Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gordon, Alexander (1650-1726)

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GORDON, Sir ALEXANDER (1650–1726), of Earlston, covenanter, eldest son of William Gordon (1614-1679) [q. v.] of Earlston, and Mary, daughter of Sir John Hope of Craighall, Fifeshire, was born in 1650. His grandfather was Alexander Gordon (1587-1654) [q. v.] Like his father he became a zealous presbyterian. He was present at the battle of Bothwell Bridge. One of his tenants saved him during his flight by dressing him in woman's clothes and setting him to rock a cradle. Within a few days he was proclaimed a rebel and cited to appear as such before the justiciary court at Edinburgh on 8 Feb. 1680. In his absence he was condemned to death and his estates were forfeited. For a time he lurked in the neighbourhood of his own estates, and had many narrow escapes. On one occasion, in the dress of a servant, he helped the dragoons in searching the house for himself.

On 11 Oct. 1681 Earlston was appointed by the privy council a military garrison. Gordon escaped to Holland along with his wife, Janet, daughter of Sir Thomas Hamilton of Preston, whom he had married on 30 Nov. 1676. He returned to Scotland early in 1682, and on 15 March of that year was with one John Nisbet commissioned by the ‘societies’ to proceed to the Netherlands (Faithful Cantendings, pp. 18-66). Nisbet and Gordon travelled together to London, but Gordon alone crossed to Holland. He returned and met with his constituents at Edinburgh on 8 May 1683, when they renewed his commission, and that same night he set out for Newcastle. He embarked there for Holland with a person named Edward Aitken, and both were seized by some customs officers. They were sent for trial to Edinburgh, where, on 10 July 1683, Aitken was condemned to death on the simple charge of harbouring Gordon.

A trial was thought superfluous, but Gordon was several times examined in reference to his knowledge of the Rye House plot. His depositions on these occasions, viz. 30 June, 5 July, and 25 Sept. 1683, with Nisbet's letter, and his own commission from the ‘societies’ in Scotland, are printed at length by Spratt in his ‘True Account of the Horrid Conspiracy against the late King.’ published 1685, pp. 74-7, 91-109. On 16 Aug. he had been brought to the bar of the justiciary court, and the sentence of death and forfeiture formerly passed upon him having been read to him, 28 Sept. was fixed as the date of his execution. The king ordered the Scottish privy council to put Gordon to the torture of the boots in order to extort from him the names of his accomplices. The council replied that it was irregular to torture malefactors after they had been condemned to death, but the king responded by sending Gordon on 11 Sept. a reprieve till the second Friday of November. Gordon about this time made an ineffectual effort to escape. On 3 Nov. Charles extended the reprieve for a month, and a fortnight later again wrote ordering Gordon to be examined by torture. This command was immediately obeyed, but Gordon on being brought to the council chamber, 23 Nov., either ‘through fear or distraction, roared out like a bull, and cried and struck about him so that the hangman and his man durst scarce lay hands on him,’ and at last fell down in a swoon. On recovering he named several of the royalists as among the plotters, as some thought from madness or out of design. The Earl of Aberdeen, then chancellor, however, befriended him, and he was remitted to the care of the physicians. For greater quietness they sent him to the castle of Edinburgh. On 13 Dec. his case was again before the council, when, as it was thought that the execution of a man in a state of insanity would endanger his soul, he was reprieved until the last Friday of January 1684. His execution was once more deferred, and on 8 Aug. 1684 the privy council sent him to the Bass Rock, but brought him back to Edinburgh on the 22nd to confront him with Spence, and a resolution was taken by the council on this occasion ‘not to admit of his madness for an excuse, which they esteemed simulated.’ On the 30th he was caught in the act of making another attempt to escape from the Tolbooth of Edinburgh. The council debated whether on account of this aggravation of his crime the day fixed for his execution, 4 Nov., should not be anticipated. But it being found that the breaking of prison was not an offence punishable by death, this could not legally be done; so on 20 Sept. they ordered him to be removed to the castle of Blackness.

Gordon's imprisonment in Blackness was voluntarily shared by his wife, and some of their children were born there. It continued until 5 June 1689, though on 16 Aug. 1687 he was recommended to the king for a remission by the Scottish council. His employment during his confinement consisted in wood-carving and the study of heraldry. Some of the carvings were illustrations of events of his own times and family history.

The Earlston estates were restored to Gordon after the revolution, and he and his family returned thither on leaving the castle of Blackness. But his losses were such that the estate had to be sold or heavily mortgaged. In February 1696 Gordon's wife died. Three covenant engagements into which she entered during her sojourn in Blackness Castle and her later life were printed after her death, entitled ‘Lady Earlston's Soliloquies.’ They have been reprinted by the Wodrow Society at the end of the first volume of ‘Select Biographies.’ She and her husband both corresponded with the covenanting preachers Renwick, Cargill, and Cameron, nine letters to them by the ministers named being printed in a collection of Renwick's ‘Letters.’ Gordon married in 1697, as his second wife, Marion, daughter of Alexander, viscount Kenmure.

In 1718 Gordon lost his younger brother, Sir William Gordon of Afton, who had distinguished himself in the Prussian army, had aided Monmouth, and had been made a Nova Scotia baronet, 29 July 1706, for his services to William III at the revolution. Sir William Gordon seems to have redeemed Earlston from a family who had purchased it, as he obtained personal sasine in these lands in 1712. He died without issue, and both his title and his estates of Afton passed to his elder brother.

Gordon died at Airds 11 Nov. 1726, and was buried in the churchyard of Dalry. By his first wife he had issue thirteen children, and by the second two. His son Sir Thomas succeeded, and the family still flourishes in Kirkcudbrightshire.

[Lord Fountainhalls Historical Notices of Scottish Affairs, 1661-8 (Bannatyne C'lub), i. 333-453, ii. 458-817; Decisions, pp. 238-300; McKerlie's Hist. of the Lands and their Owners in Galloway, iii. 423-30, iv. 77.]

H. P.