The Martyr of Solway by John Everett Millais

The Martyr of Solway by Millais (1871)

I visited the Walker Gallery in Liverpool yesterday and I am never disappointed by the paintings on permanent show there.  It is such a diverse collection which cannot fail to please everybody who visits, no matter what their artistic proclivity.  My Daily Art Display today features a stunning painting by John Everett Millais entitled The Martyr of the Solway which he painted in 1871.

So who was the martyr of Solway and why was she killed in such a barbaric fashion?   The “Margaret” depicted by Millais was Margaret Wilson, who was born in 1667 in Glenvernoch in Wigtownshire.  She was a young and devout Presbyterian who was a member of the Covenanters, a Scottish Presbyterian movement of the 17th century in Scotland who signed the National Covenant in 1638 to confirm their opposition to the interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  The Stuart kings embraced the belief of the Divine Right of the Monarch.   However, not only did they believe that God wished them to be the infallible rulers of their kingdom – they also believed that they were the spiritual heads of the Church of Scotland.    This latter belief was anathema to the Scots.   Their belief was quite simple – no man, not even a king, could be spiritual head of their church. Only Jesus Christ could be spiritual head of a Christian church.
The account of the martyrdom of the eighteen year old Margaret  Wilson and the events leading up to her death are set down in an account by the Rev.C.H.Dick’s  entitled Highways and Byways in Galloway and Carrick, which was published in 1916.  In it he wrote:
“….Upon the 11th of May,1685 came the wicked execution of two excellent women, Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, near Wigtown, in South West Scotland .  Margaret Wilson, eighteen, and her sister, Agnes, not yet thirteen years old, were the daughters of Gilbert Wilson, tenant of Glenvernoch in the parish of Penninghame. They conformed to Episcopacy. Adherents to the Covenants, the girls fell into the hands of the persecutors, and were imprisoned.

Upon their release, they left the district and wandered through Carrick, Galloway, and Nithsdale with their brothers and some other Covenanters. But on the death of King Charles, there was some slackening of the persecution, and the girls returned to Wigtown.

An acquaintance, Patrick Stuart, betrayed them. He proposed drinking the king’s health; this they modestly declined: upon which he went out, informed against them, brought in a party of soldiers, and seized them.   They were thrown in the thieves’ hole, and after they had been there some time, were removed to the prison where Margaret McLauchlan was.

Margaret Maclachlan was a woman of more than ordinary knowledge, discretion, and prudence, and for many years of singular piety and devotion: she would take none of the oaths now pressed upon women as well as men, neither would she desist from the duties she took to be incumbent upon her, hearing presbyterian ministers when providence gave opportunity, and joining with her Christian friends and acquaintances in prayer, and supplying her relations and acquaintances when in straits, though persecuted. It is a jest to suppose her guilty of rising in arms and rebellion, though indeed it was a part of her indictment. She was very roughly dealt with in prison, and was allowed neither fire nor bed although she was sixty-three years of age.

All the three prisoners were indicted “for rebellion, Bothwellbridge, Ayr’s Moss, and being present at twenty field-conventicles”.   None of them had ever been within many miles of Bothwell or Ayr’s Moss. Agnes Wilson could be but eight years of age at Ayr’s Moss, and her sister but about twelve or thirteen; and it was impossible they could have any access to those risings:

When the Abjuration Oath was put to them, they refused it, the assize found them guilty, and the sentence was that “upon the 11th instant, all the three should be tied to stakes fixed within the flood-mark in the water of Blednoch near Wigtown, where the sea flows at high water, there to be drowned”.

Gilbert Wilson secured the liberation of the younger girl under a bond of a hundred pounds sterling. The sentence was executed on Margaret Maclachlan and Margaret Wilson.  The two women were brought from Wigtown, with a numerous crowd of spectators. Major Windram with some soldiers guarded them. The old woman’s stake was a good way in beyond the other, and she was first despatched, in order to terrify the other to a compliance with such oaths and conditions as they required. But in vain, for she adhered to her principles with an unshaken steadfastness.

When the water was overflowing her fellow-martyr, some about Margaret Wilson asked her, what she thought of the other now struggling with the pangs of death. She answered, what do I see but Christ (in one of his members) wrestling there. Think you that we are the sufferers? No, it is Christ in us, for he sends none a warfare upon their own charges.

When Margaret Wilson was at the stake, she sang the 25th Psalm from verse 7th, downward a good way, and read the 8th chapter to the Romans with a great deal of cheerfulness, and then prayed.   While at prayer, the water covered her: but before she was quite dead, they pulled her up, and held her out of the water till she was recovered, and able to speak; and then by Major Windram’s orders, she was asked, if she would pray for the king.

She answered, ‘She wished the salvation of all men, and the damnation of none.’

One deeply affected by her words said, ‘Dear Margaret, say God save the king, say God save the king.’

She answered in the greatest steadiness and composure, ‘God save him, if he will, for it is his salvation I desire.’

Whereupon some of her relations near by, desirous to have her life spared, called out to Major Windram, ‘Sir, she hath said it, she hath said it.’

Whereupon the major came near, and offered her the abjuration, charging her instantly to swear it, otherwise return to the water.

Most deliberately she refused, and said, ‘ I will not, I am one of Christ’s children, let me go.’

Upon which she was thrust down again into the water.

The name of the man by whose information the women were arrested is well known, and his memory execrated still. One of his descendants getting into an altercation was thus taunted: ‘I wadna like to have had a forebear who betrayed the martyrs; I wadna be coomed o’ sic folk’.

The gravestone of Margaret Wilson

Margaret Wilson was buried in the churchyard at Wigtown.

X Ray picture of original painting

In the painting, we see the young woman with flame-coloured hair chained to the rocks.  She wears an open-necked blouse and tartan skirt.  She looks downward and to her left, her lips pursed.  Her eyes avoid our gaze and she seems lost in thought.  It is interesting to note that what we see in today’s painting is not we would have seen in Millais’ original completed work.  Art conservators have x-rayed the painting and found out that Millais had originally painted the upper torso of the young woman naked.  However when the painting was exhibited in 1871 there were strong puritanical views on nudity in paintings and Millais’ work offended Victorian sensibilities.  It was badly received and was the butt of many negatively critical reviews.

The Knight Errant (repainted version)

This had also happened a year earlier when Millais exhibited his work The Knight Errant in 1870 depicting a naked woman tied to a tree being rescued by a knight and which was roundly condemned for its nudity.  It could not be sold and had to be repainted.  Millais actually then cut out the canvas on which was her head and upper torso, added a new piece of canvas and re-painted the damsel in distress.   He did not clothe the naked woman but instead of her gaze being fixed on the knight, her upper torso was altered so that she was now  modestly turned away from him.   This in fact was Millais’ one and only painting of a nude woman.

For his painting of the Martyr of Solway, Millais realised that it was in his best interest to change the painting and deflect any further criticism so he re-painted the head and upper torso and the result was the clothed woman, as we see her today.

It is a most captivating painting.  I suppose in reality the calm and thoughtful face of the young woman as portrayed by Millais is unrealistic as I am sure the incoming tide must have been a terrifying experience and yet we see neither fear in her eyes nor her facial expression.  However this lack of facial contortion brought on by panic and trepidation allows us to observe the beautiful face of this young woman.

Clothed or naked – was Millais right in changing his original concept?  If Millais had painted the picture today one presumes he may not have had to clothe her upper torso but would that have added or detracted from the finished article?