Margaret Wilson

Margaret Wilson was a young Scottish Covenanter. Born in Wigtown, on a farm near Newton Stewart to Episcopalian parents; young Margaret, surrounded as she was by male family members, had either been influenced, or sought the acceptance of, her brothers and their covenanter ideals. As the movement raged on, Margaret threw all caution to the wind and cast passionately in with the Covenanters and followed her elder brothers into the fray. But soon, as the movement began to falter, and with her brothers then scattered to the wilds of the Highlands, hiding as outlaws from the authorities, and with ever harsher punishments brought in against ‘rebels‘ such as her and her kin, Margaret subsequently took her convictions under ground; attending small gatherings of like-minded people when and where she could. Soon however, even these appointments were scuppered by the strict rules imposed by the crown.

Millais' illustration of Wilson's martyrdom

Illustration by John Everett Millais

But despite the risks, and the newly imposed death penalty for doing so, Margaret began attending conventicles with her younger brother Thomas in increasing fervour, possibly beginning in earnest when there was an opportunity at a local conventicle to see the charismatic James Renwick, who had just taken control of the more zealous branch of Covenanters known as the Cameronians. In February 1685, Margaret and her younger sister Agnes traveled on a secret trip to Wigtown, to visit allies of their cause. One such ally was an elderly widow by the name of Margaret McLachlan. The young sisters Margaret and Agnes were taken prisoner shortly after arriving in the town, possibly after declining to drink to the King’s health, and were subsequently arrested. There in chains, they refused to take the Abjuration Oath which renounced the Covenant and accepted the king. On the following Sunday, Margaret McLachlan was arrested, and was also put into the “Thieves hole” with the Wilson girls. Not long after, the three women were taken before the local sheriff of the Government Commissioners for Wigtownshire.

And on the 13th of April, 1685, after several reprieves, and somewhat of a pardon, they were ultimately proclaimed guilty of Rebellion, guilty of Bothwell Bridge and Aird’s Moss, of 20 Field Conventicles and 20 House Conventicles. The three women were sentenced to death shortly after. Chained like dogs on the banks of the Solway Firth, and with the tide waters rushing in, the proudly defiant Margaret Wilson was afforded a chance to pray for forgiveness from the king. She was said to have refused. And so, refusing to renounce or abjure the covenant she so dearly held, her hair was taken roughly and her head was forced beneath the water’s surface. She was said to have begun singing psalms from the bible; her voice faltering only when the air in her lungs was replaced with sea-water.

The Martyr of Solway, by John Everett Millais, 1871

The Martyr of Solway. John Everett Millais, 1871

tied to palisades fixed in the sand, within the floodmark of the sea, and there to stand till the flood o’erflowed them

P.S. I’m vaguely aware of there being some debate as to whether or not this incident actually occurred, or if it was simply a fabrication for one purpose or another. But, at the end of the day, it’s an interesting story set in an interesting time in Scottish history, so make of it as you will. Though just remember, there is a reason one often remarks that Scotland’s history is written in blood.