The story of the Wigton martyrs reveals so much of fiendish cruelty, that every effort has been made to throw discredit upon the story. The more it has been investigated, however, the more apparent is the fiendish cruelty. The most ardent supporter of the Covenanters today would be intensely glad if it could be proved that the Wigton martyrs were not historical. The shameful picture of human degradation presented is an everlasting disgrace to humanity.
The chief figure of the martyrdom was Margaret Wilson, a young woman of eighteen years of age, famed for her nobleness of life, kindness of heart, and sympathetic generosity all in distress.
Very early in life she became a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by her influence her brother and sister also became Christians.
Her father and mother attended the Episcopal Church, as by law they were compelled to do, under the death penalty, but the three children attended the field meetings held by the Covenanters.
Their youth protected them for a time from the fury of the oppressors, and their absence from the parish church was winked at. Whether it was because Mr. Wilson had a little property, or because there were few people to persecute, we cannot say, but one morning Margaret Wilson, aged eighteen, Thomas, aged sixteen, and Agnes, aged thirteen were reported by the curate as defaulters in church attendance.
“Send the dragoons after them,” said the cruel Grierson of Lagg, “and we’ll teach them their duty.”
A friendly hint was given to the Wilsons that the children were to be arrested, and a family council was held. It will surprise us to find the intelligent grasp the children had, not only of the Bible, but of the aims and objects of the Covenanters.
“We judge you not, mother, but were we to attend the curate’s church, it would be sinning against our Lord. He neither teaches the Word of God, nor does he endeavor to live it, as his drunken habits declare. To sit in his church means acknowledging all the King has done, which we cannot do. It sanctions the persecution of the poor Covenanters, whose only fault is they will worship God in as pure a manner as they possibly can. Our hearts are with these hunted men, and we will share willingly in their sufferings.”
And that night, after an affectionate farewell, the three wandered out to the moss hags in search of a hiding place from the dragoons.
When the soldiers arrived at Wilson’s house they were greatly surprised to find the children were not at home.
“Then, if you ever allow them to enter your house, or if you ever send them food, we will take you outside your own door and shoot you,” said the sergeant to the mother. “Tell me where they are hiding.”
“We know not where they are. They left here last night, preferring to endure suffering sooner than agree to the demand they felt certain you would make upon them.”
“We’ll make greater demands than ever when we find them. Let’s be after them, men.”
The dragoons searched all the caves they know, and pierced every thick bush with their sword, and traveled over the moss, but the Wilsons were safe. About a hundred soldiers in all were quartered at Mr. Wilson’s house, at great expense to him. He bore it patiently, even when they fined him. In all he lost 5000 merks.
The cave in which these noble children hid may be seen today by the curious. It has slightly altered its form through frost and rain. It has been formed been formed by two large slabs of stone, like the legs of an A, resting against each other. A small stone covers the mouth of it, and this was covered by some wild brambles and tufts of heather. It was small, wet, and necessarily uncomfortable, but here they spent the whole day, and at night searched for food.
On the death of Charles II, when the country was filled with hopes of a more lenient policy, the young Wilsons were advised by some of their Covenanting friends that they could now go safely home. They were a little timid about going to their parents’ house, and went rather to the house of a widow, about seventy years of age, named Margaret M‘Lauchlan. This woman was the other victim that sealed her testimony with her life.
Whilst at the widow’s house, Margaret Wilson met a man named Patrick Stuart, whom she know well, and who had received much kindness from her father. She inquired about her parents and others, and he gladly gave her all the news he knew. He was exceedingly attentive to her, and when he heard the story of their sufferings in the cave, he invited them to come next evening and partake of refreshments at his house. This they consented to do, trusting him, as to offer hospitality to Covenanters was a crime heavily punished.
There is a tradition to the effect that Patrick had been a suitor for the hand of Margaret, but that she gave him little encouragement. When they came to his home next evening, he renewed his offer of marriage, which she declined. He then asked her to drink to the King’s health, which she promptly refused to do. Without a word of warning or farewell he left the room, went straight to the Wigton authorities, and informed them where the Wilson children were.
Soon a company of dragoons sought them out, and the two girls were arrested and thrown into a horrible place called “The Thieves’ Hole.”
When Patrick informed on the Wilsons, partly through spite, and partly for the reward he recieved, he also informed upon the aged Margaret M‘Launchan, for entertaining the Wilsons. She was arrested soon after the two Wilsons, and thrust into prison.
Their sufferings in prison are part of the horribleness of their persecution. They were only supplied with food once a day, and that was of poor quality and quantity. They had no beds to lie upon, and lay down on the damp cell at nights. No complaint ever came from their lips, however, for they accepted all that came to them as part of the price they had to pay for their witnessing for God.
Now that they had been taken prisoners, it was found rather difficult to get a reasonable charge against them. It required little in those days, however, to be sentenced to death.
They were brought before the infamous Sir Robert Grierson, of Lagg, and charged with being at the battle of Bothwell Bridge, Ayr’s Moss, at twenty field conventicles, and a like number of house conventicles.
“We were never near Bothwell Bridge in our life,” said Margaret Wilson, “and even if we had, we were only twelve and seven years of age when that took place. We were never at Ayr’s Moss either.”
“Then you were at conventicles,” thundered Grierson.
“Yea, we have, and prefer them much to the dead preaching of the curates, whose hearts are blind. But there is nothing worthy of death in worshipping God in a pure manner on the hillside.” “Give them the abjuration oath,” shouted Grierson to an officer in Court.
By this oath the Covenanters were made to abjure a manifesto issued by the Cameronians, in which they renounced the authority of Charles Stuart, condemned the killing of those who differed in judgment, and in which they declared they would stand up for their rights as religious men and women.
All the three women refused to take this oath, as the Court expected.
“To death then, to death,” shouted that monster of iniquity, Grierson, and he then passed sentence.
“Upon the 11th of May ye shall stand to be tied to stakes fixed within the flood mark in the water of Blednock, near Wigton, where the sea flows at high water, there to be drowned.”
In the wildest moments of fear they had never expected such an inhuman sentence. The whole of Wigton was filled with excitement, and Mr. Wilson at once hurried to Edinburgh to intercede with the Privy Council on behalf of his daughters. He managed to get the youngest daughter liberated on paying a fine of 100 merks, the last of the poor man’s money.
Margaret Wilson was besieged in prison by her friends, who used all their powers to get her to take the abjuration oath. The terrible grief of her mother tried her sore, especially when the mother upbraided her for lack of obedience to her parents.
“If my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up,” she said, with tears in her eyes.
“I did not mean that,” said the mother hysterically, “but the sword hath pierced my soul. Could you not relent so far as to promise to listen to the curate, Sunday by Sunday.”
“That were to acknowledge Prelacy as right, and deny that the hill folk are right.” She was unmovable.
The widow made an appeal to the Privy Council, in which she offered to take the oath of abjuration. She appealed to her age as another reason why she should be left alone.
The Secretaries of State granted a reprieve to the two women, as the Register of the Acts of the Privy council attest, but the reprieve was never put into force. Why this was so has never been satisfactorily explained—save it be that Lagg had no wish to be cheated out of the sport it would be to him to see two women put to death in this novel and barbarous manner.
On the 11th of May, Major Windram with a troop of soldiers came to the Tolbooth of Wigton and demanded the two prisoners.
It was a beautiful May morning, and the crowds of people dressed in their best attire made it look more like a gala than a procession of death.
The sight of the two large stakes erected in the sand, one thirty yards further out than the other, took the colour from the cheeks of more than the prisoners. Women began to weep, and men began to clench their fists and grind their teeth. It required but one man to lead, and they would have torn the soldiers to pieces; but the leader was not there.
“We are called upon this day to give a worthy testimony for our Lord. He hath done us much good and no ill these years we have served Him. This day shall we behold Him in the glory of His risen power, and I do rejoice the end is so near at hand,” said Margaret to the widow, who had now become courageous. The widow was marched out to the stake nearest the sea and there tied securely. It was hoped to break the spirit of the young woman by the sight of the widow’s death. Possibly they were afraid that unless the widow was drowned speedily she would recant, and so spoil their fiendish sport.
Slowly the sea in golden crests crept along the sand and lapped the widow’s feet, as though hungering to devour her.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me,” she said quietly, and her face had a new light in it, as though the sea, gilded with the golden sun, had reminded her of the city of God.
Higher and higher came the water, and the women on the beach turned their heads away as it reached her waist, and at the same time touched the feet of Margaret Wilson.
“The Lord will this day cleave the waters of death asunder for me, and I shall behold the Lamb in his beauty,” she cried out to the weeping mob.
The water had now reached the widows neck, and Lagg and others began to make sport of her as they saw her strain her neck to keep out of the water. A wave passed over her, and the struggle of death began. Margaret Wilson saw the struggles of the widow, and her voice was raised in prayer that God would take Margaret M‘Lauchlan to Himself.
“What thinkest thou of that?” said a soldier to Wilson, pointing to the death struggles of the widow.
“What do I think! I see 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.”
She then began to sing the 25th Psalm, and those on the beach who had lost their timidity joined her in some of the lines:
“The Lord is good and gracious,
He upright is also;
He therefore sinners will instruct
In ways that they should go.”
The sharp turning of the soldiers smartly silenced them, however.
As the water crept on towards her shoulders, she closed her eyes in prayer. Her mother rushed to the edge of the water, and besought her with tears to say, “God save the King.”
“Pray with me mother that I may not fail at the last moment,” was her reply. And her eyes closed again, and her lips moved. A great hush came over the crowd, which was only broken by the jeers of Grierson.
“God receive my spirit,” said Margaret, as the water once or twice lapped her face. There was the gasping of drowning, and, to the joy of all, a soldier rushed into the water, cut Margaret’s bonds, and brought her to the shore. The people shouted with glee, and the mother wept for joy. It was unheard of mercy, and though Margaret seemed more dead than alive, the remedies they used soon restored her to consciousness.
It was then seen that the mercy was the work of a fiend, and not of a human heart. Lagg’s sport was too soon coming to and end, and he had restored her life to torture her again. Major Windram went forward and began to test her.
“Will you pray for the King?”
I wish the salvation of all men and the damnation of none,” she answered meekly.
“Oh, Margaret, why will you throw away your life,” said her mother in terrible agony.
“Say ‘God save the King, God save the King.’”
“God save him if He will; for it is what I often have prayed for, and do pray for now.
But, mother, you do not understand these monsters.”
“Sir, my daughter hath said it, she hath said it, let her go free,” said the mother, frantically,throwing herself at the Major’s feet.
Margaret had meanwhile closed her eyes in prayer. She knew, instinctively, that they had determined on her death.
“See, my daughter is praying for the King,” said Mrs. Wilson, pointing to her daughter.
“We want none of her prayers,” said the brutal Lagg. “Tender her the abjuration oath, and, if she refuse, let her drink some more of the sea.”
“I am ready for death; I will not take the oath. I trust God may forgive you this murder before your hour of death comes. I am one of Christ’s children, and have done naught worthy of death.”
“Back to the sea, back to the sea with the hag,” cried Lagg, and two soldiers lifted her in their arms, waded in as far as they could, and then flung her headlong into the sea. They then pushed her head under the water with the butt end of their guns.
In this fiendishly cruel manner died two innocent, noble women. This crime has caused several names to stink in the nostrils of the world. Grierson of Lagg will ever be looked upon as a monster more that a man.
The story of the Wigton martyrs spread like fire over the length and breadth of Scotland, and inspired the Covenanters with joy that two of their number had been so faithful. It caused many Royalists to become friends of the Covenanters, afterwards. Three of the children of Major Windram from that hour were Covenanters in heart, and died as such.
If there was a sharpening of weapons amongst the covenaters after this, who can blame them? To defend oneself from such barbarity surely needs no excuse.
Two stones have been erected over the graves of these two women, whose bodies lie in Wigton Churchyard. The memorial in Stirling churchyard will be familiar to many of our readers. A transcription of the Wigton stones may be of interest:
“Here lies Margaret M‘Lauchlan Who was by unjust law sentenced to die by Lagg, Strachan, Windram, And Grahame, and tied to a stake for her Adherence to Scotland’s Reformation,Covenants, National, and Solemn League.”
The other one reads as follows:
“Let earth and stone still witness bear There lies a virgin–martyr here, Murdered for owning Christ supreme Head of His Church, and no more crime But not abjuring Presbytery, And her not owning Prelacy. They her condemned by unjust law; Of heaven nor hell they stood in awe. Within the sea, tied to a stake, She suffered for Christ Jesus’ sake. The actors of this cruel crime Were Lagg, Strachan, Windram, and Grahame.
Neither young years nor yet old age could stop the fury of their rage.”