It is summer 1637 and the cathedral of St. Giles in Edinburgh is packed, among the congregation are serving women, seated on three-legged stools keeping places for their mistresses. Dean John Hanna appears carrying a brown leather bound copy of the English Prayer Book and the murmurs begin. He also wears a white surplice, not the black Geneva gown approved of by the Reformed Church.
Suddenly, a servant girl named Jenny Geddes hurls her folding-stool at the pulpit screeching "Daur ye say mass in my lug" (Dare you say mass in my ear). Her stool is followed by others, until the church is in uproar and the Dean pulls off his surplice for fear of being torn to pieces. David Lindsay, recently appointed Bishop of Edinburgh, tries to quieten the crowd but beneath a tumult of sticks and stones, the Dean and the Bishop take cover in the vestry.
This demonstration seem ludicrous today, but for the citizens of Edinburgh it was in deadly earnest. The Stuart King Charles I believed the Divine Right of the Monarch made him the spiritual head of the Church of Scotland. The Scots believed this was a position only Jesus Christ could hold.
In February 1638, a large crown gathered the graveyard of the old church of the Greyfriars; on a flat tombstone lies a parchment scroll the people are pressing round it to sign. Some weep as they write, some use blood drawn from their own arms. This is the National Covenant, a solemn pact that swears the signatories to loyalty to the Church of Scotland, and to resist all measures by the English Government to alter its prayer-book or its ceremonies.
No minority group of fanatics this, The Covenanters named 300,000 within months. Charles II, a tolerant easy going man who did not believe men should be persecuted for their religion, signed the National Covenant in 1651 when he sought Scots support against Cromwell.
When he returned to Whitehall in May 1660, he was forced to abandon his pledge as the Government, who controlled the Treasury, believed it necessary to enforce the supremacy of the King as head of the church in England and Scotland.
There was less resistance to the Anglican Church in Scotland between 1660 and 1680, but in the south-western counties of Ayr, Lanark, Wigtown, Kirkcudbright and Dumfries, the old Covenanting spirit lingered on. There the Kings' Judges and Magistrates were ruthless in punishing those who worshipped in any way other than that allowed by law. The most trivial acts of disloyalty were punishable by death, such as refusal to drink the King's health, and many were shot on the spot for 'fanaticism.'
In 1684, Gilbert Wilson, a Wigtonshire farmer and his wife attended conformist services. However, their children, Margaret (18), Thomas (16), and Agnes (13), became attracted to the teaching of the Covenanters and attended illegal 'conventicles' to hear their prayers and sermons. Mr Wilson was fined for his childrens' nonconformity, and treated like outlaws, the children took themselves into the hills of upper Galloway and spent months hiding from the troopers.
On the death of Charles II, in February 1685, the persecution was briefly relaxed when the new king, James II, himself a Catholic, tried to introduce relaxation of the laws against Dissenters, but the Anglican Church and Parliament fought him all the way.
Margaret and Agnes Wilson left their hiding places and went to Wigton to visit some of their fellow sufferers in the same cause, and particularly the aged Margaret McLauchlan, a Presbyterian widow in her sixties. Their brother Thomas, stayed in the mountains and was lost to history.
Reputedly betrayed by a man named Patrick Stuart, the two Margarets and Agnes were arrested by troopers and ordered to demonstrate their loyalty to the King's authority and swear an oath of abjuration. All three refused and were brought to trial before Sir Robert Grierson, of Lagg, Colonel David Graham (brother to the bloody Claverhouse), Major Windram, Captain Strachan, and Provost Cultrain at Wigton, on the 13th of April 1685.
After the mockery of a trial, at which the girls were accused of attending the Battle of Bothwell Bridge when they were children, they were sentenced to death by drowning. This was to take place in Wigtown Bay, a leg of the Solway, where the wide sands extend two miles out. They were to be tied to stakes fixed in the sand so the incoming tide would drown them.
Gilbert Wilson sold almost everything he owned and borrowed from friends and family, managing to raise a hundred pounds, a vast sum. He rode to Edinburgh to buy his daughters' pardon, but was forced to choose between the girls. He chose the youngest, Agnes.
On the day of execution, Troopers marched the two women down to the sand, where Margaret MacLachlan was tied to a stake far out in the firth, so that the young girl should witness the death of her aged friend and hopefully recant.
The older Margaret was reputed not to have spoken at all as the sea crept toward her, at which one of her tormentors shouted: "It is needless to speak to that damned old bitch; let her go to hell."
The cold sea waters engulfed the old woman while Margaret Wilson, tied to the stone stake further in shore, was forced to watch her drowning struggles. It is reputed that a soldier mocked her.
Soldier: "What do you think of her now?"
Margaret: "I see Christ wrestling there. Do you think we are the sufferers? No; it is Christ in us."
When the limp form of the first Margaret was being tossed about by the swirling tide, the waters began to engulf Margaret Wilson, who sang the stirring words of Psalm 25.
When the water reached the young Margaret's head, the soldiers loosened her cords and held her above the water so she might, 'Pray for the King. For he is supreme over all persons of the church.' Margaret said she would pray for the salvation of all men as she wished no one to be condemned. The soldiers pushed her head under the water and tried again, even the crowd begged her to say the oath and save her life, but Margaret remained firm. The soldiers waded back onto shore and left her to drown in the incoming tide.
The bodies of the two Margarets were buried in the churchyard of Wigton, where a flat stone memorial lies. The stone stake Margaret Wilson was reputed to have been tied to stands as a memorial, although the sea has receded and the flood plain of the Cree is now a vast merse (salt marsh).
'Within the sea, tied to a stake
She suffered for Christ Jesus sake.'
The Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais painted Margaret Wilson in 1871. An x-ray shows the picture was originally a nude, the clothing added later to placate delicate Victorian sensibilities. The Martyr of the Solway hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.