The Polmadie Martyrs: Major Balfour Shoots Three Covenanters Near Glasgow

On 11 May, 1685, Major Balfour and some horsemen entered the small weaving hamlet of Polmadie. Within an hour the dogs were licking up the blood of three slain men…

Polmadie Village

The Polmadie summary executions are one of the best attested events in the history of the Killing Times. The first record of them was a petition by Jennet Howie, the widow of John Urie, in 1689. It contains an eye-witness account of their deaths.

They were also recorded by Alexander Shields in 1690:

‘Major Balfour, together with Captain Maitland and their Party, Apprehended at their Work, Robert Tam, John Urie, and Tho: Cook, and instantly shot them, at Pomadee, near Glasgow, May, 1685.’ (Shields, A Short Memorial, 37.)

Cloud of Witnesses reproduced Shields’ text. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 547.)

The two military officers responsible for their deaths were Major John Balfour of Mar’s Regiment of Foot and Captain James Maitland of His Majesty’s Regiment of Foot Guards.

The hamlet of Polamdie was situated on the west side of the Polmadie Burn, just to the south of the road between Rutherglen and Little Govan which led to Glasgow. Today, the hamlet has been obliterated by Glasgow’s urban sprawl.

Street View of Former Location of Polmadie Village

Polmadie 1685

The Grave of Cook, Thom and Urie
Between 1702 and 1714 a gravestone was erected on the site of their  burial in Old Cathcart churchyard. The church, which post dates 1831, is now a ruin.

Map of Old Cathcart Churchyard          Street View of Old Cathcart Churchyard

The gravestone is located in the west end of the churchyard and close to the entrance.
It is six and a half feet long and over three and a half feet wide. In Thomson’s day, it was set just a few inches above the ground. It is similar in form to Covenanter graves in Galloway. An image of the grave came be found here.

The inscription on the grave is as follows:


[Perpendicular to the above]

TUIXT: PRISBYTRIE: AND: PRELACIE: (Thomson, Martyr Graves, 70.)

Daniel Defoe’s Version
In 1717, Daniel Defoe recorded their deaths. Defoe is not a reliable guide to the events of the 1680s. However, he claimed that Captain Maitland was one of his sources:

‘Yet this compassionate Gentleman was forc’d (much against his Will, being under Command) to be present at a Village where three poor Men, Weavers by Trade, were dragg’d from their very Loom where they were at work, and, without Mercy, shot to death. Their Names are in the publick List mention’d before.’ (Defoe, Memoirs of the Church of Scotland, 247.)

Defoe was the first published source to mention that the executed men were weavers. Earlier sources, which were not published before Defoe wrote in 1717, indicate that two of the dead men were weavers. The third was possibly a landlabourer.

Wodrow’s Version
‘A third instance of the bloodshed of this day, I have before me, attested by two persons called to be witnesses to it, in terms of the council’s act [of 30 December, 1685], though I find it not used almost any where but in this case. It was committed at Polmadie, about a mile south of the city of Glasgow. I shall give the narrative in the words of the signed declaration. This violent and hasty murder, for any thing I know of, hath not been distinctly narrated hitherto, and yet it is as barefaced an instance of the barbarity of this period as many; and I hope it will be acceptable in the plain and natural narrative of the two country people yet alive, attesting it.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 250.)

Wodrow had obtained an account of the summary executions at Polmadie by March, 1711. (Wodrow, Correspondence, I, 212; ‘Account of the murder of Thomas Cook, John Thom and another by Captain Balfour and his company at Polmadie in 1685.’, NLS MSS. Wod.Fol. XXXIII. item 106.)

Wodrow also states that he had sent Cochran and Reid’s account to ‘Captain Maitland, who died much regretted a few years ago; and he acknowledged, the whole of the country men’s account was fact.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 251.)

Their account, as reproduced by Wodrow, is as follows:

‘We, under-subscribers, John Reid and Andrew Cochran, do declare, that we being then servants in Shawfield [, Rutherglen parish], were about our master’s business at Polmadiemill, [Monday] May 11th, 1685, saw major John Balfour, captain James Maitland, ‘——–’ Menzies, ‘——-’  Mackenzie, and some others upon horseback come to Polmadie;’  (Wodrow, History, IV, 250.)

The group which entered Polmadie appears to have been relatively small. Initially composed of four officers and some others on horseback, it was later joined by a detachment of twenty-one men, probably from Balfour’s regiment, Mar’s Foot.

Besides Balfour and Maitland, Cochran and Reid’s account named two other officers.

‘Menzies’ was almost certainly Lieutenant Duncan Menzies of Comrie who served in Mar’s Regiment of Foot. Menzies had been present at the Lesmahagow Incident in March, 1679, when Robert Hamilton’s conventicle had defied government forces. He was appointed Aide-Major of Mar’s Regiment, 19 October, 1681. At the Revolution he took the side of James VII and fought under John Graham of Claverhouse, aka. Viscount Dundee, in the Jacobite victory at Killiecrankie. Dalton believed that he was the ‘Major Menzies’ who was taken prisoner by the Williamite forces in the island of Cluny in October, 1690. (Dalton, Scots Army, 116n)

‘Mackenzie’ was either Captain Kenneth Mackenzie, or Captain Colin Mackenzie, both of Mar’s Regiment of Foot.

Kenneth Mackenzie of Suddie in the Black Isle was appointed captain of a new company which was added to the regiment on  7 April, 1681.

Aerial View of Suddie

He was mortally wounded in August, 1688, at the head of his company in the ‘last clan battle’, the battle of Mulroy, when he was assisting Mackintosh in collecting rents from Macdonald of Keppoch in Lochaber. He died at Inverness on 2 September, 1688. Mackenzie was either married to, or a son of, a sister of John Paterson, Archbishop of Glasgow 1687 to 1688. (Dalton, Scots Army, 116n)

Captain Colin Mackenzie was uncle to Kenneth Mackenzie, fourth earl of Seaforth. He was made a captain on 30 March, 1683, and resigned his command in favour of his son, Robert, on 7 Jan. 1688. He was attained by Act of Parliament 14 July, 1690, for his part in the first Jacobite Rising. (Dalton, Scots Army, 118n. See RPS, A1690/4/19. for details of Mackenzie’s role in the Rising.)

According to Cochran and Reid:
‘Major Balfour seeing us at the mill, asked us to whom we belonged. We answered, we were servants to Sir James Hamilton’s tenants in Shawfield. The major commanded us to stand still till he told us what to do.’  (Wodrow, History, IV, 250.)

‘We saw them apprehend three men, two whereof were weavers, whom they brought off their work-looms, Thomas Cook and John Urie, who had nothing upon them but their working clothes. Thomas Cook was first taken, and because he came not out to Balfour at the first cry, the major struck him on the face with the horse-whip, as the blood so gushed out that he could hardly speak. Then staving a cocked pistol in his face, keeping his thumb on the dog, cried, blood and wounds, he was a rebel.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 250.)

From the account, it appears that Balfour knew exactly who he was looking for. Presumably, he had received intelligence about the presence of at least Cook in Polmadie.

Cook was probably the ‘Thomas Cock, weaver in Longside’, i.e., in Langside, Cathcart parish, Renfrewshire, who appeared on the published Fugitive Roll of May, 1684. (Jardine, ‘United Societies, II, 202.)

The old village of Langside lay around Algie St in Langside.

Street View of Langside

John Urie’s name does not appear on the Fugitive Roll. However, a ‘Thomas Urie, in Little Govan’ does appear on the Roll. (Jardine, ‘United Societies, II, 197.)

A Robert Urie, also of Little Govan, was banished to Carolina in 1684.

It is possible that John Urie was related to the above. Although there is no record of why he was apprehended, it is possible that may have become a fugitive after evading the Abjuration oath in early 1685.

The village of Little Govan has been swallowed up Glasgow’s expansion, but it lay close by a bend in the river Clyde upstream from the seventeenth-century bridge between Glasgow and the Gorbals.

Map of Little Govan

In the seventeenth century, the small hamlet of Polmadie lay around 300 metres south-east of Little Govan.

‘Within a little there came up one and twenty footmen and a serjeant [probably from Mar’s Regiment of Foot], who ran through the houses, and apprehended Robert Tom a land-labourer, upon whom Balfour set a guard, saying he was a strong man, and called for match to bind him, but found none.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 250.)

A ‘Robert Thom, in Little Govan’, Lanarkshire, appears on the published Fugitive Roll of May, 1684. (Jardine, ‘United Societies, II, 197.)

A ‘—— Tom in Polmadie, Little Giveand [i.e., Little Govan] or Glasgow’ was captured after James Renwick’s preaching at Greenoock in mid 1684. (RPCS, IX, 131.)

The Robert Thom killed at Polmadie was probably, either the same individual as, or closely related to, the other Thom in Little Govan etc.

After The Capture
‘When all the three were taken, the officers consulted among themselves, and withdrawing to the west side of the town,…’

According to the inscription on their grave, they were taken to the loan of Polmadie.

‘[There, Balfour] questioned the prisoners, particularly if they would pray for king James VII? They answered, they would pray for all within the election of grace. Balfour said, Do you question the king’s election? They answered, sometimes they questioned their own. (Wodrow, History, IV, 250-1.)

The Summary Execution of Thomas Cook
‘Upon which he [i.e., Balfour] swore dreadfully, and said, they should die presently, because they would not pray for Christ’s vicegerent [i.e., James VII], and so without one word more, commanded Thomas Cook to go to his prayers, for he should die. Thomas desired the major he would let him live. The major asked how long. Thomas answered, two days. The major swore again, he should live no longer. The other [officer] said he could not help it then. And immediately Balfour drew out three musketeers, and placed them behind him, while he sat upon his knees praying. They took some cravats from some of the country men standing by, and covered their faces. Then the major ordered two of the musketeers to fire, and if Thomas stirred after that, the third was to fire, which was done, and he slain outright.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 251.)

Balfour appears to have chosen the fugitive, Cook, to be the first to be summarily executed. Although the account does not mention if the Abjuration oath was put to the prisoners, it is possible that the oath was proffered and refused. The purpose of the delay between Cook’s execution and those of Thom and Urie may have been to put pressure on them to publicly conform.

The Summary Execution of Thom and Urie
‘Then he commanded the other two [Thom and Urie] to bequeath themselves to God, for they were immediately to die, and straight did with them as with the first. All the three were murdered within an hour after they were apprehended. When dead, they drew off some of their clothes, saying they might do good to a soldier; but when they perceived their dogs licking the slain men’s blood, they cast them on the corps again, and ordered us to go our way and tell what we had seen.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 251.)

Reid and Cochran also stated that after the shootings:
‘We remember further, that Captain Maitland said to the rest of the men of Polmadie, why did you harbour those men so near a garrison [at Glasgow]? and holding up his hands said, ‘As the Lord liveth, I have no pleasure in the death of those men.’ The rest of the men in Polmadie were carried prisoners to Glasgow, and from thence near to Dunotter, ere some of them could win off.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 251.)

Defoe also recorded that Maitland later claimed that he was a reluctant oppressor and critical of Balfour’s actions.

Major John Balfour was an effective and allegedly ruthless officer. On several occasions he is said to have threatened to shoot prisoners to gain information. That “enhanced interrogation technique” was used by John Graham of Claverhouse in the case of John Brounen. It was also allegedly used against John Bryce. Balfour was not unique in his use of it.

He had captured several Society people prior to the shootings at Polmadie.

In November, 1683, he captured John Richmond in Glasgow. (Wodrow, History, IV, 63.)

He allegedly threatened to shoot an individual captured after Renwick’s preaching at Tambowie Hill in July, 1684.

In September, 1684, he captured a weaver named Colin Alison in Glasgow. Alison’s son (Colin?) escaped from Balfour on the same day. (Wodrow, History, IV, 175.)

In October, 1684, Balfour was present at the execution of James Lawson and Alexander Wood in Glasgow.

He also allegedly threatened to shoot Thomas Jackson on Glasgow Green at the beginning of 1685.

On 6 March, 1685, he seized Robert Logan, George Muir, John Gilfillan and Sarah Kirkland. At about the same time, Balfour may have issued the orders which led to the capture of William Boyd and Mrs Gardiner, the widow of Reverend James Gardiner, in Glasgow. (Wodrow, History, IV, 255.)

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on February 14, 2013.

7 Responses to “The Polmadie Martyrs: Major Balfour Shoots Three Covenanters Near Glasgow”

  1. Mark, a wee point on the battle of Mulroy, Mackenzie and government troops were assisting the Mackintosh in collecting his rents from Keppoch. This long standing dispute over Keppoch & Cameron lands to which Mackintosh had a charter,but provided no income, kept Lochaber in turmoil for yonks. Mackintosh himself was a tenant of the Duke of Gordon, as were Keppoch’s MacDonell’s south of the Spean who paid their rents to the Duke, another internal cause of trouble to Keppoch himself, who insisted that his broadsword was his charter. Mackintosh was captured and he MacPhersons who declined to join the expedition, had to mount a rescue. The Mackintosh wisnae best pleased.

    Love your stuff, keep sending it please.


    Forbes Meek.

    PS, I noticed a Meek/Meik on the Fugitive Roll, any info’ on him?

    • Hi Forbes Meek,
      That is very kind of you. I will keep going….

      Thanks for the accurate information. I trusted Dalton’s Scots Army a bit too much there. Much appreciated.

      There are two other Meeks who were forfeited.
      John Meek, portioner of Hunsellwood (or Hinselwood in Wodrow’s History)
      Andrew Meek in Carnwath parish

      You can find them here when their forfeitures were reversed:



  2. […] interest to the anonymous author of ‘Hints of Sufferings’. Sfor other examples, see the Polmadie martyrs and the execution of Andrew Lawson and James […]

  3. […] was also listed on the Fugitive Roll. In May 1685, a weaver in Polmadie known as Robert Thom was summarily executed in the field by Major Balfour. (Wodrow, History, IV, 250-1; Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, […]

  4. […] Robert Thom and John Urie were summarily executed by Major Balfour at Polmadie on 11 May, 1685. It is not clear if they were the two Society people who may have escaped from the Canongate. […]

  5. […] was also listed on the Fugitive Roll. In May 1685, a weaver in Polmadie known as Robert Thom was summarily executed in the field by Major Balfour. (Wodrow, History, IV, 250-1; Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, […]

  6. […] In early 1689, Jennet Howie petitioned the Convention of Estates about Major John Balfour’s killing of her husband, John Urie, and two others at Polmadie near Glasgow in May, 1685: […]

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