Devils, True Banditti and Catching Wild Cats: The Covenanters, The Killing Times and the Convention at Wanlockhead of 1684

On 15 October, 1684, the Society people gathered in a convention near the Glengaber Burn and decided to publish their Apologetical Declaration Against Intelligencers, a document which would lead to assassinations, the Abjuration Oath and the Killing Times…

Glengaber BurnThe site of the Glengaber Convention © Iain Thompson and licensed for reuse.

The decision of the Societies’ sixteenth convention was not known to the authorities. At the same time, John Drummond of Lundin, the Secretary of State for Scotland, was busy conducting a court to try, banish and hang militant dissenters in Glasgow when word of the seditious convention reached him. The correspondence of Drummond and others with the High Treasurer, William Douglas, duke of Queensberry, reveals how the government learned that the United Societies had declared war on them and threatened them with assassination, how they responded to it and what their attitude towards the Society people were.

Drummond Earl of MelfortJohn Drummond of Lundin, later earl of Melfort

Letter from John Drummond of Lundin to William Douglas, Duke of Queensberry, 20 October, 1684.
These extracts from Drummond’s correspondence with Queensberry begins with a discussion of the problems Drummond faced in dealing with Presbyterian dissent at the court in Glasgow. Drummond squarely put the blame for the resistance he encountered in Lanarkshire on the shoulders of the Duke of Hamilton, who held judicial power of a sheriff in his own estates in there. The first line is priceless.

‘Glasgou, 20 Octr: [16] 84.’
Ten at night.
[…] It’s impossible to secure this country without many people be transported, especially the smal heritors, who acknouledg no superior on earth, and it’s a question if they doe in heaven; but I am of opinione, if we had our 300 out of them, this mater wold be brought some lenith hear [in the shires around Glasgow]. I am sure, it’s most evident that the persons of quality hav bein to blame for this mater; for now when Duke Hamilton appears to joyne with us, we meit not with the least resistance from the commons, except in places uher the jest has bein caried on too farr, and that is mainely in his Grace’s oun lands [especially in Evandale and Lesmahagow parish?] or amongst his nearest neighbours. I most tell your lordship, that at the begining I uas forced to carie very even with him; for I found all the heritors run to him for councell,’

However, Drummond then mentions news of a field preaching by James Renwick to four hundred on the borders of Crawford parish in Lanarkshire and the Societies’ sixteenth convention:

[…] But to leav this: yesternight [i.e., Sunday 19 October] I had informatione of a Conventicle upon the borders of Crauford [parish]. I sent to the Duke, to my Lord Duke Hamilton, to tell him that I heard, and sent him the double of thie informatione from your lordship’s servant, and with all something by way of admonitione, as that this being upon his land, said to be 400 armed men, it was a scandall to him, and a reproach to all the neighbouring heritors, and told him that as Sheriff he ought to eas the country, and to follow after them; and with all, that so soon as I got certaine informatione, I was resolved to go myself in to se that country used as it became the King’s authority; that in the mean time, we had dispatched a party of 24 hors[e] and 30 Dragoons, to bring in all the bordering heritors and suspect persons, and to disarme the adjacent paroashes. His Grace’s ansuer I hav sent inclosed. I am hopefull we shal get some accompt if any such thing has bein.’ (Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch, II, 190-1.)

William Douglas Duke of HamiltonWilliam Douglas, duke of Hamilton

Two days later, Drummond continued his attacks on the Duke of Hamilton, on whose land Renwick’s preaching had allegedly taken place, in another letter to Queensberry:

Glasgow, [Wednesday] 22 Octr: [16]84.
‘This day [Wednesday 22 October] tuo rogues wer condemned to be hanged upon Fryday [24 October, i.e., James Lawson and Alexander Wood, at Glasgow]; and Duke Hamilton sate [in the court], notwithstanding of his first resolutions, for he is resolved in evry thing to sitt still, and that maks me judge he has better advice then ordinar; for I am sure he was neuer so hemmed in, and yet he is quiet.’

As a postscript, Drummond added:’The whole disorders hear are in Duke Hamilton’s lands, and it will be found ther has bein no diligence in his regality till now.’ (Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch, II, 195.)

In fact, the Societies’ sixteenth convention had taken place across the shire march from Hamilton’s lands in Crawford parish.

It is possible that Renwick preached on the Lanarkshire side of the boundary before the convention, which was held in the glen of the Glengaber Burn in Sanquhar parish, Dumfriesshire.

Map of Glengaber

According to one witnesses, many of those who had come to the convention had attended in large parties of twenty or thirty that came over the hills from Crawford Muir in Crawfordjohn parish.

However, there is no doubt that Hamilton’s Lanarkshire lands were heartlands of the Society people.

William Douglas Duke of QueensberryWilliam Douglas, duke of Queensberry

Further information about the Societies’ sixteenth convention reached Drummond on about the same day as Lawson and Wood were executed in Glasgow. He wrote to Queensberry:

[>24 October: 1684.]
The bearer [William Wilson in Wanlockhead] has bein examined in this place, being apprehended by one of our partys, so it’s not his fault that he was not with your lordship before now. I hav sent your lordship the copie of his depositione [about the Societies’ sixteenth convention at Glengaber], and doe assure your lordship ther’s no fault in this occatione in us, for we can doe no mor, they being so intirely dissipate that ther’s no vestige of them, and all thes who saw them are in fear of ther lives. Thes men are true Bandittys, and if ther be not some universall course, they will not be found. All that can be done by us wil be ended this night, but to doe this affair thoroughly requires mor time then is alloued to us, but I hope all is better then it was […]

Postscript —The bearer wil tell you the kindness the Whighs has for your lordship [i.e., Queensberry], which is no ill argument of your lordship’s zeal in the King’s service.’ (Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch, II, 196.)


With Drummond’s letter to Queensberry came a copy of the deposition William Wilson of 24 October. Wilson lived in the newly formed lead-mining settlement of Wanlockhead and was taken at the house at Glengaber beside the convention. According to Wilson, about 200 Society people were at the convention. Like the other depositions about the sixteenth convention, it offers a rare glimpse into how it took place:

‘Wm. Wilsone in Wanlockhead, in the paroch of Sancquer, being solemlie sworne and interrogat, depons that upon Wedinsday the [15 October] instant, the deponent went earlie in the morning from his oun house to Glengaiber, wher instantlie came out of the house six men in armes, and presented guns to him, and took him prisoner, and carryed him in to the house; and ther come in some women to them, and after they had comoned with him a long tyme, they releived ther guard, and sent as many new ones to guard him, which they did seven times by turnes, being always seven or eight in number, and keept him their prisoner all the day over: depons he heard psalms singing and he lookt out of the house, and he saw on the craigs at htle off, to the number of 200 people, or therby, as he thinks; and they having keept him prisoner till dark night, and then suffered him to goe home to his oun house [in Wanlockhead], and stayed sometyme.

There came twelve men in armes in to his house [in Wanlockhead on the evening of Wednesday 15 October], did take meat and drink, and stayed all night, and keept ane centinal at the door; and befor day light in the morning [of 16 October] they went away, and that the deponent thought by their discoursing, they looked rather like gentlemen than countriemen, and that they wer well armed, everie one a carabin, two pistols and a sword.’

The well-armed group of twelve were probably core members of the United Societies’ leadership and their guard. The diners at Wilson’s house in Wanlockhead may have included James Renwick.

‘They threatned the deponent that, if he divulged them, they wold berrive him of his life; and the deponent having the nixt day [Thursday, 16 October] gone abroad to gett intelligence what had come of them, he could gett no notice, and upon the friday [17 October] he went to Sanquhar and acquainted my Lord Threasurer’s Chambe[r]lan [i.e., John Alison,  Queensberry’s chamberlain] with the haill storie.’ (Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch, II, 196-7.)

The Glengaber meeting was the first convention held by the Societies near Wanlockhead. Their choice of location may have been symbolic, as Wanlockhead lay at the top of the Enterkin Pass, a place where the Society people had attacked government forces and rescued prisoners two months earlier. At least of the Enterkin attackers, Ninian Steel, attended the convention. He was involved in taking Wilson prisoner at Glengaber.

The Societies would return to the area again. On 22 December, 1686, they held their thirty-second convention at Wanlockhead, perhaps at the Glengaber site. In 1688, they would hold two more, their thirty-ninth convention at Lowthers and Cogshead, and the forty-first at Glengaber, again, near Wanlockhead.

Linlithgow TolboothLinlithgow Tolbooth

On 10 November, Drummond briefly mentioned to Queensberry the posting of  the Apologetical Declaration on the mercat cross in front of Linlithgow’s imposing tolbooth:

‘On Saturday night [8 November] ther was a declaratione of war batted upon the Cross of Linlithgow. The copie of it is sent to your lordship, by which your lordship sees they are angry, and therfor ________; so your lordship’s presence is most needfull for the setling such measures as may secure the Government for the future—a thing, I think, will be easy, of the propositions now made be folloued out’. (Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch, II, 198.)

Drummond was confident their severe measures would succeed in suppressing the Society people. Others were not so sure.

Viscount TarbetGeorge Mackenzie of Tarbet, Lord Clerk Register

Letter of George Mackenzie of Tarbet, Lord Clerk Register, to Queensberry, 10 November, 1684.

‘Right honourable:—This day the Secret Committee have met, on occasion of a paper affixt on the cross of Linlithgow, declaring war with the Government, and promising to kill us all. […] Since we find that there is a party declaring a war, who lurk within us, we think on a strict enquiry, for all in the nation, who will not forswear these opinions; and especially in Edinburgh; and at any rate to free the kingdom. For [_____?] or halking are judged absolutely insecure. […] we are ordering an enquiry, on oath, in Linlithgow and Borrowstownness concerning this paper.’ (Napier, Memorialls of Viscount Dundee, II, 423-4.)

The Society people’s assassination of two of the King’s Lifeguards at Swine Abbey confirmed Lord Register’s fears. On 20 November, he wrote again to Queensberry:

‘Edinburgh, 20th November, be 10 forenoon.
Right Honourable:—For God’s sake take care of yourself; for now that those villains are at the utmost despair, they will act as devils, to whom they belong. I shall lease to write a long letter, which I intended, for now, I think all other matters are to be left till those wild cats be catched.’ (Napier, Memorialls of Viscount Dundee, II, 424.)

Two months later, a group of Society people would have killed Queensberry’s brother if a blunderbuss had not failed.

Return to HOME PAGE.

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to this post, but do not reblog without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine

~ by drmarkjardine on October 31, 2013.

One Response to “Devils, True Banditti and Catching Wild Cats: The Covenanters, The Killing Times and the Convention at Wanlockhead of 1684”

  1. […] had appeared in the fields after the Black Loch preaching, the conventions near Auchengilloch and Glengaber, and to storm Kirkcudbright tolbooth in 1684, but their appearance had not led country ministers to […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.