To many people at home and abroad, John Graham was a bad man. He is seen to epitomize the rapacious cruelty of the state towards common Covenanting people in Scotland during the period roughly between 1677 and 1688. It is from his alleged activities during this period that his Bluidy Clavers epithet originated.
In the two centuries since, the clarity of events has dimmed somewhat. Some would contend that even at the time the details of these events were unconfirmed, hazy and questionable. And, since the history of any struggle is penned by the victors and not the vanquished, it might be argued that vested interests have been well served in ensuring that the maximum amount of opprobrium has been heaped upon his posthumous reputation.
Robert Wodrow in his “History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland” and John Howie in “The Scots Worthies”, in particular, have seized upon contentious episodes where judicial executions were carried out and painted Dundee irrevocably onto the canvas when he was either entirely absent or was clearly and legally executing the very responsibilities with which he had been charged. Daniel Defoe in many of his works seeks to reinforce the blackest aspects of these 2 gentlemen’s writings. These versions of events have since been relayed unquestionably by the prominent British historian Thomas Macaulay famously referred to by Marx as “a systematic falsifier of history” and of whom Winston Churchill expressed “the hope to fasten the label ‘Liar’ to his genteel coat-tails.”
Thomas Babington Macaulay
After the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy under Charles II in 1660 there had been conflict to one degree or another between hard line Presbyterians and those charged by the King with the maintenance of law and order.This conflict had erupted on to the battlefield on a number of occasions, such as Rullion Green in 1666 and the battles of Drumclog and Bothwell Bridge in 1679. However, the Killing Times are generally accepted to have commenced in a serious and systematic manner around October 1684.
Dundee is deemed to have been directly involved in the deaths of 10 individuals, all in the spring of 1685 in the south west of Scotland. These were; John Brown of Priesthill, Andrew Hislop, Matthew Meiklewrath, the Wigtown Martyrs Margaret MacLachan and Margaret Wilson, and 5 men hanged at Mauchline.
So, John Brown then……. declared an outlaw in a royal proclamation of 5th May 1684, and in hiding since his involvement in the covenanting defeat at the Battle of Bothwell, he was pursued by Dundee and his men in rough country on 1st May 1685. On his capture he refused to take the Oath of Abjuration, the authorized test of loyalty to the Crown, unlike his companion and nephew John Browning, who was consequently spared execution. Brown also refused to undertake not to take up arms against the king. The men were taken to Brown’s house where weapons and ammunition were found. The sentence for such refusals: summary execution before two witnesses, was clearly laid down and widely known. A sentence Dundee ordered to be carried out promptly though giving Brown time for prayer and leavetaking.
A dramatisation of the death of John Brown
Howie paints an incredible picture of this execution, including in it Brown’s wife with her child, allegedly forced to watch while Dundee, supposedly fearing the mutiny of his own troops took a weapon and carried out the execution with his own hand while simultaneously subjecting the good woman to a tirade of abuse. Alexander Shields, in his Short Memorial, penned only five years after the event makes mention neither of children nor of these other fictitious details which tradition has crystallized into fact.
Andrew Hislop was the son of a woman who had been turned out of her house, the specified penalty for sheltering a criminal fugitive. When Dundee came across him ‘in the fields’ on 10th May 1685, he handed him over to the local justiciary, Sir James Johnston of Westerhall, who tried Hislop and condemned him to death. This WAS harsh. However, Dundee’s involvement in the man’s death had been peripheral and entirely consistent with the legal responsibilities he bore.
The details of Matthew Meiklewrath’s death are even scantier than the rest. The date is not known, and Wodrow makes no mention of him in his otherwise exhaustive work cataloguing the persecutions of covenanting folk. The inscription on his gravestone in Colmonell claims “By bloody Claverhouse I fell…..For owning Covenanted Presbytery”.
It seems reasonable to infer from this, in the absence of any other factual information, that Meiklewrath was offered the Oath of Abjuration, refused it, and was thus dealt with as per the legal realities of the time.
Woodrow makes no mention of the man, and Shields simply states that Claverhouse ordered his troops to execute him ‘without examination’. Which begs further examination of his gravestone inscription. The history of the persecutions can’t have it both ways.
Now to the five men hanged at Mauchline on 6th May 1685. The men were; Peter Gillies, John Bryce, William Finneson, Thomas Young and John Binning. The indications are that this last individual was John Browning, the nephew of the above mentioned John Brown who Claverhouse had sent to Mauchline for trial at the time of Brown’s death.
Defoe avers that Dundee hoovered up the 5 men from different gaols in the area and that their only crime was attendance at conventicles, but he does not / cannot name them. Patrick Walker, that other doyen of covenanting history, however, is able to provide extensive detail of the men and their capture but makes no mention of Dundee in the episode. Both Walker and Defoe insist the men were condemned without trial but William Wodrow writes clearly that at least Gillies and Bryce were tried before Lieutenant-General Drummond, commissioner of justiciary.
The whole episode is an unhappy example of the ruthless implementation of martial law. However, there is little difficulty in disassociating Bonnie Dundee from it. The men were legally tried and condemned by the appointed authorities, specifically Drummond. Dundee was not involved in this since he was not qualified to sit upon the court. So…..moving on, in an attempt to find some real substance behind these Bluidy Clavers myths. Let us look at the case of the Wigton Martyrs.
This was written about in the first instance by Thomas Wodrow some thirty years after the events are alleged to have taken place. Claverhouse’s 19th century biographer Mark Napier made strong attempts to defend the role of the crown in this episode. He also condemned Wodrow and the previously mentioned Thomas Macaulay as being “2 of history’s most incorrigible calumniators”. Various other luminaries in the pantheon of Scottish literature have weighed in over the years, including James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott.
The 2 women, Margaret Wilson and Margaret Maclachlan were tried in Edinburgh on 18th April 1685 and found guilty on the charges of refusal to take the Abjuration Oath and attendance at conventicles. They were subsequently tied to poles in the Solway Firth and left to be drowned by the incoming tide on 11th May of the same year.
One of the Margarets – a Wigton Martyr
Where sits Bluidy Clavers in this unbecoming episode? What is his involvement in the cruel, judicial execution of these 2 women? He wasn’t there. He had no involvement in it. None whatsoever. Granted, his brother David sat on the court that condemned the woman, but he is a different person.
This, then, is the full extent of Bluidy Clavers involvement in the legendary Killing Times of 17th Century Scotland: myths, mistakes, propaganda and lies.