In this series we take an in-depth look at objects in the North Lanarkshire museums collections relating to the Covenanters, a radical religious movement of the 1600s that had a massive impact on Scottish history.
Objects associated with specific Covenanters developed into honoured artefacts passed on through families, in some cases akin to holy relics.
One such object in the collection, and on display at Summerlee Museum, is the reputed death shroud of John Whitelaw of Stand, executed in November 1683 for his involvement in the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. Also on display at Airdrie Local Studies is the stone door lintel from the Whitelaws’ Bothwellshields home, which was seized as punishment for Covenanting activities.
The story of Whitelaw, known as the Monkland or New Monkland Martyr, is the gripping tale of a fugitive farmer persecuted and forced into hiding for his beliefs, culminating in his capture and subsequent hanging in Edinburgh. He, like his shroud, has a story that is a mix of facts, local traditions, crossed paths and possible myths.
Where to begin?
The donations register of the old Airdrie Museum, to which the shroud was donated, asserts that his family were from Bothwellshields, farmland between what is now Chapelhall and Salsburgh – about 5miles/8km south-east of Stand.
The register doesn’t give a source for this information, however a John Whitelaw of Bothwellshields suffered forfeiture of his farm in 1681 as punishment for his involvement at Bothwell Bridge in 1679. If this was John Whitelaw of Stand two years earlier, his father, or a non-relative with the same name is not completely certain.
It is possible that these Whitelaws shared a name but weren’t related, and over time the circumstantial similarities blended their stories together: John is the most popular given name on the list of Covenanter forfeitures and Whitelaw is not an uncommon surname in Lanarkshire. We will look at these Whitelaws as two separate stories that are possibly interconnected, as we don’t know for sure what connection they may or may not have.
A Family Affair
A John and Thomas Whitelaw are recorded at Bothwellshields in a 1641 Parliament of Scotland infeftment (bestowal) of lands to Sir John Hamilton of Orbiston. Bothwellshields is recorded as a ‘three pound land’, a unit of land measurement showing how much it was worth in annual rent – in this case, a modestly-sized bit of farmland. The Whitelaws held a feu (land tenure) and paid rent to the Hamiltons of Orbiston, along with other farmers at Bothwellshields. They probably ‘feued’ or sub-let their share of the holding to other farmers.
As tenant farmers, the Whitelaws were clearly not a local family with major political clout like the Dalzells or Belhavens. Social background is important when thinking about the class composition of the Covenanting movement by the 1680s, and what motivated politics and faith at this time. Social or political grievances were often mixed in with and expressed through religion.
In Scotland, the underdeveloped economy was still reeling from the civil wars of the 1640s-50s. The 1600s even had its own climate crisis – some of the most acute years of the ‘Little Ice Age’ – which brought bitterly cold winters and large scale crop failures in Northern Europe. These fed into the already volatile discontent and political instability of the century.
We don’t know John Whitelaw of Bothwellshields’ personal reasons for supporting the Covenanter uprising in 1679, as there is no written record of these in the Forfeitures. He was quite possibly motivated by religious beliefs he felt were being trampled on by the Crown, and, suffering one tough harvest too many, had felt enough was enough.
Bothwellshields seems to have been quite the pocket-sized hotbed of Covenanter support. Alongside John Whitelaw, a John Paterson of Bothwellshields also suffered forfeiture in 1681. Two years later a circuit court in Glasgow imposed forfeiture on a Gavin Paterson of Bothwellshields for his involvement at Bothwell Bridge – it’s not known if the two Patersons were related – and both a James Miller and a John Gilkerson of Bothwellshields appear on the 1684 Fugitives Roll.
Set in stone
The stone door lintel of the Bothwellshields farmhouse in which the Whitelaws lived, inscribed ‘IW 1627’, survives and is now located in a wall upstairs in Airdrie Library, next to Local Studies. The date marked on the lintel would imply Bothwellshields had been built by an older John Whitelaw.
The entry for this object in the Airdrie Museum register states that this John Whitelaw was Whitelaw of Stand’s father, implying that Whitelaw of Stand had lived here too, although it doesn’t note the source for the father-and-son connection.
The 1627 date on the lintel also fits with the Whitelaws being feuars at Bothwellshields by the time of its infeftment to Sir John Hamilton of Orbiston in 1641. Where the stone was quarried from is not known, but it was almost certainly nearby – the remote and muddy country tracks of 1600s Lanarkshire would not have been kind to heavily-loaded carts. The black and gold paint have been added after its installation into the library wall. If we were to peel this away it would most likely reveal the grey-blonde sandstone native to the area.
The 1627 farmhouse is thought to have been demolished and replaced in the mid-1800s. According to the Local Studies records, the lintel was salvaged by Dr William Grossart (d.1883), historian and author of Historic Notices and Domestic History of the Parish of Shotts (1880). From Grossart the object was passed to antiquarian Charles E. Whitelaw, who donated it to Airdrie Museum in 1925. Whitelaw also collected the Bothwell Bridge sword that we looked at in Part 1. Whether he was a descendant of John Whitelaw of Bothwellshields or Stand is not known.
It is notable that the decision was made to recover and preserve this cumbersome lintel, the remnant of a home seized from a family due to their beliefs. Again it shows how the Covenanter legend lived and developed in parts of the Lowlands long after the 1600s, often through oral tradition, even if some associated places – such as the Fortissat Stone – have a somewhat mythic association.
A variety of anti-Covenanter legal settlements were reversed after the overthrow of the Stuarts and the ascension of William III (William II in Scotland) to the throne in 1688. An Act of the Parliament of Scotland from April 1690 reversing fines and forfeitures mentions a ‘John Whytelaw in Bothwellsheills’, legally reinstating the farm to the Whitelaw family.
As for John Whitelaw of Stand, he appears on record in 1683 as a tenant farmer of William Cochrane – laird of nearby Rochsoles House and a local landowner.
Cochrane was presumably an uncomfortably close neighbour: in 1679 the Privy Council of Scotland appointed him a sheriff-depute for the Lower Ward of Clydesdale, with the authority to break up conventicles and arrest attendees. Having been at Bothwell Bridge, Whitelaw almost certainly would have had to conceal his past from Cochrane.
Whitelaw of Stand was also associated with the United Societies, the radical Covenanter association formed after the defeat of 1679. He is described in contemporary accounts as having attended conventicles in the area, including the field preaching of the militant dissenter James Renwick at Brownrigg on 3rd October 1683. Was this act the trigger for being branded a fugitive by the authorities?
Shrouded in legend
According to a local tradition expressed in James Knox’s Airdrie: An Historical Sketch and in a poem by Janet Hamilton (Whitelaw was her five times great-grandfather) he played a game of cat-and-mouse with marauding government troops, keeping watch with his wife and children from their farmhouse in Stand and running out into the moss at the first sign of trouble, the dragoons’ horses thwarted by boggy ground.
They eventually caught up with him after the Brownrigg conventicle, and he was brought to trial before the Lords of Justiciary in Edinburgh on 26th November 1683, just under two months later. He refused to decry Bothwell Bridge as an unlawful act or swear an oath to the King. An excerpt of his trial is recorded in A Cloud of Witnesses (published 1714) and Rev. Robert Wodrow’s The History Of The Sufferings Of The Church of Scotland (1721):
John Whitelaw declares he thinks Bothwell Bridge lawful, that rising being in defence of the Gospel. He thinks himself and these three nations bound by the Covenants. That it is above his reach to tell whether the king be lawful king or not. Confesseth he was some time with the rebels at Bothwell, but not at the battle, and that he had a sword. Refuses to say, ‘God save the king,’ this not being the proper place for prayer, and if it mean his owning his authority, he has spoken as to that already. Declares he can write, but will not sign what is above. Being interrogate if his judges were lawful judges, and if the Archbishop’s death was murder [the assassination of Archbishop James Sharp by Covenanters in 1679] he answers, these questions are above his reach.
He was sentenced to execution on the 28th and hanged on the Grassmarket two days later, Friday 30th November. Alongside him on the gallows were the two other Lanarkshire men brought to trial on the 26th, Arthur Bruce of Dalserf and John Cochrane of Lesmahagow. The spot is now marked by the Covenanters’ Memorial. Whitelaw is one of the 100 or so names recorded on the accompanying plaque.
From here the shroud enters the story.
At the time of John Whitelaw’s death numerous rituals and traditions existed around death and the burial of earthly remains, and practices of burial varied by locality.
There are some consistencies in the various traditions. Upon death, his body would likely have been wrapped in a shroud, in order to give him dignity, and transported from there to his home in Stand. His death may have been announced in the locality by a crier ringing the ‘deid-bell’.
His body may have been lain out in the home for a couple of days to be observed by family and friends, although as it would have been transported from Edinburgh – about a day’s travel by horse and cart – it may have been desirable to bury him as soon as possible.
Any funeral would have taken place in the family home, not a kirk – church funerals were prohibited – and without a minister’s sermon. Burial would have him placed into the ground without a coffin (the preserve of the wealthy at this time) and most likely wrapped in a shroud.
As to where he may have been buried is speculative. The convention at this time was to return a person’s body to their home parish and buried adjacent to their kirk – for the less wealthy this would have been in an unmarked grave. Bothwellshields falls within the Parish of Shotts, meaning if he was indeed originally from there he would have most likely been buried at the Kirk o’ Shotts. However, if Whitelaw was from Stand his home parish was New Monkland – meaning burial at New Monkland Parish Church, Glenmavis.
However, in the eyes of the state, executed Covenanters were traitors to both the Crown and the Church so proper burial was often prohibited. Frequently the bodies were dismembered after hanging, with severed heads or limbs displayed on public buildings as a warning to others. Part of him may well have ended up being sent to nearby Airdrie for this purpose – as was the case with four Covenanters whose heads were sent to Hamilton, their oath-taking right hands sent to Lanark.
We do not have a record of what happened to Whitelaw’s body after his death, so again this reaches into conjecture. It is possible that the shroud was used to wrap his body from the gallows, and that before whatever ‘disposal’ was taken on his earthly remains the shroud became separated from it – the shroud would have a lot more staining had it been buried with him. His family may have kept this shroud, having used another for burial as this one was sullied by his journey from Grassmarket gallows to Lanarkshire.
Why they would have kept it is conjecture as well, but if its provenance is true then as an object it is something that is very intimately associated with John Whitelaw’s death. The shroud would have been wrapped around his body, probably not yet cold. Behind the ‘martyrology’ of executed Covenanters were the lives of real, not mythological, men and women.
At some point since, this particular object ended up in Airdrie Museum with the association of John Whitelaw’s death shroud attached to it. It is not known from whom the museum acquired it. As with much of the surviving material culture from this period, provenance can be uncertain and tangled up in contradicting family or folk history.
Interestingly, on the shroud there are some dark brown stains that are more consistent with dried blood spots than mud or rust.
The trauma caused by hanging can result in burst blood vessels and bleeding from the ears, nose or mouth. It is a gristly thought, but it could well account for blood stains.
It is also large enough to have been a shroud and the unevenly woven linen is not inconsistent with it being hand-made or of pre-industrial origin. Its proportions (around 4.0m x 1.6m) and lightweight material make it unlikely to have been used for anything hard-wearing, such as bedding or a tablecloth – again fitting the profile of a shroud.
There is also is a rectangular piece of fabric which has been cut out of the fabric of the original shroud and then patched with a similar material, cleaner and whiter in appearance.
Given that there are various other small tears on the shroud that have been left as they are, it appears more like a sample which was deliberately cut from the material and replaced.
Whilst it isn’t certain, this would be consistent with someone who regarded the shroud as a relic removing a small keepsake of it. When this happened and how soon it occurred after his hanging is unclear.
A possible next step in establishing the object’s provenance, after consultation with a textiles specialist, would be to attempt to establish the age of the shroud material through radiocarbon dating. Given the length of time and variable environmental conditions that it has been stored in, it would probably be quite unlikely that a conclusive DNA profile could be built from the blood stains. The original genetic material would likely have degraded, especially if it is over 300 years old.
There are exceptions though – paleogeneticists tested the blood stained papers of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, murdered in 1793, to use modern medicine to try and identify the skin condition that his contemporaries described. If these are indeed bloodspots, and we could get a workable sample from the shroud, imagine the possibilities – what verified descendants of John Whitelaw are out there to help put it to the test?
‘Rebel Religion’ is a 3-part series on objects relating to Covenanters in the North Lanarkshire museum collections:
Part 1: Introduction – Meet the Covenanters
Part 2: the death shroud of John Whitelaw, the ‘Monklands Martyr’
Part 3: The East Monkland Banner, carried at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge
Blog: John Main, Martyr?