The Trial of a Militant Covenanter & the Rye House Plots of 1683 #History #Scotland


If an account in Wodrow’s Analecta is to be believed, then the 1683 trial in Kilmarnock of the militant Covenanter John Nisbet “in Glen” was, in part, a set up, to bring down moderate-presbyterian Ayrshire lairds who were set to be members of the jury. However, here we enter the labyrinth of Restoration politics and plots …

Was that later story a cover up? Was it a cover story for moderate presbyterian skullduggery in the Rye House Plots planning a rising against Charles II?

The Trial of John Nisbet
The key details in the story is the trial of John Nisbet in Glen in late March/very early April, 1683. Major Andrew White was granted justiciary power to try him on 22 March and Nisbet was executed on 4 April. As we know little of the trial of Nisbet, any fragment of information about it is valuable.

One mystery surrounding it, is why he was tried in Kilmarnock, rather than in Edinburgh? The charges Nisbet faced were common in treason trials at that time and there is no obvious local dimension to them. The story Wodrow tells may suggest that some in authority wanted the trial to be held in Ayrshire with the specific goal of testing the loyalties of local Presbytrian lairds in the expectation that they would profit from their downfall and forfeiture.

However, much of Wodrow’s account depends on an alleged conversation between James Crawford of Ardmillan and the nephew of David Montgomery of Lainshaw.

Was Ardmillan telling the truth? Or was it cunning ploy by him to put Lainshaw to flight?

Or was it a story put out by Lord Lisle, the son of David Montgomery of Lainshaw, to justify, or muddy the waters of, his father’s role in the Rye House Plots against Charles II?

All of the above could be true. Perhaps all of them tell different parts of the story.

The Lainshaw Story
In September, 1722, Wodrow reported that:

‘Mr Robert Millar tells rne, that he had this account from [Montgomery of] Langshau, nou Lord Lisle, who had it from his father [David Montgomery of Lainshaw], who was one of the gentlmen: That the occasion of the trouble the West country gentlmen met with, 1683, or therabout, viz. [Sir Hugh Campbell of] Cesnock, [Sir William Mure of] Rewallan, Langshau, &c,

after [George Gordon the earl of] Aberdeen was made Chancelor [in late 1682], he sent for John Boyle of Kelburn, and would have him to sup with him; and that night enquired very particularly at him anent all the gentlmen in the shire of Air who favoured the Presbyterians, and had good estates, and yet wer so regular and loyall, as they could not be reached by the then laues, and concerted and formed a designe with the said gentlmen to reach them.

Langshau was to be called to be one of the assize to sit of John Nisbet [in Glen], who was to be processed before Major [Andrew] White’s Court at Kilmarnock [in late March or early April, 1683]; which, if he refused, which they expected he would, the Major was to send a party of horse, and seize him; and paralel methods wer to be taken with other gentlmen, to ensnare them.’

It appears that Lainshaw was to sit on the jury at the trial of Nisbet in late March or early April, 1683, but, as we shall see, he fled Scotland before it took place. Presumably, Lainshaw was going to find it problematic to find Nisbet guilty. That was not because Nisbet was innocent of the charges that he faced, which he was almost certainly guilty of. It was probably due to one or two factors. First, Lainshaw probably doubted that some of the charges constituted treason at all. Second, Lainshaw was probably involved in treasonable negotiations at that time and may have feared that he would be captured.

Nisbet had allegedly been in the rebellion of 1679. When captured in 1683, he owned that the Bothwell Rising was legal and in self defence. Perhaps the moderate-presbyterian Lainshaw had few problems with Nisbet’s views on that. However, Nisbet had gone further under interrogation, as he disowned royal authority and owned the militant ministries of Richard Cameron and Donald Cargill who had treasonably forfeited and excommunicated the King. Usually moderates like Lainshaw had very few problems disavowing the supporters of that militant platform in 1683. But there was a third issue with Nisbet’s trial. Soon after it, Nisbet disputed that he was guilty of ‘self murder’, i.e., that he was martyring himself. In other words, the evidence of Nisbet’s alleged treason was only of his stated opinions, his failure to answer questions, rather than “hard facts” that he had actually committed any treasonable act. Lainshaw could have had a problem with that, as the same could be applied to him and his fellow moderate gentry. It appears that Lainshaw could have foreseen the potential bear trap that Nisbet’s trial had set for him and other moderate presbyterians on the jury.

Meanwhile in Edinburgh an enemy apparently warned him of the danger:

‘[James] Crauford of Ardmillan, and another who lived and made their fortunes by spo[o]king the shire of Air, fearing some concert ‘twixt Kelburn and the Chancelor, when so much and late together, that might interfer with their gain, resolved to wait his coming out from the Chancelour, and, if possible, to get the secret from him. Accordingly, they catched him, and plyed him hard that night with the bottle, till at length, (post vinum Veritas, ) he opened and told them the secret concert ‘twixt them, against the above-mentioned gentlmen and others.

Ardmillan, finding he was not to share the spoil, nixt morning met with John Caldwell of that Ilk on the street, nepheu to [David Montgomery of] Langshau, then at Edinburgh, and acquainted him with the concert and designe against his uncle as above, who immediately took his horses and rode west to Langshau [in Ayrshire], and acquainted his uncle; who, finding hou matters wer like to go, nixt day took his horse and rode for London, taking Rewallan and Cesnock in his way as he went; and to them he discovered the designe, who in a week or therby folloued him, seing there was noe safety at all to be had in Scotland, let them be never so regular or loyall.’

Events appear to have moved quickly. As soon as he nephew rode to Lainshaw, he fled the next day for London. On the way he warned Rowallen, Hugh Campbell, elder of Cessnock, and, probably, George Campbell, younger of Cessnock. It is remarkable that all of these gentlemen were prepared to fly at relatively short notice to evade entrapment at the trial of a militant presbyterian. Were they, too, aware of the bear trap? Or were they aware they were about to depart for London anyway to plot an insurrection of their own? Perhaps the earl of Aberdeen was right to try and flush them out.

‘When at London [in April, 1683], they fell in to the acquaintance and conversation with the Earl of Shaftsburry and others, who wer upon Monmouth’s party for the liberty of the subject, and against the Duke of York, and wer present at [a] meeting with them and others, for which they wer afterwards processed.

Thus gentlmen wer first attacked, when living peacably at home, and threatned with ruin, and forced to fly the country, and then forfaulted for sham-plots. Langshau was a person to whom Shaftsburry used to give great incomiums for his great abilitys. He was forced to fly to Dublin, and live privately there for some years, till the Tolleration [in 1687]. (Wodrow, Analecta, II, 365-6.)

Whig Plots in London

The London element of the story is intriguing. Lainshaw had apparently been lauded by the earl of Shaftesbury. As the earl fled London for the United Provinces in late November, 1682, and died there in January, 1683, i.e., months before Lainshaw and the other gentlemen fled, it appears that Lainshaw had met Shaftesbury in London or the United Provinces before the latter’s death.

Lainshaw and some of the other named Ayrshire lairds who fled with him were involved in meetings with Monmouth’s party in April, 1683, i.e., immediately after they journeyed to London. Those meetings were part of the Rye House Plots about launching a joint Scottish and English insurrection against the King and raising money for the Earl of Argyll to do so in Scotland. (Greaves, Secrets of the Kingdom, 164-5.)

In May to June, 1685, Lainshaw and other gentlemen were forfeited in absentia by Parliament in Scotland for their part in those meetings in London.

Lainshaw was forfeited the following lands and his title:

‘the ten merk land of Lainshaw and teinds thereof, the ten merk land of Kirkbride, with the mill and pertinents, the five pound land of Milnton of Flett, the five merk land of Over and Nether Peacock lands, with the mill and pertinents, with the tower and fortalice called Castle Stewart [Lainshaw Castle?], and lands of Brokholmer, all lying within the bailiary of Cunninghame and sheriffdom of Ayr; and the lands of Over Castleton, extending to a three merk land, with the teinds and pertinents, lying within the said bailiary and sheriffdom, all formerly pertaining to the said David Montgomery, sometime of Lainshaw.’ (RPS, 1685/4/77.)

Somehow the trial of a militant Covenanter, John Nisbet in Glen, had led to the flight and later forfeiture of several high-profile and moderate-presbyterian Ayrshire lairds.

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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 July 15, 2018.

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