The First Blow of a Revolution: The Felling of Mauchline’s Gallows in 1688

Breugel Magpie on Gallows

Almost every revolution begins with an attack on the unpopular or hated symbols of the authority of the state. In Scotland, the felling of the gallows at Mauchline in Ayrshire probably signalled the beginning of the so-called ‘Glorious’ Revolution in 1688 in which a Dutch invasion led by William of Orange overthrew the regime of James VII & II…

On Thursday 8 November, 1688, ‘Jon Wilsone, [in] Spannoach.’ wrote from Kirkconnel close to the Ayrshire/Nithsdale boundary to James Johnstone of Westerhall, an official worried about the state of the kingdom after the Scottish Army had been sent into England:

‘As for that bussines at Machlleine anent the taking doun of the gallowes and that their sould have bein fourscore of armed men at the doing of it, I have spoken with verie honest men who was in Machline at that time and declares that their was noe armed men thair, and that the gallowes was sawen doune in the night time with a saw when no bodie knew of it, and that it is beleivit that it was some of thes peoplls friends who was hangit upon it that did saw it doun.’. (RPCS, XIII, 343-4.)

Westerhall appears to have been concerned by the events at Mauchline.

Map of Mauchline

There is no precise date for the felling of Mauchline’s gallows, but from Wilson’s tone it appears that the incident had taken place not long before 8 November, 1688. Wilson mentioned in the same letter that Alexander Shields, a leader of the Society people, had field preached at Upper Dalveen on 4 November.

It is clear that initial reports had blamed the Society people, aka. the Covenanters, the only group in opposition to the Restoration regime that could put 80 armed men into the field. The timing of the event and the mention that a large armed party had carried it out suggests that the felling of the gallows may have been linked to the movements of the Society people either before, or after, their forty-first convention at Glengaber near Wanlockhead on Wednesday 24 October. A date for the felling in late October broadly fits with the implicit chronology of when the event took place in Wilson’s letter, as it suggests that Westerhall had requested information about it based on reports that armed Society people had carried out the attack.

However, Wilson offers a second explanation for the felling of the gallows. According to Wilson’s sources, ‘honest men’ who had been in Mauchline, ‘the gallowes was sawen doune in the night time with a saw when no bodie knew of it’.

Wilson’s ‘honest men’ link the Society people to the act for a second time: ‘it is beleivit that it was some of thes peoplls friends who was hangit upon it that did saw it doun.’

That is a remarkable piece of testimony, as it may reveal the full significance of what took place at Mauchline gallows.


Who were the people ‘hangit’ upon the gallows?
Mauchline was not a place where the circuit courts of justiciary, which tried capital cases, met, as it was not the head burgh of Ayrshire. The circuit courts could, on rare occasions, order executions to be carried out at a different location from where they sat.

However, it is almost certain that those who were hanged at Mauchline were the five men condemned and executed there by Lieutenant-General William Drummond and a military assize on 5 to 6 May, 1685. They are the only recorded hangings at Mauchline in the Killing Times of the 1680s.

The five men hanged in May, 1685, were Peter Gillies, John Bryce, Thomas Young, William Finnieson and John Brounen, some of whom certainly were Society people.

Wilson’s report offers a degree of corroboration from an official government record that the gallows at Mauchline were connected to the execution of the Society people. The only Society people known to have been executed there are the five men listed above. Their deaths in the Killing Times are only directly recorded in Presbyterian sources. To some extent then, Wilson’s account of the felling of the gallows corroborates the Presbyterian version of events, which some historians have claimed were fabricated due to the lack of corroboration in government sources.

According to Patrick Walker, the five men at Mauchline were ‘hang’d … all up upon one Gibbet’ with no time for prayers, bible reading or speeches. All five were then buried below the gallows, when ‘no coffins were allowed them, nor dead clothes; but the soldiers and two country men made a hole in the earth near by, and cast them all together in it.’ (Walker, BP, I, 260.)

Walker’s account, which was published decades after the hangings, probably indicates that the men were buried soon after their execution, rather than left on the gallows as a symbolic warning against treason.

Mauchline Martyrs

Gravestone of the Mauchline Martyrs

The site of the gallows and their execution was later marked by a gravestone and monumental obelisk, which still stand in Mauchline. Today, the gravestone to them is located in a covered shelter close to the obelisk.

Street View of the monuments to the Mauchline Martyrs

Mauchline Martyrs Obelisk 1885

The site of Execution

Who were the ‘friends’ of the Martyrs?
None of the executed men were from Mauchline or the surrounding locality, as they had been brought there as prisoners from either Muirkirk parish, Lanarkshire or beyond. That suggests that their ‘friends’ had political, rather than personal, motivations for carrying out the act. Mauchline parish was the setting for some activities by the Society people, but probabilty would suggest that those that sawed down the gallows did not personally know the martyrs.

According to Wilson’s letter, over three years after their execution and burial, their “friends” in the Society people had appeared at night and sawed the gallows down. Why did they cut down an empty set of gallows? And why then?

The Society people had previously attacked symbols of royal authority. In 1679, 1680 and 1685, they had imitated the theatre of royal proclamations when they proclaimed their declarations at Rutherglen and Sanquhar prior to military encounters. In 1682, they has burnt acts of parliament and smashed the mercat cross at Lanark with hammers when proclaiming their Lanark Declaration. Their attacks on symbols of authority were relatively rare, compared to their attacks on the more tangible expressions of the authority of the Restoration regime such as government forces and prisons. It is notable that their attacks on the symbols of royal authority took place prior to conflicts, such as before the Bothwell Rising in 1679, Cameron and Cargill’s open campaign of field preachings in 1680 or the Argyll Rising of 1685.

Was there a similar context in 1688? There was. The Societies’ forty-first convention at Glengaber on 24 October was where they had decided to assist, but not join, the expected invasion of William of Orange.

That William was about to invade had been known for well over a month and there was considerable expectation that his invasion force would set sail for somewhere in Britain when the prevailing westerly wind changed direction. Prior to the forty-fourth convention, Alexander Shields recorded in his manuscript memoirs that ‘the wind continoued westerly, contrary to the Prince of Orange expedition, for soe long as the like was rarely ever heard of.’ (Wodrow, Analecta, I, 180-1.)

The expectation that William would sail led some Protestants to become amateur weathermen desperate to know which way the wind blew. As ever, the Lord’s hand was seen in the changing weather patterns. Protestant winds were prayed for. Popish westerlies were cursed.

Dutch Naval Port

The naval port of Hellevoetsluis

The battle of the “Popish” and “Protestant” Winds
Had the winds shifted direction when the gallows were felled? As there is no precise date for when the gallows were cut down there is no way of knowing for sure whether they had changed direction. The evidence suggests that the gallows were attacked, either in the latter half of October, or very early in November, which was when the prevailing westerlie winds that Shields complained of had changed direction. Ten days before the Societies held their forty-first convention, the wind, which had been from the south-west, turned favourably for William of Orange. His fleet departed on the 19 October, only to find that the wind changed again to the north-west and forced his invasion force back to the heavily-fortified port of Hellevoetsluis a couple of days later.

The failure of the initial attempt at invasion was almost certainly not known to the Societies when they met on 24 October, as any information about events in the United Provinces took at least several days with favourable winds to reached Scotland across the North Sea. Finally, on 1 November the wind shifted again in favour of William and the Glorieuze Overtocht, the ‘Glorious Crossing’, was underway. Four days later, he landed at Torbay.

William of Orange Landing Torbay

William of Orange landing at Torbay

The felling of the gallows was probably a symbolic act on the eve of William’s invasion connected with his expected landing. However, it may not have been a straightforward signal of support for William and his Scottish moderate presbyterian allies.

It is possible that Mauchline was deliberately chosen by the Society people for other reasons than that the gallows were a hated symbol of royal authority and the site of martyrdoms. Mauchline had also been the location for the battle of Mauchline Moor in 1648. Today, the battle site can be found in the fields next to the cemetery.

Map of Site of Battle of Mauchline Moor           Street View of Battle Site

In that encounter, the moderate and militant factions of the Covenanters had clashed with each other over the Engagement by the Scottish Parliament to send an army in support of the Charles I. For the Society people, the militants at Mauchline Moor were the first of their people to decisively turn their backs on the authority of the Stewart kings and fight for their Covenanted Reformation. The felling of the gallows at Mauchline may have been designed to send a broader signal to the Society people of the struggle that would ensue after William landed, to arm themselves, and to hold fast to their Covenanted Reformation.

Westerhall was right to be concerned over the felling of Mauchline’s gallows.

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

~ by drmarkjardine on September 30, 2014.

6 Responses to “The First Blow of a Revolution: The Felling of Mauchline’s Gallows in 1688”

  1. Very interesting article, thanks for the inclusion of the Street Map locations, I always find them useful. The Battle of Mauchline Moor sounds like a pretty major, yet unknown, battle given the size of the forces. Is there a more detailed description available that outlines how the battle played out other than just a general description of the location?

  2. […] Posted at Jardine’s Book of Martyrs: […]

  3. […] of the King James and his pretensions to absolute monarchy. Within months the Revolution of 1688 would break out in Scotland. Was it the King who was being compared to a nag? We do not […]

  4. […] Mauchline parish also had an indulged minister, James Veitch, who had returned under James VII’s edicts of toleration. It was also where the gallows were felled in early November. […]

  5. […] is worth noting that the gallows at Mauchline were chopped down by unknown assailants in November, 1688, in what was probably the first act of the Revolution in […]

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