The Wigtown Martyrs

The 17th century was a dangerous time to be alive, with a multitude of ways in which your life could be brought to a sharp and unpleasant end. If disease or starvation didn’t get you, you could be hung for what today would be judged as the slightest misdemeanour. If your neighbour’s cow stopped giving milk or their crops failed and you weren’t on the best of terms, you might be outed as a witch who had placed a curse on them. It was also a pretty bad time to be a catholic.

In south western Scotland in particular, a religious battle raged throughout most of the 17th century between the Episcopalian state religion and the Presbyterian movement of the Covenanters, named after the National Covenant, signed throughout lowland Scotland in 1638.

When King Charles I attempted to impose the Common Book of Prayer on Scotland, it was violently rejected by congregations who saw God as the head of their church and not the king. The rejection of Charles’ liturgy and the signing of the Covenant contributed towards his downfall as he stumbled towards the outbreak of the War of the Three Kingdoms. The Covenanter Army fought against Charles, signing the Solemn League and Covenant with the English Parliamentarians in 1643 and it was they who captured Charles in Scotland and handed him over to Cromwell, with fatal consequences.

The Covenanters were appalled by Charles’ execution and supported the restoration of Charles II, insisting that he signed the covenant first and crowned him King of Scotland in 1651. Cromwell turned on Scotland and forced a temporary union under the Commonwealth.

Upon the restoration of Charles II in 1660, he reneged on the Covenant, declared them outlaws and restored the Episcopacy. This was the beginning of what came to be known as the Killing Time, which lasted until James II was unseated in 1688 by the ‘Glorious Revolution’.

Presbyterian ministers were turned out of their churches and took to performing their sermons in secret, hidden among the moors and glens. Known as Conventicles, these open air meetings were declared a capital offence for which attendees could be shot on the spot. Even carrying a bible or just being outside in the wrong place at the wrong time was enough to order execution without trial. Many atrocities were committed in south west Scotland, which are now commemorated with lonely graves and memorials among the hills and moors.

In 1685, as the Killing Time reached its worst point, three women were dragged from the surrounding countryside to the tollbooth in Wigtown. Margaret McLachlan (about 63) of Drumjargon near Kirkinner, Margaret Wilson (accounts of her age vary from 18 to 23) and her younger sister Agnes (13), both of Glenvernoch near Newton Stewart, were all condemned to death by drowning for attending conventicles and being present at the rebellions of Bothwell Bridge and Airds Moss (despite this being a virtual impossibility).

Gilbert Wilson paid £100 for the release of his younger daughter Agnes, which all but ruined him. A pardon for the remaining two condemned women was issued in Edinburgh on 30th April 1685, but strangely was not enacted. It seems that Robert Grierson of Lagg (forever remembered as ‘Cruel Lagg’) chose to ignore the pardon and push forward the executions.

On 11th May 1685 both women were lead out to the harbour of Wigtown and tied to stakes below the high water mark. Margaret McLachlan was placed further out with the intention that she would drown first, the sight of which may prompt the younger Margaret to take the Oath of Abjuration. The sight of McLachlan drowning just seemed to strengthen Margaret Wilson’s resolve and she sang psalms and prayed while the waters worked their way up towards her head.

At the point where the waters had nearly overwhelmed her, the attendant soldiers lifted her free a little and asked if she would now pray for the king? It is said that Margaret answered, “God save him if He will, for it is his salvation I desire.”

Her friends gathered on the shore shouted that she had said the oath, but Grierson of Lagg insisted that this was not enough and that the full Oath of Abjuration should be said. She refused and was thrust back into the water, a soldier holding her head under with his halberd saying, “then tak another drink hinny.” She was held under until she died.

The remains of Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson now lie in Wigtown Churchyard, along with the bodies of three men, William Johnstone, John Milroy and George Walker, hung later the same year, probably on Gallow Hill at Bladnoch.

Of those that took part in their deaths, the soldier who held the women under with his halberd was said to be afflicted with an unquenchable thirst for the rest of his life.

Grierson of Lagg was responsible for many more atrocities during the Killing Time. He seemed to take a cruel pleasure in the over-zealous application of his duties. It is said that he went to hell before he died. His spit could corrode whatever it landed on like acid and if he placed his feet in water, it would boil. Upon his death, a carriage surrounded by a thunder storm came to take his soul to hell. A huge raven followed his cortege to his burial and the horses that pulled his coffin died when they reached the cemetery gates.

In the early 19th century, the course of the river Bladnoch was altered and the harbour moved. All that remains now is a stretch of quiet marshland and this lonely memorial.

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