Grierson, Robert (DNB00)

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GRIERSON, Sir ROBERT (1655?–1733), laird of Lag, persecutor of the covenanters, was descended from an old Dumfriesshire family which claimed as an ancestor the highland chief Malcolm, lord of Macgregor, the friend and ally of Robert Bruce. The lands of Lag are said to have been bestowed on Gilbert Grierson by Henry, earl of Orkney, in 1408, and in any case the estate was in the possession of the family before the close of that century. Sir Robert Grierson was the great-grandson of Sir William Grierson, who was knighted by King James in 1608, and appointed keeper of the rolls in 1623, and the son of William Grierson of Farquhar by Margaret, daughter of Douglas of Mouswald. The marriage contract is dated June 1654. Grierson's birth may probably be placed in 1655. On 9 April 1669 he was served heir to his cousin, who had died a minor. Grierson was one of the most strenuous supporters among the lairds of Galloway of the policy of the government against the covenanters. On 8 Feb. 1678 he drew up a bond, which he made all his tenants sign, obliging themselves never to be present at conventicles, or to commune ‘with forfaulted persons, inter-communed ministers, or vagrant preachers.’ When Claverhouse made his first appearance in Dumfriesshire on his mission of repressing conventicles, Grierson displayed great activity in assisting him. On 3 Jan. 1679 he co-operated with Claverhouse in the destruction of the disguised covenanting meeting-house on the Kirkcudbright side of the bridge at Dumfries, bringing with him ‘four score of countrymen, all fanatics,’ whom he compelled to demolish it (Napier, Life of Viscount Dundee, ii. 188). On the establishment of military courts in Galloway in 1681 for the administration of summary justice Grierson was appointed to preside over that held at Kirkcudbright. Under Claverhouse, who was appointed to succeed Sir Andrew Agnew as heritable sheriff of Wigtownshire, he distinguished himself by his severity in enforcing the Test Act, by the assistance of the ‘thumbkins,’ the use of which had been specially sanctioned by an act of the council. On account of his reputation as a zealous supporter of the government policy the Earl of Nithsdale ‘disponed’ to him his hereditary office of steward of Kirkcudbright during the minority of his son. A period of extreme persecution followed the passing in 1685 of an act by the privy council punishing refusal to take the ‘abjuration oath’ with instant death. The laird of Lag then acquired a pre-eminent reputation for ruthless severity, and is represented as taking a special and immoral delight in torturing his victims. In his drunken revels he made the beliefs of the covenanters the theme of scurrilous jest. The assertion of Lord Macaulay that Claverhouse and his soldiers used ‘in their revels to play at the torments of hell, and to call each other by the name of devils and damned souls,’ has its foundation solely in statements by Wodrow and Howie which have special reference to Lag and his boon companions. In a vaulted chamber of his house of Rockhall an iron hook is still shown, upon which he is said to have hanged his prisoners, and a hill is pointed out from which he is said to have rolled down his victims in barrels filled with knife blades and iron spikes. No doubt the traditions about him have been embellished by successive narrators. A striking evidence of the terror and hatred attaching to his memory is furnished by the custom extant fifty years ago of commemorating his evil deeds by a rude theatrical performance, in which he appears in the form of a hideous monster. It is specially recorded of him that he invariably refused the request of his victims for a brief space for prayer before they were put to death. When Lord Kenmure remonstrated with him for his barbarous usage of John Bell of Whiteside, a gentleman nearly related to him, and especially for refusing to allow Bell's body to be buried, Grierson is said to have answered, ‘Take him if you will and salt him in your beef barrel.’ Incensed at the brutal jest, Kenmure drew his sword and would have run Grierson through, had not Claverhouse intervened to part them. After the accession of James II Grierson, on 28 March 1685, was created a baronet of Nova Scotia. He also obtained from the king a pension of 200l. a year. On 27 March he was appointed under the royal commission one of the lords justices of Wigtownshire, ordained to ‘concur’ with Colonel Douglas, who was appointed to the military command. In this capacity he presided at the trial of Margaret Maclachlan and Margaret Wilson known in tradition as the Wigtown martyrs who having refused to take the abjuration oath were condemned to death ; but on 30 April were reprieved, when a full pardon was recommended. Notwithstanding the tradition that they were drowned in the waters of the Blednoch on 11 May, it has been argued that the sentence was never carried into execution ; but the evidence adduced by the Rev. Archibald Stewart in ‘History Vindicated in the Case of the Wigtown Martyrs,’ 1869, places the matter beyond reasonable doubt. Grierson is represented as having presided at the execution and as having treated the women with insolent brutality. An old lady alive in 1834 remembered her grandfather stating that ‘there were cluds o' folk on the sands that day in clusters here and there praying for the women as they were put down’ (Agnew, Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway, p. 431).

After the fall of King James, Lag was on 21 May 1689 seized by Lord Kenmure as a suspected person, and lodged in the Tolbooth at Kirkcudbright; but after being sent to Edinburgh he ultimately obtained release on a large bail. On 8 July he was again apprehended on suspicion of being concerned with Claverhouse and others in a plot against the Convention parliament, but about the end of August he was liberated on account of the state of his health, after giving bail to the amount of 1,500l. In 1692 and 1693 he was again imprisoned ; in the latter instance for failing to pay the fine of a year's rent ‘for refusing the oath of allegiance and assurance.’ He was set at liberty on 9 Nov., but for several years passed a considerable portion of his time in durance. In June 1696 a charge was preferred against him of having let his mansion of Rockhall for the purpose of coining false money, but it turned out that it had been merely employed in connection with experiments for a method of stamping linen with ornamental patterns. In his latter years Grierson, whose fortunes had been seriously crippled by fines, took up his residence at Rockhall. He was not personally concerned in the rebellion of 1715, but permitted his eldest son, William, and his fourth son, Gilbert, to take part in Kenmure's luckless expedition into England. Both were taken prisoners at Preston, and conveyed to London. Grierson himself suffered no molestation from the government on this account, but on the attainder of his son William sentence of forfeiture was passed on the estates ; but although previous to this Grierson had placed his son in possession of the estates by infeftment he had made a stipulation that in case he should be in danger of arrest for debt the son should be required to relieve him within the space of six months after personal intimation. This proviso was undoubtedly made in good faith, and had led to disputes between father and son, so that Lag was able to plead—when sentence of forfeiture was passed against the son—that the provisions of the deed of infeftment had been infringed in such a manner as to annul it, and in August 1719 a decision was on this account given in his favour. Lag died of apoplexy 31 Dec. 1733. Several portents are stated to have appeared on the occasion. A ‘corbie,’ supposed to represent the evil one, is said to have perched upon the coffin and accompanied the cortège to the grave at Dunscore. The original team of horses were, it is stated, unable to move the hearse, and a team of Spanish horses which were then yoked to it by Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick, and drew it at a furious gallop, are said to have died a few days afterwards. C. Kirkpatrick Sharpe vouched for the truth of this story (Correspondence, i. 4). By his wife, Lady Henrietta Douglas, sister of William, first duke of Queensberry, Grierson had four sons and a daughter, Henrietta, married to Sir Walter Laurie, bart., of Maxweltown. He was succeeded by his eldest son, William. Grierson is the Sir Robert Redgauntlet of Wandering Willie's Tale in Sir Walter Scott's ‘Redgauntlet.’

[Wodrow's Sufferings of the Church of Scotland; Howie's Heroes for the Faith; Mackenzie's History of Galloway; Alexander Stewart's Wigtown Martyrs, 1869; Napier's Life and Times of Dundee; C. K. Sharpe's Correspondence, 1888, i. 3-6, and passim; Colonel Alex. Fergusson's Laird of Lag, 1886.]

T. F. H.