Jonathan Swift and the Attempted Assassination of Lieutenant Crichton

An old soldier named Crichton remembered an assassination attempt on him by a notorious rebel, David Steel. Or did he? The author of Gulliver’s Travels certainly had a hand in the Memoirs of Captain Chreichton of 1731 – the memoirs are, perhaps, the first historical novel, but are the reminiscences of John Crichton a fiction?…

Jonathan Swift

According to Jonathan Swift’s memoir, David Steel and the Society people attempted to ambush the then Lieutenant John Crichton of His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons at a pass outside of Cumnock in late 1685 or 1686.

‘I must now resume a little of my discourse upon captain [David] Steele. Some time before the action in which he was killed [on 20 December, 1686, although Crichton dated his death to late December, 1685], general [William] Drummond, who was then newly made commander in chief, sent for me in haste, to attend him in Edinburgh:’ (Swift, Memoirs, 210.)

According to Warrick’s History of Old Cumnock, the incident took place in 1680, however, Drummond was made commander-in-chief of the Scottish Army on 7 October, 1685. (Warrick, History of Old Cumnock, 184-5; Dalton, Scots Army, 74.)

‘My way lay through a very strong pass hard by Airs-Moss, and within a mile of Cumlock [i.e, Cumnock]:’

The moor of Airds Moss lies to the north-east of Cumnock. What Crichton’s memoirs meant by the ‘pass’ is not clear, but the location lay somewhere on the ‘bye-path’ on ‘the edge of the Moss’. Bellow Path, aka. Bello Path, a section of the road which ran along the southern edge of Airds Moss between Cumnock and Muirkirk, is the obvious candidate. Today, the Bellow Path lies on the route of the A70 near Lugar.

Map of Cumnock/Airds Moss Area

About two miles out of Cumnock, the road climbs a steep incline as it rises through a narrow valley and crosses the Bellow Water at Bellow Bridge before it reaches the flat open landscape along the southern edge of Airds Moss.

John McGeachan’s Grave © Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse.

Two or three years after the alleged incident involving Crichton, the Society people did conduct a prisoner rescue at Bellow Path in which one of their number, John McGeachan, was wounded and died.

Map of Bellow Path              Street View of Bellow Bridge

‘As I was going through Cumlock, a friend there told me, that [David] Steele, with a party, waited for me at the pass [about a mile out of Cumnock]. I had with me only one dragoon and a drummer: I ordered the latter to gallop on strait to the pass, and when he, got thither, to beat a dragoon-march, while I with the dragoon should ride along the bye-path, on the edge of the Moss. When Steele and his men heard the drum, they scoured cross the bye-path, into the Moss, apprehending that a strong party was coming in search of them: But either I or the dragoon (I forgot which) shot one of the rebels dead as he crossed us to get into the Moss.’ (Swift, Memoirs, 210.)

Swift’s memoir of Crichton is the only source that mentions the killing of the anonymous Covenanter. There is no evidence to corroborate the story that Steel tried to assassinate Crichton.

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on June 26, 2012.

2 Responses to “Jonathan Swift and the Attempted Assassination of Lieutenant Crichton”

  1. […] execution was Lieutenant John Crichton of His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons. Steel may have attempted to assassinate Crichton at some point in either late 1685, or 1686, and Crichton had been in pursuit of Steel for some […]

  2. […] Old soldiers love tall tales. The story that Steel had killed forty people in cold blood is without foundation. The story of Steel’s attempted assassination of Crichton can be found here. […]

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