Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Martyr of the Solway

The Martyr of the Solway by Millais

by Anita Davison
It is summer 1637, and the cathedral of St. Giles in Edinburgh is packed, among the congregation are serving women, seated on three-legged stools keeping places for their mistresses. Dean John Hanna appears carrying a brown leather bound copy of the English Prayer Book, dressed in a white surplice, not the black Geneva gown approved of by the Reformed Church.

The murmurs begin and a servant girl named Jenny Geddes hurls her folding-stool at the pulpit screeching "Daur ye say mass in my lug" (Dare you say mass in my ear). Her stool is followed by others, until the church is in uproar and the Dean pulls off his surplice for fear of being torn to pieces. David Lindsay, recently appointed Bishop of Edinburgh, tries to quieten the crowd, but beneath a tumult of sticks and stones, the Dean and the Bishop take cover in the vestry.

This demonstration seems ludicrous today, but for the citizens of Edinburgh it was in deadly earnest. King Charles I believed the Divine Right of the Monarch made him the spiritual head of the Church of Scotland. The Scots believed this was a position only Jesus Christ could hold.

In February 1638, a large crowd gathered in the graveyard of the old church of the Greyfriars, pressed round a flat tombstone to sign a parchment scroll. Some weep as they write, some use blood drawn from their own arms. This is the National Covenant, a solemn pact that swears the signatories to loyalty to the Church of Scotland, and to resist all measures by the English Government to alter its prayer-book or its ceremonies.

These were the Covenanters, who named 300,000 within months. Charles II, a tolerant easy going man who did not believe men should be persecuted for their religion, signed the National Covenant in 1651 when he sought Scots support against Cromwell. However when he returned from exile to Whitehall in May 1660, he was forced to abandon this pledge as the Government believed it was necessary to enforce the supremacy of the King as head of the church in England and Scotland.

In some areas of Scotland, the Kings’ Judges and Magistrates were ruthless in punishing those who clung to the old Covenanting spirit. The most trivial acts of disloyalty  were punishable by death, such as refusal to drink the King’s health, and many were shot on the spot for ‘fanaticism’.

1637 Prayer Book Riot at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh

This is the story of the Two Margarets

In 1684, Gilbert Wilson, a Wigtonshire farmer and his wife attended conformist services. However, their children, Margaret 18, Thomas 16, and Agnes 13, became attracted to the teaching of the Covenanters and attended illegal ‘conventicles’. Mr Wilson was fined for his childrens’ nonconformity, and the three Wilson children fled into the hills of upper Galloway to hide from the troopers.

Charles II died in February 1685, and the new king, James II, himself a Catholic, tried to introduce relaxation of the laws against Dissenters. The Anglican Church and Parliament fought him all the way.

Margaret and Agnes Wilson left their hiding places and went to Wigton to visit some fellow Covenanters, including the aged Margaret McLauchlan, a Presbyterian widow in her sixties. Their brother Thomas, stayed in the mountains and was lost to history.

Reputedly betrayed by a man named Patrick Stuart, the two Margarets and Agnes were arrested by troopers and ordered to demonstrate their loyalty to the King’s authority and swear an oath of abjuration. All three refused and were brought to trial before Sir Robert Grierson, of Lagg, Colonel David Graham (brother to the bloody Claverhouse), Major Windram, Captain Strachan, and Provost Cultrain at Wigton, on the 13th of April 1685.

After the mockery of a trial, at which the girls were accused of attending the Battle of Bothwell Bridge when they were children, they were sentenced to death by drowning. This was to take place in Wigtown Bay, a leg of the Solway, where the wide sands extend two miles out. They were to be tied to stakes fixed in the sand so the incoming tide would drown them.

Gilbert Wilson sold almost everything he owned and borrowed from friends and family, managing to raise a hundred pounds, a vast sum. He rode to Edinburgh to buy his daughters’ pardon, but was forced to choose between the girls. He chose the youngest, Agnes.

Troopers marched the two women down to the sand, where Margaret MacLachlan was tied to a stake far out in the firth, so that the younger girl, made to watch her friend drown, might recant.

The cold sea waters engulfed the old woman while Margaret Wilson, tied to the stone stake further in shore, sang the stirring words of Psalm 25.

When the water reached the young Margaret’s head, the soldiers loosened her cords and held her above the water so she might, ‘Pray for the King. For he is supreme over all persons of the church’.

Margaret said she would pray for the salvation of all men as she wished no one to be condemned. The soldiers pushed her head under the water and tried again, even the crowd begged her to say the oath and save her life, but Margaret remained firm. The soldiers waded back onto shore and left her to drown in the incoming tide.

The bodies of the two Margarets were buried in the churchyard of Wigton, where a flat stone memorial lies.

 ‘Within the sea, tied to a stake
She suffered for Christ Jesus sake.’

The Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais painted Margaret Wilson in 1871. An x-ray shows the picture was originally a nude, the clothing added later to placate delicate Victorian sensibilities. ‘The Martyr of the Solway’ hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.


  1. Hoax warning / spoiler alert!

    Josephine Tey mentioned this in "The Daughter of Time" and made the comment that the whole story is "very superior, first-growth, dyed-in-the-wool Tonypandy" - meaning it was propaganda and entirely untrue.

    "Scotland has large monuments to two women martyrs drowned for their faith, in spite of the fact that they weren't drowned at all and neither was a martyr anyway. They were convicted of treason - fifth column work for the projected invasion from Holland... a purely civil charge. They were reprieved on their own petition by the Privy Council, and the reprieve is on the Privy Council Register to this day..." She then quotes the gravestone inscription in full. "and tourists come and shake their heads over the monuments with their moving inscriptions, and a very profitable time is had by all."

    "All this in spite of the fact 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 this happened'; and couldn't find any eyewitnesses at all."

    Millais just liked a good subject, whether real or apocryphal.

  2. PS Wigtown and Wigton are two different places - the one you're writing about was WigtoWn in Scotland, to the north of the Solway. Wigton is in Cumbria, to the south.

  3. It is something to be so strongly convicted about something that you're willing to die for it whether its religion or patriotism.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. A chilling tale--and a fascinating one.

  5. my forebears on my father's side were Convenanters who sailed from Scotland to NZ long ago. These men and women continued in the faith and in finding reason to defend it, through the next generations


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.