Margaret Wilson, The Wigtown Martyr

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Margaret Wilson, The Wigtown Martyr

Birthplace: Cumnock on Nith, Ayrshire, Scotland
Death: May 11, 1685 (17-18)
Solway Firth, Wigton, Scotland, United Kingdom
Place of Burial: Penninghame Churchyard , Wigton, Scotland
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Gilbert Wilson, of Glenvernoch, Parish of Penninghame, Scotland and Jonet MacIlwain
Sister of John Wilson, of Wastland, Ayrshire & Rashee, Ballyclare; Samuel Wilson; Thomas Wilson, of Glenvernoch, Parish of Penninghame, Scotland; William Wilson, (Son of Gilbert); Robert Wilson and 1 other

Managed by: Pam Wilson (on hiatus)
Last Updated:

About Margaret Wilson, The Wigtown Martyr

Margaret Wilson (Scottish martyr)

see and

Margaret Wilson (c. 1667 – 11 May 1685) was a young Scottish Covenanter, from Wigtown in Scotland executed by drowning for refusing to swear an oath declaring James VII (James II of England) as head of the church. She died along with Margaret McLachlan. The two Margarets were known as the Wigtown Martyrs. Wilson became the more famous of the two because of her youth. As a teenager, her faith unto death became celebrated as part of the martyrology of Presbyterian churches.

The Wigtown Martyrs Monument in the Old Town Cemetery, Stirling, depicts Margaret Wilson reading the Bible with her young sister Agnes, watched over by a despairing guardian angel.

Background and arrest

Millais' illustration of Wilson's martyrdom, published in Once A Week, July 1862

The Covenanter movement to maintain the reforms of the Scottish Reformation came to the fore with signing of the National Covenant of 1638 in opposition to royal control of the church, promoting Presbyterianism as a form of church government instead of an Episcopal polity governed by bishops appointed by the Crown. The dispute led to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the overthrow of the monarchy. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Covenants were declared treasonable and Episcopacy was restored. Particularly in the south-west of Scotland, ministers refused to submit. Barred from their churches, they held open air field assemblies called conventicles which the authorities suppressed using military force.

Margaret Wilson was born at Glenvernoch, a farm near Newton Stewart in Wigtownshire. Her parents were dutiful Episcopalians, but her older brothers were Covenanters. By 1684 Covenanters were hiding from the authorities in the hills, and increasingly draconian action had ended the large conventicles. There were still small gatherings held indoors, but now failure to take a test of allegiance to the king, which required renouncing the Covenant, met with the death penalty, as did even attending a conventicle or harbouring Covenanters. Despite the risks, Margaret began attending conventicles with her younger brother Thomas, possibly beginning when there was an opportunity at a local conventicle to see the charismatic James Renwick who had newly become leader of the more extreme Covenanters known as the Cameronians. On occasion they also took along their young sister Agnes.[1]

In February 1685 the sixteen-year-old Thomas Wilson left to join other Covenanters in the hills. The girls went on a secret visit to Wigtown to visit friends, including an elderly widow Margaret McLachlan (there are various spellings of her second name). The young sisters Margaret and Agnes were taken prisoner, possibly after declining to drink the King's health, and put into the "thieves' hole". They refused to take the Abjuration Oath renouncing the Covenant. On the following Sunday Margaret McLachlan was arrested, and also put into the "thieves' hole" with the Wilson girls, along with a servant woman. They were taken before the "local assizes" of the Government Commissioners for Wigtownshire.

On 13 April 1685 they were indicted as being guilty of the Rebellion of Bothwell Bridge, Aird's Moss, 20 Field Conventicles and 20 House Conventicles. The Assizes session took place and a guilty verdict was brought.[2] The three main protagonists were found guilty on all charges, and sentenced to be "tied to palisades fixed in the sand, within the floodmark of the sea, and there to stand till the flood o'erflowed them".

Privy Council of Scotland

The father of the girls, Gilbert Wilson, went to Edinburgh and made a plea to the Privy Council of Scotland for clemency for all three, presenting a petition which claimed that Margaret McLachlan had recanted. Agnes was granted freedom on a bond of 100 Pounds Scots, and "reprieves were written out for the two Margarets with a date of 30 April 1685".

Reprieve and execution

A reprieve was granted for Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan.[3] It stated, "The Lords of his Majesties Privy Council doe hereby reprove the execution of the sentence of death pronounced by the Justices against Margret Wilson and Margret Lauchlison until the ..... day of ..... and discharges the magistrats of Edinburgh for putting of the said sentence to execution against them until the forsaid day; and recommends the saids Margret Wilson and Margret Lauchlison to the "Lords Secretaries of State" to interpose with his most sacred Majestie for his Royall remission to them."[4]

Urging that Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan were officially reprieved by the Privy Council of Scotland, Mark Napier insisted that its agents should not have dared flout the Council's decree.[5] Grierson of Lag, brother-in-law of Queensberry, nevertheless chose to do so. G. F. Crosbie writes that "over-zeal was no crime in 1685 - the year when Lag received his baronetcy in the pitiless James's coronation honour's list."[6]

On 11 May 1685, 11 days after the signing of the reprieve, Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan were chained to stakes on the Solway Firth. At the last moment, choking on the salt water, Margaret Wilson was allowed to offer a prayer for the King, which she did, but she continued to refuse to abjure the covenant. This was not good enough for her accusers, and she was forcibly thrust beneath the waves. It is said that, as the tide rose, she defiantly quoted from the psalms and the epistles and sang until she drowned. Robert Wodrow later wrote that the killers should have been prosecuted for ignoring the reprieve.[7]

About 18 years of age at the time of her death, Margaret Wilson was buried, together with her friend Margaret McLachlan, in the churchyard of Wigtown.

Witness statements

Twenty years after the date of the execution, Kirkinner and Penninghame Kirk Session prepared two accounts that drew on stories collected from individuals who claimed to have witnessed the events: McLachlan's daughter's own account about the drowning of her mother was employed,[8] and the records of the Penninghame Kirk Session included a statement referring to[9] Wilson's brother Thomas, that he "lives to certifie the truth of these things, with many others who knew them too weel."[1][10]

The story of the Wigtown Martyrs was among those collected by Robert Wodrow and published in his History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Revolution.[10] The Church of Scotland synod had decided in the year of the attempted Jacobite invasion, 1708, to collect accounts of persecution under the Stuart monarchs, and commissioned Wodrow to take on the research. He wrote that Thomas Wilson "lives now in his father's room, and is ready to attest all I am writing."[11] The account was published in 1721, and had a considerable effect on public perception despite being attacked by royalists and supporters of the Scottish Episcopal Church.[12]

Scottish lawyer and historian Mark Napier in his three-volume Memorials of Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, 1859–62, included letters of Claverhouse and other documents not previously in print. Its publication led to a small storm of controversy about the supposed drowning of the "Wigtown Martyrs". Napier raised doubts as to whether the executions as depicted ever took place, and critiqued the writings of Robert Wodrow and his defenders. Napier replied in detail to his objectors in the Case for the Crown in re the Wigtown Martyrs proved to be Myths versus Wodrow and Lord Macaulay, Patrick the Pedlar and Principal Tulloch, 1863; and once more in History Rescued, in Reply to History Vindicated (by the Rev. Archibald Stewart), 1870.

Art and literature

Painting of Wilson, The Martyr of Solway, by John Everett Millais, 1871.

The Knight Errant by Millais, 1870.

The death of Margaret Wilson was depicted in 1862 by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais in an illustration (shown above) for the magazine Once A Week. The magazine also reproduced the verses describing her death which are inscribed on her grave in Wigtown.

Some years later Millais revisited the subject in his painting The Martyr of Solway (1871) (shown at the right), which hangs in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool. Although the painting today shows Margaret wearing an open-neck blouse, when conservators x-rayed the piece, they found that the figure had once been a nude looking sharply to the right.[13]

In fact the head and torso had originally formed part of Millais' 1870 painting The Knight Errant, which portrayed a naked rape victim tied to a tree. A medieval knight is depicted cutting her free, having killed her attacker. The painting received negative reviews, leading Millais to cut away the head and torso section and add a fresh piece of canvas to paint it anew, with the woman's head turned distinctly away to the left. The original figure section was added to a new canvas for the 1871 Martyr painting and was repainted with chains and the more modest blouse.[14]

The story of Wilson's death is discussed in Josephine Tey's 1951 novel The Daughter of Time, in which a modern detective criticises versions of historical events created to serve political agendas. Following Mark Napier, Tey portrays the death of Wilson as a myth, referring to the existence of the reprieve, held by the Scottish Privy Council "to this day". She claims that "the original collector of the material, canvassing the Wigtown district only forty years after the supposed martyrdom and at the height of the Presbyterian triumph, complains that 'many deny that this happened'; and couldn't find any eyewitnesses at all".[15] In fact, Robert Wodrow, the original collector of the material published in The History and Sufferings of the Church 36 years after the event, wrote that "our jacobites have the impudence, some of them to deny, and others to extenuate this matter of fact which can be fully evinced by many living witnesses"[7] Kirk Session records written out twenty years after the events provide detailed accounts compiled from the narratives of individuals who claimed to have witnessed the events.[1][10]

See also

Barbara Gilmour - fellow Scottish Covenanter.

Wikisource has original text related to this article: Margaret Wilson The Two Margarets The Two Margarets: The Solway Martyrs (Excerpt from Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History)


  1. ^ a b c Elizabeth Robertson (14 June 1997). "Sacrificed to the cruel flood". The Herald. Retrieved 21 December 2009.
  2. ^ A History of Dumfries and Galloway. by Sir Herbert Maxwell. p. 282.
  3. ^ Register of the Privy Council of Scotland. Third Series. Vol. XI. 1685–1686. Acta, February 1685 - December 1685, p. 33. (P.56)
  4. ^ Register of the Privy Council of Scotland. Third Series. Vol. XI. 1685–1686, p. 33. Acta, February 1685 - December 1685 (P.56)
  5. ^ Sir Herbert Maxwell, A History of Dumfries and Galloway, p. 282.
  6. ^ G. F. Crosbie, "Sir Robert Redgauntlet", The Glasgow Herald, 1934, 6 January, p. 4.
  7. ^ a b Robert Wodrow, The History and Sufferings of the Church of Scotland, Book III, Chap. XI, pp. 248–9.
  8. ^ Kirkinner Session minutes, 1702-1714, Ms CH2/228/1, National Archive of Scotland
  9. ^ Penninghame Session minutes, 1696-1729, Ms CH2/1387/1, National Archive of Scotland
  10. ^ a b c Robert Wodrow; Robert Burns (1836). The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Revolution. 2nd Edition. Glasgow: Blackie and Son Limited. pp. 246–249. Retrieved 21 December 2009.
  11. ^ Galloway and the Covenanters. p. 409 Wodrow's narrative.
  12. ^ A. M. Starkey (1974). "Robert Wodrow and the History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland". 2nd Edition. Church History, Vol. 43, No. 4. pp. 488–498. JSTOR 3164924.
  13. ^ Liverpool Museums, The Martyr of Solway
  14. ^ Tate Gallery, The Knight Errant
  15. ^ Tey, J. (2002), The Daughter of Time, Arrow Books Ltd, ISBN 0-09-943096-7

(Research):The classical passage on the martyrdom of Margaret Wilson and Margaret Maclachlan is in Wodrow's The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland.

" Upon the 11th of May," he says, " we meet with the barbarous and wicked execution of two excellent women near Wigton, Margaret McLachlan (Lauchlison) and Margaret Wilson." Margaret Wilson, aged eighteen years, and her sister, Agnes, who was not yet thirteen years old, were the daughters of Gilbert Wilson, tenant of Glenvernoch in the parish of Penninghame, who conformed to Episcopacy.

The girls adhered to the Covenants, fell into the hands of the persecutors, and were imprisoned. Later, they left the district and wandered through Carrick, Galloway, and Nithsdale with their brothers and some other Covenanters. On the death of King Charles, there was some slackening of the persecution, and the girls returned to Wigton.

"There was an acquaintance of theirs, Patrick Stuart, whom they took to be a friend and wellwisher, but he was really not so, and betrayed them; being in their company, and seeking an occasion against them, he proposed drinking the king's health; this they modestly declined: upon which he went out, informed against them, and brought in a party of soldiers, and seized them. As if they had been great malefactors, they were put in the thieves' hole, and after they had been there some time, they were removed to the prison where Margaret McLauchlan was.

"Margaret Maclachlan (Lauchlison) was the widow of a tenant in the parish of Kirkinner, "a country woman of more than ordinary knowledge, discretion, and prudence, and for many years of singular piety and devotion: she would take none of the oaths now pressed upon women as well as men, neither would she desist from the duties she took to be incumbent upon her, hearing Presbyterian ministers when providence gave opportunity, and joining with her Christian friends and acquaintances in prayer, and supplying her relations and acquaintances when in straits, though persecuted. It is a jest to suppose her guilty of rising in arms and rebellion, though indeed it was a part of her indictment, which she got in common form now used." She was very roughly dealt with in prison, and was allowed neither fire nor bed although she was sixty-three years of age. All the three prisoners were indicted "for rebellion, Bothwellbridge, Ayr's Moss, and being present at twenty field-conventicles". None of them had ever been within many miles of Bothwell or Ayr's Moss. "Agnes Wilson could be but eight years of age at Ayr's Moss, and her sister but about twelve or thirteen; and it was impossible they could have any access to those risings: Margaret MeLauchlan was as free as they were." When the Abjuration Oath was put to them, they refused it, the assize found them guilty, and the sentence was that "upon the 11th instant, all the three 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".

Gilbert Wilson secured the liberation of the younger girl under a bond of a hundred pounds sterling to present her when he was required to do so. The sentence was executed on Margaret Maclachlan (Lauchlison)and Margaret Wilson. The narrative must be given as it stands in Wodrow's History. "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."

She is the subject of the painting "The Martyr of Solway" by the artist John Everett Millais which now hangs in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool.

The persecution of her parents continued after Margaret's death and the imposition of fines and the weekly journeys to pay them eventually ruined her father and he lost the farm and died in utter poverty. Her mother had to be cared for by friends-

"Thus troubles continuing upon him for some years together, with his attendance upon courts at Wigton almost once a week, thirteen miles distant from his house, his going to Edinburg, and other harrassings, brought him under exceeding great losses. As a modest calculation they were about five thousand marks, and all for no action or principle of his own, for he was entirely conformist. He died some six or eight years ago in great poverty, though one of the most substantial countrymen in that country"

And his wife (1711) lives, a very aged widow,relient upon the charity of friends.

Reference THE COVENANTERS. By Elizabeth Oaks Smith extracted from the "Minute of The Kirk Session,Penninghame,February 19,1711."

Margaret McLauchlan (Lauchlison), 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.She had been listed as "Disorderly"in the 1684 Parishioners list .

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Margaret Wilson, The Wigtown Martyr's Timeline

Cumnock on Nith, Ayrshire, Scotland
May 11, 1685
Age 18
Solway Firth, Wigton, Scotland, United Kingdom

staked to the tidal channel of Bladnoch River near Wigtown and drowned by the rising waters.

"During "The Killing Times" of the Covenanters in the 17th century, Margaret McLachlan, an elderly woman in her 60s, and Margaret Wilson, a teenager, were sentenced to be tied to stakes in the tidal channel of the Bladnoch River near its entrance to Wigtown Bay to be drowned by the incoming tide. Margaret McLachlan was staked further down in the river channel. The ploy was that the younger Margaret might be persuaded to change her mind by being forced to watch the older woman drown. All attempts to persuade her to change her mind failed and, despite a dragoon being ordered to hold her head up, she too was drowned. This barbaric execution was carried out by dragoons under the command of Major Windram in the presence of Sir Robert Grierson of Lag who held the King's Commission to suppress the rebels in the South West. Their story, as told in various sources, tells how the women were betrayed by an informer. After about a month in prison they were tried as rebels and sentenced to death by drowning."

By John Everett Millais - zgHu888n3_dObw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain,
Penninghame Churchyard , Wigton, Scotland