Kidnapped - An incident of old-time Kirkcudbright

Author not given.
Kirkcudbright Advertiser of Friday 6 August 1915.

Instinctively the word recalls to our memory Robert Louis Stevenson’s great romance, with its tragedy. The incident which we are about to relate has, however, surroundings more nearly akin to that of the celebrated incident in which the Earl of Traquair and Christy’s Will, the Border mosstrooper, were the principal figures. In the one case it was no less a personage than the President of the Court of Session who was the victim of the Earl’s wiles; in the other before us a Bailie of Kirkcudbright. Lord Durie was kept secluded for a period of three months; the Bailie for slightly over a week; and the abduction in both cases came about in similar circumstances. In the Kirkcudbright case, however, the amazing thing is that it could have happened in 1738.

Great indeed must have been the wonderment of the inhabitants of the burgh when it became known on the morning of the 19th September 1738, that Bailie Alexander McKie had been taken from his bed overnight, and spirited away, leaving no trace behind. As subsequent events proved, there were not a few, and those in responsible positions, who were implicated in as pretty a little plot as was ever hatched in the town.

The first intimation of the affair is contained in the Town Council minutes of September 27, when Bailie McKie appeared before an astonished Town Council, and declared that he had been dragged out of his bed under cloud of night between the 18th and 19th, and carried away naked, and imprisoned for several days. On the shore about St Mary’s Isle he was put on board a boat in such a violent manner that his side was severely bruised. Off the shore, the bandages were taken from his eyes, when he recognised John Kerr, mason in Kirkcudbright; James Marshall, his servant; Daniel __________, a Highlandman who served John Kerr as a barrowman; and John Ewart, wright in Kirkcudbright. These men, McKie alleged, brought him to the Colvend coast, where they put him ashore. Here, to use the terms of the deposition, “John Kerr and John Ewart did most barbarously beat and abuse him, and thereafter they carried him under cloud of night to a pitiful herd’s house possessed by one William Anderson.” On the morning of Wednesday the 20th they carried away all the clothes which they had given him on board the boat. On the previous night he had begged Kerr and Ewart to release him, to which they answered in quite John Silver style “Devil a there you shall go.” Here he was confined, naked and forlorn, save for an old blanket which the people of the cottage had given him, the door being kept fast locked. On the last night of his durance vile, McKie declared that Marshall came to him and gave him the clothes in which he appeared before the Council. One William Graham acted as guard upon him on the night on which he landed on the Colvend shore, and on the last night of his captivity Marshall came along with him to another house possessed by one John Black. Here he was left by Marshall, and he remained in Black’s custody till his release. Black accompanied McKie on his journey home, but left him within two miles of the town. With McKie’s return home the plot thickened, as he declared that he had some reason to believe, and “strongly jaloused” that George Paul, gardener in Kirkcudbright, and William and Gilbert Brown, wrights, were along with the persons who carried him from his house to the shore. He therefore prayed the Magistrates to secure the persons of his assailants to underly the law for their alleged crimes.

Alexander Murray of Broughton was the Provost of the period, and the Councillors numbered among them men whose names are well known in the burgh annals. They were naturally keen to avenge the outrage of one of their august body. The alleged crime was stigmatised as “heinous and atrocious” and a warrant was granted for the apprehension of the parties implicated and their incarceration in the Tolbooth of Kirkcudbright. Popular feeling was with the accused as John Reid, the burgh officer, declared that, in the execution of his duty, he and his assistants were stopped and deforced by John Graham, shoemaker; Samuel Herries, wright; and the military quartered in the town after Ewart had been apprehended. Herries aggravated his offence by beating and abusing the officer, and he too was arrested. Herries declared that he had separated Reid and Ewart, but refused to sign the declaration. Reid’s declaration showed that Ewart had been arrested in the house of no less a person than Samuel McCoskrie, the burgh treasurer.

He gripped John Ewart by the breast and told him he was his prisoner on a charge of being concerned in the carrying away of Bailie McKie. He demanded assistance in the King’s name, but instead he was attacked by Herries, who was in the treasurer’s house. At the foot of the stairs he was beaten with drawn swords by the corporal and others of the military who were also present. The corporal gave orders to his men to have him beaten, and, to make matters worse, William Dunbar, the late town clerk, came up with the military and threatened Reid that he would repent executing his orders. This was bad enough, but Reid goes on to declare that he saw Herries strike William McAdam, deacon, his assistant, and further that he saw Peter Heron, younger of that ilk, and David Telfer and Thomas Mirrie, late Provosts of the burgh, in the house. The officer was baffled for the time being, but again returned for his prisoner, when Heron and Dunbar ordered the military to beat and resist him. Reid was not altogether without countenance, as he averred that John Neilson of Corsock, descendant of the noted Covenanting family, and a Justice of the Peace, frequently called upon Heron and Provost Telfer, to assist him in commanding the peace of the town, from which it might be inferred that the proceedings had almost reached the stage of a riot.

William McAdam, worthy Deacon of the Glovers and Hammermen, corroborated his chief in his declaration. McAdam appears to have been a resolute officer, as it was he who arrested Herries, giving him into the custody of a brother tradesman to be kept prisoner. Provost Telfer was particularly busy in the affair, as he was observed beating Reid with his staff or cane.

The upshot was that Herries was incarcerated in the Tolbooth, until he could find sufficient bail to answer for the crimes with which he was charged.

The key to the mysterious kidnapping appears to have been contained in another declaration which Bailie McKie made to the Council. In this he adhered to his previous declaration, and stated that if he had not been violently dragged out of his bed, and carried away and detained, he would have attended the election of the Council on the succeeding day, and then and there voted John Milligan, David Telfer, and Alexander Fisher out of the Council; and would also have attended the election of Magistrates on the 27th, and there voted “Thomas Mirrie and John Gordon out of the Magistracy; Samuel McCoskrie out from being treasurer; Andrew McEwan out from being Fiscall; and William Dunbar out from being Clerk!” Parties in the Council must have been very equally divided when all this was in the redoubtable Bailie’s power.

Dunbar delivered in at the table the Council’s minute book, and other two books, together with the key of the Town Clerk’s office, which were put in the hands of William Gordon, his successor. Gordon was further ordained to receive the other writings, town seal, &c., from Dunbar at the sight of the Bailies, Robert Carmont and Anthony Donaldson! The same day McKie, now late Bailie, accepted office as Councillor, and took the oaths of allegiance. William Herries, wright in Kirkcudbright, came forward as cautioner for his son Samuel. Further proceedings by the Council show the burgh writs in the charter chest lying in utmost confusion, and the new clerk was ordered to have them inventoried.

Nothing further appears to have been done with regard to the charge against Ewart and Herries, and presumably proceedings were dropped, probably because it was considered advisable to do so on account of the persons involved. It only remains to add that John Kerr, one of the accused, is mentioned in the Council minutes of 3rd September 1739, as petitioning the Right Honourable the Magistrates and Town Council for the sum of £6, 11s 11d. the balance of an account for £12, 7s 3d. for having two years previously built and finished the port (Meikle Yett) of the burgh. It is possible that the dilatoriness of the Council in paying Kerr was due to his connection with the alleged abduction of McKie in the previous year.