The Covenanter Assassins at Caldons in January, 1685 #History #Scotland

Covenanters Grave Caldons

The attempted assassination of Colonel James Douglas at Caldons in Minnigaff parish, Galloway, on 23 January, 1685, is one of the better recorded events of the Killing Times. However, the Presbyterian sources for the Killing Times chose to ignore that attack and present the death of six Covenanters there as an unprovoked act of repression on six godly men in hiding and at prayer. If we track those involved in the attack at Caldons through the historical sources and across the landscape, we may discover a possible trigger for their actions …

Map of the Covenanters’ Grave at Caldons

Wodrow’s History presents us with a classic example of how presbyterian historians evaded mentioning the assassination attempt:

‘By attested accounts […], I find, that this year [i.e., 1685] Thomas Stevenson, brother to John Stevenson in Barbeath, and John Stevenson, son to Thomas Stevenson in Star, and James Maclave there [in Starr], all in the parish of Straiton, were shot in the fields without any process, merely upon their refusing the abjuration [oath].’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 240.)

Wodrow did not connect his record of the deaths of the three men from Straiton parish with another of his records that listed them among those who were killed at Caldons:

‘January 23d, colonel James Douglas, lieutenant Livingston, and cornet Douglas [i.e., Dundas], with a party of horse, surprised the six persons underwritten, at prayer in the Caldunes, in the parish of Monigaff in Galloway. Their names, and indeed it is all almost I can give in the numerous instances before me, were, James Dun, Robert Dun, Alexander M’Aulay, Thomas Stevenson, John M’Clude, and John Stevenson. Nothing was to be charged upon them, but that they were persons upon their hiding, and at prayer. Whether the oath of abjuration was offered or not, my information doth not bear; but without any further process they were immediately taken out, and shot to death.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 239.)

It is clear that the latter passage in Wodrow was simply an expansion of an entry on the list found in Shields’ A Short Memorial (1690) and Cloud of Witnesses (1714), as it follows exactly the same order:

‘Item, The said colonel or lieutenant-general James Douglas, with lieutenant Livingston and coronet James Douglas [an error for Dundas], surprised six men at prayer at the Calduns in the parish of Minigaf; viz James Dun, Robert Dun, Andrew Mackale, Thomas Stevenson, John Maclude, and John Stevenson, in January, 1685.’

The Caldons Letters of 28 January, 1685
Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that Wodrow did not connect those two passages to a letter he reproduced, which laid out what had happened at Caldons.

The letter of 28 January, 1685, was sent to the five men commissioned to press the Abjuration oath in Galloway. From it, it is clear that three of the attackers at Caldons had been captured alive and after trial were to returned to ‘the place’ for execution:

‘Right honourable,—his majesty’s privy council being certainly informed, that captain Urquhart hath been killed, and some others of his majesty’s forces killed and wounded, by some desperate rebels in your bounds, who had the boldness to attack them, whereof three were taken alive and made prisoners.

The council thinking it fit that justice may be done upon those notorious desperate rebels, upon the place, for greater terror and example to others, do therefore require you, immediately upon the receipt of this, to proceed and do justice on them according to your commission, you being first convened to this purpose by colonel James Douglas colonel of the foot-guards, whom we have added to your commission, and punish them according to law and your instructions.

And where they shall be found guilty, you shall forthwith cause burn their houses and the materials thereof, and secure their goods for his majesty’s use. And particularly if you find any of those rebels have been maliciously and wilfully reset at the houses of Star or Loch-head lying towards Kilrine and Craigmalloch, inquire into it. Your punctual and exact obedience is required.
[Subscribed] Perth.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 198.)

Wodrow also did not reproduce the Privy Council’s reply of 28 January to Colonel James Douglas’s letter sent from New Galloway on 24 January. In it, the council thought fit to ‘acquaint yow … that a letter direct by yow [i.e., from Colonel Douglas] from New Galloway of the twentieth and fourth instant to the Lord Chancellor was communicate to them, giveing ane account of the late insolent attacque made by some desperate rebells on some of his Majesties forces, where Captaine Urquhart was killed and others of them killed or wounded, and of three houses [at Starr, Loch Head and Craigmalloch] where they wer suspect to have been resett; and to shew that they are very well satisfyed with your great care and dilligence on this occasione, they have ordered yow and the other commissioners immediatlie to prosecute these rebells now prisoners, and to burne the houses of such as are malitious and willfull resetters of rebells and the materialls thereof’. (RPCS, X, 115.)

The letters of 28 January indicate that only three of six men killed at Caldons died in the confrontation and that three others, held prisoner by Douglas at New Galloway and alive on 28 January, were to be tried and executed ‘upon the place’ soon after ‘for greater terror and example to others’.

The Three Houses at Starr
Both letters also mention the house at Starr, where John Stevenson and James Maclave (aka. John McClude) were from, and two other houses close by Starr.

The farms that two of the Covenanters were from are now known as Starr and (Nether/Old) Berbeth, which both lie in Straiton parish, Ayrshire.

Thomas Stevenson (d.1685), brother to John Stevenson in Berbeth, Straiton parish
The Thomas Stevenson killed at Caldons was the brother of a John Stevenson in Berbeth. He was close kin to the John Stevenson who died at Berbeth in 1683. (Testament Dative 15/05/1683). It appears that the farm continued to be held by the family, as Marion McIlnay, the wife of the John who died in 1683, made her testament at Berbeth in 1688. (Testament Dative, 23/05/1688.) (Commissariot of Glasgow, 310, 474).

Berbeth lay in Straiton parish close to Dalmellington parish where two of those killed at Caldons were from.

Map of (Nether/Old) Berbeth

John Stevenson (d.1685), son to Thomas Stevenson in Starr, and James Maclave there [in Starr], Straiton parish
It appears that the Berbeth family were probably close kin of the family in Starr. It is possible that Thomas Stevenson in Starr and the Thomas Stevenson, the brother of John in Berbeth, were the same individual and that the Stevensons killed at Caldons were father and son. It is also possible that they were cousins. James Maclave (aka. John McClude) was also from Starr.

Map of Starr

The two other houses mentioned as locations where the attackers were suspected to have been ‘maliciously and wilfully reset’ were Craigmalloch and Loch Head.

Craigmalloch lay to the north of Starr and close to where Loch Doon Castle has been re-erected after the loch level was raised by a hydro scheme.

Map of Craigmalloch

Loch Head lay to the south of Starr and is now closer to the loch than it was in the Seventeenth Century.

Map of Loch Head

The Kirk Stone, a tradtional field preaching site, lies close to the Loch Head Burn.

The Mysteries of Caldons
There is a degree of mystery surrounding the six Covenanters killed at Caldons in Galloway, as most, if not all, of them were from Ayrshire. Why were they there? And why was Colonel James Douglas in such a remote location within days of arriving in Galloway?

What is clear is that the Covenanters had deliberately attacked Colonel James Douglas and Captain Urquhart, probably in a bid to assassinate them. Prior to the attack they had, apparently, been sheltered at, and around, Starr. Wodrow confirms that two of the attackers were from Starr – John Stevenson and James Maclave (aka. John McClude) – and the information in the letters of 28 January appears to indicate that one or more of the three men captured alive and about to be executed had revealed to Douglas where they had been sheltered before the attack.

The attackers at Caldons were unusual, as most of them were not fugitives from Bothwell. In similar cases where Covenanters attacked soldiers, most of those involved were fugitives who had appeared on the roll published in 1684, e.g., the Enterkin Attackers.

The three men from Straiton parish among the Caldons attackers are not recorded as fugitives in mid 1684, but circuit courts held in Ayrshire in October and December may have declared them fugitives. At the latter, Andrew Macgill from Ballantrae parish in Carrick was tried and executed in very obscure circumstances involving an informer, Andrew Tom/Thom.

Benquhat Benwhat Ruins


Two of the other attackers, James Dun and Robert Dun in Benquhat, were also from Ayrshire. Both belonged to Dalmellington parish directly to the north of Starr and Loch Doon. Robert Dun is the only one of the attackers that can be identified as a fugitive from Bothwell. Later tradition also claims that Roger Dun, Robert’s brother also in Benquhat, took part in the attack at Caldons, but escaped capture. Benquhat is now a ruin.

Map of Benquhat

The final member of the group, Andrew McCall/Mackale (or Alexander M’Aulay in one passage in Wodrow), has not been identified, but if he was like the others, he probably came from the parishes of Straiton or Dalmellington.

For some reason, most, if not all, of the Covenanters killed at Caldons had taken to hiding deep in the hills along the Carrick/Galloway boundary in the winter of 1684 to 1685. It appears that James Dun, Robert Dun and Thomas Stevenson had abandoned the area around their homes near Dalmellington to seek refuge in the remote hill houses at Starr, where they met up with John Stevenson and James Maclave.

At some point, probably not long before the attack, they had moved across the hills in winter into Galloway. Why they made those moves is not clear, but presumably there was a push factor of repression in Ayrshire that drove them into the hills in the first place.

A Push Factor
When Douglas arrived in Galloway with 200 soldiers in January, he planted three new garrisons at Machermore Castle, Earlstoun Castle and, crucially, at Waterhead. The latter lay within a few miles of Starr in Carsphairn parish and was the home of MacAdam of Waterhead.

Map of Waterhead

The arrival of the garrison there brought the Dun family under more pressure, as a sister of Robert Dun was married to Gilbert MacAdam, Waterhead’s son. Robert Dun’s brother-in-law and his sister’s husband, Gilbert MacAdam ‘in Dalmellington’, had been banished to the plantations in 1684, but he returned and was later killed escaping from a house in June, 1685.

The arrival of a Douglas’s garrison at Waterhead was a direct threat to the Dun family in Dalmellington and to those hiding at nearby Starr. It is possible the threat from it was a reason that the six Covenanters set out to attack Colonel Douglas.

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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 November 18, 2018.

3 Responses to “The Covenanter Assassins at Caldons in January, 1685 #History #Scotland”

  1. […] It was noot unusual for Covenanters to be summarily executed at the site of rescues, especially where soldiers had been killed. For example, see the executions at Caldons. […]

  2. […] There are a number of traditional stories about the Covenanter Roger Dun which connect him to the attack on a house at Caldons in Minnigaff parish, Kirkcudbrightshire. The Dun family in Dalmellington parish, Ayrshire, were key members of the United Societies and some of them were involved in the Caldons Incident. […]

  3. […] Which is are locations where the assassins at Caldons hid. […]

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