Glasgow’s Townhead Martyrs: James Lawson and Alexander Wood
Tradition asserts that very little is known about the two Covenanters executed in Glasgow in October, 1684. However, with a bit of digging in the archives, new information has come to light…
According to Thomson in Cloud of Witnesses, ‘of James Lawson and Alexander Wood nothing seems now known. They are not mentioned by Wodrow.’ (Thomson (ed,), CW, 405.)
However, the records of their trial held by the National Archives of Scotland identifies these two martyrs as ‘James Lawson in Auchnotoroch’ and ‘Alexander Wood in Newlands in Bothwell parish’ who were tried for treason and participation in the Bothwell rebellion of 1679. (NAS, JC 39/51/1, 2, 4-6.)
James Lawson was from Auchnotroch (NS 823 437) in Lesmahagow parish, Lanarkshire. In 1684, ‘James Lawson in Auchnotroch’ was listed under Lesmahagow parish on the Fugitive Roll. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 199.)
In a letter from John Drummond of Lundin to Queensberry sent from ‘Glasco’ on ‘seventh Octbr’, Lundin mentions that ‘so every day brings in some prisoner fugitive hear [to the circuit court], and just now a great villan is taken in Lismahago, who fired at one of the souldiorey’ (Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch, II, 180.)
The great villain captured on c.6 October was probably James Lawson, as anyone who fired on the King’s forces could expect little mercy.
It was probably Captain Alexander Urquhart of Meldrum who captured Lawson, as in the same letter Drummond also records that ‘befor we got your lordship’s letter [sent earlier in the day from Dumfries.], ther was a party under [Urquhart of] Medrum sent up to Lismahago; but now we hav sent a stronger party to search up to Crauford, Crauford john, and come doun by Douglass &c.’ (Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch, II, 182.)
The stronger party sent out to the parishes of Crawford and Crawfordjohn would have arrived there less than a week before the Societies held their sixteenth convention near Wanlockhead on 15 October.
Alexander Wood was in Newlands, a farm in Bothwell parish, Lanarkshire.
The Trial and Execution of Lawson and Wood
On 17 November, John Erskine Carnock recorded the execution of Lawson and Wood in his journal:
‘On Friday was a fortnight, being the day before the members of the [Circuit] Court at Glasgow rose and went for Edinburgh, [James] Lawson, and [Alexander] Wood were executed at Glasgow [on 24 October]. They confessed they they had been at Bothwell Bridge, and said it was no rebellion, neither did they own the King [Charles II].
Duke of Hamilton, the Laird of Lundin, now conjunct Secretary of State for Scotland […] and who had been formerly Treasurer Depute, and my Lord Collingtoun, Justice Clerk, were members of the Court at Glasgow. Lundin, the Secretary, took most upon him, and carried things in a manner without controul, the other two acting very little.’ (Erskine, Journal, 93.)
Both men were dealt with by the Glasgow circuit court which sat from mid October 1684. It was presided over by the William Douglas, duke of Hamilton, James Foulis of Colinton, the justice clerk, and Lundin, the treasurer depute/Secretart of State for Scotland, and protected by William, Lord Ross’s troop and Captain John Inglis’ dragoons. (Erskine, Journal, 88-9; Fountainhall, Historical Notices, II, 557.)
A member of the Societies in Glasgow did record some details of their execution.
‘Octr 84. Alexr Woods Martyrdome who when he was upon the ladder [sections scored out]
Lifted up the napkin yt was drawn downe on his face & sd friends I have
good news to tell you, Christ will come again to the land. [Major John] Balfour yt cruel
persecutor sd ye dog qn was he out of it.
James Lausone Martyrdome who suffered wt A: Wood, qo after he was cast over
a woman out of tenderness feeling if he was cold [Major] Balfour mockingly sd
if his pulse going, will he get a coll in that feaver.’ (‘Hints of Sufferings’, EUL MSS. La.III.344, Vol. 2, item 125.)
They were probably held in Glasgow Tolbooth. Both men were executed on Friday 24 October 1684 at the Howgate execution site which then lay just outside of the burgh of Glasgow. The Howgate site was used for executions until 1781. The site is believed to have been located behind the Carlton Cinema at the corner of Castle Street with Garngadhill.
From their joint testimony it is clear that both men were members of the United Societies, as they bade farewell to ‘sweet societies and Christian fellowship-meetings’ and adhered to the Lanark Declaration. They had also heard Donald Cargill and Richard Cameron preach in 1680 to 1681. The joint testimony that they prepared in advance of their execution can be found here:
In 1690, their forfeiture was rescinded by an act of Parliament. (Wodrow, History, IV 489n.)
The Moving Memorials to Lawson and Wood
In the eighteenth century, a monument or gravestone was erected to them at the Howgate execution site, which lay ‘about a quarter of a mile’s walk to the north of the High Church of Glasgow’ at the Monkland Canal in Castle Street. The mention of ‘Britain’s rulers’ and ‘Britain lies in guilt’ in the inscription and the absence of any record of their execution in Wodrow probably indicates that the gravestone or memorial was not erected before the 1720s, and possibly not until as late as the 1780s when the execution site was abandoned. Until at least 1822, the area of the Howgate lay outside the city, but close to the developing industry around the canal. By 1842 a Martyr Street had been created near the site. (See NLS maps website.)
In 1818 the stone to the three ‘Townhead Martyrs’ was ‘renewed’ by Monkland Navigation, the proprietors of the Monkland Canal. The ‘Martyrs’ Monument’ is marked as built into a wall around the canal basin at the corner of Castle Street and ‘Garngad Hill’ on an OS map surveyed in 1857. (OS Map ‘Glasgow 1857 VI.11.3’)
In 1862 ‘the citizens’ replaced it with ‘a large tablet of polished granite, built into the wall that encloses the canal.’ Soon after, a drinking fountain was placed beneath the tablet. (Thomson (ed,), CW, 405, 569-70.)
The original ‘Martyr’s Stone’ appears to have then been removed and built into the south-west corner of a tenement at 60 Garngadhill and then into the property of Mr. Alex Stewart at 50/52 Garngadhill near the old canal bridge. Both properties have been demolished.
The inscription on the 1862 ‘tablet’ monument, which clearly incorporates the original inscription, was recorded in Cloud of Witnesses:
‘On a Monument in Castle Street, Glasgow
“The dead yet speaketh. Behind this stone lyes James Nisbet, who suffered martyrdom at this place, June 5th, 1684. Also James Lawson and Alexander Wood, who suffered martyrdom, October 24th, 1684, for their adherence to the Word of God, and Scotland’s Covenanted Work of the Reformation.
“Here ly martyrs three,
Who for the Covenants did die:
And witness is
‘Gainst all the nation’s perjury
‘Gainst the Covenanted cause
Of Christ, their royal king.
The British rulers made such laws,
Declar’d ’twas satan’s reign.
As Britain lies in guilt, you see,
‘Tis ask’d, oh reader, art thou free.
This stone was renewed by the proprietors of the Monkland Navigation, April 1818, and again in granite by the citizens in 1862. Drink and think, the Martyrs Monument.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 569-70.)
In 1871, the ‘memorial tablet’ was described as ‘fronting Castle Street’. (Charles Rogers, Monuments and Monumental Inscriptions in Scotland (London, 1871), I, 456-7.)
When the Carlton Cinema, 150 Castle Street, was built in 1926, the ‘tablet’ was incorporated into its walls. However, when the Carlton Cinema and much of the Townhead area were demolished in 1966 to make way for the M8 motorway, it was built into the walls of an underpass at the Townhead Interchange near Glasgow Cathedral.
The stone was moved once again due to vandalism and, according to Thorbjorn Campbell, was moved to Sighthill Cemetery. (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 108-9.)
Sighthill cemetery also contains a monument to the radical martyrs of 1820, Hardie and Baird.
In the 1980s, the memorial tablet was then placed outside of The Martyrs Church in Townhead, which was built in 1975. It can still be viewed on Google Street View, here:
In 2006 the demolition of the church was given the go ahead and in 2010 planning permission was granted for the development of 89 flats and a new church on the site. In 2013, the stone was moved, once again, and is intended to be placed at an evangelical church in “Cathedral Square” .
For the story of the other martyr recorded on the memorial stone, James Nisbet in Highside, see here.
Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to this post, but do not reblog without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine