Shot in Straiton Parish: Thomas McHaffie and Captain Bruce in the Killing Times

A Covenanter known as Thomas McHaffie was shot in Straiton parish on the orders of ‘Captain’ Alexander Bruce of His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons, probably in January, 1685…

Largs Farm at Straiton © Becky Williamson and licensed for reuse.

‘Thomas McHaffie in Larg’, now Largs, in Straiton parish, Ayrshire, was declared a fugitive at a circuit court held at Ayr on 19 June 1683 and listed on the Fugitive Roll published on 5 May, 1684. Two other fugitives, Allan and William Carrie, were also listed as residing at Largs. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 213.)

Map of Largs Farm           Street View of Largs Farm

Early Sources for the Killing

McHaffie’s killing was first recorded by Alexander Shields in 1690:

‘Item. The said Captain Bruce and his Men, took out of his bed Thomas Mckhaffie, sick of a Feaver and shot him instantly, in the Paroch of Stratoun in Carrick, Jan. 1686.’ (Shields, A Short Memorial, 36.)

Cloud of Witnesses copied Shields’ text, but, for reasons which are not clear, redated McHaffie’s death to 1685:

‘The said Captain Bruce and his men took out of his bed Thomas M’Haffie, sick of a fever, and shot him instantly, in the parish of Straiton, in Carrick, January 1685.’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 543.)

Wodrow also dated the killing to January, 1685. Although he drew on either Shields or Cloud as a source, he also added some new information about McHaffie’s death.

‘Some time this month [January, 1685], Thomas Machassie son to John Machassie in the Largs, in the parish of Straiton in Carrick, was despatched very quickly. This good man was lying in his house very ill of a fever, captain Bruce and a party of soldiers coming into the house, put questions to him, which he refusing to answer, and declining to take the abjuration oath, they took him out of his bed to the high road near by, and without any further process, or any crimes I can hear of laid to his charge, shot him immediately.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 240.)

Neither Wodrow, nor Shields, mentioned that McHaffie was a fugitive. Shields gave no explanation for why McHaffie was shot and his brief outline left the impression that the killing was a barbaric act. Wodrow, too, presents the shooting as an inexplicable act. However, he undermines that impression with McHaffie’s refusal to take the Abjuration oath, as the punishment for failing to abjure the Societies’ war before a commissioned officer in the field was summary execution.

McHaffie’s Grave © Becky Williamson and licensed for reuse.

McHaffie’s grave can be found at Straiton parish church. The gravestone appears to date to the early eighteenth century and its inscription was probably influenced by Shields’ text and date of 1686. The inscription is as follows:


In 1824 a second stone was erected next to the original with a similar inscription except for adding the word ‘ALL’ to the end of the text. It also contains an additional line ‘This stone was erected by subscription in the year 1824’. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 593-4.)

The Memorials to McHaffie © Becky Williamson and licensed for reuse.

When Was McHaffie Killed?
It is clear that all of the early sources were based on Shields’ text to some degree, however, they were split over the date of his killing. While Shields dated his killing to January, 1686, and the grave to 1686, Wodrow and Cloud dated McHaffie’s end to January, 1685.

It is not clear why Cloud and Wodrow changed Shields’ date to 1685, when they both drew on his pamphlet of 1690, however, it is possible that one of them may have come to the conclusion that a transcription, or typographic, error in Shields required correction.

Both dates could be the correct one, but, as we shall see, the weight of contextual evidence probably tips the balance in favour of January, 1685.

The Mysterious ‘Captain’ Bruce
According to all the early sources, the officer responsible for McHaffie’s execution was ‘Captain Bruce’. Shields described Bruce as the ‘captain of dragoons’ who was responsible for the killings at Lochenkit (Feb./Mar., 1685) and the shooting of James Kirko (May, 1685). (Shields, A Short Memorial, 36.)

From the evidence of the registers of the privy council, it is clear that ‘Captain Alexander Bruce’ was the same individual as the ‘Lieutenant Alexander Bruce’ who served in Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Charles Murray’s troop of His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons.

Lieutenant Bruce was responsible for both the killings at Lochenkit and the shooting of Kirko. At the time of those killings, Bruce held a lieutenant’s commission, but he was nearly always referred to as ‘Captain Bruce’ in official correspondence from late 1684 onwards. (RPCS, X, 290, 305, 322, 328, 337-8; XI, 555.)

Before joining the Dragoons, he had held the rank of captain in Colonel Kirkpatrick’s Regiment in the Scots Brigade in the United Provinces, until, under the name of ‘Captain Alexander Bruce of Broomhall’, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in Murray’s troop on 11 May, 1683. (Dalton, Scots Army, 122.)

Culross © Ian Murfitt and licensed for reuse.

Captain Alexander Bruce of Broomhall was the son of Robert Bruce, Lord Broomhall (d.1652), a Lord of Session, and owner of an estate near Dunfermline. Bruce represented the burgh of Culross in the parliaments of 1661-3, 1669-1673, 1678, 1685 and 1686.

He was promoted to captain-lieutenant, alongside Murray’s promotion to colonel, on 6 November, 1685, and awarded the rank and precedency of a captain of horse by James VII on 18 October, 1688.

Despite his loyal service to the Restoration regime, Bruce switched sides at the Revolution. He was knighted by William of Orange and appointed Muster-Master-General of the Forces in Scotland on 22 February, 1690.

In 1705, he succeeded his kinsman, Alexander Bruce, as the 4th Earl of Kincardine. Broomhall House, which he began to build in 1702, is a lasting achievement of his career as a soldier. He died in 1715. (RPS, A1663/6/24; Dalton, Scots Army, 124-5n, 168.)

Broomhall House © Marc Curran and licensed for reuse.

Bruce in the Killing Times
The correspondence between Bruce and the privy council in the Killing Times reveals that he was in pursuit of fugitives in Berwickshire, Peeblesshire and Roxburgh in late October and early November, 1684, until he received orders ‘for merchen to the west’ on 14 November. (RPCS, X, 290, 305, 322, 328, 337-8.)

In either late February, or early March, 1685, Bruce was involved in the shooting of Society people at Lochenkit in Kirkcudbrightshire.

On 27 March, 1685, ‘Captain Alexander Bruce’ was among those who were given judicial commissions under Colonel James Douglas to tackle dissent in the South and West. (RPCS, X, 205.)

In May, he shot James Kirko at Dumfries.

As the Killing Times petered out, ‘Captain Alexander Bruce’ was granted a furlough to leave the kingdom along with Lieutenant David Hay, son of the earl of Tweeddale, (Troop of Lifeguards) and Lieutenant John Scott (Mar’s Regiment of Foot) on 23 July. (RPCS, XI, 110.)

Bruce appears to have been an effective officer in the search for rebels and fugitives. His diligence also saved the life of James Lawson, the minister of Irongray, from the Society people. Nearly a year later, on 8 February, 1686, Lawson wrote to the privy council commending Bruce’s actions in rescuing him, bringing in prisoners and killing the Covenanters at Lochenkit. Three days later, on 11 February, the privy council rewarded Bruce by recommending ‘to his Grace [William Douglas] the Duke of Queensberry; Lord High Theasaurer, to give Captain Alexander Bruce such ane allowance as his Grace shall think fitt upon the account of the good services done by him against the rebells in apprehending and bringing them in prisoners’. (RPCS, XI, 555, 574.)

The fragmentary details of Bruce’s career suggest that McHaffie could have been shot in January in either 1685, or 1686. However, Bruce’s presence in Galloway in early 1685 suggests that he was killed in January, 1685.

Simpson’s Later Traditions
Around 150 years after Shields, Simpson published local traditions about McHaffie that place his killing in a different context.

As with all of Simpson’s traditions, it is best to acknowledge that they are traditions, rather historical fact. Simpson’s traditions are valuable for how the Covenanters were remembered, but it is not clear what they tell us about the McHaffie’s killing in 1685.

According to Simpson, McHaffie attended field preachings:

‘[McHaffie] was one day proceeding to a meeting near Maybole, but was observed and pursued by the company of troopers, who probably had been advertised of the projected conventicle.’ (Simpson, Traditions, 410.)

The implication of Simpson’s story is that McHaffie attended one of James Renwick’s field preachings near Maybole, as he was the only active field preacher between late 1683 and January, 1685.

Simpson’s tradition then deepens the association of McHaffie with the Society people.

Starr © Chris Wimbush and licensed for reuse.

‘He fled back to a very wild retreat called the Star, in the upper part of Ayrshire, where it borders on Galloway. The desolation of this region is extreme, being a territory entirely covered with rocks and stones without end.’ (Simpson, Traditions, 410.)

Star, now Starr, is a very remote location on the shore of Loch Doon in Straiton parish, which lies very close to the shire boundary with Carsphairn parish in Kirkcudbrightshire. It certainly has the appearance of a classic boundary site used by the Society people.

Map of Starr

On the surface, Simpson’s tale is of pious Covenanters in the wilderness:

‘To this rugged seclusion [at Starr], M’Haffie, who was joined by two of his covenanting friends, repaired, and in this place of refuge, altogether inaccessible to horsemen, the three fugitives deemed themselves safe. When they had rested a little, and saw that their enemies had retreated from the pursuit, M’Haffie drew from his pocket the Bible, the constant companion of his wanderings, and proposed that they should refresh themselves by reading some portions of that blessed book. He began, tradition says, by reading the two following verses of the 102d Psalm: “For He hath looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven did the Lord behold the earth; to hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death.” They were well acquainted with those passages of Holy Writ that had a special reference to God’s Church in affliction, and they were the means of fortifying their hearts in the day of general defection. Other parts of Scripture are referred to, on which our three worthies dwelt in sweet meditation, which it is unnecessary to specify. The prayer, it is said, which, in the midst of this lonely wilderness of rocks, he offered up, was of the most powerful and melting description; and the Lord heard the groanings of the prisoners, and imparted to them the foretastes of the heavenly blessedness.’ (Simpson, Traditions, 410.)

However, all may not have been as Simpson made it appear. McHaffie’s stay at Starr links him to the violence surrounding the Caldons Wood Incident. In January, 1685, the residents of Starr were reputed to have sheltered several Society people who had been involved in the killing of Captain Alexander Urquhart who were later shot at Caldons Wood.

The veracity of the tradition about McHaffie’s stay at Starr is not known, but if he did stay at Starr, then it was probably before late January, 1685, when the authorities ordered the destruction of the dwellings at Starr.

Like other contextual evidence, McHaffie’s connection to Starr suggests that he was shot in January, 1685, when the authorities were particularly interested in anyone connected with that location, rather than in 1686. In other words, McHaffie’s death may be directly linked to the killing Captain Urquhart and the deaths of six Covenanters at Caldons Wood on 23 January, 1685.

Linfairn (left in distance) © Mary and Angus Hogg and licensed for reuse.

After dealing with the tradition of McHaffie at Starr, Simpson then shifts the action to Linfairn, a farm in Straiton parish, Carrick.

‘This good man, however, did not always so escape the vengeance of his enemies; for he ultimately fell into their hands, and obtained the martyr’s crown. On the morning of the day on which he was shot, he was concealed in a glen on the farm of Linfairn, in the parish of Straiton. At this time he was very unwell and weakly, owing to exposure in the cold damp caves in which he was forced to hide himself from his foes.’ (Simpson, Traditions, 410.)

Simpson was the first to link McHaffie’s death to Linfairn.

Map of Linfairn         Aerial View of Linfairn Farm

According to Simpson, McHaffie hid in a ‘glen’ near the farm. The tradition suggests that he hid somewhere on the Palmullan or Shiel burns, like the Palmullan Glen, or the burn on Halfmark Rig.

Palmullan Burn

‘In this sickly condition he heard the approach of the soldiers, and rose from his resting-place to flee for his life. He reached the house of a friend, but he no sooner entered than he threw himself on a bed, being feverish and exhausted. Captain [Alexander] Bruce, who commanded the party, arrived at the house, and made M’Haffie an easy prey. He ordered his men to drag him from his couch, which they instantly did, and having led him out to the field, they, without ceremony, shot him dead on the spot. This murder was committed in the depth of winter 1685. A rude stone on the farm of Linfairn marks the identical spot where he fell.’ (Simpson, Traditions, 410-11.)

The location of Simpson’s ‘rude stone’ at Linfairn was not verified by later sources. Neither Thomson in the late nineteenth century, nor Campbell in the late twentieth century, located the stone.

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on April 16, 2012.

One Response to “Shot in Straiton Parish: Thomas McHaffie and Captain Bruce in the Killing Times”

  1. […] of two other Society people possibly connected to the killings at Caldons, Adam Macquhan and Thomas MacHaffie, were allegedly struck down with fever and dragged from their sickbeds by […]

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