The Wigtown Martyrs: The 1861 Memorandum, Hoax or History?

Darsie saved and removed by Redgauntlet Eugène_Lepoittevin 1806-1870

Is the document below about the case of the Wigtown Martyrs a hoax or genuine? Such is the historical controversy surrounding the drowning of the two women in 1685 that almost everything connected to the case has been contested, challenged or accused of being a fabrication by those who are sceptical of the veracity of their deaths. However, in this particular case, they may well have a point…

What follows is an initial investigation into the circumstance surrounding the Memorandum of 1861. I hope others can help to reveal more about the document.

The following article appeared in the Dumfries and Galloway Courier of 20th, or 26th, March, 1861 and was reproduced in published works in 1870, 1877, 1886 and 1916: The problem with the article is that, so far, the original document has not been traced…

The elements of published article were as follows:

‘I, Margaret Wilson, residing in Wigtown, do hereby solemnly and sincerely declare, that the late Mr. William M’Adam, of Woodside, called upon me soon after I came to Wigtown, and read over the annexed paper, and said that his grandfather gave it to him, saying that it was a copy of the petition written by himself, signed by him and others, and forwarded to Parliament, against Sir Robert Grierson of Lagg, as stated therein, and that his grandfather was married to one of the Wilsons of Glenvernock.
“(Signed), Margaret Wilson.”
“Declared before me at Wigtown this 14th day of March 1861.
(Signed) Thomas Murray, Sheriff-Substitute of Wigtownshire.”

The following is the paper referred to in the above declaration:—

“Memorandum anent ane Petition to be presented to the Parliament against Sir Robert Grierson of Lagge.

“Sir Robert having in the late evill times the command of several troops of dragoons, and being Steuart of the Steuartry of Kirkcudbright does, without any process or sentance of law, cause comite severall barbrous and inhuman murders, and that upon no other account but upon church irregularities, and does execute his fury against this poor people in such a manner as cannot well be expressed. A particular account of all his barbarities is not designed in this place, but only such of them as are most notour and deserve best the consideration of the honourable states of Parliament, which are as follows;—

“1st. Sir Robert, after he had apprehended two women to wit, Margaret Lauchlison and Margaret Wilson — upon no other account but for alleged nonconformity, did, without any conviction or sentence, cause bind them to a stake within the sea-mark at Wigtoune till the flood returning drowned them both, and that without any consideration of the age of the one or the youth of the other, and the said Margaret Lauchlison being above 63 years of age, and the other 18 years old. This was done in the month of May 1685.”’

Unfortunately, that is where the published version of the document ends when it was reproduced in later published sources. Does it continue in the Dumfries and Galloway Courier? If anyone can find the article, that would be a step forward.

The Dumfries and Galloway Courier was a liberal paper founded in 1809 and published weekly.

Presumably, the memorandum went on to list the other alleged crimes by Robert Grierson of Lag. However, until the Courier article or the original document is found, we will not know how, or if, it continued.

From the description above, it appears that Margaret Wilson, who may have been related to the Wilsons in Glenvernock and the drowned martyr Margaret Wilson, lived in Wigtown in 1861. If anyone knows how, or if, Margaret Wilson was related to the Wilsons in Glenvernock, it would be fascinating to know.

It was she who took the unusual step of registering the document with Thomas Murray, Sheriff-Substitute of Wigtownshire, a week or more before it appeared in the Dumfries and Galloway Courier in 1861.

Does the document survive in the court records of Wigtownshire in the National Archives of Scotland? It would be interesting to know.

At some point, apparently before 1858, and soon after Margaret Wilson ‘came’ to Wigtown, she was visited by ‘Mr. William M’Adam, of Woodside’. He is probably the William McAdam in Woodside, who is recorded as ‘a landed proprietor’ in 1851. In 1836, McAdam built a house on Bladnoch Road in Wigtown, which was later known as Woodside.

William McAdam was born at Cairnfield in Kirkinner parish on 31st July, 1775.

Map of Cairnfield

He died on 4th October, 1858, aged 83 years. McAdam’s grave is found in Kirkinner churchyard.

His house was called Brunt House at his death in 1858, but was called Woodside Cottage in the 1861 Census, when his wife and widow, Elizabeth McClelland McAdam, was recorded. In later census reports and since it is simply known as Woodside. It is possible that the house was named after Woodside in Kirkinner parish. Was Woodside in Kirkinner parish the property held by McAdam?

Woodside in Kirkinner parish lay to the north-west of, and close to, Cairnfield.

Map of Woodside

McAdam was the son of William McAdam (1738-1804) and Margaret McCredie (1735-1831).

William McAdam the elder’s parents were John McAdam (1706-1763) and Margaret Wilson (1702-1776).

On their grave in Kirkinner parish churchyard they were described as ‘John McAdam late tenant in Cairnfield and Culbae who died 29 July Anno 1763 aged 58 years. Also of his wife Margt Wilson who died 4th July Anno 1776.’

Cairnfield and Culbae lie next to each other in Kirkinner parish.

Map of Culbae

Ciarnfield and Culbae lie about a mile south-west of Drumjargon, the former home of the other Wigtown martyrs, Margaret McLachlan.

Map of Drumjargon

According to the recorded document of 1861, William McAdam’s ‘grandfather was married to one of the Wilsons of Glenvernock’. The Margaret Wilson (d.1776) who was married to John McAdam was possibly the daughter of Thomas Wilson (d. post c.1717), the fugitive brother of the martyr, Margaret Wilson (d.1685), and the only recorded son of the martyr’s father. According to Wodrow, Thomas Wilson was alive when he wrote his account of the drownings and willing to vouch for all he had written. Wodrow adds that at the time that he composed his history, that Thomas Wilson had finally occupied his ‘father’s room’, which presumably means that he held Glenvernoch in Penninghame parish in the early eighteenth century.

Map of Glenvernock

A Fatal Flaw?
There is, however, a major flaw in what Margaret Wilson reported in 1861. According to Wilson, in her conversation with William McAdam, he ‘said that his grandfather gave it [i.e., the memorandum] to him’. William McAdam (b.1775) could never have met his grandfather, who died in 1763. He could have received the document via his father (d.1804) or grandmother, Margaret Wilson (d.1776), but he could not have received it directly from his grandfather. It is possible that the record of the conversation, which allegedly took at least three years before it was legally recorded in 1861, is inaccurate. However, it is a major, and perhaps fatal, flaw in the provenance of the document.

Unless either the original document, or a record of the petition, is discovered, the trail of the document will end there. It is possible that the original of the ‘Memorandum anent ane Petition’ is held in the court records of Wigtownshire, or still held privately. Otherwise, it is not wise to believe everything you read in newspapers.

The Petition to Parliament
According to Wilson in 1861, McAdam’s grandfather said ‘that it was a copy of the petition written by himself, signed by him and others’.

If the document ever reappears, the name of John McAdam should be subscribed to it. The others who subscribed it are not identified in the later published versions of the Courier article. Presumably it was sent on behalf of those who were kin to the martyrs killed by Lag, or at least kin to Margaret Wilson.

The petition is said to have been ‘forwarded to Parliament, against Sir Robert Grierson of Lagg, as stated therein’

If we accept that John McAdam (1706-1763) subcribed the petition, then the document almost certainly post dates his marriage to Margaret Wilson (1702-1776), which was almost certainly after 1724.

The late date for the document indicates that it was drafted, at least, nearly forty years after the women were drowned in 1685. The other surprising element is that it is said to have been sent to the Westminster parliament, as it was created after the Union of 1707. Does any record of it exists in the records of Westminster?

The document, as presently reproduced, offers no reason why it was produced. Sir Robert Grierson of Lag, “Auld Lag”, was still alive in the 1720s and involved endeavours to obtain a pardon. As Lag died in 1733, the alleged petition presumably does not postdate that point.

That time frame for the alleged petition seems reasonably secure, unless, of course, there are further flaws in the information recorded by Wilson in 1861 or somewhere in the genealogical record.

Napier, the historian who has done the most to challenge the veracity of the deaths of the Wigtown Martyrs, was scathing in his condemnation of the document. As the above demonstrates, he may have had a point. However, Napier, like almost everyone else, appears to have had absolutely no idea about where the petition had come from or when it was allegedly produced. (Napier, History Rescued in Answer to History Vindicated, cxxxvii.)

Napier and virtually anyone who has studied the Wigtown case appears to have assumed that the petition, if it existed, related to events in Scotland at around the time of the Revolution in 1688 to 1690. However, the surprise for historians appears to be that it may date to over thirty years later and to Westminster.

In some ways, the late date for the document is not a surprise, as the petition recycles the content of earlier narrative sources and, its present form, adds nothing to our knowledge of the drowning. That should give anyone interested in the Wigtown case pause for thought, as the one potentially interesting thing about it, in its present form, is that it claims that a potential descendant of the Wilsons in Glenvernock, only one generation removed from the martyr, was married to the author of it. She and her husband may have blamed Lag for the drowning of Margaret Wilson, but they appear not to have added one word of original information.

Is it a nineteenth-century hoax, or is it a genuine piece of evidence? More information is required to say for sure, but the number of rabbit holes down which this document disappears does encourage scepticism.

If you have any information on the 1861 document, please get in touch.

Return to Homepage

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 December 4, 2014.

25 Responses to “The Wigtown Martyrs: The 1861 Memorandum, Hoax or History?”

  1. Mark-

    1. the texts you mention are also in ‘Galloway and the Covenanters’ A S Morton (Paisdley, 1914) pp.431/2. Online at

    2. The Dumfries and Galloway Courier, now Dumfries Courier is still publishing. Dumfries and Galloway Libraries have microfiche copies of local newspapers for 19th century. I will check in Castle Douglas Library tomorrow and see if I can find the 1861 source.

  2. Quote “1. the texts you mention are also in ‘Galloway and the Covenanters’ A S Morton (Paisdley, 1914) pp.431/2. Online at

    What a fabulous source, it outlines how the argument has consistently been made and history distorted. Honestly beggars all belief. To quote from it;

    “Proof of Martyrdom shown by (1) Tradition, (2) Early Pamphlets, (3) Earlier Histories, (4) Minutes of Local Church Courts, (5) Monumental Evidence.” p.406

    So, to paraphrase;

    (1) Questionable hearsay, (2) propaganda sheets produced for the purpose of advancing a cause, (3) Narrative accounts of the (1) questionable hearsay – Thompson & Defoe, it specifically claims, (4) attempts 25 years after the event to write (1) questionable hearsay into Church – and therefore the public – record, and (5) monuments erected at least 30 years after the events that are based on the supposition that (1) through (4) are self evident truths!!!

    Quite astonishing the lot of it. No wonder it frustrated Napier, a man of law and truths!

    So, to repeat, marvellous research Mark these gems – no sarcasm intended whatsoever – are fascinating. I do however think that the timing of this newspaper story may have far more to do with attempts to refute the work of Napier and certain parties trying to discredit his assertions, than face value suggests? I would be interested in your thoughts on the timing.

    No matter how much “tradition”, how many “conclusive documents” that conveniently appear in the mid 19th century, only to then are “mysteriously” lost again or how many accusatory monuments litter the South West. Without real, verifiable, contemporary documents we still must conclude that no evidence exists to show that they were not pardoned and that it cannot be proved that this drowning event occurred.

    I do appreciate that you are searching for proof. Hence the request for readers to follow up leads. I wholeheartedly support this. My biggest concern is that until such time as anything conclusive can be proved, we should really be saying it is highly probable that this is a case of early propaganda and as such should be considered untrue and unsafe. The event should be proved before it is allowed to form an integral part of the history of the killing times, not the other way around.


  3. Bad news- the Castle Douglas Library microfiche of the Dumfries and Galloway Courier only goes back to 1865.

    • ahhhh, it is always the way. Right now, I’m getting into the Kirkinner and Penninghame session records, We only get edited highlights, but the full record must tell us more about the martyrdoms.

  4. Excellent work alistairliv. Could you please clarify your findings though? When did the Dumfries & Galloway Courier actually begin publishing? Could you find any reason why there is nothing pre 1865? What is the earliest edition number they have on microfiche? Is 1865 the earliest microfiche for any publication, or just the D & G C?

    Mark, would we not be better using a phrase like “claimed martyrdoms” or similar until we find some actual proof?

  5. […] Grierson of Lagge’, c.1724 to 1733. The final potential source for the judges in the trial is an alleged petition apparently sent, or intended to be sent, to Westminster, perhaps between 1724 to 1733. The latter […]

  6. Is this petition not the one referred to in Fergusson’s ‘The Laird of Lag’ (1886)?:

    “The draft of a petition exists, in which
    the writer prays that as the ‘Estates of Parliament have been at a great deall of pains in vindicating the honoure and justice of the nation in the mater of Glencoe so the Estates may give commission to such persons as they shall think fit for apprehending and receiving the person of the above-mentioned Lagg, till judgment may be execute upon him.’

    This paper is headed ‘Memorandum anent a
    petition to be presented to the Parliament against Sir Robert Grierson of Lagge ; ‘ it is not signed by the petitioner, and it is not known if it ever was presented. In it special reference is made to the case of ‘Marget Lauchlison ‘ and ‘ Marget Wilson’; and to that of Mr. Bell of Whiteside and his companions in misfortune.”

    Sounds like the same petition to me.

    So the document, if authentic, was composed shortly after Glencoe; it went on to mention Bell of Whiteside; and it was never signed or even perhaps presented. I suspect a forgery, but as Fergusson doesn’t give his source for the document it’s difficult to be sure.

    • Wow! LB. Now that is utterly fascinating information. I am going to have to look that up right now. For years, I have wondered about the Memorandum and never found it. Amazed. Mark

    • Truly, you live and learn!

      • Luckily it’s digitised on Unfortunately all that he quotes is what I’ve reproduced above, but it does add the Glencoe stuff as well as the detail about it being unsigned.

        I wonder where he got hold of it? As Sir Alexander Grierson is top of his list of thanks at the start of the book, perhaps a copy was amongst the Grierson papers?

        For the record, I think the evidence still points to the executions taking place, I’m just unsure about this petition.

      • Hi LB,
        It is a little frustrating that the Memorandum does not have a date, but it appears to have been issued after the Glencoe inquiry of 1695. Almost as though it may have been anti-Jacobite propaganda. I wish we could find this to actually see what it says in full and check its veracity. One thing does spring to mind, the date – apparently post 1695 – is early when compared to the story of it being handed down from a grandfather. One suspects the granfather story is in some way inaccurate.
        The post 1695 date is fascinating as it is very early. By that time, only Shields (in 1690 and Ridpath who copied Shields in 1693) had published any account of the drownings.

        The inclusion of Bell of Whiteside and those killed with him is also a line worth following.

      • I think you are right, Fergusson does seem to have seen the Memorandum, probably at some point between 1880 to 1886.

      • Is the section on the drownings pretty much taken from Shields (1690)? No!

      • Been thinking on it

        It is worth comparing the text of the Memorandum with the early sources.

        Text of Memorandum:
        “1st. Sir Robert, after he had apprehended two women to wit, Margaret Lauchlison and Margaret Wilson — upon no other account but for alleged nonconformity, did, without any conviction or sentence, cause bind them to a stake within the sea-mark at Wigtoune till the flood returning drowned them both, and that without any consideration of the age of the one or the youth of the other, and the said Margaret Lauchlison being above 63 years of age, and the other 18 years old. This was done in the month of May 1685.”’

        The text of Shields in 1690:
        “Item, The said Col: or Liev: Gen: James Dowglas, together with the Laird of Lag, and Capt: Winram, most illegally condemn-ed, and most inhumanely drown-ed at Stakes within the Sea mark, two Women at Wigtoun; viz: Margaret Lauchlan, upward of 60 years and Margaret Wilson, about 20: years of age, the forsaid fatal year, 1685.”

        Ridpath in 1693:
        ‘The said Col. [Douglas] together with the Laird of Lag, and Capt. Winram, did illegally condemn, and inhumanly drown Margaret Lauchlan, upward of sixty years old, and Margaret Wilson about twenty, at Wigton, fastening them to stakes within the sea-mark; all this in 1685.’

        Note the memorandum gives a month – May – where Shields/Ridpath do not.
        Cloud of Witnesses gave a date of 11 May, but that was only published in 1714.

        The first written source to give a date is the Penninghame Kirk Session on 19 Feb, 1711. It says she was 18 and executed on ‘the Eleventh day of May 1685’

        It appears that the Memorandum has things in common with the gravestone/Penninghame record for Margaret Wilson. They both say she was 18. However, the grave stone does NOT give a date of May!

        If the Memorandum was from c.1695, it would be the first document to date the drownings to May and give Margaret Wilson’s age as 18.

        If it was from later in the 1720s, as the story of it being handed down from the grandfather suggests, then there is nothing new in it.

        Obviously, the passage on Glencoe suggests the earlier date:
        ‘Estates of Parliament have been at a great deall of pains in vindicating the honoure and justice of the nation in the mater of Glencoe so the Estates may give commission to such persons as they shall think fit for apprehending and receiving the person of the above-mentioned Lagg, till judgment may be execute upon him.’

      • Hi,

        Like you I had the suspicion that this is an early bit of anti-Jacobite pamphleteering as much as anything else. However, to look at the positives:

        I think Fergusson undoubtedly saw a copy of the original, due to the apparent extra material, and the comment that it was ‘unsigned’ (the newspaper presented it in the context of being signed). That increases the chances of finding a surviving copy!

        The Glencoe reference is particularly interesting – “have been at a great deall of pains”, that wording suggests the inquest is ongoing or recently finished. If authentic then it is early, as you say, which one the one hand disproves the ‘grandfather’ link, but also places it close to the actual events, and within a time when most of those involved with the actual judicial processes were alive.

        It seems possible that Fergusson obtained his documentation from one of those he thanked at the start. My money’s on Grierson – elsewhere in the book, Fergusson talks about Lag’s funeral expenses, which must surely be from the Grierson estate papers, and it seems that Grierson also showed him such things as family books in which Lag himself had written marginal notes.

      • Yep, Lag papers. Now, where are those papers?

      • They were nearly all alive in 1695.

      • The last paras here deal with Lag title and estates

      • If the Memorandum can be found AND dated, that would be a major step forward. I have answers to just about every other problem with regards to the Wigtown case which I have not put online, yet. If the Memorandum is from 1695, that is a pretty significant change in our understanding, as the timeline for key parts of the information moves from 1711 to 1695.

      • I looked at the Dumfries and Galloway archives catalogue and the Ewart Library in Dumfries has four boxes of Lag estate papers – catalogued apparently:

        Ref NoEGD32
        Call Number EGD32
        Repository Ewart Library
        Title Grierson of Lag Papers
        Scope&Content Papers of the family of Grierson of Lag
        Format Manuscript
        Extent 4 boxes

        Might be worth dropping them a line – no guarantees it’s in there, but it could be.

      • Will do!

      • This one is good.

  7. What were those “bad names” I wonder?

    I suppose one point about the petition, or proposal for a petition, is that it seems far more likely people would go after Lag in c. 1695 than in 1720 or so. The document makes far more sense overall in this context.

    I also think the reference to a Parliament and Glencoe is, whatever the exact date of the document, firm grounds for dating the memorandum before 1707. This means it certainly predates the kirk session record.

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.

%d bloggers like this: