A Clue to the Killing Times: John Graham of Claverhouse on the Earl of Annandale, 16 June, 1685
One of the problems with many of the Presbyterian accounts of the Killing Times is that they do not place the deaths in context and are sometimes vaguely dated. The letter of John Graham of Claverhouse discussed below offers an opportunity to place the summary executions of David Halliday and George Short in context.
The letter is important as it establishes the movements of Claverhouse and other officers towards the end of the Killing Times in mid June. It begins with Claverhouse attempting to placate Queensberry over what had happened to some of his tenants in an incident prior to 14 June. Sadly, Queensberry’s letter does not survive.
‘Johnston, June 16th, 1685.
May it please your Grace :—I am very sorry that anything I have done should have given your Grace occasion to be dissatisfied with me, and to make complaints against me to the Earl of Dumbarton[, the commander of government forces during the Argyll Rising]. I am convinced your Grace is ill informed; for, after you have read what I wrote to you two days ago [on 14 June] on that subject, I daresay I may refer myself to your own censure. That I had no design to make great search there [in Queensberry’s lands] anybody may judge. I came not from Ayr till after eleven in the forenoon, and went to Balagen, with forty heritors, again night. The Sanquar is just in the road ; and I used these men I met accidentally on the road better than ever I used any in these circumstances. And I may safely say, that, as 1 shall answer to God, if they had been living on my ground, I could not have forborne drawing my sword and knocking them down. However, I am glad I have received my Lord Dumbarton’s orders anent your Grace’s tenants, which I shall most punctually obey; though, I may say, they were safe as any in Scotland before. [The Earl of Dumbarton was in command of government forces during the Argyll Rising.]’
Claverhouse had been at Ayr at some point after a letter to him of 23 May, probably in early-to-mid June. He had then rode east via Sanquhar to Ballaggan in Durisdeer parish in Queensberry’s lands in Nithsdale.
A few days after he was involved in some kind of incident on Queensberry’s estate, he was at Johnstone in Johnstone parish in Annandale on 16 June.
It is at this point that the letter takes an interesting turn, as he then discusses the actions of William Johnston, earl of Annandale, who was in command of a militia party of Nithsdale heritors. According to presbyterian accounts, the earl of Annandale and his militia were involved in the summary execution of David Halliday and George Short in Twynholm of Tongland parishes in Kirkcudbrightshire either on 10 June or 11 July, 1685.
Claverhouse’s letter clearly establishes that Annandale was in command of the militia at a point between those two dates. The problem is that we do not know where Annandale was either when he was given orders in mid June, or afterwards.
Queensberry thought that Annadale’s militia would be best deployed in central Dumfriesshire.
However, the earl of Annandale had further instructions from the secret committee of the privy council to secure the area around Annan, i.e, at the southern end of Dumfriesshire by the Border.
The confusion over where the earl was to march to highlights to confusion over who was in command of the militia during the Argyll crisis. Was it the secret committee of privy council or the military? Annandale resolved to follows the direction of the secret council and ignore military orders, even though, as Claverhouse complained, that would make the forces on the Border too think on the ground, either to be supplied, or be effective in suppressing dissent:
‘Your Grace [i.e., Queensberry] may remember you signified your opinion to me that the heritors of Nithsdale [i.e., the militia under the earl of Annandale] would be better in the centrical parts of the shire than at Dumfries; and the General’s persons [i.e., the staff of the Earl of Dumbarton] have given orders they should be assisting to the Highlanders at the Lead hills; which I have signified to the Earl of Annandale. Nevertheless, he writes to me that he is to march to-morrow [on 17 June] by four o’clock in the morning to Annan, and tells me that he expects that thereupon I will stop the march of the troops that I had ordered to Annan or Canopie parishes for the guard of the Border.
I have written to my Lord [Annandale] my opinion, and withal told him, that if he be very positive in the thing I am not to hinder him. I am unwilling to shock anybody that serves the King in such a time [i.e., during the height of the Argyll Rising]; though I think it not just that my Lord, or any other, should think to exclude the rest of the forces from doing their duty in any part they are commanded to. If he come to Annan, Drumeller to Canopie, and Kilsyth to Ewes, they will be too thick.
I am, my Lord, your Grace’s most humble servant,
[Postscript] My Lord Annandale writes to me that he has got, of late, instructions from the secret Committee [of the privy council], to act with his heritors for the security of that country; by which I perceive he concludes he is to take his measures by himself; and thereupon has taken that resolution to go to Annan, contrary to what I had written to him was the General’s mind [that Annandale should be with the Highlanders at Leadhills].’
The confusion over where Annandale was to march took place, either a few days after he was involved in the Twynholm/Tongland killings, or a month before those events. The evidence of Claverhouse’s letter does not prove that Annandale was involved in the killing of Halliday and Short, but it does corroborate the Presbyterian claims that Annandale was in charge of a militia company at around the correct time for the killings.
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