Glasgow’s Townhead Martyrs: James Lawson and Alexander Wood

Glasgow from Garngad Hill

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.)

Auchnotroch Farm  © Iain Thompson and licensed for  reuse.

James Lawson in Auchnotroch

James Lawson was from Auchnotroch in Lesmahagow parish, Lanarkshire. In May 1684, ‘James Lawson in Auchnotroch’ was listed under Lesmahagow parish on the published Fugitive Roll. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 199.)

Map of Auchnotroch           Street View of Auchnotroch

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 Adam 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 [Adam 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.

Auchnotroch © G Laird and licensed for  reuse.

Alexander Wood in Newlands

Alexander Wood was from Newlands, a farm in Bothwell parish, Lanarkshire.

Map of Newlands farm            Street View towards Newlands farm

William Douglas, duke of Hamilton

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 United 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 field preach in 1680 to 1681. The joint testimony that they prepared in advance of their execution can be found here:

Testimony of James Lawson and Alexander Wood Oct 1684

In 1690, their forfeiture was rescinded by an act of Parliament. (Wodrow, History, IV 489n.)

Townhead Interchange © Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse.

The Moving Memorials to Lawson and Wood
Between 1702 and 1714 a 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’ and by the later Monkland Canal in Castle Street.

The mention of ‘Britain’s rulers’ and ‘Britain lies in guilt’ in the inscription is intriguing, as their gravestone was erected at around the time of the Union, and was recorded in the first edition of Cloud of Witnesses. The “Continuing” Society people rejected the Union.

Until at least 1822, the area of the Howgate lay outside the city, but close to developing industry around the canal.

A few years earlier, in 1818, the gravestone to the three ‘Townhead Martyrs’, which included James Nisbet, 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’)

It was probably in 1818 that the precise site of their burial was lost due to the construction of the Monkland Canal.

By 1842 a Martyr Street had been created near the site.

In 1862, ‘the citizens’ replaced the renewed 1818 monument 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.)

It is that 1862 granite tablet which survives today.

The original Martyrs’ Stone (erected 1702 to 1714) appears to have then been removed in 1862 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 granite ‘tablet’ clearly incorporates the original inscription. It 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,
Of memory,
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 at 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.

Street View of Castle Street Today

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.

Street View of Sighthill Cemetery

In the 1981, the memorial tablet was then placed outside of The Martyrs Church in Townhead, which was built in 1975. It could be viewed on Street View, there, in 2011, but clearly things have changed:

Street View of the former site of the Martyrs’ Tablet outside of the Martyrs Church on St Mungo Avenue

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 was placed by an evangelical church in Cathedral Square.

Townhead Martyrs Stone.

Today, the stone lies in Cathedral Square.

Street View of the Martyrs’ Stone

For the story of the other martyr recorded on the memorial stone, James Nisbet in Highside, see here.

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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

~ by drmarkjardine on August 18, 2011.

16 Responses to “Glasgow’s Townhead Martyrs: James Lawson and Alexander Wood”

  1. Hi,

    The Martyrs Stone is on St Mungos Avenue, Townhead Glasgow! It is part of a church that is about to be demolished and a church that is seeking parties interested in the Martyrs stone. It seems there is much confusion over this stone.

    Check it out. Go on to google maps and St Mungos ave, move up from the junction with St James road, eastward. It is sitting outside the church on the road.

  2. Hello Mark,

    The church ground and assets are now part of Glasgow Cathedral although there are NO plans to save the Martyrs Stone when the grounds are cleared. The land will be sold for flat and there will be NO church on the grounds.

    Should you wish to get in touch with saving the stone the best bet would be to speak to one of the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland on 0131 225 5722. As to speak to David Robertson.

    “Art and Architecture” department of the Church of Scotland, 121 George Street, Edinburgh – or Nigel Robb NROBB@COFSCOTLAND.ORG.UK is also a group that where involved in the discussion before the closure of the church.


    The General Trustees of the Church of Scotland own the land.

    At the moment the church will not be demolished the church building is staying open as the youth and children’s programs have no where to meet (big youth clubs with over 150 young people). So the Cathedral and giving the groups another 3 months on the vague hope that money and accommodation can be found for the local people’s activities. However, after January, there is little hope the church will support these groups going forward.

    Therefor time is short if people want to do anything to save the stone.

    The Orange order and the Conventantors where also interested, but with the church people away -there is no coordination now of this interest.

    A local concerned person.

    • Hello Mark,

      Building and stone are still there. The General Trustees have continued their generous support of the youth project.

      I hope you have managed to speak to the General Trustees. There is still time for this stone.


      Senior youth club person

  3. […] October, 1684, Balfour was present at the execution of James Lawson and Alexander Wood in […]

  4. […] The alleged words of Major John Balfour of Mar’s Regiment of Foot at executions in Glasgow were of particular interest to the anonymous author of ‘Hints of Sufferings’. Sfor other examples, see the Polmadie martyrs and the execution of Andrew Lawson and James Wood. […]

  5. […] a connection between the Covenanter’s Stone and the capture of ‘Alexander Wood in Newlands’, who was tried and executed in Glasgow in October, 1684. The story of Wood was badly recorded in histories of the Covenanters, but, as I’ve posted […]

  6. Hi Mark, the stone from outside the Martyrs church is gone. A lorry came and took it away 2 weeks ago. I believe it has gone to the evangelical church in “Cathedral Square”, however, I can not confirm this at this time.

  7. […] day [Wednesday 22 October] tuo rogues wer condemned to be hanged upon Fryday [24 October, i.e., James Lawson and Alexander Wood, at Glasgow]; and Duke Hamilton sate [in the court], notwithstanding of his first resolutions, for he is […]

  8. Hi Mark,

    I went on a walk around Townhead on Boxing Day and was surprised to see that the ‘Memorial Tablet’ which earlier had been displayed outside Martyrs Church on St Mungo’s Avenue had disappeared.

    I then discovered it on the wall of the grounds of Glasgow Evangelical Church in Cathedral Square. Later, I googled ‘Martyrs Stone’ and found your impressive site. Did you play an active part in rescuing the tablet?

    • Hi Douglas,
      I was not part of the effort to rescue it. I did have a chat with the CofS about it and they were keen to make sure it found a new home and made clear there were parties interested in saving it. Clearly, a new home has been found. So now I need to find the location, get a photo of it and update the blog.

  9. I have photos of the stone’s new home which I can forward to you, Mark. if you wish, let me know how best to get them to you.

  10. i would love to visit as I am related to Alexander Wood

  11. […] of William has moved more than once from its former site near the Tolbooth. Today, a monument to the Townhead Martyrs has recently been relocated into the street directly behind the […]

  12. […] called Station Bridge and just beyond the west side of the bridge by the modern Ayr Station. Like Glasgow’s Townhead Martyrs and the three men hanged at Wigtown, Macgill was apparently executed at a traditional gallows site […]

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