The Executed Covenanter’s Island in the Stream #History #Scotland

Underbank island 1750s

Is this island in the Clyde where Captain John Wilson, a young gentleman, writer in Lanark and Covenanter rebel, was captured? In 1731, Jonathan Swift published the memoirs of an old soldier, John Crichton, who remembered capturing him. Wilson was hanged in Edinburgh on 16 May, 1683 …

According to Crichton, in the month after the battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679:

‘I went to my quarters in Laneric [i.e., Lanark], sixteen miles from Glasgow; and about a month after (I hope the reader will excuse my weakness) I happened to dream that I found one Wilson, a captain among the rebels at Bothwell bridge, in a bank of wood, upon the river Clyde.’

Crichton then claimed that he immediately acted on his dream, but it is clear that the events which he recalled many years later did not take place in July or August, 1679. Wilson was later recorded as a forfeited fugitive and was executed in 1683.

Who was Captain Wilson?
Captain ‘John Wilson, son to Alexander Wilson, town-clerk of Lanark’ appeared on a proclamation against the “ringleaders” of the rebels within four days of the battle. (Wodrow, History, III, 115.)

However, his case was processed in absentia in March, 1681 and he was among a list of forfeited fugitives proclaimed on 8 October of that year. It is clear that Wilson was still at liberty long after Crichton claimed to have captured him.

Wilson also was with Alexander Peden at the house of James Brown at Parish Holm in Douglas parish in June, 1682. Peden had support among less militant elements of the Society people and Wilson seems to have fallen into that category.

He also appears to have subscribed a letter from the United Societies’ fifth convention in Edinburgh on 12 October, 1682, which places him as a relatively prominent member of the Covenanters’ United Societies.

He was captured somewhere near Lanark. Fugitives tended not to stray far from their support network and he held an estate locally. It is clear that he was brought from Lanark, where he was initially held, to Edinburgh, as he discussed that journey in his martyrs’ testimony.

When was he captured?

It is not clear when he was captured. In May, 1683, after his capture, Wilson wrote about petitioning the privy council due to his wife being ‘big with child’. That almost certainly indicates that he was still at liberty in at least late 1682.

If Crichton’s account is to be believed, Wilson was apparently captured early in the morning, out of doors and hiding in a wood, which probably indicates that it was in the spring. However, it could have been earlier, as the winter from November 1682 to March 1683 was described as ‘was rather like a spring for mildnes:’ (Lauder, Historical Observes, 88.)

He was probably captured before late March, 1683, as letters from correspondence with a prisoner, James Lawrie, who was a fellow writer in Lanark, were found on Wilson.

The man who died with him was brought to Edinburgh on 4 April.

According to Lauder of Fountainhall, on 28 March:

‘[James] Laury, the nottar and proctor-fiscall in Lanrick, (who escaped out of the hands of the sojors guarding him to the Criminal Court, but was retaken,) is sentenced to be hanged on the 4t of Aprill; for he was forfaulted already in absense, in March 1681, for being with the rebells at Bothuel-bridge: but in regard he offered himselfe ready to make submisse acknowledgement of the Government, they repreeved him to the [3rd] dat of November nixt.’ (Lauder, Historical Notices of Scottish Affairs, I, 431.)

Wilson’s letter to Lawrie ‘reproved’ him for describing the Bothwell Rising of 1679 as ‘rebellion’. It was presumably written in response to Lawrie’s statements acknowledging the government that prevented him from being hanged on 4 April, 1683. (Wodrow, History, III, 458.)

Usually, when a condemned prisoner, even one already forfeited for a prominent role in the rebellion like Lawrie, acknowledged royal authority, their death sentence was immediately delayed and they were eventually given remission. Lawrie was reprieved and later given remission from his death sentence in April, 1684.

Wilson chose a different path from Lawrie, as he defended presbyterian rights to take up defensive arms at Bothwell.

The Capture of Wilson
Sometime before those events, possibly in March, 1683, Wilson was captured by Crichton:

‘This accident [of the dream] made so strong an impression on my mind, that as soon as I awaked, I took six and thirty dragoons, and got to the place by break of day; then I caused some of them to alight, and go into the wood, and set him up as hounds do a hare, whilst the rest were ordered to stand sentry to prevent his escape. It seems I dreamed fortunately, for Wilson was actually in the wood, with five more of his company, as we afterwards learned; who all seeing me and my party advancing, hid themselves in a little island on the river [Clyde], among the broom that grew upon it.’

Where was that ‘little island’ with the broom?

Threepwood Island

Wilson’s Island Identified?
Two locations on the Clyde are candidates for Wilson’s island retreat. According to Crichton, it lay somewhere near Lanark ‘in a bank of wood, upon the river Clyde’ by ‘a little island’ in Clyde with broom on it. Anyone familiar with the Clyde, knows that the island probably lay downstream from Lanark in the wooded Clyde Valley.

Roy’s map of the 1750s only records three small islands; two near Threepwood / Gills and one near Underbank. According to historical maps, the smaller of the two islands near Gills had disappeared a century later and the larger island near Threepwood (pictured above) followed soon after. It was not a particularly woody place, but was where five fugitives were from: John Forrest in Threepwood, his servitor John Muir, Threepwood’s son James Forrest, John Templeton and Robert Hamilton. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 199.)

Map of showing the approximate location of lost islands near Threepwood/Gills

Underbank Connections
The island at Underbank is probably the better candidate. It appears as wooded in the 1750s and is certainly wooded today. The island at Underbank has survived from at least before the 1750s, and very probably from the 1680s. It also lay next to Underbank Wood, where Donald Cargill had preached in 1681. In his testimony, Wilson particularly admired Cargill’s martyrs’ testimony.

Underbank was the home of several fugitives. They included John Stewart in Underbank, Archibald Stewart who was executed in Glasgow on 19 March, 1684, and James Stewart in Underbank, a Societies’ activist who was banished to Barbados in 1687, but returned to free his fellow banished prisoners in 1688.

Map of Island at Underbank

Crichton continued:
‘Wilson had not the good fortune to escape; for as he was trying to get out of one copse into another, I met him, and guessing by his good clothes, and by the description I had received of him before, that he was the man I looked for, I seized and brought him to my quarters [at Lanark], and from thence immediately conveyed him to Edinburgh, where he was hanged; but might have preserved his life, if he would have condescended only to say, “God save the king.” This he utterly refused to do and thereby lost not only his life, but likewise an estate, worth twenty-nine thousand marks Scots.’

Wilson’s Trial and Execution in 1683
He was brought before the privy council on 17 April, 1683, and tried before the justiciary on 4 May. In accordance with his previous death sentence and forfeiture in absentia, the lords set a date of 9 May for his execution. It is clear that if Wilson had been prepared to recant his views on defensive arms and more fully recognise royal authority, that he would immediately have received a reprieve of about six months, as other forfeited Bothwell rebels had.

On 7 May, he petitioned the council for a reprieve, on the grounds that his wife was ‘now big with child’, but did not retract his views. His execution was delayed for a week in the hope that Wilson would soften his views. During that time, he had a conference with Sir William Paterson who advised him to ‘give in a petition, requiring some time to advise on his principles’ and met with at least one moderate presbyterian minister. Wilson did not petition. He was executed in Edinburgh with David McMillan from Galloway on 16 May, 1683. (Wodrow, History, III, 458-61.)

He left a martyrs’ testimony behind. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 311-319.)

James Renwick condemned Wilson’s martyrs’ testimony later in the year. Although Wilson admired Cargill’s testimony, he did not testify to key United Societies’ declarations including the Sanquhar Declaration of 1680 and the Lanark Declaration published in 1682, which both renounced royal authority.

Blood Money

Crichton claimed he received Wilson’s lands as a reward, but that he never financially benefited from it due to local hostility:

‘For this service [of capturing Wilson], the duke of Queensberry, then high commissioner of Scotland, recommended me to the king [Charles II], who rewarded me with a gift of Wilson’s estate; but although the grant passed the seals, and the sheriff put me in possession, yet I could neither sell it nor let it; nobody daring, for fear of the rebels who had escaped at Bothwell bridge, either to purchase or farm it; by which means I never got a penny by the grant; and at the revolution [in 1689/1690], the land was taken from me and restored to Wilson’s heirs.’ (Swift, Memoirs of Captain Chreichton (1731) 37-8.)

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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

~ by drmarkjardine on May 7, 2018.

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