‘Show No Favour to These People’: Four Men Condemned to Death in Cumnock in 1685
Sometimes a fragment of evidence transforms your understanding of events. This is one of those cases…
On 3 April, 1685, three men were tried in Cumnock, Ayrshire, for treason. They were Allan Aitken in Cumnock, John Pearson, a tailor in Cumnock, and James Naiper, a mason in Ochiltree.
Grave of Thomas Richard. Photo Copyright Robert Guthrie and reproduced by his very kind permission. You can see his New Cumnock Covenanter Website here.
How their case relates to the fate of the Wigtown Martyrs will be discussed in a later post. What is of interest here, is the way that their case reshapes our understanding of the summary execution of an old man, Thomas Richard, in early April and the dramatic events that preceded his death.
The key fragment of information that brings about that transformation is found in the pardon that Aitken, Pearson and Napier obtained a few months later.
Their pardon is endorsed:
‘Given at the Court at Whitehall the 25th day of June 1685, and of his Majesty’s
Beigne the first year.’
It was acted on in Edinburgh on 30 June. The pardon granted remission for their treason, but did not revoke their forfeiture. The crucial fragment is found in the middle of the pardon:
‘May it please yonr Majestie —
These contain your Majesties Warrant (upon considerations above mentioned) for a Remission to passe your Majesties Exchequer and Great Seale of your ancient Kingdom of Scotland, to Allan Aitken in Cumnock, John Pearson, tailor there, and James Napper, mason in Ochiltree, for the Crime contained In the Processe and Doom of Fforfeiture, led and pronounced against them in a Justice Court holden within the Tolbooth of the Burgh of Cumnock, the third day of April last, by Colonell James Douglas, where they were convicted and found guilty of the Crime of Treason and Lese-Majesty, committed by them in concealing, and not revealing, the Rebells who went through some Western shires in armes some few days before, for which they were condemned to be executed to Death, and for the pain of Death therein contained ; and for all action and Crime following thereupon, or that may be imputed to them in their bodies only in time coming, Rehabilitating, Restoring, and Redintegrating them and their Heirs to their own names, good Names, Offices, and Privileges whereof they are deprived and prejudged by the said Fforfeiture, and also receiving and reponing them and their forsaids in and to your Majesties favor, mercy, and grace, ordaining these presents to passe through the Offices and Scales gratis, and declaring that this Remission shall no ways be extended to their Lands, Heritages, Goods, or Gear belonging to them, the time of prononncing the said sentence and Doom of Fforfeiture.’ (From Stewart, History Vindicated, 51n.)
As the pardon indicates, the three Ayrshire men were tried in Cumnock by Colonel James Douglas on Friday 3 April. Douglas had been granted a sweeping commission to conduct trials on 27 March.
The significance of the trial of the Ayrshire men on Friday 3 April is that it places Douglas in Cumnock only two days before the Presbyterian sources claim that Thomas Richard was summarily executed by him.
The execution of Richard has been dealt with in a previous post, but the evidence in the pardon adds to the understanding of his case.
Richard, a former elder or deacon in Muirkirk parish and farmer at Greenock Mains, was a nonconformist who was listed as refusing to attend the parish kirk in October, 1684. He was captured at his home by Inglis’ company of dragoons, possibly on Saturday 4 April if Wodrow’s second account of his capture is correct, and brought to Cumnock. According to Wodrow’s second version of events, Richard had recently sheltered fugitives, which may have included the same armed party of rebels that had passed through Ayrshire as the three men were said to have reset. According to the gravestone of Richard, on Sunday 5 April, the day after his capture, he was summarily shot on the orders of Douglas.
The connection between the shooting of Thomas Richard and the trial of the three men is significant for three reasons.
First, it provides circumstantial corroboration of the claim in Presbyterian sources that Douglas executed Richard.
Second, it indicates that the capture and killing of Richard was not a random act of persecution against an old man. It suggests that Douglas and the Dragoons had reasons to proceed against him.
Third, it opens up the possibility that the killing of Richard can be placed in a wider context of events in Ayrshire at the end of March and beginning of April,1685.
The Wider Context of the Cumnock Cases
Colonel Douglas had been specifically been granted his wide-ranging commission because of rebel activity in the western and southern shires. His commission was to ‘extirpate these rebels’ and root out those who helped them. In the view of the privy council, local heritors had singularly failed to do their duty of rapidly reporting on rebel activity.
Something involving rebels had happened to provoke that commission, even though it does not precisely spell out what that was. What is clear is that Douglas headed to the Cumnock area at the beginning of his commission, which began on Friday 27 March.
Fortunately, three sources provide a clearer picture of events prior to the trial on Friday 3 April.
First, in a passage in Walker’s Life of Alexander Peden that is set ‘soon’ after Peden arrived in Scotland in late February or early March, a pursuit of Peden by government forces was diverted when ‘there came Posts to the Enemy, for them to go and pursue Mr. [James] Renwick, and a great Company with him’. (Walker, BP, I, 67.)
A letter from John Graham of Claverhouse would appear to indicates that the troops that set off to pursue Renwick’s great company were part of an operation in which Lieutenant James Murray and Lieutenant John Crichton failed to bring Renwick’s men to an encounter.
Wodrow records that Douglas was called into action on Tuesday 24 March, three days before his commission was proclaimed because of rebels passing through Ayrshire:
‘[Tuesday] March 24th, “The lords of council being informed that a number of desperate rebels in arms hath gone through the shire of Ayr, and no notice is taken of them, colonel [James] Douglas, or the commanders of the garrisons, are empowered immediately to punish the commons who did not inform against them, according to law, and to take bonds of the heritors on whose ground they appeared, to compear before the council in April.” These desperate rebels, now going up and down, were only a few of Mr [James] Renwick’s followers, coming and going to his sermons in arms.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 207-8.)
Lord Fountainhall, too, mentions events:
‘In the end of March 1685, some of the discontented people fled from our Western circuit to Ireland, being now pershued ther to take ane oath, they, to the number of 100, forced some boats and came back to Scotland;’ (Lauder, Historical Observes, I, 157.)
The group that ‘forced some boats’ included a party with Alexander Peden who hijacked boats in Ireland at the end of February or early March, 1685.
After their act of piracy, Peden and his party of 26 men landed in Galloway. eluded capture and split up into smaller groups.
In the same time period, James Renwick and the Society people held their eighteenth convention at Auchengilloch on 12 February and a field preaching, which was probably associated with the convention, somewhere near Loudoun Hill. The convention was attacked and John Smith was killed by a force led by Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Buchan somewhere on the boundary between Lesmahagow and Muirkirk parishes.
Just over a month later, Renwick’s followers were back in the field. According to the interrogation of John Brounen by John Graham of Claverhouse on 1 May, he had been given a halberd about a month earlier and had brought it to a field preaching by Renwick at the back of Cairn Table Hill ‘where there wer threttin scor  of men in armes mustered and exercised’. No precise date for the Back of Cairn Table field preaching is given, but it was probably in March. The back of Cairn Table preaching was certainly large enough to be described as a ‘great company’ and the Society people probably arrived and departed in large armed groups as they did at other significant gatherings for their protection. The back of Cairn Table preaching was also pursued by government forces, as Claverhouse placed the it at ‘about the time that’ Lieutenant James Murray and Lieutenant John Crichton ‘should have laiten them eskeap.’ It may be unconnected to his role in the pursuing the preaching, but Lieutenant Murray shot John Brown at Blackwood in Lesmahagow parish in March.
Cairn Table Hill stands in southern Muirkirk parish and on the shire boundary. The back of Cairn Table refers to a remote area of hills and muirs (now covered in tree plantations) to the south of the hill in Muirkirk parish and Auchinleck parish. The area lies just above Cumnock parish.
Lord Fountainhall provides detail on the events in Ayrshire in March that involved Peden:
‘News came to the Privy Counsell, that about 100 men, weill armed and appointed, had left Ireland, because of a search there for such malcontents, and landed in the West of Scotland, and joined with the wild phanatiques. The Council, finding that they disappointed the forces, by skulking from hole to hole, ware of opinion it ware better to let them gather into a body, and draw to a head, and so they would get them altogether in a snare. They had one, Mr [Alexander] Pedan, a minister, with them, and one Isaak [Blackwell?] who commanded them. They had frighted the most part of all the country Ministers, so that they durst not stay at ther Churches, but retired into the Edinburgh, or garrison tounes; and it was sad to see wholle Shires destitute of preaching, except in the burghs. Wherever they came, they plundred armes, and particularly at my Lord Dumfreis’s house.’ (Lauder, Historical Notices, II, 630-1.)
One striking detail in Fountainhall’s account is that ‘wherever they came, they plundred armes, and particularly at my Lord Dumfreis’s house’. The house of William Crichton, earl of Dumfries, was Lochnorris, which lay two miles west of Cumnock and two miles east of Ochiltree. Lochnorris was demolished and replaced by Dumfries House.
It is clear that the privy council thought that the events in the South West in March were spiralling out of control, as both Peden and Renwick and their respective followers were in the fields, spreading fear among the ‘curates’, raiding for arms and outfoxing government forces.
From the perspective of the privy council and Fountainhall, it was virtually impossible to distinguish between one band of fanatics and another. From the accounts of Peden in that period, it is clear that he travelled with a small company of around a dozen or so followers, while Renwick’s men occasionally gathered in great companies for set-piece field preachings, conventions or attacks, like that on Newmilns Tower in late April. It is not clear which party of rebels attacked Lochnorris for arms. One wonders if the halberd given to John Brounen had come from the Lochnorris raid. If it was, then the Lochnorris raid must have preceded the back of Cairn Table preaching.
It was in response to those spiralling events in Ayrshire in March, that Colonel Douglas was commissioned. Recent events in the Cumnock area, like the raid on Lochnorris and Renwick’s preaching, may have dictated his immediate presence there.
According to the ‘Remission for Treason’, the three men tried on 3 April had been declared doomed and forfeited for ‘concealing, and not revealing, the Rebells who went through some Western shires in armes some few days before’. That suggests that Renwick’s preaching at the back of Cairn Table, rather than Peden’s party of followers, was linked to the armed rebels that travelled through some Western shires. Large preachings typically ended with armed parties of Society people departing and then dispersing into smaller parties as they moved out of the hills and through surrounding shires to their homes or refuges.
If the failure to respond to Renwick’s followers moving in large parties was a cause of the commission to Douglas, then the back of Cairn Table preaching probably took place before Tuesday 24 March, as Douglas was ordered into the field on that date.
Renwick would have preached on a Sunday, which indicates that the back of Cairn Table preaching probably took place on 22 March. It is almost certain that Lieutenants James Murray and John Crichton’s failure to bring Renwick’s followers to an encounter took place at that time, as within a day or two, the large parties of Covenanters departing the preaching would have dispersed. Reports of their failed pursuit probably led to the orders that sent Douglas into the field on 24 March and his wide-ranging on 27 March.
The evidence suggests that the raid on Lochnorris took place shortly before Renwick’s back of Cairn Table preaching, which saw large armed parties of the Society people going to and from that preaching. Colonel Douglas was called into the field and commissioned on 27 March as a result of rebel activity. He headed directly to the Cumnock area where both the raid and the preaching had taken place. While there, at around the beginning of April, the three men were apprehended. Richard was captured on 4 April, the day after the trial of the three men.
Richard and the Three Men Tried at Cumnock
The capture of Aitken, Pearson and Naiper almost certainly indicates that Douglas and the army units deployed in the area had intelligence about where the party of rebels had been reset. Two of the three captured men were from Cumnock and the other was from Ochiltree, Cumnock and Ochiltree lie on opposite sides of Lochnorris. ‘Allane Aiken’ and ‘John Pearsone’ appear on the Hearth Tax roll of 1694 as tenants of the ‘Earl of Dunferlings’, i,e tenants of the earl of Dumfries.
It appears that the three men has concealed or assisted Society people linked to the Lochnorris raid for arms and that those raiders may then have gone on to the preaching at the back of Cairn Table in Muirkirk parish.
It may be a coincidence, but Thomas Richard’s home at Greenock Mains lay on the far side of Airds Moss from Cumnock in Muirkirk parish and not far from Cairn Table.
There is no doubt that Muirkirk parish would have been scoured by government forces after information about the preaching behind Cairn Table reached them. In a search conducted by Captain John Inglis’ company of dragoons, Richard appears to have been captured.
Inglis’ dragoons were probably acting under the direction of Douglas, as Captain John Inglis was one of the officers who was ‘to concur’ with Douglas when he was present and ‘follow such directions and instructions as they shall from you receive’, even if it clashed with previous commissions or instructions if Douglas decided it was necessary.
Wodrow’s second version of the capture of Richard certainly suggests that he was captured either in an intelligence-led sting operation, or in an operation in pursuit of intelligence, perhaps on the preaching. Richard was allegedly duped into a confession by dragoons pretending to be Presbyterian fugitives, either under the command of Captain John Inglis, or his son Cornet Peter Inglis. It is possible that Richard was taken as a result of intelligence that Douglas had gleaned in the process of the capture and trial of the three men. It is also possible that Richard was simply caught up in a dragnet operation after the Cairn Table preaching.
In sheltering fugitives, Richard had committed a similar crime to the three men sentenced to death at Cumnock. However, their cases had very different outcomes. While Richard was shot in a summary execution, the three men faced a judicial trial, were sentenced to be hanged, and later reprieved and liberated under bond. Why?
Recognition of royal authority was often the dividing line in cases of dissent that determined whether condemned prisoners either went forward to execution, or not. It is clear that Richard had almost certainly refused to recognise royal authority, as otherwise his summary execution would almost certainly not have been ordered. Richard was a known nonconformist and had probably evaded oaths, possibly including the Abjuration oath. The three men, although found guilty of concealing fugitives and condemned, did agree to take oaths.
However, the differences between the cases over the recognition of royal authority does not straightforwardly account for either the different modes of execution they were sentenced to by Colonel Douglas, or the different time frames in the two cases given to carry out the sentence.
Those differences probably indicate the crucial difference between the two cases. While Richard faced a summary process in the field, the three men took part in a judicial process.
Richard had probably refused to take the Abjuration oath, as the sentence for refusing the oath was immediate summary execution. The claim by Wodrow that Douglas had Richard executed without ‘jury or trial’ reinforces the idea that Richard faced a summary process in the field, rather than a formal trial like the three men, as refusal of the Abjuration oath were grounds for a military officer to enact field punishment.
The three men were condemned to hang for reset and correspondence with fugitives, and concealing the raiders or parties of Society people. They were accessory to crimes of treason and rebellion and found guilty of treason and condemned by an assize on that basis. However, they were clearly willing to take, or had taken, the Abjuration oath. The sentence that they were be hanged was probably intended to induce conformity in them and send a message to the locality about assisting rebels. The only way that the men could save their lives was to conform. The pattern of condemning moderate presbyterians guilty of crimes to death, then reprieving them and ultimately liberating them when they conformed was frequently followed by the justiciary and privy council in the 1680s. When sitting in judgement at Cumnock on the three men, Douglas probably decided to be relatively lenient as there were signs that the men were not militant fanatics, that they were willing to recognise royal authority and that they were guilty of accessory to treason, rather than individuals who had directly committed acts of treason.
According to Wodrow, the death sentence against Richard met with some local opposition:
‘I am well informed from a reverend minister present, that his case was so favourable, that three ladies of the episcopal persuasion, upon hearing of it, went to the colonel to beg his life, but were not admitted; only they had a message sent them, that he could show no favour to these people’. (Wodrow, History, IV, 252-3.)
Age may have been a factor in the belief that Richard could be reprieved. Richard was said to be seventy years old and age was often taken into consideration by the privy council in Edinburgh when dealing with the fate of prisoners. Usually, Presbyterian prisoners in old age were not banished or executed.
However, it is clear that Richard was not on typical judicial pathway which allowed for age to be taken into consideration. The pleas of the three women for his life were directed to Colonel Douglas, as in a summary process in the field, he had the final say over whether Richard was shot. He may not have been in the mood to save Richard. He also had to set an example that a firm line would be taken with the Society people wh had raided Lochnorris and openly defied royal authority.
The alleged reply from Douglas to the women ‘that he could show no favour to these people’ could be interpreted as meaning that favour could not be shown to the militant Society people who had renounced royal authority and conducted assassinations against their persecutors. Just over two months before Richard was brought before him, Douglas had only been saved from assassination by the Society people at Caldons when a blunderbuss failed to fire.
Grave of Thomas Richard. Photo Copyright Robert Guthrie and reproduced by his very kind permission. You can see his New Cumnock Covenanter Website here.
Richard was buried below the gallows site at Cumnock. It is possible that he was shot at the execution ground.
He was the first Covenanter to be buried there. In the summer, the bodies of two others, David Dun and Simon Paterson, were buried next to him. Later, in 1686, the body of the deceased Alexander Peden was exhumed and deposited there.
For more on the Covenanters in Cumnock parish (Old and New), see here.
For more on the Covenanters in Ochiltree parish, see here.
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