The Execution in Glasgow of James Nisbet in Highside: ‘Put Him Off and Be Damned’

Mackintosh Martyrs Public School GlasgowMackintosh’s Martyrs’ Public School in Townhead © Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed a school named after him. Now, a memorial to Nisbet is, once again, under threat…

Nisbet’s execution was not recorded in contemporary records. A John Nisbet in Highside did exist, but neither the official records of government, nor keepers of journals, like John Erskine of Carnock and Lord Fountainhall, record his execution. That may be due to the circumstances of his execution by a justiciary court in Glasgow. The sources for those courts are fragmentary and both Carnock and Fountainhall were not present in Glasgow at the alleged time of Nisbet’s death.

However, his execution was recorded by Presbyterian sources. The earliest record is probably a document called ‘Hints of Sufferings’ which may have been composed in 1687 or 1688 at the request of the Societies’ convention. The first securely-dated records of it appear in the early eighteenth century when Wodrow and Cloud of Witnesses collected his martyrs’ testimony, and with the erection of a memorial stone on his grave.

Who was James Nisbet?
Early editions of Cloud of Witnesses and Wodrow identified him as from Loudoun parish, Ayrshire, but did not connect him with any specific location in the parish. However, in later editions of Cloud he was said to be from Highside, a small farm in Loudoun parish. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 364; Wodrow, History, IV, 65.)

A ‘James Nisbet in Highside’, Loudoun parish, was listed on published Fugitive Roll of 5 May, 1684. (Jardine, ‘United Societies, II, 208.)

If the James Nisbet of Loudoun parish was Nisbet in Highside, his name was not removed from the Fugitive Roll after his capture. Highside lies at the edge of the Calder Moss in Loudoun parish, Ayrshire.

Map of Highside         Aerial View of Highside

Street View of Entrance to Highside

The identification of Nisbet with Highside is logical, but not certain.

Little is known about Nisbet before his capture. According to his martyrs’ testimony, he had heard Richard Cameron and Donald Cargill preach between 1680 and 1681, and was involved in the prayer meetings of the Society people until his capture. His testimony does not mention the preaching of James Renwick, but Nisbet was captured soon after Renwick began preaching.

The Capture of James Nisbet
He was captured immediately after the execution of five Society people – James Johnston, John Main, Archibald Stewart, John Richmond and James Winning – on Wednesday 19 March, 1684.

According to a member of the Societies in Glasgow:
‘Ja: Nisbet[,] was taken at the 5 Martyrs burials, who suffered afterward here’. (‘Hints of Sufferings’, EUL MSS. La.III.344. Vol 2. No. 125.)

According to Wodrow, he was related to one of the five men, probably Richmond as he was from the neighbouring parish of Galston, and knew some of the others. (Wodrow, History, IV, 64.)

‘He was acquaint with most part, and had been intimate with some of them, and came into Glasgow to pay his last respects to them at their burial’. (Wodrow, History, IV, 65.)

Richmond had been captured by Major John Balfour in Glasgow in November, 1683. James Winning, a tailor in Glasgow, was captured in February, 1684. James Johnston and John Main both lived in parishes just outside of Glasgow. Archibald Stewart was captured near Lanark. According to tradition, when Stewart was captured, his companion, John Steel of Overwaterhead in Lesmahagow parish, escaped. Steel was one of the founders of the United Societies in late 1681.

Nisbet almost certainly witnessed the execution of the five men beside the tolbooth at Glasgow Cross.

Street View of Glasgow Cross

He was seized at the ‘burials’ of the five men, which would have taken place immediately after the execution.

The execution and burial of the Society people in burghs were often emotive and contested affairs. In several cases, the authorities were challenged by members of the crowd, particularly at the moments of highest tension, either immediately before execution, or when the bodies were cut down and taken for burial.

Prior to Nisbet’s capture, Gavin Black in Craigneuk, New Monkland parish, Lanarkshire, was seized at the execution.

‘At their execution, Gavin Black in Monkland was seized by the soldiers, upon mere suspicion, and some tokens of sorrow appearing in him, and put in prison; and when upon examination, he did not satisfy their queries, he was in a few weeks with many others banished to Carolina.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 64.)

Black was banished to Carolina soon after Nisbet’s execution.

Nisbet appears to have been recognised and taken in custody at some point during the process of burial. Where the five men were buried is not known, but it may have been at the Howgate execution ground, which lay outside of the burgh, as criminals were not buried in the town’s graveyard. It appears that the bodies of the five men were later exhumed and re-buried outside of Glasgow Cathedral. It is unlikely that they were initially buried there, as the Cathedral was the centre of episcopal worship in Glasgow.

According to Wodrow:

‘And at their burial, James Nisbet, a relation of one of them who were executed, was taken by one of the soldiers of his name. We shall just now meet with him in June, dying a public death. The persecutors and soldiers were very narrow in their observations at such public executions, and, as if they resolved to counter the known truth, sanguis martyrum semen ecclesia [i.e., ‘the blood of the martyrs in the seed of the church’], when people appeared affected at them, or the burials of such as were allowed public burial, they picked them up to fill the next stage with blood.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 64.)

Wodrow also mentions that ‘being known [at the burial], he was apprehended by lieutenant Nisbet a cousin german [i.e., by blood] of his own’. (Wodrow, History, IV, 65.)

Nisbet’s cousin was probably Lieutenant Robert Nisbet of the Grenadier company of Mar’s Regiment of Foot. Commissioned in June, 1682, he was the son and heir of Nisbet of Cartin. Lieutenant Nisbet was also said to be a relative of John Nisbet of Hardhill, who he captured with three others in November, 1685. In 1689, he married a daughter of the laird of Hillhouse from Dundonald parish, Ayrshire. Nisbet was promoted to the rank of captain after the Revolution. (Dalton, Scots Army, 115, 117n, 154.)

After he was captured, Nisbet ‘was straight carried to the guard, where he was soon entangled with their captious questions, the catechism of this period, and sent to prison.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 65-6.)

Glasgow TolboothThe remains of Glasgow Tolbooth

The Trial of James Nisbet
Nisbet was probably held in Glasgow Tolbooth until his execution.

From his testimony, it is clear that Nisbet was repeatedly offered banishment to Carolina: ‘Now I know there are many will brand me with self-murder, because I have got so many an offer to go to Carolina upon such easy terms’

Nisbet rejected the offers, which probably proffered banishment in return for recognition of royal authority.

According to Wodrow, ‘I have seen nothing of his trial, and I take it to have been before the commissioners for justiciary there.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 65.)

The record of his trial before the circuit court do not survive. However, he was probably tried before the commissioners in June, as Wodrow claims, possibly on around Tuesday 3 June if the date for his execution inscribed on his gravestone is correct.

According to Nisbet he was condemned for denying that Bothwell was rebellion, adhering to the Covenants and for his treasonable disowning the authority of the King, judges and governors. Many of the others who were held in Glasgow Tolbooth at that time were banished to Carolina for similar views.

Wodrow appears to have based his account of the trial on Nisbet’s testimony:

‘His sentence ran upon the common crimes, now made mortal sins, which I need scarce resume. He owned Drumclog and Bothwell lawful, in as far as they were acts of selfdefence, and appearances for the gospel. He refused to renounce the covenants, and to own the king’s authority, as he expressed, in so far as he had made the work of reformation and covenants, treason. After he was condemned, he was offered his life, if he would acknowledge the king’s headship and supremacy over the church, which they well knew he would never do.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 66.)

According to Wodrow, Nisbet was condemned only for his ‘sentiment and opinion’:

‘It will be a lasting blot upon this time, that so many good men, against whom they had nothing but matter of sentiment and opinion, and who had never been in any rising against the government, were thus from time to time cut off.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 66.)

However, Nisbet’s testimony hints at two other factors which may have tipped the balance of the judges’ sentence away from banishment and towards execution.

First, ‘in plain terms and direct words’ Nisbet denied ‘them to have any power to rule either in civil or ecclesiastic matters’. Nisbet’s strident public denial of authority may have swayed the judges.

Second, Nisbet eluded to a further charge which he did not deny: ‘Also these avowed enemies, who are thirsting for my blood [i.e., the judges], charged me with going up and down the country plundering and murdering, and so by their law made liable to punishment, even to the loss of my life; but I declare, who am within a little to appear before the righteous Judge, that I never intended to wrong any man.’

What form the ‘plundering and murdering’ took is not known, but it appears that his actions went beyond the mere ‘sentiment and opinion’ mentioned by Wodrow. Nisbet was condemned to be executed.

The Testimony of James Nisbet
Nisbet’s testimony appears to have been composed after he was condemned. It appears to have been intended to be readout on the scaffold. According to Cloud of Witnesses, Nisbet’s testimony was assembled from fragments. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 373.)

According to Wodrow:
‘He was hardly enough used, and so closely watched, as he could scarce get any thing writ to his friends in prison; yet he got a testimony writ, in which he complains he got only liberty to write incoherently.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 66.)

It is not known if Nisbet delivered a speech before execution.

Wodrow owned a copy of Nisbet’s testimony. (James Nisbet, Copy of dying testimony of 1684, NLS MSS. Wod.Oct.XXVIII, f.85.)

The version given below is that found in Cloud of Witnesses.

Nisbet’s testimony (in PDF format) can be found here:

Testimony of James Nisbet June 1684

In it he rejected the supremacy of the King in matters civil and ecclesiastic, taking bonds and paying the Cess and Locality. He also gave testimony in favour of the preaching of Cameron and Cargill, appearing in defence of the Gospel, and the Societies’ declarations and actions at Rutherglen, Lanark, Torwood, and the Queensferry Paper. Nisbet was a member of the United Societies.

His testimony is as follows:

‘Now I am brought hither this day, to lay down my life for the testimony of Jesus Christ, and for asserting Him to be Head and King in His own house, and for no matter of fact that they have against me. Wherefore, dear friends and all true lovers of Zion’s cause, if I could either speak or write anything to the praise and commendation of my lovely Lord and princely Master, Jesus Christ, King and Head over His own Church and people, although the most part of the men of this generation is counting it death to call Him so, yet I, as a dying man, live and die in the faith of it, that He shall appear to their confusion, and for His own glory now trampled upon, and lying so low; for He has said, ‘I am the Lord, that is My name; and My glory will I not give to another’ (Isa. xlii. 8).

Now I am to lay down my life, and indeed I do it willingly, and not by constraint; and I bless Him that ever He carved out my lot such as to be a sufferer for Him, who am such a poor, unworthy thing. For if I would have acknowledged a mortal man to be supreme, I might have redeemed my life, viz., C[harles] Sftuart] to be supreme over all causes civil and ecclesiastic, as they have now set him up, which belongs to no mortal man upon earth, and to have prayed for him. And shall I pray for that man, in his person and government, who hath broken down the work of the Lord, and has laid waste the sanctuary of our Lord, who was given of the Father, as it is said, ‘And hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church’ (Eph. i. 22); and in the second Psalm? Now I say, it is for the hope of Israel, and a witness for the name of Jesus Christ, of which hope I am not ashamed. Now I invite all who love His name, and the welfare of Zion, to praise Him, for I may set to my seal to it, that He is a good master to all who will come to Him; for I may say, He has been good to me, who has letten me see a sight of my sins and a sight of the remedy that He has purchased by His blood, and through His death, to me, who was born an heir of hell and wrath by nature; but glory be to His great name, who has made me free from my sin, and made me as if I had never sinned; O glory and praise be to Himself. But what shall I say? for heart cannot conceive, hand cannot write, tongue cannot express! for surely if I could say anything to the praise and commendation of my lovely Lord Jesus Christ, I have many things for which to do it.

1. For that, that He has not letten me deny His truths and cause, and His persecuted work; for there is nothing in me, as I am of myself, but I might have been amongst these that have displayed a banner against God, and have made the blood of His people to run in the streets, and have dyed their garments with their blood.

2. That He has carved out my lot to be in a land where He has set up His pure ordinances, both in doctrine, worship, discipline and government; for indeed he might have trysted [i.e., appointed] it to be amongst these that are worshipping antichrist, that whore of Rome, whose sentence may be read, Rev. xix. 2. [‘For true and righteous are his judgments: for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication, and hath avenged the blood of his servants at her hand.’] And if C[harles] S[tuartJ has not overturned His work, and corrupted the whole land, by overturning the whole fundamental laws, both civil and ecclesiastic, I leave it to any judicious person, that is not biassed and drawn away by that woeful Erastian Supremacy, which is like to overspread the whole land.

3. That He hath given His word for a rule to walk by, which word is truth, and the true Word of God. He has made me to walk by it, and it to be my rule; and by His Word and Spirit bearing witness with my Spirit, making me spotless and clean; and I shall be clothed with these robes of His righteousness, which are spotless and clean.

Now I shall only give a short account of my principles, as the Lord shall assist; and the Lord help me to get it done in truth and sincerity; for there are many eyes looking on me; the eyes of an allseeing God, who is of purer eyes than that He can behold iniquity, and the eyes of men who are thirsting for my blood.

1. I adhere and sweetly set to my testimony to the covenant of redemption, betwixt the Father and the Son, made before the foundation of the world, for the redemption of poor lost mankind. I mean of these who are elected, called, justified, and sanctified ; for which my soul shall bless the Lord that ever I heard tell of the same, and that ever I heard tell that He came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.

2. To the sacred Scriptures; that they are the true Word of God, and that there is life everlasting to be had in them, if ye will apply your hearts to search diligently, and pursue after them with a sincere and diligent seeking, with all the soul and heart; and without sincere endeavouring to make it your rule, there is no life; for, says our blessed Lord, ‘I came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it.’

3. To the work of Reformation; as it was reformed in all the several steps thereof from under Popery, Prelacy, and Erastianism, and all other errors whatsomever, not agreeable to the Scriptures, the written Word of God.

4. To the Confession of Faith, the Sum of Saving Knowledge, Directory for Worship and Discipline, and to our Catechisms Larger and Shorter.

5. To the Covenants, National and Solemn League, whereby these lands were engaged unto the Lord ; and Scotland may bless the Lord that ever He engaged them in a covenant with Himself. I say to you that desire to own the same, make it your ground to plead with the Lord, till He come back again to these lands.

6. To the preaching of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, as it was faithfully preached by faithful ministers, called and commissionated, and sent by Himself; and also my testimony to the Acknowledgment of Sins and Engagement to Duties, and the Causes of the Lord’s Wrath against this land this day. But alas! it may be said, Many have gone backward, and not forward; the most part of this generation have refused to walk any more with Him, ever since Bothwell [in June, 1679], only these two, viz., Mr D[onald] C[argill]and Mr R[ichard] C[ameron], which I desire to set to my seal to the faithfulness of these two men’s doctrines, for my soul has been refreshed by them. And I set to my seal to all their proceedings and actings in the work they were called to, and my soul blesseth the Lord that ever I heard them preach.

7. To all the appearing in arms, in defence of the Gospel, and self-defence, both before Bothwell and since [i.e., the Society people].

8. To the Excommunication at the Torwood, by Mr D[onald] C[argill], as it is just and lawful, and will stand in force and record, ay, till repentance make it null, of which there is little appearance.

9. To the testimony given at Rutherglen, May 29, 1679; the declaration given at Lanark, January 12, 1682, by a party whom the Lord raised and stirred up by His Spirit, and owned them in that work, to give a public testimony against that soul destroying and lan’1 ruining thing called the Test, although many in this generation be pleading for the lawfulness of it, and disowning the Covenant, which we were all bound to. Oh! my heart trembles to think what will come on this generation, for their dreadful apostacy and departing from the way of the Lord.

10. To all the fellowship meetings of the Lord’s people [.i.e., of the the Society people], for reading, praying, and singing of Psalms, and all the other duties proper for, and incumbent upon them. I mean these that desire to wrestle and hold up the case of His ruined work, and his poor suffering remnant.

11. To the eight articles, called the New Covenant, taken at the Queensferry off worthy H[enry] H[all].

Now as I have left my testimony in short to the truths of God, so I desire to leave my testimony against the defections of the time, as the Lord shall help and assist. Therefore,

1. I, as a dying witness, leave my testimony against Popery and Prelacy, which is so much countenanced and set up in Scotland this day, especially by those who seemed to be most eminent, as it is in Gal. i. 6, ‘I marvel that ye are so soon removed from Him that called you into the grace of Christ, unto another Gospel.’

2. Against Quakerism, Independency, and all other errors which are not according to the Word of God, and our solemn Covenants and Confession of Faith.

3. Against the tyrant upon the throne of Britain and Ireland, for his tyranny, oppression, and bloodshed, and for overturning the laws, both civil and ecclesiastic, and not making the law his rule to be ruled by, but he ruling the law, and not the law him ; which is not according to the Word of God, as it is in 2 Sam. xxiii. 3, ‘He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.’ Even against that tyrant, and all upholders, aiders, assisters, and maintainers of him. Oh! what will become of this generation for their apostacy and departing away from God?

4. Against the Oath of Supremacy, for the setting up of persons as supreme, and following and making them their rule, and not taking the Word of God to be their rule.

5. Against that Bond taken in the Greyfriars kirkyard [after the defeat at Bothwell], although there be many that denied it, until the Lord in His own due time made it appear, when the trial came to agreater length; for He has said in His Word, that there is nothing done in secret, but He will have it manifested in the light.

6. Against that Bond called the Bond of Regulation, for their binding to walk according to the will of men, and not according to the will of God. Surely it is not according to the practice of the apostles : ‘But Peter and John answered, and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye’ (Acts iv. 19).

7. Against the Bond pressed by the Highland host in the west country [in 1678]. Oh! what may be said of this generation? It may be said, Ye have gone away backward from my ordinances, and ye have forsaken me the living God, and have hewed you out broken cisterns that can hold no water.

8. Against that land-ruining and soul-destroying thing called the Test [oath].

9. Against all coming out of prison upon Bond and Caution; whatever men may say of it, it is a complying with the avowed enemies, and a binding themselves to be the prisoners of men, and not the prisoners of Jesus Christ.

10. Against all compearing at courts and paying of fines; for it implies that we have done a fault against them; and also, it approves of these as just judges, that are imposing these things; but ye may see what they are, for there is no sober man will get leave to plead an action there. And can these be called judges, and owned as judges, who are grassators [i.e., robbers] and land judgments?

11. Against all Cess and Locality, which is imposed for the down bearing of the Gospel, and for maintaining bloody and avowed enemies to banish Christ and His Gospel out of the land, and to hunt, plunder, rob, spoil, and persecute the poor people of God; for in the very narrative of the Act, it is set down for that end, and declared to the world; see what is said against it: ‘But ye are they that forsake the Lord, that forget my holy mountain, that prepare a table for that troop, and that furnish the drink-offering unto that number. Therefore will I number you to the sword, and ye shall all bow down to the slaughter: because when I called, ye did not answer; when I spake ye did not hear; but did evil before mine eyes, and did choose that wherein I delighted not’ (Isa. Ixv. 11–12).

12. Against hearing of curates, because they are wolves and boars, thrust in upon the Lord’s people to kill and destroy; and against the Indulgence first and last; and against the hearing of them, and joining with them, or pleading for them; because they are not entered in by the right door, and teach for doctrine the commandments of men. Therefore they are in so far not the ministers of Jesus Christ, but the ministers of men, as it is said: ‘Verily I say unto you, he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber’ (John x. 1). And against all ministers and professors, who are now lying at ease, when Zion is in trouble, and are shifting their duty for fear of hazard, and are sheltering themselves under the shadow of these avowed enemies, pleading in their favours, and have broken the poor people of God, and rent the bowels of the Church ; and especially those who appeared once in the fields, to hold up a banner for our lovely Lord and Master Jesus Christ. I shall be a witness against them, if repentance prevent it not.

Now, ye that are the poor wrestling remnant, weary not of the cross of Christ, for He is a good Master, and He sends none a warfare on their own charges, for He will own them in all that he carves out for them. Oh! double your diligence, and give Him no rest till He come back again. As in Isa. Ixii. 7, ‘And give Him no rest, till He establish, and till He make Jerusalem a praise in the earth.’ Oh! what will come of poor Scotland, for the horrid iniquities and abominations, perjury and bloodshed, and Covenant-breaking? Oh! Scotland’s punishment will be sad; but my eyes shall be closed, and I shall not see it, and I am well content, seeing I get my soul for a prey. Now I am afraid God will not know many of this generation, that have gone such a dreadful length in defection and backsliding. But oh, what shall I say! I shall leave it to Himself to do as He may most glorify Himself, in preserving a seed and remnant to serve Him. Now I die in the faith of it, that He has a seed whom He will have preserved when He sends forth instruments with slaughter weapons; that He has a party that He will set a mark on, as it is said in Ezek. ix. 4: ‘And the Lord said unto him, go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.’

Now I say, weary not of the cross of Christ, although ye should suffer persecution, for He has said, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation, but in me ye shall have peace.’ [Paraphrase of John 16.33.] And oh! but He taketh exact notice what is done to His people: ‘Thou shouldst not have entered into the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; yea, thou shouldst not have looked upon their affliction in the day of their calamity, nor have laid hands on their substance in the day of their calamity’ (Obad. 13). Oh! but that be a sweet word: ‘It is a faithful saying, for, if we be dead with Him, we shall also live with Him; if we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us’ (2 Tim. ii. 11–12). Oh, sirs! lose not heaven for Mammon, and your own souls for what ye can suffer here. It is true none can merit heaven by their sufferings, but it is as true that He has said, ‘He that will not forsake all and take up his cross and follow me, he cannot be my disciple.’ Now I know there are many will brand me with self-murder, because I have got so many an offer to go to Carolina upon such easy terms. But as to that I answer, Self-preservation must stoop to truth’s preservation. There are indeed many of this generation who pretend to keep their present ease and to be followers of Christ; but I defy any, if they be called to a public testimony, but they shall either lose their present possession, or else that which is of more worth, even their immortal souls and everlasting salvation.

Now as to the heads of my indictment whereon they have sentenced me to die, they are mainly these:

1. My approving of Drumclog and Bothwell, and being at Glasgow to be lawful and in the defence of the Gospel, and in self-defence, which both the law of God and nature allow.

2. For adhering to the National and Solemn League and Covenant; and they declare before my face that both their king and Council had disowned the Covenant, and had taken that way by their Acts of Parliament, and said that they were both unjust and unlawful; and shall such be owned and adhered to, who have declared themselves against King Christ, and have broken His laws, and have seated themselves in the room of Jesus Christ, which belongs to no mortal man upon earth, and much less to him who is a usurper and a tyrant, I mean Charles Stuart? And here I, as a dying witness, leave my testimony against that monstrous beast; for our Saviour calls Herod a fox, and says, ‘Go tell that fox, I work to-day, and to-morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’ [Luke. 13.32.]

3. And mainly my sentence was, that I disowned their authority. For since they had rejected the Covenant, I was the more clear to disown them to be my judges or governors over the land; and they asserted it treasonable, because I said none of the people of God would say otherwise. And in plain terms and direct words, I deny them to have any power to rule either in civil or ecclesiastic matters. Also these avowed enemies, who are thirsting for my blood, charged me with going up and down the country plundering and murdering, and so by their law made liable to punishment, even to the loss of my life; but I declare, who am within a little to appear before the righteous Judge, that I never intended to wrong any man. And so it is evident they take away my life upon the account of adhering to truth; and I bless the Lord that ever He gave me a life to lay down for Him, and that ever He counted me worthy to lay down my life for His persecuted truth. O matchless free grace; that is making choice of the like of me, and poor weak things to confound the strong, and the poor foolish things to confound the wise!

Now there are three sorts of folk that I would speak a word to:

The first are these that have begun in the way of the Lord, and seemingly have gone a good length, and when the storm of persecution arose, for fear of the rough sea of trouble, have drawn back. Oh, mind that word in Heb. x. 38, ‘But if any man draw back, My soul shall have no pleasure in him;’ and Rom. viii. 35, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ and many more places of Scripture.

A second sort are these who are going on in rebellion against God openly and avowedly, as ye may see in Psalm ii. 1, 4, 5, ‘Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall He speak unto them in His wrath, and vex them in His sore displeasure.’ O poor Scotland, that once married away to the Lord, and now has provoked Him to depart and leave it, and give a bill of divorcement, as it were! Oh, Scotland has sinned dreadfully, what by Covenant-breaking, bloodshed, lying, and swearing.

Now a third sort are these who desire to keep their garments clean, and undefiled with the abounding sins of this generation. Go on in the way of the Lord, and fear not what man can do, for He has said, ‘Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: fear Him, which, after He hath killed, hath power to cast into hell.’ [Luke 12. 4–5.] I can set to my seal to it, that Christ is a good master, and well worthy the suffering for.

And now I can freely and heartily forgive all men what they have done to me, as I desire to be forgiven of my Father which is in heaven; but what they have done against a holy God and His image in me, that is not mine to forgive them, but I leave that to Him to dispose on as He sees fit, and as He may most glorify Himself.

Now I am to take my leave of all created comforts here. And I bid farewell to the sweet Scriptures. Farewell reading and praying. Farewell sinning and suffering. Farewell sighing and sorrowing, mourning and weeping. And farewell all Christian friends and relations. Farewell brethren and sisters, and all things in time. And welcome Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Welcome heaven and everlasting joy and praise, and innumerable company of angels and spirits of just men made perfect. Now into Thy hands I commit my spirit, for it is Thine.

Sic subscribitur,

James Nisbet.’

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The Execution of James Nisbet
‘James Nisbet, in the parish of Loudon, was hanged at the Howgate-head near Glasgow, in June.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 65.)

According to his gravestone and Cloud, he was executed on Thursday 5 June at Howgatehead, which may have been where the five Society people executed on 19 March were buried and Nisbet was captured.

The site is now covered by the Townhead Interchange.

Like the executions at the Gallowlee in Edinburgh, Nisbet was executed just outside of town, perhaps to prevent trouble with the crowd.

‘He died in much peace, and full assurance. And they saw good to execute him a little out of the town, and not at the cross, which very little diminished the confluence.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 66.)

According to one of the Society people in Glasgow, ‘[Major] Balfour s[ai]d q[uhe]n he was on the scaffold, put him off and be damned’. (‘Hints of Sufferings’, EUL MSS. La.III.344. Vol 2. No. 125.)

The alleged words of Major John Balfour of Mar’s Regiment of Foot at executions in Glasgow were of particular interest to the anonymous author of ‘Hints of Sufferings’. For other examples of Balfour’s “gallows humour”, see the Polmadie martyrs and the execution of James Lawson and Alexander Wood.

Nisbet was probably put off the scaffold by Walter Brock, Glasgow’s executioner. A few week later on 17 July, the burgh council ‘Ordains the thesaurer to pay to Walter Brock sixtie eight pounds six shilling, quherof nyntein poundis was formerly given to the executioner for mentaining him in the tolbooth when he was last here.’ (Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Glasgow, III, online here.)

Memorials to Nisbet
The memorials to Nisbet in Glasgow have frequently been replaced and moved. A later memorial to him, Lawson and Wood is now under threat.

He was buried close to the site of the gallows. A few months later, Lawson and Wood were buried by him.

Street View of Approximate Location of Nisbet’s Burial

Nearby is the Martyrs’ Public School designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The school is named after the three executed Society people.

Street View of Martyrs’ School

At some point in the eighteenth century, a monument was erected on Castle Street close to the grave of Nisbet, Lawson and Wood. The inscription was as follows:

‘The dead yet speaketh. Behind this stone lyes James Nisbet, who suffered martyrdom at this place, June 5th, 1684. Also James Lawson and Alexander Wood, who suffered martyrdom, October 24th, 1684, for their adherence to the Word of God, and Scotland’s Covenanted Work of the Reformation.

“Here ly martyrs three,
Of memory,
Who for the Covenants did die:
And witness is
‘Gainst all the nation’s perjury
‘Gainst the Covenanted cause
Of Christ, their royal king.
The British rulers made such laws,
Declar’d ’twas satan’s reign.
As Britain lies in guilt, you see,
‘Tis ask’d, oh reader, art thou free.’

Today, a memorial stone lies outside of Townhead Martyrs’ Church. The church is going to be demolished.

Street View of Martyrs’ Monument

Nisbet is also listed at the bottom of a monument erected in 1829 at Loudoun parish church in Newmilns, Ayrshire.

Covenanters Nisber NewmilnsNisbet mentioned on memorial at Newmilns © Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse.

Curiously, it dates Nisbet’s death to Wednesday 11 June.

For related posts, see the execution of Lawson and Wood, the Carolina banishments and James Renwick’s preaching at Greenock.

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on February 18, 2013.

3 Responses to “The Execution in Glasgow of James Nisbet in Highside: ‘Put Him Off and Be Damned’”

  1. the memorial stone you refer to is presently erected in the grounds of the now dis-used martyrs church in the residential area of Townhead in st mungos ave.many unconfirmed reports of it being moved to the cathedral district have circulated,with communications to relevant partys,ie glasgow city council,glasgow presbytery of church of scotland,heritage scotland etc all being ignored.

  2. […] Possible Involvement of James Nisbet in Highside It is possible that James Nisbet in Highside, who was executed June, 1684, was in someway involved in the alleged assassination plot. According to Wodrow, Nisbet was related […]

  3. […] For the story of the other martyr recorded on the memorial stone, James Nisbet in Highside, see here. […]

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