Is Cruggleton Church a Medieval War Grave?

This odd church, surrounded by a high wall, hidden by trees and isolated in the middle of a field between Whithorn and Garlieston, is something of a mystery. There are tantalising glimpses however that it may have played a small part in the Scottish Wars of Independence. Could this enigmatic little church be the site of a mass grave?

Little appears to be known of the church’s origins. It is supposed to have been built by Fergus of Galloway in the 12th century as a private chapel for nearby Cruggleton Castle, perched on the cliff top over-looking Wigtown Bay, also known as the Black Rock of Cree.

Although no signs have yet been found, it is possible that the church may once have been surrounded by a village. The church was granted to Whithorn Priory in 1424 and was ruinous by 1890, when it was restored by the Marquess of Bute.

There is something strangely out of character about the place when compared with other old kirks in the area, in that you quickly become aware that the burial ground contains none of the gravestones that surround other churches. There is an odd rectilinear enclosure towards the rear of the church and a line of boulders between the gate and the front of the building. Neither of these features carry any indication to what they might be.

There is however a slight clue in the folktale ‘The Standard of Denmark’, which tells of a raid on Cruggleton Castle, then inhabited by the Kerlies (an ancient Irish family that settled in Wigtownshire also known a M’Kerlie and MacCarole) by the Graemes. Eppie Graeme had fallen in love with the chief’s son Allan. The chief refused consent for them to marry, so Eppie and her father Dugald storm the castle to carry him away. The raid goes badly wrong as the Kerlies are prepared for them and both are killed along with 200 others, “on searching among the slain, they found Dugald Graeme, his head literally dashed to pieces with a stone. Upwards of two hundred were found dead, all of whom were buried in the old church-yard of Cruggleton.”*

It is known that William Kerlie lost the castle in 1282, when betrayed by his guest Lord Soulis (a secret follower of Edward I). John Comyn had temporary possession in 1292 before it was captured by Edward I. Meanwhile, William Kerlie had joined with William Wallace and retook the castle in 1297. Kerlie was still with Wallace when he was captured in 1305. Maybe the story of the mass burial in the churchyard is a mythologised memory of the inhumation of the slain from one of these battles.

Another explanation for the lack of gravestones could be that the parish was united with Sorbie in the 17th century. If the church fell out of use at that point, it may well be that no burials took place through the 18th and 19th centuries when the use of carved, individual grave markers where at their most fashionable.

Some have commented that Cruggleton Church has an unsettling atmosphere and it is true that when the wind rattles the branches of the trees, it gives the place a restless feeling, completely at odds with the peaceful air of other churchyards such as Kirkmaiden or Kirkmadrine. Sat alone and apart, shielded by trees, wall and high gate, Cruggleton Church does not invite visitors, offers no commanding views, no tantalising clues to its past and holds its secrets close.

 

*Legends of Galloway, James Denniston 1825

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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.