The Three Deaths of David Steel: Part Three, The Notices of Charles Thomson

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.)

Thomson’s ‘Notices etc’ is a mixture of local tradition and historical sources.

The Monument to David Steel at Nether Skellyhill © Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse.

The Third Version
According to Thomson’s version of events, Steel escaped from Nether Skellyhill, surrendered and was shot by Highlanders on the orders of Lieutenant Crichton after the dragoons refused to carry out the execution.

According to Thomson: ‘David Steel rented the farm of Nether Skellyhill, where his family resided, and not at Cumberhead, as has sometimes been asserted.’

Map of Nether Skellyhill          Street View of Nether Skellyhill

The Fugitive Roll of 1684 states that David Steel resided at Cumberhead, rather than Skellyhill.

‘[David Steel] refused to hear the curate of Lesmahagow, but diligently waited upon the outed ministers, and upon the general meetings of the Covenanters [from December, 1681]. He fought at Bothwell Bridge [in June, 1679], and from that period his sufferings were extremely severe. [Steel was forfeited in October, 1681, and his estate granted to the Earl of Airlie] So close and rigorous a search was made for him that he durst not pass the night at home, but generally slept in a little turfen hut, on the west side of Mennock Hill, which stands on the farm of Cumberhead, near the source of the Nethan. This hut, the traces of which are preserved and pointed out by the shepherds [in 1832], was about four miles from Skellyhill, and two from Priesthill, the lonely residence of that man of God, John Brown, of whose company and hospitality David Steel, and his cousin John [Steel of Over Waterhead], often received the benefit during their wanderings on those cold and bleak mountains; as they were among the first to visit and comfort his widow after she had been bereaved of her husband by [John Graham of] Claverhouse [on 1 May, 1685].’

Mannoch Hill © Chris Wimbush and licensed for reuse.

The ‘turfen hut’ lay on the west side of Mennock Hill, which is now known as Mannoch Hill.

Map of Mannoch Hill              Aerial View of Mannoch Hill

The execution of John Brown of Priesthill took place at his home, allegedly in front of his wife, Isobel Weir. In the passage which follows, Thomson sets up a similar scene for the death of David Steel before his wife, Mary Weir.

‘Years passed on, and, as they passed, David Steel ventured to stay more at Skellyhill. In December 1686, when he was at home in the bosom of his family, Lieutenant [John] Chrichton, having probably received information respecting him, came with a party of horse and foot, and had arrived within a short distance of the house, before the soldiers were observed.’

Lieutenant Crichton of His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons had been in pursuit of Steel for some time.

The Logan Water © Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse.

‘Upon alarm being given, David armed himself with a musket, slipped through a back window, and ran down towards Logan Water, distant about a quarter of a mile. pursued by the persecutors, who had discovered his flight. When crossing the Logan, a little above the farm-house of Waterside, he fell into the water which wetted his powder; but, rising immediately, he continued his flight towards the banks of the Nethan, which is about a mile distant from the Logan.

Map of Waterside                 Street View of Bridge at Waterside

In Thomson’s version, Steel escaped the house armed with a musket, but was unable to use his weapon. In contrast, Crichton’s memoirs claimed that Steel fired a blunderbuss before being cut down outside of a house.

The pursuit continues:

‘The dragoons crossed the latter stream at Waterside; and, when they got to Yondertown, they commenced firing at David, who was crossing the rising ground above them.’

Map of Yonderton          Street View of Yonderton

‘A little while, and he would have been at the Nethan, the steep and bosky banks of which, had he reached them, would have retarded the cavalry, and enabled him to gain, and escape in the almost impassable morasses which stretch along the eastern side of the rivulet. But his time was come-the time when he must seal his testimony with his blood. When he reached a plot of ground called Meadow-pats, below Meadow House, he became exhausted, and could run no farther.’

The house at Meadow has vanished, but it lay at the northern end of a “diamond” of trees which are still extant.

Map of Meadow           Aerial View of Meadow

‘Some of the dragoons were almost upon him, but he kept them at bay by presenting his musket at the foremost. Chrichton called to him to surrender. promising him quarter, and that he should be carried to Edinburgh, and have a fair trial. Steel laid down his useless weapon – his ammunition having been spoiled; as has already been mentioned, by his fall in Logan Water – and surrendered himself on those conditions. But the persecutors were as faithless as they were ferocious. Chrichton, exulting over his victim, carried him back to Skellyhill, that he might enjoy the fiendish pleasure of murdering him in presence of his wife.’

Crichton’s memoirs claimed that he was not present when Steel was shot.

‘Mary Weir [Steel’s wife] is described, in tradition, as having been a remarkably fine young woman, who loved her youthful husband ,with the greatest affection. She had anxiously watched his flight. for almost the whole course of it could be seen from the windows of their dwelling; and; when she saw that he was taken, she ran, with her first, and only child, a daughter, in her arms, and met, and walked back with him, encouraging his mind with the consolations of the gospel, amid the scoffs and jeers of the brutal soldiery.

The Marion Weir of Cumberhead, who was the first to visit the widow of John Brown of Priesthill, after he was martyred by Claverhouse, and Mary Weir, the wife of David Steel of Skellyhill, were probably connections of the same pious family [as the Weirs involved in Drumclog and banished].’

A century before, Patrick Walker identified Jean Brown in Cumberhead, the widow of the Thomas Weir in Cumberhead who died after Drumclog and mother of David Steel, as the first person meet Brown’s widow, Isobel Weir, after the killing of John Brown. (Walker, BP, I, 74.)

Priesthill and Cumberhead are relatively close to each other.

Map of Cumberhead               Aerial View of Cumberhead

Map of Priesthill                      Aerial View of Priesthill

‘Chrichton took David Steel into a field, before his own door, and ordered the dragoons immediately to shoot him. They remonstrated against this breach of promise; and, when Chrichton, persisting in his violence, peremptorily commanded them to fire, they, not yet like their officer, lost to all sense of honour, declared that they neither would shoot him, nor see him shot, and mounted their horses, and rode off to Upper Skellyhill.’

Upper Skellyhill, now knwon as Over Skellyhill, lies next to Nether Skellyhill.

Map of Over Skellyhill

‘Chrichton then ordered his footmen, who were Highlanders. These had no scruples, for they were hardened, and prepared for any atrocity. Several balls passed through the Covenanter’s head. The murderers immediately departed; and when some of the neighbours arrived, they found the widow on the spot where her martyred husband had fallen, gathering his fair hair, and the pieces of his head and brains, which were scattered about the field. Having quietly performed this duty, she bound up his head with a napkin; and, as she looked upon his mangled countenance, and closed his fixed eyes, she said with great composure, “The archers have shot at thee, my husband, but they could not reach thy soul; it has escaped, like a dove, far away, and is at rest;”–then clasping her hands together, with a look and a cry that pierced the heavens”–Lord, give strength to thy handmaid, that will prove that she has waited for thee even in the way of thy judgments.” The corpse was lifted, streaming with blood, and laid upon the kiln-grece till arrangements could be made for taking it into the house, The blood ran down into the wall; and when the kiln was taken down by people lately living, the clattered gore was distinctly seen upon the stones, having the appearance of tar.

A small cairn was raised upon the spot where the Christian fell; and out of it grew spontaneously a mountain ash, or rowan tree, which I have often seen; and the beautiful white blossoms of which in spring, and the blood-red berries in autumn, were not unapt emblems of a martyr’s life, whose early holiness had been sealed with his blood. This rowan tree fell, a few years ago, having stood, it is supposed, for upwards of a century; but another has been planted on the spot, by a young neighbouring farmer, who, with his blood, has inherited the ancient principles of the covenanting Steels of Lesmahagow.

In person, David Steel is said to have been about the middle size, having a very fair complexion, fine flaxen hair, and mild blue eyes. His body was buried in Lesmahagow Churchyard; and upon his grave-stone was inscribed the following epitaph, only part of which is given in the “Cloud of Witnesses”:–

“Here lies the body of David Steel, Martyr, who was murdered
by Chrichton for his testimony to the Covenants, and the work of
Reformation, and because he durst not own the authority of the
tyrant destroying the same. He was shot at Skellyhill on the
20th of’ December 1686, in the 33 year of his age.”
“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”

“David, a shepherd first, and then
Advanced to be king of men,
Had his graces, in this quarter,
This heir, a wanderer, now a martyr;
Who, for his constancy and zeal,
Still to the back did prove true Steel;
Who, for Christ’s royal truth and laws,
And for the covenanted cause
Of Scotland’s famous Reformation,
Declining tyrants’ usurpation
By cruel Chrichton murdered lies-
Whose blood to heaven for vengeance cries.”

The grave-stone [in Lesmahagow kirkyard] was replaced, and the ancient inscription, renewed, about fifteen years ago [i.e., c.1817], by the descendants of John Steel of Waterhead, the cousin of David.’

Charles Thomson’s version of events was the template for the accounts of the death of David Steel in both Simpson’s Traditions of the Covenanters in 1846 and John Blackwood Greenshields’ history of Lesmahagow in 1864. (Simpson, Traditions, 121; Greenshields, Annals of the Parish of Lesmahagow, 115.)

The Monument at Nether Skellyhill © Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse.

In 1858 a monument was erected at Nether Skellyhill, probably near the cairn or rowan tree recorded by Charles Thomson. According to Martyr Graves:

‘The spot where David Steel was shot is close to the house, and enclosed by a fence, some seven paces square, of hawthorn, rowan, red beech, and holly. Near the square is an obelisk erected in 1858, and on its west side are the words:
‘EXACT SPOT OF MARTYRDOM
ABOUT 27 FEET TO THE WEST’

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

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~ by drmarkjardine on July 7, 2012.

5 Responses to “The Three Deaths of David Steel: Part Three, The Notices of Charles Thomson”

  1. The parallels between the Shields / Walker account of John Brown of Priesthill’s end and the Reverend Charles Thomson’s composite of David Steel’s demise are most striking. One might even suggest that the narrative has a set and accepted formula; the ‘good man’ is captured, the ‘bad man’ orders his execution, the Soldiers – much moved by the purity and goodness of the ‘good man – refuse to obey the ‘bad man’, the ‘worse de’ils’ do the grim deed, shooting the “good man” -always in the head, in front of the greetin wife – and then leave – immediately – without carrying out any search for accomplices, or intelligence etc. Finally we are left with the widow -scooping up brains – but joined swiftly by her godly neighbours!

    Judge for yourselves.

    John Brown:

    Many ‘traditions’ have weeping dragoons, refusing orders etc. before this…

    “Claverhouse ordered six soldiers to shoot at him; the most part of the bullets came upon his head, which scattered his-brains upon the ground…”

    “…Claverhouse mounted his horse, and marched, and left her with the corps of her dead husband lying there; she set the bairn upon the ground, and gathered his brains and tied up his head, and straighted his body, and covered him with her plaid, and sat down and wept over him; it being a very desart place, where never victual grew, and far from neighbors. It was sometime before any friends came to her; the first that came was a very fit hand, that old singular christian woman in Cummerhead, named Jean Brown, three miles distant, who had been tried with the violent death of her husband at Pentland, afterwards of two worthy sons, Thomas Weir, who was killed at Drumclog, and David Steil, who was suddenly shot afterwards, when taken…” (Walker,Some remarkable passages of the life and death of Mr Alexander Peden, P.61-2)

    David Steel:

    In some versions, we are treated to the 17th Century version of a car chase. Which ends with Steel’s capture – some might ask ‘Why not just kill him on the spot?’ – one is reminded of the wonderful literary account of Dempster’s run – but no, that does not fit the narrative of true suffering. So drag him home first before this…

    “Chrichton took David Steel into a field, before his own door, and ordered the dragoons immediately to shoot him. They remonstrated against this breach of promise; and, when Chrichton, persisting in his violence, peremptorily commanded them to fire, they, not yet like their officer, lost to all sense of honour, declared that they neither would shoot him, nor see him shot, and mounted their horses, and rode off to Upper Skellyhill…”

    Sound a little similar yet?

    “…Chrichton then ordered his footmen, who were Highlanders. These had no scruples, for they were hardened, and prepared for any atrocity. Several balls passed through the Covenanter’s head.”

    “The murderers immediately departed; and when some of the neighbours arrived, they found the widow on the spot where her martyred husband had fallen, gathering his fair hair, and the pieces of his head and brains, which were scattered about the field. Having quietly performed this duty, she bound up his head with a napkin; and, as she looked upon his mangled countenance, and closed his fixed eyes,”(Thompson, Notices etc.)

    Again the evil perpetrators leave without searching for accomplices or intelligence.

    As the three postings on this subject quite rightly point out, major discrepancies exist with the various accounts. On balance, Crighton’s account – of actually being there at the time – provides the most straightforward and logical explanation of what may have happened. However, one should not forget that Crighton often makes himself pivotal in the events that he is recounting. In some cases the available evidence suggests that Crighton cannot possibly have done, or witnessed some of the things that he claims. Interestingly, this time Crighton does not put himself directly centre stage which may even add weight to his account!

    All in all, a brilliant example of the template used by martyrologist to turn an event into a suffering.

    Regards

    David

    • Hi David,

      An excellent series of points on the similarities between the traditions of Brown of Priesthill and Steel.

      Another parallel between them is that in both cases we have a version of events from the officers in involved.

      Claverhouse gives a credible and matter of fact version of events for the shooting of Brown which rings true. Walker and Wodrow play up the post-execution suffering element. I will post on Brown at some point, but I have avoided that task so far as the Brown case is so well known and, to my mind, more complex than it at first seems. it is what Brown did before the 1 May, 1685, that really interests me.

      Crighton’s version of Steel’s death is a more complex text in which he contradicts the records of the privy council. Crighton had clearly been in pursuit of Steel for some time.

      I think it is quite likely that Steel shot at the troops who had cornered him in the house. From then on, his fate was sealed. Steel was a prominent member of the Societies and his house and network were a crucial part in keeping Renwick concealed.

      Another element that the traditions miss out, is that David Steel may have become quite isolated by late 1686, as other figures in the area appear to have abandoned Renwick’s platform after the Friarminnnan conference. With a reduced and fragmented support base in the area, Steel may have been easier pickings for Crighton’s men.

      At least we know for sure that both Brown and Steel were killed!

      Cheers,

      Mark

  2. Hi Mark,

    Indeed we do! We also know exactly why they were killed…

    A thought occurred to me when re-reading this, “[David Steel]…he durst not pass the night at home, but generally slept in a little turfen hut…” From the description of its location, could this be the same “underground house” – belonging to John Brown – that John Brownen showed to Claverhouse? It was described as being large. Maybe it was a meeting place?

    Regards

    David

  3. I believe the actual words Claverhouse uses are, “..the soldiers found out a house in the hill, under “ground, that could hold a dozen of men, and there were swords and pistols in it; and this fellow [Brownen] declared that they belonged to his uncle [John Brown], and that he had lurked in that place ever since Bothwell, where he was in arms.” (Napier’s Memoirs of Dundee, 141)

  4. Wow to amount of information on site! Thank you. I’m curious about area of Kirkmuirhill Lesmahagow & wonder if Kirk Hill or Muir House are related to it?

    3 x’s g grandparents William Hutchison (son to William Hutchison & Margaret Dun-namesake to martyr likely) & Jean Bryson (dtr of John Bryson & Helen Frame) consistently show up farming at Kirkmuirhill from 1841 onwards. By 1861 census William Hutchison shows as head farmer of 74 acres at Kirkmuirhill while his brother George Gray Hutchison shows up as head farmer of 106 acres at Rogerhill.

    4 x’s g grandfather William Hutchison parents are William Hutchison b 1720 to parent William & mother unknown and Marion Weir b 1725 to parents James Weir & Agnes Black. I also have Frame ancestors in Kype & Little Kype & Stonehouse during the killing times. I’m unclear if the John Frame listed as Witness in rebellion cases in the Lanark Porteous Roll of 9th May 1683 is my 8 x’s g grandfather who married Isobel Shearer Aug 5 1687 in parish of Stonehouse is one and same but I can see that all ancestors from this area were very likely Covenanters.

    Thank you,

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