On this day in history : 11th May 1685 – The execution by drowning of 18-year-old Scottish martyr Margaret Wilson – for refusing to swear an oath declaring James II of England (James VII of Scotland) as head of the Church….

‘The Martyr of Solway’ – painting of Margaret Wilson by John Everett Millais, 1871 – Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool – Public domain

Margaret was the daughter of wealthy farmer Gilbert Wilson, of Glevernoch, near Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire…. Her parents were loyal Episcopalians – whereas Margaret followed her older brothers’ example of worshipping the Covenanters – a movement to maintain the reforms of the Scottish Reformation…. After the Restoration of the Monarchy the Covenanters were declared treasonable….

Many Covenant ministers refused to give up their beliefs and submit, instead they took to holding illegal open-air conventicles which were often broken up using military force…. By 1684 many Covenanters had gone into hiding in the hills to escape the authorities, as by now refusing to swear an allegiance to King James and renouncing the Covenant carried a death sentence….

Despite this Margaret began attending conventicles with her younger brother, Thomas…. However, in February 1685 he too had fled to the hills….

Margaret and her younger sister, Agnes, went into Wigtown to visit a friend, elderly widow Margaret McLachlan…. It was during this visit that the two sisters were seized by the authorities and imprisoned in the ‘thieves hole’…. Here they refused to take the oath renouncing the Covenant…. A few days later Margaret McLachlan and her servant woman were also arrested and imprisoned with the sisters….

The women appeared before the local assizes on the 13th of April 1685 and were found guilty of attending illegal conventicle meetings…. The two sisters and McLachlan were sentenced to be ‘tied to palisades fixed in the sand, within the flood mark of the sea, and there to stand till the flood o’erflowed them’….

Gilbert Wilson travelled to Edinburgh to plead clemency for his daughters and McLachlan…. Agnes was granted freedom on a bond of £100 and reprieves were granted for the two Margarets, dated the 30th of April 1685…. The authorities of Wigtown were urged to respect the reprieves….

However, on the 11th of May 1685 Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan were chained to stakes on the Solway Firth…. As the salt water began to choke her Margaret Wilson was given a last chance to offer a prayer to the King – which she did but she still refused to renounce the Covenant…. She was then forcibly pushed beneath the waves to her death….

Illustration of Margaret Wilson’s martyrdom, published in Once A Week, July 1862 – Public domain

She and McLachlan were buried in the churchyard of Wigtown…. The two Margarets became known as the ‘Wigtown Martyrs’….

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