The Wigtown Martyrs: The First Post-Martyrdom Sources of 1687

The early sources for the Wigtown martyrs, Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, mainly came from the pens of two brothers, Alexander Shields, one of the Societies’ ministers after 1686, and Michael Shields, the clerk of the convention.

Cloud of Witnesses 1714 Wigtown Martyrs

Before looking at the early United Societies’ sources in detail, it is worth looking at what they specifically said in relation to the drowning of women in 1687:

‘Drowning Women, some of a very young & some of an exceeding old age’. (An Informatory Vindication (1687).

‘or respect to age or sex; even women, some of a very young, some of an old age being drowned in their fury.’ (Michael Shields, Letter to Irish Societies, 2 March, 1687.)

‘that they spared neither age, sex, nor profession: the tenderness of youth did not move them to any relenting, in murdering very boys upon this ahead, nor the gray hairs of the aged; neither were women spared, but some were hanged, some drowned, tied to stakes within the sea-mark, to be devoured gradually with the growing waves, and some of them of a very young, some of an old age.’ (Alexander Shields, A Hind Let Loose (1687).

When looked at together, it is clear that all the sources from 1687 drew on the same source text for inspiration. They were not discreet descriptions of what was alleged to have taken place. The problem is that it is not clear either what text that was, or which text came first.

Throughout the period of the Killing Times, Alexander Shields had been imprisoned in London, Edinburgh and on the Bass Rock. He escaped from the latter in late 1686 and joined the leadership of the Societies at the Wood of Earlstoun in Galloway in December, 1686. Shields had worked on A Hind Let Loose, which is an extremely long text that justified the Societies’ radical platform, for some time before its publication in late 1687.

Michael Shields’ letter of 2 March 1687 is the earliest dated record of a drowning event having taken place, however, it is almost certainly not the source of the story. The letter was sent to societies in Ireland associated with a militant preacher named David Houston, who had recently joined the Societies in Scotland. It set out to inform their newly acquired Irish brethren about the platform of Societies in Scotland on behalf of the thirty-third convention. It was official correspondence, rather than tittle-tattle. The reference to women being drowned was almost certainly based on the manuscript of, or source text for, An Informatory Vindication, which the letter promised the Irish societies they would soon see.

An Informatory Vindication (1687) was, as its title suggests, a vindication of the Societies from various charges made against them by hostile moderate presbyterians and former brethren who had split from the Societies. It is a long text that involved multiple authors, including at one point Michael Shields, in a collective effort on behalf of the Societies which took nearly a year from early 1686. The final text of An Informatory Vindication was formally approved for publication by the Societies at their thirty-third convention on 2 March, 1687. Shields’ letter was also approved at the convention.

The interrelation between the Societies’ texts indicates that the allegation that Presbyterian women were drowned in the Killing Times, i.e., between December, 1684, to July, 1685, had probably cropped up in the period that An Informatory Vindication was drafted, i.e., roughly in mid 1686 to very early 1687, only a year after the alleged date of the drownings.

What the source of that information was and how reliable it was is not known. According to Michael Shields’ Faithful Contendings Displayed, the Society people had agreed to gather information about those killed in the fields at their twenty-fourth convention on 21 October, 1685:

‘It was likewise concluded, that every society should do their utmost to gather up a list of the names, and an account of the sufferings of those within their respective bounds, who suffered martyrdom and otherwise [in the Killing Times]; as also of the enemies barbarous dealing and cruelty there, and of any signal and remarkable judgments that had been inflicted upon any of these enemies: and all expedition was to be used herein, that the whole being collected together, might be for the good and comfort of the present and succeeding generations. Somewhat of this was done, but not so much as was desired.’ (Shields, FCD, 182.)

It is clear that the Societies’ convention was endeavouring to gather information on those who had suffered in the Killing Times and on those who had been involved in the deaths. However, as Shields bemoans, ‘no so much as was desired’ of that was done. We do not know if the Wigtown case was among any returns from the Society people in Galloway. The probable reason for why a disappointing volume of material on the Killing Times was gathered was that immediately after the twenty-fourth convention, the societies, particularly in Galloway, were engulfed in a bitter schism that saw societies in Carrick and parts of Galloway withdraw from the convention.

Nonetheless, the Societies attempt to gather information on their martyrs at the twenty-fourth convention expands the possible window for information about women being drowned entering the records of the Society people to between 21 October, 1685, and the beginning of 1687, i.e., potentially just over six months after the alleged date of the drowning on 11 May, and certainly within about a year and a half of it.

What were the elements of the story found in the Societies’ sources of 1687?
The elements of the allegation were that an unspecified number of ‘women’, i.e., at least two, some ‘very young’ and some ‘very old’, were deliberately ‘drowned’ by their persecutors. Single sources mention that they were ‘tied to stakes within the sea-mark, to be devoured gradually with the growing waves’ and of their ‘being drowned’ in the ‘fury’ of their persecutors.

However, in the specific sentences that mention drowning, no names of those involved in drowning women are given. The names of the women are not recorded. Where they were drowned is not stated. And when they were drowned is not specified.

A little more light can be shed on some of those issues by looking at the passages in which the statements about drowning were made.

Michael Shields’ letter from the thirty-third convention to societies in Ireland, 2 March, 1687.

‘We cannot recount the number of our dear brethren that we lost in this deluge of blood that was shed at the time by soldiers, and some gentlemen, that made it their work to kill us whenever we could be found, without either trial or sentence, or time to prepare for death, or respect to age or sex; even women, some of a very young, some of an old age being drowned in their fury. But in the mean time of the height of this rage, the Lord did remove the tyrant Charles II. which did put some stop to it. Thereafter, when his brother James Duke of York was proclaimed, and a Parliament convocated for establishing him in usurpation, we resolved upon a testimony against the same, and so emitted another declaration at Sanquhar, May 28, 1685.’ (Shields, FCD, 295.)

Michael Shields very much gives the Societies’ view of the Killing Times. He places the responsibility for drowning women in the hands of ‘soldiers, and some gentlemen’, i.e., government forces and possibly sheriffs. His claims that they had ‘made it their work to kill us whenever we could be found’ refers to the policy of hunting down fugitives and dealing with those who resisted or refused the Abjuration oath through summary execution, i.e., the Killing Times. He also claims that those killings were carried out ‘without either trial or sentence, or time to prepare for death’. Some killings were carried out in that manner, especially during or after armed confrontations, but others took place after a summary process before those commissioned to press the Abjuration oath, or after justiciary courts. There was not one fixed manner in which Society people were subjected to summary execution. He claims that both men and women, both old and young, died. There is no doubt that young and old men were summarily executed. He particularly claims that at least two women were ‘being drowned’ in the ‘fury’ of the ‘soldiers, and some gentlemen’.

There is no doubt that Shields placed the drowning of women in the context of the summary executions of Killing Times, i.e., between December, 1684 and July, 1685. However, Shields then goes further in placing the drowning event, or events, in the context of three known events. First, the death of Charles II. on 6 February, 1685, news of which reached Scotland a few days later. Second, the sitting of Parliament in Edinburgh, which began on 23 April, and confirmed James VII.’s absolute authority soon after. Third, the Second Sanquhar Declaration proclaimed after the twentieth convention on 28 May, which appears to mark a potential end point for when the drowning of women took place. That suggests he placed the drowning of women between January and the end of May, 1685.

An Informatory Vindication (1687)
The mention of drowning women appears in a passage on the reasons why the Societies had rejected the authority of Charles II. and James VII.:

‘And in the first place, for the late Tyrant [Charles II.]; …[for] His absolute domination over the whole Land, in levying Militia & other Forces, Horse & Foot, for carrying on his wicked designs, of advancing himself to an arbitrary power, & bearing down the work of Reformation, & enslaving the people; particularly in sending an Host of Savage & barbarous Highlanders several times [in 1678 and May 1685], upon a poor innocent people, to waste & destroy them; And imposing wicked taxations for the maintenance of these forces, professedly required for suppressing Religion & Liberty, & preserving & promoting his Absoluteness over all matters & persons sacred and Civil; His cruelty over the bodies of Christians, in chasing, catching, & killing upon the fields, many, without sentence past upon them or time previously to deliberate upon death, yea & without taking notice of any thing to be laid against them, according to the worst of their own Laws; Drowning Women, some of a very young & some of an exceeding old age; Imprisoning, Laying in irons, exquisite torturing by Boots, Thumbkins, & Firematches, Cutting pieces out of the ears, Banishing & selling as Slaves old & young, men & women, in great numbers, bloodily butchering upon Scaffolds, Hanging some of all Sexes & ages, Heading Mangling, dismembering alive, Quartering dead bodies; oppressing many others in their Estates, Forfeiting their Possessions, Robbing, Pillaging their goods, Casting Men, Women, & Children out of their Habitations, Interdicting any to reset them, under the pains of being treated after the same manner; & all this for their adherence unto the Covenanted work of Reformation, while in the mean time many murderers, Adulterers, & incestuous persons, Sodomites, witches, & other malefactors, were pardoned or passed without punishment: So for the continued & habitual tract of these, & many other, Acts of Tyranny, we have disowned, & yet adhere to our revolt from under, the yoke of the Tyranny of Charles the Second, & Declare that his whole Government was a complete & habitual Tyranny, & no more Magistracy than Robbery is a rightful possession.

And in like manner, in the Next place, we disown the Usurpation of James Duke of York, succeeding & insisting in the same footsteps of Tyranny, Treachery, & Cruelty; with the same domineering over men & Women’s Consciences, & cruelty towards their bodies, & Estates, & oppression over the Land; arrogating to himself an absolute power, more declaredly than any other formerly; & labouring to bring these Lands again in Subjection to the yoke of Anti-Christ; being a professed Papist; & therefore, what ever right he may pretend by lineal succession, suffrage of Iniquitous Laws & packed Parliaments, he hath no legal or lawful right to the crown; especially, seeing many Acts of ancient Parliaments, declare Papists altogether incapable of bearing any Rule, or any other whomsoever, except they be maintainers of the true Protestant Religion, according to the National Covenant, as it is Statute by the 8 Act. Parl. 1. repeated in the 99 Act. Parl. 7. ratified in the 23 Act. Parl. 11. & 114. Act. Parl. 12 of K. James 6. & 4. Act of K. Charles the first. And here we stand as to the point of Magistracy.’

What is obvious about the above passage is that the extract from Shields’ letter to the societies in Ireland covers the same terrain in a shorter form. Both deal with the alleged crimes of the Killing Times and end with their rejection of the usurpation of James VII..

At first it appears that An Informatory Vindication places the drowning of women in the context of Charles II., who died on 6 February, 1685. There is no doubt that it is listed under the alleged crimes of the reign of Charles II., but so, too, is the second Highland Host of May to June, 1685.

However, the Vindication then goes on to reject James VII. ‘in like manner’ for ‘insisting in the same footsteps of Tyranny, Treachery, & Cruelty; with the same domineering over men & Women’s Consciences, & cruelty towards their bodies’, before going on to reject what the Societies saw as novel about the rule of James, his usurpation, absolute authority and Catholicism. In the view of the Societies, James was guilty of the same crimes as Charles II. and further crimes against the constitution. James did send in the second Highland Host that is listed under Charles II..

In his nineteenth-century critique of the Wigtown case, Sheriff Mark Napier utilized the apparent error in chronology that the drowning of women took place before the death of Charles II. on 6 February, when the women were supposedly drowned on 11 May, to dismiss the story as a fabrication. However, that is a fundamental misreading of the intention and purpose of the passage in the Vindication, as the crimes of the Killing Times applied to both Charles and James. It is perfectly clear from the full passage quoted above, that the drowning of women could be ascribed to both the reigns of Charles and James. As a source for dating the alleged drowning event it is useless, beyond it being at some point in the Killing Times.

Alexander Shields, A Hind Let Loose (1687)
Alexander Shields’ mention of the drowning of women appears in Part II of A Hind Let Loose under the heading of ‘A Brief Account of the Persecution of the last Period, and of the great suffering whereby all the parts of its Testimony were sealed.’ that covered the period between 1660 and 1687. Shields took a broadly chronological approach in working his way through the period. Section IX that immediately precedes the section that mentions women being drowned covered the period before 1680. Section XI, which followed it, start with ‘In the beginning of this killing time, as the country calls it; the first author or authorizer of all these mischiefs, Charles II. was removed by death.’, which is the first mention of the name of ‘the Killing Times’ in the historical sources. Shields applied the name of the ‘Killing Time’ to a period in 1685, but also, it seems, to the period before that, which was dominated by judicial executions. The problem with Section X, in which the statement that women were drowned appears, from a chronological perspective, is that it covers the period between 1681 or 1682 and 1685. It specifically places the drowning of women after a passage on the impact of judicial executions, which after a peak in 1681, increased markedly for a second time between 1684 and February, 1685. A Hind Let Loose is even less useful than An Informatory Vindication as a source for the date of the alleged drowning event. At its best, it places the event, or events, somewhere in the 1680s. It is clear that the passage in A Hind Let Loose was never intended to be used to date the drowning of women. Three years later, when Alexander Shields did date the drowning of women, he specified that it taken place in the year 1685.

The passage in A Hind Let Loose is as follows:

‘4. But here, as in Egypt, the more they were afflicted, the more they grew, the more that the enemies rage was increased, the more were the people inflamed to inquire about the grounds of their suffering, seeing rational men and religious christians die so resolutely upon them; and the more they insisted in this inquisition, the more did the number of witnesses multiply, with a growing increase of undauntedness, so that the then shed blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church, and as by hearing and seeing them so signally countenanced of the Lord, many were reclaimed from their courses of compliance, so others were daily more and more confirmed in the ways of the Lord, and so strengthened by his grace, that they chose rather to endure all torture, and embrace death in its most terrible aspect, than to give the tyrant and his [ac]complices any acknowledgment: yea, not so much as to say, God save the king, which was offered as the price of their life, and test of their acknowledgment, but they would not accept deliverance on these terms that they might obtain a better resurrection. Which so enraged the tigrish truculency of these persecutors, that they spared neither age, sex, nor profession: the tenderness of youth did not move them to any relenting, in murdering very boys upon this ahead, nor the gray hairs of the aged; neither were women spared, but some were hanged, some drowned, tied to stakes within the sea-mark, to be devoured gradually with the growing waves, and some of them of a very young, some of an old age. Especially after the murder of the never to be forgotten martyr, Mr. [Donald] Cargil [in 1681], the multitude of merciless sufferings upon this account cannot he enumerated; which increased far beyond all the former steps, after the Lanerk Declaration [of 1682], which was burnt with great solemnity by the magistrates of Edinburgh in their robes, together with the Solemn League and Covenant, which had been burnt before, but then they would more declared give new demonstrations of their rage against it, because they confessed, and were convinced of its being conform unto and founded upon that covenant. And because the incorporation of Lanerk did not, because they could not, hinder the publishing of it; therefore they were threatened with the loss of their privileges, and forced to pay 6000 merks. Upon the back of which, the sufferings of poor people that owned the testimony being banished for soldiers to Flanders, etc. some to be sold as slaves in Carolina, and other places in America, to empty the filled prisons, and make room for more: which were daily brought in from all quarters, and either kept languishing in their nasty prisons, or thieves holes, in bolts and irons to make them weary of their life, or dispatched as sacrifices, and led as dumb sheep to the slaughter, without suffering them to speak their dying words, for beating of drums, or disposed of to masters of ships to be transported to slavery.’

Where Alexander Shields’ A Hind Let Loose was influential on the story of the Wigtown martyrs is where it mentions ‘neither were women spared, but some were hanged, some drowned, tied to stakes within the sea-mark, to be devoured gradually with the growing waves’, as that is the first record of the use of stakes and the tide to drown the women.

However, the influence of A Hind Let Loose did not end there.

Wigtown Martyrs

In the fold-out print or frontispiece of the book, which was printed in the United Provinces and smuggled into Scotland in 1687, is a representation of two sets of two women being executed by different methods. Below it are the words ‘Women hanged, others drowned at stakes in the sea’.

The image of women being hanged, on the left, plainly refers to Isobel Alison and Marion Harvie who were executed in Edinburgh in January, 1681. The image of women being drowned, on the right, was later read as depicting Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, the only women said to have been drowned in the Killing Times.

The subtitle of the image, ‘Women hanged, others drowned at stakes in the sea’ was almost certainly based on Shields’ text which had stated ‘neither were women spared, but some were hanged, some drowned, tied to stakes within the sea-mark’.

The illustration was almost certainly by an unidentified Dutch artist – prints of this kind were very rare in English works – who was in no way familiar with the method of execution. It clearly depicts two women of differing heights, perhaps to indicate age, tied to a single post. The latter detail was free in its interpretation of both the text below the illustration and Shields’ text that had mentioned ‘stakes’. The image is an idealised illustration of Christian martyrdom, but was based on Shields’ words. One other element of the illustration picked up a detail in Shields’ text. It shows the women standing amid tidal waters, which presumably reflects Shields’ claim that they were ‘to be devoured gradually with the growing waves’. The same image was repoduced in Cloud of Witnesses in 1714. However, in that case the image was in reverse, due to the copying process, and created by a cruder hand than that which produced the 1687 version. (See image at the top of this post.)

Where do the Societies’ sources of 1687 leave the story of the Wigtown Martyrs?
First, it is unclear if the drowning of women event, or events, referred to the two female Wigtown martyrs. It appears that at least a story of women being drowned had entered the written records of the Societies at some point after October, 1685, and more certainly before March, 1687. The texts that expressly served the purpose of justifying the Societies’ platform broadly place the drowning of women between 1680 and 1686 and perhaps in the Killing Times of 1685. Michael Shields’ letter certainly places the event in the Killing Times of 1685, probably before 28 May. A Hind Let Loose had advanced the idea that the women were tied to stakes and drowned by the tide, but those details are not present in An Informatory Vindication and Shields’ letter.

The problem with the Societies’ sources in 1687 is that they were never designed to relay detailed information about specific martyrdoms. Their intention was to discuss their sufferings in general terms to a wider audience. There is no doubt that the Soccieties put their own ‘spin’ on events, which left out uncomfortable information. It could be described as partisan, perhaps even as propaganda, but good propaganda is based on some element of fact. The only martyrs that they mention by name are those of their ministers, Donald Cargill, Richard Cameron etc, and David Hackstoun of Rathillet. They were all high-profile and significant martyrs in the story of the foundation of the United Societies in 1681. Clearly, as even the supporters of Napier must admit, many others died, either on scaffolds after 1681, or in the fields in 1685, but their names are not recorded in the 1687 sources. It is obvious that to expect details of the Wigtown martyrs of 1685 in the sources from 1687 is not a reasonable expectation, when no other victims of the Killing Times are either mentioned, or indications of where they were from, or the year they were killed in, are given. To insist that the 1687 sources provide that information fails to comprehend the nature of those historical sources.

The same criticism can also be levelled at the nineteenth-century vindicators of the Wigtown Martyrs. The Societies’ sources of 1687, on their own, do not prove that women were drowned. What they indicate, on their own, is that the Societies, at the highest level, believed that women had been drowned and that that claim had entered their written records, possibly as early as late 1685, and for certain in early 1687. They also indicate that key elements of the story, that women were drowned at stakes somewhere tidal, probably in 1685, were in the very first accounts.

After the Revolution, new details about the Wigtown Martyrs were revealed by the same brothers. The Societies’ opponents also took to print. However, how the Wigtown story developed was not in the way that either the nineteenth-century vindicators, or sceptics, of their martyrdom ever imagined.

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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 26, 2015.

One Response to “The Wigtown Martyrs: The First Post-Martyrdom Sources of 1687”

  1. […] the drowning in the ‘year 1685’. What is remarkable about Michael Shields text, is that he, for a second time, places the drowning in the context of February to May, […]

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