Death at the Ducat: The Shooting of John Law at Newmilns

Newmilns © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse.

John Law (d.c. 25 April-early May, 1685)

In 1685, John Law was shot at the Ducat Tower in Newmilns, Ayrshire. Was he killed during the attack on the Ducat Tower? Or was he executed by Inglis’ dragoons in revenge for the humiliation of a successful attack on their headquarters? Whatever the reason for his death, Law’s shooting was part of a spiralling pattern of killings which came in the aftermath of the Newmilns attack.

The evidence for the martyrdom of John Law before 1822 is extremely poor, as neither Wodrow, nor Shields, recorded his death.

He was possibly the ‘John Law, son to John Law portioner of Barneight’ (NS 505 304) in Mauchline parish, Ayrshire, who was listed on the published Fugitive Roll of 1684. (Wodrow, History, IV, 18n.)

Map of Barneight

Barneight can be found on Google Streetview:

Streetview of Barneight

Given the lack of early evidence about Law, it would be easy to doubt his death if it were not for his gravestone at Newmilns Tower, Loudon parish, Ayrshire.

Streetview of Newmilns Tower from Main St

John Law’s Gravestone Today

However, even that, is not quite the solid evidence that it at first appears to be. Today, the inscription on the stone reads as follows:


Who was shot at Newmilns. At
The relieving of 8 of Christ’s
Prisoners, Who were taken at A meet[in]g
For Prayer at Little Blackwood, in the
Parish of Kilm[arnoc]k in April 1685, by Capt[ain]
INGLIS and his Party, For Their
Adherence to the Word of God
And Scotland’s Covenanted Work
of Reformation.

Cause I Christ’s Prisoners reliev’d
I of my Life was soon bereaved
By cruel Enemies with rage
In that Rencounter did engage.
The Martyr’s honour & his crown
Bestow’d on me O high Renown,
That I Should not only believe,
But For Christ’s cause my life
should give.

in 1822, 1930 and 1996’

The present stone is of modern origin. Its inscription clearly dates to 1996. Built into a wall, it is formed out of two separate machine-cut blocks. Only the first line of the inscription, ‘Here lies John Law’, appears on the upper block, while the lower block utilises distinctive typographic symbols that are familiar from printed works like Cloud of Witnesses. Just before it was renewed in 1996, Campbell visited the stone ‘renewed’ in 1930, which he described as ‘now very badly weathered, in spite of frequent renewals, and is almost illegible’.

He recorded the inscription on the stone renewed in 1930, which in some of its typographic elements, spellings and punctuation was different from the present stone:

Who was shot at Newmilns AT
The relieving of 8 of Christ’s
Prisoners, Who were taken at A meetg
For Prayer at Little Blackwood, in the
Parish of Kilmk in April 1685, By Capt
INGLIS and his Party, For Their
Adherence to the Word of God
And Scotland’s Covenanted Work
of Reformation
Cause I Christ’s Prisoners relieved
I of my life was soon beriev’d
By cruel Enemies with rage
In that Rencounter did engage
The Martyr’s honour and his Crown
Restow’d on me, O high Renown
That I Should not only believe
But For Christ’s cause my Life
should give.
in 1822 and 1930’
(Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 147.)

The stone we see today is not the stone which was ‘renewed’ in 1930. However, the 1930 stone was also not the stone ‘renewed’ in 1822. The inscription of the 1822 stone, which was accurately recorded by Thomson in his  ‘Travels of a Country Minister in his Own Country’ published in the Reformed Presbyterian Magazine of October 1865, demonstrates that they were separate stones.

The 1822 stone was different in several regards from the 1930 stone. The 1822 stone did not capitalise ‘Here’ in ‘HERE LIES…’.  It did use the same contraction of Kilmarnock, but it captitalised the first four letters, i.e. ‘KILMk’, instead of ‘Kilmk’. It shortened both ‘reliev’d’ and ‘beriev’d’, unlike the two later stones. It also capitalised ‘CHRIST’ on every occasion and referred to ‘NEWMILLS’, rather than ‘Newmilns’. Crucially, the initial three words of the inscription as recorded by Thomson and Cloud – ‘RENEWED IN 1822’ – have moved from the beginning of the inscription to the end of the inscription on the 1930 stone, when it became ‘RENEWED in 1822 and 1930′.

The version of the 1822 inscription in Cloud is different from that given by Thomson, but not on a fundamental level. Any differences are almost certainly down to down Cloud’s inaccurate transcription of the exact details of the text:

‘Renewed in 1822. Here lies John Law, who was shot at Newmills, at the relieving of eight of Christ’s prisoners, who were taken at a meeting for prayer at Little Blackwood, in the parish of Kilmarnock, in April 1685, by Captain Inglis and his party, for their adherence to the Word of God, and Scotland’s Covenanted Work of Reformation.’

‘Cause I Christ’s prisoners reliev’d,
I of my life was soon bereav’d,
By cruel enemies with rage,
In that rencounter did engage,
The Martyr’s honour and his crown,
Bestow’d on me, O high renown,
That I should not only believe,
But for Christ’s cause my life should give.’

Was there an earlier marker stone for Law’s death?
Since the gravestone was renewed in 1822, it is a reasonable assumption that an earlier stone existed in the eighteenth century. The evidence for an earlier stone or stones for Law comes from Cloud of Witnesses and Thomson’s ‘Travels’. Cloud records that Law’s grave was situated ‘in a kailyard’ [or kitchen garden] in Newmilns.and that the gravestone was ‘renewed’ in 1822. Thomson provided a little more detail when he stated that the 1822 stone lay ‘in a kailyard behind a house on the opposite side of the street to the parish church, and somewhat before we come to the church’.

If an earlier stone did exist, it is likely that the original stone was erected in the kailyard after the publication of his History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland, probably in c.1725-c.1740 when many other stones to the Covenanting martyrs were erected.

The form of the inscription in 1822, as recorded by Thomson, also contains clues that there was an earlier stone. Thomson’s 1822 incription contains archaic word forms and typographic elements, such as the contraction ‘KILMk’ etc., which were later transferred on to the later 1930 and 1996 stones. Those archaic elements suggest that the inscription on the stone renewed in 1822 was also translated in a similar fashion from an original stone, as even in 1822, the use of such forms was outdated.

The form of the inscription is also similar to that used on the gravestone of John Smith at Muirkirk. That may suggest that the original stone was of a similar kind to the Muirkirk stone, i.e. one which was inscribed on two sides with the poem on the reverse, before it was ‘renewed’ in 1822 with the additional words added to the top of the inscription. (The inscriptions from both stones are listed on the same page on Cloud of Witnesses. Thomson (ed.), CW, 599.)

At some point after 1865 and before 1881, the stone renewed in 1822 was moved, as Gibson records that the grave was ‘in the garden of the farm adjoining the castle [i.e. Newmilns Tower], his grave being marked by a stone which is now removed and fixed in the gable of an old thatched house opposite the entrance to the United Presbyterian Church’. (See Canmore site here.)

The church, built in 1833 by the United Associate Synod (or Secession Church) that became the United Presbyterian Church in 1847, was demolished some time ago and has been replaced by flats. However, old OS maps show that the open entranceway to the church lay on the north side of High Street and the thatched cottage lay somewhere on the opposite side of the street. It is not clear if the thatched cottage was connected to the kailyard, but both lay close to Newmilns Tower. (NSA, V, 851.)

Streetview of the former site of the UP Church on High Street

According to the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historical Monuments Scotland, the wall of the cottage lay at NS 5362 3735.

=1″ target=”_blank”>Map of RCAHMS Location of Cottage

A view of the former site of the cottage and the kailyard to the left of it can be found on Google Streetview.

Streetview of the location of the cottage and the kailyard

The ‘removal’ of the stone from the kailyard grave site after 1865 may explain the disappearance of the original stone, if it was a different stone from the one ‘renewed’ in 1822. What seems reasonably clear from Gibson’s information is that it was the stone ‘renewed’ in 1822 which was relocated. When the headstone was relocated from the kailyard to the wall of the cottage, it no longer marked Law’s grave.

It is possible that the present stone may reflect that move, as the first line of the inscription – ‘Here lies John Law’ – is carved on a separate block from the rest of the inscription when one would expect all of the text to be carved on one stone.

According to the RCAHMS, the stone which was recorded as being fixed to the gable wall of the cottage remained there until at least 1982. That must refer to the 1930 stone, as although the 1822 stone was moved to the gable wall after 1865, it was replaced by the 1930 stone. Somewhere along the line, probably in 1930, the 1822 stone disappeared.

The stone was ‘renewed’ for a third time in 1996 and seems to have been moved (again?) to the courtyard of Newmilns Tower. If anyone has any information on the stone or the original location of the grave, please do not hesitate get in touch to help clarify matters!

The Ducat Tower a.ka. Newmilns Tower

What does Law’s gravestone record about the circumstances of his death?
It is clear from the history of Law’s gravestone that an eighteenth century tradition about his death must have existed and that it was the basis for the inscription.

According to the inscription, Law took part in the attack on Newmilns Tower in April 1685 and helped to rescue of eight prisoners. At some point, apparently after the rescue, he was shot by Captain Inglis’ dragoons and was buried in a kailyard.

The precise chronology of his shooting is not clear. Was he shot during the attack? Or was he executed after the attack? In 1865, Thomson thought that Law’s death may have been after the attack: ‘The Cloud of Witnesses says nothing of any loss on the part of the Covenanters while breaking into the prison, so that John Law must have been afterwards discovered and shot’.

It is perhaps unreasonable to subject the inscription to intense scrutiny, however, the results are intriguing. The inscription provides two clues as to the timing of his death. First, Law was ‘was shot at Newmills, at the relieving of 8 of Christ’s prisoners’ who had been captured in April 1685. At first sight, the use of ‘at’ would seem to confirm that he was killed either in the attack or in the immediate aftermath of it. However, ‘at’ may have been used in a more general sense to denote “as a result of the prisoner rescue”.

It is worth noting that the inscription does not specifically date Law’s death to April, rather, it dates the capture of the prisoners to April. From the evidence of a letter from John Graham of Claverhouse of 3 May, we know that the attack on Newmilns Tower probably took place on Saturday 25 April, 1685 and that he followed up on information about those involved in the attack after 1 May. (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 207.)

Second, the inscribed poem may imply that Law was shot after the ‘rencounter’ at Newmilns Tower: ‘Cause I Christ’s prisoners reliev’d, I of my life was soon beriev’d’.

The ambiguity in the timing of Law’s shooting is reflected in two rival traditions of how Law was killed. The first tradition follows the interpretation that Law was killed in the action at Newmilms Tower, while the second tradition appears to place Law’s death at some point, probably days, after the attack.

Macleod’s Version
In 1845, the Reverend Norman Macleod of Loudon parish gave the first account of the attack Newmilns Tower in the New Statistical Account:

‘This was Captain Inglis’s head-quarters when in the district. [… After a raid on Little Blackwood in Fenwick parish, Captain] Inglis was about to shoot the others [i.e. the prisoners taken in the Little Blackwood raid], when it was suggested to him that it would be prudent to get a written order from Edinburgh for the execution. The seven men in the meantime, were confined in the old tower [at Newmilns]. But while the troop was absent on one of its bloody raids, with the exception of a small guard, a man named Browning [a.k.a. John Brounen or Binning], from Lanfine, with others who had been with him at Airds Moss, got large hammers from the old smithy, […] with which they broke open the prison doors, and permitted the Covenanters to escape. John Law, (brother-in-law to Captain [John] Nisbet [of Hardhill],) was shot in this exploit, and is buried close to the wall of the tower. The dragoons soon went in pursuit of the prisoners, but they had reached the heather, and there no cavalry could pursue them’. (NSA, V, 838.)

Macleod was also the first to identify Law as the ‘brother-in-law’ of Captain John Nisbet of Hardhill (executed December 1685). Hardhill’s wife was Margaret Law. That suggests that Law was of middle age, as Hardhill was nearly sixty in 1685. Hardhill was part of an extensive local kin network of Society people that included John Nisbet of Glen (executed April 1683), James Nisbet of Highside (executed June 1684), and Hardhill’s son, James Nisbet, who was at Priesthill with Alexander Peden on 1 May 1685.

Macleod does not leave us in any doubt that Law was shot in the action at Newmilns Tower. It is not clear from Macleod’s narrative if Law was one of the prisoners or one of the attackers, but the presumption must be that Law was one of the attackers as Macleod, who was the local minister, would have been familiar with Law’s gravestone. A few years later, Thomson recorded that all of the Newmilns prisoners escaped, but he did not discuss Law’s death. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 546-7, 599.)

However, Macleod’s version of Law’s death was soon challenged by an alternative tradition which outlined a radically different chronology for Law’s end.

M’Kay’s Version
In 1848, Archibald M’Kay in his History of Kilmarnock alluded to Law’s death, although he neither mentioned Law by name, nor mentioned his involvement in the attack on Newmilns Tower. According to M’Kay, after the rescued prisoners from Newmilns Tower were ‘marched triumphantly out of town’:

Next day the Captain [Inglis] caused the whole of the place to be searched for the actors, and learning that they had fled to the country, he despatched his men in pursuit of them. They found not a single person, however, who had been engaged in the affair; but on the same day another and a darker deed of infamy characterised their proceedings; for, actuated by feelings of disappointment and revenge, they shot, it is said, two innocent men when returning from their bloody raid’. (M’Kay, The History of Kilmarnock (1858, 2nd edition), 55.)

M’Kay’s version presents us with a conundrum, as he does not mention Law being shot in the attack, but he does mention that two men were killed in revenge for the attack. M’Kay also misdated the attack on the tower to May, when it plainly took place in late April. However, was M’Kay wrong to date the death of the two men to May? Perhaps not.

Intriguingly, his narrative implies that Law may have been one of the two ‘innocent’ men captured in a sweep by Captain Inglis’ dragoons after the attack on Newmilns Tower, rather than killed during the storming of it. The other ‘innocent’ man that M’Kay referred to was possibly John Smith in Cronan, whose shooting in the aftermath of the attack was recorded by Macleod, or perhaps James White, who may have been shot and beheaded in revenge for the attack.

If M’Kay’s tradition is correct that two men were later ‘shot’ in May by Captain Inglis’s dragoons in revenge for the attack, then the death of Law may be directly connected to that of James Smith in Threepwood.

There is circumstantial evidence that the deaths of James Smith and John Law may be connected. Both Smith and Law were captured by Captain Inglis’ dragoons at around the same time in late April or early May. It is quite possible that Law was captured in the same sweep as Smith, as Threepwood and Barneight, where Law may have come from, both lie to the south-west of Newmilns and are only a couple of miles apart – Threepwood is two miles SSW of Newmilns and Barneight is about four miles SSW of Newmilns.

Map of Threepwood and Burn Anne
Get directions to or from NS 517 345

Map of Barneight

The evidence suggests that Smith was wounded when he was captured in the raid on his farm at Threepwood, probably before 3 May 1685. While the badly injured Smith was sent to Mauchline, where he later died, Law may have been brought from near Barneight in Mauchline parish to Newmilns Tower and shot.

The possible linkage between the shooting of Law and the capture of Smith raises another question: Was Law betrayed by John Brounen? If Law was shot a few days after the raid, then it is possible that the intelligence which Brounen gave to John Graham of Claverhouse about the local the Society people involved in the attack on Newmilns may have led to Law’s capture and summary execution at the site of his crime.

Covenanter Memorial Walter Baxter © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse.

Law’s death is also recorded on a monument to local Covenanters erected in 1913 outside Loudon parish church on Main Street (i.e. the A71) in Newmilns. It is inscribed as follows on the side facing towards Main Street:

In Commemoration

Law was possibly not a resident of Loudon parish. On the side facing towards Newmilns Tower, he is recorded along with his kin, John Nisbet of Highside, James Nisbet of Glen and John Nisbet of Hardhill:


Detail of Inscription on the Monument

On the opposite side, facing east:

‘“These are they who came
out of great tribulation.”
REV. VII.14.


Loudon parish church can be easily located from Castle Street and Newmilns Tower.

Loudon Church from the entry to Castle St © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse.

It can also be found on Google Streetview.

Streetview of Monument

A second and more recent memorial to him can be found attached to the church wall.

John Law Memorial © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse.

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.


~ by drmarkjardine on October 19, 2010.

6 Responses to “Death at the Ducat: The Shooting of John Law at Newmilns”

  1. Hi Mark – glad you have found my Galloway Levellers study. In the Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds 1623-1700 there are useful ‘snippets’ on the events 1660-1688. For example various debts and wadsets by McLellan of Barscobe which show that by 1666 (Dalry/Pentland Uprising) he was deeply in debt. So,like some of the later Jacobites, he may have hoped a successful uprising would restore his fortunes in this world -rather than having a more religious motivation for particpation.

  2. […] earliest of the later sources is the inscription on John Law’s grave in Newmilns. The inscription, which must predate 1822 when it was ‘renewed’ and may date to the mid […]

  3. […] Smith in Cronan (4-c.10 May?), John Brounen or Browning (c.6-10 May?) and perhaps James White and John Law. It is possible that the capture of William Campbell in Upper Wellwood and John Campbell of Mid […]

  4. […] the grave of John Law who took part in the attack to liberated Finlay and was shot at Newmilns appears to date the raid […]

  5. […] the Covenanters forced entry into the tower and rescued the prisoners. One of the attackers, John Law, was shot dead as they forced their way in. (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 147-51; NSA, V, 838; Archibald M’Kay, The History of Kilmarnock, […]

  6. […] For a discussion of John Law’s death, see here. […]

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