Sir Robert Grierson, First Baronet (1655/6 – 1733)
I was brought up at Burnhead in the parish of Dunscore in Dumfriesshire and stories of Sir Robert Grierson of Lag, the Auld Persecutor, have been with me all my days. As a boy, I often cycled round by Lag’s Tower, and the Auld Kirkyard where Lag is buried was a favourite walk. I still visit the Dunscore area most weekends. The Laird of Lag has been a source of endless fascination to me. It was a privilege to revise his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and I am equally honoured to have been asked by Richard Miller to rework the article for the Grierson family website.
The Griersons of Lag are descended from Gilbert Grierson who, in 1408, received the lands of Lag from Henry, Earl of Orkney. Gilbert’s son, also Gilbert, married Isabel Kirkpatrick heiress of the Rockhall estate. Their son Vedast built Lag Tower near Dunscore about 1460. The estates of Lag and Rockhall passed through several generations including Roger, killed at Flodden, and William, knighted by James VI in 1608. The Grierson arms contain three fetterlocks and the motto “Hoc Securior”, Safer by this.
In 1666, Robert Grierson succeeded his cousin as Laird of Lag. Grierson held lands in Dumfriesshire at Dunscore, Mouswald, Torthorwald and around Thornhill, and in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright at Troqueer and at Carsphairn. At Burnside near Lag, Grierson had a sheep stealer hanged on his own authority as a baron bailie, the last example of such an execution in Nithsdale. Sir Robert is said to have been the last Grierson to occupy Lag Tower.
In the last half of his life, at least, his main residence was at Rockhall, property registers of this period indicating that the Tower of Lag was occupied by tenants. Sir Robert also had a house in Dumfries, and from 1720 rented the Turnpike House at the top of what is now Bank Street.
Born in 1655/56, son of William Grierson of Barquhar in Kirkcudbrightshire and Margaret, daughter of Sir James Douglas of Mouswald, he attended the Universities of Glasgow and St Andrews. In 1676 he married Lady Henrietta Douglas, sister of William Douglas, 3rd Earl (later 1st Duke) of Queensberry. They had five children William, James, John, Gilbert and Henrietta.
Lag represented Dumfriesshire at the Scottish conventions and parliaments from 1678 to 1686. From 1681, he served as depute to the Earl of Nithsdale in the hereditary office of Steward of Kirkcudbright, and from 1683 acted as Steward during the minority of the fifth Earl. In 1683-84, Lag was empowered as a commissioner for excise, supply and the militia in Kirkcudbright, and to seize imports of cattle and foodstuffs from Ireland. In March 1685, at James VII’s accession, Lag became a Baronet of Nova Scotia (click on image below for a clearer view)
The memory of Grierson of Lag’s harassment of the presbyterians persists in south-west Scotland. On a recent visit to Sanquhar, my mother mentioned that we had lived near Lag’s Tower. “I wouldn’t live there, Mrs.”, replied the man, “And I certainly wouldn’t pass it at midnight. They say Lag’s wine turned to blood when it hit the glass!”
In 1678 Grierson had his tenants sign a bond promising religious conformity. In 1679, increased repression of the presbyterians led to the assassination of Archbishop James Sharp in May and to the battles of Drumclog and Bothwell Bridge in June. It was in the aftermath of these events that Lag received commissions to suppress rebellion in Galloway.
In the early 1680s, Lag presided over courts at Kirkcudbright and Carsphairn. At Carsphairn, Lag resided at Garryhorn and was assisted by the curate, Peter Pierson, a great informer on the presbyterians, later murdered. Extant documents from this period in the Grierson Papers list the names of those who had sworn allegiance, those who had been outlawed, fines exacted and rents collected from tenants of those whose properties had been seized. There is a list of payments made for information leading to the apprehension of rebels. Other documents give a flavour of the pressures Lag himself was under, such as an order of 30th June 1685 from the Earl of Dumbarton to provide meal for Teviotdale Regiment “immediately on sight of this” or else they would take it from the land.
The more notorious actions attributed to Grierson occurred early in 1685 as part of the government response to the publication in November 1684 of the Apologetical Declaration by the more militant of the presbyterians. Lag’s dragoons are reported to have chased and shot John Dempster on the moors near Carsphairn and to have instantly shot McRoy of Half-Mark, captured while reading his Bible. Lag rounded up the men of Dalry, forced them to swear allegiance and dismissed them with the remark, “Now you are a fold-full of clean beasts, ye may go home.”
Of six covenanters captured by Captain Bruce on Lochenkit Moor in February 1685, four were shot and buried there. The next day, Lag had the further two, Alexander McCubbin and Edward Gordon, hanged at Hallhill, Irongray. The same month, Lag ordered the summary execution of five covenanters seized on Kirkconnel Moor at Tongland: John Bell of Whiteside, David Halliday of Mayfield, Andrew McRobert, James Clement and Robert Lennox of Irelandton. Bell requested quarter of an hour for prayer before the execution to which Lag replied, “What the devil! Have you not had time enough to prepare since Bothwell?”. He also refused interment of the bodies. Later, at Kirkcudbright, Lag was challenged for these actions by Lord Kenmure, a fellow commissioner whose widowed mother had married Bell. Lag snapped, “Take him if you will, and salt him in your beef-barrel.” Kenmure drew his sword and would have run Lag through had not Claverhouse intervened. The story has been disputed but contemporary documents indicate distrust between Lag and Kenmure.
In June 1685, the Earl of Annandale had arrested David Halliday of Glengap and George Short near Twynholm and gave quarter but Lag ignored this and had them shot. Short and Halliday were both buried in Balmaghie Churchyard along with David Halliday of Mayfield. The two David Hallidays share a gravestone. The presbyterian historian Robert Wodrow described the imprisonment of four covenanters from Anwoth by Lag. Three of the prisoners took the oaths of allegiance but, when the fourth resisted, Lag swore terribly that he would soon be ‘barking and flying’, irreverently meaning he would be dispatched to the hereafter.
Perhaps the most infamous of Lag’s actions was his part in the drowning of Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, known as the Wigtown Martyrs. Margaret Wilson aged eighteen and her sister Agnes, about thirteen, avoided episcopal services and went into hiding. In April 1685, they were captured and imprisoned with Margaret McLachlan, an elderly widow from Kirkinner. The assize of Lag, Graham, Windram and Strachan sentenced all three to be drowned. The girls’ father secured Agnes’s release. Despite reprieves, the executions took place on 11th May. The two women were tied to stakes at the mouth of the River Bladnoch, the elder deeper in the bed to frighten the younger into submission.
Tradition says that, as the tide rose and the end approached, Margaret Wilson was pulled up from the water on Major Windram’s orders and asked if she would pray for the King. She answered that she wished the salvation of all men and the damnation of none. A bystander said, “Dear Margaret, say God save the King”. She responded, “God save him, if he will, for it is his salvation I desire.” Some of her relations called to Major Windram, “She has said it.” At this, Lag is reported to have intervened crying, “Damn’d bitch, we do not want such prayers; tender the oaths to her.” She refused and was thrust down into the water. In the 19th Century it was claimed that the drownings never took place, but the weight of circumstantial evidence points to the truth of the tradition.
Soon after his accession, James VII rescinded the right for Dumfries to choose its Provost and appointed a Catholic, Maxwell of Barncleugh. During rioting at the overthrow of James in 1688, Provost Maxwell disappeared, allegedly in disguise. He was soon arrested and the new Privy Council ordered that he be sent to Edinburgh under the superintendence of Grierson. In particular, Lag was to search the ex-Provost’s cloak bag thought to perhaps contain important papers. Later that year, Lag was one of the commissioners appointed to oversee the election of magistrates in Dumfries.
Lag, however, had Jacobite sympathies and in the years following the Glorious Revolution they brought him fines and imprisonment, beginning in 1689 when he was arrested on Lord Kenmure’s orders. In 1696, Lag was accused of forgery. He was innocent but tenants at Rockhall were developing a method of printing patterns on linen. Materials and books on metallurgy found were thought to be for minting coins.
Lag took no part in the 1715 rebellion but allowed his sons William, the eldest, and Gilbert, his fourth son, to go. The two Griersons were captured at the Battle of Preston and imprisoned, William in the Tower of London and Gilbert at Marshalsea Prison (pictured left). They were lucky to survive. A legal argument saved the estates. In 1713, presumably through age and infirmity, Lag had transferred his estates to William. The document provided that should Sir Robert find himself liable to imprisonment for debt, William would assist. Soon Sir Robert wanted to sell farms to raise money. William refused unless Sir Robert gave him part of the price. William’s action conflicted with the deed’s stipulation. Sir Robert thus managed to persuade the Court of Session that the bond with his son had been broken and the estates returned to him before 1715.
Lag spent his later years quietly at Rockhall and Dumfries, fines having diminished the estate. Legend says that the water to bathe his gouty feet used to fizz and boil. Once a lad wanted to catch a glimpse of the old persecutor and gained admission to Lag’s room on some pretext. Lag probably suspecting the circumstances suddenly turned on him and roared, “Ony Whigs in Gallowa’ noo, lad?”, an experience he never forgot. (Pictured right, the last rent book, belonging to Lag.)
Antiquary, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (1781-1851), whose family had long connections with Dumfriesshire, wrote that his great-aunt, Mrs Campbell of Monzie, recalled seeing Lag when she was a girl. She had been taken on a visit to Lady Henrietta. “A grewsome-looking carle he was, wrapped up in blankets, wearing a wig, and in an elbow-chair.” It was when Lag had gout. “Lady Henrietta made her go up to him, and he kissed her – to her no small terror, both on account of his appearance and the terrible tales she had heard of him”. “Lady Henny”, as Lady Grierson was nick-named locally, was of short stature and died in February 1739.
Lag’s death at the Turnpike House in Dumfries on 31st December, 1733 is associated with legends. The night was dark and squally and on the Solway Firth a small boat was heading to its berth. In the intermittent moonlight, the crew made out what they took for an approaching craft. As it drew closer the men saw no ordinary vessel but a great black coach and horses sweeping up the Nith estuary accompanied by coachmen and outriders bearing flaming torches. As it passed, the skipper cried out, “Where bound? and where from?” and received the reply, “To tryst with Lag! Dumfries! From Hell!”
Lag was buried in Dunscore Old Churchyard. A sinister crow, said by some to be Auld Nick attending the funeral, reportedly perched on the coffin throughout the journey from Dumfries. The horses could not draw the hearse and were replaced by Spanish ones belonging to Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick, 3rd Baronet of Closeburn and a great-nephew of Lady Grierson, who drove them himself. The horses supposedly died within a few days of the funeral, caused by “the dead-weight o’ the Deil and the Laird o’Lag”. The funeral accounts include iron work to the hearse. Possibly a small accident necessitated a repair and a change of horses and the story grew. The amount of alcoholic refreshment provided shows that the mourners were well entertained.
It used to be said that Lag’s reputation was such that “grass would not grow on his grave”. The stone marking the tomb in Dunscore Old Kirkyard was erected by Sir Alexander Grierson, 9th Baronet in 1897 and caused controversy at the time. It incorporates an old stone with the Grierson arms and the initials “IG”. This had once sat above the gate to the Tower of Lag and was preserved at nearby Friars Carse before being incorporated into the monument. The initials may be those of John Grierson who died in 1566. A larger rectangular stone is built into the base of the monument. It also shows the Grierson arms, the date 1616 between the letters “S” and “D”, and below these the initials “WG” and “NM”. The initials are those of William Grierson and Nicholas Maxwell, his wife, daughter of 4th Lord Herries of Terregles, who accompanied Queen Mary to England after the Battle of Langside. The stone is understood to have formed the lintel of the Grierson Mausoleum that once stood on the site and to have lain many years on the ground. The “S” and “D” may stand for “Sacri Domino”, They are sacred with the Lord. The stone looks like a marriage stone but William and Nicholas, Sir Robert’s great-grandparents, married in 1593. Sir William died in 1629 and there is documentary evidence in the Lag Charters that Lady Nicholas was alive in 1612. The stone probably commemorates her death and the erection of the mausoleum. Sir William was knighted in 1608 for his role in helping to pacify the Borders after the Battle of Dryfesands.
An early 19th Century game, involved ‘playing Lag’. ‘Lag’ was a beast with prominent eyes, pointed ears and a long snout, an allegory to the creature who once so efficiently and ruthlessly watched, listened for and sniffed out Galloway covenanters. Lag was the prototype of Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, even down to his pet monkey which lived in a tower called the Cat’s Cradle, said to be an old lookout at the Turnpike House, and had the trick of blowing a silver whistle. The monkey too has entered folklore; it haunts Rockhall, blowing its whistle.
The Cloud of Witnesses for the Royal Prerogatives of Jesus Christ (1714), a collection of the testimonies of Scottish presbyterians condemned for their religion from 1680, described Lag as being “excommunicate for his adultery and impenitent obstinacy”. He may not have been as faithless as his critics thought. At the head of one of his rent books he wrote:
O Lord, we’re aye ganging and we’re aye gettin’;
We should aye be comin’ to Thee, but we’re aye forgettin’.
Stuart W. McDonald
S. I. 1714. A Cloud of Witnesses for the Royal Prerogatives of Jesus Christ.
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