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Issue 12 (2021) - Communities & Margins

Militant Women and ‘National’ Community: The Execution of Isabel Alison and Marion Harvie, 1681

Laura Doak

​[1]​ Militant nonconformists in late seventeenth century Scotland defined themselves as a distinct community. Discussed as ‘covenanters’, these men and women professed adherence to the Presbyterian and constitutional reforms envisaged by the 1638 National Covenant and 1643 Solemn League and Covenant, which they considered indissoluble oaths to God (Smart 1980: 167, 178; Cowan 1976: 17-18). These statements formed the ideological cornerstones of Scotland’s mid-seventeenth century covenanting revolution. After 1660, however, with the restoration of Episcopal kirk government and a Stuart monarch, Charles II, who repudiated the covenants, these Scots were left at odds with the idea of a ‘national’ Scottish community (Erskine 2014: 155). A ‘spectrum’ of covenanting opposition formed in consequence (McDougall 2017: 2, 26). This network of factions remained self-consciously isolated and represented themselves as the lone, true heirs of Scotland’s earlier reformers of church and state (Shields and Renwick 1707: [frontispiece]; GUL MS Gen 450v; Shields: 1687; NLS Wod. Oct. IV f.221r; True and Exact Copy 1680: esp. 9).

​[2]​ This article considers female nonconformists through the detailed case study of two women, Isabel Alison and Marion Harvie, who were condemned for treason in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket on 26 January 1681. Women played an equal role in constructing and disseminating collective, militant identities and fulfilling the idea that this godly ‘remnant’ must detach from mainstream Scottish society. Preaching at Glenluce in 1682, Alexander Peden (1982: 171) declared: ‘Where is the Kirk of God in Scotland the day? It is not among the great clergie folk. Sirs, I’lle tell you where the Kirk of God is, wherever there is a praying lass or lad at a dyke-side in Scotland’. In the pamphlets, sermons, and letters that circulated at illicit conventicles (field meetings), female associates were described, by both themselves and others, as the ‘sisters’ and ‘daughters’ of their cause (StAUL MS38977/6/4/2/12; NLS MS Adv. 34.6.22; GUL MS Gen 1769/2/2/1). Women also wrote of each other as bound to a communal calling. In May 1680, when one Stirlingshire woman, Margaret Garnock, secretly wrote to fellow covenanter, Margaret Home, from inside Edinburgh Tolbooth, she repeatedly referred to her as a ‘Loving comorad [comrade]’. The original letter is still extant and its address demonstrates that, when directing the letter to its recipient, Garnock even specifically deleted the more generic word ‘friend’ and replaced it with comrade once more (NLS Wod. Qu. XXXVI f.121r). Such evidence suggests that women played an integral role in the construction of their militant nonconformist communities.

​[3]​ Current scholarship demonstrates an awareness of female activity across the spectrum of covenanting opposition. Laura Stewart (2016: 56 – 62) has illustrated women’s role and prominence in popular activity during the mid-seventeenth century covenanting revolution. Alasdair Raffe (2014: 63) has established how moderate female lay activists held what he terms a tangible ‘moral authority’ within nonconformist culture after 1660, which proved fundamental to its survival under a suppressive government that often left it undefended by male authority figures. Raffe has also explored the strong female influence within separatist sects such as the Gibbites and ‘Coat Muir Folk’ into the early eighteenth century (ibid) and, writing with Karin Bowie (2017: 808), has noted women’s presence elsewhere in other popular agitations and protests. For prior decades, Alan McSeveney (2005: 205-206) has shown how women could exhibit genuine leadership, drawing particular attention to events like the June 1674 ‘women’s petition’ to the Privy Council in favour of Presbyterian worship. Jamie McDougall (2017: 193) has also examined this petition to conclude that covenanting ‘women were not simply the helpers of male nonconformists, but were themselves leading dissenters who helped to form the public face of the conventiclers through petitioning and rioting’.

​[4]​ Alison and Harvie, however, are yet to be adequately considered. As the only two females among at least eighty covenanters publicly executed in Edinburgh between 1660 and 1688, ​[1]​ their deaths are often noted as a curiosity by historians, but never explained (Harris 2006: 337; Jardine 2009: 216; Greaves 1992: 75). This article presents the first detailed examination of Alison and Harvie.

​[5]​ These two women were not unique. Women were ubiquitous in militant circles and could act independently on their extremist principles. At Kirkcaldy on 18 June 1674, during a proclamation holding heritors responsible for their tenants’ nonconformity, a local woman named Margaret Miller aggressively tore the text of the proclamation from the herald’s hands in an attempt to prevent its publication (Register: IV: 48, 604). Another woman, Christian Fyfe, was arrested in March 1682 for attacking a minister in St Giles’ Kirk, Edinburgh. Fyfe’s execution is commemorated on Edinburgh’s Grassmarket monument as having been carried out that April, but it is clear that it did not take place. She was, indeed, tried and sentenced to death but official records reveal that her condemnation was periodically postponed (Register: VII: 390) and she was certainly still alive as late as 29 July 1685 when she was transferred, along with several other long-term female prisoners, from Edinburgh Tolbooth to Dunnotter Castle, Kincardineshire (Fairley 1938: XII: 167). Following this, however, Fyfe’s long-term fate remains unknown and she falls into obscurity amongst a veritable regiment of active, militant women who have yet to be studied or researched.

​[6]​ The extent of female involvement is illustrated by militant field preachers’ recurrent efforts to seek out women as a specific audience in their lectures and sermons. An early 1680 preface on Isaiah 8 by the leading preacher Richard Cameron, for example, deliberately reassured listening women that although it may be terrifying for them to accompany their husbands to field conventicles, to do so was part of her duty to God (StAUL MS 38977/6/4/2/8). On 5 May 1681, another leading militant, Daniel Cargill, held a field meeting at Loudon Hill, Ayrshire, where he delivered a lecture and two sermons in which he praised his female followers and their pivotal role in assisting their men (GUL MS Gen 1769/2/2/1 No. 4). Another sermon by Cargill (1744: 13) from 1678, instructed listening women to ‘hold up with your Husbands in God’. At a communion sermon given at a conventicle in Carrick, southern Ayrshire, the following year, Archibald Riddell (1678: 6, 9-10) repeatedly referred to ‘Men and Women’ and his depiction of God as the communicants’ ‘King and Husband’ must have held additional currency with female listeners. Notably, Riddell also excluded from the rite of communion ‘all the Men and Women in Scotland, that wittingly and willingly are Enemies to the persecuted’ (ibid: 10). By demarcating the conventicling community in this way, Riddell clearly illustrated that it was seen as one in which men and women participated equally.

​[7]​ Official sources also provide evidence of female militancy. A 26 June 1679 Proclamation ‘Against the resset of the Rebels’, or sheltering outlaws, was one of many such official statements that specified its application to ‘all our Subjects, Men or Women’. Additionally, both print and manuscript lists of fugitives frequently included the names of women pursued for seditious activity, including Margaret Norrie and Margaret Dennie in Fife and Dumfries-shire widow Agnes Scot, who were all outlawed for sheltering rebels (Proclamation 1684: 18-19. See also: StAUL Hay Fleming, MS dep. 113/57/50; NRS JC39/12/1-3). Writing to the earl of Lauderdale in 1665, the earl of Rothes even remarked that ‘if it were not for the women we should have little trouble with conventicles’, blaming their seditious sentiments and subversive activities on ‘fanatic wives’ (Airy 1884: 233).

​[8] ​Yet although the law dictated that female nonconformists were as guilty as their male counterparts, it appears they were treated far more leniently in practice. As already noted, they present as an acute minority among those executed at Edinburgh in the Restoration era. McSeveney (2005: 205-206) contends that women were also treated with notable clemency when faced with other criminal punishments, such as scourging and fining. Furthermore, women regularly proved able to transgress physical and cultural boundaries despite membership of an outlawed community. In biographies and letters, women like Helen Alexander (1869: 11) describe being allowed into prisons to visit male associates, delivering food and clothes. Alexander herself was imprisoned in early 1683 for assisting known outlaws, but was eventually released after of an acquiescent petition was submitted in her name to the Scottish Privy Council, although councilors were apparently well aware that her friends had forged her signature upon the document (ibid: 14). This perfectly illustrates authorities’ apparent reluctance to enforce the law against Alexander, and many other female covenanters, in the same way that they did against men.

​[9]​ But this ambiguity could only stretch societal boundaries so far. Many women were punished. Significant numbers were removed from the national community through banishment to Barbados and other overseas territories. In the summer of 1685 alone, six women were sentenced to permanent banishment on 28 July (Register: XI: 117), closely followed by twenty-six more on 18 August (ibid: 155). A hurried letter from two further women prior to their deportation, dated 21 August and seemingly written aboard a transportation ship at Leith, also survives (NLS Wod. Qu. XXXVI, f.219). The letter is signed only with the women’s intials, ‘K. G.’ – described as ‘aged’ – and ‘J. D.’, which match none of the women known to have been deported that year. Arguably, this hints at larger numbers of banished women than is appreciable from surviving records. Others faced long-term imprisonment and were only released after the collapse of the Stuart regime in 1688-89. During a 1685 rising led by the earl of Argyll, privy councilors gave orders for covenanters held in Edinburgh to be sent north to Dunnottar Castle away from potential rescue attempts by those sympathetic to the rebels. An extant list of 157 prisoners names at least 32 women. The list comprised those whom the authorities considered to be their most significant prisoners, and included Christian Fyfe and one Margaret Miller, who may have been the same woman noted above for disrupting an official proclamation (StAUL MS dep 113/37/50). In these records, a sizeable and formidable group of militant women can be glimpsed.

​[10]​ The first part of this article will examine how two particular women, Isabel Alison and Marion Harvie, conceived of themselves as part of an extremist, conventicling community. By defining community in deliberately broad terms, analysis here follows work on other parts of early modern Europe that has convincingly demonstrated the benefits of this approach in order to appreciate the complexities of intra-community relationships (Spierling and Halvorsen 2008: 1-2; Shepherd and Withrington 2000: esp. 2, 10; Scribner 1996: 320). In choosing to focus on one specific, albeit very unusual, case study, this article also adapts a methodological approach that is well established in studies of early modern communities. Karen Spierling (2008), for example, has used one particular family, the Lullins, to successfully explore the intricacy of relationships in sixteenth-century Geneva. Likewise, Elisheva Carlebach’s (2014: 5-33) study of the Jewish midwife community in the early modern Netherlands has provided valuable insights into how far they were able to stretch or transgress social, economic and religious boundaries.

​[11]​ Analysis will then fall upon Alison and Harvie’s expulsion from the ‘national’ Scottish community, which can be investigated through their condemnation and execution. Ritual has long been established as a ‘useful tool’ for studying communities (Halvorsen and Spierling 2008: 8). It is demonstrated here that public executions are doubly effective for this purpose as, whilst superficially appearing as the ultimate means of exclusion, they also incorporated elements of reconciliation (Klemp 2011: 323-345). For Alison and Harvie, however, these conciliatory elements simply provided further opportunity for them to subvert the Stuart state, and re-state their membership of an alternative and godly remnant.

​[12]​ A remarkable number of contemporary sources connected to Alison and Harvie survive. The National Records of Scotland contain many judicial documents relating to their trial, including their joint indictment and accounts of their confessions. Until now these records have been largely unstudied and, in the case of their ‘Verdict of Assyze’ (jury), even unopened. The National Library of Scotland’s Wodrow collection contains a corroborating account of Alison’s appearance before the justice lords at the women’s trial on 13 January that is catalogued as written in her own hand (NLS Wod. Qu. XCIX f.244). This collection also contains manuscripts written from Harvie’s point of view: an account of her appearance before the Privy Council on 5 December 1680 (NLS Wod. Qu. XXXVI, ff.109-110) and an extremely detailed narrative of the two women’s January 1681 meeting with Archibald Riddell (ibid: f.111).​[2]​ The handwriting of these manuscripts appears to match that of a third item containing Harvie’s ‘final testimony’, which is signed ‘sic sub[scribi]ter maren hervie’ to suggest that it is also an original document (ibid: ff.104-108r). In spite of a widely acknowledged dearth of female voices within the early modern archive, it is possible in this instance to hear these two ordinary Scotswomen in their own words

Militant Women

​[13]​ Marion Harvie was around twenty years old and came from Bo’ness, a small town on the south coast of the Firth of Forth. Isabel Alison was twenty-one and lived near the burgh of Perth, Perthshire. Both women could read and write (NRS JC26/56: ‘Confessions’) but were described by contemporary lawyer and diarist John Lauder of Fountainhall (1840: 26) as ‘of ordinarie rank’. Harvie, a domestic servant, was taken prisoner in early November 1680 (Walker 1827: II: 13). Alison was captured in Perth the following month. Exactly what Alison did to draw the authorities’ attention is unclear but it was significant enough that the order for her arrest came direct from the Privy Council (Fairley 1912: VI: 150; Cloud 1714: 76-77). There is no evidence that the women were acquainted prior to their first appearance together in official sources: they lived some fifty miles apart and were arrested separately. However, their shared connections and use of familial language toward one another demonstrate they identified as part of the same militant community.

​[14]​ Both women were associated with the militant group known as ‘the Cameronians’, after the leading preacher Richard Cameron. Members of this faction assassinated James Sharp, archbishop of St Andrews, on 3 May 1679. On 22 June 1680, Cameron and twenty armed followers publicly proclaimed the Sanquhar Declaration at the Mercat cross of Sanquhar, a town north of the burgh of Dumfries. This statement disowned Charles II as ‘a Tyrant and Usurper’ whose breach of the covenants had ‘denuded’ him of his kingship (True and Exact Copy 1680: 9-10). Cameron was killed in a skirmish with government troops at Aird’s Moss, Ayrshire, on 22 July, and at this point his close associate Donald Cargill came to lead the group. Cargill oversaw what was arguably this faction’s most radical phase, including the public excommunication of Charles II at Torwood, Stirlingshire, that September. Fountainhall (1840: 26) describes Alison and Harvie as ‘of Cameron’s Faction’ and both women admitted direct contact with its members, including Cargill himself.

​[15]​ The extent of Alison and Harvie’s involvement with this militant network can be easily established. Both women openly acknowledged the first charge levied against them in their indictment, that they had regularly committed treason by knowingly ‘oft and diverse tymes recept maintained supplied Intercommuned [fraternised] & keeped correspondence’ with proclaimed rebels and outlaws (NRS JC26/56: ‘Indytment’). When brought before the Privy Council on 5 December 1680 and asked by John Paterson, bishop of Edinburgh, if she had met with Cargill, Alison defiantly answered ‘I have seen him, and I wish that I had seen him oftner’ (Cloud 1714: 70-71). Harvie made a similar admission (NRS JC26/56: ‘Confessions’). Outside of official sources there is further evidence about the extent of their connections. Travelling with Harvie at the time of her arrest was Archibald Stewart, who freely confessed to being present with both Cameron at Aird’s Moss and Cargill at the Torwood excommunication (NRS JC26/55/3/A; NRS JC26/55/2/1). Harvie and Stewart were taken during a failed government attempt to capture Cargill (Walker 1827: II: 14). Meanwhile, one of archbishop Sharp’s assassins, James Russell of Kingskettle, left a detailed account of his activities in 1679 that makes specific mention of Alison as ‘an honest las’ who had helped him escape across the country (NLS Wod. Oct. XXIX f.154).

​[16]​ During their examination by the Privy Council, Alison and Harvie declared their ideological membership of this militant ‘Cargilite’ faction (NRS JC26/56: ‘Indytment’). Both women repeatedly disavowed the legality of Charles II’s kingship and asserted their adherence to the Sanquhar Declaration (NRS JC26/56: ‘Confessions’). This was a point that Harvie expanded upon by refuting Charles’ authority because he had ‘brake his oath’, meaning the covenants sworn at his 1651 coronation (NLS Wod. Qu. XXXVI, f.109r). In consequence, the women were declared guilty of breaching an act of 1584 that confirmed the authority of the monarch and declared the expression of contrary opinion as treasonous (NRS JC26/56: ‘Indytment’).

​[17]​ Alison and Harvie also refused to declare that the killing of archbishop Sharp had been unlawful. In addition to Kingskettle, already noted, Alison admitted personal contact with four more of Sharp’s assassins: brothers Andrew and Alexander Henderson, John Balfour of Kinloch and David Hackston of Rathillet (NLS Wod. Qu. XCIX f.244v). Before privy councillors, Alison described Rathillet as a ‘godly pious youth’ and, when asked whether or not she considered Sharp’s death to have been murder, twice deployed the same telling retort that, ‘if God moved and stirred them up to execute his righteous judgement upon him, I have nothing to say to that’ (Cloud 1714: 72). Meanwhile, Harvie took a more explicit stance, criticising Sharp at her trial as a ‘as miserable & perjured wretch as ever betrayed the kirk of Scotland’ whose death was sanctioned ‘when the Lord raised up instruments for that effect’ (NRS JC26/56).

​[18]​ Most importantly, however, both women considered themselves to have been an active and integral part of their extremist community. Both women repeatedly used the word ‘members’ to describe their allegiance to Christ’s true kingdom. At her trial, Alison told the Lords of the Justiciary that ‘ye have nothing to say against me, but for owning of Christs truths, and his persecuted members’ (NLS Wod. Qu. XCIX f.244v) and made a similar statement to the jury (Cloud 1714: 74-75). Likewise, Harvie told how she ‘protested’ at her trial that ‘they had nothing to say against me, as to matter of fact; but only because I owned Christ and his truth, and persecuted gospel and members’ (ibid: 81). During her earlier examination by privy councillors, Harvie used the phrase ‘our covenants’ (ibid: 80) to imply that she shared in the extremists’ sense of communal ownership of these ideological cornerstones. During this same exchange, Harvie also spoke of conforming Presbyterians and more moderate nonconformists as distinct from herself and this community. When asked about another nonconformist minister, George Johnstoun, who had since agreed to work with the Stuart regime, for example, she dismissed his trustworthiness because he had ‘joined in a confederacy’ with the crown (ibid: 81).

​[19]​ This is particularly telling within Harvie and Alison’s exchange with Archibald Riddell. The erstwhile militant Riddell appears to have been persuaded over to the government side when arrested and threatened with his own execution (Register: VI: 553, 602). Riddell already knew both women. Asked by the Privy Council if she had heard him preach, Harvie replied that she did ‘bless the Lord, that ever I heard him’ (Cloud 1714: 74; See also: NRS JC26/56: ‘Confessions’). Meanwhile, Alison was specifically asked by the Lords of the Justiciary whether Riddell was one who had ‘taught’ her seditious principles (NLS Wod. Qu. XCIX f.244v). Clearly, this was a man whom they had considered part of their community. However, by the time of their re-encounter, during the first week of January 1681, both women were well aware of his duplicity. When Riddell attempted to persuade them to pray with him, they refused. Alison remarked that she was ‘not Clear to Joyne wt him in prayer’ as his ‘Prayer would be Lyke his discours’ and Harvie remarked that ‘noe forsed [forced] prayers had vertue’ (NLS Wod. Qu. XXXVI f.111v). Forbidden from leaving the room, however, the women’s exchange with Riddell became increasingly heated as Riddell challenged their adherence to the idea of ‘legitimate’ assassination. Harvie details how, at one point, Riddell ‘came to me & laid by his coat & said would yee stob in a knife even now’? When finally permitted to go, Harvie warned Riddell that he would not ask her about the ‘faults’ of ministers who conformed with the crown ‘if ye knew what I have to say’ (ibid: r). This account shows how Harvie and Alison saw themselves as members of a ‘little handful’ of the ‘true Church’, and Riddell as a ‘scandalous person’ and an outsider to their militant community (ibid).

‘National’ Community

​[20]​ Following the 1660 restoration of the Stuart monarchy, the crown sought to protect itself from the contractual obligations that had been suggested by the covenants sworn nationally in 1638 and 1643 and by Charles II at his coronation in 1651. It also aimed to counter what it saw as the disruptive and deliberately populist elements of Presbyterianism (Stewart 2016: 23-6, 96, 116-21) by re-establishing Episcopalian church government (Raffe 2012: 3). In official discourse, described by Clare Jackson (2003: 1) as ‘the apogee of royalist sentiment’, the covenanters were presented as a dangerous, outside threat to a national community that was united and protected by the Stuart monarchy. By the mid-1660s, covenanters were portrayed in official proclamations as the ultimate enemy within: ‘seditious and ill-affected persons’ desperate to ‘infuse the principles of rebellion in the minds of many good Subjects’ through the circulation of seditious pamphlets and books (Edinburgh 1664). By 1679 their field meetings, branded ‘Rendezvouzes of Rebellion’, were described as places where innocent subjects were routinely ‘debauched’ by the enemy within (A Proclamation Offering a Revvard 1679).

​[21]​ Alison and Harvie were depicted as enemies to both Stuart monarchy and Scottish society. Both women were consistently described in the same, ostracizing terms as their male counterparts. Their legal indictment, for example, castigated them as ‘seditious & wretched instruments’ and ‘enemies to his hynes [highness] & the common well of this realme’. The women’s crimes were stated as ‘punishable with forfaulture of lyff Lands, heretages & esheat of movables’ (NRS JC26/56: ‘Indyctment’): the ultimate act of exclusion. Fountainhall (1840: 26-27), despite expressing muted sympathy for other condemned covenanters and, indeed, at times even suggesting his own veiled criticisms of the Stuart monarchy, unflinchingly describes Alison and Harvie as ‘verie obstinat’ and ‘bigot and sworne enemies to the King’. Thus, Alison and Harvie were presented as an outside threat to a ‘national’ community reliant upon the stability of Stuart and episcopal rule.

​[22]​ The clearest illustration of the extent to which Alison and Harvie were excluded from Scottish society was, of course, their execution. Yet before considering their execution itself, it is important to address why Alison and Harvie were executed when so many other women were released or received lesser punishments. The eighteenth-century Presbyterian historian Robert Wodrow (1722: II: 182) would later claim that, at the women’s trial, on 13 January 1681, Alison and Harvie’s jurors ‘trembled’ with reluctance. This claim appears to be based upon an account of the trial allegedly written by Harvie but surviving only in a later, edited form within Cloud of Witnesses, a curated collection of extremist tracts. This account alleges jurors had ‘fell on trembling’ and that a dispute had erupted between members of the jury, who had described Alison and Harvie as ‘not guilty of matters of fact’, and the King’s Advocate, George MacKenzie of Rosehaugh, who had stressed that although ‘it is but treason in their judgment’ the women were still guilty of breaking the law (Cloud 1714: 82). This later narrative also claims the trial proved so controversial that its verdict was delayed by several days. This can be proven by the ‘Verdict of the Assyze’, which is dated 17 January, four days after the trial itself. However, this key document also reveals that the jury had unanimously voted ‘in one voice’ to condemn the women as guilty for ‘treasonous speeches’ and adherence to the Sanquhar Declaration (NRS JC26/57 ‘Verdict of Assize’). What remained a point of controversy and ‘not proven’ was the women’s guilt ‘as [en]acters or Resetters of the Rebells’; whether or not they had aided or sheltered known outlaws (ibid). This is a fact of immense significance. Alison and Harvie were not considered guilty simply because they had dutifully aided members of an outlawed community, but were condemned for autonomous espousals of militant ideology before representatives of the crown. The elasticity afforded to other women because of their gender could only stretch so far. As Rosehaugh (1691: 20) would later emphasize, the women were guilty of ‘most hainous Crimes which no Sex should defend’. Alison and Harvie’s personal crimes had directly breached the accepted behavioral and ideological boundaries of Scotland’s national community and could not be left unpunished.

​[23]​ Alison and Harvie’s fate was decided by the Court of Justiciary but it was the Scottish Privy Council who dictated how the execution was to be staged. This appears to have presented them with a significant challenge because no precedents or cultural conventions for the execution of low-ranking female traitors existed in Scotland at this time. The men arrested with Harvie were executed at Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross, the location conventionally associated with political treason, but Harvie and Alison were hanged in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. This was the burgh’s secondary execution site routinely used for female criminals. Thus, Alison and Harvie were executed with five other women ​[3]​ who had been convicted of infanticide (Fountainhall 1840: 27; Fairley 1912: VI: 156). Infanticide was a common ‘female’ crime in the late seventeenth-century British Isles (D’Cruze and Jackson 2009: 2) and this represents the first known occasion when covenanting ‘traitors’ were killed alongside other, lesser criminals. Writing in 1722, the Presbyterian historian Robert Wodrow (1722: II: 182) considered this a designed insult, but it may have reflected improvisation by the Privy Council. That Alison and Harvie were executed in spite of these difficulties, however, reinforces the gravity of their crimes and fully emphasizes the determination of both privy councillors and justice lords that the women be publicly condemned for their crimes against the kingdom. By staging executions at mid-afternoon in busy, prominent parts of the city, Scottish authorities also ensured the physical representation of this national community through a large crowd of witnessing spectators.

​[24]​ Yet even within what must appear as the ultimate act of exclusion from the national community, there were visible shades of ambiguity. As James Sharpe (1985: 150, 160, 163) has shown, a criminal’s ‘last speech’ upon the scaffold was meant to confirm an execution’s legitimacy via a confession of guilt and display of penitence. Paul Klemp (2011: 329-330) has further shown how when a condemned individual adhered to ‘rigidly defined themes and structures’ acknowledging their sentence and forgiving those who had sentenced them, they received a measure of social reconciliation in return. However, Alison and Harvie subverted these conciliatory elements, willfully rejecting any chance of reconciliation to maintain their self-exclusion from an uncovenanted kirk and community. This was done through the words they spoke and sang upon the scaffold, and also by penning lengthy ‘testimonies’, which were designed to serve as insurance against any censorship they might expect to receive. Alison’s testimony referred to James Duke of York, the heir to the throne, who was then resident in Scotland, as a ‘limb of Antichrist’ and described the Stuart administration as ‘profane wretches’, ‘the bloody council’ and ‘declared enemies of God’ (Cloud 1714: 77-78). Harvie’s testimony in particular is arguably one of the least reticent of all such statements, cursing the Privy Council, all fifteen of her jurors, and eleven other named individuals, including Charles II and the wife of one John Blair who had offended her by saying that Harvie ‘had ne more grace nor her old shoes’ (NLS Wod. Qu. XXXVI f.107r). Cloud of Witnesses (1714: 88) details how, in her final moments, Harvie made a direct threat toward the Stuart administration and exclaimed that she left her ‘blood on the council’. It was at this moment she was interrupted by soldiers, both physically and by the sound of their drums. Cloud contends that, following this, the soldiers ‘would not allow her to speak any: But She cried out “I leave my blood on all ungodly and profane wretches”’.

​[25]​ Both women used their written testimonies and final words to re-state their membership of the extremist, covenanting community. Alison poignantly described her associates as ‘a remnant both of sons and daughters’ and bade ‘farewel ye real friends in Christ’ (Cloud 1714: 79). Likewise, Harvie said goodbye to the ‘wanderers, who have been comfortable to my soul’, and cried out ‘Farewel brethren, farewell sisters, farewell christian acquaintances’. Harvie also addressed this group as the ‘faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ’, advising them to ‘Keep up your societies, and the assembling of your selves together’, and noting that ‘Many times hath it been found comfortable to me, to hear of the few in Scotland, which Christ was delighting’ (ibid: 85-86). Both women asserted their shared ideology by affirming the Sanquhar Declaration and Archbishop Sharp’s assassination and declaring their love and admiration for Cameron, Cargill, and other prominent militants (ibid: 77, 83). The women singled out Archibald Riddell for further condemnation as a traitor to their community. Harvie described him as a ‘servant to the bloody lords’ of the Privy Council (ibid: 83) and Alison condemned him ‘for his obeying these wicked men to insnare us’, before lamenting how she had ‘many times rued, that I bare so well with him’ (ibid: 78).

​[26]​ The women’s self-conscious identification with a militant, covenanted community was also mirrored in the psalms they chose to sing upon the scaffold. Jane Dawson (2009: 143; 2007: 226-227, 244, 311) has traced the use of psalm singing as ‘a political statement’ by Scottish Presbyterians back to demonstrations by reformer John Knox against the Roman Catholic Mary Queen of Scots in the early 1560s. Alison and Harvie’s choice of psalms reflects an awareness and use of this same dissenting tradition. Harvie sang the 74th psalm, which asked God to ‘call to thy rememberance thy congregation which thou hast purchased of old’ and lamented how ‘enemies’ had appeared to ‘roar’ ‘amidst thy [i.e. God’s] congregations’, before warning;

Unto thy covenant have respect:
for earths dark-places be
Full of the habitations
of horrid crueltie:
O let not those that be opprest
return again with shame:
Let those that poor and needy are
give praise unto thy Name (Psalms of David 74.1-2, 4, 20-21).

Meanwhile, Alison emphasized her willingness to stand at odds with the Stuart state when she sang the 84th psalm: ‘For God the Lord’s a sun & shield: he’ll grace and glory give; And will withhold no good from them that uprightly do live’ (ibid: 84.10). The women’s psalms, along with their words and testimonies, undermined the rehabilitative potential of their execution, by reasserting their own oppositional, extremist community.


​[27]​ Isabel Alison and Marion Harvie considered themselves an intrinsic part of a godly ‘scattered remnant’: a militant community upholding a divergent vision of the true national kirk and kingdom. The women played an active role within their immediate network and used familial and communal terms to articulate their relationships with other extremists. In particular, both women admitted personal contact with many that the crown considered among their most significant opponents, including leading preacher Donald Cargill and the assassins of the archbishop of St Andrews. They also shared in their extremist principles, such as the disavowal of Charles II and the idea of a ‘justified’ assassination. It would be their own, independent espousal of these ideological arguments for which they were condemned.

​[28]​ Far from being mere anomalies, it is clear that Alison and Harvie were two figures among a far larger female presence in this militant community. The fact that they were executed affords them a heightened historic visibility, but many other militant women also emerge from contemporary sources, such as Margaret Miller, Margaret Garnock, ‘K. G.’, and ‘J. D.’. These women exercised something significantly more than the ‘moral authority’ identified by Raffe (2014: 63) and their extremism excluded them from the judicial leniency shown to female covenanters that McSeveney (2005) has depicted.

​[29]​ Alison and Harvie excluded themselves from the Stuart monarchy’s ideal of a Scotland united by their rule. The staging and location of their execution demonstrates the point at which covenanters, even if female, had to be permanently excluded from Scottish society in order to maintain an appearance of legitimacy and stability. A ‘last speech’ conforming to conventional expectations of contrition would have symbolically reintegrated these women into Stuart society. This was not just an imagined community but a physically present one represented by spectating crowds. But Alison and Harvie consciously chose to subvert these elements in order to confirm their disavowal of Charles II’s legitimacy and restate their membership of extremist networks. Clearly, both women were aware of the tension and incompatibility between these two perceived ‘communities’, evidenced by their treatment of Archibald Riddell as an erstwhile ally.

​[30]​ The surviving sources for this case, including several by Alison and Harvie themselves, provide a rare glimpse into the thoughts and ideas of two seventeenth-century Scotswomen who, although ‘ordinary’ in social stature, were clearly extraordinary in their extremist principles and personal tenacity. They remain, however, just two of many women alluded to throughout and it is hoped that, above all, this article serves as a springboard for future research about militant women in seventeenth century Scotland.

University of Glasgow


I am extremely grateful to Linda Ramsay, at the National Archives of Scotland, who arranged for sources used within this article to be opened for the first time since they had been sealed in 1681, and Rachel Hart, of St Andrews’ University Library Special Collections, for her associated advice. I would also like to thank Karin Bowie and Thomas Munck for their helpful comments on previous drafts of this article.


​[1] Two other women, Margaret Wilson and Margaret MacLauchlan, are believed to have been executed at Wigtown on 11 May 1685. However, there are no known extant primary sources relating to this case and some have even questioned whether these women were really executed at all. Because of this controversy and problematic lack of contemporary evidence, Wilson and MacLauchlan are not discussed in this article. For more information on them see MacRobert (2010: 121-129).​[back to text]​

[2] ​The final third of this manuscript is written in a different hand.​[back to text]​

[3] The other women executed that day were: Elsa Morrison; Helen Girdwood; Marion Donaldson; Sibella Bell, and her daughter Jean Hendersone.​[back to text]​



National Records of Scotland (NRS) JC26/55, JC26/56, JC26/57; JC39/12

National Library of Scotland (NLS) Wod. Oct. IV, Wod. Oct. XXIX, Wod. Qu. XCIX, Wod. Qu. XXXVI; MS. Adv. 34.62.22

University of Glasgow, Special Collections (GUL) MS Gen 1769/2/2/1, MS Gen 450

University of St. Andrews, Special Collections (StAUL), MS dep. 113/37/50; MS38977/6/4/2/12


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