The Ambush of Donald Cargill at Muttonhole


The ambush of Donald Cargill and his close party at Muttonhole on the road between Edinburgh and Queensferry in late 1680 dealt a severe blow to the militant presbyterian movement. Although Cargill escaped, some of his trusted lieutenants were captured and executed. Perhaps most worrying of all, Cargill’s militant network had been penetrated by a government agent. Cargill’s confidence in his mission appears to have collapsed. He fled into exile, and did not return to field preaching for nearly six months.

After Cargill preached on a Sabbath at Largo Law in Fife, he attempted to cross the Forth:

‘That Sabbath [24 October], in the night, he came to Kirkcaldy, (where the Chancellor was waiting for the Duke of York’s landing), and lurked all Monday [25 Oct] in a private house till Tuesday’s night [26 Oct], when he crossed [the Firth of Forth] at Burntisland’. (Row in M’Crie (ed.), Life of John Blair, 581.)

Map of Burntisland

Cargill would have been ferried across the Forth from Burntisland’s old harbour, which lay at the end of the High Street.

Street View of site of Burntisland’s old harbour

On 31 October, Cargill preached near Carnwath in Lanarkshire and a week later, on 7 November, he preached near Fauldhouse, probably close to the boundary between Linlithgowshire and Lanarkshire.

Blackness CastleBlackness Castle © Keith Proven and licensed for reuse.

Patrick Walker provided an account of the ambush:

‘In the Beginning of November 1680, Governor [Robert] Middleton [of Blackness Castle] being frustrate of his design at the Queensferry, and affronted by a few Women, delivering the Prey [i.e., Cargill] out of his and his Soldiers Hands [early in June], consulted with James Henderson in the [North Queens]Ferry, and laid down a Hell-deep Plot and Trap to catch him, by forging and signing by different Hands in the Name of Baillie Adam in Culross, and Robert Stark in Milns of Forth [i.e., Milnathort], that serious zealous solid Christian, who had his great Share of the Tyranny of that Time, and other honest leading Men in the Shire of Fife, for [James] Henderson to come to Edinburgh, and make all Search for Mr. Cargill, to call him over to Fife to preach at the Hill of Baith:’ (Walker, BP, II, 13-14.)

According to Wodrow, Captain Robert Middleton was a ‘Papist’, which Wodrow may have used as a shorthand for a untrustworthy, devious plotter. After the Queensferry Incident, Middleton, the governor of Blackness castle, had sent a letter explaining Cargill’s escape to Lord Livingston.

He was later briefly appointed as a major of Sir Edward Hale’s Regiment of Foot during the Monmouth Rising on 23 June, 1685. His Independent Company of foot was added to the Regiment of Guards on 20 November, 1685. Major Middleton supported the Jacobite cause from 1689 and became a ‘ringleader of the Highlanders’ in May, 1690. (Dalton, Scots Army, 148, 149n.)

Cargill had not preached in the area around Hill of Beith since he had returned to Scotland and begun field preaching in mid 1680. It is possible that Henderson’s offer of a new area willing to hear the militants’ message may have swayed Cargill to accept. The alleged preaching was probably set for Sunday 14 November. Its location lay between Culross and Milnathort. Today, the Hill of Beith lies beside the M90.

Map of Hill of Beith             Street View of Hill of Beith

Henderson came to Edinburgh:

‘Accordingly he found him in the West-Bow [in Edinburgh], in a Chamber that the foresaid Robert Stark [in Milnathort] had taken for his Children at School; two of them are yet alive in Edinburgh, worthy of Credit, who will assert the Truth of this.’ (Walker, BP, II, 14.)

Cargill was not in Edinburgh until after his preaching on the 7 November. It is not known when he arrived, but the indications are that Henderson’s meeting with Cargill took place either on Wednesday, 10 November, or on Thursday 11, when Cargill allegedly had treasonable discussions about potential assassination plots.

‘Mr. Cargill was very willing to answer the Call: Some present observed, that Henderson was either in Drink, or confused, which made them jealous of Treachery.’ (Walker, BP, II, 14.)

Since Henderson had found Cargill in a chamber hired by Stark, whose forged signature he had allegedly used, he may have had good reason to be nervous.

‘Henderson proposed, that he would go before, and have a Boat ready at the [South Queens]Ferry against they came; and, that he might know them, desired to see Mr. Cargill’s Clothes. And Mr. [James] Skeen and Mr. [James] Boig being in the Room with him,’ (Walker, BP, II, 14.)

James Skene and James Boig were certainly with Cargill when the alleged treasonable discussions took place on Thursday, 11 November.

‘in the mean Time he [i.e., Henderson] had Middleton’s Soldiers lying in Disguise at the Mutton-hole, three Miles from Edinburgh, the Highway to the Ferry: There was an Ale-house upon the South-side, and a Park-dyke upon the North-side, and no eviting them.’ (Walker, BP, II, 14.)

The ambush took place on Friday, 12 November, 1680. Walker’s location for it appears on General Roy’s map of the 1750s. The small settlement of Muttonhole lay almost exactly three miles from Edinburgh at the northern end of Corstorphine Hill. The park dyke belonged to Barnton House, which lay just to the west of Muttonhole. From Walker’s description, the location of the ambush was where the park dyke ran beside the western edge of Muttonhole. Presumably the inn lay across the Queensferry road from the dyke.

Map of the Mutton Hole              Street View of the Mutton Hole

Cargill’s party had, however, taken precautions against ambush.

‘Mr. [James] Skeen, Archibald Stuart, and [Janet Elphinstone, aka.] Mrs. Moor and Marion Harvie took the Way upon Foot, Mr. Cargill and Mr. Boig being to follow upon Horses.

When they came to the Place, the Soldiers gripped them: In the Confusion, Mrs. Moor escaped, and went quickly-back, and stopt Mr. Cargill and Mr. Boig, who fled back to Edinburgh again.’ (Walker, BP, II, 14.)

James Henderson in North Queensferry, who had betrayed the party, ‘got the Price of Blood, and bought or built a Passage-Boat, which he called Katharine; but many fear’d to cross the Water in her. Henderson after this turned miserable and contemptible in the Eyes of all well-thinking Men, and, some affirm, died cursing, after he got that Reward for Treachery and the Price of Blood.’ (Walker, BP, II, 14-15.)

James Skene was interrogated on 13 November and executed on 1 December.

Archibald Stewart was interrogated several times before he was also executed on 1 December.

Marion Harvie was executed on 26 January, 1681.

Mrs Moor became one of the Sweet Singers.

James Boig remained at liberty until he was captured and executed with Cargill in July, 1681.

After the ambush, Cargill fled to England where he remained until he returned to preach at Darmead on 24 April, 1681. Soon after, he met the Sweet Singers at a conference at Darngavil.

Text © Copyright Dr. Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on January 2, 2013.

20 Responses to “The Ambush of Donald Cargill at Muttonhole”

  1. […] Stewart from Bo’ness was captured with James Skene and Marion Harvie in an ambush at the Muttonhole near Edinburgh. Donald Cargill, James Boig and Janet Elphinstone (aka. Mrs Moor), who were […]

  2. […] Attended the Preaching? Archibald Stewart, a seaman from Bo’ness, was captured at Muttonhole a few days later and was executed in Edinburgh on 1 December, […]

  3. […] 26 January, 1681) and Robert Hamilton of Broxburn, two Society people who were rounded up after Cargill’s near capture at the Muttonhole in November, were connected to […]

  4. […] begins with two events. First, in mid November 1680, Donald Cargill fled into exile after his near capture at Muttonhole outside of Edinburgh. Cargill’s flight left the Society people without a minister to preach to […]

  5. […] was also with Cargill when he was nearly captured at Muttonhole near Edinburgh on his way to Fife in November, 1680, and he was executed alongside Cargill, Walter […]

  6. […] with Cargill. If they knew, then the best comparison with the incident at Linlithgow Bridge is Cargill’s near capture at Muttonhole on 12 November, 1680. In that case, the three prisoners who were seized within a few miles of […]

  7. […] November 12th, [1680,] a severe search was made for Mr Donald Cargill and his followers [after the ambush at Muttonhole], and Mr Spreul was apprehended by major Johnston [of the town guard] when in his bed, and his […]

  8. […] of Masterson suggests that the latter was in some way accessory to James Skene’s capture when Donald Cargill was ambushed at Muttonhole on Friday 12 November, 1680. It appears that the attack on Masterton was motivated by his role in […]

  9. […] was presumably captured in November, 1680, soon after Cargill was ambushed at the Mutton Hole and the supposed gunpowder plot against the Duke of York, when Cargill’s network was […]

  10. […] Donald Cargill, the most sought after fugitive in the kingdom, had been captured following an ambush at the Mutton Hole outside of Edinburgh. Among those taken was James Skene, who was executed in […]

  11. […] 12 November, 1680, when the militant Covenanter James Skene was captured at the Mutton Hole, near Edinburgh, he had in his possession a poisoned musket ball so that ‘none’ would ‘recover whom I shot’ […]

  12. […] with Cargill. If they knew, then the best comparison with the incident at Linlithgow Bridge is Cargill’s near capture at Muttonhole on 12 November, 1680. In that case, the three prisoners who were seized within a few miles of […]

  13. […] would go on to have other very narrow escapes, at Linlithgow Bridge and especially at the Mutton Hole, before he was captured in mid […]

  14. […] is famed for his narrow escapes from his pursuers, particularly at an inn at South Queensferry and at the Muttonhole near Edinburgh, before he was captured and executed in July, […]

  15. […] his betrayal and near capture outside of Edinburgh in November 1680, Donald Cargill fled into exile in England leaving the militant presbyterian movement without a […]

  16. […] Hamilton appears to have been captured with others who were rounded up, either at, or soon after Cargill’s near capture at the Mutton Hole, near Edinburgh on 12 November, […]

  17. […] Cargill clearly had some plain speaking to do on his return to Scotland on the emerging divisions within the Society people and the failure of the presbyterian ministry to maintain field preaching. The latter was, in part, Cargill’s own failure for five months, as he had fled into exile after his near capture at the Mutton Hole near Edinburgh in mid November, 1680. […]

  18. […] in nearly six months. In mid November, 1680, he had fled to the relative safety of England  after many of close followers had been captured at the Mutton Hole and in Edinburgh. He had good reasons to flee. His network had been infiltrated by government agents and his capture […]

  19. […] however, he is first recorded back in Scotland in early November, 1680, when he and Cargill were nearly captured at the Mutton Hole. (Walker, BP, II, […]

  20. […] mile distant at Darmead. This was first time Cargill had preached in months, after he fled Scotland when we was nearly captured at Muttonhole. Cargill preached in the midst of the moss standing on a chair on Ahab and the nameless judgements. […]

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