Watersaugh’s Secret Mission on the Eve of the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679 #History #Scotland

On the eve of the battle of Bothwell Bridge, a secret agent named John Miller sneaked out of the camp of the King’s army on his hands and knees. His plan was to cross the Clyde and enemy lines to rendezvous with leaders of the rebel Covenanters who were then in arms. Battle was only hours away. His mission? To persuade the rebels to lay down their arms and get beneficial terms for their surrender. Did he succeed? …

John Miller was the laird of Watersaugh in Shotts parish, Lanarkshire. Today, Watersaugh is an over-grown ruin near Coltness in Wishaw, Lanarkshire.

Map of Watersaugh

What was at stake?
Miller of Watersaugh did not embark on the mission off his own back. He had been selected for the task. Here we get into the optics of Watersaugh’s secret mission. At the moment that Watersaugh was sent on his mission, James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch, the great Whig/Protestant hope to avoid a future Catholic King James VII in the Exclusion Crisis, had recently arrived to take charge of the King’s army. Monmouth needed moderate-presbyterian support in Scotland to boost his position across Britain, but he was in charge of an army sent to crush the presbyterian Covenanters. It was a tricky political dilemma for him and some of the gentry with him. Many of the moderate-presbyterian gentry sympathised with the rebels, but feared that the militants who had started the rising were making unrealistic and politically radical demands which threatened royal authority. When push came to shove, most of the moderate-presbyterian gentry found that they could not support the militant-led rising. Some sat on their hands, or privately assisted the rebels, and others, perhaps with a degree of reluctance, joined the King’s forces as loyal subjects.

At the same time, the leaders of the Presbyterian rising at Bothwell were divided. Militants like Donald Cargill and Robert Hamilton had initiated the rebellion and won victories in early June at Drumclog and Glasgow. For them, that was confirmation that God favoured their cause. However, their early successes triggered a wider presbyterian rising across the South West, with the result that less militant-figures came into the Covenanters’ camp and swung the balance of power in the council of war in a moderate direction. By the eve of battle, the Covenanter Army was divided and locked in a potentially irreconcilable dispute between moderates and militants.

On 20 June, the less-militant faction had finally gained control of the Covenanters’ council of war, after the Galloway lairds had arrived. It may have been at that point, although we have no direct evidence for it, in which feelers were sent out to moderate-presbyterian gentry with Monmouth that a negotiated resolution to the conflict was possible. What is clear is that some of the gentry with Monmouth decided to reach out to the rebels.

At that moment, there was a lot at stake for the wider Presbyterian movement. Defeat in battle would be a crushing blow to the Presbyterian cause in Scotland, define them as disloyal rebels and lead to the fragmentation of the movement. However, a Covenanter victory, or even just them holding off Monmouth’s army in stand off at the bridge, also carried risks for the moderates, as it would boost the militant’s cause and only reinforce their demands. From the point of view of the moderate-presbyterian gentry, avoiding a battle and ending the rebellion on favourable terms was the best possible outcome.

Watersaugh’s mission also took place against the backdrop of closing armies. As the Covenanters settled into their camp at Hamilton Muir, the King’s army was moving west towards them. On 17 June, elements of the latter were assembling near Broxburn, and on 19 June, a brief skirmish was fought near their camp at Kirk O’ Shotts. Two days later, on 21 June, the King’s army struck camp and approached the north side of the Clyde to within a few miles of the Covenanters on Hamilton Muir. Battle was close.

It was in that moment, that Watersaugh was sent to the Covenanters with an offer.

Why was Watersaugh selected?
Choosing the right agent to deliver their message was essential. If the messenger was to get a hearing, he had to be acceptable to both factions in the Covenanters’ council of war. The militants were not likely to countenance any “malignant” who was in the King’s Army arrayed against them.

The advantages that John Miller of Watersaugh offered was that he was a moderate presbyterian who is said to have been married to one of Donald Cargill’s sisters. Cargill was probably familiar with his sister’s household. He had lived in Lanarkshire from the mid 1650s until he retired to his native Perthshire after the Restoration. From the late 1670s, when to took up field preaching in the area around Glasgow, he may well have stayed there and at some point, probably after the Bothwell Rising, he is said to have escaped soldiers searching the house.

As kin of the leading militant minister among the Covenanters, his safety was pretty much guaranteed and he was likely to get at least a hearing from Cargill and his followers.

The Mission
Watersaugh was with Monmouth’s army when he was approached by George Melville, Lord Melville, and William Hamilton of Wishaw. The laird of Wishaw was Watersaugh’s closest neighbour and lived directly across the South Calder Water from him. Wishaw’s presence probably both reassured and helped to persuade Watersaugh to accept the mission. He was probably identified as an ideal candidate by the laird of Wishaw acting on behalf of Lord Melville.

How far the idea for the mission when up the chain of command is not clear. It probably  reached up to Monmouth, the commander of the King’s army, and may have ultimately reached up the king, Charles II. Over a decade later, Wishaw claimed that Lord Melville had said that ‘Monmouth allowed him to do it’. Another witness at the time, George MacKenzie, Viscount of Tarbat, also stated that Charles II had authorised Monmouth to ‘employ fit persons to deal with the rebels’ and ‘that both the king and the duke did at several times tell the witness that they had desired my Lord Melville to use his endeavours for that effect.’ (RPS, A1690/4/14.)

What is clear is that Watersaugh did not see himself as the King’s agent. He only knew for certain that Lord Melville and Wishaw were behind the mission.

According to Watersaugh, his mission was expressly directed to make contact with Mr John Welsh, the minister who headed the less-militant faction that had recently taken over the Covenanter’s council of war.

Melville desired him to ‘go to the rebels’ army, to Mr John Welsh and Mr David Home and tell them from him that they might send a petition to [the] duke of Monmouth, and, providing they sent it orderly with trumpet or drum, assured them it would be received, and that they might expect good conditions.’ Wishaw encouraged him to ‘do as my Lord Melville had directed him.’

Watersaugh was to deliver targeted messages to Welsh. Melville urged him to ‘tell Mr John Welsh that the king’s army was decamping and that none knew where they were going except the duke of Monmouth.’ That provided Welsh and the Covenanters with vital intelligence that the King’s army was about to strike, but it did not tell them where the blow would land. It was a risky gesture of goodwill, but it also piled on the pressure to act now to avoid a battle. Melville also tried to persuade Welsh and others to see the political dangers a battle would bring: ‘If he were at Mr John Welsh he would sit down on his knees and beg them to lay down their arms and render themselves in the king’s mercy, for he hoped they would get good conditions’, but ‘if they will not follow advice’ and the Covenanters are ‘broken’ in battle ‘it will ruin the presbyterian interest.’

His Journey Begins
Watersaugh asked Melville ‘how he should get off the king’s army’ and was bid to ‘wait on and we shall find a way for you to get off’. In practice that apparently meant that he and Hamilton of Wishaw crawled on their hands and knees for a quarter of a mile from the camp to await the army’s departure or dusk. Both of them then journeyed for three miles together, before Wishaw parted from him and went ‘by Coltness, to his own house’.

Coltness was the home of Thomas Steuart of Coltness, a moderate presbyterian and a neighbour of both Wishaw and Watersaugh. The house at Coltness belonged to his father, but Thomas Steuart and his family inhabited it from 1679.

That appears indicate that the laird of Wishaw crossed the South Calder Water somewhere to the north of Coltness and that Watersaugh followed a different route ‘towards Hamilton’, perhaps via his house, from their parting point. At some point, Watersaugh obtained a horse, possibly from his own house, as he was later recorded as ‘riding’ towards the Covenanters guarding the ford of Dalzell. (RPS, A1685/4/22.; A1685/4/23.)

At Dalzell Ford
Here, Robert Fleming of Auchenfin, the forfeited laird in Kilbride parish, takes up the story.

Map of Auchenfin

According to Fleming of Auchenfin:

‘[He and other rebels were] guarding Dalzell ford on Saturday night [21 June, and that] between 10 o’clock and 11 o’clock there came a man to them from the king’s army named John Miller of Watershaugh, and that when he was challenged he said he had come with letters from the Lord Melville to Mr John Welsh and Mr David Home … [and] that the king’s army was under march and was within four miles of them.’

It is not clear precisely where the Dalzell ford was located on the Clyde, but it was probably close to Dalzell House and certainly crossed the Clyde at Dalziel parish.

How Watersaugh knew that the King’s army was ‘within four miles’ is not known, as he presumably took a different route from the army to the Clyde. Watersaugh’s estimate may not have been far off. After the King’s army left their camp just to the east of Kirk O’Shotts, the road system dictated that they had three potential crossing points close to the Covenanters’ camp on Hamilton Muir. One was the dry-shod crossing at Bothwell Bridge to the north of Hamilton, which they would have to force. The second was the ferry across the Clyde directly to Hamilton, which was not a realistic military option as the river was too deep. The third was to cross the Clyde at a ford to the south of Hamilton, i.e., at the Dalzell ford or further upstream at Carbarns. From Auchenfin’s testimony, it is clear that the Dalzell ford was guarded by a small party of forty to fifty Covenanters. It appears that the Covenanters saw the Dalzell ford as a potential crossing point, but did not see it as vital to hold against an assault. We do not know which route Monmouth took, but his army probably headed directly for where they appeared a few hours later at Bothwell Bridge.

Auchenfin sent John Lockhart of Barr and Alexander Lockhart with Watersaugh to Welsh, which he later stated ‘he would not have allowed upon any words of his if he had not seen the letters in his hands.’ (RPS, A1685/4/24.)

We know from an earlier incident in the rising after 13 June that Auchenfin was a trusted agent of John Welsh, as it was he who quickly had the Hamilton Declaration printed, much to the annoyance of the militant Covenanters in the camp. Was this a set up? Or was it a stroke of good luck that Watersaugh encountered Welsh’s trusted agent?

One of the men Auchenfin sent with Watersaugh, was John Lockhart of Barr, who came from Galston parish, Ayrshire. His tower still stands.

Map of Barr, Galston

He takes up the story:
‘Aged 45 years or thereby’ and ‘married’, Lockhart of Barr testified that ‘about 12 o’clock at night or 1 o’clock in the morning, John Miller of Watershaugh came riding to Dalzell ford, and being challenged by the sentries, told Robert Fleming of Auchenfin, in presence of the party that were guarding that ford (who were about 40 or 50), that he was sent by the Lord Melville with an express commission and letters to Mr John Welsh and Mr David Home, to be communicated to the rest of their associates.’

Watersaugh told Barr that ‘he had to creep upon his hands and sit near a quarter of a mile from the king’s camp, fearing he might be apprehended with the said letters and commission by any of his majesty’s forces, and that he said the Lord Melville could trust none but him with these letters.’

When they reached Hamilton, Barr states that he saw Watersaugh ‘show the back of his letters first to Robert Hamilton and then to Mr John King, who carried John Miller with his letters and commission to Mr John Welsh and Mr David Home who were then lying in Mistress Naismith’s house in Hamilton.’

That is an quite a moment. Robert Hamilton, the militant commander of the Covenanters, let the letters pass, presumably knowing they were addressed to John Welsh.

Watersaugh recorded that Auchenfin ‘sent two horsemen of the rebels with him towards the muir of Hamilton where a Mr John King met them and carried the declarant to Mr Naismith’s house in Hamilton, where Mr John Welsh and Mr David Home were in a room alone, to which three he delivered his commission;’

Afterwards the three ministers brought him ‘to the top of the muir’ where there were 10 or 12 rebel officers were convened to repeat his commission from Lord Melville that they should petition Monmouth to get good terms. There Watersaugh ‘heard Mr David Home say to the rest that he would take his life in his hand and venture over to the king’s army if they would send two officers or two gentlemen with him.’

Barr, himself, did not see or hear what was in the letters, as David Home and Patrick Murdoch, laird of Cumloden [in Galloway] ‘would not suffer Mr John Welsh to tell the same to him.’

However, Barr was clear that Watersaugh had brought them vital intelligence that ‘the king’s army were about 16,000 men and were decamped and under march and within two miles of the rebels’, and that if he had not brought that intelligence they would have ‘surprised the rebels and got all of them, as it were, in a whole net.’ (RPS, A1685/4/22.; A1685/4/25.)

James Ure of Shargarton’s account of the rising provides corroboration for Barr’s claim:

‘We were not well settled when there came a post to Mr. Welsh [from Watersaugh], showing that the enemy was marching towards us. We were not concerned with an enemy, as if there had not been one within 1000 miles of us. There were none went through the army to see if we wanted powder or ball. I do really think there were few or none that had both powder and ball in all the army to shoot twice. […] And we went presently to the moor and stood to our arms all night, and a little before day we saw the enemy kindling their matches a great way off.’ (McCrie (ed.), Memoirs of Mr William Veitch, 474.)

A Back-Up Mission
After Watersaugh left the rebel meeting, ‘he espied one Thomas Steel, tenant to [Thomas] Stewart of Coltness, at a little distance from the said meeting’.

Steel informed him that ‘William Hamilton of Wishaw had come the last night to his master’s house of Coltness, and that they had sent him to see what was become’ of Watersaugh. However, Steel had also ‘spoken with Mr John Welsh’, about which Watersaugh ‘was glad’ because he ‘would believe [Watersaugh] the better’ regarding the veracity of his mission.

Steel wished to remain to ‘be content to see what these people would do’, but at Watersaugh’s desire, Steel returned with him, presumably so both of them could inform Wishaw and Coltness they had delivered their letters and met with apparent success. (RPS, A1685/4/22.)

The Outcome
A couple of hours later, after 3 am, Ure of Shargarton was involved in the first skirmish of the battle at Bothwell Bridge. In the midst of it:

‘Robert Hamilton and Mr. Hume came to us, and several others. They sent over a drummer with a petition; so there was a cessation for near one hour. The mean while the enemy came hard to the bridge-end and spoke to us and we to them. They desired us to come over and they would not harm us, and called for Mr. [Robert] Hamilton to speak with him; so Mr. David Hume went over, and another gentleman with him, and spoke with the duke [of Monmouth], and desired his Grace if he would prevent the effusion of blood. He told them, their petition should have been more humbly worded, and said, lay down our arms and come in his mercy, and we should be favourably dealt with: so he returned and told us.

When Robert Hamilton heard it, he laughed at it, and said, “and hang next.” So we sent over word, we would not lay down our arms. …’ (McCrie (ed.), Memoirs of Mr William Veitch, 476-7.)

The Price

John Miller of Watersaugh would pay a price for the secrecy of his mission. The authorities would imprison him for conversing with the rebels at Bothwell.

Thomas Steuart of Coltness was forfeited for assisting the Bothwell rebels and prebsterian fugitives in 1685.

George Melville, Lord Melville, was forfeited by Parliament on 13 June, 1685. His forfeiture was in part due to the secret mission to the Covenanters:

‘upon 21 June [1679], the night before the rebels were defeated at Bothwell Bridge, the said Lord Melville did send and dispatch John Miller of Watershaugh from his majesty’s camp to Mr John Veitch [an error for Mr John Welsh] and others, the ringleaders and commanders of the said rebels, with letters and written commissions, at least verbal orders, giving them an account of the strength and number of his majesty’s forces, and of their motion and resolutions, … which commissioner of his accordingly arrived in their camp and delivered the said letters and commissions to the said Mr John Veitch [i.e., John Welsh] and others, the ringleaders of the said rebellion, and received such returns as the said rebels thought fit to send to him.’ (RPS, A1685/4/30.)

After the Revolution, there was a move to reduce the forfeiture of Lord Melville in Parliament. (RPS, A1690/4/14.)

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Photo of Watersaugh reproduced by the very kind permission of @grahambuttis

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~ by drmarkjardine on October 21, 2018.

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