Tales of Drunkenness and Cruelty in 1685: Lag’s Shooting of the Kirkconnell Martyrs

Tales of Grierson of Lag’s role in the Killing Times abound in South West and influenced Sir Walter Scott to create his character Redgauntlet, a ruthless Jacobite.

Darsie saved and removed by Redgauntlet Eugène_Lepoittevin 1806-1870

The following story is about Lag and the shooting of the Kirkconnell Martyrs in Tongland parish, Kirkcudbrightshire. The ‘tradition’ is found in Historical and Traditional Tales in Prose and Verse, Connected with the South of Scotland (1843) and was composed by a native of Twynholm parish who edited the volume, possibly John Nicolson. As with all ‘traditions’, it is not clear how it relates to historical fact. The tradition was recorded nearly 160 years after the events it purports to describe. The story mainly concerns Lag’s journey to the place where the five martyrs were shot on Kirkconnell Moor.



Confident that an affectionate regard to the memory of our Presbyterian martyrs is still warm in the bosom of their descendants, the Editor has been encouraged to draw up the following narrative of a transaction which occurred in Tongland, his native parish, in the humble hope that it will be found not altogether destitute of interest.

In February 1685 Sir Robert Grierson of Lagg, attended by Colonel [James] Douglas in command of detachments of Claverhouse’s troop of horse and Strachan’s dragoons, after having levied heavy contributions in Wigtownshire, left the County-town early on the morning of the 20th of that month to proceed to Dumfries. (Historical and Traditional Tales, 431.)

Lagg and the soldiers left Wigtown and headed east into Kirkcudbrightshire. Soon after the inn at Gatehouse of Fleet they lost their way near Irelandton Moor.

Map of Wigtown

Gatehouse of Fleet lies by Anwoth parish, the home of one of those who would be killed by Lagg, John Bell of Whiteside.

If the story is true, Lagg and Douglas would have crossed the old wooden bridge (built in 1610 and repaired 1661) over the Fleet, which lay where the modern bridge is erected.

Map of Gatehouse of Fleet

‘The party having reached Gatehouse of Fleet, then a lone public-house, in the afternoon, halted to bait their horses and refresh themselves. Some hours were consumed in supplying the wants of so unusual an influx of guests; so that, before orders were given to remount, the night was fast closing in. Their route lay across a dreary tract of country, which appeared to [>432] them still more desolate through the gloom of night But the horses being much invigorated by their recent halt pushed steadily forward; and their riders having liberally patronized mine host’s brandy, trolled a song or cracked a joke to enliven them on the way. They passed the Cairns of Enrick, and had entered on the Irelandton moor, where a dense fog rolling upwards from the Borgue shore deprived them of the little twilight which remained.’ (Historical and Traditional Tales, 431-2.)

Irelandton Moor lay to the east of of the inn at Gatehouse of Fleet. The Cairns of Enrick probably refers to the two burial cairns on top of Cairntop Hill.

Map of Cairntop

The narrative implies that the tipsy soldiers took a wrong turn.

‘Slackening their speed, they threw the reins on their horses’ necks, and trusted to their sagacity to carry them through the mosses and haggs which obstructed their progress through the moor. After proceeding some time in this cautious way, they found the difficulties of the road increase, and at last the leaders became apprehensive that they had wandered from the track. Lagg was consulting one of his officers on the expediency of sending back some of the men to Gatehouse for a guide, when a trooper rode up and reported that he saw a light a little to the left. Cheered by this intelligence, they spurred briskly on and soon arrived at the house from which the light proceeded.

The house belonged to a small mailen or farm, called the Gordon-Cairn, and was tenanted by Gabriel Rain.’ (Historical and Traditional Tales, 432.)

Cairn near Irelandton‘Gordon-Cairn’/Cairn of Enrick © Chris Newman and licensed for reuse.

‘Gordon-Cairn’ may refer to Gordon’s Cairn, which lies beside Mayfield. On the original OS map of the 1840s to 1850s it is marked ‘shepherds’.

Map of Gordon’s Cairn

However, the journey in the narrative clearly points to the remote farm of Cairn, on the west side of Irelandton Moor, as ‘Gordon-Cairn’. On Thomson’s map of the 1830s, the farm of Cairn is called Cairn of Enrick. It lies in Girthon parish, Kircudbrightshire. Today, it lies to the left hand side of the road travelling east.

Map of Cairn [of Enrick]

‘The only inmates on that night were Gabriel and his wife, an aged and frail couple. As soon as the old man heard the tramp of the horses, [>433.] he told his wife to stir up the fire, that a strong light might be thrown from the window, while he himself went to the door. Before he had recovered from his surprise at seeing so many horsemen, Lagg demanded with a gruff voice, if they were on the right road for Dumfries. “Na, gentlemen,” said the old man, “ye’re clean aff the road for Dumfries, but ye’ll get on’t again, if ye haud weel to the knowe-tap down by, and then turn to yer—–” “We want something else than directions;” said Lagg impatiently, “we have wasted too much time already on your cursed moor. You must come with us and point out the road.” Gabriel tried to excuse himself on account of his age and infirmities. “Pull the old carle up behind you,” cried Lagg to one of the troopers; “if he will not walk, he shall ride.” Gabriel begged to be allowed to walk, and offered to go with them till they came within sight of Calfarran, where they would find some body more able then he was to guide them. Lagg assented to this, they again moved on, and in a short time the old man pointed out the lights of Calfarran. On taking his leave of them he bade them “haud straight for the lichts, an’ five minutes wad bring them to the farm house.”’ (Historical and Traditional Tales, 432-3.)

‘Calfarran’ appears to refer to a location close to Kilfern Hill, perhaps Carse, which lies directly across Irelandton Moor from Cairn. ‘Calfarran’ lay in Twynholm parish. The route taken by Lagg across the moor passed close to the home of Robert Lennox of Irelandton who would be shot by Lagg’s party.

Map of Kilfern Hill and Carse

‘Without ceremony the officers of the party entered the house [at ‘Calfarran’], which was a small thatched cottage, when they found the gudeman Thomas Clinton, seated in the midst of his family. [>434.] Being made acquainted with the purport of their visit, “Atweel,” said Thomas, “ye’re no aboon a bowshot aff the road. I’ll put ye on’t, but ye’ll have to gang doon the spoot o’ Auchentalloch—-a road I’m no unco fond o’ mysel’ in the clud o’ nicht. But you sodgers hae nae fear o’ God or deevil.”’ (Historical and Traditional Tales, 433-4.)

The glen of the Spout of Achentallach lies to the east of Kilfern Hill.

Map of Spout of Achentallach

‘Thomas was a shrewd fellow, but this ambiguous compliment was ill-timed, and was far from being relished by his visitors. Whatever were his reasons, Lagg seems to have altered his intention of proceeding direct to Dumfries, and begin to question Clinton closely about his neighbours. Among other interrogatories he asked him if he knew Mayfield.’ (Historical and Traditional Tales, 434.)

David Halliday, portioner of Mayfield, was a forfeited fugitive from Twynholm parish.

‘“O aye,” said Thomas, whose suspicions were now fully aroused by the drift of the questions, “I ken Mayfield and the man that’s in’t too: but ye’re far frae it, and a coarse road it’s tae’t. Ye canna gang there the nicht.”—-“Be the way as rough and crooked as the Covenanter’s road to heaven,” said Lagg, “I go there tonight, and you shall guide us.” Looking around, he continued: “Whose blue bonnet is that?— And what old book is that?—your family Bible!—I have heard enough of the disaffection in this quarter; so clap that rebel bonnet on your head, and instantly accompany us to the Whigamoor at Mayfield, and,” added he, pointing significantly to his pistol belt,—“beware lest ye trifle with me.”’ (Historical and Traditional Tales, 434.)

From Lagg’s line of march from ‘Calfarran’ it is clear that Mayfield lay about two miles to the north of Clinton’s home via Birchford Moss.

‘Thomas Clinton was a Covenanter, but none of the strictest of that sect, having no ex- [>435.] tra zeal for the honours of martyrdom. Thinking it excusable to temporize with the ministers of Satan, he shewed much alacrity in complying with the demands of Lagg: and in a short time the whole party set forward on their way to Mayfield, a distance of about two miles. On passing the Birkford moss one of the officers proposed that their guide should give them a song.’ (Historical and Traditional Tales, 434-5.)

Map of Birchford Moss

Birchford MossBirchford Moss © James Bell and licensed for reuse.

‘Thomas declared he could not sing, but volunteered a tale to amuse them on the way. The other, however, insisted on his singing. “Weel,” said Thomas, “I’ll e’en do the best I can; but ye maun tell me what kin’ o’ sang to gi’e—whether it maun be a Whig or a Tory ane,”—“O damn your whig songs,” replied the officer, “give us ‘Awa, Whigs, awa.’” This was just what Thomas wanted; so he began as follows, some of the soldiers joining in chorus.

Our thistles flourished fresh and fair,
An’ bonnie bloom’d our roses,
But Whigs cam like a frost in June,
An’ wither’d a’ our posies.
Awa, Whigs, awa, awa, Whigs, awa,
Ye’re but a pack o’ lousie dogs,
Ye’il ne’er do gude ava’.

Our sad decay in kirk and state,
Surpasses my descriving;
The Whigs cam’ ‘mang us for a curse,
An’ we hae dune wi’ thriving.
Awa, Whigs, awa, &c.

* * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * *

[>436.] The deil sat grim amang the reek,
Thrang bundling brunstane matches;
An’ croon’d ‘mang the beuk-taking Whigs,
Scraps of auld Calvin’s catches!
Awa, Whigs, awa, awa, Whigs, awa,
Yell run me out o’ wun spunks,
Awa, Whigs, awa, &c.

As they drew near Mayfield he raised his voice to its highest pitch, in hopes that the Hallidays might receive warning of their approach. Nor was he disappointed. For, on entering the house, the door of which was open, they found it deserted. A large peat fire was blazing on the floor, several dishes of oat meal brose smoking on a table; and sticks, bonnets, and chairs in confusion about the apartment. Lagg seeing the house in that condition, exclaimed, “damn the dogs! they have been here, but were alarmed by the singing of that old rebel.” One of the troopers drew his sword, and would have run him through, but Lagg interfered and said, “no, be he loyal or rebel he was compelled to sing.”

Considering a successful pursuit impracticable in the dark, Lagg resolved to remain all night at Mayfield, and search for the fugitives in the morning. He therefore gave orders to provide for the horses and men in the best way circumstances would admit: and then, being considerably fatigued took a seat by the fire. In the meantime Thomas Clinton displayed the utmost readiness in pointing out the different out-houses, suggesting [>437.] how the horses should be disposed of, and in short doing every thing in his power for the accommodation of all. Thrown completely off their guard by the apparent fidelity of their guide, no one thought it necessary to watch his motions. Thomas had anticipated this result, and now taking advantage of their remissness made his escape out of the hands of the Philistines.

By day-break on the Following morning Lagg and his party were in their saddles. Their line of march was for Dumfries; but the troopers were ordered to disperse, to question whomsoever they met, and examine all houses and other probable places of concealment. In going over Kirkconnel Moor, under the shelter of a rock, the main body came upon the unfortunate men who had fled from Mayfield on the preceding night. They were five in number, and consisted of David Halliday, portioner of Mayfield, John Bell of Whiteside, step-son of the then Lord Kenmure, Robert Lennox, tenant of Irelandton, James Clement, and Andrew M’Robert.

On this occasion Grierson of Lagg seems to have been animated with even more than his wonted ferocity. No resistance had been offered by the unfortunate men now in his power: but their submission only provoked him to add insult to cruelty. When John Bell begged him to allow them a short time for prayer, Lagg unfeelingly answered, “What the devil have you been doing so [>438.] many years among the hills that you now pray for time to shrive yourselves? And thereupon discharged his pistol at his breast— a signal which was instantly followed by the massacre of his companions.’ (Historical and Traditional Tales, 435-8.)

Map of Martyrs’ Monument and Clement’s Grave.

John Clements Grave KirkconnellJohn Clement’s Grave © Sue King-Smith and licensed for reuse.

‘David Halliday was interred in Balmaghie churchyard, John Bell in Anwoth churchyard, and Robert Lennox in the churchyard of Girthon, Andrew M’Robert in Twynholm churchyard, and James Clement was buried in Kirkconnel moor [in Tongland parish] near the spot where they fell.

To fortifie the faithe thay tuke na feir,
Afoir princes acting right prudently;
Of dolorous deith they doutit not the deir,
The veritie declaring fervently.
And martyrdome thay sufferit paciently;
Thay tuke na cure of lands, riches, nor rent,
Doctrine and deith war bath aquivalent.
Sir David Lindsay.’ (Historical and Traditional Tales, 438.)

The Kirkconnell tradition in Historical and Traditional Tales was recycled byFergusson in The Laird of Lag: A Life Sketch (1891), 47-51.

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

~ by drmarkjardine on May 26, 2014.

One Response to “Tales of Drunkenness and Cruelty in 1685: Lag’s Shooting of the Kirkconnell Martyrs”

  1. we have just returned from a visit to Gatehouse(fortunate enough to have my sister living there now so more visits planned!) and found the memorial stone in Anwoth churchyard for John Bell of Whiteside- it was such a fantastic piece of reading and workmanship that i was compelled to research the story- hence my comment here-many thanks to the author for broadening my knowledge!

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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.