Wigtown Martyrs – the Promised Crown of Life

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12

The Story Of Two Margarets

I have a keen love of history and especially the history of Christ’s Church. I have always enjoyed looking back at the Scottish Reformation since Scotland is the land of my birth and heritage. It saddens me to see the condition of the Church in present day Scotland. Scotland, however, produced some of the great reformers such as George Wishart and John Knox.  It also has a history of many who would die for their faith and therefore receive the Crown of the Martyrs which is promised in James 1:12. I would like to introduce you to two women named Margaret who are now with their Lord in Heaven. They are worshipping Him eternally with the Promised Crown of Life because they would not kneel down to an earthly king.  The two Margarets would only acknowledge one king and that was the King of Kings. The following is something I wrote years ago about our martyred sisters in Christ.

I will now introduce to the reader the first of our two Margarets, a woman of some eighteen years. Margaret Wilson was the daughter of Gilbert Wilson a well-healed Scottish two-margaretsfarmer of Glenvernco, the property of the Laird of Castlestewart, in the parish of Penningham, in Wigtonshire. As our story unfolds we need to understand the persecution that was reaching a zenith in Margaret’s Scotland. The years 1684 and 1685 were terrible years of suffering for the Covenanters. The Covenanters were Scottish reformed who refused to bow to the King of England as head of the Church and were defiant of England’s subjugation of the Scottish Church to an Anglican form of worship. It was written by one author, “The history of these years is written in letters of blood, and they were emphatically called, by the sufferers, the killing time. The savage ruffians, who were scouring the country like incarnate demons, hunted the poor helpless victims of their cruelty like wild beasts, over moors and mountains. If they met with a person who refused to answer their questions, or who did not satisfy them in their answers; or if they found another reading the Bible; or observed a third apparently alarmed or attempting to escape, they reckoned all such persons fanatics, and in many instances shot them dead on the spot. The devil had gone forth, having great wrath, as if knowing that his time was short.  …during these two years, eighty persons were shot in the fields, in cold blood.”[1]

The Wilson family, we are told, was a family of good standing.  Gilbert Wilson “was in good outward circumstances; and his farm, which was excellent soil, and in the best condition, was well stocked with sheep and cattle. Both he and his wife were conformists to prelacy, and regularly attended the ministry of the curate of Penningham; nor could the government lay anything to their charge. Their children, however, which is rather remarkable, were, at an early age, not only well acquainted with the principles of religion, but, contrary to the example of their parents, ardently attached to the persecuted faith, and would on no consideration attend the ministry of the prelatic incumbent of the parish.”[2] So in lies the storyline of our young martyr.

“The fate of many of these non-conformists, the fate who would not conform to that which Lord had not spoke to them of, was a life of exile. Throughout Scotland those that would not accept the King as head of the Church left family, friends, homes and property. They instead sought the shelter of “the dens and caves of the earth, and there, for long years, amid tempest and gloom, smitten by hunger, hacked by the sword, hunted like wild beasts of prey, and shot at like the ptarmigan of the hills, they without a grudge ‘Laid down their lives in the moorlands away, and bled for their God and forgiver.”[3]

It is here that we find young Margaret. In February of 1685 Margaret, her brother Thomas, age sixteen, and her sister Agnes, age thirteen, took to the mountains. Her parents were forbidden by the authorities, on the highest of peril, to harbor them, speak to them, supply them, or see them. The country people “were obliged by the terror of the law to pursue them, as well as the soldiers, with hue and cry.”[4]  In young Margaret and her siblings we are to see a faith in Jesus, their Lord, that would make them chosen stones in Christ’s seamless Church. Because of their faith “though scarcely of such an age as rendered them obnoxious to the law, they were searched for; and, to secure their safety, were compelled to betake themselves, like many others, to the desert solitudes of the upper part of Galloway.” They would with “other persecuted wanderers, … seek shelter, in the mosses, mountains, and caves of Carrick, Nithsdale, and Galloway.”[5]

As our young exiles are wandering through the hills, King Charles II suddenly dies and with his death there came a time of relaxed persecution. The two sisters at this time took the occasion to venture to Wigton to visit some of their suffering acquaintances, particularly Margaret McLauchlan. We now come to our second Margaret.

One Margaret McLauchlan was the widow of John Mulligen, a carpenter who lived on a farm in the shire of Galloway. She was a country woman and when we come upon her she is of advanced age. She was, as one writer attests “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….  For those great crimes, and no other, she was seized … upon the Lord’s day, when at family worship in her own house; which was now an ordinary season for apprehending honest people. She was imprisoned, after she had suffered much in her goods and crop before she was apprehended. In prison she was very roughly dealt with, and had neither fire, nor bed to lie upon, and had very little allowed her to live on.”[6]

Our young Margaret and sister Agnes had intended to visit Margaret McLauchlan when they came to Wigton yet when they got there they first came upon a certain Patrick Stuart, whom they took to be a friend and well wisher. Stuart, however, was to betray them once in their company. On this occasion the devious Stuart asked the young ladies that they drink to the king’s health, a suggestion they declined. Their response led this Judas to then inform against them which brought upon the sisters a party of soldiers. Their desire to visit Margaret McLauchlan was, therefore, effected as they were removed to the prison where the older woman had been taken. After considerable imprisonment the three were indicted to be guilty of the rebellion at Bothwell Bridge, Ayr’s Moss, twenty field conventicles, and twenty house conventicles. “Many methods were taken to corrupt them, and make them swear the oath now imposed[7], which they steadily refused, so they were brought to their trial….”[8]

It is not necessary to foray into the details of their trial for their fate was foreordained by the King’s Court.   The charges that were brought against them and for which they were found guilty of were notoriously false. None of our heroines had been within miles of either Bothwell Bridge or Ayr’s Moss. It is, besides, to be noticed that at the time of the battle of Bothwell Bridge, the two girls were mere children – the one only about seven years of age, and the other only about eleven or twelve – while sixty-five years had passed over the head of the aged widow; and it cannot for a moment be supposed, that two girls of so tender an age, or that an humble inoffensive female, who had nearly reached the utmost limits of human earthly existence, could be concerned in that insurrection. The same remark applies to the skirmish at Ayr’s Moss, which took place only a little more than a year after the rising at Bothwell Bridge.[9]

As the penalty for not taking the oath was handed down Gilbert Wilson was able to give a bond of one hundred pounds for the release of his younger daughter Agnes who thus narrowly escaped her sister’s fate. The penalty for not taking the Abjuration Oath, which was taken to be treason, was to be shot upon the spot for men. Women were spared being shot but were to be drowned and this was to be the fate of the Margarets. “The sentence pronounced upon them was, that, upon the 11th of May, they 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. They were commanded to receive their sentence on their bended knees; and refusing to kneel, they were pressed down by force till it was pronounced. But they were by no means daunted; they heard the cruel sentence with much composure, and even with cheerful countenances, accounting it their honor that they were called to suffer in the cause of Christ.

“Margaret Wilson’s friends did all they could to prevail with her to swear the abjuration oath, and to promise to attend the ministry of the curate of the parish in which she lived, but without effect; for by no solicitations would she surrender her convictions of truth and duty, whatever it might cost her. During her imprisonment, she wrote a long letter to her relations, highly honourable to her character. It was full of the deep and affecting sense which she had of God’s love to her soul, and expressed an entire resignation to His sovereign disposal. It also contained a vindication of her refusal to save her life by swearing the abjuration oath, and by engaging to conform to prelacy; written with a cogency of argument, and a solidity of judgement, far above her years and education.”[10] “The aged Margaret McLauchlan wavered, however, she on the appointed day of her execution, May 11, 1685, was tied to a stake placed nearest the rising tide. The older woman now manifested great fortitude.

A large crowd assembled on the shore to witness so an unusual sight. The older Margaret was staked in the sand so as to be overcome by the tide first that she “might perish first, for the obvious purpose of terrifying into submission the younger sufferer, who was bound to a stake nearer the shore. The multitude looked on, thrilled with horror. The flood gradually made its way to the aged matron, rising higher and higher at each successive wave, ‘ mounting up from knee, waist, breast, neck, chin, lip,’ until it choked and overwhelmed her. Margaret Wilson witnessed the whole scene, and knew that she would soon share the same fate; but her steadfastness remained unshaken; and so far from exhibiting any symptoms of terror, she displayed a calm courage, rivaling that of the most intrepid martyrs. When her fellow sufferer was struggling in the waters with the agonies of death, a heartless bystander, perhaps one of the soldiers, asked the youthful Margaret, to whom the tide had not yet advanced so far, what she thought of the spectacle before her. ‘ What do I see,’ she answered, ‘ 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.'”[11]

“As the waters overtook the matron martyr the younger woman was implored by her friends to give in to her persecutors, yet she continued to pray and recited verses from the 25th Psalm. Her executioners continued to try to break her and she was “Dragged half-dead from the waters, [and] urged again ‘to pray for the king’…. She had already been overwhelmed in the horrors of death; the black devouring floods were hissing at her feet, as if greedy for their prey; life, and the sweets of life, inviting her one way; death, in one of his most wild and horrific forms, yawning to swallow her up the other way. Will not her heart fail? Will not the strain upon her nerves be too great for her to bear? Her mind must be bewildered. Surely for life, for sweet young life, she will grasp at any straw that is offered. Not so the holy, heavenly maiden. Amid the roar of the waves, the groans and lamentations of the people, the mingled flatteries and threats of the persecutors, and amid the awfulness of the pains of death, half-endured, her intellect was calm and unclouded, her judgment firm and unshaken, her thoughts as clear, and her language as precise and careful as if she had been a professor in the chair of theology, and not a poor maiden of eighteen in the midst of her martyr agonies.”[12] Returned to the water, she was chained again to a stake and drowned as the tide came in with her long auburn hair floating on the water like a halo.

[1]     The Ladies of the Covenant: Memoirs of Distinguished Scottish Female Characters, Embracing the Period of the Covenant and the Persecution, By James Anderson, Published by A. C. Armstrong, 1880, 494 pages, p340

[2]     ibid, p341

[3]     Todd, Adam Brown – The Homes, Haunts, and Battlefields of the Covenanters; Published by J. Gemmell, 1886 Original from the New York Public Library pp 2-3

[4]     A Cloud of Witnesses for the Royal Prerogatives of Jesus Christ, Or, The Last Speeches and Testimonies of Those who Have Suffered for the Truth in Scotland Since the Year 1680: or, The last speeches and testimonies of those who have suffered for the truth in Scotland, since 1680, By Jesus Christ, John M’Main, John Henderson Thomson, Published by Schenck & McFarlane, 1871, 612 pages p438

[5]     The Ladies of the Covenant: Memoirs of Distinguished Scottish Female Characters, Embracing the Period of the Covenant and the Persecution, By James Anderson, Published by A. C. Armstrong, 1880, 494 pages, p341-42

[6]     The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland, from the Restoration to the Revolution; Robert Wodrow, Robert Burns Published by Blackie & Son, 1835 p 248

[7]   The women refused to take the Abjuration Oath renouncing the covenants.

[8]     The Ladies of the Covenant: Memoirs of Distinguished Scottish Female Characters, Embracing the Period of the Covenant and the Persecution, By James Anderson, Published by A. C. Armstrong, 1880, 494 pages, p341-42

[9]   The Ladies of the Covenant: Memoirs of Distinguished Scottish Female Characters, Embracing the Period of the Covenant and the Persecution, By James Anderson, Published by A. C. Armstrong, 1880, 494 pages, p346

[10]   ibid

[11]   ibid 349

[12]   Lays of the Covenanters; By James Dodds Published by J. Maclaren & Son, 1880 264 pages p100

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