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Issue 55 - Secrets and Lives

Scotland Magazine Issue 55
February 2011


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Secrets and Lives

Annie Harrower Gray looks at the lives of Margaret and Agnes Wilson

Secreted away in Stirling’s Old Town Cemetery, behind the Church of the Holy Rood, stands a beautifully carved marble statue. The cupolacovered monument depicts an angel watching over two girls, the elder reading to the younger. The epitaph gives little away as to the identity of the two girls it commemorates, so who were Margaret and Agnes and what is their connection to this grand old place of worship?

In 17th century Scotland, it was not only allegations of witchcraft and devil worship that led to thousands of women being judicially murdered but being on the wrong side when it came to the worship of God. Margaret Wilson aged eighteen at the time of her death and her sister Agnes thirteen, were two such victims of the hundred years conflict between Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

The Concordant of Leith signed in 1572 ensured Episcopacy rather than Presbyterianism became the dominating religion in the Scottish Church; Bishops were to be appointed to vacant sees by the Crown. John Knox gave the Concordat his blessing although he feared the bishops would become tools of an unsympathetic monarch, a fear that was to prove justified.

After Knox’s death, Andrew Melville, Principal of the University College at Glasgow introduced a new form of Presbyterianism into the church.

Melville believed the church should separate itself from Parliament and state. It did not need the council of the King, for ministers kept council with a higher authority, God.

The General Assembly in 1578 adopted Melville’s proposals mainly for financial reasons.

The reformer renewed Knox’s claim to all the property belonging to the Old Catholic church.

The Crown retaliated by reaffirming royal authority over the church. Despite later compromises made by the Crown, the extremist clergy in the Melvillian camp kept Presbyterianism very much alive. Forbidden to preach in public, ministers taught at private meetings and distributed illicit books and manuscripts. Thus began the religious war that would see massive atrocities carried out against the Scottish people, all in the name of God.

Charles I, a monarch totally out of touch with the feelings of the Scottish people, publicised a policy to bring the church in Scotland into line with the Church of England. This policy forced the Scots to accept a new prayer book, which recalled many Catholic practices. The policy was to cause a general revolt.

In 1638, representatives of the Scottish people met at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, where many of their number would later be imprisoned, and signed the National Covenant. This document was a protest against popery and a pledge by the signatories to defend their religion against all who opposed it. The King responded by treating the signatories as rebels and prepared to move an army into Scotland. The Scots, now completely united behind the Presbyterians formed their own army of the Covenant.

The Covenanters were fanatical in their quest for vengeance and insatiable in their thirst for blood. After Montrose’s Highland army was defeated by General Leslie’s Covenanters at the Battle of Philiphaugh in 1645, the ministers demanded all prisoners, including women and children,were massacred to the cry of ‘Jesus and no quarter’.

Dissenting Covenanters found sympathy amongst the small lairds and owner, occupying peasants of Ayrshire, Dumfriesshire and Galloway.

They were people who could act without fear of eviction by landlords who opposed their tenants attending a rebel church.

By 1684 the open-air prayer meetings held by the covenanters were providing an excuse for anyone with a violent disposition to hunt out helpless victims, claim they were fanatics and inflict terrible cruelty upon them. The years 1684 and 1685 became known as ‘The Killing Times.’ One such persecutor, Patrick Stuart, found two perfect victims in Margaret and Agnes Wilson.

Stuart came upon Margaret, Agnes and their brothers as the small band wandered through Carrick, Galloway and Nithsdale. Although, the daughters of Gilbert Wilson an Episcopalian, the two young girls were mesmerised by the zeal and fine words of the Covenanting ministers. Stuart pretended to befriend them. After the girls declined his proposal to drink a toast to the King’s health, he informed against them to a party of soldiers. The sisters were seized and incarcerated in the local ‘Thief’s Hole’. Afterwards they were transferred to the prison where a sixty-three year old widow Margaret Maclachlan was being held charged with attending conventicles.

Margaret Maclachlan was a pious woman, known to be generous towards her friends in their times of need. She was knowledgeable and above average in intelligence. These two qualities, undesirable in a woman, saw her listed as ‘Disorderly’ in the 1684 Parishioners list for Kirkinner in Galloway. Despite her advanced years, Margaret was treated abominably in prison, allowed neither warmth nor a bed to sleep in.

All three prisoners were indicted for rebellion, it being claimed they attended the uprisings at Bothwell Bridge and Ayr’s Moss though no evidence was presented. It is highly unlikely any of the three were present at either. At the time of the battle at Ayr’s Moss Agnes Wilson would have been eight years old.

The Abjuration oath was put to the accused.

This oath required Presbyterians to state that the Sovereign should be an Episcopalian and was seen as an outrage. All three refused the oath and were found guilty. On the 11th May 1685 all were to be tied to stakes in the river Bladnoch near Wigtown and drowned.

Gilbert Wilson under the bond of a hundred pounds managed to liberate Agnes due to her tender years. He was unable to free his elder daughter.

Guarded by Major Windram and several soldiers, the two Margarets were brought from Wigtown to the place of execution. There, in front of a crowd of spectators they were bound to the stakes. The older woman was placed down the river from Margaret Wilson who was intended to witness Margaret McLaughlin’s terror as she drowned. This was a ploy designed to make her compliant to the wishes of Major Windram.

The young woman again refused the oaths but instead sang the 25th Psalm. Before the water covered her completely, she was hauled from the river and the Abjuration oath put to her.

Again she refused to swear, saying ‘I am one of Christ’s children, let me go.’ Margaret was then thrust back into the water and held under until she died.

Margaret Wilson was buried at Penninhame Churchyard, Wigtown and a monument to the martyrs erected in the town.

William Drummond, a resident of Stirling was so impressed by the staunch beliefs of the Covenanters that in 1859 he commissioned the Monument for the local cemetery. These figures, as well as five other statues to the reformers were carved by local sculptor Handyside Ritchie.

The Church of the Holy Rood, site of the infant James VI’s coronation, with its magnificent stained glass windows and Celtic stone is well worth exploring. It is in the cemetery behind though that the secrets of these past lives, buried by the passage of time, wait to be rediscovered.


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