The Wigtown Martyrs: The ‘Strangely Murdered’ Women of the Killing Times

Margaret Wilson

In Sheriff Mark Napier’s History Rescued (1870), his response to Stewart’s History Vindicated (1869) which had sought to prove that the Wigtown Martyrs were drowned, he used a passage in Michael Shields‘ account of the Society people, Faithful Contendings Displayed, to establish his thesis that the Presbyterian sources had fabricated the story of women being drowned on 11 May, 1685.

In that instance, Napier’s tactic was to use a Presbyterian source, Shields, to demonstrate that the other Presbyterian sources were inconsistent fabrications.

As will be shown below, Napier completely misinterpreted Shields’ text and failed to grasp the nature of it.

Out of necessity, the following quotation from Michael Shields is long, so that the full context in which the claim that women were ‘strangely murdered’ can understood:

‘It was appointed [at the Societies’ eighteenth convention on 12 February] that the next general meeting [i.e., the nineteenth convention] shall eonveen at ———, the first Wednesday of May [1685].

As the trials, troubles, snares and tentations of the country were many, and of various kinds, before the death of Charles II [in early February], that profane person; so after the same, and his brother James Duke of York, a profest Papist, having usurped the throne, they were nothing diminished, but in some respects sadder and greater. And in particular the persecution against the societies came to its greatest height; many of whom were cruelly and inhumanely murdered in the open fields, and others hanged, many dragged to prisons, some tortured by firematches and thumbkins, and others laid in irons; and their diligence in searching and pursuing after them was great; whereby they were reduced to many distresses, and weary wanderings, and forced to seek shelter in the wildest wildernesses and desarts. In a word, such was the inraged cruelty and furious hellish zeal of these bloody adversaries against these poor people, whom they deigned wholly to cut off, that they spared neither the young man for his youth, nor the old man for his grey hairs and stopping age [Thomas Richard?]; yea, women, and that both old and young escaped not their bloody and barbarous hands, by whom some were strangely murdered, and many of them carried to prison. But notwithstanding of all this, and much more than can, or is suitable to be related here, several joined with these wanderers, chusing to take one lot with them, though as to the outward it was very hard; and their zeal and courage was nothing abated, but rather increased. For though adversaries were cruel, and their malice insatiable, yet the Lord was gracious and kind, helping them to suffer chearfully, and to wander pleasantly. In these days of distress and tribulation, the enjoyment (sometimes) of the gospel was very encouraging to them, although they got it with the hazard of their life, and were still in danger to have their blood mingled with their sacrifice. And though they had many against them, yet they wanted not some friends; for not a few up and down the country, were very kind, giving them entertainment and reset, (which was very helpful unto them in their desolate and wandering condition) notwithstanding that there were strict commands to the contrary, and the same was oftimcs attended with sufferings. Among other means made use of at this time by the enemies to accomplish their wicked designs, the sending for many of the savage and wild Highlanders was one, who coming to the west, were very cruel and vigorous in robbing and spoiling and hunting of poor people, some of whom, fell into their hands and were barbarously murdered. And by them (especially) and others ranging up and down the country, severals were hindered from coming to this Meeting [by the Highlanders].

But some few having met at [an unidentified location], upon the 6th of May 1685 [for the nineteenth convention]. They condescended upon another meeting to conveen at Blackgannoch [for the twentieth convention] on May 28th.

The case of the land continued still sad and deplorable. Enemies were still hunting these poor people in towns, villages, mountains, woods and desarts, or where ever they heard any of them were seen; whereby many fell into their hands, some of whom they presently sacrificed to satisfy their cruel lust, others they carried to prisons, where they lay languishing in great distress. But although what they suffered was very pinching, and hard to flesh and blood, and the remembrance thereof be now sad; yet it was, and is ground of comfort, and matter of praise, that the Lord helped them (albeit much despised and reproached) to contend and suffer for truth, and honoured many of them to die martyrs for his cause, wherein they were countenanced of him, and helped to suffer chearfully to the admiration of onlookers, and the conviction of enemies themselves.

About the time that the meeting mentioned above [i.e., the nineteenth convention on 6 May] should have conveened, it was noised abroad that an invasion was to be in this land, under the conduct of the Earl of Argyle; who with several others had laid down resolutions abroad to put a stop to the present wicked course that was carrying on. This made enemies prepare to oppose them, by raising of the militia, heritors, and many of the savage Highlanders came south, whereby in the mean time the wanderers were reduced to several straits, and much of the fury of these forces was turned against them.

About this time there was a parliament sitting at Edinburgh [between 23 April and early June], to which [William Douglas, the duke of] Queensbery was commissioner. By whom there were some acts framed, that for wickedness and strangeness scarce a parallel can be found; against which, yea the very constitution of this Parliament, and the proclaiming of the Duke of York King; as also the in-coming of Popish idolatry, which was then apparent, it was thought duty to witness and protest against it, that it might be evident to succeeding generations, that such dreadful and monstrous wickedness past not without a testimony against the same; and that they might free themselves from partaking thereof.

Whereupon, a paper being written [i.e., the Second Sanquhar Declaration], was brought to this meeting [the twentieth convention], which conveened at Blachgannoch, on May 28th, 1685.’ (Shields, FCD, 163-5.)

Mark Napier Historian

Sheriff Napier’s Case
Napier detested the Society people as ‘revolutionary agitators of the most violent stamp’. (He also detested the Irish ‘Fenian’ Radicals of his own day.) At almost every turn in his argument against the Wigtown Martyrs, he delighted in lambasting the Society people as inveterate liars and bitter propagandists, and dared the moderate presbyterian ministers of his day that sought to prove the martyrdoms to support the vile, radical views of the Societies. As Napier well knew, there was never any chance that ministers of the Kirk of his day would do that.

However, in his desire to prove that Wigtown Martyrs were a fabrication, he was prepared to use Shields’ text back against the same lying fabricators that he believed the Society people to be.

Napier’s argument about Shields’ text was essentially a chronological one. He argued that Shields had clearly placed the ‘strangely murdered’ women before the nineteenth convention on 6 May, when they were said to be drowned on 11 May.

Napier noted that the minutes of eighteenth (12 February), nineteenth (6 May) and twentieth (28 May) conventions in Shields’ narrative were linked together by chronological passages. It ‘can scarcely be doubted’, he claimed, that ‘if that great and exciting sacrifice ever occurred at Wigtown, that it would form the leading topic of tyrannical cruelty’ in the linking passages between conventions, ‘but no scene of drowning is there recorded,— no mention is made of the Wigton Martyrs’.

What Napier had picked up on was a flawed argument made by Stewart in History Vindicated that had used Shields to defend the Wigtown martyrdoms. Stewart (whom Napier calls ‘Glasserton’ after Stewart’s parish) had mentioned that the martyrs were found ‘in the narrative connecting the minute of 12th February with that of 28th May 1685.’

As Napier accurately pointed out, the mention of ‘strangely murdered’ women appeared before the nineteenth convention on 6 May. In short, Napier was accusing Stewart of a slight of hand so that the ‘strangely murdered’ women coincided with the 11 May, the day that the Wigtown drownings were said to have taken place.

As Napier noted, Michael Shields was ‘telling his conventicle beads in the most methodical manner’ so that ‘this troublesome suffering would have to be antedated, in order to bring it within the range of that particular.’

Napier claimed that if the women had been drowned, then a record of it should be found in the passage connecting the nineteenth convention on 6 May and twentieth convention on 28 May. and only there.

He further claimed that ‘strangely murdered’ had been falsely used to suggest the ‘idea of drowning’ when it could have meant hanging. (Napier, History Rescued, lxxxvi-xcv.)

Napier’s argument against Stewart’s use of Shields was an effective one. However, it was also a fundamentally flawed argument. Why?

Where Sheriff Napier Went Wrong
What Napier failed to take notice of was the full context in which Shields referred to the ‘strangely murdered’ women.

One key part of Napier’s argument was that Shields had placed the deaths of the women between the eighteenth convention on 12 February and the nineteenth convention on 6 May, when Presbyterian sources claimed that they have been drowned on 11 May.

Napier is wrong for two reasons. First, the chronology of Shields account is more elastic than the strictures that Napier wished to place on it. In the passage between the nineteenth convention on 6 May and the twentieth convention on 28 May, Shields refers to the death of Charles II that took place before the eighteenth convention on 12 February. He also mentions the sitting of Parliament, which began on 23 April and lasted until 16 June, after he discusses the convention on 6 May. While that demonstrates that Napier’s strictures on the time frame should be loosened, it is not the main fault in Napier’s argument.

Second, Napier presumes that Shields must have known that the women were drowned on 11 May. He was entirely wrong about that.

It is not clear when precisely Shields wrote the manuscript of Faithful Contendings Displayed, as it was not published until 1780. He almost certainly drafted the manuscript at some point in the decade after 1690, as the narrative ends in that year. He probably wrote the manuscript quite soon after that, as he seems to have participated in the effort to found a Scots colony at Darien a few years later. His brother, Alexander, certainly died in the latter stages of the Darien Expedition in 1700. The manuscript and letter book of Michael Shields were collected by Wodrow in the early eighteenth century. That indicates a probable date for creation of the manuscript of Faithful Contendings Displayed in the early 1690s.

No Presbyterian sources gave a date for the drownings at Wigtown before it was recorded in the Penninghame Session record of 1711. Michael Shields almost certainly did not have a precise date for the Wigtown deaths and it is unreasonable to expect that his account from the 1690s knew a ate which was only recorded in 1711.

Shields does seems to have broadly known when the drowning event took place. Earlier Presbyterian sources, such as Alexander Shields’ A Short Memorial in 1690, had only placed 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, 1685.

The c.1691 date of Shields’ manuscript is significant, as it places it in the context of four other works from that time frame, An Informatory Vindication (1687), Shields’ letter to Ireland of March 1687, and two works of Alexander Shields, A Hind Let Loose (1687) and A Short Memorial (1690). That context provides further reasons why Napier was mistaken.

Third, it is absolutely clear that much of both of the linking passages, between the eighteenth and nineteenth conventions, and the nineteenth and twentieth conventions, is based on the same sources that informed An Informatory Vindication in 1687, if not on the Informatory Vindication itself, and Michael Shields’ letter to Ireland in March, 1687, which draws on the same text source.

In An Informatory Vindication:

‘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,’

In Faithful Contendings Displayed:

‘And in particular the persecution against the societies came to its greatest height; many of whom were cruelly and inhumanely murdered in the open fields, and others hanged, many dragged to prisons, some tortured by firematches and thumbkins, and others laid in irons; and their diligence in searching and pursuing after them was great; whereby they were reduced to many distresses, and weary wanderings, and forced to seek shelter in the wildest wildernesses and desarts. In a word, such was the inraged cruelty and furious hellish zeal of these bloody adversaries against these poor people, whom they deigned wholly to cut off, that they spared neither the young man for his youth, nor the old man for his grey hairs and stopping age; yea, women, and that both old and young escaped not their bloody and barbarous hands, by whom some were strangely murdered, and many of them carried to prison.’

When Napier wrote about the mention of women being drowned in An Informatory Vindication, he had claimed that it proved that the women were drowned in the reign on Charles II., i.e., before 6 February. However, as previously discussed in an earlier post, it is patently clear that the drowning of women referred to in An Informatory Vindication could also date to the reign of James VII.. In fact, Shields clarifies the disputed reign issue near the beginning of his reworking of that text in Faithful Contendings Displayed:

‘As the trials, troubles, snares and tentations of the country were many, and of various kinds, before the death of Charles II [in early February], that profane person; so after the same, and his brother James Duke of York, a profest Papist, having usurped the throne, they were nothing diminished, but in some respects sadder and greater.’

In other words, the text that followed applied to both reigns in the first half of 1685.

The text in the post-1690 Faithful Contendings Displayed recycled, reworked and rephrased source material from 1687.

Fourth, the passage in Faithful Contendings Displayed also shares a similar issue with An Informatory Vindication over the dating of the second Highland Host, which reached the western shires on 1 May, 1685, and remained until June.

Shields’ reworked text places the Highlanders before his insertion of a paragraph on the nineteenth convention on 6 May. It is clear that Shields broke the flow of the linking texts there as the nineteenth convention was interrupted by the Highlanders. The one, followed on the other. It made sense to place the short paragraph about nineteenth convention at that point because of the linkage to the Highlanders, not because the Highlanders appeared after the drownings.

Third, Napier claims that Shields’ reference to women ‘strangely murdered’ by ‘barbarous hands’ could equally mean the hanging of women.

Was Shields referring to the Wigtown Martyrs, Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan, in Faithful Contendings Displayed? Shields does not name the ‘women’, ‘some’ of whom ‘were strangely murdered’ by ‘barbarous hands’. However, there are good reasons to believe that he did mean the Wigtown Martyrs.

From the relationship between the texts of Faithful Contendings Displayed and the 1687 sources is utterly clear that when Shields states that

‘yea, women, and that both old and young escaped not their bloody and barbarous hands, by whom some were strangely murdered’

That he was reworking the phrases found in An Informatory Vindication, ‘Drowning Women, some of a very young & some of an exceeding old age’, and in his letter of 2 March, 1687, ‘even women, some of a very young, some of an old age being drowned in their fury’, as he was working from the same source.

Not only was the phrasing in Faithful Contendings Displayed similar to that used in both An Informatory Vindication and A Hind Let Loose (1687), which both allude to to the drowning of women, Shields was also part of the group that had drafted and agreed the Informatory Vindication in 1686 to 1687. His brother, Alexander, wrote A Hind Let Loose and had a hand in completing the publication of An Informatory Vindication. The use of similar phrases in all four texts and the connection between both the authors and the texts all suggest that they were all referring to the same event. In 1690, Alexander Shields named the drowned women while using the same stock phrases in A Short Memorial.

It is also clear that the drowning of women at Wigtown is the only case in the historical Presbyterian sources where they claim that women were killed in 1685. The only other women that those sources claim were martyred is the case of Isobel Alison and Marion Harvie in 1681. ‘Strangely murdered’ clearly does not refer to the latter. It can only refer to the Wigtown case.

Could it refer to other ‘strangely murdered’ women? No. It is clear from the context of the passage in Shields that the ‘strangely murdered’ women refers to women that were executed in the Killing Times of 1685. It does not refer to women executed for infanticide or any other crime not related to Presbyterian dissent. It is certainly true that later nineteenth-century works claimed that other women, Marion Cameron, Margaret Dun and Margaret Gracie, were killed in the fields, but those works were based only on traditional stories without any historical provenance. In none of those traditional cases could their deaths be described as ‘strangely murdered’.

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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

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~ by drmarkjardine on July 6, 2015.

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