There was a dispute in the 17th century between the Church and the Monarchy. The King, now ruling over both countries, forced Episcopalianism on Scotland; the people who refused this imposition, having signed a Covenant together to do so, became known as Covenanters. Over decades, successive kings escalated their campaign against the Covenanters, with rulings, legislation, and sanctions such as fines, banishment and finally executions. Wigtown was the scene of five such executions, and those who died in 1685 became known as “The Wigtown Martyrs”. Stones were erected beside the Parish Church to commemorate their deaths.
Margaret Wilson was the daughter of Gilbert Wilson, a prosperous farmer at Glenvernoch, not far from Bargrennan. Gilbert and his wife conformed, and attended Episcopalian services in the parish church. Their children, though refused, so their father was held responsible for his children’s non-attendance, heavily fined by the Courts, and had soldiers billeted upon him, who stole stock and possessions from him. He was all but ruined.
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. This had been introduced on 25 November 1684 by the Privy Council, in order to catch sympathisers of Richard Cameron. In a public declaration at Sanquhar Cross, Cameron had denounced the King as a tyrant and declared war on him.
Refusal to swear the Oath allowed execution without trial; men could be hanged or shot; a new sentence had been introduced for women: death by drowning. The women refused the Oath and were brought before the Commission. The Commissioners, Grierson of Lagg, Sheriff David Graham (Claverhouse’s brother), Major Windram, Captain Strachan and Provost Coltrane of Wigtown, have been described as “five of the most vicious scoundrels in Scotland”. Margaret McLachlan with Margaret and Agnes Wilson were found guilty on all charges and they were sentenced “to be tyed to palisadoes and fixed in the sand, within the flood mark, at the mouth of the Blednoch stream, and there to stand till the flood over flowed them, and [they] drowned”. Agnes Wilson (aged only thirteen at the time) was reprieved, when her father promised to pay a bond of £100, a fortune in that day.
A pardon was issued in Edinburgh, dated 30 April 1685, for Margaret Wilson (aged 18) and Margaret McLachlan (aged 63). It remains a mystery what happened to it, since no record of it remains beyond the Council Chamber. They were taken out and tied to stakes in the waters of the Bladnoch on 11 May 1685. The older woman was tied deeper in the river channel forcing young Margaret to witness her death, in the hope that she would relent. Instead, she seemed to take strength from the older woman’s fate, singing a psalm, and quoting scripture.
The events are recorded in the Kirk Session records of both Penninghame and Kirkinner parishes, vouched for by elders and ministers who were present on the day, and the records confirmed by the Presbytery of Wigtown. The Penninghame records say that Margaret Wilson’s head was held up from the water, in order to ask her if she would pray for the King. She answered that she wished the salvation of all men, but the damnation of none. When her watching relatives cried out that this proved she was willing to conform, Major Windram offered her the Oath of Abjuration again, but she refused, saying “I am one of Christ’s children; let me go”.
The Kirkinner records state that Margaret McLachan’s head had been “held down within the water by one of the town officers by his halberd at her throat, til she died”. A popular account adds that the officer said “then tak’ another drink o’t my hearty”. Legend has it that for the rest of his life the man had an unquenchable thirst, and had to stop and drink from every ditch, stream, or tap he passed, and he was deserted by his friends.
Likewise the constable named Bell, who had carried out his duties with a notable lack of feeling, allegedly said, when asked how the women had behaved, “O, they just clepped roun the stobs, like partans and prayed”. Clepped means web-footed, partans are crabs. Bell’s wife bore three children all with “clepped” fingers, and the family was referred to as “the Cleppie Bells” which was believed to be the sins of the father being visited on the children.
William Johnstone, John Milroy and George Walker were hanged in Wigtown the same year, for refusal to take the oath.