On The Trail of Claverhouse: The Killing of Matthew MacIlwraith in 1685 #History #Scotland

Matthew MacIlwraith’s death is one of the most difficult events of the Killing Times to place in a chronological context. He was shot by John Graham of Claverhouse’s troops in Colmonell parish in Carrick at some point in 1685, but no specific date for that event is given.

For all the sources about his death, see here.

Colmonell 1685

McIlwraith’s Grave © Keith Brown and licensed for reuse.

When I first wrote about MacIlwraith, it was not clear when he was killed. However, after further research, there is a way of narrowing down the broad time frame for his death by looking at the known movements of Claverhouse in the historical sources for 1685.

Where was Claverhouse?
Claverhouse was involved in operations in Galloway in late 1684, when he was involved in the killings at Auchencloy after a raid on Kirkcudbright Tolbooth. However, the debacle of the raid and its aftermath led to him being replaced in the field by his rival, Colonel James Douglas. Contrary to the black legend of “Bluidy Clavers”, from January to late April, he was not involved in the field operations of the Killing Times.

He was involved in judicial matters. For example at some point, probably in April, he sat on an assize in Dumfries that questioned Mistress MacBirnie about assassinations. (Wodrow, History, IV, 327.)

Claverhouse reentered the West at the head of an armed force on 1 May, when he ordered his men to summarily execute John Brown in Priesthill in Muirkirk parish. His force of Highlanders and Horse also pursued James Nisbet. By 3 May, he was at Galston when he sent John Brounen to Drummond at Mauchline. Soon after that, Claverhouse was involved in a raid on Midwelwood in Muirkirk parish, probably on c.5 May.

All the evidence indicates that Claverhouse spent the first five days of May moving around the parishes of Loudoun, Galston and Muirkirk on the eastern edge of Ayrshire, which are far from Carrick.

Where he went next is not clear, but it is very unlikely that he had the time to make a dash down to the Carrick/Galloway boundary before his next known operation.

From the parishes on the eastern edge of Ayrshire, Claverhouse seems to have moved south to the Border area. On 11 to 12 May, he was reluctantly involved in the summery execution of Andrew Hislop in Eskdalemuir parish. On 23 May, he may have been still in that area when the privy council sent him instructions to correspond with an English officer at Carlisle.

At that moment the government faced a critical military situation. The earl of Argyll’s landing at Campbeltown three days earlier had presented the very real threat that he would then land somewhere on the coast of the South-West. Ayrshire which lies directly across the Firth of Clyde from Campbeltown was the government’s front line, which was why the forces of Drummond and Colonel Douglas were around Ayr. At that time, Argyll’s agents William Cleland and George Barclay were urging the Earl to land in either Carrick or the western coast of Ayrshire, as that was where he could allegedly expect considerable support. However, Argyll dithered in his clan heartlands, lost the element of surprise and eventually opted for the northern land route by Dumbarton with catastrophic consequences for his rising.

The instructions to Claverhouse at the beginning of that crisis were clear. Faced with the danger of horse from Monmouth’s supporters in England crossing the Border in support of Argyll, Claverhouse was to ‘propose what you judge expedient’ to prevent that to the Earl of Dumbarton, the overall commander of the government forces. He was also to correspond with Fielding, an English commander in Carlisle. Making arrangements to defend the Border from incursions by horse was a priority, but so was the defence of Ayrshire. In that regard, the letter informed Claverhouse that ‘what can be spared from this will go thither also’ to join Drummond and Douglas.

What is not clear from the letter is where precisely Claverhouse was. He appears to have been the closest government commander to the Border area, which may suggest that he was either still in Dumfriesshire, or nearby. Claverhouse doubtless made the arrangements to defend the Border in the days that followed the letter of 23 May, but little is known of his movements.

However, at some point prior to 14 June, he was at Ayr, as he rode east from there via Sanquhar and was involved in an incident involving Queensberry’s tenants in Durisdeer parish, Dumfriesshire. On 16 June, he was in Johnstone parish and debating where the Earl of Hume’s militia should be deployed in Dumfriesshire. It would appear from the letter of 16 June that Claverhouse had fallen out of favour with Queensberry who had made complaints about him to the Earl of Dumbarton. For some reason, not specified in the letter, Claverhouse was sent from Ayr to the Border before the Argyll Rising was crushed. It may have felt like a snub, as he was not there for the decisive clash with Argyll’s forces on 16 to 18 June.

It is clear that Claverhouse had moved from the Border area to Ayr at some point post 23 May and before 14 June.

It is at this point that some stories found in Wodrow become important.

The first is that Claverhouse was reported as heading down the River Nith into Dumfriesshire with a ‘great body of militia, and some troops’ on 6 June:

‘Upon the 6th of June, Claverhouse, with a great body of militia, and some soldiers, came down the water of Nith, and in the parish of Kirkonnel [at the head of Nithsdale], and on both sides of the water, he apprehended multitudes both men and women; they were mostly remitted to the officers of the militia, and they caused many to swear never to lift arms against king James VII. under pretext of religion; and with others they went further, and obliged them to swear, that if they were taken by a contrary party, they should use all endeavours by night or day, even to the hazard of their lives, to leave them, and inform the commanders of the king’s forces, or the next magistrate, of the numbers and strength of these on the other side. This imposition of oaths, in so arbitrary a manner, hath been once and again observed as one of the unaccountable burdens of this period. However, such as would not presently swear whatever was put to them, the forces and militia carried them about with them prisoners, wherever they went, binding them together in twos and threes, to their great hurt in their business and bodies; and Claverhouse and others would mock them, telling them, they would not weary to run from hill to hill to hear sermons, and direct the rebels. Horrid and blasphemous were some of the expressions used by the profane soldiers, which lie before me, but I shall not pollute my paper nor the reader’s eyes with them.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 328-9.)

It is clear that Wodrow’s account of the march down the Nith described the same events that Queensberry found objectionable in his letter sent prior to 16 June.

The 6 June date for the commencement of the march is important as it narrows the time frame for Claverhouse being at Ayr to post 23 May to 5 June.

After his march into Dumfriesshire on 6 June, he appears to have generally remained there, as on 3 July, he was in Castleton parish, near the Border, dealing with possible incursions linked to Monmouth’s Rebellion, which began on 10 June and was finally crushed three days later on 6 July.

At around the same time, in mid June, Wodrow reports that Claverhouse was in Coulter parish in southern Lanarkshire. Why Claverhouse was there is not clear, but he did have powerful interests to assuage in Edinburgh, especially after his letter of 16 June, and was made a privy councilor on 20 June.

Map of Coulter

Wodrow recorded:

‘James Brown in the parish of Coulter, was very barbarously treated, about the middle of June this year, of which I have before me an attested account. When fishing, he was discovered by Claverhouse when ranging up and down the country, and apprehended. A powder-horn was found upon him, and that was fault enough. Claverhouse declared he was a knave, and must die. Accordingly, six of the dragoons dismounted, and he is set down before them to be shot. By the intercession of the laird of Coulterallers [i.e., Culter Allers], providentially present with Claverhouse, his execution was delayed till next day, and James carried away by the soldiers to the English border, and from thence to the tolbooth of Selkirk, being all the while bound with cords. After some time’s imprisonment there, he happily escaped.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 329.)

The importance of that story in Wodrow for our purposes, is that Brown was taken south to the Border by Claverhouse’s soldiers, rather than back to Edinburgh or Lanark. Claverhouse was based near the Border.

From the beginning of May when he entered the West to 23 May and from 5 June to 3 July, there is no evidence that Claverhouse was anywhere near the site of MacIlwraith’s killing in Colmonell parish, Carrick.

However, what makes Claverhouse’s movements fascinating for the MacIlwraith case, is that during that summer Wodrow records that he made a march from Galloway to Ayr:

‘This summer Claverhouse, in his march from Galloway to Ayr, assembled all the men in the little town of Dalmellington, and near by, and obliged them by oath to renounce the covenants, and purge themselves of reset and converse with rebels. New and ensnaring oaths were never wanting upon every new turn this year. George Macadam, merchant there, and another of the same name, with Thomas Sloss, refusing to swear, were carried prisoners to Edinburgh, and detained there a long time.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 329.)

There are two obvious time frames for Claverhouse’s march to Ayr. One between 23 May and 5 June, and a second after 3 July.

Mcillwraith 1685

A further story in Wodrow makes the latter time frame far less likely. According to Wodrow, after the defeat and capture of Argyll on 16 to 18 June, the Scottish Army descended on Dalmellington for the three-week-long ‘looting’ of the surrounding area. That oppression possibly lasted until, and perhaps beyond, word of Monmouth’s defeat on 6 July reached Ayrshire. The Highland irregulars had headed home from their base at Wanlockhead by 3 July.

Wodrow places the story of the Army at Dalmellington immediately after his account of Claverhouse’s visit there during his march from Galloway to Ayr. The evidence indicates that Claverhouse’s march took place before the Scottish Army arrived in Dalmellington. That means that his summer march from Galloway to Ayr took place in the earlier time frame between 23 May and 5 June, when he said he had been at Ayr, rather than after 3 July.

It is reasonable to assume that Claverhouse and his men took two days to reach Galloway from the Border area, i.e., he probably may not have arrived there before 25 May. If we assume that he left Ayr a day before 6 June, then he may have been there on 5 June at the latest. It appears that Claverhouse may have been on his march between Galloway and Ayr between 25 May and 5 June, and that at some point in that time frame he was at Dalmellington.

It is reasonable to assume that his appearance at Dalmellington preceded his journey north to Ayr, which was on a direct road from Dalmellington.

That means that the time frame for the march north from Galloway to Dalmellington narrows to 25 May to at the latest 4 June. If we assume that he was in Colmonell parish at least a day before he was at Dalmellington, that lay to the north of Colmonell and on a direct road from it, then the possible time frame for MacIlwraith’s death narrows, again, to 25 May to 3 June, i.e., to a time frame of just over week.

That means that Claverhouse left Galloway before Alexander Peden and others assembled in support of the Argyll Rising somewhere in eastern Wigtownshire on 16 June and before ‘two new regiments’ appeared at New Galloway in Kirkcudbrightshire on 13 June. (Wodrow, History, IV, 329.)

Obviously, one could dispute the validity of the contextual evidence that Claverhouse marched from Galloway to Ayr, but one also has to weigh that against the facts that he stated in his own words that he had been at Ayr, apparently before 6 June, and the clear evidence that he left the Border area in late May.

The evidence suggests that the only time that Claverhouse was in the vicinity of Colmonell parish in 1685 was during his march from Galloway to Ayr and that if Matthew MacIlwraith was killed, as the sources claim, he probably died between 25 May to 3 June.

For more on the Covenanters in Colmonell parish, see here.

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Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please feel free 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 December 30, 2016.

One Response to “On The Trail of Claverhouse: The Killing of Matthew MacIlwraith in 1685 #History #Scotland”

  1. “The evidence suggests that the only time that Claverhouse was in the vicinity of Colmonell parish in 1685 was during his march from Galloway to Ayr and that if Matthew MacIlwraith was killed, as the sources claim, he probably died between 25 May to 3 June.”

    As sources CLAIM is the key part Mark. In reality the actual evidence does not seem support the claim that Matthew MacIlwraith was killed by Claverhouse at all. He might have been, but the evidence is not there. Unfortunately much Covenanter ‘tradition’ lacks evidence. The Wigtown Martyrs being another glaring example. One might speculate that Claverhouse only became “Bluidy Clavers” as the scapegoat for others because he was one of the few Scottish officers to actively opposed the Williamite coup. His letters and recorded actions are very much at odds with the monster of Covenanter tradition actually.

    It might be worth examining the movement of all other Scottish Government Forces during this period? Who knows, you may find Drummond or Robert Grierson of Lag in the vicinity of Colmonell in 1685, and we know their pedigree.

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