The Wigtown Martyrs: Who Condemned the Women to Drown in 1685?

Witch Trial

Sir Robert Grierson of Lag is notorious in later tradition as a persecutor in the Killing Times of 1685. Many stories revolve around him in Dumfries and Galloway. He was a sheriff in two shires, Dumfries and Kirkcudbrightshire, and was particularly active in repression in the latter. However, Lag was also involved in a trial in Wigtownshire, which appears to lie out with his jurisdiction. The trial in question was that of the Wigtown martyrs, Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, who were condemned to death by drowning for refusing the Abjuration oath. It is the most hotly debated case in the Killing Times. Why was Lag present in the Wigtown court? And who sat alongside him in the court?

The accusation that Lag condemned the two women is found in almost every Presbyterian source. His probable involvement in their trial is also confirmed in official government sources. Even extreme sceptics of the Wigtown case admit that there was a trial and that the women were condemned. However, they argue that the women were not drowned, as official government sources indicate that the women received a reprieve. There is no doubt that the first stage in a reprieve was granted to them, but from that point on, the sceptics’ argument hangs on the charge that the later Presbyterian sources for the drowning of the women are inconsistent fabrications.

How reliable are the Presbyterian sources about a point that all sides in the historical debate agree on, that there was a trial? In particular, how reliable and consistent are they on the question of who condemned the women?

If the evidence demonstrates that they were reasonably consistent in the accuracy of their identification of the judges, then the debate has to move away from the simplistic view that the Presbyterian sources are complete fabrications. If they got that right, what else did they get right?

It is absolutely clear that the early Presbyterian sources did not use the government records of who was commissioned to sit in the court as the basis of their identification of the judges, as those documents were first published by Wodrow in the 1720s.

Let us begin with the most surprising judge connected with the Wigtown trial, Sir Robert Grierson of Lag, as the court took place outside of his usual jurisdiction.

The Jurisdiction of Lag
Andrew Symson, the minister of Kirkinner parish, gives a snapshot of Lag’s western domain in Kirkcudbrightshire in his Large Description of Galloway of 1684. In it he explains that Lag fulfilled the role of the hereditary sheriff of the shire, as the Steward of Kircudbrightshire, William Maxwell, fifth earl of Nithsdale (b.1676), was a minor. Nithsdale’s father had died in 1683.

Symson explains that Lag held his head court in Kirkcudbright and lists the 28 parishes in the shire over which he presided. One of the parishes where he had jurisdiction was Minnigaff parish, which sits on the eastern boundary of Wigtownshire. (Symson, A Large Description of Galloway, 32.)

Minnigaff parish lay in a curious situation. Although it was part of Kirkcudbrightshire and subject to Lag as sheriff, it was, for several practical administrative purposes, part of Wigtownshire. Symson explains:

‘though lying within the bounds of the Stewartrie of Kirkcudburgh, and subject to the Stewart thereof [i.e., Lag], of which more hereafter, yet it belongs both to the Presbytry and Commissariot of Wigton, by reason that it is eighteen miles distant from the town of Kirkcudburgh, and the way not very good ether, when as it is but six miles from Wigton, and that excellent good way, both winter and summer. And it is also most fit it should belong to the Commissariot of Wigton, because having a weekly mercat in it, which is for the most part supplyed by people dwelling in that Commissariot, those people who supply that mercat with meal, malt, &c. would be put to excessive trouble, should they be necessitat to pursue their debitors, which often happens, before the Stewart [i.e., Lag], for small summs at so great a distance.’ (Symson, A Large Description of Galloway, 29-30.)

In October, 1684, Symson took part in a process that highlights how integrated Minnigaff parish was into Wigtownshire. In that month, he and the other ministers of Wigtownshire drew up lists of their parishioners for the use of a court held in Wigtown that dealt with Presbyterian dissenters. The minister of Minnigaff also drew up a list of parishioners, copies of which appear to have been held with the Wigtonshire lists, probably because Minnigaff parish was part of the presbytery of Wigtown.

That practical measure reflected the reality of where fugitives hid. When those who hid fugitives were summoned to appear before a circuit court in late 1684, they were brought before the head courts of their respective shires in Wigtown and Kirkcudbright. Key examples of that practice are those summoned from the adjoining parishes of Penninghame, in Wigtownshire, and Minnigaff, in Kirkcudbrightshire. However, when those summons are looked at in detail, it is clear that the hidden fugitives, rather than those summoned for reset or converse with them, frequently moved across the shire boundary between the two parishes. Fugitives were a cross-boundary problem between the two shires.

It may have been those cross-boundary issues that led the privy council, on occasion, to lift the jurisdictional boundary between the shires. In early 1685, they did just that.

In January of that year, the privy council appointed five commissioners to press the Abjuration oath in both Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbrightshire, i.e., all of Galloway. They were

Alexander Gordon, Viscount of Kenmure,
Robert Grierson of Lag,
Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon,
Sir Godfrey McCulloch of Myreton,
and Mr David Graham, sheriff-depute of Galloway,

The same Galloway pattern was followed by the council in their sweeping commission to Colonel James Douglas of 27 March to 20 April, 1685. It empowered the same judges to sit in courts wherever Douglas decided to hold one in Galloway:

Alexander Gordon, Viscount of Kenmure,
Robert Grierson of Lag,
Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon,
Sir Godfrey McCulloch of Myreton,
and ‘Mr. David Graham Sheriff[-depute] of Galloway’

However, the commission to Douglas also gave the justiciary powers to military officers, either based in, or partially based in, Galloway. They were

Captain John Strachan and Lieutenant John Livingstone of Strachan’s Troop of Dragoons, Captain-lieutenant Thomas Winram and Cornet John Baillie of Dalyell’s Troop of Dragoons, and Captain-lieutenant Alexander Bruce of Murray’s Troop of Dragoons.

What makes the list of judges and officers commissioned under Douglas of particular importance for the Wigtown case, is that the court of 13 April, which sentenced the two female Wigtown martyrs to death by drowning, was composed of some of the judges drawn from that list.

There is no doubt that the Wigtown case is the most contentious in the historical debate over the Killing Times. The controversy surrounding it is not due the lack of evidence, as the Wigtown case is one of the best recorded events in the Killing Times. It is the interpretation and reliability of that evidence that is in dispute. In particular, sceptics argue that the Presbyterian sources, which are nearly the only sources that claim that they were drowned, cannot be relied on.

All participants in the historical debate agree that a court was held in Wigtown. From the above, it is clear which judges one would expect to find sitting in the court that tried the Wigtown Martyrs. How do the Presbyterian accounts stand up when compared to the shortlist of possible judges found in the government sources?

Lieut Gen Douglas

Colonel James Douglas

1. A Short Memorial, 1690.
In 1690, Alexander Shields accused,

Colonel James Douglas,
Robert Grierson of Lag
and ‘Captain Winram’
of having ‘most illegally condemned, and most inhumanly drowned’ the Wigtown martyrs.

It is not clear from Shields’ text if all of those listed took part in both the trial and the summary execution.

The court was held under the powers granted to Colonel James Douglas. However, the weight of evidence suggests that Douglas was probably not present in the court and was not at the drowning. If Douglas had been at the court, he almost certainly would have presided over it, as he held a senior commission to all the other judges.

Did Douglas play a different role in the process? Douglas was in the area on several occasions before the April trial. Before he had arrived in Galloway, he had boasted that he and his men would succeed in quelling the violence in Galloway that his rival, John Graham of Claverhouse, had failed to do at the end of 1684. However, Douglas’s campaign did not go to plan. In late January, 1685, Douglas was nearly assassinated by Society people at Caldons in Glen Trool, Minnigaff parish. The killing of Captain Adam Urquhart in the same incident almost certainly led to severe repression in the area, as the hunt for those, either suspected of responsibility for his death, or who had sheltered the assassins, would have been intensive. Soon after, or on 11 May, Douglas ordered the summary field execution of Adam MacQuhan in Kells parish. In March, he was on the boundary of Wigtownshire where he raided the house of John Macgill at Arecleoch and allegedly conducted a mock execution to obtain unspecified intelligence. In that context, finding anyone who had evaded the Abjuration oath, which was pressed in the area in January and February, would have been a priority, as the oath renounced the Societies’ war of assassinations against their persecutors. In the wake of the Wigtown court, Douglas and his troops were at New Galloway on 11 May.

It was against that backdrop that the Wigtown court met to deal with the prisoners taken in the shire since January. Among them were the two women, who had both evaded and refused to take the Abjuration oath.

There is little doubt that Douglas played a role in convening the Wigtown court, as his commission granted him ‘full Power to him to call Courts at such Times and Places as he shall find expedient’. It was up to Douglas as to where and when courts met before his commission ended on 20 April. Ultimately, it was Douglas who decided that there would be a court at Wigtown on 13 April, even though he was not personally present in the court room. He would also have been responsible for ordering troops to guard the court and appointing court officers.

What about the other people identified by Shields? Robert Grierson of Lag was certainly commissioned under Douglas to sit in a court in Galloway and is mentioned in every presbyterian account of the trial.

The listing by Shields of a ‘Captain Winram’ raises a number of problems. The only Captain Winram who received a judicial commission under Douglas was Captain-lieutenant Thomas Winram of His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons.

However, all the later evidence suggests that ‘Major Winram’, i.e., Captain ‘Major’ George Winram, also of the Dragoons, was in the area and conducted the summary execution of the women.

George Winram was an experienced soldier who held the rank of major through his previous service abroad. He only received his captaincy in the dragoons after the trial of 13 April, as he was appointed to replace Captain John Inglis immediately after a humiliating attack on Newmilns Tower in late April, 1685.

It is possible that Captain-lieutenant Thomas Winram sat on the court in Wigtown on 13 April, but it is clear that Major George Winram is the one who is said to have conducted the summary execution of the women, probably on 11 May.

We can be sure that the ‘Major Winram’ mentioned in the other Presbyterian sources was not Thomas Winram, as he never attained the rank of major. Thomas Winram had been a lieutenant since 1679 and was promoted to Captain-lieutenant on 11 May, 1683. He retained that rank until he retired in October, 1685, to become manager of the invalid stock. He died in November, 1688. (Dalton, Scots Army, 106, 107n.)

It is almost certain that the ‘Captain Winram’ mentioned by Shields is Captain “Major” George Winram and that he was recorded for his part in carrying out the drownings, rather than sitting as a trial judge.

As we shall see, where some, and only some, of the Presbyterian sources appear to be at their weakest, is when they seem to identify Captain “Major” George Winram as one of those present in the court. It appears that some sources rolled George Winram’s later execution of the sentence into the description of who sat in the court when the women’s death sentence was passed.

2. The Penninghame Kirk Session Record, 1711.
In February, 1711, the kirk session in Penninghame stated that

Robert Grierson of Lag,
David Graham,
Captain John Strachan
and ‘Major Winram’,
‘called ane assize’ to condemn the women.

All of the above, with the exception of ‘Major Winram’, are listed on the commission to Douglas. As discussed above, Captain ‘Major’ George Winram could not have been present at the trial.

3. The Kirkinner Kirk Session Record, 1711.
In April, 1711, the kirk session of Kirkkinner parish recorded that Margaret McLachlan was ‘sentenced by Sir Robert Grier[son], of Lagg, to be drowned at a stake within the flood-mark just below the town of Wigtown’.

While the kirk session record mentioned Robert Grierson of Lag, it did not record Winram. It only recorded that one of Wigtown’s town officers had drowned McLachlan by holding her under the water with a halberd.


4. Cloud of Witnesses, 1714.
In 1714, Cloud of Witnesses discussed their martyrdom. It named several individuals as having taken part in the trial. They were

Robert Grierson of Lag,
‘Colonel Mr David Graham’,
Captain John Strachan,

It also mentions that Wigtown’s ‘Provost [William] Cultron’ [of Drummoral], ‘commanded them to receive their sentence on their knees, which they refusing, were pressed down by force, till they received it’. At first, through its use of ‘and Provost Cultron’ at the end of the list of names it appears that the Provost was a judge in the court. However, Provost Coltraine was not commissioned to do so. He was probably present at the court, perhaps in some other function such as the doomster who pronounced sentence. Douglas’s commission granted him ‘full power’ to appoint any court ‘and then and there to create Clerk, Sergeants, Dempsters [i.e., doomsters], and other Members of Court needful’.

It appears that Provost William Cultran of Drummoral was appointed as an officer in the court by the authority of Douglas.

It is worth noting that Cultran’s intervention came when the condemned were receiving their sentence, i.e., immediately after the court found them guilty and when their doom was pronounced. His order that they receive their sentence on their knees is a reflection of the fact that he and his fellow members of Wigtown’s council are recorded as having taken the Test oath on their knees on 19 September, 1684:

‘The qlk Day, the haill Magistrats councell and clerk have taiken the test vpon their kneyes, conform to acts of parlia[men]t. and councell maid yranent except only provest Clugstoun and Antony M’Clure, who are not present, and are to talk the same befoir they officiate.’ (Morton, Galloway and the Covenanters, 220.)

The order Cultran gave to the women to receive their sentence on their knees was a direct order for them to acknowledge royal authority. The women were forced to comply.

One other minor problem with the list in Cloud is that David Graham is listed as ‘Colonel Mr David Graham’. In 1685, Graham was a sheriff in Galloway and received his judicial commission on that basis He also served in his brother’s, John Graham of Claverhouse’s, troop of horse as a cornet, the most junior rank of officer. It is possible that David Graham’s listing as a ‘colonel’ is a typesetting error for ‘cornet’ unless the title refers to a post Revolution rank in the Jacobite forces. Graham had been appointed as quartermaster to Claverhouse’s troop on 25 December, 1682, and promoted to cornet on 21 February, 1684. He remained with the troop through the period of the trial to the Revolution. One of the last acts of King James VII was raise Graham to the rank of major on 7 December, 1688, a considerable promotion given that Graham had not been a captain. He fought at Killiecrankie, became the third Viscount Dundee in December, 1689, and a Jacobite exile. (Dalton, Scots Army, 111, 112n, 135, 143.)

Popery Reviving 1714

4. Popery Reviving, 1714.
Popery Reviving, a pamphlet published in 1714, states that ‘the Sentence of Death was passed against them’ at the assize ‘by Sir Robert Grierson of Lag’.

It also mentions that dragoons led by ‘Major Winram’ carried out the sentence some time later.

Daniel Defoe

5. Daniel Defoe, 1717.
In 1717, Daniel Defoe does not mention the judges, but does say that the women ‘were cruelly murthered by some Men belonging to [Sir Robert] Grierson of Lag,’. The implication of that is that Winram, his men and town officers were acting on the orders of Lag, who had sentenced the women.

6. Wodrow’s History of the Sufferings, 1721-22.
Wodrow largely based his account on the kirk session records of 1711, but when it came to the list of judges he compounded together the list found in Cloud of Witnesses with that in the Penninghame session record.

Wodrow states that:

‘Jointly with Margaret M’Lauchlan, or M’Lauchlison, these two young sisters [Margaret and Agnes Wilson], after many methods were taken to corrupt them, and make them swear the oath now imposed, which they steadily refused, were brought to their trial before the laird of Lagg, colonel David Graham sheriff, major Windram, captain Strachan, and provost Cultrain, who gave all the three an indictment for rebellion’.

Wodrow’s list was closely modelled on that in Cloud of Witnesses of 1714, which omitted Winram:

‘being sentenced to death for their non-complyance with prelacy, and refusing to swear the oath of abjuration by the laird of Lagg, Captain Strachan, Colonel Mr. David Graham, and Provost Cultron, who commanded them to receive their sentence on their knees, which they refusing, were pressed down by force, till they received it:’

The list in the Penninghame kirk session of 1711 was in a different order, omitted Provost Willim Coltraine and added George Winram:

‘After their imprisonment for some considerable tyme Mr David Graham Sheriff, the Laird of Lagg, Major Winram, captain Strachan called ane assize Indicted these three women’.

7. Patrick Walker, 1727
Walker does not list the judges, but he does mention the involvement of Robert Grierson of Lag, apparently at their execution.

8. The Graves of Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, before 1730.
The inscriptions on the two gravestones to the Wigtown Martyrs, which were erected in the early Eighteenth Century and are unusual in correcting Shields’ text, both state that they were sentenced to die by

Robert Grierson of Lag
David Graham,
Captain John Strachan,
and ‘Winrame’

9. The ‘Memorandum Anent a Petition to be presented to the Parliament against Sir Robert Grierson of Lagge’, of c.1695 or 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 either The Scottish parliament or Westminster, probably in c.1695, or perhaps between 1724 to 1733. The latter date was the year of Grierson of Lag’s death. It is not clear if the petition is a historical document or a hoax, as it was first recorded in 1861 and the original of it has, so far, not been retraced.

It claimed that ‘Sir Robert [Grierson of Lag], 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’ where they were drowned in May, 1685.

If the document ever existed, it is fairly generic in tone if it is from the later date range. However, if it was from c.1695, as a reference to the Glencoe inquiry appears to suggest, then it may be very significant, as it would be the earliest source for Margaret Wilson being eighteen years old and the first to specifically date the drownings in May, 1685. If the earlier date for the ‘Memorandum’ is correct, it was written about sixteen years earlier than the Penninghame record of 1711. In other words, it would be the second source to name and give details of the victims. Whatever date it was created, unless it was a hoax in 1861, it does, once again, place Lag at the trial.

The evidence of the Presbyterian sources is fairly consistent in identifying those who sat in the Wigtown court: Sir Robert Grierson of Lag, presided, alongside Sheriff-depute David Graham and Captain John Strachan, who commanded nearby garrisons and whose men probably guarded the court.

Those identifications are consistent with those commissioned under Douglas.

The commission to Douglas required that only three judges be present at any of his courts. It stated that ‘in your Absence, any Three of them’ were ‘to follow such Directions and Instructions as they shall from you receive’. The Presbyterian sources consistently identify three judges. It appears that the Presbyterian sources correctly identified the three judges.

Colonel James Douglas was almost certainly absent from the court, but it certainly met both under his authority and at his direction.

Provost Willian Cultran was probably involved in the as a court officer appointed by Colonel Douglas.

Captain ‘Major’ George Winram was not a judge in the court. His part in carrying out  the sentence of the court on 11 May came after the commission to Douglas had expired. Winram probably carried out the sentencce at the direction of the presiding sheriff, Robert Grierson of Lag.

The other three judges commissioned were probably not present and were not required to meet the hurdle in the commission for holding a court in the absence of Colonel Douglas.

1. Alexander Gordon, Viscount of Kenmure (d.1698).
Kenmure’s appearance at the top of the list of those commissioned would appear to indicate that he would have been the president at the court. However, the Presbyterian sources do not claim that he was there. Instead, they appear to indicate that Lag presided over the court. It appears that Kenmure did not sit in the court.

2. Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon (d.c.1686),
The house at Baldoon had sheltered Presbyterian fugitives in 1679. Dunbar also held the farm at Glengap inTwynholm parish, which had been the home of David Halliday, who was shot near the farm in 1685. At this remove, it is not possible to ascertain whether Dunbar sheltered fugitives in the mid 1680s, or aided in their capture. Whatever he did, he appears to have been consistently commissioned by the Restoration regime.

3. Sir Godfrey McCulloch of Myreton (Executed 1697)
Myretoun, who lived in Wigtownshire, had a terrible reputation in the shire. He frequently clashed with the Gordon family, who had presbyterian sympathies, and was accused of being a Catholic. He was eventually executed for killing William Gordon, the uncle of Elizabeth Gordon, Lady Castle Stewart, in 1697. If Myreton had sat in the Wigtown court, he almost certainly would have been named by the Presbyterian sources, which nearly all post date 1697, as they had every reason to include him. If the presbyterian sources were fabrications, as some claim, then they failed to take the obvious opportunity of placing Myreton at the court.

One final thought. What makes the accusations against Lag in particular interesting, is that he was alive when all the Presbyterian sources were published or erected in kirkyards. If the Presbyterian sources were cases of defamation, i.e., fabricated his role in the drowning of the women, why did Lag keep silent?

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

~ by drmarkjardine on June 13, 2015.

8 Responses to “The Wigtown Martyrs: Who Condemned the Women to Drown in 1685?”

  1. That was comprehensive and clearly stated. Thankyou

  2. […] could not, then, have refused it. She was clearly brought before the assize, but it is likely that the judges, Sir Robert Greirson of Lag, David Graham and Captain Strachan, quickly dismissed the case against her for ‘being fifteen years of age’ and ordered her […]

  3. […] is clear that Provost Coltraine had been involved in the trial, probably as a court officer. However, unlike McKeand, he had taken no part in judging whether to convict the women. Coltraine […]

  4. […] although it is not clear if she appeared on the same day, 13 April, as the others. She would have faced the same judges, i.e., Sir Robert Grierson of Lag, David Graham and Captain […]

  5. […] The contradictory narrative accounts for the Wigtown Martyrs certainly create challenges when it comes to identifying the officers involved and when, or if, they were present. However, there is no simple way of resolving Colonel Douglas’s presence in both New Galloway and Wigtown, which lie about 24 miles apart. For the role of Colonel Douglas in the Wigtown case, see here. […]

  6. […] Fullarton was captured by Colonel James Douglas, who commissioned the court that initially sentenced the two Wigtown women to be drowned for refusing the abjuration oath in April, 1685, under powers awarded to him on 27 […]

  7. […] was indulging in a diversionary tactic. Only one of the many Presbyterian sources for those executions, Alexander Shields’ A Short Memorial, identified Colonel Douglas as being in some way involved in […]

  8. […] court was presided over by three judges, the number that was legally required in the absence of Colonel James Douglas. They were Sir Robert Grierson of Lag (sheriff), David Graham (sheriff-depute of Galloway and the […]

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