Five Covenanters Escape From the Canongate Tolbooth in late 1685 #History #Edinburgh #Scotland

Canongate Tolbooth

On 24 November, 1685, five Covenanters broke out of the Canongate Tolbooth in Edinburgh. Their stories link to intriguing events, including an attack on a castle, about which little is known…

Lauder of Fountainhall recorded their escape under 24 November 1685: ‘At night, the Canongate Tolbuith was broke, and 5 of the Privy Counsell’s prisoners, who ware in for conventicles, &c., escaped.’ (Lauder, Historical Notices, II, 679.)

1. John Sloss, portioner of Dalfarson, Dalmellington parish, Ayrshire.
At some point, probably too late for the mass banishments at the end of July in 1685, John Sloss was captured, brought to Edinburgh and imprisoned in the Canongate Tolbooth.

He was probably the ‘John Sloas, portioner of Dalharfrow’ in Dalmellington parish, Ayrshire, who was listed on the fugitive roll published in May, 1684. Dalmellington parish witnessed significant military activity during the summer of 1685 and it is possible that it led to the capture of Sloss.

Dalharfrow is now called Dalfarson.

Map of Dalfarson

We will return to the story of John Sloss, below.

He and four others escaped …

When Did They Escape?
After the escape, General William Drummond held ‘examinationes anent the escape of the prisoners furth of the tolbooth of the Cannogate’ on 27 November. According to his list, ‘James Templetoune; Gilbert McIlwrick; John Sloch [Sloss or Sluce]; John Strang, Hugh McMaisters[, smith]’ had escaped on 6 October [which is probably a recording/transcription error for the date of the escape as an inquiry into the escape would have immediately followed it]. (RPCS, XI, 368, See also XI, 571.)

24 November is probably the date they escaped.

Who escaped with John Sloss?

2. James Templeton ‘in Lesmahagow’, Lesmahagow parish, Lanarkshire.
A ‘John Templeton, in Threpwood [i.e. Threepwood]’, Lesmahagow parish had appeared on the fugitive roll published in May, 1684.

Map of Threepwood

Whether James ‘in Lesmahagow [parish?]’ was related to John Templeton in Threepwood is not clear.

On 15 October, 1685, the privy council allowed ‘James Templeton in Lesmahagow, to consider the oath of allegiance till the next meeting.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 223.)

3. Gilbert McIlwraith in Daljarrock, Colmonell parish, Ayrshire.
‘Gilbert MacKilwrath, in Dalwharroch [i.e., Daljarrock]’ appeared on the fugitive roll published in May, 1684.

Map of Daljarrock

He was examined before the privy council on 15 October. ‘Gilbert M’Ilwrick in Colmmonel [parish]’, a prisoner in Edinburgh, was brought before the privy council and ordered to be tried for ‘not owning the king’s authority, and refusing to take the oaths of allegiance and abjuration’, as council remitted ‘James Patrick indweller in Kilmarnock, Alexander M’Millan born in Nithsdale, and Gilbert M’Ilwrick in Commonel, to be tried before the justices, for their not owning the king’s authority, and refusing to take the oaths of allegiance or abjuration.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 223.)

Gilbert was possibly kin to Daniel McIlwraith, who was summarily executed in 1685.

Gilbert was remitted to the justices with James Patrick, who was possibly the ‘James Patrick, in Wardlaw’, now West, or East, Wardlaw, in Kilmarnock parish who was also listed on the published fugitive roll in May, 1684.

The fourth prisoner to escape was from Kilbride parish.

4. John Strang of Crosshill, Kilbride parish, Lanarkshire.
‘John Strang, of Corshill [i.e., of Crosshill]’ appeared on the fugitive roll published in May, 1684.

Map of Crosshill

The final prisoner to escape is intriguing, as his story records an attack by Covenanters on a castle in Wigtownshire.

Wigtown List Balneil

5. Hugh McMaster in Balneil, Glenluce parish, Wigtownshire.
McMaster appears on parish list for Glenluce in October, 1684, under Balneil, as an irregular attender of church.

On 15 October, 1685, the privy council appointed that ‘Hugh M’Kinasters, who has made discoveries of several persons rebels in Galloway, and who were accessory to the attack of the castle of Stranraer, whereof some are taken, to be further examined upon oath by the earl of Balcarras and [John Graham of] Claverhouse.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 223.)

McMaster was a blacksmith who probably ran a smithy in New Luce, which is next to Balneil.

Map of Balneil

As a blacksmith, McMasters had a particular skill set, either in relation to arms, or horses, which was of use for the attackers at some point in their armed attack on St Johns Castle. He had vital intelligence of who was involved.


The Attack on St Johns Castle in Stranraer in 1685.
McMasters had apparently revealed important intelligence about which Covenanters had taken part in an attack on St Johns Castle in Stranraer. It is not clear when that attack took place, but given that James Renwick’s Society people attacked other castles, towers and tolbooths to rescue prisoners or acquire arms between late 1684 and the summer of 1685, that is probably when the attack took place.

Map of St Johns Castle

Street View of St Johns Castle

It appears that McMasters was captured at some point after the attack on St Johns Castle and that his intelligence had led to the capture of ‘several persons rebels in Galloway, and who were accessory to the attack of the castle of Stranraer, whereof some are taken.’

That probably points to the summer of 1685 as the time of the attack, as his case was dealt with in October.

However, McMasters, who was probably directly implicated in assisting the attack, chose not to remain in prison even though he had provided intelligence of it.

Escaping the Canongate
The Canongate Tolbooth seems to have had a problem with prisoners escaping. On 22 December, 1685, a summons was issued to Walter Young, the keeper of the Canongate Tolbooth. It lists the same five prisoners: ‘James Templetoun; Gilbert McIlwrick; John Sloch [Sloss]; John Strang, Heugh McMaisters’. According to the summons, the ‘fyve escapt … would neither oune us nor our authority and who being examined did adhere to their seditious principles and were thereupon sent strict prisoners to the said tolbooth’. (RPCS, IX, 420.)

Sloss and the four others were not the only militants who had escaped. According to the summons, Allan Currie, ‘incarcerat for being in arms against us, denying our [au]thority and approving of the Sanqwhar Declaration [of 1680], the Bishops murder [in 1679] and all the rest of the treasonable opinions’ had made his escape ‘in November last’, i.e., the same month that the others had escaped. (RPCS, IX, 420.)

The summons also mentions that a ‘Helen Frazer, incarcerat for denying of our authority and harbouring of rebells, made their (sic) escape’ in a unspecified month. On 26 January 1686, the keeper claimed that Frazer was released, as she was there on private business, not public account, and set at liberty by those who had imprisoned her. (RPCS, XI, 420, 512.)

John Sloss is Recaptured
Sloss was apparently still a liberty in late January, 1686, as the former keeper of the tolbooth could not produce him at that time to refute claims against him that he had let prisoners escape.

What happened next is probably found in an undated document found in the registers of the privy council:

‘John Sloss, prisoner in the tolbooth off Edinburgh, wes aprehended be Captain Strachans dragoons for being in arms with [James] Renek att field conventickells. He denyes the kings authoritie, and will not bidd God save the King. Its lykwayes informed he break the tolbooth off the Cannongatt [in November, 1685], and wes e[n]devoring to make his escape out of the tolbooth off Wighton. He had no armes when he wes taken.’ (RPCS, XI, 431.)

It is clear that when that document was written that John Sloss was a prisoner in Edinburgh Tolbooth, and that he had previously escaped from the Canongate in November.

What is not clear from the document is when he was armed at one of James Renwick’s field preachings and when he attempted to escape from Wigtown Tolbooth. It does appear that the latter events took place after he escaped the Canongate Tolbooth, but we cannot be sure of that.

He was recaptured by Captain John Strachan’s dragoons, who were based at New Galloway in the winter of 1685 to 1686.

Sloss had no arms when recaptured, although he was said to have been armed when he had previously attended one of James Renwick’s field preachings.

That is possibly rare evidence that Renwick preached in Wigtownshire, as Sloss was held in the Wigtown Tolbooth after the field preaching. Renwick did preach across Galloway, which includes Wigtownshire, in late 1685, although we do not have direct evidence that he specifically preached in Wigtownshire. It is, of course, almost certain that Renwick did preach in Wigtownshire, given the strength of support for the militant cause in the parishes of Penninghame, Kirkcowan and Glenluce.

After his recapture, Sloss apparently attempted to escape from Wigtown Tolbooth. He was later brought to Edinburgh Tolbooth, what happened to him next is not clear.

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Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please feel free 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 August 18, 2019.

4 Responses to “Five Covenanters Escape From the Canongate Tolbooth in late 1685 #History #Edinburgh #Scotland”

  1. Dr. Jardine,
    I’m continually impressed by your work on the “Jardine’s Book of Martyrs”. I love the historical accuracy which you describe as well as context and depth. Please keep them coming. As a distant relation to Alexander Peden, I find the articles an excellent way to learn about these times. Thank you!

  2. Wonderful information on the Covenanters. However John Sloss did not belong to Dalfarson in Dalmellington Parish. He belonged to Dalharkow or Dalharko (Modern spelling Dalharco) formerly in Dalmellington Parish now Parish of Patna.
    The farms were at opposite ends of the parish. I have been studying the Sloss family for years and discovered that the Sloss family were living in Dalharco during and after the killing times. They never lived in Dalfarson.
    Whoever transcribed the entry in Jardines book of martyrs mistook the spelling believing it was Dalfarson when in fact it should be read as Dalharco.
    If you check this out for yourself l am sure you will realise the misunderstanding.
    It does not make a huge difference as John Sloss still came from Dalmellington Parish just a different farm. Unfortunately Dalharco no longer exists just a small heap of stones close to Downieston Farm, Patna.
    I hope you do not mind me pointing this out but l feel it is a more accurate description of one of our covenanting forebears.

    • Hi Gordon,
      Wow. Great information. My error! I always like it when readers point out errors. There is just so much information to process that inevitably there is the odd error. I’m not precious about changing things. I just want it to be accurate. So thank you for pointing that out. I will look into it and correct the entry.
      Best, Mark

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