Claverhouse Kills A Covenanter in Colmonell
McIlwraith’s death was first recorded by Alexander Shields in 1690: ‘Item. the said [John Graham of] Claverhouse Authorised his Troop to kill Matthew McKelwrath, without any Examination, in the Paroch of Camonel in Carrick, Anno 1685.’ (Shields, A Short Memorial, 35.)
His name also appears on Ridpath’s list, which was copied from Shields.
In 1717, Daniel Defoe recycled Shields’ account to create a longer version of the killing:
‘At Camonel [Colmonell] in the County of Carrick, he [i.e., Claverhouse] saw a Man run hastily cross the Street before his Troop, and as he might suppose did it to escape from or avoid them, tho’ as the People of the Place related it, the poor Man had no Apprehensions of them, but as he took all Occasions for his bloody design, he commanded his Men to shoot this Person, without so much as Examining him, or asking who he was, the poor Mans Name was Matthew Mekellwrat.’ (Defoe, Memoirs, 251.)
Defoe is generally not a reliable source for events. Wodrow did not record his death.
At some point prior to 1730, a gravestone was erected to McIlwraith in Colmonell parish churchyard.
In 1730, the inscription on the grave was published in the third edition of Cloud of Witnesses:
‘I, MATTHEW M’ILWRAITH:
In this parish of Colmonel,
By bloody Claverhouse I fell,
Who did command that I should die,
For owning Covenanted Presbytery.
My blood, a witness still doth stand
‘Gainst all defections in this land.’
(Thomson (ed.), CW, 593.)
The present memorial stone appears to be a replacement for the original and has a slightly different and longer inscription.
‘I Matthew M’Ilwraith in Parish of Colmonell,
By bloody Claverhouse I fell,
Who did Command that I should die,
For owning Covenanted presbytery.
My Blood a Witness still doth stand,
‘Gainst all defections in this Land.
Cloud of Witness.
These are they which came
out of great tribulation
and have washed their robes
and made them white
in the blood of the
REV. VII, 14.’
Taken together, all the early historical sources suggest that Matthew McIlwraith was summarily executed on the orders of Colonel John Graham of Claverhouse of the King’s Regiment of Horse. What McIlwraith had done to deserve immediate summary execution without interrogation is not clear, but he may have been involved in some form of open resistance, violence or defiance.
When Was McIlwraith Shot?
Shields’ general date of 1685 is the only time frame given for the shooting. If Claverhouse ordered the shooting, then it may have taken place after he entered Ayrshire at the beginning of May, 1685. Claverhouse’s letter of 3 May confirms that he had reached Galston by that date and that he had sent one prisoner, John Brounen, a few miles to the south to Lieutenant-General Drummond at Mauchline. Soon after, he captured two fugitives at Midwelwood in Muirkirk parish.
At that time, Claverhouse did not hold a justiciary commission that empowered him to try prisoners, but he did have the power to summarily execute anyone who either failed the Abjuration oath or was found in arms against the King’s forces.
Where Claverhouse went next, is not clear. From the killings of Daniel McIlwrath, John Murchie and Alexander Linn, we know that other elements of Drummond’s force were probably operating in Carrick in May. However, it appears that Claverhouse was active much further to the east. A week after his letter of 3 May, he is reputed to have been involved in the shooting of Andrew Hislop in Eskdale in Dumfriesshire.
If Claverhouse did cause McIlwraith’s death, then it appears that it did not happen in the first half of May.
It is possible that the shooting took place around mid May if Claverhouse moved west from Eskdale to Carrick. However, from the fragmented sources, it appears that Claverhouse was in Nithsdale and around the English Border in early June. At some point that summer, he moved west into Galloway and marched on to Ayr.
‘This summer Claverhouse, in his march from Galloway to Ayr, assembled all the men in the little town of Dalmellington, and near by, and obliged them by oath to renounce the covenants, and purge themselves of reset and converse with rebels. New and ensnaring oaths were never wanting upon every new turn this year. George Macadam, merchant there, and another of the same name, with Thomas Sloss, refusing to swear, were carried prisoners to Edinburgh, and detained there a long time.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 329.)
The difficulty of placing Claverhouse or his troops in Carrick in early May and early June, suggests that his troops may have appeared in Carrick during his march north from Galloway to Ayr. The most likely date for McIlwraith’s shooting is either later in May, or in July, 1685.
An Alternative Later Tradition
In 1892, the Reverend Robert Lawson published a detailed, homely and somewhat romantic account of McIlwraith’s end in Places of Interest about Girvan. Lawson claimed that,
‘Little is known of these Barrhill martyrs [i.e., Daniel McIlwraith and John Murchie], but still less was known of the Colmonell one [i.e., Matthew McIlwraith], until Dr Thomas M’Ilwraith of Barrhill kindly forwarded to me the following particulars, which he had verified with great faithfulness. It gives me, therefore, much pleasure to be the means of communicating to the public the first authentic account of the death of the Covenanting worthy who now lies in Colmonell Churchyard’ …
Two hundred years after Shields’ account, Lawson’s “authentic account” contradicts the evidence of the earlier sources. Instead of McIlwraith being shot on Claverhouse’s order, he is surprised in an intelligence-led raid on a farm and cut down when making his escape.
Lawson’s version does not mention Claverhouse’s role in McIlwraith’s execution at all. Instead, McIlwraith is shot after his armed resistance results in the death of one soldier.
As a general rule, the evidence from earlier sources is to be preferred.
Lawson also thought that Matthew McIlwraith was probably a fugitive from the Bothwell Rising or Airds Moss, however, his name does not appear on any list of fugitives. It is more likely that McIlwraith was a fugitive from either the circuit court at Ayr in late 1684, which received reports of those who did not attend church etc., or from the pressing of the Abjuration oath in early 1685.
Lawson’s account was also the first to attach McIlwraith to specific locations in Colmonell parish:
‘Accordingly, some time in the year 1685, a party of dragoons found their way to this quiet Stinchar valley in quest of him, and the circumstances under which they found him are sufficiently human to add a touch of pathos to his death. Matthew was the son of the farmer at Blair, about a mile above Barrhill, and at that time was courting a Miss M’Ewen, daughter of the farmer at Barbour, about a mile and a half below the village.’
The farm at Barbour has now vanished, but it lay just beyond the eastern edge of Barrhill Caravan Park.
‘The troopers, learning this, surrounded the wood [, probably a printing mistake for farm,] one moonlight night, when the inmates were engaged at family worship. M’Ilwraith escaped into a wood close by, but when search was made he took to the open fields. The soldiers’ horses soon became bogged, but four of them leaped off and continued the pursuit on foot. Matthew led them down the Duisk, crossed the lands of Alticane and Pinwherry, and plunged into a glen on the farm of Dangart, in the vale of the Stinchar.’
‘In ascending the further side of this glen, the leading pursuer threw his dirk and struck him on the heel, severing the tendon Achilles. Although thus rendered unable to run, he had strength enough, when his pursuer came up, to stab him to the heart with his own weapon. The others, however, speedily arrived, and shot him.’
If true, Lawson’s claim that McIlwraith offered armed resistance would have been more than enough of a justification for the soldiers to shoot him dead on the spot.
‘A night and a day passed, and no one was bold enough to remove the dead body. At last, as in the case at Barrhill, two young women came, wrapped the corpse in a grey plaid, and carried it to Colmonell Churchyard, about two miles distant, and there digged a grave for it close by the wall.’
The traditional story of two women burying Matthew McIlwraith is similar to Lawson’s tradition that two women buried the Barrhill martyrs.
According to Lawson’s account:
‘One of these young women was named Janet Carson. She lived to old age, and often told the story to her granddaughter, who told it to the late Peter Douglas, joiner in Glenluce, who died in 1866. Peter even confessed that when he was a young man, he had, one moonlight night, opened the grave of Matthew M’Ilwraith, and found the bones of a man lying about 18 inches below the surface, still wrapped in the remains of what appeared to be Janet Carson’s grey plaid. It was a popular tradition that M’Ilwraith had been a very tall man, but the bones (Peter thought) merely indicated a man of 5 feet 10 inches, or thereby.’
Peter Douglas was born in 1796 in Old Luce parish, Wigtownshire. His gravestone in Glenluce states he was ‘Peter Douglas, Joiner, died 11th January 1866 aged 70 years in Glenluce. (Glenluce Kirkyard Stone 202.)
It appears that Peter was a keen amateur archaeologist, as he also claimed to have found a Bronze Age spearhead in a cairn. (Archaeological and Historical Collections of Ayr and Wigtown, II, 13.)
A similar tradition about the opening of a grave from the Killing Times surrounds the three martyrs at Carsgailoch.
Finally, Lawson moves into full romantic mode:
‘And thus the sun set on Matthew M’Ilwraith. For a short space, the darkness is parted, and we get a glimpse into those days of “darkness and blood.” We see the Stinchar valley, beautiful then as now, lying in the quiet moonlight. All at once we hear shouts, and get a “glint” of the hunted man and his race for life. Then we see the desperate hand to hand struggle in the Dangart glen, followed by the pistol shots of the pursuers. Finally, we see the heroic Janet and her companion, both in their teens, take up the dead man, wrap him in their plaid, and carry him between them to Colmonell Churchyard, that he might rest with his kindred. The only thing needed to complete the romance is to suppose that Janet Carson’s companion that night was Miss M’Ewen of Barbour, which, in the nature of things, it was not at all unlikely to be. Whoever she was, she was worthy. All honour be to both of them.’ (Lawson, Places of Interest About Girvan (1892), chapter 22.)
Matthew McIlwraith may well have been kin to one of the other McIlwraiths in Colmonell parish as discussed in the post on the killing of Daniel McIlwraith.
Additional Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.