The Great Scottish Meteor of 1685

Frederic_Church_Meteor_of_1860

Sometimes the truly unexpected turns up in the historical sources for the Covenanters, but a near-Earth object entering the atmosphere above Scotland is probably the most unexpected I have discovered so far.

The following story involves John Nisbet of Hardhill and four other militant Society people. Hardhill was a long-term opponent of the Restoration regime and a prominent figure in the United Societies. Those with Hardhill on that day in 1685 were probably his son, James Nisbet, and perhaps John Ferguson or Fergushill, Peter Gemmel and George Woodburn, who were summarily executed when Hardhill was captured.

The source for the account of the strange light in the sky is James Nisbet’s account of his father, John Nisbet of Hardhill, which published in 1717 and republished in 1718.

According to Hardhill’s son:

‘The Sabbath night before he [i.e., Hardhill] was taken, as he and four more were travelling, it being exceeding dark, no wind, but a thick, small rain, no moon, for that was not her season, behold, suddenly the clouds clave asunder towards the east and west, above our heads, and there sprang out a light beyond that of the sun, which lasted above the space of two minutes. They heard a noise, and were much amazed.’ (Select Biographies, II, 384.)

What was the Strange Light in the Sky?
Following the Chelyabinsk meteor of 2013 it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that what Nisbet saw was near-Earth object entering the atmosphere.

According to Nisbet, the context in which the phenomenon was seen was on an ‘exceedingly dark’ night which had no moon. It was also a cloudy night with ‘a thick, small rain’, which sounds like the kind of conditions that commonly occur on the high moors in the West of Scotland.

Nisbet states that the clouds above their heads were suddenly ‘clave asunder towards the east and the west’ by ‘a light beyond that of the sun, which lasted above the space of two minutes’ and was accompanied by a noise.

There is little doubt that what Nisbet saw was the fireball of a Near Earth Object entering the atmosphere, either probably a small asteroid or perhaps a comet fragment.

His description of it as ‘a light beyond that of the sun’ suggests that it was a very bright object as it traveled through the atmosphere. The sun is about 400,000 times brighter than the full moon. The object may have briefly changed a very dark night into the brightness of daylight.

The noise which accompanied the meteor may have been, either connected to it passing through the atmosphere (i.e., sonic booms), or to a possible airburst explosion. There would have been a delay between the light and the noise, which would have depended on the distance they were from the fast-moving object.

Where was the Meteor Observed From?
Nisbet does not describe where the fireball was observed from. However, it is fairly likely that it was in the area of Eaglesham Moor, as that is where Hardhill appears to have been in hiding at that time. Eaglesham Moor lies between the shires of Renfrew, Lanark and Ayr in the West of the Scotland.

Map of Eaglesham Moor

Hardhill had fled from his home a few years earlier. It lay close to Newmilns in Loudoun parish, Ayrshire, and directly to the south of Eaglesham Moor. Today, Hardhill has vanished, but it lay on the west bank of the bend in the Huggincraig Burn to the north of Loudon Road. Like other fugitives, it is likely that Hardhill hid in the area surrounding his home.

Map of Hardhill

Before he encountered the fireball he appears to have attended a field preaching by James Renwick on the east edge of Eaglesham Moor. The precise location of the field preaching is not known, but it took place somewhere in Eaglesham parish close to the shire boundary with Kilbride parish in Lanarkshire.

Map of Approximate Location of Field Preaching (change to OS view)

A week after the fireball, Hardhill was captured at Midland, a farm in Fenwick parish, Ayrshire, which lies immediately to the west of Eaglesham Moor.

Map of Midland                 Aerial View of Midland

The Trajectory of the Meteor
I am a historian and not an expert on NEOs, so please do not take what follows as chapter and verse on all things meteor related. If you are an expert on near-earth objects, please feel free to share your knowledge of them via a comment.

According to Nisbet, the light split the clouds above their heads ‘towards the east and west’, which may suggest that the meteor traveled from east to west across Eaglesham Moor and over Arran and Kintyre before heading out over the Atlantic Ocean. There is no indication that any impact took place within the area Nisbet could perceive. It may, or may not, have been an atmosphere-grazing object like the Great Meteor of 1783.

Nisbet’s claim that the meteor lasted about two minutes was an estimate that drew on his memory rather than an accurate timing. However, the apparent duration of the event does suggest that the meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a shallow angle. Its duration would also suggest that the object was large enough to potentially survive the encounter with, or transit through, the atmosphere. For example, the ‘Great Daylight Fireball’ of 1972 was around 3 or 14 metres in diameter and survived a transit through the atmosphere of 100 seconds. The latter is close to Nisbet’s estimate of about two minutes. That, and the fact that Nisbet does not record any impact, may suggest that it was an atmosphere-grazing NEO.

When did the Meteor Appear?
Curiously, there are two answers to that question. One answer is when the event took place in astronomical terms. The other answer is when the event took place in historical terms.

The dating of the event in historical terms is linked to the capture of John Nisbet of Hardhill. According to his son, James, Hardhill was captured either a week, or a day, after the amazing light in the sky. The phrases used by Nisbet are not precise enough to determine how long it was between the meteor and the capture. He alludes to Hardhill being ‘all that week to be under great concern of spirit’, but it is not clear if that refers to an intervening week between the events.

The precise date of Hardhill’s capture is not known beyond it being in early November. However, it is possible to narrow down the time frame for both his capture and the light in the sky.

Hardhill was brought before the privy council as a prisoner on Monday 30 November, 1685. At least a couple of weeks before that, he was held prisoner in Kilmarnock on a Monday, either on 2, or  9, November. It is likely that Hardhill was taken direct to Kilmarnock from Midland, which lay nearby.

He appears to have been captured on a Sunday morning in the weeks after he probably attended the Society people’s twenty-fourth convention at Polbaith Burn on Wednesday 21 October and attended James Renwick’s field preaching in Eaglesham parish, which was held at around the same time as the convention. he must have been captured before Thursday 12 November, as the privy council wrote a letter of congratulation about it to Lieutenant-Colonel Balfour on that day.

That suggests that the light in the sky event took place on one of the Sundays between 21 October and 12 November, i.e., either on 25 October, 1 or 8 November, 1685.

According to James Nisbet, on the night that the strange event took place there was ‘no moon, for that was not her season’, i.e., when it was a new moon.

Since the lunar cycle is fixed, it would appear to be a straightforward calculation to establish which of the possible dates fell either on, or close to, a new moon.

According to timeanddate.com, the only new moon in November in the Julian Calendar appeared on Monday 16 November. That is at least four days after Hardhill was recorded as captured. An earlier new moon took place on 17 October, which is certainly before Hardhill attended the Societies’ preaching in Eaglesham parish.

To discover the astronomical context for the meteor a further calculation is required which takes into account the changes to the calendar system adopted in 1600 and 1752.

Scotland adopted the Gregorian calendar reform of making first January the beginning of the new year in 1600, but like the rest of the British Isles it continued to use the Julian calendar system of days and dates until 1752. By the 1680s, the date in Scotland was ten days behind the Gregorian date used in much of the rest of Europe. In other words, when we calculate the date of the appearance of the new moon back from today in the Gregorian calendar, the result is ten days later than the date used in Scotland in 1685.

The Julian date for the appearance new moon was either on 17 October, or 16 November.

In the Gregorian Calendar, the two new moons close to the possible dates for the meteor were on 27 October and 26 November.

In astronomical terms, i.e., in the Gregorian Calendar, the meteor appears to date to around either 27 October or 26 November.

However, history throws a spanner in the works.

If James Nisbet’s account is correct in stating that the meteor was observed on a Sabbath night after the preaching and before the first official record of his capture, then it appears that the light in the sky was observed when there was no new moon. i.e., on the night of 25 October, 1 or 8 November, 1685, in the Julian Calendar.

The possible dates for the capture of Hardhill a week after the meteor indicate that he was taken either Sunday 1 or Sunday 8 November, as both dates lie before the earliest official record of his capture on 12 November.

How was the Fireball Interpreted?
According to Nisbet:

‘They said one to another, “What may that mean?” But he spake none, only uttered three deep and heavy groans. One of them asked him what it might mean; he said, We know not well at present, but within a little we shall know better; yet we have a more sure word of prophecy, unto which we would do well to take heed; and then he groaned, and said, “As for me, I am ready to live to Him or die for Him, as he in his providence shall call me to it, and bear me through in it; and although I have suffered much from prelates and false friends these twenty-one years, yet now I would not for a thousand worlds I had done otherwise; and if the Lord spare me, I will be more zealous for his precious truths, and if not, I am ready to seal his cause with my blood, for I have longed for it these sixteen years, and it may be ere long I will get it to do; welcome be his will, and if he will help me through with it, I shall praise him to all eternity.”

We all wondered at his unusual freedom, (for he was a very reserved man;) he seemed all that week to be under great concern of spirit. The next Sabbath morning as he, with George Whitburn, John Fergusson, and Peter Gemmell, was hiding in a man’s house [at Midland], near Fenwick Kirk, where they sometimes used to be sheltered in severe weather, it pleased God they were seen, and private information given to the enemy; so that before they were aware, forty of the enemy, commanded by [Lieutenant] Robert Nisbet [of Mar’s Regiment of Foot], a kinsman of his own, surrounded the house; John, with the other three, thought fit to hide themselves among the cows in the byre, resolving, if the enemy found them, all of them should fight it to the last rather than be taken, saying, It was death do what they would.

The enemy got light, searched the house, and coming where they were, fired on them: they fired also upon the enemy, after which they stroke with their clubbed guns till the stocks broke; then they went in grips with some of the enemy, and threw some of them down. The enemy, seeing they could not win at them for the beasts, (some whereof were shot and lay in the way,) cried to go all forth and burn the house. The four men, choosing rather to die by the sword than by fire, went out after them; John went out foremost, and getting his back to the wall, stood and defended himself, but received seven wounds, two in each side of his neck, one above the left pap, another near the right, and one in the left arm: the commander came to them that were goring and stabbing at John, crying, Why have ye not despatched that obstinate rebel? But when he saw him, he knew him, and changing his note, in great haste, cried, Ho! it’s Hardhill, spare his life, for the Council has offered 3000 merks for him, and I will get it. Then by his orders they fetched bed-clothes, and threw upon John, which enabled them to throw him to the ground, and disabled him from wielding his sword; bearing him down, they tied him hard, blood and gore as he was.’ (Select Biographies, II, 384-5.)

See also the Great Comet of 1680.

For other “wonders” observed in the 1680s, see here.

Text © Copyright Dt Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

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~ by drmarkjardine on August 27, 2013.

2 Responses to “The Great Scottish Meteor of 1685”

  1. […] keen observers of the skies and it is from them that we learn about other spectacular events like the Great Scottish Meteor of 1685 or armies battling in the air a month after the Great […]

  2. […] From the contextual evidence discussed in an earlier post, it appears that the meteor was sighted somewhere in the vicinity of the boundary between Ayrshire […]

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