Covenant Ladies

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The Two Margarets

Margaret McLauchlan and Margaret Wilson

The years 1684 and 1685 were years of terrible suffering to the Covenanters. The history of these years is written in letters of blood, and they were emphatically called, by the sufferers, 'The Killing Time.' the savage ruffians, who were scouring the country like incarnate demons, hunted the poor helpless victims of their cruelty like wild beasts, over moors and mountains. If they met with a person who refused to answer their questions, or who did not satisfy them in his answers; or if they found another reading the Bible; or observed a third apparently alarmed or attempting to escape, they reckoned all such persons fanatics, and in many instances shot them dead on the spot. The devil had gone forth, having great wrath, as if knowing that his time was short. Patrick Walker remarks, that during these two years, eighty persons were shot in the fields, in cold blood; and he further says, ' Since that time, some that write of court affairs of Britain for twenty of these years, assert that the very design of that killing time was to provoke the Lord's people in the west of Scotland to rise in arms in their own defence, as at Pentland, Bothwell, and Ayr's Moss, that they might get the sham occasion to raise fire and sword in the west, to make it a hunting field, as the Duke of York had openly threatened, saying, ' There was no other way of rooting fanaticism out of it.'' But whatever may be as to this, the ferocity of the persecutors had risen to an unprecedented height, creating general alarm, and threatening to wear out the saints of the Most High.

We are now to narrate the history of one of the bloody scenes enacted during the last of these years-the year 1685-the scene of the judicial murder of two blameless, inoffensive, and pious females, Margaret McLauchlan, an aged widow, and Margaret Wilson, a young girl, who were drowned in the tide at the mouth of the river Blednoch, which runs into the sea about one hundred yards to the south of the town of Wigton, in Lower Galloway.

Margaret Wilson, the younger of the two martyrs, who was only about eighteen years of age at the time of her death, was daughter of Gilbert Wilson, farmer, of Glenvernock, the property of the Laird of Castlestewart, in the parish of Penningham, in Wigtonshire. He was in good outward circumstances; and his farm, which was excellent soil, and in the best condition, was well stocked with sheep and cattle. Both he and his wife were conformists to prelacy, and regularly attended the ministry of the curate of Penningham; nor could the government lay anything to their charge. Their children, however, which is rather remarkable, were, at an early age, not only well acquainted with the principles of religion, but, contrary to the example of their parents, ardently attached to the persecuted faith, and would on no consideration attend the ministry of the prelatic incumbent of the parish. On this account, though scarcely of such age as rendered them obnoxious to the law, they were searched for; and, to secure their safety, were compelled to betake themselves, like many others, to the desert solitudes of the upper part of Galloway. They were, in fact, treated in every respect as outlaws. Their parents were forbidden, at their highest peril, to harbour them, to supply their wants, or to have any intercourse with them; and were even commanded so far to disregard natural affection, as to lodge information against them, that they might be apprehended. But the barbarous and unprincipled men who were ravaging Wigtonshire did not stop at this. Mr Wilson being a man of substance, they looked with a greedy eye upon his wealth; and notwithstanding his own compliance with prelacy, fined him for the nonconformity of his children. In addition to this, he was grievously harassed by parties of soldiers, who, sometimes to the number of a hundred, would come to his house, and not only live at free quarters, but commit that wanton destruction upon his property to which, by the fierceness of their dispositions, they were prompted. To hardships of this nature he was subjected for several years; and these hardships, together with his frequent attendance upon the courts at Wigton, which was thirteen miles distant from his own house, and at Edinburgh, reduced him from comparative affluence to poverty. So heavy, indeed, were his pecuniary losses - amounting, at a modest calculation, to be upwards of 5000 marks- that, though before being thus pillaged, he was one of the most substantial men in that part of the country, he died about the year 1704 or 1705, in destitution, and his widow, who was alive in 1711, then very aged, subsisted upon the charity of her friends. This one instance, among many others which might be adduced, in which persons of property, against whose loyalty and religion the government had nothing to object, were exposed to the spoliation of their goods, and were even sometimes reduced to absolute penury, for the recusancy of those connected with them, and over whom they had often no control. Loyal and conforming parents were fined, and otherwise punished, for the nonconformity of their children; loyal and conforming husbands for the nonconformity of their wives; loyal and conforming masters for the nonconformity of their servants, loyal and conforming proprietors for the nonconformity of their tenants. The troopers, too, who, like licensed robbers, traversed the country, in many cases pillaged, with indiscriminate wantonness, such as were friendly to the government and conformists to prelacy, and such as were not.

Margaret Wilson, and her sister Agnes, who was then only about thirteen years of age, at length fell into the hands of the persecutors. In the beginning of the year 1685, these girls, to secure their safety, were obliged to leave for some time their father's house, and, in company with their brother, a youth of not more than sixteen years of age, and other persecuted wanderers, to seek shelter in the mosses, mountains, and caves of Carrick, Nithsdale, and Galloway. On the death of Charles II, when the persecution was for a brief period relaxed, the two sisters, leaving their hiding places, ventured to come secretly to Wigton to visit some of their fellow sufferers in the same cause, and particularly the aged Margaret McLauchlan, whom they greatly loved, and who was well qualified to minister comfort and counsel to them under their troubles. Here both of them were discovered and made prisoners, through the treachery of a man named Patrick Stuart, with whom they were personally acquainted, and who professed to take a deep and friendly interest in their welfare. This base fellow, from what motive it is not said, but doubtless either from pure badness of disposition, or from the love of the paltry wages given to informers, purposed to betray these friendless and unsuspecting girls. To find some plausible ground of complaint against them, he, with much apparent kindness, invited them to go with him and partake of some refreshment, which being brought, he proposed that they should drink the king's health. This, as he probably anticipated from what he knew of their character, they modestly declined to do; upon which he left them, and immediately proceeded to the authorities of Wigton, to lodge information against them. A party of soldiers was forthwith dispatched to apprehend them. The two girls were cast into that abominable place called ' the thieves' hole,' and, after lying there for some time, were removed to the prison in which their beloved friend Margaret McLauchlan, who had been apprehended about the same time, or very shortly after, was confined.

Margaret McLauchlan, was the widow of John Mulligen or Millikin, carpenter, a tenant in the parish of Kirkinner, in the shire of Galloway, in the farm of Drumjargan, belonging to Colonel Vans of Barnbarroch; and she had now clearly reached the venerable age of seventy. She was a plain woman, but superior to most women of her station in religious knowledge; blameless in her deportment, and a pattern of virtue and piety. Being strictly Presbyterian in her principles, she had regularly absented herself from hearing the curate of the parish of Kirkinner; she had also attended the sermons of the proscribed ministers, and had afforded shelter and relief to her persecuted nonconforming relations and acquaintances in their wanderings and distresses. Honourable as was all this to her character, it was in those days of oppression regarded as highly criminal; and, on this account, she suffered much in her property, and at last was apprehended on the Sabbath day, when engaged in the exercise of family worship in her own home, the day of rest being now the season when the persecutors were most active in searching for 'the fanatics,' and often most successful in discovering them. She was immediately carried to prison, in which she lay for a long time, and was treated with great harshness, not being allowed a fire to warm her, nor a bed upon which to lie, nor even an adequate supply of food to satisfy the cravings of nature.

When Margaret McLauchlan, Margaret Wilson, and her sister were apprehended, it was demanded of them, as a test of their loyalty, that they should swear the abjuration oath. This was an oath abjuring a manifesto published by the Society People, or the Cameronians, on the 8th of November 1684, entitled 'The Apologetic Declaration and Admonitory Vindication of the True Presbyterians of the Church of Scotland, especially anent Intelligencers and Informers.' In this manifesto, after expressing their adherence to their former declarations, in which they disowned the authority of Charles Stuart, and declared war against him and his accomplices; and after testifying that they 'utterly detest and abhor that hellish principle of killing all who differ in judgement or persuasion from them;' they declare it to be their purpose to punish, according to their power, and according to the degree of the offence, such as should stretch forth their hands against them by shedding their blood on account of their principles, or willingly give such information as should lead thereto. This step we do not undertake to vindicate, it being 'calculated, notwithstanding all their qualifications, and in spite of all the precautions they might use, to open a door to lawless bloodshed, and give encouragement to assassination. At the same time, it is impossible to condemn them with great severity, when we reflect that they were cast out of the protection of law, driven out of the pale of society, and hunted like wild beats in the woods and on the mountains, to which they had fled for shelter. It is also to be noticed that what they chiefly aimed at was to inspire their persecutors with a wholesome terror; and this object was to a considerable degree gained in regard to the more active and malignant informers, who dared not now, as they had done before, to dog the footsteps and discover to the soldiers the hiding places of men, whom intolerable oppression had driven to desperation. The more virulent and persecuting of the curates in Nithsdale and Galloway, were also so panic struck on the publication of the paper, as to leave their parishes and seek safety elsewhere for a time. On the government the effect was different; it roused their fury to the utmost height. On the 22nd of November, they passed an act, which Woodrow justly calls a 'bloody act,' ordaining every person, who owns , or will not disown, the late treasonable declaration upon oath, whether they have arms or not, to be immediately put to death; there being present two witnesses, and the person or persons having commission for that effect.'- an act on which is to be charged the blood of not a few who were shot in the fields by officers, and even by private citizens, who pretended to be invested with such powers. On the following day, they gave commission, with a justiciary power, to certain noblemen, gentlemen, and military officers, to convocate all the inhabitants, men and women above fourteen years of age (in certain parishes named), to execute, by military commission upon the place, such of them as owned the 'late traitorous declaration;' and also to execute the sentence of death on such as refused to disown it, after trying them by jury. An oath was also framed abjuring the Apologetic Declaration, and hence called 'the abjuration oath,' which all, both men and women, above the age of sixteen years, were required to swear, under the pains of high treason.

Margaret McLaughlan, and the two youthful sisters, Margaret and Agnes Wilson, refused to swear the abjuration oath. They were accordingly brought to a formal trial before Sir Robert Grierson, of Lagg, Colonel David Graham (brother to the bloody Claverhouse), Major Windram, Captain Strachan, and Provost Cultrain at Wigton, on the 13th of April 1685. In their indictment, they were charged with being at the battle of Bothwell Bridge, at the skirmish of Ayr's Moss, at twenty field conventicles, and at an equal number of house coventicles. The two first charges were notoriously false. None of the panels had ever been within miles of either of these places. It is , besides, to be noticed that at the time of the battle of Bothwell Bridge, the two girls were mere children - the one only about seven years of age, and the other only about eleven or twelve - while sixty five years had passed over the head of the aged widow; and it cannot for a moment be supposed, that two girls of so tender an age, or that an humble inoffensive female, who had nearly reached the utmost limits of human earthly existence, could be concerned in that insurrection. The same remark applies to the skirmish at Ayr's Moss, which took place only a little more than a year after the rising at Bothwell Bridge. The other charges brought against these sufferers may have been true in part or whole; but nothing was proved against them. Being again required to swear the abjuration oath, all of them refused to swear it; and this refusal seems to have been the main ground upon which they were condemned. After the mockery of a trial, a jury was found so unprincipled as to bring in a verdict of guilty against the whole three; and the sentence pronounced upon them was, that, upon the 11th of May, they should be tied to stakes fixed within the flood mark in the water of Blednoch, near Wigton, where the sea flows at high water, there to be drowned. They were commanded to receive their sentence on their bended knees; and refusing to kneel, they were pressed down by force till it was pronounced. But they were by no means daunted; they heard the cruel sentence with much composure, and even with cheerful countenances, accounting it their honour that they were called to suffer in the cause of Christ.

This extraordinary sentence could not but produce great excitement in Wigton, and the friends of the three females plunged into the deepest distress. The afflicted father of the two girls, on going to Edinburgh, was allowed to purchase at the price of 100.00 sterling, the life of his younger daughter, in consequence of her tender age. When in Edinburgh, he would also, no doubt, use every means in his power to save the life of his other daughter; and his intercessions, as we shall afterwards see, had a mollifying effect upon the members of the privy council. At the same time, Margaret Wilson's friends did all they could to prevail with her to swear the abjuration oath, and to promise to attend the ministry of the curate of the parish in which she lived, but without effect; for by no solicitations would she surrender her convictions of truth and duty, whatever it might cost her. During her imprisonment, she wrote  a long letter to her relations, highly honourable to her character. It was full of the deep and affecting sense which she had of God's love to her soul, and expressed an entire resignation to His sovereign disposal. It also contained a vindication of her refusal to save her life by swearing the abjuration oath, and by engaging to conform to prelacy; written with a cogency of argument, and a solidity of judgement, far above her years and education. The aged Margaret McLauchlan, it would appear exhibited in prison less heroic resolution than her younger companion. She was induced to send a petition to the privy council, praying them to recall the sentence of death pronounced upon her, acknowledging the justice of the sentence, and expressing her willingness to take the abjuration oath, and regularly to attend her parish church.

Yielding to the prayer of this petition, and to the representation of Margaret Wilson's father, the privy council granted a reprieve to these two females, and recommended them to the secretaries of state for his majesty's pardon.

Notwithstanding this reprieve, these two women were, on the day appointed - the 11th of May - conducted from the tolbooth of Wigton to the place of execution, amidst a numerous crowd of spectators, who had assembled to witness so unusual a sight. They were guarded by Major Windram with a company of soldiers, and, on arriving at the place, were fastened to stakes fixed in the sand, between high and low water mark. Margaret McLauchlan, who is said to have now manifested great fortitude, though, when in prison, she had offered to make concessions, was tied to the stake placed nearest the advancing tide, that she might perish first; for the obvious purpose of terrifying into submission the younger sufferer, who was bound to a stake nearer the shore. The multitude looked on, thrilled with horror. the flood gradually made its way to the aged matron, rising higher and higher at each successive wave, ' mounting up from knee, waist, breast, neck, chin, lip,' until it choked and overwhelmed her. Margaret Wilson witnessed the whole scene, and knew that she would soon share the same fate; but her steadfastness remained unshaken; and so far from exhibiting any symptoms of terror, she displayed a calm courage, rivalling that of the most intrepid martyrs. When her fellow sufferer was struggling in the waters with the agonies of death, a heartless bystander, perhaps one of the soldiers, asked the youthful Margaret, to whom the tide had not yet advanced so far, what she thought of the spectacle before her. ' What do I see,' she answered, ' but Christ, in one of His members, wrestling there? Think you that we are the sufferers? No, it is Christ in us; for He sends none a warfare upon their own charges.'

When bound to the stake, Margaret Wilson sang several verses of the 25th Psalm, beginning at the 7th verse:-

'Let not the errors of my youth,

nor sins remembered be

in mercy for thy goodness' sake

O Lord remember me.

The Lord is good and gracious

He upright is also

He therefore sinners will instruct

In ways that they should go.'

She then repeated, with a calm and even cheerful voice, a portion of the 8th chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans; and, through a steadfast faith in the great and consoling truths exhibited in that sublime chapter, and in the interesting verses of the Psalm she had sung, she was enabled to meet death with unshrinking courage, looking forward with humble hope to that exceeding great and eternal weight of glory, which would do more than counterbalance all her sufferings in the cause of Christ. She next engaged in prayer; and while so employed, the waters had risen upon her so high as to reach her lips, and she began to struggle with the agonies of death. At this moment, by the command of her murderers, who pretended to be willing to preserve her life, provided she would swear the abjuration oath, the cords which bound her to the stake were loosened, and she was pulled out of the waters. As soon as she recovered and was able to speak, it was asked her, by Major Windram's orders, if she would pray for the king. With the Christian meekness which formed so engaging a feature in her character, she answered, ' I wish the salvation of all men, and the damnation of none.'' Dear Margaret,' exclaimed a friend, deeply moved with pity, and anxious to save her life, 'say, God save the king! say, God save the king!' With the greatest composure, she replied, ' God save him, if He will, for it is his salvation I desire.' Immediately her friends called out to Windram,' Sir, she has said it! she has said it!' But with this her murderers were not satisfied. Lagg, we are told, bellowed out, 'Damned bitch! we do not want such prayers; tender the oath to her;' and Windram, coming near her, demanded that she should swear the abjuration oath, else she should be again cast into the sea. She needed not long to deliberate; in an instant her resolve was taken; preferring to die rather than do what she believed would be a denial of Christ and His truth, she firmly replied, ' I will not; I am one of Christ's children; let me go.' And so, after her sufferings were thus inhumanly protracted, and after being thus cruelly tantalized with the hope of life, she was, by Windram's orders, thrust into the waters, which speedily closed over her for the last time.

The bodies of the two martyrs, on being taken from the waters, were buried in the churchyard of Wigton.