Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Wigtown Martyrs

Scotland has a long and troubled history of religious oppression whether it be Catholics punishing Protestants, Protestants punishing Catholics or Protestants punishing other Protestants! Always it boils down to what is seen as the correct way to honour and worship God. One of the cruellest times which saw some of the worst excesses of violence has gone down in history as the Killing Times.

Field conventicle
The Covenanters, with their belief that no single person on earth could be head of the church for that honour belonged to God himself had put themselves at odds with the restored monarchy of James VII. From 1660 Presbyterianism had been outlawed and only Episcopalian worship permitted. Ministers who refused to follow these restrictions were expelled from their churches and with no other option available the Presbyterian congregations were forced to worship in the fields and hills in open air conventicles where the very act of worship itself was seen as treason against the Crown. Worshippers could be killed without trial if caught in the act of praying.

Increasing military actions had gradually curtailed the large field conventicles and the faithful were forced to find other means to worship. They faithful now were forced to hold small gatherings held indoors, but the Crown and government still sought to punish the Presbyterian congregations. Failure to take a test of allegiance to the king, which required renouncing the Covenant, met with the death penalty, as did even attending a  conventicle or harbouring Covenanters.

From these dark days comes the sad tale of the Wigtown Martyrs. Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan. In 1685 Margaret Wilson was the eighteen-year-old daughter of Gilbert Wilson, a prosperous farmer at Glenvernoch. Gilbert and his wife conformed, and attended Episcopalian services in the parish church. 

Their children, though, refused. Margaret and her sister Agnes then aged thirteen, and younger brother Thomas, knowing they were being watched, were living in the hills, attending conventicles and sheltering in the homes of Presbyterian sympathisers. Gilbert Wilson was held responsible for his children’s non-attendance, was heavily fined by the Courts, and had soldiers billeted upon him, who stole livestock and possessions from him. With the death of Charles II in February 1685, there was hope for a lull in persecution. The young Wilson girls came down from the hills and may have sheltered at the home of Margaret McLachlan, a 63-year-old widow who lived at Drumjargan in Kirkinner Parish. A local man betrayed them when they came into Wigtown, and the two girls were taken prisoner. At the same time, Margaret McLachlan was seized while at prayer in her own home, and held in custody with them. The women were required to take the Oath of Abjuration which had earlier been administered to everyone in the County over the age of 13 years. When they refused to do so they were put on trial before a panel of five commissioners, Grierson of Lagg, Sheriff David Graham, Major Windram, Captain Strachan and Provost Coltrane of Wigtown, who were described as “five of the most vicious scoundrels in Scotland.”

The two sisters and elderly woman were accused of attending illegal conventicles in private houses and in the hills and attending the battles of Bothwell Brig (1679) and Airds Moss (1680). It is highly unlikely the latter charges were true. The sisters were then but children and McLachlan would be unlikely to have borne arms against armed soldiers in open battle. 

No one was surprised when all three were however found guilty and on the 13th of April 1865 and were sentenced to death by drowning. They were to be chained to posts set in the Solway Firth and there left to be covered by the incoming tide.

The girls' father took himself at all speed to Edinburgh begging pardon from the Privy Council of Scotland. Probably much to his surprise his younger daughter was pardoned at the cost of £100, an enormous sum at the time, for a bond of continued good behaviour. A petition which claimed McLachlan had recanted was also produced and after some deliberation reprieves were issued for both women dated 30th April. 

"The Lords of his Majesties Privy Council doe hereby reprive 
the execution of the sentance of death pronunced by the Justices 
against Margret Wilson and Margret Lauchlison until the ..... day of ..... 
and discharges the magistrats of Edinburgh for putting of the 
said sentence to execution against them untill the forsaid day; 
and recomends the saids Margret Wilson and Margret Lauchlison 
to the "Lords Secretaries of State" to interpose with his most 
sacred Majestie for his royall remission to them." 

Eleven days after the reprieve had been signed the commissioners chose to ignore it. They felt secure that 'over-zealousness' would not be seen as a crime by the merciless James VII. On the 11th of May 1685 the two women were taken from their cell and dragged down to the shoreline where stakes had been hammered into the wet sand. Here they were chained and abandoned to their fate.

Margaret Wilson
As the tide rose Margaret Wilson was forced to watch the older woman whose stake had been set further out drown before her eyes. Still she refused to take the oath accepting the king as head of the church and sang from Psalm 25 “To Thee I lift my soul, O Lord; I trust in Thee, my God; let me not be ashamed, nor foes triumph over me.” She also recited from the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 8, most poignantly verses 35-37: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? As it is written, for Thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.” 

Finally her captors thrust her head below the waves in anger at her faithfulness to the Reformed Kirk and to God. She died aged only 18.

A popular legend claims that the man who held her head into the water laughed as he said “take another drink o't my hearty!” Ever afterwards he himself suffered from an unquenchable thirst that drove him to drink from every puddle and ditch he passed until even his friends abandoned him.

Memorial showing Margraret reading her Bible to her younger sister
under the weeping gaze of her guardian angel
A memorial to the martyrs stands in the town churchyard and another upon Windy Hill.

Facebook users may also comment here.

For book give-aways and more general chat please visit us at our Facebook page. 

Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries.

 His blog can be followed at 


  1. A part of Scottish history that had only come to my notice last year...A tragic state of affairs.

  2. Difficult times. I was reading about Bonnie Dundee recently, and one thing that became clear was how extreme fanaticism was in those days. It was a kind of anarchy in the name of religion. I guess neither side really comes out of it with much credit

  3. Terrible times and such a sad story.