstances, such as where treason was suspected. For example, Earlstoun, Spence etc were tortured before the privy council in the boots and thumbikins. According to Claverhouse’s letter of 3 May, 1685, Brounen/Browning was clearly subject to to what could be called “ruthless interogation techniques”, something which we would define as torture today. A similar case of threat by firing squad was conducted on two of the Mauchline martyrs during the same sweep by Highland forces into the West.

      It appears that in early May 1685, the government forces wanted information quickly and were not that bothered about how they obtained it.

    • Hi Bob,

      I would be interested in talking to you about this. If you use my email address here:

      I will send you further contact details.


  10. […] John Smith who was executed in the Killing Times allegedly lived nearby at […]

  11. […] parish,also remained at liberty and was later recorded as a contact of James Renwick. In May, 1685, John Smith was shot at Croonan in the aftermath of the attack on the tower at […]

  12. […] Smith in Newmills’ must be John Smith “in Cronan”, rather than the John Smith buried at Muirkirk. Very little is known about Smith’s story. Shields […]

  13. […] The soldiers, however, having ascertained that John Smith of Croonan had given the runaways food, went to Smith’s house, and, meeting him at his own door, shot him dead! Within a short period [before 1845] his grave was to be seen in the garden of the old farm-house […]

  14. […] Inglis’s troop of dragoons are also said to have shot John Smith “in Cronan” after the rescue at Newmilns Tower when intelligence led them to him. However, he was not taken prisoner, unlike “the fellow” and, […]

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