1681: Donald Cargill, Covenanter rebel

Add comment July 27th, 2018 Headsman

Scottish Covenanter Donald Cargill ascended his Edinburgh gallows on this date in 1681 with the undaunted last words, “The Lord knows I go on this ladder with less fear and perturbation of mind, than ever I entered the pulpit to preach.”

This Cameronian radical had been a fugitive for many years, ever since he darkened a thanksgiving service for King Charles II’s restoration by voicing from the pulpit of his Glasgow parish what many feared in their hearts: that Presbyterians were about to get the rough end of the restoration pineapple.

We are not come here to keep this day upon the account for which others keep it. We thought once to have blessed the day wherein the king came home again, but now we think we shall have reason to curse it; and if any of you come here in order to the solemnising of this day, we desire you to remove.

That was the end of Cargill’s career as a licensed preacher. His remaining years were illicit services, ducking arrests, and a flight to the Netherlands; he was wounded in service of the Covenanter cause at the 1679 Battle of Bothwell Bridge.

Back in Scotland by 1680, Cargill’s Queensferry Declaration* dared an open case for rebellion in pursuit of “the overthrow of the kingdom of darkness, and whatever is contrary to the kingdom of Christ,” for

now it cannot be called a government, but a lustful rage, exercised with as little right reason, and more cruelty than beasts; and they themselves can no more be called governors, but public grassators, and public judgements, which all ought to set themselves against, as they would do against pestilence, sword and famine raging among them.

The grassators finally got him the following year.

There’s a short biography of our man, The Life of Donald Cargill, available in the public domain which remarks (discount accordingly for hagiographical perspective), that Cargill was memorialized by an associate as

affectionate, affable, and tender-hearted to all such as he thought had anything of the image of God in them, sober and temperate in his diet, saying commonly, ‘It was well won that was won off the flesh,’ generous, liberal, and most charitable to the poor; a great hater of covetousness, a frequent visitor of the sick; much alone, loving to be retired, but when about his Master’s public work, laying hold of every opportunity to edify; in conversation still dropping what might minister grace to the hearers. His countenance was edifying to beholders; often sighing with deep groans; preaching in season and out of season upon all hazards; ever the same in judgment and practice. From his youth he was much given to the duty of secret prayer for whole nights together wherein it was observed that, both in secret and in families, he always sat straight upon his kneesk with his hands lifted up; and in the posturel as some took notice, he died with the rope about his neck.

* The thrust of this militant manifesto is similar to the Sanquhar Declaration issued by Cargill’s ally Richard Cameron, also in 1680.

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1688: James Renwick, to end the Killing Time

Add comment February 17th, 2016 Headsman

Though none of the crowd that thronged Edinburgh’s Grassmarket this day in 1688 could know it, that date’s execution of minister James Renwick would make an end to the Killing Time, the great 1680s persecutions that scattered martyrs’ bones across Highland and Lowland.

Renwick, at any rate, was the last of many Covenanters who submitted to the public executioner; only a few months yet remained when officers in the field were empowered to force an oath of abjuration upon suspected dissidents, on pain of summary death in the field. By year’s end, the absolutist Catholic King James II — with whose brother and predecessor the movement had such a tortured history — fled to exile as the Glorious Revolution brought the Protestant William of Orange to power: royal recognition of Scottish Presbyterianism ensued.*


Monument to Renwick at his native Moniaive. (cc) image by Scott Hill.

The son of a village weaver, Renwick manifested a martyr’s uncommon zeal for the faith early in life and matriculated at the University of Edinburgh. There in 1681 he witnessed the hanging of Covenanter preacher Donald Cargill. Here, muses the hagiography, “the mantle of Elijah fell upon young Elisha.”

After studying — and ordination — abroad in the Netherlands Renwick returned to his native soil in 1683. He managed some five years of secret ministering in hidden homes and conventicles, and all the while the law sought him ever closer. By the time it finally hunted him to ground in 1688, so many of the faith’s august champions had already taken their martyrs’ crowns that at age 25** Renwick was among the biggest game remaining.

How often cowled on ghostly moors by torchlight had the young reverend rehearsed the steadfast refusal he might one day deliver to his persecutors? Had he prayed that the weakness of flesh would not betray his spirit with an unbecoming attachment to his own life? “I cannot own this usurper as the lawful king, seeing both by the word of God such an one is incapable to bear rule, and likewise by the ancient laws of the kingdom which admit none to the crown of Scotland until he swear to defend the Protestant religion, which a man of his profession cannot do,” he declared to his captors when pressed for the formula of abjuration.

Renwick passed this test but little could even he have imagined how speedily would be fulfilled his gallows prayer:

Lord, I die in the faith that Thou wilt not leave Scotland, but that Thou wilt make the blood of Thy witnesses the seed of Thy church, and return again and be glorious in our land. And now, Lord, I am ready.


Condemned Covenanters on Their Way to Execution in the West Bow, Edinburgh. Artist unknown. (Source)

James Renwick has enjoyed tender biographical treatment from posterity; see here and here for some longer-form examples.

* While good news for the Presbyterians, this put many an Episcopal and Catholic in a tight spot of their own, setting up decades of bloody tragedy for Jacobite loyalists … but this is a subject for other posts.

** The captain who finally caught Renwick is supposed to have exclaimed at seeing his youth, “Is this the boy Renwick that the nation has been so much troubled with?” The outlaw minister turned 26 two days before his execution.

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1685: Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, the Solway Martyrs

8 comments May 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1685, a woman of 63 and another of 18 were staked to the tidal channel of Bladnoch River near Wigtown and drowned by the rising waters.

Margaret Wilson remembered in heroic — and sexy — marble at Knox College in Toronto, Canada. (Larger version.)

They were holdout Covenanters — Scottish Presbyterians resisting English Episcopalian control in a struggle both theological and political (here’s a backgrounder).

To skip over much meaningful history, the Covenanter movement of local presbyter control had at this point been defeated politically and militarily, if not spiritually. The due demanded by the British crown was prayer for the king — an oath, in effect, of submission to the Episcopal hierarchy and, by the same token, to London. Many Scots remained obdurate, including children — the 18-year-old Margaret Wilson was arrested with her 13-year-old sister, though their father managed to scrape together a bond payment to save the younger girl.

And fiendish penalties were deployed to force their capitulation or cow their sympathizers. In this case, a recent law prescribed public drowning for Covenanter women, and the two Margarets were duly condemned to be

ty’d to palisados fixed in the sand, within the flood mark, and there to stand till the flood overflowed them and drowned them.

The ploy on this day was to put the old woman further out, where she would drown first, in hopes of terrifying the teenager into submission. The young Margaret held firm.

Here is the women’s end related in The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland by Robert Wodrow, who dubbed the bloody suppression of the Covenanter movement in the 1680’s “The Killing Time”:

The two women were brought from Wigton, with a numerous crowd of spectators to so extraordinary an execution. Major Windram with some soldiers guarded them to the place of execution. The old woman’s stake was a good way in beyond the other, and she was first despatched, in order to terrify the other to a compliance with such oaths and conditions as they required. But in vain, for she adhered to her principles with an unshaken steadfastness. When the water was overflowing her fellow-martyr, some about Margaret Wilson asked her, what she thought of the other now struggling with the pangs of death. She answered, what do I see 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 Margaret Wilson was at the stake, she sang the 25th Psalm from verse 7th, downward a good way, and read the 8th chapter to the Romans with a great deal of cheerfulness, and then prayed. While at prayer, the water covered her: but before she was quite dead, they pulled her up, and held her out of the water till she was recovered, and able to speak; and then by major Windram’s orders, she was asked, if she would pray for the king. She answered, ‘She wished the salvation of all men, and the damnation of none.’ One deeply affected with the death of the other and her case, said, ‘Dear Margaret, say God save the king, say God save the king.’ She answered in the greatest steadiness and composure, ‘God save him, if he will, for it is his salvation I desire.’ Whereupon some of her relations near by, desirous to have her life spared, if possible, called out to major Windram, ‘Sir, she hath said it, she hath said it.’ Whereupon the major came near, and offered her the abjuration, charging her instantly to swear it, otherwise return to the water. Most deliberately she refused, and said, ‘ I will not, I am one of Christ’s children, let me go.’ Upon which she was thrust down again into the water, where she finished her course with joy.”

Update: Gravestone photos and maps of the area can be found here.

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