A New Covenanter For Cambusnethan: James Stewart, Executed 1681
James Stuart is the most enigmatic of a group of five Covenanters executed in Edinburgh in October, 1681. According to tradition, almost nothing was known about his origin. However, the discovery of new information, presented here for the first time, significantly improves our knowledge of him.
According to Wodrow, Stuart was an innocent slaughtered:
‘The case of James Stuart was really lamentable, and a fresh instance of their barbarity. He was a young man, I might almost have termed him a boy, of good and serious inclinations, who bad never been, as far as I can learn, engaged in any thing for which the law could have reached him.’ (Wodrow, History, III, 285.)
Was Stuart such an innocent? No.
The key document which identifies Stuart is found in the records of the trial of the moderate-presbyterian Thomas Steuart of Coltness (1631-98) before the Scottish Parliament in May, 1685. The ‘Minutes in the process of forfeiture before parliament against Thomas Stewart of Coltness’ of 27 May, 1685, makes the crucial link between the martyr and Steuart’s servant. (Thomas Steuart became known as ‘of Coltness’ in 1681 after his father’s death. However, in 1679 he and his family occupied the Coltness estate while his father lived in Edinburgh.)
Among the charges against Coltness was
‘his sheltering of his two servants, namely: James Stewart, his domestic servant, and James Alexander, his gardener, who went out of his house to the rebellion [at Bothwell in June 1679], and immediately after the defeat returned to his service, and remained as his servants after that time, and that he conversed with them in his family.’
The mention of a ‘James Stewart’ is hardly remarkable, however, the minutes also recorded what happened to Steuart’s servant:
‘His majesty’s advocate, for further corroboration of the evidence, produced the register of the justice court bearing the said Thomas Stewart [of Coltness] to have been denounced to the horn and registered for the same crime; and produced the printed roll of the fugitives, of whom the said Thomas is one, and joined therewith the notoriety of the fact and his flight from justice; and that James Stewart, one of his servants above-named, whom he sheltered, was hanged for his being in the rebellion; and craved that the parliament would advise the evidence.’ (RPS, A1685/4/10.)
The Coltness process confirms that Stewart was ‘hanged for his being in the rebellion [of 1679]’ at some point after the defeat at Bothwell and that he was from Coltness in Cambusnethan parish Lanarkshire. The only James Stewart (or Stuart or Steuart) executed in that time frame was the mysterious ‘James Stuart’ executed in October, 1681.
A range of sources, which spell his surname as either Stuart or Stewart, outline the last two years of life.
The depositions of witnesses in the 1685 trial confirm that James Stewart was a ‘domestic servant’ of Thomas Steuart before the Bothwell Rising, that he lived in Coltness and that for several months after the rebellion he worked in the Coltness family coalworks, i.e., until around the beginning of 1680.
James Cooper, a collier in Coltness, aged 50 years or thereby, married:
‘Testifies that he knows that James Stewart and James Alexander [Steuart’s gardener,] were servants to Coltness immediately before the rebellion, and that they were at the rebellion and returned immediately thereafter, … and that Stewart worked in the coalworks as formerly, and the witness saw him speak with Coltness.’ (RPS, A1685/4/11.)
Thomas Stevenson, a soldier in lord Drumlanrig’s troop, of the age of 26 years, unmarried:
‘Testifies that he did see James Alexander, Coltness’ gardener, and James Stewart, his servant, actually in the rebellion and in arms with the rebels at Hamilton and Hamilton Muir, and after the rebellion he saw them in Coltness’ house. And that James and Walter Stewart, Coltness’ servants, told the witness they had brought meat such as cold turkeys to the muir to the rebels, and that they told the witness that their master Coltness had sent them with the said meat to the rebels.’ (RPS, A1685/4/11.)
Gavin Brown in Overton of Cambusnethan, aged 36 years, married:
‘Testifies he knew James Stewart, that he was Coltness’ domestic servant and that he went out of his house to the rebellion; and that after the rebellion he has seen him in the laird’s house, and that he has often seen him about the house of Coltness and the little town that lies about it. Testifies he saw James Alexander, gardener, and James Stewart in arms with the rebels at Hamilton Muir and several other parts. … Testifies that James Stewart did work several months at Coltness’ coalworks, which is within a quarter of a mile from the house or thereby, after his return from the rebellion, and did live in the town of Coltness for the most part for several months immediately after his return from the rebellion. Further testifies that James Stewart was employed to carry the burial letters for Sir James Stewart, Coltness’ father, and that [Thomas Steuart of] Coltness ordered his father’s burial, [which is the] proof of the matter he was Coltness’ tenant. Testifies it was after Bothwell Bridge [on 22 June 1679] that James Stewart carried the burial letters [to Edinburgh].’ (RPS, A1685/4/11.)
The evidence of the depositions suggests that the James Stewart hanged in 1681 was a domestic servant of Coltness, lived in Coltness and was the son of a tenant there. In the late-seventeenth century, the Steaurts of Coltness had expanded the tower at Coltness into a courtyard of buildings. The house was later incorporated into Coltness House which was demolished in the late twentieth century. The Coltness papers give an excellent description of the tower complex at that time. See here. (Coltness Collections, 55-7.)
Mind the Gap
The documents from the trial in 1685 link the information about Coltness’ servant in 1679 to the prisoner tried and executed in October, 1681. It is possible to track the latter back to August 1681, but what happened to him between late 1679 and August, 1681? Two pieces of information from the 1685 trial records begin to fill that gap.
First, Stewart worked for Thomas Steuart for ‘several months’, i.e., probably until around the beginning of 1680 when he appears to have left his service for some unspecified reason.
Second, that Stewart is said to have carried the burial letters for Sir James Steuart of Kirkfield and Coltness. No date is given for the burial letters, but they are said to have been carried after the defeat at Bothwell. Sir James died in Edinburgh on 31 March, 1681, and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.
At first sight the latter information appears to place Stewart serving the Coltness family in early 1681. However, it is not clear when the ‘burial letters’ were exchanged. They may have been exchanged some time before Sir James died, as he appears to have been conscious that death was close at hand since at least his last visit to Coltness in October, 1680. Arrangements for his burial also appear to have been made in advance with the burgesses of Edinburgh, as Sir James had been a former lord provost of the burgh. (Coltness Collection, 43; Epitaphs and Monumental Inscriptions in Greyfriars, 305.)
The next record of Stewart is his capture after he helped his ‘brother’ to escape. According to Wodrow, ‘he came in from the west country, to see a relation of his in prison at Edinburgh; by what means, I know not, the other got out, and he was found in the room whence the other escaped; whereupon he was brought before a committee of council’ (Wodrow, History, III, 285.)
Stewart did not mention the specific circumstances which led to his capture in his capture in his martyrs’ testimony, however, he did mention that the ‘relieving my brother’ occasioned his ‘suffering’, but that the cause of his trial and execution was for a different reason, i.e., probably his denial of royal authority.
‘The next day after I was taken, being brought before a committee;—though indeed I was not so free as I should have been. There is a passage, Acts xxi. of Paul’s going up to Jerusalem, which, some say, he might have forborne, but more especially his going up to the temple, and doing these things which are according to the law; he might, I say, have forborne this, and walked consonant to his former practice, doctrine and writings: but though his going to the temple was the occasion of his taking, yet not the head of his suffering; so, I say, though that which I did in relieving my brother, was the occasion, yet my suffering was stated on another head.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 216.)
Although there is no surviving record of Stewart’s prisoner rescue and initial appearance before the Council, it must have been before the first record of him in prison. A good candidate for the earliest surviving record of Stewart as a prisoner is an entry in the Registers of the Privy Council for 9 December, 1680:
‘George Johnstone, James Stewart, George White and William Dick, prisoners, being examined for some of them being in the rebellion and others at Torwood conventicle, and having refuised to give any satisfaction and refrain from conventicles hereafter, it is the opinion of the Committy that the King’s Advocat be appointed to process them.’ (RPCS, VI, 602; Wodrow, History, III, 232.)
Since Stewart was later executed for being in the rebellion, it is quite possible that he may have been initially examined for his part in the rebellion, rather than his part in any rescue. It is also possible, given the later record of his militant views, that he had attended Donald Cargill’s preaching at Torwood in September, 1680.
In his testimony, Stewart particularly admired Donald Cargill:
‘But I am sure, that the now glorified martyr, Mr Donald Cargill, his name shall last from generation to generations; and he shall have cause to rejoice in his King, Head, and Master, who is Jesus Christ, when those who condemned him shall not know where to flee for shelter, and shall be weary of their head, king, and master, who is Charles Stuart. And what brethren (disaffected as they were) did cast upon him as a shame, was his glory and decorment. He was of a high heroic spirit, and was free of a base and Simonian carriage. He was a man hated of his brethren; but the great Elijah in his time was so. Time and tongue would fail me, to speak to his commendation. He was the man who carried the standard, without the help of any visible; but he had the help and assistance of his Master, at whose command he was aye wandering here without residence; yet knew of one above, and had full assurance of his dwelling-place.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 220.)
Stewart later regretted that he had ‘not so free as I should have been’ when he first appeared before the Council, which probably indicates that he was careful in his answers, but fell short of openly denouncing the Council’s authority.
It is worth noting that Stewart appeared before the Council on the same day as Alexander Russell, one of those who was later executed with him. He was also listed alongside William Dick, whose name later appears next to the executed Stewart in a list of August, 1681. (RPCS, VI, 602.)
The prisoner held in December, 1680 was probably the same individual as the man executed in October, 1681, but there is no conclusive evidence to prove it.
James Stewart Reappears
Stewart is first firmly recorded in the Registers of the Privy Council eight months later, on 25 August, 1681. On that occasion, Stewart was offered release on the grounds that no witnesses had been found to proceed against him, provided that he found caution [i.e., bail money], agreed to live orderly [i.e., agreed to take a bond and to not attend field preachings] and to appear before the Council if he was recalled.
‘Due to a lack of witnesses being brought in by the General [Thomas Dalyell] against those ‘suspected as guilty of conventicles’, on 25 August 1681, the ‘Lords ordain that the others to be set at liberty, viz., John Miller in Machline, John Gilbert in Loudoun, Andrew Murdoch in Culton, David Rae in Dalrey, John Wyllie in Darvell in Loudoun parish, John Semple at Burskeenim [Barskimming?], James Thomson in Covingtoun, Alexander Russell in Randifood, James Bryce in Cutle, Robert Rennie, wright, William Pender, John Gray in Dirngavell, John Inglis, tenant there, James Petticrue in Reidmyre, Robert Davidson, gardener, John Stoddart in St Innes [Stenhouse], John Ure in Glasgow, John Cluny, barber [in Hawick], David Farrie in Air, Alexander Anderson, John Hodge, swordslipper in Glasgow, John Gilbert, John Stark, John Miller, Andrew Murdoch, John Wyllie, John Campble in Loudoun, John Anderson in Comerhead, John Corse in Cairnsham, William Dick, James Stewart, Patrick Foreman, John Bryce in Calder, William Young in E[a]gleshem, [Anna Hamilton] the Lady Gilkerscleugh, David Ritchardson in Gilmertoun, and Andrew Howatson’ … provided they find caution to live orderly and comepr if called.’ (RPCS, VII, 189-190.)
Stewart’s name appeared alongside at least three others from Cambusnethan parish, i.e., John Gray in Dirngavell [i.e., Darngavel], John Inglis, tenant there [in Darngavel] and James Petticrue [i.e., Pettigrew] in Reidmyre [, i.e., East or West Redmyre or Redmire, near Allanton.]
Stewart was also listed alongside three of the men who were executed with him, i.e., Alexander Russell, Patrick Foreman and David Farrie. Like them, Stewart was unwilling to meet the conditions for his liberty.
Stewart refers to the offer of the bond of liberation in August, 1681, in his martyrs’ testimony:
‘But I need not stand much in making this out, it being the way that tho Lord took to bring me to my suffering; and I am heartily content with my lot, and desire with my soul to bless him for it. Though I was dreadfully aspersed when that bond of liberation was offered to us, (for though some had clearness to take it, yet I could never have thoughts of taking it in peace; and I bless the Lord who kept my hand from it), it was neither strength nor sharp-sightedness in me that withheld me from yielding to the temptation; but the Lord hath shewed himself graciously favourable and kind onto me, now when I am set up like a beacon upon the top of an hill, and the eyes of many being upon me, and all are wondering at me, and calling me distracted, and saying, I am a fool, but (the Lord be thanked) I have all the senses that ever I had, though distressed, yet I despair not.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 217.)
The extraordinary circumstances surrounding his execution will be discussed in a later post.
The Curious Omissions of Wodrow
The identification of Stewart raises questions about the integrity of the Rev. Robert Wodrow’s account of the martyr. In his passage on Stewart, Wodrow claimed that:
‘The case of James Stuart was really lamentable, and a fresh instance of their barbarity. He was a young man, I might almost have termed him a boy, of good and serious inclinations, who had never been, as far as I can learn, engaged in any thing for which the law could have reached him. He came in from the west country, to see a relation of his in prison at Edinburgh; by what means, I know not, the other got out, and he was found in the room whence the other escaped; whereupon he was brought before a committee of council, and soon ensnared by their questions. When he was silent in some heads, and would not answer, some papers before me bear, that Sir George Mackenzie threatened to take out his tongue with a pair of pincers. Precisely upon his answers he was condemned, and in a few days after, he was taken, and executed with the rest at the Gallow-lee.’ (Wodrow, History, III, 285.)
Wodrow’s version of events was the foundation stone of Presbyterian traditions about the martyr. In the nineteenth century, Thomson broadly followed Wodrow’s account:
‘The case of James Stewart may be esteemed remarkable, even in the period to which it belongs, for the degree of tyranny and severity which it displays. He was a young man (might almost be termed a boy, for his years), of good and serious dispositions, and so far as appears from any thing brought against him, had never been chargeable with offending even against the laws which were then in force. He had come, from the west country, where he resided, to visit a relative who was then in prison. This person, by some means or other, effected his escape while he was in the room; upon which he was immediately carried before the council. Here some ensnaring questions were put to him, and his answers to them, compelled by the most shocking threats; and upon these answers, an indictment was raised against him. The result may easily be conceived. He was found guilty—the sentence of death passed on him—and executed with the other four, on the 10th October, 1681.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 215-16.)
Wodrow’s story can be challenged in several ways.
First, Wodrow’s narrative is a compound of events that compresses the time between Stewart’s presence at the escape of his relative and his questioning, trial and execution. The historical sources reveal that a considerable period of time elapsed between those two events.
Second, Wodrow’s assertion that Stewart had ‘never been … engaged in any thing for which the law could have reached him’ is misleading, as he had certainly been involved in the 1679 rebellion and had not taken a bond of peace. Stewart also appears to have taken to Cargill’s field preachings and relieved his brother.
Third, Wodrow made use of the sources for the trial of Thomas Steuart of Coltness, but did not mention that James Stewart was Coltness’ servant, even though the relationship between Coltness and Stewart was a key part of the case against Coltness. (Wodrow, History, IV, 231, 277.)
Fourth, and allied to the point above, Wodrow only gives a vague description of Stewart as coming ‘from the west country, where he resided’. Wodrow usually identified which parish the martyr came from, but he did not mention Stewart’s origin in Cambusnethan parish.
It is possible that Wodrow simply missed the reference to Stewart’s execution in the 1685 trial papers. However, it is also possible that Wodrow may have had a reason to be evasive about Stewart’s origin.
Wodrow’s parish of Eastwood or Pollok was dominated Sir John Maxwell of Nether Pollok (1648-1732), who was closely tied to the Steuarts of Cambusnethan through marriage. In his letters and writings, Wodrow was always keen to heap praise on his friend, patron and local landowner, Sir John.
In the years before Wodrow wrote his History, Sir John had been happily married to Marion (d.1706), a daughter of Sir James Steuart of Kirkfield and Coltness and his second wife, Marion MacCulloch. Sir John’s deceased wife was the half sister of Thomas Steuart of Coltness.
The wife of Thomas Steuart of Coltness was also the half sister of Sir John’s wife, as Thomas Steuart had married Margaret Elliot (d.1675), the only daughter of his mother-in-law by her first marriage. (Coltness Collections, 27, 28, 54.)
There is no doubt that Wodrow would have been aware of the close ties between his local patron and the Coltness Steuarts. Both families were committed moderate presbyterian who opposed the militancy espoused by the Society people. If Wodrow knew of the connection between the executed Stewart and the Coltness Steuarts, he would have had pressing reasons to downplay or obscure any link to a militant like James Stewart
Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.