The Wigtown Martyrs: The Curious Case of Agnes Wilson in 1685

Agnes Wilson has the distinction of appearing as a statue on a martyrs’ monument when she was not martyred. In 1859, she and her sister Margaret were immortalised in stone in the Old Cemetery of Stirling as the Wigtown Martyrs. Her appearance there is surprising, as even Presbyterian histories did not contend that Agnes was drowned like her sister. She was, perhaps, part of a wave of Presbyterian female exemplars in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century that produced imagined female martyrs like Margaret Dun, Marion Cameron and Margaret Gracie.

Stirling Wigtown Martyrs Monument

The Martyrs’ Monument in Stirling Old Town Cemetery. Agnes Wilson (centre).© kim traynor and licensed for reuse.

However, within a couple years of the statue being erected, the whole edifice of the Wigtown Martyrs was under assault from Sheriff Mark Napier, who disputed that any women were executed at Wigtown. In a series of Flashmanesque attacks against his Presbyterian opponents, Napier used ‘the beautiful old story of Agnes Wilson’ in particular to undermine the Presbyterian case for the martyrdom of Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan. (Napier, History Rescued, cii-cvii.)

Mark Napier Historian
Sheriff Mark Napier

There is no doubt that Napier delivered a necessary historical corrective to a Presbyterian historiography that had buried itself under layer upon layer of tradition. Napier forced Presbyterian historians of the Killing Times to go back to the sources and justify their claims for martyrdom. However, Napier’s charge for historical veracity, spurred on by his neo-Jacobite zeal, carried him too far. He dismissed all the Presbyterian sources for the Killing Times as propaganda and fabrications, and would not accept them as evidence. He was a brilliant advocate for the defence, but he was no judge of History.

Agnes Wilson was a child swept up in a radical movement, the Society people, and the brutality of the Killing Times. When she was captured, her age was probably the most significant factor in how the case against her unfolded.

What do the sources say about the age of Agnes Wilson?
The Penninghame session record of 1711 states that her sister, Margaret, was eighteen, her brother, Thomas, sixteen and that she was thirteen years old. However, Cloud of Witnesses (1714) states that Margaret was twenty-three, Thomas about nineteen and that Agnes was fifteen. What the source of Cloud’s information was is not clear, but it was not Alexander Shields, who, in 1690, had stated that Margaret was ‘about twenty years of age’ at her death. The latter formulation of words also appears in Popery Reviving (1714). It does not mention Agnes or Thomas, but states that Margaret was ‘about twenty’, from which we may infer that Thomas was about sixteen to eighteen, and that Agnes was somewhere between twelve and fifteen years of age. Broadly, the sources indicate that Agnes was fifteen or younger and that her elder siblings were considered adults.

Agnes first appears on a list of parishioners compiled on 29 September, 1684. The list was designed to be used at the circuit court in Wigtown in October, by which all adults in the shire were expected to have taken the Test oath. It was drawn up by her local minister, James Colquhoun, ‘to furnish nominal Rolls of all persons, male or female, over the age of 12 years, resident within their respective parishes’ and to specifically indicate non-conformists. Agnes and both her older siblings appear at the bottom of the parish list as ‘withdrawers from the publick worship’.

The story of Agnes Wilson appears in two narrative sources, the Penninghame kirk session record of 1711 and Cloud of Witnesses of 1714. They tell a similar story of her flight and capture, but present different versions of her trial.

Her story also appeared in Wodrow’s History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland of 1722, but his version of the Agnes Wilson story does not advance our understanding of her, as it was synthesised out of the Penninghame record and Cloud of Witnesses.

The Penninghame record states that Gilbert Wilson, her father, was ‘harassed’ for the nonconformity of his children. ‘They being required to take the Test and hear the curates [in October, 1684,] refused both, were searched for, fled and lived in the wild mountains bogs and caves’.

Cloud states that Margaret, Thomas and Agnes ‘had been long driven from their father’s house, and exposed to ly in dens and caves of the earth, wandering through the mosses and mountains of Carrick, Nithsdale and Galloway’.

In both sources, Agnes fled with her siblings to the hills. While they were in hiding, they all missed the Abjuration court held in Penninghame parish in January, 1685, at which the inhabitants of the parish were required to take the Abjuration oath that renounced the Societies’ war of assassinations. The oath was to be taken by everyone aged sixteen and over. Only Margaret and Thomas met the age qualification for the oath. Agnes, who was fifteen, or younger, was too young to take it.

After the failure of Margaret and Thomas to take the oath, they officially became fugitives. Becoming a declared fugitive meant that anyone who willingly assisted them risked severe punishment. Agnes, who may have previously been sought for her nonconformity, was not a fugitive for failing to take the Abjuration. However, after the Abjuration court, she was potentially guilty of helping her fugitive siblings evade justice.


According to the Penninghame record, at some point in February, while ‘Thomas [Wilson was] keeping the mountains his two sisters Margaret and Agnes went secretly to Wigtown to see some friends’. They were discovered, taken prisoner, and instantly thrust into the Thieves hole. The two sisters were later moved into the tolbooth.

Cloud states that when Margaret and Agnes ‘secretly’ went to Wigtown, specifically to visit Margaret McLachlan, that they were taken by Baillie Patrick Stewart ‘who under colour of friendship, having invited her and her sister to drink with him offered them the King’s health, and upon their refusal of it, as not warranted in God’s word, and contrary to Christian moderation, went presently out and informed against them;’

Baillie Stewart was only doing his job. A loyal member of the burgh elite, he had subscribed a pledge along with Provost William Cultran to suppress dissent in the burgh and raise supply for the government in October, 1684. (Morton, Galloway and the Covenanters, 216.)

After Margaret failed Stewart’s simple loyalty test, both she and Agnes were imprisoned. Margaret was not from Wigtown parish and when she appeared in the burgh she did not have a testificate, or pass, that proved that she had taken the Abjuration oath, as she had evaded the oath. A testificate of having taken the Abjuration was required to travel outside of the oath taker’s home parish. Margaret was from Penninghame parish, not Wigtown parish. After capture, she would have immediately faced questions over whether she had taken the oath. Once their identities were established, it would have become clear that both Margaret and Agnes were of interest to the authorities and the siblings of a fugitive brother.

Witch Trial

The Wigtown Trial of 13 April
It is with the accounts of their trial on 13 April that the two narrative sources diverge.

The Penninghame record claims that Agnes underwent trial and faced the same charges as Margaret:

‘After their imprisonment for some considerable tyme’ an assize was called and ‘Indicted these three women viz, Margaret McLachlan Margaret Wilson Agnes Wilson to be guilty of rebellion at Bothwell Bridge, Airds Moss, twenty field conventicles and twenty house conventicles.’

The indictment against them was almost certainly the standard treason charge levelled against all who refused the Abjuraton oath, that accused defendants of many treasonable activities done in the Societies name since 1679, rather than specifying their individual crimes. The Penninghame record chose, somewhat pointlessly, to dispute the indictment:

‘yet it was well known that none of these women ever were within twenty miles of Bothwell Bridge [in 1679] or Airds Moss [in 1680] and Agnes Wilson being eight years of age the tyme of Airds Moss, could not be deep in the rebellion then, nor her sister of thirteen years of age and twelve years at Bothwell bridges tyme.’

The Penninghame session’s naive understanding of the indictment diverts attention away from the reality that the women were accused of treason for refusing to take the Abjuration oath.

It is very doubtful that Agnes faced that indictment, as she was not age to have failed the Abjuration oath. Nonetheless, the Penninghame record presses on:

‘The Assize did sitt and brought them in guilty and those judges sentenced them, To be tyed to palisades fixed in the sand, within the flood mark of the sea, and there to stand till the flood overflowed them and drowned them. They received their sentence without the least discouragement with a composed smiling countenance judging it their honour to suffer for Christs Truth, that he is alone King and Head of his church.’

It is at this point, after conviction, that the Penninghame record reveals that Agnes was released:

‘Gilbert Wilson got his youngest daughter Agnes Wilson out of Prison upon the bond of ane hundreth pound sterling, to produce her when called for, after the sentence of death passed against her; but was obliged to go to Edinburgh for this before it could be obtained.’

Cloud of Witnesses tells a different story about Agnes at the trial. It is emphatic that Agnes was ‘dismissed, as being fifteen years of age, upon her father’s paying a hundred pounds sterl. for her ransom;’

Can the two accounts be reconciled? The issue of whether Agnes was both convicted and sentenced to drowning divides the two narrative sources. In simple terms, it is a matter of the timing of when the case against Agnes was dismissed. It seems improbable that Agnes faced the same indictment as her sister, as she was too young to have faced the Abjuration oath and 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 liberated once her father, Gilbert, produced a bond of £100 Sterling that agreed to her future conduct of living in a regular fashion, attending church and to produce her if she was called back by the court. The Penninghame record uses the technical term that she would be released ‘upon the bond of ane hundreth pound sterling, to produce her when called for’. Cloud uses the very loaded term ‘her ransom’ for the bond, but that clearly meant that she was to be liberated when the bond was produced.

Liberation under bond was the sentence given to Agnes, not death by drowning. The Penninghame record is clumsily framed on that point. Whether it intentionally sought to mislead is an open question.

Whatever was the case, the Penninghame record is almost certainly wrong that Agnes was sentenced to drowning and then released under bond. Cloud of Witnesses is correct that any treason case against her was dismissed and that she was liberated under bond. That did not mean that Agnes was not guilty of crimes of dissent or assisting fugitives, it meant that the court knew she was not guilty of treason for refusing the Abjuration, as she was too young to have taken the oath, and was lenient due to her age on the issue of her assisting her sister evade justice. In comparison to Margaret Maxwell, who was brought before the same assize and ordered scourged through the streets, Agnes Wilson got off lightly.

Although the Penninghame record has obvious flaws as a source, it does briefly record information that casts an unexpected light on the Wigtown case. It claims that Gilbert Wilson, ‘was obliged to go to Edinburgh for this [bond] before it could be obtained.’

That raises two issues. First, why did Gilbert have to go to Edinburgh for a bond? And second, how long did it take Gilbert to obtain the bond?

The bond, equivalent to £1,200 Scots, was quite a sum, even for a relatively well-off sheep farmer like Gilbert. It is clear that he was faced with financial pressures, which probably began well before the trial when two of his children failed to take the Abjuration. As the Penningham session recorded those pressures in the last paragraph of the account, it is difficult to know how they interrelate with Gilbert’s attempts to obtain a bond:

‘Gilbert Wilson was fined [perhaps meaning the bond?] for the Opinion of his children, harassed with frequent quarterings of souldiers upon him [probably after Margaret and Thomas failed to take the Abjuration] sometymes ane hundreth men at once, who lived at discretion on his goods and that for severall years together and his frequent attendance on the courts at Wigtown almost every week at Thirteen miles distance for three years tyme; [c.1685 to 1687?] riding to Edinburgh [to obtain the bond for Agnes?] on these accounts so that his losses could not be reckoned; and estimat to be (without doubt) not within Five Thousand Merks [i.e, £3,333 Scots or £278 Sterling];’

Gilbert’s predicament gives the impression that he and hs wife found themselves isolated from support, even within their home parish. To obtain a bond for Agnes required others with wealth to take the risk of backing it. Clearly, no one in Wigtown or Penninghame parish at that time was willing, or at least publicly willing, to put their names and money to the bond. Until the bond was produced, Agnes would have remained in prison. The Penninghame record bluntly states that Gilbert had to go to Edinburgh to obtain it.

That raises the issue of how long Agnes remained in Wigtown’s tolbooth after the trial of 13 April. Gilbert clearly faced the dilemma that one of his daughters, Margaret, was sentenced to death by drowning and was refusing to take the Abjuration oath to save her life. At the same time, his younger daughter, Agnes, was also in the tolbooth, but she could not be liberated until the bond was produced. We do not know which course of action Gilbert prioritised, but any journey to Edinburgh, a round trip of approximately 220 miles, and the negotiation of a bond, would have taken up to a week. It is reasonably clear that Agnes spent at least a week with her sister in the tolbooth after the trial. She was there on 15 April, when Wigtown’s hangman agreed to return to work in the tolbooth. She may have been there when Margaret McLachlan petitioned the council from the tolbooth prior to 28 April. If one allows for the journey time of that petition to Edinburgh, then it must have been composed prior to 26 April, i.e., at the most, 13 days after the trial. Whether Agnes was there until he sister departed the tolbooth, either to be drowned, or be released, is not known.

What happened to Agnes Wilson after her release is not known. The Penninghame record of 1711 mentions that her father, Gilbert, ‘died in great poverty lately a few years hence’. Gilbert was alive in 1695 when he appeared on the Hearth Tax roll for Wigtownshire under Glenvernoch:

‘Gilbert Wilson in Glenvernoch
William Douglas th[e]r[e]’

Both men were also recorded there in the 1684 parish list.

In 1711, the Penninghame record states that her mother, Jonet McIlwain, was ‘a very aged woman [and] lives upon the charity of friends’. It also records that her brother, Thomas, was then in Glenvernoch and ‘lives to certify the truth of these things’. However, it is completely silent on the fate of Agnes Wilson.

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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 18, 2015.

5 Responses to “The Wigtown Martyrs: The Curious Case of Agnes Wilson in 1685”

  1. Licks lips… I’m not sure I would attribute the epithet Flashmanesque to Napier. Zealous, yes. Pro-Jacobite, indeed. When one reads Napier – it is very clear from an early stage – that he brings far more of his adversarial Legal training to bear on the subject and feels the need to re-iterate his points with greater force than is actually required. Much of his ‘argument’ would stand on its own two feet far more elegantly had he just asked the questions and allowed the deafening silence that should have followed.

    Napier asked questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. They haven’t needed to be as he left himself open to attack and what has followed has been an ad hominem approach to the important work he endeavoured to carry out. I find it uplifting to note that although you have given him a wee tap, in the main you have dealt with his contribution – although I’d wager that we differ in our esteem for his efforts!

    Much more telling is the contemporary account of George McKenzie – former Lord Advocate – that during the reigns of Charles & James;

    “There were indeed Two Women executed, and but Two in both these Reigns, and they were punished for most hainous Crimes which no Sex should defend. Their Crimes were, That they had recepted and entertained, for many Months together, the Murderers of the Archbishop of St. Andrews, who were likewise condemned Traitors for having been openly in Rebellion at Bothwel Bridge, whereupon they having been prosecuted, declined the King’s Authority, as being an Enemy to God, and the Devil y s Vicegerent. And tho’ a Pardon was offered to them upon their Repentance, they were so far from accepting it, that they own’d the Crimes to be Duties; and our Accusers should remember that these Women were executed for higher Crimes, than the the following Montrofe*s Camp, for which Fourscore Women and. Children -were drowned, being all in one Day thrown over the Bridge at Linlithgow by the Covenanters, and Six more at Elgin by the fame Faction,. all without Sentence, or the least Formality of La w. . .” (A Vindication of the Government of Scotland…, P.18)

    It is also most telling that the great diarist Fountainhall – no friend of the Jacobites – fails to mention the “hail sands being covered wi cluds o folk”.

    I’d be very interested in your take on this Mark.



    • Ah David, I knew you’d enjoy this. The Mackenzie quote from 1691 is probably one of Napier’s strongest cards and one I am pondering. He could not be clearer. Only two women executed (not the ones in Wigtown). However, so was Symson in 1703 when he said drowned they were indeed, but not in the way that the frontispiece of Shields indicated. Quite a puzzle, as both should know. At the moment, I am trying to pick my way through the evidence and see what turns up, As you know, I think (or thought) they were probably drowned, but really the question is how probable, as we will never get to certainty, only to degrees of doubt. My main effort is to examine the pillars of Napiers case – the petition, reprieve, being in Edinburgh, mass conspiracy – and to try and come to some view on what the process was. Napier was brilliant at using the worst inaccuracies of the Presbyterian sources back at “Glasserton”. Mind you, I’m not that sure that “Glasserton” really had an accurate view of the case. Sorting out how the Presbyterian sources relate to each other is a key goal. So far, Wodrow has been discounted as his account is a rephrasing of earler sources. Progress of a sort. I was also quite surprised at just how bad the Penninghame session record was. At times, bald men and combs come to mind, but Napier and Stewart really did dig into the sources, which is immensely valuable. As is your reminding me of the difficult ones. Keep it up.

  2. Interesting Mark. I wonder if there is something glaringly obvious in Napier’s approach that has previously tricked us both?

    Your take on Napier has got me thinking. Why would a man of the law not posit the obvious – the onus was never on him to disprove the drowning, rather the burden of proof lies fairly and squarely with those who would have us believe that the event occurred. Yet Napier’s dogged attempts to disprove and expose a fallacy might lead one to give more credence to the story than one might otherwise have done. Is it possible that we have both ignored the real question about Napier which would seem to be, why did he feel so personally responsible for unmasking what he saw as a fraudulent history?

    I know we don’t quite see this from the same perspective, but it would appear that while I can’t prove that the event did not occur there is insufficient proof for you to accord this story any more credence than the legend of Sawney Bean or MacPherson’s Ossian.


  3. […] ‘These Women’ The session record’s use of the term ‘women’ indicates that the session in 1704 considered those who were sentenced to drown were adults. Cloud of Witnesses states that Margaret Wilson was ‘scarce twenty three years of age’ when executed. The Penninghame kirk session claims that she was ‘Eighteen years’, other sources that she was ‘about twenty’. Agnes Wilson was fifteen when she was brought before court, but the case against her was dismissed and she was liberated under bond. […]

  4. For over 200 years our family (Walker) has claimed descendance from Agnes Wilson. The Walkers settled in the Ohio Valley prior to the American Revolution and the story of the martyrdom of Margaret and the bond paid to release Agnes was handed down by oral tradition in our family. We consider it a great honor to count Agnes Wilson as one of our mothers and Margaret as an example of true faith.

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