The Woman Who Never Was #History #Scotland
Amid the flotsam of the Killing Times of 1685 are a few brief lines on a threatened drowning of a woman at Kirkcudbright. She never was drowned, but her remarkable story deserves to be told…
Grizel 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 March.
The events of Fullarton’s case took place earlier in the same year in the same jurisdiction, Galloway, but under a slightly different set of judicial commissions. She was scheduled to face some of the same judges that went on to condemn the Wigtown women, but under their commission to press the abjuration oath in January, 1685.
Colonel Douglas, later Lieutenant-General to William of Orange.
Colonel Douglas had first arrived in Galloway with two hundred hand-picked men and a military commission to quell the rebels in mid January, 1685. He probably had the power to press the abjuration oath in the field under the powers granted to military officers to do so, but he did not have a judicial commission. However, following an assassination attempt on him at Caldons in Minnigaff parish on 23 January, the privy council ordered the Galloway commissioners to appoint Douglas as one of their number on 28 January. (RPCS, X, 114-15.)
Balmangan in Borgue parish
The story appears in Wodrow’s History under the year 1684:
‘I am sorry I can give so short accounts of the sufferings of John Corsan of Balmangan, in the parish of Borg[ue] in Galloway, last year  and this . That gentleman was imprisoned for refusing the bond of regularity, and continued close prisoner nine months. He was fined in 6000 merks, and paid it every farthing, as a discharge, in his grandson’s hands at present, bears.
His lady [Grizel Fullarton] was imprisoned by colonel [James] Douglas, and, for refusing the abjuration [oath pressed in January, 1685], received an indictment; and it was given out, they designed to sentence her to be drowned within the sea mark, at the ferry of Kirkcudbright; but king Charles death [on 6 February, 1685] put a stop to this and some other processes of this kind.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 172.)
Although he was styled ‘of Balmangan’, Corsan was involved in a complex series of land transactions involving the farm at Balmangan that are discussed in Alastair Livingston’s excellent post on ‘Parking Lairds’. A ‘John Carson of Balmangan’ (b.1665) who married a Margaret Blair (b.1692), was buried in Old Senwick churchyard in 1724.
Corson’s wife was not identified by Wodrow, but she was probably ‘Grizel Fullarton, good-wife of Balma[n]gan’ who appears on the published Fugitive Roll of May, 1684, for the ‘reset and harbour’ of fugitives from the Bothwell Rising. Her status on the fugitive roll as the ‘good-wife of Balmagan’, rather than the ‘lady’ described by Wodrow, probably more accurately reflects the complexity of their position in the social hierarchy of land ownership at that time.
When Grizel Fullarton was captured is not clear, but she was publically proclaimed a fugitive on 5 May, 1684. Her name does not appear in a list of those accused of reset and converse with fugitives in Borgue parish in October, 1684, which may indicate that she had fled the parish. Some of those named for reset lived close to Balmangan. Given her social status as a ‘good-wife’, Fullarton may have been close kin to Fullerton of Senwick, a forfeited laird who lived right next to Balmangan, or John Fullerton of Auchenhay, another forfeited laird in the parish.
She was almost certainly imprisoned in Kirkcudbright Tolbooth. It was stormed by over a hundred armed Covenanters to release prisoners in mid December, 1684, but it appears that she was not in the Tolbooth at that time as she probably would have been rescued.
It was the attack on Kirkcudbright Tolbooth that brought Colonel Douglas to Galloway as John Graham of Claverhouse’s replacement in mid January. Wodrow tells us that she was ‘imprisoned by colonel Douglas’, but neglects to mention her fugitive status. At some point after her proclamation as a fugitive, she was plainly captured. If she taken was by Douglas, then it would have been in January, 1685, as that was when he arrived in Galloway.
Like the Wigtown women, Grizel Fullarton is said to have ‘refused’ the abjuration oath that renounced the Societies’ war of assassinations. In practice, Fullarton may only have avoided the pressing of the abjuration oath in her parish due to her fugitive status.
The oath was pressed in every parish and burgh in the shire in mid January and after refusing it, or evading before she was imprisoned, she would have received an indictment to appear before a forthcoming court presided over by at least some of the commissioners for Galloway. Alexander Gordon, viscount of Kenmure, was the delegated convenor of the court with four other commissioners, Robert Grierson of Lag, David Dunbar of Baldoon, Sir Godfrey McCulloch of Mireton and David Graham. Two of those commissioners, Lag and David Graham, certainly sat in the Wigtown court that sentenced the women to drown. As noted above, Colonel Douglas was also commissioned after 28 January.
The job of the court was to handle any cases of prisoners who refused the abjuration oath as well as to deal with any cases of nonconformity or those who had failed to do their duty in pressing the oath. A similar court which sat in Paisley for Renfrewshire, tried and executed James Algie and John Park on 3 February.
The date of the Paisley court is instructive, as it took place about two weeks after the parish lists for the Abjuration oath had been compiled and the oath began to be pressed. It would appear that the Paisley court had a relatively light caseload in comparison to the court which was meant to convene in Kirkcudbright. The latter covered a far larger shire, with more parishes to deal with and a far higher level of nonconformity, but did so with the same number of commissioners, six, one of whom was appointed late in the day. That almost certainly delayed the convening of a court in Kirkcudbright, as the commissioners had to press the oath in every parish and burgh in Galloway.
In the middle of pressing the oath, the Galloway commissioners also had to deal with the emergency situation caused by an assassination attempt on Douglas in which Captain Urquhart and two soldiers had died on 23 January. The privy council reacted to the murder of the King’s men by calling in a major operation to hunt down anyone who was in any way involved. With the privy council breathing down their necks over Caldons, the commissioners almost certainly diverted their resources and efforts away from the humdrum judicial process of dealing with the prisoners they already had for the abjuration oath.
It would appear that the Kirkcudbright court would have had to sit at a later date than the one in Paisley. That accords with Wodrow’s version of events, as when news of King Charles II’s death on 6 February arrived in Galloway, the commissioners judicial powers were immediately terminated with the result that no court could be held until new commissions were issued by King James VII. The king’s death ended the general pressing of the oath in the south-western shires before the process had reached completion, at least in Galloway. As a result, Grizel Fullarton may have been given some breathing space after her initial refusal to take the oath. She would have remained in prison unless she reconsidered and took the oath. As a ‘good-wife’ living near Kirkcudbright, Grizel Fullarton probably had powerful social contacts locally who were in a position to attempt to influence events in the nearby burgh, either by persuading her to step back from the brink, or to gently nudge the course of justice. The evidence suggests that she did have a change of heart, perhaps because of the fate that she was threatened with.
The Ferry of Kirkcudbright
Wodrow claims that ‘it was given out, they designed to sentence her to be drowned within the sea mark, at the ferry of Kirkcudbright’. When Wodrow states that ‘they designed to sentence her’, he slightly misleads his readers. The proclaimed sentence for women who refused the abjuration oath was drowning. Fullarton either knew, or became aware of the fact after indictment, that drowning was the legal sanction. She would almost certainly have known that her forthcoming trial would condemn her to death unless she took the oath before the trial commenced. She very little room for manoeuvre, either one took the oath, or one would be condemned at a trial.
Wodrow gave the credit for the failure to execute her to the providence of the death of Charles II.. However, the ambiguity of his narrative that never reaches what happened to her also hints that the threat of drowning which ‘was given out’ before her trial had the desired effect and led to her quickly taking the oath. In that respect, Fullarton’s case appears to have been different from the case of the two Wigtown women, as the latter only decided to take the abjuration oath after they were tried and condemned to drown. While Fullarton’s case was resolved at a local level in Kirkcudbright, the Wigtown case required royal clemency and the intervention of the privy council to prevent execution being carried out.
One fascinating feature of Wodrow’s account is how specific it is about where ‘they designed’ to conduct the threatened execution: ‘within the sea mark, at the ferry of Kirkcudbright’.
The ‘within the sea mark’ element was the same phrase used in the Wigtown case, where the women were supposed to be executed within the sea, tide or flood mark. In practice in Kirkcudbright, that meant that Fullerton was intended to be drowned on the sands below the high tide mark outside of the burgh.
The Kirkcudbright case also specifies the location as ‘at the ferry of Kirkcudbright’.
The ferry of Kirkcudbright crossed the tidal reaches of River Dee on the north side of the burgh. It was later replaced by a bridge further upstream.
On the Kirkcudbright bank the ferry landed to the north of the western end of what is now St Cuthbert Street. Today, the landscape has changed with the construction of a harbour that has filled in and advanced the earlier shoreline.
The proposed use of the tidal sands as an execution ground was unusual. However, it is worth noting that in two other cases from the Killing Times, that of James Kirko who was summarily shot on the sands of Dumfries and the two Wigtown women, that their executions are said to have taken place on them.
All of those cases and the threatened execution of Fullarton took place at the head burghs of shires, the heart of royal authority in each locality. The choice of a tidal location for their execution was perhaps symbolic of their crimes. All of them were traitors who refused to renounce a war of assassinations against those who wielded royal authority. Grizel Fullarton avoided drowning, probably by accepting royal authority and taking the oath, but the others, as outcasts from the society they lived in, were banished to the very edge of the King’s realm and executed in the ebb and flow of the debatable land where sea meets land.
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