The Wigtown Martyrs: The Pamphlet Duel of 1703 Begins #History #Scotland

Toleration's Fence Removed 1703

In the decade after 1693, the 1685 drowning of the Wigtown Martyrs, Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, passed without comment in any source. Then in 1703, what happened to them became embroiled in an exchange of pamphlets between Episcopalian and Presbyterian authors over the merits of toleration. What had taken place in the Killing Times two decades earlier was drawn into public debate.

One pamphlet from the Episcopalian side, Toleration Defended (1703), made no mention of the Wigtown case, but it drew a riposte from a Presbyterian author, James Ramsay, who had been the minister of Eyemouth since 1693. As Ramsay was born in 1672 and had completed his degree at St Andrews in 1687, he had lived in Scotland during the Killing Times, although his East-Coast background almost certainly indicates that he had no direct experience of it. (Fasti, II, 45, 72.)

Toleration’s Fence Removed (1703)
Ramsay’s riposte was Toleration’s Fence Removed, which did mention the execution of women, including that of the Wigtown drownings:

‘It is well enough known that poor women were executed in the Grassmercat [i.e.,Isobel Alison and Marion Harvie who were hanged in 1681]: sure it was not for rising in arms against the King: others of them were tyed to stakes within flood-mark till the sea came up and drowned them, and this without any form or process of Law. How many were by souldiers taken up by the way, or while they were about their Employments, examined on this or the other head, and if the common souldiers were not satisfied with their answers, they shot them dead on the spot:’ (Ramsay, Toleration’s Fence Removed, 7-8.)

It is clear from the stock phrases that Ramsay used in his description of the drowning that his information on the Wigtown case was recycled evidence found earlier published sources. In particular, he probably drew on two works by Alexander Shields, and/or one by Gilbert Rule, which recycled Shields.

Wigtown Martyrs

In A Hind Let Loose (1687), Shields stated that ‘some were hanged, some drowned, tied to stakes within the sea-mark, to be devoured gradually with the growing waves’ and in the frontispiece illustration that ‘women hanged others drowned at stakes in the sea’.

In A Short Memorial of the Sufferings and Grievances (1690), Shields also noted that two women were ‘most illegally condemned and most unceremoniously drowned at stakes within the sea-mark’. While Rule in 1691 reported that ‘two women, […], and caused them to be tied to a stake within the sea-mark of Wigtown, and left them there till the tide overflowed them; and this was done, without any legal trial’.

Ramsay did not impart any new information about the Wigtown case. Other earlier sources had named the two women, confirmed one was old and the other young, and identified those said to be responsible for their deaths. Nearly all of the Presbyterian sources before Ramsay followed Alexander Shields’ lead that the women had been tied to stakes and drowned and that their execution was illegal. That was because all of the other writers on the subject – Rule, Ridpath and Alexander Shields’ brother, Michael – drew directly on Alexander Shields’ works. In 1703, Ramsay followed the same lead in Toleration’s Fence Removed.

However, unremarkable though it was in terms of content, Toleration’s Fence Removed proved to be significant as it kick started a debate over what actually happened at Wigtown. Ramsay intended to use the case of the Wigtown Martyrs to make a point about the illegal nature of the persecution. It was his questioning of the legality of what was done that drew forth a truly remarkable reply from an Episcopalian author which admitted that they were drowned. That will be the subject of the next post.

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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 November 28, 2019.

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