The Three Women of the Lesmahagow Prayer Society Banished to Barbados in 1687

In late 1685, three women who were suspected of harbouring fugitive preachers were captured. Isobel Cassils, Agnes Keir and Isobel Steel were probably involved in supporting James Renwick and other leading Society people who frequently hid in Lesmahagow parish. After they were taken, all three wrote a fascinating letter to their comrades in a prayer society urging them to remain faithful to the Societies’ cause. The interception of that letter may have led to their banishment to Barbados in 1687…

Canongate Tolbooth

On 9 December, 1685, the three women were among a group of prisoners who received a summons from George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, the Lord Advocate:

‘Isabel Cassils, Isabel Steil, and Agnes Keir [and others], prisoners in the tolbooth of the Cannongate, to compear before the Council on 10th inst[ant]. to answer for attending conventicles, and hearing and resetting [one or some of the following] Mr James Rennick, Mr [John] Flint, Mr [Thomas] Douglas, Mr [George] Barclay and other seditious and scandalous preachers.’ (RPCS, XI, 386.)

Another group of prisoners who were accused of the same offences had been before the council six days earlier.

The Lord Advocate’s summons collectively listed the charges levelled against all of the prisoners, rather than those which specifically applied to the women. The list of preachers named in the summons reinforces that idea, as they had field preached at different times: James Renwick field preached from late 1683, John Flint preached from mid 1685, Thomas Douglas had preached until 1680 and George Barclay had preached until 1679 and again in late 1685. Three of the preachers named, Renwick, Flint and Douglas, were associated with the Society people.

On the following day, 10 December, the three women were brought before Archbishop Rose, who decided that ‘the case against … the three women’ would be ‘continued till the Committee for public affairs report thereanent.’ (RPCS, XI, 386.)

Where Were The Three Women From?
The evidence suggests that all three women may all have been from Lesmahagow parish in Lanarkshire.

According to the Reverend Charles Thomson, who grew up in Lesmahagow parish in around 1800, ‘Isabel Steel, a kinswoman of David [Steel], was apprehended for adhering to the cause of the Covenant’. (Thomson’s ‘Notices etc.’ 1832.)

David Steel was shot near his home in Lesmahagow parish in December, 1686.

It is not clear if the three women were captured either at the same time, or in the same parish. However, they were tried together and wrote a joint letter together. The one individual mentioned by name in the letter is a Janet Peat. A Thomas Peat in Lesmahagow parish was taken after Renwick preached at Cumberhead in March, 1686.

A possible event which may be connected to their capture before 9 December may be James Renwick’s preaching at Auchengilloch in autumn of 1685.

The joint letter was written after they had spent nearly a year in the Canongate tolbooth. It was an intercepted letter which was recorded by the privy council on 23 September, 1686. It was directed to one of the Society people and sent love to him, his wife, Janet Peat and ‘d. for SS. for S.’ The letter was also clearly intended for a wider audience of at least one prayer society, which was possibly based in Lesmahagow parish.

It reveals how the imprisoned Society people and prayer societies on the outside mutually supported and encouraged each other. It also demonstrates how the three women, as sufferers in the Lord’s cause, were in a position of influence and informed their comrades of their insights found in prayer.

In particular, the letter addressed the controversy over the schism after some societies broke with the United Societies and joined with the more-moderate faction of the former followers of the earl of Argyll in early 1686. Judging from their reference to the biblical Achan, it would appear that the women disapproved of the breakaway societies.

The Letter
‘Loving friend, I disyr to remember my love to yow and to all my frinds and especially Janet Peat. We disyr that ye wold not be lying by at yease now when Zion in lying and hir back at the wa and crying owt that for all the sones and dowghters sho hes browght forth that ther is so few to stand at hir back thes day. We disyr that ye who ar frinds and hes pwt yowr hand to the work be not slak in minding the prisonres in praying for them that they may hold fast to the profession of owr faith withowt wavering for He is faithfwl that hath promised, for it is said in the Heb. 10 chap., 35 v. ‘Cast not away therfor yowr confidence which hath great recompence of reward, for ye have read of patience that after ye have done the will of God ye might recive the promis, for yet a little while and He that shall come will come and will not tarie.’

Now my friends we think we may say it, He is even goieng wp and down Scotland now with the cross wpon his back wearied with crying as it war at ws and saying, Is ther non[e] that will lend to their help to bear a bit of it; He is saying ther [is] few lyk to bid at his back; now the societies of Scotland is all lyke to break in steps, He is saying ther are many Achens in the camps, now He is saying He will have ws all browght to the towchstone and try ws what we will do.

I will tell yow this, ther is a great work wpon the wheals and He hes a work to work and He will have it throght allthe we showld all live Him. O set to, Sirs, set to work, will we live swch a kind lord and master, so God forbid for we will never get the lik of Him againe and we showld get ane everiday.

Now owr dear frinds, let we set all to work wp with the stander of owre Lord and Master yet, and let it not fall down; now take a joynt lift all togither and it will be better for ws al, for Him is owr help, for in Him dwelth al the fwlnes of the godhead bodily.

Now my frinds we should ay be at this which thy serwant was at in the Philpi. 3 chap. and 7 v. ‘Bot what things wer gaine to me those I cownted los for Christ, yea dowtles and I cownt all things bot los for the exelencie of the knowledg of Christ Jesws my Lord, for whom have swffred the los of all things and do count them but dwng that I may win Christ and be fwnd in Him not having my own rightowsnes,’ for it is at the best bot roten rages. O that we cowld win to self denyall, but ther [is] litl of that among ws.

Now we disire the help of yowr praye[r]s, if ye have any moyan with God pray for we that we may be kiped straght, and do not forget ws; altho we be absent in the bodie, let we be present in the spirit.

Now we desire to lok to that in Ezek. 11 chp. and 16 v. ‘Therefor thws saith the Lord God, althowght I have cast them far of among the heathen and althowght I have scattred them among the cowntreys, yet will I be to them as a littell santwarie in the cwntreys wher they shall come.’

Now my freinds we most not think this streang th[at] hes hapned ws, for He hes set down in his Word in the first of Pitter, 4 [chapter] and 12 v. ‘Beloved, think it not strang concerning the fiery tryals which is to try yow, as thowght som strang thing happened wnto yow; if ye be repraoched for the n[ame of] Christ happy ar ye, for the spirit of glory and of God resteth wpon yow; on ther [part] He is evill spoken of bot on yowr part He is glorified.’

Now pray for ws that we may be kiped from wron[g]ing of trowth.

Now no more at present. Now we remember owr love unto yow, d. for SS. for S. (sic) only we disier to let yow know that we ar al in good health and heartily satisfied with owr lot and disier to blise His holy nam for it that ever He was pleased to carwe owt swch a lot for ws.

Now we canot speak to comend Him as we owght and showld do, bot only this we cane say from the small experiance that we have fielt sinc we war made prisoners, he hes mad all things sweit and easie to ws and no trowbel at all; O that we could prais Him for it, bot alace we canot prais Him and the want of a spiritwall deserning makes ws have so littell to say to the comendatione of a holi God; he hes winderfwly delt with ws, fare beyond owr deserwing and exp[ect]ation. O His love, O His love, bot we canot expres it.

Now we shall trowbell yow no mor at present, bot remembers owr love to yow and yowr wyfe and to all frinds in the Lord; only forget ws not.

[Signed all by the same hand]
Isobell Still, Agnes Kire, Isobell Casels.’ (RPCS, XII, 475-7.)


Banished to Barbados
On 30 March, 1687, the three women subscribed a joint testimony of a group of Society people banished to Barbados. (NLS. MSS. Wod.Qu.XXXVI, f.234.)

Both Cloud of Witnesses and Wodrow include them among those who subscribed the joint testimony. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 531; Wodrow, History, IV, 412.)

Logan Water © Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse.

There is no record of Isobel Cassil’s fate after banishment. However, she may have returned. On the Poll Tax Roll for Lesmahagow parish ‘Isobell Casseles’ was listed as the servant to James Weir in Skellyhill. (Greenshields, Annals of the Parish of Lesmahagow, 168.)

The possible linkage between Cassils and Skellyhill in 1695, the location where David Steel was shot in late 1686, suggests a connections between her and the Steel family before her banishment.

According to Thomson’s nineteenth century ‘Notices’, ‘after enduring a long and a severe imprisonment, [Isobel Steel] was, in 1687, banished to Barbadoes. Soon after the Revolution [in 1688 to 1689], she returned home, and lived many years on Logan Water [in Lesmahagow parish]. (Thomson’s ‘Notices etc.’ 1832.)

On the Poll Tax Roll of 1695, ‘Issabel Steel’ is listed as the daughter of ‘Bessie Pait, relict of Robert Steel of Skellihill’. (Greenshields, Annals of the Parish of Lesmahagow, 168.)

Map of Skellyhill

Agnes Keir was listed as one of the Society people to be rescued from forced indenture on Barbados in a letter from the fortieth convention to the banished prisoners of 1 August, 1688. Her indenture was bought out and she was among the Society people who subscribed a letter to the United Societies when she returned to Scotland in the spring of 1689. (Shields, FCD, 344-5; Hay Fleming (ed.), Six Saints, II, 281.)

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on September 5, 2012.

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