The Three Deaths of David Steel: Part Two, Jonathan Swift and The Memoirs of Lieutenant John Chreichton

In 1731 a new version of the death of David Steel appeared with the publication of Jonathan Swift’s Memoirs of Lieutenant John Chreichton. It challenged the version of Steel’s killing found in the earlier sources …

The Second Death
The early sources for Steel’s death suggest that he was captured and offered quarter before he was shot somewhere in Lemahagow parish, Lanarkshire, on 20 December, 1686. See Part One.

Over a decade after Wodrow’s account, Jonathan Swift published the memoirs of the officer involved in Steel’s summary execution, Lieutenant John Crichton of His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons.


Swift’s Memoirs of Captain Chreichton (1731) haphazardly recorded the chronology of the Steel’s death and often attributed Crichton’s success as a fugitive hunter to dreams that revealed their hiding places, rather than the diligent search for Steel found in the historical record.

‘After I had continued a month with my friends in Edinburgh, who all congratulated with me upon my recovery, I repaired to the troop [of dragoons] at Lanerick [i.e., Lanark], where I often ranged with a party through the west to find out the straggling remains of the covenanting rebels, but for some time without success, till a week before Christmas, after the duke of York succeeded to the crown, and a year and half after I was cured [of a wound].’

Crichton’s chronology appears to place the hunt of Steel in December, 1685 – James VII succeeded in February, 1685 – rather than December, 1686, when Steel was either executed or killed in action.

The garrison at Lanark lay to the north-east of Lesmahagow.

Map of Lanark

‘Having drank hard one night, I dreamed that I had found captain David Steele, a notorious rebel in one of the five farmers houses on a mountain in the shire of Clidesdale and parish of Lismahego, within eight miles of Hamilton, a place that I was well acquainted with.’

Crichton did operate out of Lanark. The claim that he was ‘well acquainted’ with Lesmahagow parish is reinforced by his activity in that parish in February, 1686.

The memoir’s claim that Hamilton was around eight miles from Lesmahagow is accurate.

‘This man [David Steel] was head of the rebels, since the affair of Airsmoss [in 1680], having succeeded to [David] Haxton [of Rathillet], who had been there taken, and afterwards hanged [at Edinburgh], as the reader has already heard: For, as to Robert Hamilton, who was their commander in chief at Bothwell Bridge, he appeared no more among them, but fled, as it was believed, to Holland.’

Hamilton had fled to the United Provinces after the Bothwell Rising of 1679. After an initial period in exile in Rotterdam, he moved to Leeuwarden in 1682 and remained based there until 1689.

The Duke of Hamilton

‘Steele, and his father before him, held a farm in the estate of Hamilton, within two or three miles of that town [i.e., Lesmahagow]. When he betook himself to arms, the farm lay waste, and [William Douglas,] the duke [of Hamilton,] could find no other person, who would venture to take it: whereupon his grace sent several messengers to Steele, to know the reason why he kept the farm waste. The duke received no other answer, than that he would keep it waste, in spight of him and the King too; whereupon his grace, at whose table I had always the honour to be a welcome guest, desired I would use my endeavours to destroy that rogue, and I would oblige him forever.’

The memoirs’ claim that the possibility of advancement through patronage, rather than the hunt for the leaders of the Society people lay behind Crichton’s drive to find Steel. It is possible that Crichton was partly motivated by a desire to please the duke, however, other evidence reveals that Crichton was in pursuit of Steel after James Renwick field preached at the ruined kirk at Stonehouse on 17 January and a meeting at Cumberhead on 26 January, 1686.

‘[…] To return therefore to my story; when I awaked out of my dream, as I had done before in the affair of Wilson (and I desire the same apology I made in the introduction to these memoirs may serve for both), I presently rose, and ordered thirty-fix dragoons to be at the place appointed by break of day.’

The killing of David Steel did not take place in the week before Christmas in 1685, as the memoir appears to claim, but a year later, in December, 1686. In February, 1686, Crichton interrogated two prisoners, William Steel in Rogerhill, who knew David Steel, and Thomas Steel, the son of the deceased laird of Skellyhill. William Steel confessed that David Steel, Steel’s wife, Mary Weir, and a Margaret Curro had been at Renwick’s preaching at the old kirk at Stonehouse. Thomas Steel lived at Skellyhill, where David Steel was allegedly shot ten months later. It is not known if either William, or Thomas, Steel were kin to David Steel, but it is likely, especially in the case of the Skellyhill Steel.

Although the memoir does not specify the location of the five farms in Lesmahagow parish, the farms almost certainly refers to Nether Skellyhill, Cumberhead, and other nearby farms connected to the Steel family.

Map of Skellyhill

‘When we arrived thither, I sent a party to each of the five farmers houses. This villain Steele had murdered above forty of the king’s subjects in cold blood; and, as I was informed, had often laid snares to entrap me; but it happened, that although he usually kept a gang to attend him, yet at this time he had none, when be stood in the greatest need.’

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.

The passing remark of Crichton that Steel ‘usually kept a gang to attend him, yet at this time he had none, when be stood in the greatest need’ is perhaps the most interesting passage in the memoirs. It is possible that David Steel had been abandoned by other local fugitives who had made peace with the regime. Over a year before Steel was killed, Robert Langlands, a presbyterian minister who was leading attempts to unite the militant Society people with the more-moderate presbyterians of the Argyll faction, had written to Steel as part of his campaign to loosen James Renwick’s grip on the United Societies. We do not know how Steel responded, however, it appears that he remained with Renwick, for in January, 1686, he was still attending Renwick’s preaching and a meeting of the Society people was held at Cumberhead. (‘Letter Mr Rob[ert] Langlands to Dav[id]: Steil &c. Sept. 28. 1685’, EUL MSS. La.III.350. No. 162.)

It appears that other local fugitives either did not share Steel’s opinion of Renwick, or were forced to abandon the United Societies, as they made peace with the Restoration regime.

At some point soon after 21 September, 1686, a ‘Memorandum for the Earl of Airlie to the Privie Counsell’ presented a list of safe conducts for his tenants who were formerly fugitives:

‘Names of the Earle of Airlies tennents craving a further saiffe conduct:– John Whyt in Nuik (“sett asyd”); John Cochran in Craige; James Weir in Johnshill; Thomas Lin in Blairraking; John Steill in Watterhead; James Dykes in Hallburne; John Wilsone in Hieflatt. All thir safe-conducts befor under my Lord Strathallans hand till the 8 December nixt, and they all being in toune [i.e., Edinburgh?] wold have them reneud.’ (RPCS, XII, 475.)

Lt-Gen Drummond aka. Viscount Strathallan

Their safe conducts had been issued by Lieutenant-General William Drummond. Since he was awarded the title of Viscount Strathallan on 6 September, 1686, it is possible that their safe conducts had been recently issued.

All of the men given safe conducts had been tried for treason in 1681. (CST, XI, 330.)

They were forfeited on 8 October, 1681, and their lands given to Captain James Ogilvy, the Earl of Airlie:

‘Charles, by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, to all and sundry our lieges and subjects whom it effeirs, greeting. Forasmuch as the persons underwritten are by decreet and sentence of the Lords Commissioners of Justiciary forfaulted in their lives, lands and goods for their treasonable rysing in arms in the late rebellion at Bothwell bridge, viz.:– … James Wier of Johnhill; John Steill in Over Watterhead; … John Wilson of Highfleet; … John Cochran of Craigie; James Dykes, portioner of Halburn; … John White of Newk; Thomas Lin of Blairachin; … which persons (as wee are informed) doe notwithstanding live and reseid at or near their severall dwelling places, and by themselves or others, to their use and behove, doe uplift, possess and enjoy their lands, rents and goods, as if they were our free and peaceable subjects, in high and proud contempt of us, our authority and laws; wee, therefore, with advice of our Privy Councill, doe hereby give and grant full power, authority and commission to the sheriffs principall of the shires … , and their deputs, to pass, pursue, take, apprehend, imprison, and present to justice the foresaids rebells and traitours wherever they can be found in any pairt of their shire or jurisdiction; and, in any case of resistance or hostile opposition, to pursue them to the death by force of arms or dryve them furth of the bounds of their shires and jurisdictions, and, if need beis, to call to their assistance such number of our good subjects as they shall find necessary for their assistance, who are hereby ordained to concurr with, fortifie and assist out commissioners foresaids in this our service as they will be answerable to their outmost perill; and, if in persecution of the saids rebells and traitours, any of them shall be mutilat or slaine be any of our saids commissioners [or those] assisting them, wee declare that they shall never be pursued or called in question therefore, bot that the same shall be repute and esteemed good and acceptable service to us.
Given under our signet at Hallyrudhous, the eight day of October, 1681, and of our reign the 33 year. Subscribitur ut sederunt.’

Four of Airlie’s tenants who obtained safe conducts were from Lesmahagow parish.

John White in Neuck was also on the published Fugitive Roll of May, 1684. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 199.)

Map of Neuck            Street View of Neuck

In 1832, a traditional account of John White’s sufferings was recorded:

‘John Whyte of Neuk, or Newick, had to forego the comforts of home, and remain in dens and in caves of the earth. God vouchsafed unto him one remarkable escape from danger into which he had been led by the treachery of one of his nearest neighbours. Whyte and his companion had both been hiding in some retreat, and the latter having gone home, came back with tidings that all was safe, and prevailed on the former to return to his own house. In the meanwhile he gave notice to [John Graham of] Claverhouse. then lying in the neighbourhood, and Newick House was beset next morning by a troop of soldiers. Whyte went out at a window, but was observed by one of the soldiers, who, notwithstanding his occupation, being a friend to the Covenanters, made as if he had seen him in a different direction, and fired his musket, the report of which drew off the attention of the persecutors till Whyte escaped. Some years after this man came to Newick, begging a night’s lodging, and having made known that he was the soldier who had saved the Laird’s life, John Whyte took him in and made him welcome to stay as long as he pleased. Whyte, who was an elder in Lesmahagow, saw ninety years and one, and died in 1739, an aged and a holy man. Newick is yet the property and residence of his descendant and representative, Thomas Whyte.’ (Thomson, ‘Notices etc.’)

James Weir in Johnshill was also on the published Fugitive Roll of May, 1684. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 199.)

Map of Johnshill           Street View of Johnshill

Thomas Lin in ‘Blairraking’ aka. Blairachin or Blackreckoning. The farm at Blackreckoning has vanished, but it lay on the northern side of a bend in a back road.

Map of Blackreckoning          Street View of Blackreckoning

Almost certainly the most significant individual listed was John Steel in Waterhead, or Over Waterhead, who was one of the founding fathers of the United Societies in 1681 – the first convention was held at his house at Logan Waterhead. John Steel was also on the published Fugitive Roll of May, 1684. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 199.)

Map of Waterhead             Street View of Upper Waterhead

John Steel was a cousin of David Steel.

Two other tenants of Airlie were from the neighbouring parish of Evandale:

James Dykes, portioner of Hallburn

Map of Hallburn            Street View of Hallburn

John Cochran in Craige aka. Craigie or Craig.

Map of Craig            Street View of Craig

The seventh tenant of Airlie to seek a safe conduct was John Wilson in Highflat, Kilbride parish. He, too, appeared on the published Fugitive Roll of May, 1684. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 198.)

The Registers of the Privy Council record remarkable long-term local resistance to the earl of Airlie’s attempts to use the forfeited land of John Wilson at Highflat:

‘To the right honorable the Lords of his majesties most honorable Privie Counsell, the supplication of James, Earle of Airlie, shewth that your petitioner being donatour to the forfaultrie of John Wilsoune of Hiflatt in the parochin of Kilbryd, and having endeavoured (in respect I could get no tennent to take the land) to labour and sow the land myself, the forfaulted rebell himself did come in on[e] night with severalls of the adjacent tennents servants there ploughes and harroues and did in on[e] night labour sow the haill arrable land of Hiflatt; and the cornes being near ready to be cutt doune, and I having appoynted my ouen servants to watch the saids cornes untill they were fullie ready, trew it is that upon the 16th instant [i.e., September, 1686] efter ten aclock at night a great many of the neighbouring tennents and there servants did come with horsses and did cutt doune and carrie away the haill cornes befor breake of day; and seing that the same is only done out of favour and respect to the said forfaulted rebell [i.e., John Wilson], who by the countinance of freindship he hath from the adjacent tennents hath notwithstanding of his forfaultrie enjoyed the benefite of his lands these seven yeares bygone [i.e., since 1679], whereby his majesties gift of forfaultur hath prowen altogether ineffectwaill to me as to that lands, and seing by our lawe no such favour nor kyndenes ought to be given to any forfaulted rebell, and his assisteres, favourers and abateres cannot be knowen but by ane exact inquiry and expiscatione: It is humbly craved that your Lordships would grant ane comissione to some indifferent persounes for examining the adjacent nighboures and inhabitants of the said rebell within the parochines of Kilbryd, Kemalong [i.e., Cambusland] and Carmanock anent the accessione of knowledge of the premisses, and to examine them thereanent upon oath, and incaise of there refusall to depone to comitt them to prisone; as also to caus those who shall be found guilty to find sufficient cautione to compeir befor your Lordships to answer therefor when called, and in caice of there refusall to find the forsaid cautione to ordaine the shireff or baillzie of the regalitie to secure there persones until your Lordships further order, and your Lordships answer.’ (RPCS, XII, 474-5.)

On the 21 September, 1686, the Privy Council responded to Airlie’s supplication by ordering the sheriff depute of Lanark or the baillie of the regality of Hamilton ‘to make all strict search and inquirie anent these were accessory to the crime withinmentioned either by teilling, sowing, shearing, leading or resetting the cornes withinmentioned, and to examine persons thereanent upon oath, with power to them to incaice any refuse to imprison them, as also all other persons who shall be found to have bein in accession to the said cryme, … [and to] enquire anent the heretors on whose ground the saids cornes were suffered to be resett’ (RPCS, XII, 475.)

It appears that Airlie’s request that the authorities punish the local community may have provoked John Wilson to make his peace with the regime and obtain a safe conduct. At the same time, other fugitives whose forfeited lands in Lesmahagow parish were held by Airlie made the same request.

It is probably not a coincidence that John Steel of Over Waterhead’s decision to seek a safe conduct from the Privy Council preceded David Steel’s death. In accepting a safe conduct, Steel acknowledged the authority of King, which was effectively a defection from the United Societies. It is possible that Steel’s cousin, David Steel, found himself relatively isolated from some of the local network which had previously protected him.

Soon after, David Steel was deserted by his ‘gang’. According to Crichton’s memoirs:

‘One of my party found him in one of the farmer’s houses, just as I happened to dream. The dragoons, first searched all the rooms below without success, till two of them hearing somebody stirring over their heads, went up a pair of turnpike stairs. Steele had put on his cloaths, while the search was making below: The chamber where he lay was called the chamber of Deese, which is the name given to a room where the laird lies when he comes to a tenant’s house.’

The implication of Crichton’s memoir is that Steel was not found in his own house. According to a later local tradition, Steel was discovered at his home at Nether Skellyhill. However, the fugitive roll of 1684 records that David Steel held the nearby farm of Cumberhead. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 199.)

Map of Cumberhead

As mentioned above, a Thomas Steel lived at Skellyhill in early 1686. it is possible that Thomas Steel or his family were hiding David Steel. Thomas Steel had been captured and interrogated by Crichton at the beginning of the year.

When David Steel was cornered, he was determined not to be captured:

‘Steele suddenly opening the door, fired a blunderbuss down at the dragoons, as they were coming up the stairs, but the bullets, grazing against the side of the turnpike, only wounded, and did not kill them. Then Steele violently threw himself down the stairs among them, and made towards the door to save his life, but lost it upon the spot; for the dragoons who guarded the house dispatched him with their broadswords.’

The Memoirs claim that Crichton was not present at the killing:

‘I was not with the party when he was killed, being at that time employed in searching at one of the other four houses, but I soon found what had happened, by hearing the noise of the shot made with the blunderbuss: From hence I returned strait to Lanerick, and immediately sent one of the dragoons express to general Drummond [aka. Viscount Strathallan] at Edinburgh.[…]

The version of Steel’s death found in the Memoirs is different from that found in Shields. According to Shields, Steel was offered quarter, presumably after he was captured, and then shot. In the Memoirs, Steel was cut down by the dragoon’s swords fleeing his refuge.

‘[…] To put an end to this business of Steele. When the dragoon, whom I sent express, had delivered his message to general Drummond, he was just setting out for his country-house at Dumblain, but returned to his lodgings, and wrote me a letter, that he would send for me up after the holydays, and recommend me to the government to reward me for my services. He faithfully kept his word, but I received nothing more than promises.

Steele was buried in the church yard of Lismahego, by some of his friends; who, after the revolution, erected a fair monument on pillars over his grave, and caused an epitaph to be engraved on the stone, in words to this effect:

Here lieth the body of Captain David Steele, a Saint, who was murdered by John Creichton (with the date underneath).

Some of my friends burlesqued this epitaph, in the following manner:

Here lies the body of Saint Steele,
Murdered by John Creichton, that Dee’l.

[The] Duke Hamilton, in queen Anne’s time [i.e., 1702–1714], informed me of this honour done to that infamous rebel; and when I had said to his Grace, that I wished he had ordered his footmen to demolish the monument, the duke answered, he would not have done so for five hundred pounds, because it would be an honour to me as long as it lasted.’

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on July 6, 2012.

3 Responses to “The Three Deaths of David Steel: Part Two, Jonathan Swift and The Memoirs of Lieutenant John Chreichton”

  1. […] In 1832 a third version of the death of David Steel appeared in a manuscript of the Reverend Charles Thomson entitled ‘Notices etc’. While it built on the short version of Steel’s killing found in the earlier sources (see Part One), it challenged the version found in Jonathan Swift’s Memoirs of Lieutenant John Chreichton of 1731. (See Part Two.) […]

  2. […] In 1685, all of the commissioners were loyal to the Restoration regime. However, of the six commissioners, five later became “Good Revolution men”. At the time that the gravestone was erected, either they, or their sons were, the political and landed establishment in Renfrewshire. In particular, the Dundonald family network had influence in Paisley were the gravestone was erected. We do not know if any pressure was brought to bear in the case of Algie and Park’s gravestone. However, in other cases, the erection of a monument and its’ accompanying inscription were contested, e.g., Captain Crichton unsuccessfully requested that the duke of Hamilton remove the gravestone of David Steel. […]

  3. […] with some confidence is that Howie was not the only member of the Societies to hand himself in, as several other Society people also made their peace with the regime in […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.