New Evidence of Two Martyred Covenanters: John Barrie in Strathaven and John Smith in Newmilns
Because the histories of the martyrs are fragmented, new evidence, no matter how small it appears, can make a signficant difference as to how their stories are told.
The evidence is found in the manuscript of the spiritual autobiography of James Nisbet, the son of John Nisbet of Hardhill, in Loudoun parish, Ayrshire. (See above, and to the left of Newmilns.)
James Nisbet was active in the Societies. Unlike his father, Nisbet survived the repression of the 1680s and became a captain of the garrison at Edinburgh Castle.
Under 1685, when he was aged sixteen, Nisbet records:
‘In the months of January and February, there was a wicked oath forced through this kingdom, especially through the five western shires with much vigourous diligence, called the oath of Abjuration, and everyone that swore this oath, was obliged to have a testificate from the Judge that administered the oath to them, as an evidence of their loyalty and conformity to the Laws of the then government and all the military were empowered to examine every person they met with and shoot to death every person that wanted this pass and mark of sinful compliance, and so eager were they in putting their orders in execution, that they shot severals to death who had that pass, lest they should come short in their measure of Cruelty; towit a Beggar in Galloway John Barryen Evandale, John Smith in Newmills, a young lad of 14 years of age near to Cumnock, and two others whose names I have forgot.’ (Narrative of James Nisbet, 61.)
To begin with, let us examine the martyrs named by Nisbet.
‘John Barryen’ is John Barrie, Shields records that Barrie was summarily executed, either in Evandale, or in that parish. He is said to have had a pass when he was executed by Cornet Peter Inglis or Captain John Inglis, although it may have been a fake one.
‘John Smith in Newmills’ must be John Smith “in Cronan”, rather than the John Smith buried at Muirkirk. Very little is known about Smith’s story. Shields simply records that he was shot by Cornet Peter Inglis somewhere in Cunninghame. Later tradition claims that he was shot for helping fugitives and that he came from Cronan, a farm near Newmilns. No grave exists for Smith, which is unusual for a martyr recorded by Shields in 1690.
Nisbet’s evidence about Smith is important for two reasons. First, it corroborates the claim made by Shields that he was killed. Second, is the only historical evidence that geographically links Shields’ evidence of the John Smith killed in Cunningham to the later tradition about Smith in Cronan, Newmilns and Cronan lie in the same parish.
Nisbet’s claim that he knew ‘two others whose names I have forgot’ may imply that he knew both John Smith and John Barrie. Both Smith and Nisbet were from Loudoun parish, which includes Newmilns. Barry appears to have come from Kilbride parish, but was killed in a neighbouring parish to Loudoun. The deaths of Barrie and Smith both involved the garrison at Newmilns Tower under Captain John Inglis and his son, Cornet Peter Inglis. At least with the named individuals, Nisbet appears to have relayed information about local martyrs. In other words, he is a good source for them.
His explanation that Smith was shot even though he had a testificate/pass is different from the one offered in later tradition. His evidence is more reliable in historical terms than that of the later tradition.
The implication of Smith possessing a pass is that he had taken the Abjuration oath that renounced the Societies’ war of assassinations against their persecutors in January or February, 1685. That implies that Smith was not a member of the Societies. The later tradition about Smith in Cronan claims that he was killed for assisting fugitives/escapees, rather than him being a fugitive, may imply that he was sympathetic to the Society people, but not one of them. The small farm at Cronan was connected to one of the Society people, Peter Aird, who was a fugitive in 1685. Smith may have taken on the farm, or worked on it, after Aird became a fugitive.
The other summary executions that Nisbet mentions cannot be pinned down, but my guesses on who they may be will be forthcoming.
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