The Covenanter’s Poisoned Musket Ball #History #Scotland

On 12 November, 1680, when the militant Covenanter James Skene was captured at the Mutton Hole, near Edinburgh, he had in his possession a poisoned musket ball so that ‘none’ would ‘recover whom I shot’ with it…

He was hanged in Edinburgh on 1 December.

James Skene was the brother of the deceased laird of Skene in Aberdeenshire. He lived somewhere in the North of Scotland, yet was involved in militant presbyterian networks in the South. He probably did not participate in the Bothwell Rising in June, 1679, as he stated that he was at his home in the North at that time. (CW, 82.)

From his martyrs’ testimony, it is clear that Skene knew the field preacher Thomas Hog, as ‘my somtims revernd and dear freind’. However, by late 1679, he was opposed to Hog’s failure to join with Richard Cameron in restarting field preaching and rejecting moderate indulged ministers in the aftermath of the defeat at Bothwell. At ‘my last coming south, within few moneths’, i.e., in about September, 1680, ‘I found him [i.e., Hog when he met him] clear of that mind, [that] the indulged ministers should not be left’.

According to the interrogation of Archibald Stewart, after the Bothwell rising, in the winter of 1679 to 1680, Skene was in the house of John Gibb, elder, at Bo’ness with John Spruell, later imprisoned on the Bass, John Gibb, younger, and Ann Stewart, later one of the Sweet Singers. It may have been at that time, that Skene read Robert MacWard’s letter ‘to profesors at Borrowstounness’ that he refers to in his testimony, below. If that is correct, then MacWard’s letter that was printed in Earnest Contendings (1723) p369-374 was sent to a society that later produced the Sweet Singers. That places an argument by the editor of Earnest Contendings that Wodrow’s claim that MacWard’s letter was in part a warning about the Sweet Singers/Gibbities in context. It is clear that the letter was sent to the society containing Gibb/the Sweet Singers, but that it arrived over a year before the Sweet Singers emerged out of the Bo’ness society. (See p381).

That the chief ideologue of the militant presbyterian movement, MacWard, probably sent a letter to the Bo’ness society may alter our understanding of the place of John Gibb, the Sweet Singers and those with him in late 1679 in Presbyterian historiography. Usually, the Sweet Singers have been seen as a small and divisive sect, which they were in 1681, but in late 1679/early 1680, they were part of a prayer society that formed a crucial node in the militant network. Bo’ness was where important information was exchanged between the militants and key personnel was slipped in and out of Scotland, either to, or from, the militant exile leadership in Rotterdam. As Patrick Walker, who lived nearby, noted, the Bo’ness society was influential, he felt its draw, and the letter from MacWard was spread through the Society people.

Under interrogation, Skene stated that he was in the company of the field preacher Donald Cargill in about May, 1680, i.e., at around the time of the Auchengilloch Fast. Afterwards, he returned, again, to his home in the north and was not present at the Sanquhar Declaration in June, the battle of Airds Moss in July or the Torwood Excommunication of the king in September, although he approved of all of those actions. In his testimony, Skene was scornful of two Presbyterian minsters, as ‘poor backsliders’. They were Archibald Riddell and Alexander Hastie, who rejected the Sanquhar Declaration before the privy council, apparently only a short time before in October, 1680.

After Torwood, Skene returned to the South. On 11 November, he was with Cargill in a house in the Westbow of Edinburgh when, allegedly, treasonable discussions to conduct a gunpowder plot against James, Duke of York, took place. On Friday, 12 November, he was captured at the Mutton Hole with Archibald Stewart, when they were both acting as guards for Cargill.

When taken, Skene was armed with a dirk, in the Highland fashion, and probably a gun, perhaps a pistol. The later appears to have contained, or been associated with, a poisoned ball. When asked ‘why I poisoned my ball’, Skene replied he ‘wished none of them to recover whom I shot’ with it. (CW, 82.)

What a “poisoned” ball was is not clear. A poem from the 1670s does mention the use of ‘venom’d shot’ and ‘case-shot … strong of poison’ by Cromwell’s Army in c.1650. Case shot was a form of canister shot used in cannon. It also mentioned balls ‘chew’d with teeth of some that had a stinking breath’, which sounds like it was used in muskets or pistols:

‘Twas ill for us we had to do
With so dishon’rable a foe:
For though the law of arms doth bar
The use of venom’d shot in war,
Yet by the nauseous smell and noisom
Their case-shot savour strong of poison,
And doubtless have been chew’d with teeth
Of some that had a stinking breath…’ (Samuel Butler, ‘Hudibras’)

There were occasional accusations in the eighteenth century of the use of ‘chewed’ and ‘poisoned’ balls on the battlefield, notably at Bunker Hill in 1775. (See the blog, here, that has pictures of chewed balls and was the source for the poem.)

Whether that was the kind of “poisoned ball” Skene possessed is not known. What is clear is that Skene’s own words indicate that both he and the members of the privy council interrogating him understood that the shot had been tampered with in some way to be described as “poisoned” and that such shots were considered more lethal if the victim survived the initial gunshot.

Advances in the treatment of gunshot wounds took place in the late seventeenth century, see here and here, but there was at that time no scientific knowledge of the dangers posed by bacterial infection. (The first observation of bacteria in water in 1676 was met with scepticism.) Although battlefield surgeons may not have understood the causes of infection, they did grasp the importance of effectively closing a wound and removing debris. If some surgeons understood that, it is possible that those who chose to use “poisoned” balls also grasped that making that task harder reduced the chances of survival.

What is also clear from Skene’s testimony, is that he probably did not have a chance to fire his poisoned ball when he was captured. That probably indicates that they were caught completely by surprise at the Mutton Hole. One member of the party, Mrs Moor, did escape the troops and fled back up the road to warn Cargill.

Skene was interrogated on the following day, 13 November, when he may have declared that it was lawful to kill Charles II. He wrote his remarkable testimony to ‘the professors of the South’ on 19 November. His capture was mentioned in the proclamation against ‘the Fanatical and Bloody Plot’ of 22 November, 1680.

He was sentenced to be hanged on 24 November. It is possible that Donald Cargill wrote to him before his execution. He was executed on 1 December with Archibald Stewart and John Potter, the latter of whom was captured within days of the Mutton Hole incident.

The authorities also were interested in Isobel Alison’s connections to Skene when they interrogated her, but she answered ‘I never saw him’. She was captured in Perth soon after the Mutton Hole incident, where Marion Harvie was taken, and was executed with her in January, 1681. (CW, 118.)

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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 July 24, 2017.

3 Responses to “The Covenanter’s Poisoned Musket Ball #History #Scotland”

  1. Mark, the English archers used to stick their arrows into the ground in front of them, the effects of carrying dirt into a wound were well known centuries before lead balls.


    Forbes Meek.

    > On 24 July 2017 at 18:15 Jardine’s Book of Martyrs > wrote: > > drmarkjardine posted: ” On 12 November, 1680, when the militant Covenanter > James Skene was captured at the Mutton Hole, near Edinburgh, he had in his > possession a poisoned musket ball so that ‘none’ would ‘recover whom I shot’ > with it… He was hanged in Edinburgh on 1 De” >

    • Hi Forbes,
      Very true, they did. I think some people understood the general idea, but did not know how it actually worked.

      There is some debate online over whether the use of dirt/mud on a musket/pistol ball would be effective when it was fired. It appears the “chewed” musket balls were rough, which may have allowed for other materials to be applied or have been designed for splittering. It just is not clear what precisely a ‘poisoned’ musket ball consisted of in this case. At least all agreed that it had been poisoned.

      Good to hear from you again,


  2. […] also appears to have met James Skene in about May, i.e., at around the time of Auchengilloch. The privy council were later convinced that Cargill had […]

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