Out of all the aspects of the studying of The Nithsdale Martyrs, it is the so-called ‘Martyrs of Tradition’ which ignites the most intrigue. On the Nithsdale Matryrs cross in Dalgarnock graveyard, 6 of the 57 names engraved upon it fall into this group, although there are in fact stories of many others who were said to have been killed on these hills during ‘The Killing Times’ but who aren’t included in the group of names known as the Nithsdale Martyrs. I don’t yet know the reason as to why some names were included whilst others left off.
There is of course a story behind every story. Time and history can sometimes paint an exaggerated version of the truth, and stories can be bent to fit whatever agenda is called for. I dimly remember one of the first things we ever learnt in history lessons at secondary school was the importance of recognising the difference between a primary source and a secondary source, i.e an historical document which was written during the time of an event vs. a piece of text written about an event hundreds of years after it has happened.
And therein lies the issue with the back stories to the Martyrs of Tradition, certainly in the case the individuals known as the Nithsdale Martyrs. Unlike the other names on the cross, their deaths were not recorded on documents from the time the events took place, and their stories only first appear in a book published 150 years after the Killing Times (Traditions of the Covenanters, Rev. Robert Simpson). Were the tales recorded by Simpson all complete fact, or had a little bit of creative license crept in over the decades? I mean no disservice to the memory of these people by questioning their truth, but it is interesting looking at how and why the stories may possibly have come about, and from what truth they did stem from.
The six names are handily divided into three groups of twos: George Allan and Margaret Gracie, John Hair and George Corson, William Brown and Robert Morris. The three locations where Simpson recorded as being their final resting places are spread out over a relatively wide footprint around the Upper Nithsdale area; one hidden up in the hills way above Sanquhar, one on a hillside alongside Crawick water a mile or so out of Sanquhar and one just past the border into East Ayrshire along the A76 between Kirkconnel and New Cumnock. It would be one heck of a walk but it would be just about possible to walk to all three locations from Rigg House in one day – I might just have to give this a try soon. You can find the map references and more photos of the three locations mentioned here on my previous post: https://thescottishdream.com/2019/05/03/part-3-the-nithsdale-martyrs/
Since I am currently researching the poetry written about the Covenanters, I have been able to find some poems written about the specific locations we are looking into, and so I share a few extracts from them here. For me, these poems are proof of the the beauty, the mystery and the emotions attached to these places. It will ultimately be the poetry inspired by the Covenanter’s struggle which we will be focusing on within this series of blogs, therefore we will be exploring many more Poems of the Covenant and the locations they are written about later on.
To stand beside that time worn stone
That shades the mossy bed;
Where lie the pious, now long gone,
Whose blood the moss dyed red
(Allan’s Cairn – Cushie Knowe)
This was the first of the Nithsdale Martyrs’ graves which I visited, for the first time back in November 2018 due to it’s positioning along the Southern Upland Way walking route, and thus also on the Kirkconnel – Wanlockhead path. I knew very little about the Covenanters back then and I don’t think I was aware that Allan’s Cairn is, according to tradition, a grave – I think I thought it was simply a monument.
Like all three of the Martyrs of Tradition stories connected to Nithsdale which we are exploring here, the story behind Allan’s Cairn is full of mystery. I initially assumed that George Allan and Margaret Gracie, for whom Allan’s Cairn stands, were a couple, or at least connected in some close way. But this seems not to be the case at all, although the story goes that they were killed and buried at the very spot where the monument now stands. It is said that others died too in the same volley of musket fire, which then leaves me with the question, why was the monument only named after two of the individuals? Why were the other names not recorded in any sources?
The dark Black Craig like a sentry stands,
The sun slips o’ er its crest,
Where in darker days marauding bands,
Sped o’ er it through the west;
Now sacred spots, marked or unknown,
Fell harvest of a Godless throne.
(Allan’s Cairn – Cushie Knowe)
There is little written about George Allan (also recorded as John Allan elsewhere) in Simpson’s Traditions, although there is a fairly tangled story behind the history of the name ‘Allan’s Cairn’. As Jardine’s Book of Martyrs points out ‘fundamentally, it is not known if the place name is older than the connection of the cairn to the tradition of Covenanter called George Allan. In other words, it is possible that the Allan of the tradition was named after the cairn/hill’.
In contrast there is more written about Margaret Gracie – a rare example of a woman at the heart of a Covenanting martyr tradition but, in the opinion of Dr. Mark Jardine, ‘in comparison to many other traditions recorded by Simpson, the historical veracity of the Gracie tradition is particularly challenging to interpret as potentially it is a complete fabrication‘. Jardine states that it is possible that due to tales such as the Wigtown Martyrs, the Gracie story emerged to connect to the increasing interest in Covenanting women. Her story has almost certainly been ‘romantised’ over the years, but it would make for a great action-packed ‘historical’ movie.
The monument which now stands at the spot where Allan and Gracie are said to be buried was erected in 1857. According to Dr. Jardine, the inscription on it is almost certainly influenced by Simpson’s tradition, but it is a fascinating and lengthy piece of text to be found wrapped around all four sides of a short monument. It tells us who, how and when it was erected and within its prayer to ‘ye ministering spirits’ it also tells us under whose command the graves’ inhabitants died. Incidentally, although ‘Lagg’ – Sir Robert Grierson of Lagg – was most definitely a real person, the character of Coupland’ is unknown.
‘IN MEMORY OF
GEORGE ALLAN AND
MARGARET GRACIE WHO
FOLLOWED CHRIST TO MARTYRDOM OF WHOM THE WORLD WAS NOT WORTHY Heb.XI. 3x
Erected by the proceeds of a Sermon preached here
by the Rev. Peter Carmichael Scarbridge, Penpont
on 2nd Sabbath of July 1857.
Ye ministering spirits who are hovering over
Guarding the dust neath its mossy cover
We raise not this stone to relieve your cares
Or discharge you from keeping your vigils here.
When all that are in the graves
shall hear his voice and shall come forth
It is expected that this spot
Shall yield up their dust.
They were shot by the Dragoons of
Coupland, and Lagg, near fawns of
Altry, in the days of the Covenant.
Watch, till the trumpet peal aloud
Watch, till the Judge appear with the could:
Then guide your charge to the gathering throng
When the judgement is set to avenge their wrong.
Hair & Corson Monument
Engraved thereon the simple stone,
Just where they fell and bled,
‘Twas “persecution brought them fame”,
And thus enshrined the rustic’s name.
(The Ayrshire Hills – Cushie Knowe)
The location of the Hair & Corson monument far outshines that of poor old Allan’s Cairn in it’s creepy dark little clearing up in the forest. Hair & Corson’s eternal view is simply one of the most beautiful spots along the Nith, looking out onto one of my most favourite hills, Corsencon.
Ayrshire hills, dear Ayrshire hills
The sight o’ them my heart oft’ fills
Wi’ joy and pride, when I upon
Them look at e’en or dewy dawn.
(The Ayrshire Hills – Cushie Knowe)
The story of Hair and Corson was first recorded in Simpson’s Traditions of the Covenanters and, according to Jardine’s Book of Martyrs, ‘There is no historical evidence for their deaths. Corson and Hair are only recorded in Simpson’s tradition’. But since this story, and it’s monument, is the closest one to Rigg House I felt I had a duty to learn this tale. For months we would drive up past this monument on our way to days out in Ayrshire and the sight of it perched up high above a twist in the road always intrigued me. And now, because of said monument, I have learnt stories filled with action which took place just across the fields from where I live.
According to Simpson, it was here where, upon learning of a conventicle at Blackgannock – which Hair and Corson had attended, ‘The dragoons pursued their way over the hills towards the farm of Cairn, beautifully situated on the slope of the range of mountains that line the sweet vale of the Nith on the north’. And it was here where Hair and Corson were captured ‘in a hollow among the green and flowery braes engaged, it is supposed, in devotional exercises’, and ‘were without ceremony shot on the spot’ (all quotes: Simpson, Traditions). In other words, they were killed for singing psalms from a bible outside of an approved church service.
That murderin’ band that left Dalgig
Went heading south o’ er lea and rig,
Crossing by way the Westland height
To spy the hillman in full flight.
The chase was short among the braes
The pious hillmen closed their days.
(The Ayrshire Hills – Cushie Knowe)
The curious point here is that even in his original account, Simpson does not record first names for this duo, just simply their surnames and it is only on the monument, erected in 1845, where the pair are first given Christian names. And according to Jardine’s Book of Martyrs, there is no historical evidence of anyone named George Corson who fits in with this story, although I have noted that the family name Corson does pop up on graves and memorials elsewhere.
According to Simpson, John Hair ‘was one of five brothers who occupied the farm of Glenquhary, in the parish of Kirkconnell, of which they were the proprietors.’ Glenquhary is now spelt as Glenwharrie, and is the beautiful cottage close to Auld St. Conal’s Kirk and Kirkland Hill, all just across the fields from Rigg House.
The second curious point in this story is the fact that another source alleges the location of their deaths is not actually at the spot where the memorial is sited but I cannot find any explanation as to why the monument and the grave is located where it is. If they did indeed meet their deaths somewhere close to the drove road leading from Blackgannoch, as the story goes, then why were their bodies taken all the way over to the Ayrshire border to be buried? Especially as it would have almost certainly meant going right past Glenwharrie, the family farm of John Hair and therefore the most logical place for the bodies to be buried, or so you would think? Perhaps Hair & Corson, knowing that they were going to die, deliberately lead the dragoons away from Glenwharrie so as not to endanger other people who were there? Maybe there is a simple explanation behind this part of the story which I will find out about in the future.
The inscription on the Hair & Corson monument is as follows:
‘IN MEMORY OF
WHO WERE SHOT NEAR THIS PLACE
IN 1685, FOR THEIR ADHERENCE TO
AND ATTACHMENTS TO THE
“They lived unknown,
Till persecution dragged them into fame,
And chased them up to heaven.”
O waly waly up the glen,
And waly waly o’er the moor!
The land is full of bloody men,
Who hunt to death the friendless poor!
We brook the rule of robbers wild:
They tear the son from his father’s lands,
They tear the mother from her child,
They tear the Bible from our hands!
(The Covenanter’s Lament – John Stuart Blackie)
The story of William Brown and Robert Morris was, again, first recorded by Simpson in a revised edition of Traditions of the Covenanters 160 years after their deaths, although their story does contain information about victims of the Killing Times who were recorded in historical sources. The curious aspect of their story is the fact that unlike the other Nithsdale Martyrs of Tradition, there is no monument/grave at the site of their killings. I wonder why this is the case?
In the beginning of the summer of 1685, W. Brown and R. Morris, along with four other men; David Dun, Simon Paterson, John Richard and James Welsh, were seeking refuge in the Nithsdale hills, hiding out in a place called Glenshalloch, a remote glen in the Lowther Hills, west of Wanlockhead. It wasn’t long before a report of their presence reached Lieutenant-Colonel James Douglas, aka. Lord Drumlanrig, aka (later) the Second Duke of Queenberry (he of the Queensberry marbles fame in Durisdeer Church). The hunt was on.
After traversing the north side of Glendyne, Drumlanrig and his troops took station at an elevated spot not far from here where the six fugitives were hiding, a place now known as ‘Martyr’s Knowe’. It was here where the Covenanters were spotted and as Simpson poetically puts it, Drumlanrig and his men ‘pounced on them as a falcon on his quarry‘. Dunn, Paterson and Richard were captured whilst Brown, Morris and Welsh made their escape.
Now we come to the point in the story where providence intervenes for the three captured men and where Simpson paints a magnificent picture of a storm so great that it caused Drumlanrig and his men to flee the scene, leaving their prisoners free to escape: ‘In the confusion, Drumlanrig himself panic-struck—as when Heaven bears testimony, by terrible things in righteousness, against the ungodly when caught in their deeds of wickedness—fled from the face of the tempest‘ (Simpson, Traditions). The three men escaped to the wilds of upper Galloway, with Dun and Paterson eventually being caught and shot and are now buried in Cumnock. John Richard is believed to have eluded capture and survived the Killing Times.
Meanwhile, the other three men, Brown, Morris and Welsh fled northward but were intercepted by a second group of Lord Drumlanrig’s men. Whilst Welsh managed to escape, Brown and Morris were shot on Craignorth Hill ‘where they lie interred in the places respectively where they fell…Two small rivulets descend from the hill on which they were slaughtered; the name of the one is Brown’s Cleuch, and of the other Morris’ Cleuch.’ (Simpson, Traditions).
They sleep where, in a darker day, by dreary moss and fen,
Their blood bedewed the wild heath flower, in many a Scottish glen;
When forced to flee their humble homes, for Scotland’s Covenant Lord,
They grasped, to save their holiest rights, the Bible and the sword.
(The Covenanters – George Paulin)
In summary: who really knows the truth behind these stories? Could it be the case that Dr. Jardine is wrong in his beliefs about certain tales of the ‘Martyrs of Tradition’? Since he is basing his thoughts on the theory that Simpson’s Traditions of the Covenanters is partly fabricated, then what if we look at it another way and decide to accept Traditions as historically accurate? Maybe Simpson did flesh out the stories a little to make them more readable, but even knowing that he published these accounts 150 years after the events happened, does this make them less believable? One hundred and fifty years is a relatively short space of time in this context, so the tales would have been told to Simpson by people who perhaps heard them from their grandparents who had actually lived through the Killing Times.
But maybe a degree of political propaganda did creep into some of the stories. Or maybe Simpson simply had a wild imagination and he created some of the stories out of thin air as a way to represent all the unknown names of those who had actually died. If we choose to accept Jardine’s academic research on this subject, then I choose to believe that whilst some of the ‘Martyrs of Tradition’ may not have been ‘real’ individuals, then perhaps their stories are amalgamations of lots of stories about lots of people who really did live and die on these hills.
Whatever the truth behind the Nithsdale Martyrs of Tradition, you only need to spend a moment or two at their monuments and final resting places to sense the depth of history woven into the land around them. Maybe we’ll never know the definitive truth behind these stories, but the important point is keeping these tales alive.
For a more in-depth explanation about these three stories, check out Jardine’s Book of Martyrs: