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Covenanter Stories – No 15, The Solway Martyrs

14/06/2013

THE SOLWAY MARTYRS

One of the saddest incidents recorded during the ‘Killing Times’ is that involving the so called ‘Solway Martyrs’, Margaret MacLaghlin and Margaret Wilson, who were martyred by drowning in the Solway Firth, just outside Wigtown in 1685.

Margaret MacLaghlin was actually named Margaret Milligan or Milliken; MacLaghlin was her maiden name. She had been married to one John Milliken a carpenter, who must also have been of Presbyterian principles, for it is recorded that for many years he had a daily fine to pay to the authorities, had been imprisoned, and was required to garrison soldiers at various times. At the time of the martyrdom of Margaret, Milliken was dead, and Margaret, aged about sixty-three years was a widow. The Kirk Session minutes of Kirkinner record that she was a woman of known integrity and piety from her youth.

Margaret Wilson on the other hand was a woman of some eighteen years. Her father was a rich farmer, who worked land some miles north west of Newtown Stewart. Her parents were conformists, who attended the services of the curates, but Margaret and her sister, Agnes (13) and brother Thomas (16) refused to attend the local parish church, and worshipped with the psalm-singers in the hills. The authorities noted their absence from the church, and Gilbert Wilson, the father, was ordered to have nothing to do with them. Because of this, the Wilson children lived among the hills and moors. The authorities were enraged at the Wilson children’s disobedience, and the farm was frequently searched for them. Gilbert Wilson, throughout his lifetime paid so many fines, levied because of his children’s beliefs that he died in poverty having lost his farm and all his worldly goods.

Both Margaret Wilson and Margaret MacLaghlin (along with Agnes Wilson and others) were reported to the authorities for being ‘disorderly’ by their respective curates. This charge was frequently levied against those who refused to attend their services. Margaret MacLaghlin was arrested while at her prayer, and transferred from one prison to another until finally appearing before court at Wigtown. It is recorded that she was given neither food nor heat nor light to read her Bible, until the day of her trial.

Margaret Wilson and her sister Agnes were arrested after an act of treachery by a man they thought was a friend. They had spent a few hours in the company of one Patrick Stuart, and at some point in the meeting he asked them to drink a toast to the king. The girls declined his offer, declaring that to do so would be an action without scriptural warrant. Realising that they were in danger, the girls fled his home, but Stuart now knew that they were Presbyterians, and reported their whereabouts to the local garrison. Both girls were arrested and thrown into the ‘thieves hole,’ a dark dungeon in Wigtown, before being taken to the local prison, where Margaret MacLachlin was already incarcerated.

The Justiciary Commission sat in Wigtown on 13th April 1685, and the three women were brought before the court. One Robert Grierson of Lag, a relentless persecutor of the Presbyterians, dominated the bench. A fourth woman appeared before the court. She was twenty-year-old Margaret Maxwell, another ‘disorderly’ person, who had failed to attend the curate’s services. This woman’s misdemeanours were considered to be less damning than those of the others, so she was sentenced to be publicly flogged for three days, and to be placed in the stocks for one hour each day. This punishment was carried out, but the people of Wigtown closed their doors and windows while the young woman was stripped and flogged. Patrick Walker spoke to this girl when she was an old woman, and she testified that the hangman had been kind to her, and spared her embarrassment as much as possible, even asking her if he might shorten her time in the stocks.

Maxwell refused his offer, saying that she was not ashamed to stand in such a place for Christ.
The other three women were charged with being present at the battles at Bothwell Bridge and Ayres Moss, attending conventicles and house meetings. Being found guilty on all counts (although the charges of being at the battles were almost certainly false; the Wilson girls were two young to have been at the battles), the women were given the opportunity to swear the Oath of Abjuration. They refused. They then refused to kneel to receive the sentence, and were forced to the floor by soldiers.

Agnes Wilson was released on £100 bail, to be paid by her father, but Margaret Wilson and Margaret MacLachlin were both sentenced to death by drowning. Gilbert Wilson rode to Edinburgh to appeal for his daughter’s release, but by the time he returned, the sentence had already been carried out. Various other attempts were made to have the sentence overturned. Some of the friends of Margaret MacLachlin appealed to the Council on account of her age.

On 30th April, the Privy Council in Edinburgh decreed that the court at Wigtown had overstepped the mark, and ordered the sentences to be overturned, the executions cancelled, and a petition made to the king for remission. The authorities in Galloway defied the Edinburgh Council, knowing that it was unlikely that any reprisals would be carried out.

On the day following the tragic death of John Brown of Priesthill, at the hands of Claverhouse, the two women were tied to stakes in the sea near Wigtown. The older of the two, having refused to pray for the king was taken to the stake placed further out into the sea, so that Margaret Wilson could watch her die. MacLachlin died without further uttering a word, but as her body writhed in the sea in her final seconds, the soldiers asked Wilson what she now thought of her friend. Margaret Wilson replied, “I see Christ wrestling there. Think ye that we are sufferers? No, it is Christ in us, for He sends none a warfare at their own charges.” One of the soldiers drew a blade and slit MacLachlin’s throat, bringing her agony to an end.

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Margaret Wilson was also put to a stake. As the water rose around her, she began to sing Psalm 25, from verse 7. She read aloud from Romans chapter 8, right to the end of the chapter, where Paul declares that neither life nor death can separate us from the love of Christ. A friend shouted to her, “Margaret, say God save the King.” Margaret replied, “God save him if he will, for it is his salvation that I desire.” Someone then shouted to the soldiers that she had said it, and cried for her release. Grierson came forward and said that her words were not enough, and a major went into the water, and asked her whether she was willing to take the Oath. Margaret refused, saying, “No! No! No sinful oaths for me; I am one of Christ’s children. Let me go.” They thrust her head cruelly below the waters and again the soldier went forward to slit her throat, shouting at her to take one last drink, for soon she would be with the crabs.

When the tide receded, the corpses of the women were removed from the stakes and buried under cover of darkness in the Kirkyard at Wigtown, where there stands a memorial stone to their memory.

Nothing more is known of the fate of Agnes Wilson, but her father Gilbert was given no peace by the authorities until he died a broken and penniless man. Thomas Wilson, Gilbert’s son, survived the killing times and became a soldier in the army of William of Orange. On discharge he returned to Scotland, and through hard work and dedication was able to buy back his late father’s farm. His name is in the records as an elder in the Kirk at Penninghame.

From → Covenanters

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