The Wigtown Martyrs: Touching the Void between the Reprieve and Execution in 1685 #History #Scotland


In the infamous case of the drowning of the two female Wigtown Martyrs in 1685, a question that has not been asked is who could legally confirm that the two women had taken the Abjuration oath after they petitioned to be able take it on 30 April? Who had the power to provide Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan with a testificate (which was also a pass that allowed them to leave their parishes) that confirmed they had taken the oath?

The power of individuals to press the oath in the field was no idle matter for the regime, as it required a valid commission from it in order to do so. That commission granted the power to issue a testificate. It also carried the power of life and death.

After the Trial
Both women were condemned to drowning for refusing the Abjuration oath on 13 April. That is beyond dispute. They almost certainly remained in Wigtown Tolbooth for at least two days and they still appear to have been there when they petitioned and were later summarily executed, unless, in my view, we irresponsibly disregard all the sources that say that they were drowned in Wigtown, which date from 1687 onwards.

We know that one (and probably both) of 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 the women as ‘now prisoner’ in Wigtown and is subscribed by a Wigtown notary. It was read on 30 April.

There is an assumption that Margaret Wilson also sent a petition to the privy council, as a reprieve was sent to both women, although we do not know for certain that she did send one. It is an intriguing omission from the judicial record. However, she almost certainly did send one.

The petition from Wigtown was read before the council on 30 April and a reprieve was issued to both women giving them time to take the Abjuration oath. (The details of the period that the reprieve lasted were left for the clerks to fill in, which was not unusual. They often lasted three months.)

There is no evidence that the women accompanied the petition to Edinburgh. They were not apparently present when it was read before the privy council. There is no record of them in the extensive prison records for Edinburgh in 1685.

Both women (apparently) had said they were willing to take the Abjuration oath in their petitions. The reprieve gave them time to do that. However, they still had to formally take it before someone who had the power to accept the oath and confirm that they had sworn it.

The council had to have proof that the two women had actually taken the oath in order to move to the next stages beyond a reprieve, which could have ultimately ended in a pardon from King James VII from the death sentence by drowning. From other cases, we know that condemned Presbyterian prisoners who were willing to acknowledge royal authority were usually not executed. Instead they went through the process of taking oaths and giving bonds while imprisoned before their ultimate release months down the line. A good example of that is the case of four men in Cumnock.

However, there is no historical evidence of the following stages of a pardon in the Wigtown case. The judicial record of the case of the Wigtown women abruptly ends in silence on 30 April.

The position that the women were in when all the government records for their case go silent is that they still had to formally take the Abjuration oath before someone with the power to administer the oath.

All the later Presbyterian sources (and the one Episcopalian source that specifically mentions their execution) agree that they were drowned.

Into The Void
Here we have a gap in the historical records from when the judicial sources end on 30 April and the persistent reports of their execution, which was said to be on 11 May.

Is there a way of extending the government sources into the post 30 April period, which begins to fill in the eleven-day void between them and Presbyterian historical sources for execution?

Yes, there is.

That is through a simple question already mentioned above: who had the power after a reprieve was issued suspending the execution of the women on 30 April to legally administer the Abjuration oath and inform the authorities in Edinburgh that they had formally sworn it?

Historians do not agree on where the women were held on 30 April. However, let us put that debate to one side for the moment.

If we can establish who had the power to press the oath in Wigtownshire in May, 1685, then we can ask the question: does the evidence for that back up either the women in Edinburgh theory, or the mainly Presbyterian claims that the women were drowned at Wigtown?

Place your bets.

If we can identify who had the Abjuration power and directly link them to the mainly Presbyterian sources for the summary execution of the women, then one has to ask why the veracity of the Presbyterian and one Episcopal source are so quickly dismissed?

One has to keep in mind that “the-women-were-in-Edinburgh” theory ends in complete silence on 30 April and that it relies on, in my view and those of others, a mass-conspiracy theory that all the mainly Presbyterian sources, witnesses, martyrs’ graves, relatives of the women and those in their local communities were party to a deliberate lie for decades. Is there really any other explanation for all those claims if the women had actually been pardoned and survived? Such a code of silence involved the complicity of hundreds, if not thousands of people. Not one person in the decades after 1685 stepped forward to say “this it is a lie”. Why not? What are the chances of that being the case? Virtually nil.

Bridging the Void
If government sources identify someone with the power to press the Abjuration in Wigtownshire after 30 April, whom the mainly Presbyterian sources claim was directly involved in the drowning of the women, then we have circumstantial evidence backing up those later sources that some sceptics allege are either dubious, or dismiss as unreliable.

At the very least, we can establish who was in the position to press the Abjuration that the women had to take (probably, I would say almost certainly) in Wigtown post 30 April. That is a step forward in the debate over the fate of the martyrs.

Expired Judicial Commissions
Let us begin by looking back at who had held judicial commissions to press the Abjuration in Wigtownshire (which is part of Galloway) before 20 April, 1685. From the initial pressing of the Abjuration oath in January, which expired on the death of Charles II., in early February, we have the following commissioned for Galloway:

Alexander Gordon, Viscount Kenmure
Robert Grierson of Lag
David Dunbar of Baldoon
Godfrey McCulloch of Mireton
David Graham, sheriff-depute of Galloway

Under the commission to Colonel Douglas which ran from 27 March until 20 April, we have exactly the same list for Galloway. Two of those men and a military officer, Captain Strachan, sat on the court which condemned the women to drowning. Captain Strachan held a judicial commission to press the Abjuration, but he also held a military power to do so. His presence in the court was not unusual. Not only did he hold a judicial commission, his dragoons almost certainly provided the customary guard for the judges at the court.

What happened after 30 April in the key period for the drownings, as those commissions had expired ten days earlier 20 April?

We know that the women had not formally taken the Abjuration on 30 April, as the petition from Wigtown and the reprieve from Edinburgh make that abundantly clear. They had to take the Abjuration.

Lieutenant General Drummond

It is a fact worthy of remark, that only one man held a judicial commission in the entire South West from 21 April to 1 June. He was Lieutenant-General William Drummond, a senior military man.

The wording of his commission issued on 21 April makes that absolutely plain:

‘we hereby declare all former commissions granted by us or our privy council, for trying or punishing the said crimes in the country, either to noblemen, gentlemen, or officers of our army, to be void and extinct.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 209.)

In other words, all judicial commissions to press the Abjuration were ‘void and extinct’ from 21 April. That is a significant step forward in the case of the two women, if they remained in Wigtown. Only a military officer had the judicial power to confirm the Abjuration there.

Lieutenant-General Drummond, alone, held a judicial commission between 30 April and 1 June, the period when the drownings are said to have taken place.

His wide-ranging commission also differed from that given Colonel Douglas. Drummond had the power to call courts, but only to create “clerks, sergeants, dempsters, and all other members of court needful, to call assizers and witnesses”.

However, he was not empowered to call or appoint judges, i.e., he, alone, was to judge in the courts he called. He could appoint anyone he wished to serve in the court as officials, but not judges.

At first sight, that commission bolsters the sceptic’s case, as no historical source links Drummond to the Wigtown drownings. If Drummond’s involvement can be discounted, who else could have legally pressed the Abjuration oath on the two women? Who legally retained the power of summary execution?

John Borwn of Priesthill

The Letter of Claverhouse, 3 May, 1685.
A letter from John Graham of Claverhouse is highly instructive on that matter. In his letter of 3 May, Claverhouse recorded that he had summarily executed John Brown in Priesthill in the field by firing squad and that he had threatened another at the same time, John Brounen, with summary execution unless he cooperated and identified others.

That letter was sent to Queensberry, probably the most politically powerful man in Scotland below the king. In it, Claverhouse was not admitting to illegal summary executions, as he was reiterating the defacto position in which he found himself. He had the power to summarily execute in the field as an army officer those who refused the Abjuration, although he did NOT hold a judicial commission.

Claverhouse described the capture Brown and Brounen as follows:

‘asked if they would take the Abjuration, the eldest of the tuo, called John Broun, refused it, nor would he swear not to ryse in armes against the King, but said he kneu no King, upon which, and there being found bullets and match in his house and treasonable papers, I caused shot him dead, which he suffered very inconcernedly.’ (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 207.)

Claverhouse still had the problem of what to do with John Brounen, ‘who offered to take the [Abjuration] oath’, but would not swear that he had been armed and involved in the attack on Newmiln’s Tower.

Claverhouse appears to have understood that he did not have the legal grounds to summarily execute Brounen, probably as he had agreed to take the Abjuration. Brounen quickly confessed what he knew about the rebels without confirming that he had actually taken up arms directly against the King’s forces.

Claverhouse left it up to Queensberry to decide if he thought Brounen deserved mercy, adding that ‘I, having no comission of justiciary myself, have delyvered him up to Lieutenent Generall Drummond [probably at Mauchline] to be disposed of as he pleases’. (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 208.)

Drummond hanged Brounen at Mauchline on 6 May, after a court he had called which, apparently, mainly featured soldiers on the jury.

There is no way that Claverhouse would have written to Queensberry, of all people, saying that I have shot someone, even though I do not have a justiciary power. He retained the power to press the Abjuration in the field, as other military officers commissioned to do so did, and to conduct summary executions where the Abjuration was refused. He did not have a justiciary power, yet he retained the power to under the instructions issued to the military at the end of 1684 to summarily shoot Brown.

The end of his letter could be read as a mild complaint that Lieutenant-General Drummond had a judicial commission, while he did not, and that as a result he had to send prisoners like Brounen which he could not summarily execute over to Drummond for justice.

It is an interesting footnote to the above, that at the next summary execution that Claverhouse was said to be involved with in the Presbyterian sources, that of Andrew Hislop, that he initially refused to shoot him, as did the Highlanders who were also apparently ordered to execute him, until Johnston of Westerhall, who had formerly held a judicial commission, insisted on death. Military officers, like Claverhouse, had discretion in interpreting their powers to conduct summary executions. They could also come under pressure.

From Claverhouse’s letter, we know that military officers continued to have the power to summarily execute where the Abjuration was not taken in the field after 21 April. It is possible that other factors, such as refusing to recognise royal authority or using arms against the Army, were taken into account, but refusing the Abjuration seems to have been a key test for summary execution. Officers had some latitude in their interpretation of their powers, but how they chose to use that latitude was down to the individual.

Who were the Military Officers who could press the Abjuration?
If we look back to the judicial proclamation to Colonel Douglas we can see which other officers garrisoned in the South West could press the Abjuration. It is not a comprehensive list of army officers in Scotland, as it only lists those who were garrisoned in the South West at that time. Nearly all of them, with the exception of Captain John Dalziel of Mar’s Regiment of Foot in Dumfriesshire, were officers in the Dragoons garrisoned in either Dumfriesshire, Galloway, Ayrshire or Lanarkshire.

We know that those officers’ judicial commission expired on 20 April, but that their specific commission to press the Abjuration in the field, where they found someone who had evaded taking the oath at the beginning of the year, continued.

The two Wigtown women fell into that category of those who had evaded the Abjuration. They had been captured in Spring and were tried and condemned to drowning on 13 April for that. Both of them (apparently) then petitioned the Privy Council saying they were willing to take the Abjuration, at least one of those petitions came from Wigtown, where the balance of evidence says that they were both prisoners on 30 April.

We know that the only people empowered to press the Abjuration anywhere in the South West post 20 April were military officers, be it either Lieutenant-General Drummond, or other officers in the field. Those officers did not have to refer back to Edinburgh to press the oath in the field. They had the power to press the oath and to conduct summary execution.

From 21 April, or practically from 25 April when Drummond entered the field with his Highland Host, prisoners taken in the South West could only be passed to Drummond for justice until 1 June, or until his commission was replaced. However, existing prisoners, who already had been tried and condemned, such as the two Wigtown women tried on 13 April, did not have to be sent to Drummond. They had to take the Abjuration before someone who had the power to confirm that they had. After 21 April, that meant a military officer, as no civilian judges were empowered to take the oath. Today, we might say that something akin to Martial Law was imposed on the South West during the period of Drummond’s commission. Only a military officer had the power to press the Abjuration on the two Wigtown women when they were said to be executed.

Geography was also a factor in the Wigtown case. The burgh was not garrisoned by soldiers, either before, or immediately after, the trial of the two women. The nearest places known to have been garrisoned at various times before mid 1685 were Stranraer (St Johns Castle), Machermore Castle in Minnigaff parish (January to Spring, 1685) and New Galloway (Kenmure Castle). Of the three, the latter at New Galloway, which was the base for Strachan’s company of dragoons, was the most significant and the only one in continual use. It lay 24 miles from Wigtown.

In order to take the Abjuration, the two women, who were probably held in Wigtown Tolbooth in late April or early May, needed either a military officer to come to them, or troops sent to fetch them to an officer who could legally press the oath. All the mainly Presbyterian evidence indicates that the former took place. An officer came to them.

Wigtown Graves

The Commission to Winram
It is at this point that a new figure enters the Wigtown case, Captain ‘Major’ George Winram, who is definitely recorded, as involved in the summary execution of the two women by all the Presbyterian sources.

He was not commissioned as an officer in the Army deployed in Scotland when Colonel Douglas held his judicial commission that ended on 20 April. He could not have been present when the two women were condemned on 13 April. He was not commissioned when the petitions from the women was read in Edinburgh on 30 April.

Winram was commissioned to replace the disgraced Captain John Inglis, the head of a company of dragoons, who had lost prisoners during a rebel attack on Newmiln’s Tower on 24 April.

According to Lauder of Fountainhall:
‘John Inglis, captain of a troup of dragouns, lying in garrison at New-mills in the West, a house belonging to the Earle of Loudon, having tane some of thesse phanatiques prisoners, and tho he had power to execute them, yet keiping them alive, some of ther desperat comerads breaks in upon the garrison, and rescues them to ther great shame; for which Inglis was degraded, and his place was given to M[ajo]r. George Winrahame, a bigot papist.’ (Lauder, Historical Observes, 160.)

On 3 May, the Earl of Moray, Secretary of State for Scotland in London, wrote to Queensberry, then in Edinburgh at Parliament, that ‘I hope Captain English will be punished as he deserves’ for losing the prisoners [at Newmilns], as ‘I had before I heard of that signed a commission for George Windram for English his troop’. (Dalton, Scots Army, II, 22-23n.)

We can tell from that correspondence that Queensberry had written to Moray about the attack on Newmiln’s at least a few of days earlier, as Moray’s reply was probably in direct response to Queensberry’s letter, i.e., Queensberry’s letter was sent on, or before, 1 May. It took time to reach London even by military express riders.

Captain Inglis was already on the way out of his company as Major George Winram was set to replace him, even before reports of the attack on Newmiln’s Tower (on 24 April) reached London.

We also know that his younger son in the same company, Cornet Peter Inglis, also left the regiment at around the same time, probably in protest at the treatment of his father, and was replaced by Cornet David Garioch.

Part of the reason why Major Winram was commissioned as a captain was, apparently, to get him out of England as he was a Catholic officer:

‘On the 19 of May 1685, sate doune the English Parliament. In preparation theirto, the King sent away to Scotland any popish officers he had about him, (leist the English Parliament should take offence at ther being employed in England,) as the Earle of Dumbarton, Major George Winrame, Captain Maxuell, on[e] Barclay, &c.; and they got all places heir, tho our Test be stricter against them than the English.’ (Lauder, Historical Observes, 170.)

Inglis was probably out of his post by the beginning of May, as he could have been degraded at any point in the previous week. His time in command of his company of dragoons was certainly at an end, as a commission to Winram had already been set in train.

On 3 May, Winram was about to assume command of Inglis’ company of dragoons. A unit on active duty in the South West that needed an experienced commander. In Winram they got one.

He was faced with serious challenges

Winram faced a fresh challenge in the kind of anti-insurgency operations that were being conducted in Scotland, which involved pressing the Abjuration in the field and conducting summary executions. Nothing like that had taken place in England. It was new to him, when he assumed command.

If the mainly Presbyterian sources are to be believed, then one, if not the first, direct experience of his extraordinary, new powers that Winram encountered was dealing with the two women in Wigtown. He was a novice to that, but that does not mean that he out of his depth.

Redeployment to the Coast
The other challenge he faced right at the start of his command certainly required military experience. The Privy Council knew the Earl of Argyll’s small invasion flotilla was on its way to Scotland to try to spark a wider rising. We know that the company under the command of ‘Major’ George Winram was redeployed, as a result of the Argyll Rising. As part of the plan to place the kingdom in a posture of defence due to the threat of Argyll invading, regular army units based in inland garrisons were replaced by the irregulars of the Militia, in particular by Highland militia, in order to allow the Dragoons etc., to hold the coastal areas where Argyll was widely expected to land. Throughout the rising, we know that Argyll’s commanders urged him to land in the South West, where his agents said he could expect significant support. It was not until the rising’s demise, that a remnant of his forces finally broke into the South West, hoping to reach Galloway, and won a minor victory at Muirdykes on 18 June. A few days before that, ‘a considerable Number of Men were gathered together in Arms’ near Wigtown in support of that rising.

Uncanny Timing
The Presbyterian sources identify Captain ‘Major’ George Winram as the officer responsible for the Wigtown drownings (apparently on 11 May). It is all the more remarkable, as the Presbyterian sources almost certainly did not have access to Moray’s correspondence and there is no record of Winram in the surviving registers of the privy council until November, 1685.

If the Presbyterian sources were making up who conducted the drowning, why would they select Winram, rather than one of the other officers known to be in the field? Yet, somehow, the Presbyterian sources pick out Winram as the officer responsible for actually drowning the two women in Wigtown. That would be an extraordinary choice, if one was plucking an officer’s name out of thin air, would it not?

They also correctly identified him as Captain ‘Major’ Winram, as he was commissioned as captain of what was formerly Inglis’s company, but had previously been commissioned as a major and so thus retained the title of being referred to as major. What are the chances of that?

The bottom line is that if the Presbyterian sources were fabricating an officer to drown the Wigtown martyrs, they chose an officer who was newly commissioned and about whom they almost certainly had no access to references to in any government source. If they were fabricating, as some allege, they did so with uncanny accuracy.

Wigtown Hills

Winram in Wigtown
As well as his role in the summary execution of the two women, the Presbyterian sources also record him as hanging three men at Wigtown in the summer of 1685.

Winram was certainly in Wigtown that summer. The burgh records record that his dragoons ‘did eat up the Wholl meadowes of the hills and Clay Crops with their horses at Lambas, 1685 yeirs’, i.e., prior to 1 August, 1685.

He and his dragoons were still garrisoned at Wigtown in the winter of 1685 to 1686.

And in 1686, David Dunbar of Baldoon petitioned the privy council about prior losses due to Winram’s men quartering in the parks of his lands.

Historians do not agree on where the women were held on 30 April. Some believe, presumably on the basis of Napier’s case against the drownings, that they were moved to Edinburgh, issued with a reprieve and ultimately pardoned. Others point out that there is no evidence that the women were in Edinburgh, either in prison or before the privy council, when a petition (which certainly came from Wigtown) was read on 30 April and a reprieve issued. That there is no evidence of a pardon or further steps in the case. Also, that their case rests on mass-conspiracy theory of silence.

We know that the women still had to take the Abjuration oath on 30 April. If they were in Wigtown Tolbooth, that meant that they had to take it before a military officer who could press the oath in the field, as no civilian judges were commissioned to press it after 20 April.

As a military officer, Winram had the power to press the Abjuration oath in the field, which was what the women were required to do in their reprieve of 30 April.

Winram is the only military officer identified in government sources as being in Wigtown in the summer of 1685. He was placed in command of a troop of dragoons on around 3 May. We also know that his dragoons were redeployed to the coast, apparently to Wigtown, to prevent the Earl of Argyll landing in the South West in May.

We do not have a precise date for when Winram arrived in Wigtown, but we do know that he was there that summer and that the Presbyterian sources identify him as responsible for the drownings, apparently on 11 May.

The historical evidence from government sources that only a military officer could press the Abjuration oath after 30 April and that Winram, as one of them, is the only officer recorded in Wigtown that summer, backs up the mainly Presbyterian claims that the two women were drowned by him.

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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 June 28, 2020.

6 Responses to “The Wigtown Martyrs: Touching the Void between the Reprieve and Execution in 1685 #History #Scotland”

  1. I wonder if anyone can help me, sometime ago I found a diary record of an eye witness account of prisoners being taken from prison to board The Crown – where the writer describes the desperate state of the prisoners who were barely clothed, in chains etc – I am sure it was part of a book about Edinburgh – it was on a library webpage or google books – my laptop crashed and I lost the link – one of my ancestor Thomson from Bothwellshields (Shotts) was on board and listed as one of the survivors – would really like to find this account again – can anyone give me the details – would be grateful – if request not allowed, please delete – Thank you.

    Marian Meldrum

  2. Sorry, I’m with the sceptics on this one.
    The reprieve was granted on 30 April. The women were not drowned until 11 May. It’s inconceivable that those performing the execution would not know about the reprieve. In fact the whole town would know that the reprieve had been granted. We’re therefore supposed to believe that the drowning happened in front of a hostile crowd who knew it was not a state-sanctioned execution? It’s not like a witchcraft trial with strong community support for the excution. The town was full of Covenanter sympathisers.

    The former provost, William Clugstoun, who was still a senior member of the council, had a nephew, Pieter/Patrick Clugstoun of Kirkcowan, who is listed in the 1683 Porteus roll as having taking part in the battle of Bothwell Bridge. William’s father had fled from Belfast back to Wigtown, to escape the Black Oath, and his uncle was attainted and expelled from Belfast. James Gordon of Craiglaw, whose property was forfeit, was his neighbour. I bet you’d find a similar story for most of the council members.

    And we’re to believe that despite going against the Privy Council in a spectacularly public way, there were no consquences?
    It was an outrage that such obviously harmless people were condemned to death. But I think the story was embellished. It just doesn’t add up.

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