The Three Covenanters Hanged at Wigtown in 1685
The three Covenanters simultaneously hanged at Wigtown in 1685 is one of the most obscure events in the annals of the Killing Times. Beyond the inscription on their grave and a brief account of their deaths at the hands of ‘Major Winram’ little was known about them. Their obscurity is all the more remarkable when one considers that they are buried right next to the two women drowned at Wigtown whose deaths have famously been the subject of historical controversy for over three centuries.
However, the story of William Johnston, John McIlroy and George Walker, not only has intriguing connections to the famous Wigtown Martyrs, it also links to three other killings, torture, banishments to Jamaica, and a field preaching by Alexander Peden. …
The inscription on their eighteenth-century gravestone is as follows:
‘HERE LYSE WILLIAM JOHNSTO
JOHN MILROY GEORGE WALKER
WHO WAS WITHOUT SENTE
NCE OF LAW HANGED BY MA
JOR WINRAM FOR THEIR ADHER
ANCE TO SCOTLAND’S REFOR
MATION COVENANTS NATIO
NAL AND SOLAM LEAGWE
(See also Thompson, Martyr Graves, 429.)
The inscription is unusual in that it was not based on the testimony of either Shields or Cloud of Witnesses. Shields did not record their deaths and Cloud only recorded the inscription after the gravestone was erected. (Thompson (ed.), CW, 606.)
However, Wodrow did record their execution:
‘Some time this year, there were three men in the parish of Penningham taken and executed very summarily, William Johnston gardener to the laird of Fintilloch, George Walker servant in Kirkauly, and John Milroy chapman, living in Fintilloch.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 252.)
William Johnston in Fintalloch
Johnston does not appear on the parish list for Penninghame of September, 1684. However, a William Johnston is listed on the parish roll for Inch parish of October, 1684, as resident or ‘gardener’ in ‘Seuchan’, now known as Sheuchan, in Wigtownshire. Sheuchan was held by Andrew Agnew of Sheuchan, who lived in Leswalt parish. In 1685, Agnew was appointed as a commissioner of supply for Wigtownshire. Before Johnston appeared at Fintalloch in 1685, he may have been Agnew’s gardener.
According to Wodrow, Johnston had attended church (perhaps in Inch parish?):
‘[William Johnston] had been abundantly conform, yea, had taken the test [oath] some time before; but after he had swallowed that oath he fell under deep remorse, and became seriously thoughtful about his sins, soul’s state and spiritual things, about which he had no concern before. Whereupon he deserted hearing the curate, who soon informed against him, and he was forced to leave his house, and wander.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 252.)
If Johnston lived at Sheuchan, he would have been a parishioner of the local minister, James Cameron. In October, 1684, Cameron did not describe Johnston as a withdrawer from the church. At some point after October, 1684, Johnston may have left Agnew’s employment and moved to Fintalloch in Penninghame parish.
If Wodrow’s account in broadly accurate, then James Colquhoun was probably the ‘curate’, or minister, who informed against Johnston. As we shall see, Colquhoun also informed against others in his parish who were not listed as withdrawers from the kirk on his parish list of September, 1684.
The house and garden at Fintalloch, aka. Fyntalloch, has now disappeared, but it lay a little to the northeast of Knowe. Today, the area is partially covered by forest.
John McIlroy in Fintalloch
The ‘chapman’ named John Milroy, was probably either ‘Joh[n]. McIlroy’ in Garwachie (now vanished), or the ‘Joh[n]. McIlroy’ in Blackquarter, who are both listed on Colquhoun’s parish roll of 1684.
Both McIlroy and Johnston appear to have received shelter from Archibald Stewart, the laird of Fintalloch, and his wife, Marjory Dunbar. The laird had been fined £1,000 for his presbyterian sympathies. In September, 1684, Lady Fintalloch was listed as a withdrawer from church by James Colquhoun. (M’Kerlie, History of Galloway, II, 120.)
George Walker in Kirkcalla
The last member of the trio was George Walker, a servant in Kirkcalla.
Kirkcalla lay in the lands of Elizabeth Gordon, Lady Castle Stewart, the wife of Colonel William Stewart, the third son of James, earl of Galloway, (d.1671). Castle Stewart sat in the first parliament of James VII in April to May, 1685. Lady Castle Stewart was listed as a withdrawer from church by James Colquhoun on the parish list of September, 1684. At that time, she was absent from the parish. (M’Kerlie, History of Galloway, II, 124; Agnew, Agnews of Lochnaw, 425.)
George Walker does not appear on either the parish list for Penninghame, or on any other parish list in Wigtownshire, in 1684. Instead, the residents of Kirkcalla listed by Colquhoun were William McIlroy and his wife, Grizal Stewart, and Gilbert McIlroy and his wife, Jonet Gordon.
Taken together, the evidence for all three men suggests that after the Abjuration oath was pressed in Wigtownshire in early 1685, that they sought refuge at Fintalloch and Kirkcalla.
The Capture of Johnston, McIlroy and Walker
According to Wodrow, all three men had gone into hiding:
‘For some time … [Johnston, McIlroy and Walker] kept close in their hiding places; but after many remarkable escapes, they were at last taken by a party sent out by major Windram, and brought in prisoners to Wigton’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 252.)
The role of ‘Major Windram’, aka. Captain ‘Major’ George Winram of His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons, narrows down the time frame for their execution. Winram was not commissioned in the Dragoons until early May, 1685, when the captaincy of John Inglis’s troop was handed to Winram after the debacle of the prisoner rescue at Newmilns. At around the time that Winram was commissioned, his troop was redeployed from Ayrshire to Galloway. On 11 May, 1685, Winram is alleged to have participated in the drowning of two women at Wigtown.
Winram’s role in the capture of the three men may indicate that they were executed at some point between c.10 May and July, 1685.
It is of some interest that Winram is also alleged to have taken part in the executions of the two female Wigtown martyrs and the three men from Penninghame parish, as both cases connect to the area around Kirkcalla and Fintalloch. One of the women drowned at Wigtown, Margaret Wilson, lived at Glenvernoch, a neighbouring farm to both Kirkcalla and Fintalloch.
Margaret Wilson’s brother had also gone into hiding at around the time that the Abjuration oath was pressed in Penninghame parish. On Colquhoun’s parish list of September, 1684, ‘Tho. Wilson, somtyme in Glenvernock’ was listed as a withdrawer from public worship.
According to the Penninghame kirk session records of 1711, her brother, Thomas, reputedly aged sixteen, was ‘keeping the mountains’ from February, 1685. (Stewart, History Vindicated, 87.)
It is possible that the cases of the two women drowned at Wigtown and the capture of Johnston, McIlroy and Walker are connected in some way, as they both involve the same location, officer and time frame. If they are, then the drowning of the women at Wigtown probably preceded the capture of the three men.
After Winram’s ‘party’ had captured them, all three men were brought to Wigtown ‘where the major examined them, and they declining to answer some of his interrogatories, and peremptorily refusing to join in hearing the episcopal minister, without the trouble of an assize, or trial, caused hang them all at Wigton the very day after they were apprehended.’(Wodrow, History, IV, 252.)
The implication of Wodrow’s account of their questioning by Winram is that all three men were probably executed after they declined the Abjuration oath.
“Another” Raid on Kirkcalla?
It may not be a coincidence that Wodrow also recorded a raid on the McIlroy brothers at Kirkcalla in June or early July, 1685:
‘There is but one other instance, with which I shall end this general account of the persecution upon the score of the abjuration [oath of 1685], which I have well attested from the parish of Penni[n]gham in Galloway, by the late worthy and learned Mr Robert Rowan minister there, and it is the case of the M[c]ilroys in that parish. … I give it mostly in the words of my dear friend, though I must shorten them.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 184-5.)
The Rev. Rowan’s kirk session records for Penninghame were Wodrow’s source for the drowning of the two women at Wigtown. Wodrow continues:
‘There were two brothers in that parish, Gilbert and William M[c]ilroys, living at Kirkaulay [i.e., Kirkcalla] in Castle-stuart’s land. Last year [i.e., 1684] when the test [oath] was pressed violently [in October], William took it, and Gilbert compounded with the sheriff-depute [of Wigtownshire, [David Graham, brother of Claverhouse,] to get his name out of the rolls, and actually gave him twelve pounds, and got off.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 185.)
Gilbert and William McIlroy may have been kin to John McIlroy. They certainly appear to have harboured George Walker at Kirkcalla.
‘But this year  when all were obliged to abjure [i.e., swear the Abjuration oath in public, probably in mid January or early February], these two, with their younger brother Patrick M[c]ilroy, having no clearness to swear, were obliged to abscond and wander.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 185.)
Patrick McIlroy may be the ‘Patrick McIlroy’ in Clonch, i.e., Claunch, in Sorbie parish, or the Patrick McKilroy’ in High Galdenoch in Stoneykirk parish, listed on the parish lists of 1684. In 1711, Patrick McIlroy was one of the elders on Penninghame kirk session who provided information about the drownings at Wigtown. (Stewart, History Vindicated, 90.)
Like William Johnston, John McIlroy and George Walker, William and Gilbert McIlroy had either taken, or, in the case of Gilbert, paid to avoid, the test oath in late 1684. However, it appears that all of them then failed to take the Abjuration oath, which renounced the Society people’s ‘war’ against the King and elements of the Restoration regime in early 1685.
Why would some of these men have taken the Test oath, which acknowledged royal authority, but not the Abjuration oath, which declared ‘war’ on the King? Why they refused the Abjuration oath is not known, but two factors may have influenced their adoption of militant attitudes.
First, it is possible that some of them were influenced by the militant preaching of James Renwick, who appears to have been in the area in late 1684 or early 1685.
Second, the pressing of the Abjuration oath in Wigtownshire may have come after the accession to the throne of the Catholic king, James VII. Some of the men may have been able to acknowledge the authority of Charles II, but not that of his Catholic brother.
The party ‘sent out’ by Winram?
As discussed above, Winram sent a ‘party’ of troops to seize Johnston, McIlroy and Walker. Was Winram’s ‘party’ the seventy-strong troop of horse that Wodrow recorded raiding Kirkcalla in June or July, 1685?
‘In June or July this year, the earl of Hume sent his Merse militia to their houses [i.e., Kirkcalla], and rifled them, and drove away all the cattle they could reach. And two days after, seventy horsemen came under cloud of night upon them, continued all night, and destroyed all the foot had left, committing great severities upon the women who were in the houses [Grizal Stewart and Jonet Gordon], particularly upon Gilbert’s wife [Jonet Gordon], when she offered to detain from them some wearing clothes of her own, which, she said, men had no use for; they seized her and put lighted matches betwixt her fingers, and grievously tormented her and several others.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 185.)
There is no way of knowing the veracity of Wodrow’s allegation of torture by ‘lighted matches’. However, the implication of the torture story is that the troops suspected that Jonet Gordon and others were withholding information about their quarry.
In his story of the raid against the McIlroy brothers, Wodrow described two raids on Kirkcalla. The first was conducted by the foot of the Earl of Hume’s Merse militia and the second by horse. Winram was a commander of mounted dragoons. On the following day, the ‘horse’ troop conducted a search.
‘Early next morning they searched the fields about the house, and seized Gilbert Milroy’s brother William, with a servant of about sixteen years of age, who were lying hid among the corn, and carried them prisoners to Monnigaff.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 185.)
Was George Walker the sixteen-year-old servant seized? Wodrow did describe Walker as a servant in Kirkcalla. If Walker was the servant, then the executions of Walker, Johnston and John McIlroy must have taken place soon after William McIlroy was captured in the fields at Kirkcalla.
The force of horse also finished off the job of confiscating the McIlroys’ property:
‘They likewise took with them the remains of the cattle and household-stuff which had been put out of the way before. The number of cattle taken from them at both times, was eighty black cattle, besides a great many young ones which were with them, not numbered, twenty four score of sheep, eight horses and mares, some of them worth an hundred pounds. The destruction of corns by eating, treading down, and their frequent ranging the fields, cannot be computed; and what was not destroyed their families durst not stay to reap, and so it was entirely lost: their crop was twenty four bolls of sowing each, of Galloway measure.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 185.)
Wodrow did not record when Gilbert McIlroy was captured, but he was presumably taken in either the first or second raid. Both Gilbert and William were taken to Minnigaff in Kirkcudbrightshire.
They were allegedly tortured:
‘Next day Gilbert and William were brought before [James Hume] the earl of Hume at Monnigaff, and were examined as to their keeping the church, converse with whigs, and who among their neighbours used to reset them. When they declined to answer upon those points, they were put to the now ordinary torture of lighted matches betwixt their fingers, but through God’s grace they endured all, and would make no discoveries.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 185.)
James Hume, fifth earl of Home (d.c.1687), had received a justiciary commission to administer oaths and clampdown on dissent in Berwickshire on 13 January, 1685. His commission was renewed by James VII on 12 February and on 27 March he was further commissioned to assist Colonel James Douglas’s repression in the South of Scotland. (Wodrow, History, IV, 164, 204, 207.)
It is not known why Gilbert McIlroy, William McIlroy and Jonet Gordon were allegedly singled out for torture, but the story suggests that the troops were determined to obtain further information which they assumed that the residents of Kirkcalla were withholding.
The ordeal continued:
‘Here [in Minnigaff] they were kept six days, and every day threatened with present death, if they would not comply, conform, and delate such whom they knew in the neighbourhood did reset persecuted people. As the severities of the officers and commanders were great, so the impiety of the common soldiers deserves our notice. Gilbert Milroy’s wife [Jonet Gordon] was come to Monnigaff to wait upon her husband; she had gone out to the fields to pray, and one of the soldiers overhearing this good woman, came up to her, and drawing his sword threatened to kill her for praying; however he was restrained, and only brought her prisoner to the captain of the guard, bawling out against her prayers, and swearing they were treason. The captain saw good to dismiss her.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 185.)
If George Walker was taken at the same time as William McIlroy, then he, and presumably John McIlroy and William Johnston who were probably captured at the around the same time, may have been quickly taken the seven-and-a-half miles from Minnigaff to Wigtown, the chief burgh of the shire, and executed.
The approximate date of their execution may be determined from the chronology of the McIlroy brothers’ journey to Edinburgh. Gilbert and William McIlroy were banished at Edinburgh on 24 July, 1685. It is not known how long the brothers were held in Edinburgh, but their journey there accounts for at least ten days. (Six days at Minnigaff, three days at Barr kirk and one night at Hamilton.) That information suggests that the executions of the three men at Wigtown took place in either June or early July, 1685.
The Capture of the McIlroy Brothers and the Barrhill Martyrs
The McIlroy’s journey may also establish the time frame for the killings of the two Barrhill martyrs and Alexander Linn by the forces of Lieutenant-General William Drummond.
After six days at Minnigaff, Gilbert and William McIlroy were taken north to Barr in Carrick where they were examined by Lieutenant-General Drummond:
‘Her husband [Gilbert] and his brother, with several others, were carried under a guard to the church of Bar, tied together two and two, like beasts for the slaughter; there they were kept three days and examined by major-general Drummond, who hectored and threatened them terribly, telling them, if they would not comply, and inform where the whigs haunted, and who used to reset them, he would send their dittay with them, so that they should be hanged without an assize as soon as they came to Edinburgh: but nothing prevailed upon them to act against their conscience.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 185.)
After their examination at Barr, the McIlroy brothers were sent north to Hamilton and on to Edinburgh where they were banished to Jamaica.
According to Wodrow, the “curate” of Penninghame was partly responsible for their harsh treatment:
‘Mr James Colquhoun, episcopal minister at Penningbam, had no small share in their being thus treated. Gilbert Milroy found means to treat with him when he was apprehended, and sent him a good wedder upon his promise to speak and act in his favours. Gilbert’s wife [Jonet Gordon] afterwards went to Mr Colquhoun, and asked a line in her husband’s favours: accordingly, he wrote a letter and sealed it, giving it to herself to carry in with her to Edinburgh. In this line, instead of acting in the prisoner’s favours, he informed the judges that he was a disloyal person of rebellious principles. This, together with their refusing to comply and swear the present oaths, brought on their sentence, which was to have their ears cut off, and to be banished for ten years; and when their sentence was intimated, they were put in the iron-house. In a few days some of the counsellors came in to them with a surgeon, who cut off the ears of all the prisoners who came from Monnigaff, except Gilbert Milroy, who was then so fatigued and weak, that he appeared to be in a dying condition; and after the surgeon had his scissors about his ear, he passed him as a dying man. … About five or six days thereafter, Gilbert Milroy with the rest of the sentenced prisoners in the iron-house, were taken out, and six and six of them tied together, and such of them as were not able to walk, which was the case of severals, were carried upon carts to Newhaven, put into a ship lying there, and thrust under deck, two and two of them fettered together, to the number of an hundred and ninety.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 186.)
Peden’s Preaching at Craigmin
Patrick Walker also claims that a field preaching by Alexander Peden at Craigminn took place at around the same time as the deaths of Johnston, McIlroy and George Walker:
‘Three Lads murdered at Wigtoun; at the same time he [Alexander Peden] was Praying at Craigmyne, many Miles distant, he cryed out, There’s a Bloody Sacrifice put up this Day at Wigtoun; these are the Lads of Kirkelly. And these who lived near; knew not of it till it was past. I had this Account from William M’Dougal, an old Man in Ferrytoun, near Wigtoun, worthy of Credit, who was present.’ (Walker, BP, I, 69.)
Craigmyne, now Craigminn, is a hill at the east end of Glen Trool.
The date of Peden’s preaching is not known, but it must have taken place after Peden returned to Scotland in 1685, i.e., between March and June.
Walker claimed that he had received accounts of Peden’s Craigminn preaching from several witnesses. One witness lived at Ferrytoun, or Ferrytown of Cree, which was the departure point for the ferry crossing Wigtown Bay to the burgh of Wigtown. Today, it is known as Creetown and lies in Kirkmabreck parish, Kirkcudbrightshire.
A second witness, who accompanied Peden, was James Cubison in Ballochbeatties. (Walker, BP, I, 64.)
The farm at Ballochbeatties lies about ten miles to the north of Glen Trool in Straiton parish, Carrick, Ayrshire. Today, Ballochbeatties lies close to the southern shore of the expanded Loch Bradan reservoir, but in 1685 it was a remote moorland farm.
Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.