The Way from Wigtown’s Gallows Hill

Where were the three Covenanters executed ‘at Wigtown’ in the summer of 1685 actually hanged? At first sight, the answer appears stunningly simple. They must have been hanged in Wigtown. However, the answer to precisely where they were hanged is a little more complex than that and opens up a new dimension to their story…

Wigtown Three

The Martyrs’ Graves at Wigtown © Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse.

Today, the grave of the three men – William Johnston, John McIlroy and George Walkerlies in the parish churchyard in the burgh, but how they came to be interred there is almost certainly not a straightforward story of execution in the burgh and burial in the graveyard.

First, executed criminals were not permitted to be interred in kirkyards, they were generally buried below the gallows or somewhere outside of the burgh, but within the burgh lands.

Second, nonresidents of a parish were generally buried in their home parish. At least two of the three hanged men were from the neighbouring parish of Penninghame, but they are buried there.

Those two points raise an interesting question: when were the three men buried in the churchyard? The answer to that is not clear. Their gravestone is dated 1685, but that date refers to when they were executed, rather than to when they were buried there. The similar form, style and inscription content of Wigtown stone when compared to other Covenanter gravestones, clearly indicates that the Wigtown headstone was erected in the first half of the eighteenth century, rather than in 1685.

The excavation of their grave and the erection of the headstone did not take place at the same time. Again if we compare their stone at Wigtown to other Covenanters’ gravestones, it is clear that the gravestones were generally erected in the location where the martyrs were believed to be buried. That is why some of the stones are in graveyards, some in the wilderness and some at the site of summary executions.

What is absolutely clear in the case of the three hanged men is that they were not executed in the churchyard where their gravestone stands, but were buried there at some point after their execution. The question is, how long after their execution where they buried there?

After the three men were hanged in the summer of 1685, it is possible that sympathetic local people immediately claimed their bodies from the gallows and buried them in the churchyard. The parish minister would have been opposed to the burial of convicted traitors in the churchyard, but he may have taken the prudent course of tacitly allowing their burial there when faced with locals who were determined to bury them. However, the scenario of their immediate burial in the churchyard rests on several assumptions. First, that there was a sympathetic element in Wigtown willing to bury them. Second, that the minister did not complain about the burial. And third, that the local garrison of dragoons under Captain George Winram either did not intervene in, or did not know about, their churchyard burial. The weakness of the case for that scenario is that it relies on all three interested parties, people, minister and troops, to not fulfil their usual roles after an execution.

A more plausible scenario would be that most of the interested parties in the execution followed what they usually did at executions, which is that the three men were hanged and buried in the usual spot where the bodies of the condemned were buried. As executed criminals were not permitted to be interred in kirkyards, the three hanged men would have been buried somewhere else in the vicinity of the burgh.

However, that scenario has one obvious problem: if the three men were initially buried somewhere else, how did they end up buried in the churchyard?

Their headstone in the churchyard stands next to those of Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachan, who were executed by drowning in mid 1685, almost certainly before the three men were hanged. That collection of stones and graves bears the hallmark of a deliberate act of bringing the martyrs together, either in 1685, or after the Revolution of 1688 to 1690.

If immediate burial in the churchyard goes against all the interested parties in the execution following their usual pattern, then a later, post-Revolution, date for the martyrs being brought together is more likely. There are many other martyrs’ graves which do not lie in parish churchyards, as they were buried where they were executed. After the Revolution of 1688, the changed political and ecclesiastical context would have made it possible for the bodies of the martyrs to be moved to a place of honour beside the church. In the case of the three men, it would appear that neither Penninghame parish, nor any other parish, reclaimed the bodies of their executed parishioners, either immediately after execution, or a few years later after the Revolution.

Where were they initially buried if it was not in Wigtown’s churchyard? It is likely that they were first buried at the site of their execution, the gallows, where executed criminals were buried.

Wigtown was the head burgh of the shire and had a gallows site, tolbooth prison, a thieves’ hole and employed an executioner. Burgh gallows typically lay either outside the burgh but on burgh lands, or were specially constructed for execution events close to the mercat cross.

Gallow Hill Wigtown

Gallow Hill

In case of Wigtown, the site of the gallows can be identified. In 1709, a ‘gyppet at Wigtown’ is recorded in the case of the execution of a local horse thief. At his execution, he is said to have been taken to them on a hurdle from the burgh.

According to a local history published in 1887:

‘This gyppet, or gallows, was long used as a foot-bridge over the burn between the Philip-hill and the Gallows-hill, and people of the present day have passed over it. There is little doubt that the Gallows-hill above referred to, and which is a mile from Wigtown and near to Bladnoch village, was, as its name indicates, the ancient scene of public executions. The fact of the gibbet referred to being used subsequently as a bridge over a burn so near the Gallows-hill points to this conclusion.’ (Fraser, Wigtown and Whithorn, 57.)

According to the information provided by Wigtown’s Provost to the mid-nineteenth century OS name book, Gallow Hill was ‘a small but high hill, and criminals were formerly executed on this hill, hence it is called “gallows hill.”.’

Map of Gallow Hill                          Street View to Gallow Hill

It was probably on Gallow Hill, aka. ‘Gallows-hill’, that the three men, William Johnston, John McIlroy and George Walker, were hanged by Captain Winram in 1685. Gallow Hill lies to the south of Wigtown just inside of the burgh boundary at the Bladnoch.

Wigtown Burgh Boundary 2

Wigtown Burgh Boundary (Pink) and Site of Gallow Hill (Red Dot).

If, as Wodrow claims, Winram ‘caused hang them all at Wigton the very day after they were apprehended’, it would make sense for him to make used the existing gallows of the burgh to hang the three men, rather than hastily construct a new gallows near the mercat cross. Winram’s troops were quartered close to Gallow Hill on the opposite side of the Bladnoch at Baldoon, which lay just beyond the burgh lands. Gallow Hill was connected to Wigtown by road and to Baldoon probably by a road bridge across the Bladnoch. The present-day bridge dates to the early nineteenth century, but an earlier bridge is visible on Roy’s Map of the 1750s.

After hangings, the bodies of those executed were typically buried below the gallows.

The most likely scenario is that the three men were sentenced at Wigtown, taken on a hurdle and hanged at Gallow Hill. Soon after their execution they were buried there. At some point, probably after the Revolution, their bodies were exhumed and removed to a place of honour in the churchyard.

However, it is also possible that some sympathetic local people immediately removed their bodies to the churchyard soon after execution.

In both cases, Gallow Hill was probably where they were hanged.

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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 December 12, 2014.

3 Responses to “The Way from Wigtown’s Gallows Hill”

  1. Dr. Jardine, thank you for introducing me to what is for me a completely new chapter of history,

  2. […] The evidence of the Wigtown burgh record does not place Winram in Wigtown in May, when the women were drowned, but it does place him in Wigtown a little after three men, William Johnston, John McIlroy and George Walker, were hanged by him at Wigtown in the summer of 1685, probably at Gallow Hill. […]

  3. […] Mollan. Execution sites were often at the boundary, the edge, of a burgh’s domain, For example, Wigtown’s Gallow Hill lay on the southern edge of the royal burgh’s lands. It appears that in Dumbarton a similar […]

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