The Wigtown Martyrs: The ‘Petitione for Margaret Lachlisone’ of 28 April, 1685 #History #Scotland

Wigtown Martyrs

The drowning of two women at Wigtown is the most hotly debated cases of the Killing Times of 1685. It is a case that has called the veracity of the Killing Times into question. If the well-documented Wigtown case is a fabrication, what of the other cases? Leading the charge against the Wigtown case in the Nineteenth Century was Sheriff Mark Napier, lawyer, vociferus anti-Radical, Neo-Jacobite and Tory. He argued that the women were not drowned as the seventeenth-century evidence indicated, but that they were sent to Edinburgh and released after their petitions were read at the Privy Council on 30 April, 1685.

Case closed…

Or is it? Where was Margaret MacLachlan and the other Wigtown martyr when the former sent a petition to the privy council in Edinburgh on c.30 April, 1685? Was she in Wigtown or Edinburgh? If she was in Wigtown, Napier’s case collapes.

The Petition before 30 April
Endorced ‘The Petitione for Margaret Lachlisone, 1685′

‘Supplication by Margaret Lachlisone, now prisoner in the tolbooth of Wigtoun, as follows:– She is “justlie condemned to die be the Lords Commissioners of his Majesties most honourable Privie Counsell and Justitiarie in an court holden at Wigtoune the threttein day of Apryle instant for my not disowning that traiterous Apollogeticall Declaratione laitlie affixed at severall paroch churches within this kingdom and my refuising the oath of abjuratione of the saymein, which wes occasioned by my not peruseing the saymein; and now I haveing considdered the said Declaratione doe acknowledge the saymein to be traiterows and tends to nothing but rebellione and seditione and to be quyt contrair wnto the wryt in Word of God, and am content to abjure the same with my whol heart and soull.” She therefore craves the council to consider her case, she being about 70 years of age, and recall the sentence and grant warrant to someone to administer the oath of abjuration to her and liberate her, whereupon she shall live as a good and faithful subject and frequent the ordinances and do what else is prescribed to her. Signed by William Moir, notary, on her behalf because she cannot write; A. Dunbar, witnes; Will. Gordoun, witnes’. (RPCS, XI, 286.)

Margaret McLachlan, or Lachlison, was one of two women said to have been executed by drowning in Wigtown on 11 May, 1685.

Two Scenarios
There are two competing scenarios over where the two martyrs were held after they were sentenced to death by drowning at their trial in Wigtown on 13 April, 1685. Nobody disputes that they were tried and condemned to drowning.

According to one scenario, advanced by Napier in the Nineteenth Century, the women were taken to Edinburgh at some point after their trial in Wigtown on 13 April, where a reprieve, the first stage of a royal pardon, was granted to them on 30 April.

For Napier, the granting of a reprieve in Edinburgh on 30 April clinched his case that the women were not drowned as the Presbyterian sources had claimed.

However, the other scenario for where the women were held is that they remained in Wigtown after their trial to await execution. All the Presbyterian sources agree on that.

A key step in the process of trying to obtain a reprieve for the women were petitions from them to the privy council asking for their case to be reconsidered as they were willing to take oaths. Only the petition from Margaret McLachlan, above, survives in the registers of the privy council. It clearly states that she had changed her mind about refusing the Abjuration oath and that she was, at the time of the petition on 28 April, willing to take it.

Her previous refusal to take the Abjuration oath was the reason for the death sentence of drowning being handed down to her at the circuit court at Wigtown on 13 April. After the petition read on c.30 April, the privy council issued a reprieve on behalf of both of the women on 30 April.

Does the petition of Margaret McLachlan give any indication of where the women were held on c.30 April, 1685?
Yes, it does.The supplication describes her as ‘now prisoner in the tolbooth of Wigtoun’.

From the text of her petition, it is clear that she was interviewed while in prison and that her declaration that she was willing to take the Abjuration oath was recorded, as the petition declares that ‘she cannot write’. Not being able to write, did not mean she could not read. Reading the bible and writing a document were different skills. The petition was written for her.

The key question is, who conducted the interview and drafted the petition read before the privy council on c.30 April on her behalf? The petition mentions three individuals. William Moir, a notary who recorded the petition ‘on her behalf’ and two witnesses, ‘A. Dunbar’, and William Gordon.

Where were the witnesses to the Petition from?
It is clear that William Moir, the notary who attested the petition, was almost certainly the same individual as the ‘William Moir, commissar’ listed on the parish list for Wigtown of October, 1684. Moir was notary who recorded wills etc., for the commissary court of Wigtownshire. It was his job to subscribe local legal documents.

The name of one of the two witnesses to the petition may also appear in the Wigtownshire parish lists of October, 1684. It is not clear who the witnesses were, unlike Moir, but one candidate is perhaps the ‘William Gordon’ recorded on the parish list for the burgh of Wigtown with other Gordons below the name of Baillie Alexander Gordon. Dunbar is also a Wigtownshire name. Is the latter close to David Dunbar of Baldoon, of the same Kirkinner parish where McLachlan lived? His name takes precedence in the list of two witnesses. Baldoon clearly had presbyterian connections. Is this petition an arms-length attempt by some Presbyterians in the local elite to intervene? Dunbar would later appeal to the Privy Council that Winram, who later conducted the execution of the two women, had quartered his dragoons on his meadows.

Moir and the witnesses interviewed McLachlan in Wigtown’s tolbooth in late April, when the petition was drafted. The evidence of the petition places Margaret McLachlan in prison in Wigtown on 30 April, rather than in Edinburgh as Napier claimed.

It is perfectly clear that the two women were in Wigtown on c.30 April, 1685. It was their petitions that made their way to Edinburgh by express post, as did military dispatches, not the two women.

Were the Women rushed to Edinburgh?

No. Transporting prisoners took much longer. For example, Gilbert McIlroy who was captured near Wigtown two months later took about seven days to reach Edinburgh under guard from nearby Minnigaff, even when we exclude a three day stop at Barr kirk. It is 110 miles from Wigtown to Edinburgh. The elderly McLachlan was not swept to Edinburgh on horse back. Her petition was.

The veracity of Napier’s case that they were sent to Edinburgh after their trial is falling apart.

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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 September 14, 2018.

13 Responses to “The Wigtown Martyrs: The ‘Petitione for Margaret Lachlisone’ of 28 April, 1685 #History #Scotland”

  1. The culprit was residing within St John’s Castle Stranraer, the delay in getting the reprieve to Wigtown resulted in the ‘Twa Margarets’ drowning. The people of Wigtown and Scotlands God honouring Presbyterians, from that day to this are the true custodians of this truth, which has stood the test of time and NEVER REFUTED.

  2. […] and perhaps some others. Why else were they paying him four shillings (Scots) a day? We know that at some point prior to 28 April, a petition from (at least one of) the prisoners was sent to Edinbur…, as it was read on 30 April before the Privy Council. That petition came from Wigtown. A reprive […]

  3. I am unfortunately no expert, and please correct me i this is not correct, but isn’t it the case that an open ended reprieve would only be given following the accused having actually retaken the oath ? It makes little sense to me to send a petition requesting permission to be allowed to take the oath again, and for the very highest legal authorities in the land (discussing a matter of life and death) to then grant an open reprieve without even the oath having been heard ?

    Even more amazing would be if the officially reprieved accused were subsequently executed anyway. Would there not be an immediate storm of legal proceedings, and wranglings, concerning an illegal execution which would have been recorded by every commentator of the day not to mention the subsequent privy council meetings themselves ?

    Certainly that such a document would be sent, having been signed by no less than three witnesses, all of whom who would have taken the oath themselves so were relatively impartial, and reprieves were given regardless of whether or not oaths were taken, blows to smithereens the covenanter friendly accounts of their deaths which neither mention the fact they had asked to take the oath again (and indeed quite the opposite), nor that reprieves had been given, nor that they were legally murdered having been reprieved.

    It really is an enigma.

    Surely there must be more documents waiting to be found.

    • and by “legally murdered” i mean that they were killed without legal authority, ie murdered. not that the murders were legal.

    • Hi,

      the reprieve is not “open ended”, it left the exact period to be filled in by the clerks, usually around a month. The reprieve was conditional on the women formally taking the Abjuration oath, which at least one (perhaps both) said thet were willing to do. The latter seems llikely. However, they had to actually formally take it. The petition only said they were willing to take it.

      “Even more amazing would be if the officially reprieved accused were subsequently executed anyway.” They were given the chance to formally take it.

      We have other cases where executed Covenanters petitioned and then changed their minds. It is like they were under pressure (in this case by men) and wrestling with their consciences as petitioning defacto recognised royal authority.

      In my view, we have the judicial trial process (records of which last up to 30 April), but then a second intervention by Captain ‘Major’ George Winram and his dragoons when they show up in Wigtown on c11 May. Winram, probably on the same basis as the previous commander of the company of dragoons, held his commisson to conduct executions in the field where the Abjuration oath was refused. Nearly all the Presbyterian sources accurately identify Winram as involved in the drowning (the punishment for refusing the Abjuration oath in the commission to military officers)

      We have two proesses conducted under different legal regimes. One judicial, ending in the record on 30 April, and a second what you could term “military-judicial” which did not have to refer to a court or the Lord Advocate and was “legal”, that resulted in execution by drowning.

      As for the storm of legal protest. It was legal under the commission to military officers to conduct summary field executions. The two female Wigtown martyrs were just 2 of 93 summary field executions. There is no record of protest against the 91 others or in the Wigtown case. It really is not exceptional. The real legal storm was post-Revolution when the militant presbyterians published the names of those invloved and wanted action taken against them. That was ignored by those in power. “Barring other sources” amounts to the same thing. If we are not prepared to accept the sources that say they were drowned, we have to ask the question, what evidence would we accept? Only government sources? If we want eyewitness testimony, then what about the Margaret McLachlan’s daughter, who witnessed her execution, and other who said that that we can find in the sources? In the end if we deny all other sources, we end up down a mass-conspiracy theory route. Thier relatives lied, members of the communities they were from (beyond Wigtown) lied, Baillie McKeand’s later felt ‘heartfelt’ grief for his part in the trial for what?, Graves were put up at considerable expense in the kirkyard of Wigtown when many must have known the drownings were a lie, the ministers who informed Wodrow lied, the episcopalians (from Kirkinner) who said ‘drowned they were indeed’ but according to law must have lied, those publicly accused in print (1690) and in stone never disputed the lie. Where does that end? Only in one rational place, ‘drowned they were indeed’.

      • “legally murdered”. The PC specifically commissioned military officers to drown women who refused the Abjuration oath, renouncing the United Societies’ ‘war’ of assassinations against “known persecutors”. I am not a legal expert in 17th-C law, so I think it may have been legal. The point is that post-Revolution the militant Society people called it murder and disputed the legality of it. An episcopal source (1703) said they were drowned but that it was according to law. The elite did answer the Societies’ charges.

  4. “The evidence of the petition places Margaret McLachlan in prison in Wigtown on 30 April, rather than in Edinburgh as Napier claimed.

    It is perfectly clear that the two women were in Wigtown on c.30 April, 1685.”

    The date 30th April is on the document granting reprieve, not the petition though. Barring other evidence, can we not assume that the petition was sent very shortly after the original sentencing on 13th April, along with those now willing to take the oath which they were requesting in the document itself – would not both travel together ? Is there no date on the petition, I have searched online and cannot find anything – is there a link to the scanned petition anywhere ?

    • Hi,
      we only have the reprieve as recorded in registers of the Privy Council, i.e., when it was read on 30 April. It is clear that the petition was subscribed by three people in Wigtown. The names are a giveaway and one is the local notary who appears in a list in Ocotber, 1684. The petition certainly came from Wigtown. It specifically states “NOW prisoner in the tolbooth of Wigtoun”, which would be an error if Maragert Lachlisone was in Edinburgh. The privy council do not correct that in their entry for 30 April, but do direct the reprieve to Edinburgh, possibly in error.

      There is no date on the petition as recorded by the PC. As this was a judicial process in the court (rather than a military judicial summary process at that point which it probably was later) time was granted for petitions to the PC before sentence was carried out.

      • Hi,

        “along with those now willing to take the oath which they were requesting in the document itself – would not both travel together ?” What evidence do we have that the women were taken to Edinburgh? We have the reprieve which is directed to ‘Edinburgh’, but the petition says ‘now’ prisoner in Wigtown.

        We have a contradiction in the government evidence and then silence followed by arguments based on assumptions. The Cumnock case shows that pardons were issued, but we do not have one in this case. All the presbyterian sources (1687 to 1722) and one episcopalian source (1703) say they were drowned. Nobody disputed that until Napier, including those accused of drowning the women.

      • I was assuming that the petition asking for another opportunity to take the oath was written in wigtown, witnessed by the locals there who put their names to it, and was then sent to edinburgh for the privy council (with or without the condemned). If the original petition is not present, and what is recorded instead is just a reading of the petition, then it makes sense that it says “Now a prisoner in wigtown”, on the understanding that is part of the petition, because that’s where they were when the petition was recorded, and does not have any bearing on where the condemned were when it was brought before the privy council.

        This is possibly easy to check though. We can by looking at other petitions of the period concerning non-abjuration where it records “prisoner now in X” and see if (assuming reprieve), the edinburgh magistrates are also instructed to release them. Would you agree that if that occurred in multiple cases, it would indicate that they had been in edinburgh and been reprieved, and that the instruction to the edinburgh magistrates to release them was not just administrative error ?

        I don’t think it’s fair to say Napier was the first to deny it btw.

      • Hi,
        Your reply poses a number of questions, which I hope you have to time to answer.

        The petition “does not have any bearing on where the condemned were when it was brought before the privy council.”

        An interesting point and you agree that the petition came from Wigtown. We do not know when the petition was sent between c.14 April and a few days before 30 April when it was read before the PC.

        We have records of Edinburgh Tolbooth from that time period and the two women do not appear in them, unlike Gilbert McIlroy (Milroy), who does appear, and other prisoners from the SW. Why do the women not appear?

        The two women do not appear in PC records as present before them. Or in any semi-independent record of the dealings of the PC, e.g., Lauder of Fountainhall. Why not?

        We still have the problem of a contradiction in the government sources. ‘Now prisoner’ in Wigtown in the petition vs., reprieve directed to Edinburgh on 30 April.

        The government sources never resolve what happened to the two women. You may say that they might have pardoned the women, but that is a statement without documentary evidence. It is an assumption. What is that assumption based on?

        We also still have the problem of all the Presbyterian sources (and one Episcopal source from 1703) that state that they were drowned in Wigtown. That problem is not going to go away for those who argue that they were probably not drowned. Rejecting the veracity of that testimony (including some from Wigtown or those who knew the women) in favour of uber scepticism/only regarding government sources as reliable is a perilous historical road to go down, is it not?

        In his own terms, Napier was right to deny of all the Presbyterian sources, as that was the only way he could make a case that they were not drowned. He had to deny all the Presbyterian sources as untrustworthy liars, which he did do, in order to delete their evidence that they were drowned. He never addressed the Episcopalian source. Is that a sound historical method to adopt?

        We know that the Presbyterian testimony from 1687 did not have access to the disorganised registers of the PC until Wodrow. He also sought out testimony from the local kirk sessions (Kirkinner and Penninghame) in 1708, fourteen years before he published. Were Wodrow’s sources/those kirk sessions lying?

        In my view, we fixate on the reprieve, only the first stage of a pardon. From the Cumnock case (tried on 3 April by Douglas) we know that it took until 25 June for a pardon to be issued. We do not have the latter stages in the Wigtown case. Just silence.

        Personally, I think that the reprieve was sent to Wigtown, as any error my have been picked up when the details of the PC decision of 30 April were formulated into a document to be sent to the Wigtown women. It is possible that they missed that in the confusion of the Argyll Rising, which broke at that time, but let us let that pass. Let us ‘assume’ a reprieve was sent to Wigtown post 30 April, which required them to formally take the Abjuration oath. Who had the legal power to administer the Abjuration oath in Wigtown?

        It had to be someone with a judicial commission for Galloway or a military officer with the power to summarily press the oath. They had to sign it off. It was not the word of any member of Wigtown’s burgh elite, as none of them were commissioned with that power.

        Who held a judicial commission to press the Abjuration oath post 30 April?

        Who turned up in Wigtown?

        Did a military officer who did appear in Wigtown have to refer his field decision to the Lord Advocate or a court? Yes or no?

        Which military officer do the Presbyterian sources say enacted summary field justice?

        As for Napier being the first to deny, I agree he may not have been, but we do not know who Wodrow said denied it in 1722. What sources say that? If we cannot trust Wodrow as a source for the drownings, why believe him when he said that some Jacobites denied it and others of them extenuate ‘this matter of fact’ in 1722? If we accept his evidence that some disputed the drownings, without our having the documents to prove that, why dispute his evidence that it happened, where he had documents? Are we being selective in the evidence we accept? Yes or no?

        Kindest regards,


  5. The first stage of a pardon, a reprieve where all the blanks aren’t filled in is not the clincher which a pardon that had been through all the stages would be. In itself it’s not enough to overcome multiple things that taken together point against it. Besides all the work Mark has done investigating who said what and when in his other posts, I would also add that it’s worth noting that family members and eyewitnesses are around and testifying for decades after, including Eliza Milliken chatting to her minister from the standpoint of an adult eyewitness to her own mother’s drowning. Of things eyewitnesses get wrong, a parent being executed in front of them tends not to be one of them. Given that Eliza’s family circumstances were also accepted by the local Kirk session on lands where she’d lived for decades and where these were events in living memory, she’s not easily discounted even before we look at everything else. When we do take in all the other things, we’d need very strong evidence to say that overall, all these people are lying or mistaken or passing on dodgy oral traditions/gilding the lily rather than corroborating each other.

    But if very solid evidence emerged that clinched the case in the other direction then we would have reason to overturn all these accounts. What might that look like? The obvious thing would be for either of the women to be found alive after they were supposed to have been executed. For example it settled the matter that Barbara Napier one of the accused in the North Berwick witch trials was not executed when she was found alive years later in legal records claiming a pension, in another case a scribbled committee minute proved that a witchcraft suspect was ‘dismissed’ due to being ‘under some distemper’ ie. mentally unwell and so wasn’t burned. But the first stage of a pardon that was never completed is not this level of evidence and for me too much else points in the other direction.

  6. […] the women agreed to send a petition to the Privy Council in Edinburgh after the trial of 13 April. The record of the only petition that survives in the registers of the privy council confirms that it came from Wigtown, as it refers to one of […]

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