The Remarkable Hidden Histories of John and Mrs Stevenson
This is the story of a couple who outwitted their pursuers throughout the Killing Times. It is the story of two humble and remarkable folk, John and Mrs Stevenson, from Dailly parish in Carrick, Ayrshire…
John Stevenson became famed for his wonderful spiritual autobiography, A Rare Soul-Strengthening and Comforting Cordial For Old And Young Christians. Stevenson was seventy-three-year-old ‘land labourer’ when he wrote the Comforting Cordial for his children in 1728, which places his birth in c1655. He is supposed to have died either soon after he composed the work, or 1729. If you have time, you can read the whole of Stevenson’s struggles with Satan in the Comforting Cordial here.
“Mrs Stevenson” is only recorded in her husband’s work. However, without her, it is doubtful that John Stevenson could have evaded the authorities’ attentions for long. From what John tells us about her, “Mrs Stevenson” refused to go to church, escaped from prison, bore children, kept her family together and through her skills as a nurse, found two hiding places for them that saw them both through to the Revolution in late 1688. She also nearly died in child birth.
Stevenson’s Comforting Cordial contains a chronology of events, but is mixed up in a confusing fashion as the primary purpose of his narrative was to construct an account of his spiritual journey and terrors, and advice for his children.
What is firmly established is that John Stevenson was a fugitive, as he and his brother german, i.e., by blood, Thomas, both appear on the Fugitive Roll of 1684 as ‘John Stevenson, younger in Cambregan’ and ‘Thomas German, there [in Camregan]’ under Dailly parish, Carrick, Ayrshire. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 212.)
In his narrative Stevenson mentions that he, his wife, his brother and sister, but curiously not his father, were all involved in ‘the good way of the Lord’, which may mean the Society people in Carrick. (Tweedie (ed.), Select Biographies, II, 416.)
On General Roy’s map of the 1750s the farm of ‘Cumregan’ lay on the opposite bank of the Water of Girvan from the present farm of Camregan. On the mid-nineteenth OS map that location is called Baron’s Mill.
Stevenson was a neighbour of Robert Boyd of Trochrague, who intrigued with James Renwick.
It was through preaching that Stevenson claims that he was radicalised. The first preaching which deeply affected him was that of Thomas Kennedy, whom he heard in the hall of Killochan, which lay next to his home, probably in c.1677. (Select Biographies, II, 416.)
At around the time of the Highland Host of 1678, Stevenson heard William Lamb preach at Drumneillie Hill in Barr parish. (Select Biographies, II, 459-60.)
In the following year, he fought at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, probably with the Carrick men led by John Welsh. In the rout which followed, Stevenson narrowly escaped death and encountered the corpse of Colonel John Burns. He does not seem to have taken the bond of peace issued after the defeat and was ‘obliged’ to hide for nine years to avoid all oaths and bonds until the Revolution. (Select Biographies, II, 435-8.)
To begin with Stevenson hid at his father’s house at Camregan. From the Fugitive Roll of May, 1684, it is clear that Stevenson was declared a fugitive at the circuit court held at Ayr in mid 1683.
At some point, probably in 1683 or 1684, troops visited Camregan and five dragoons were quartered there. (Select Biographies, II, 438-40.)
According to Stevenson, not long after that he was married and he and his wife, and occasionally others, hid in a concealed chamber within a haystack in his father’s yard. During that period, his wife and sister were taken at Camregan for not hearing the local curate, Thomas Skinner, and briefly imprisoned at Maybole until they were ‘got out’ at night by a party of friends. (Select Biographies, II, 440-1; Fasti, III, 29.)
Stevenson does not give a date for his wife’s capture, but it was probably after October, 1684, when the local ministers submitted lists of nonconformists which resulted in seizures.
According to Stevenson:
‘I lay four months in the coldest season of the year [late 1684 to early 1685?] in a haystack in my father’s garden, and a whole February [1685?] in the open fields not far from Camregan, and this I did without the least prejudice from the night air; …Many nights have I lain with pleasure in the churchyard of Old Daily, and made a grave my pillow; frequently have I resorted to the olds walls above the glen, near Camregan, and there sweetly rested.’ (Select Biographies, II, 471.)
The ‘old walls above the glen’ were probably the ruins of Camregan Castle.
After escaping prison, Mrs Stevenson appears to have left Dailly parish.
The Stevensons and Castle Stewart
At some point while he and his wife were apart, possibly in 1685, Stevenson was struck down with a fever when a strict search took place at Camregan. He fled to the house of Elizabeth Gordon, Lady Castle Stewart, in whose family his wife was already staying. According to Stevenson, both he and his wife were hidden in her house and only Lady Castle Stewart knew of their presence. (Select Biographies, II, 455.)
The ruins of Castle Stewart lie in Penninghame parish, Wigtownshire, about three miles north of Newton Stewart.
Stevenson tells a remarkable story of how when he had the fever he was put in a closet above laird’s room when William Stewart, laird of Castle Stewart, was at home ‘lest he had been put on his oath, and forfaulted [i.e., forfeited] on my account’. (Select Biographies, II, 455-6.)
The estate of Lady Castle Stewart sheltered a number of fugitives in early 1685. Two of her tenants, Margaret Wilson in Glenvernock, one of the famous Wigtown martyrs, and George Walker in Kirkcalla, were executed at Wigtown in mid 1685, and a third, Gilbert McIlroy in Kirkcalla, was banished to Jamaica.
Stevenson also hid at Carrick Mill: ‘one night, when lying in the fields near to the Carrickmiln, I was all covered with snow in the morning.’ (Select Biographies, II, 471.)
Carrick Mill lies just to the north of Walker and McIlroy’s home at Kirkcalla in Penninghame parish. It sits on the southern border of Colmonell parish in Carrick, where the shire boundary of Ayrshire intersects with those of Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbrightshire. Stevenson’s reference to a snow fall suggests that he was at Carrick Mill in early 1685.
The Stevensons and Craigdarroch
At some point, Stevenson’s wife became a nurse for the young children of John Ferguson of Craigdarroch and Elizabeth McGhie in Nithsdale. It is clear from the narrative of the Comforting Cordial that his wife moved to Craigdarroch some time before Stevenson left Carrick to join her there. According to Stevenson, ‘the kind providence of God had provided a nursing for my wife at Craigdarroch, Ferguson, in Nithsdale, where she stayed until the Revolution’. (Select Biographies, II, 441.)
The house that the Stevenson and his wife stayed in was extensively remodelled by the architect William Adam in 1729. However, some original features were retained within the building.
‘Some months’ after his wife went to Craigdarroch. Stevenson left ‘Carrick’ to visit his wife and encountered a fog on the Rhinns of Kells. (Select Biographies, II, 441-3.)
A year and four months after that, he once again crossed ‘Kells-Rhinns’ when he took his ‘two years old and a quarter’ daughter, Elizabeth, to stay at Craigdarroch as company for Lady Craigdarroch’s child of ‘about the same age’.
At the time of his second journey across the Rhinns of Kells, Stevenson’s wife was a ‘dry nurse’ at Craigdarroch and he appears to have been ‘kept hid at Craigdarroch’. (Select Biographies, II, 443.)
The Rhinns of Kells episodes are difficult to date, however, Stevenson also recorded a story about Alexander Ferguson, Lady Craigdarroch’s only surviving son, which helps to establish a chronology for when both he and his wife moved to Craigdarroch.
Alexander Ferguson was born on 3 November, 1685, and died in 1749. He married Annie Laurie, the daughter of Robert Laurie of Maxwellton, who was later immortalised in song. Ferguson was also a Whig Member of Parliament for Dumfries Burghs from 1715 to 1722.
According to Stevenson, his wife was Alexander’s wet nurse, which suggests she was at Craigdarroch from at least late 1685. When young Alexander was ‘about three quarters old’ he was struck by a fever which was thought likely to kill him, however, he miraculously recovered after Stevenson struggled with the Devil and prayed for the child. (Select Biographies, II, 444-7.)
Stevenson was staying at Craigdarroch when Alexander Ferguson was struck with the fever, i.e., in around July, 1686.
James Renwick’s Preaching near Craigdarroch
Stevenson heard James Renwick preach at some point between 1684 and 1687. The Comforting Cordial does not directly mention where or when Renwick preached
Probably the best passage for dating Renwick’s field preaching also took place at some point in 1686. According to Stevenson, God renewed his covenant with him while he was in secret prayer at Craigdarroch in 1686. The renewal of his personal covenant appears to have been a prelude to Renwick’s preaching, as soon after that, Stevenson’s spirit was overwhelmed with the fear that Christ would ‘depart out of our coasts’ and be ‘provoked not to return again to poor Scotland’. (Select Biographies, II, 419.)
Renwick’s field preaching would bring Stevenson hope that Christ would return.
‘Whilst I was in this melancholy case, I had occasion to hear Mr James Renwick preach, who dropped a word to the mourners in Zion who were sorrowful, because the ways of Zion mourned, and none going up there as formerly to her solemn assemblies. He bid such take courage, for Christ would yet comfort Zion, and return to these lands in spite of all opposition.
He advanced several arguments or grounds of hope, that he would yet return with a departed glory; but I being perplexed in spirit, did in my own breast, muster up many objections against all his grounds of hope, and so still strengthened myself in my distressing unbelief; at length and at last he advanced this for our encouragement, that God had borne it in on the minds of honest ministers and Christians on scaffolds, and at the hour of death, by an irresistible gale of his Spirit, that he would yet say concerning this part of Zion, “Here is my rest, and here I desire to dwell,” [Psalms 132.14.] and that he would certainly return with the Gospel dispensation in plenty and purity.
On which my discouragement evanished, for these tidings of great joy, for I persuaded myself that the secret of the Lord is with them that fear him, and that God would never suffer “the expectation of the poor to fail for ever,” [Psalms 9.18.] especially seeing he impressed them with this hope in a dying hour, at a time when they were filled with joy and peace in believing, and some of them going as a prince before his seat, and getting an abundant entrance ministered to them into the heavenly kingdom. (Select Biographies, II, 420-1.)
Stevenson was grateful for Renwick’s preaching:
‘And now blessed be his name who banished my fears, and has since let me see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, and glory dwelling in our land near forty years together, and none of Zion’s enemies now to make us afraid: the Lord has brought back our captivity like streams in the south, and when he did so, we were like men that dreamed; he filled our mouths with singing and our hearts with joy, and the righteous Lord hath cut “ the cords of the ungodly crew.” [Metrical Psalms 129.]
And I must say to his praise, that before the mercy [of his martyrdom] came [in February, 1688], he remarkably poured down a spirit of prayer on us, and so prepared our hearts, and bowed down his ear to hear; and on after reflection as well as at the time, I am fully convinced he never bid the house of Jacob in their most melancholy circumstances “ seek his face in vain,” but that it is good, yea, best for us, at all times to draw near to God.’ (Select Biographies, II, 421.)
Stevenson’s narrative establishes a time frame for Renwick’s preaching of 1686 to 1687. Can that time frame be narrowed down?
First, the content of Renwick’s sermon, on the Lord hiding his face from Scotland and the apocalyptic expectation of His return, comfortably sits in the context of a variety of Societies’ sources from mid 1686 to the beginning of 1687 which indicate similar fears within Societies’ circles that the Lord had deserted them and that Renwick reassured them that Christ would return. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, I, 175-6.)
Second, when Stevenson’s time frame for the conventicle is compared with Renwick’s known field preaching activities in Nithsdale, it is likely that the Renwick’s sermon was in 1686, rather than 1687. There is no record of Renwick preaching in Nithsdale in 1687, but he was there on at least three occasions in 1686.
The first of Renwick’s known sojourns to Nithsdale in 1686 is recorded in a letter of 3 May. In some what vague terms, Renwick records that he had recently been busy in Galloway, Nithsdale and Annandale, and had in the previous few months examined societies in the ‘dark corners’ of the barony of Sanquhar and Kirkconnel parish in Nithsdale, where he had found people ‘quitting the defections’. (Houston, Letters, 191, 192-3.)
Renwick’s second appearance in Nithsdale took place after he preached Green Cleugh on 18 July, 1686, and in northern England. Renwick had returned to Scotland by 13 August and he preached at Polgavin Muir in Nithsdale on Sunday 15 August, a few days before he attended the Societies’ thirtieth convention at Blackgannoch in Sanquhar parish on the northern edge of Nithsdale.
Polgavin Muir lies roughly fourteen miles to the east of Craigdarroch
The chronology of the Polgavin Muir preaching suggests that it was an isolated conventicle, rather than part of a preaching tour.
Perhaps the most promising time frame for Renwick’s preaching was his third appearance in Nithsdale in 1686, which came after he had preached at Dreghorn in Ayrshire on c.11 November. On Monday, 22 November, he was presented with a protest against his preaching at Kirkmabreck in Kirkcudbrightshire on behalf of the breakaway societies between the rivers Dee and Cree. Renwick had, presumably, preached in Kirkmabreck parish on the day before.
He continued to preached in the area between the rivers Dee and Cree on Thursday 25 November, when he preached on Psalm 15 and Canticles/Song of Solomon 2.2. ‘As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.’ (Houston, Letters, 226.)
He then moved east to Earlstoun Wood in Dalry parish in the Glenkens area of Kirkcudbrightshire, where he preached on Sunday, 5 December.
Renwick frequently preached in the South West in November and December. In his letter of 27 January, 1687, he claimed that he preached thirteen times, mainly at night but on four occasions in daylight.That would suggest that he preached on both Thursdays and Sundays throughout his long sojounr in the area. (Houston, Letters, 226.)
The preaching at Earlstoun Wood, which lies about twelve miles to the south-west of Craigdarroch, is a possible candidate for the preaching that Stevenson attended.
Renwick also rebuffed a protest at Irongray parish from John Welsh of Cornley, a former elder of John Welsh who had recently taken the Test and Abjuration oaths, and avoided execution, at some point after Wednesday 8 December and before Monday 20 December.
The preaching in Irongray parish, which lies about a dozen miles to the south-east of Craigdarroch, is a further candidate for the preaching that Stevenson heard.
After Renwick preached in Irongray, it is reasonably clear that he left the area, as he attended the Societies’ thirty-second convention at Wanlockhead on the northern edge of Nithsdale on 22 December.
Renwick’s known preachings at Earlstoun Wood and in Irongray parish are good candidates for the preaching which Stevenson attended, however, it is clear that Renwick held several more conventicles in the area before he left Nithsdale. There is, perhaps, a better candidate for the location. If the conventicle was held near Craigdarroch, then Stevenson may have heard Renwick at the Peaching Stone, which sits on the boundary between of the parishes of Keir and Glencairn.
If the preaching at that location took place in the context of Renwick’s preachings in Nithsdale in late 1686, then Renwick’s conventicle may have been held after he was at Earlstoun Wood, possibly between Thursday, 9 December and Thursday, 16 December, 1686.
Despite nearly dying in child birth, Mrs Stevenson was still alive in 1728. (Select Biographies, II, 449-51.)
Stevenson also met ‘his old acquaintance’, Lady Castle Stewart, after the Revolution. (Select Biographies, II, 453.)
After the Revolution, he also decided to accept communion in the Church of Scotland, even though it had not adopted the Covenants in the post-Revolution settlement. (Select Biographies, II, 447-9.)9
I am grateful to Mrs Alexandra P Lawler, a descendant of John Stevenson, for the following information. John Stevenson (d.17 March, 1729) and his wife Isobel McConnel (d. 28 December, 1739) are both interred next to the monument to Stevenson (Stone No.44) in Old Dailly Kirkyard. John Stevenson, aged 73, is buried under stone 45 or 46 and ‘Isobel McOnnal’, aged 81, and their son Alexander (1685-2 March, 1775) and his wife Janet Richie (d. 7 May, 1761) are buried under stone 45. (Monumental Inscriptions: Old Dailly Churchyard, 9, 10.)
Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.