The Steels of Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire

The History of Adams County (1900) states, doubtless on the authority of the Rev. David Steele (1803-1887), that David Steel (died 1806) was a fourth-generation descendant of Captain John Steel of Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, Scotland, who, with other members of his family, was active in the Covenanter uprisings under Charles II. The following anecdotes are from the Annals of the Parish of Lesmahagow, by J.B. Greenshields (Edinburgh 1864). They are based upon a longer account by the Rev. Charles Thomson, written in 1832. See also a bill of forfeiture against John Steel and others involved in the battle at Bothwell Bridge in 1679.

Thomas Steel of Skellyhill, who appears by the sessions records to have been an elder in the Kirk, was fined £300 for his adherence to the Presbyterian cause. His younger brother David, who rented the farm of Nether Skellyhill, refused to hear the curate of Lesmahagow, and attended the open-air preaching. He fought at Bothwell Bridge, and so closely was he persecuted after that event, that he durst not pass the night at home, but generally slept in a small turf hut on the west side of Mennoch-hill, on the farm of Cumberhead, near the source of the Nethan. It was about four miles from his own house, and two miles from the residence of John Brown the carrier.

In 1686, in the month of December, when he was at home in the bosom of his family, Lieutenant Chrichton came suddenly upon him with a party of horse and foot soldiers. Steel armed himself with a musket, and escaping by a window, ran towards Logan water, distant about one-fourth of a mile, closely followed by the dragoons, who had discovered his flight. When crossing the stream he fell and wetted his powder, but rising immediately, pursued his flight toward Nethan. Had he reached that place he would probably have been safe amidst its precipitous banks and the morasses to the east; but when at Yondertown the dragoons began firing upon him, and when he had reached Meadow, on the estate of Stockbriggs, he became exhausted. He still managed to keep the foremost of his pursuers at bay by presenting his musket; but Chrichton coming up, called him to surrender, promising quarter and a fair trial at Edinburgh. On these conditions he surrendered, but Chrichton, with the most malignant treachery, carried him back to Skellyhill; and meeting his wife, Mary Weir, who, with her infant in her arms, had been watching the flight with intense anxiety, he caused him to be taken in a field before his own door, and there ordered the dragoons to shoot him. They refused to do so, and rode off towards upper Skellyhill; but the infantry, who were Highlanders, were not so scrupulous, and immediately fired.

Chrichton and his men then departed, and when some of the neighbours arrived, they found the widow gathering up the martyr's hair and brains, which lay scattered about. She then bound up his head with a napkin, and as she gazed upon his mangled corpse, exclaimed: "The archers have shot at thee, my husband, but they could not reach thy soul; it has escaped like a dove far away, and is at rest." Then clasping her hands, she added, "Lord, give strength to thy handmaid that will prove she has waited for thee, even in the way of thy judgments." The corpse was buried in Lesmahagow churchyard, and near the spot where the martyr fell, a neat obelisk of stone has recently been erected to commemorate the event. The grave-stone in the churchyard had the following inscription: "Here lies the body of David Steel, martyr, who was murdered by Chrichton, for his testimony to the Covenants and work of Reformation, and because he durst not own the authority of the tyrant destroying the same. He was shot at Skellyhill on the 20th December 1686, in the thirty-third year of his age." "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."

David, a shepherd first, and then
Advanced to be king of men,
Had of his graces in this quarter,
This heir, a wanderer, now a martyr;
Who, for his constancy and zeal,
Still to the back did prove true Steel;
Who, for Christ's royal truth and laws,
And for the Covenanted cause
Of Scotland's famous Reformation,
Declining tyrants' usurpation,
By cruel Chrichton murdered lies –
Whose blood to heaven for vengeance cries."

Isobel Steel, a relative of David Steel, was apprehended for adhering to the Covenant, and after a long imprisonment, was banished to the Island of Barbadoes in the year 1687. She returned to Logan water soon after the Revolution, and lived there for many years....

John Steel of Logan Waterhead joined the army of Covenanters in 1679, and was appointed a captain. He was the acknowledged leader of that party in Lesmahagow and the adjoining parishes. He escaped unhurt from the battle of Bothwell Bridge, but his aged father, Robert Steel, having visited the camp, was overtaken by the enemy and slain. His body was left upon the road, but afterwards carried to Strathaven churchyard and decently interred. William Steel, the captains's brother, was taken prisoner and carried to Glasgow Tolbooth. He rented the farm of Lochanbank, from the "laird" of Blackwood, who, although himself greatly persecuted, had influence enough, through the Marquis of Douglas, to procure his liberation. He returned to his farm, and did not afterwards suffer molestation.

The most vigorous search was made for John Steel, but although a reward of 1000 merks was offered upon his head, no one would betray him. Soon after the battle of Bothwell Bridge, the Earl of Airlie came to Waterhead with his troops, and having put him to the horn, declared him a rebel, and produced a Crown grant of his lands. His wife and family were deprived of all they possessed, and expelled from their home. Captain Steel continued faithful to his principles and attended a general meeting of the United Societies of Covenanters of Lanarkshire and adjoining counties, at Logan House, on the 15th December 1681....

During this dismal period, the Earl of Airlie collected the rents of Upper Skellyhill and Cairnhouse, two farms which belonged to John Steel, and which were in lease. But as no tenant in the district could be procured for Waterhead (Steels's own residence), a man was brought from the north of Scotland to occupy the lands, under the name of Huge or Hugh Bawties. This stranger could not find servants to hire in the vicinity, nor any one in the neighbourhood to render him assistance; indeed, all regarded him as an intruder. He brought servants from his own district, and procured a guard of soldiers to protect them, but the latter procedure only ended to make matters worse, for the soldiers, with their horses, lived at free quarters; and Bawties, finding that he was not prospering, returned to his own country, after having been at Waterhead about twelve months.

The sufferings of Marion Lean, wife of Captain Steel, were most harrowing, So strict was the search maintained by the soldiery for her husband, that he durst not even lodge under the same roof with his family, but secreted himself in the moors. Two of his hiding-places were discovered by his enemies; his hut was next discovered and burnt, and a second shared the same fate. He then retreated to Logan hills, but being discovered, he was driven to Mennock hill, on the lands of South Cumberland, where his cousin David also hid himself at night. The place is still known as "Steel's Seat." While there the Steels were supplied with food chiefly through the kindness of John Brown of Priesthill. John Steel's wife and children, meanwhile, were reduced to absolute starvations, and lodged in a small comfortless hut made of turf. The boys gathered berries in the moors, and "guddled" trout in Logan water, to satisfy the cravings of hunger. A story is narrated of a farmer ... who, seeing smoke at a distance in the moors, hastened to the spot, expecting to find one of his own sheep roasting, instead of which he beheld these innocent children cooking some of the fish they had caught, and which they generously invited him to share with them. This unexpected act of kindness so overpowered the farmer that he turned away, filled with self-reproach for having entertained such hard thoughts against a family suffering for conscience sake.

After Lord Airlie's tenant, Bawties, departed, Marion Steel returned to Waterhead with her children, and occupied the farm, but found nothing but desolation where peace and plenty had formerly reigned. Her husband now frequently ventured to spend the night at home. On one occasion a party of his persecutors came to Waterhead, apparently disposed to take up their quarters for the night. Mrs. Steel felt great anxiety, as her husband had appointed to be home next morning to sow some grain. It was impossible to warn him of his danger, but her presence of mind did not forsake her. She feigned to be in a violent passion, and insisted on remaining up all night out of doors, where she was watched by the enemy, whom in a frantic manner she loaded with opprobrious epithets. Early in the morning, Steel appeared in the distance, but hearing such unusual noise proceeding from his house, he cowered down in a furrow, and providentially escaped unobserved in the direction of Blackwood. His wife, now assured of his safety, withdrew into the house, and soon became calm, and even cheerful; upon which the soldiers departed, cursing Mrs. Steel for having given her husband a signal of his danger.

Early one morning, as John Steel was proceeding to a small shop near Waterhead to procure some cordial for his sick child, he was observed by a party of dragoons and hotly pursued. He turned up Scorryholm Cleugh, and crossed a swamp where the footing was so soft that the horsemen could not follow. The commanding officer then ordered half his men to turn up the north side of the morass, while Steel turned a little to the south. Here he was almost surrounded, and completely enveloped in smoke from the constant fire of his pursuers. The spectators, who were deeply interested, had congregated on the neighbouring heights, and concluded that he must have fallen; but a thrill of joy succeeded when they beheld him running unscathed over the hills above Cleughbrae. From the marshy nature of the ground one dragoon only managed to follow, and was just raising his sword to hew down the fugitive, when his horse fell with his rider beneath him. Steel would have turned back to take his musket, but seeing the rest of the party coming over the hill at full gallop, he continued his flight, and safely reached Hareslack, fully two miles distant from the place where the pursuit began. The soldiers, who had been shouting, "Stand, ye dog, and be shot," were answered, "Ye are in the deil's service, and will be weel paid for it; I can run where ye canna ride!" Steel escaped through a mist to Logan House, where he was joyfully welcomed, the news having gone before that he had been shot. The dragoons, cursing the mist, departed, having with great difficulty made their way out of the bogs.

Another story is told of this sturdy Covenanter, that when the soldiers had been at Waterhead on a marauding expedition, and had carried off his corn to Milltown barn, about three miles distant, he went with a party of friends during the night and recovered it. On another occasion, taking advantage of the darkness, he recovered a flock of his own sheep which the soldiers had driven away. At another time, Steel and a party of Covenanters had assembled at Auchengilloch glen for worship. When returning home, the Lesmahagow party were informed that the dragoons were quartered at Waterhead. It was dark, and Steel ordering those who had muskets to fire, and the rest of the party to shout and clap their hands, the soldiers, in uncertainty as to the magnitude of the danger, were so alarmed that they mounted their horses and rode off.

One night when at home, and the household assembled at family worship, a party of the enemy approached so stealthily that the house was surrounded before Steel's sentinel was aware of their presence. To escape into the fields was impossible. "I'm gane," said the "gudeman," as his courage for a moment failed. "No, John," said his wife heroically, "ye're no gane yet"; and hurrying him into the byre, she made him lie down in a corner with the "big ha' bible" open on his breast. She then scattered a large quantity of litter over him. The soldiers searched every part of the house in vain, but being confident that he was somewhere on the premises, they called for lights in order to prosecute their work more successfully. The "gudewife," knowing that to hesitate would be but to betray her husband, quickly prepared torches of straw, and ran with them blazing into the byre. While the soldiers were probing the litter with their swords, Steel's hand was wounded, but he bore the pain in silence. His wife, feeling that such of method of search must soon either discover or destroy her husband, with wonderful presence of mind fell upon the device of dropping one of the burning wisps of straw into a large tub filled with what the canny housewives of Scotland in olden times used for scouring blankets. This produced such an overpowering stench that the soldiers rushed to the open air for breath, and hastily departed. One of them, who was supposed to have joined the persecutors for the purpose of assisting the Covenanters to escape, lingered behind, and returning to the house said, "Neist time ye hide, gudewife, hide better. I saw the edge of your husband's shoe, but with the point of my sword I covered it with a little strae, for Johnny Steel's bluid shall not lie on my head."

At this dismal period (during the year 1684) Mrs. Steel gave birth to a child. Some of the soldiers who were watching the house behaved so brutally that their comrades, hardened as they were, reproved them for their conduct. After a time, Steel having heard that some of the persecuted ministers were hiding in the neighbourhood of Lanark, went thither to obtain the services of one of them to baptize the child. He was accompanied by Archibald Stewart of Underbank, near Crossford. When near the top of the brae near Lanark, at a place still known as Steel's Cross, they were met by some persons who knew them to be Covenanters. Stewart was knocked down and secured, but Steel, who was powerful and athletic, would have escaped had not the miller of Mouse mill, who had seen him pass, and dogged him, felled him to the ground with his rynd, as he was struggling with his adversaries. As Steel appeared to be dead, the party left the body and proceeded to Lanark, with Stewart as their prisoner, and rejoicing in the prospect of receiving the reward of 1000 merks set upon Steel's head; but the cold stanched his wounds, and he was able to crawl down the steep bank towards Clyde, and to cross the river on the ice. A number of people were engaged curling, but so intent were they upon the game that he passed them unobserved, and hid himself among the broom on the Corehouse side, at a place called Boathill. When the party from Lanark came to lift the expected corpse, it was nowhere to be seen, which so enraged the soldiers that they fell upon the unlucky miller and beat him severely. While Steel was among the brushwood, a white pony came and gazed intently upon him. Fearing lest it should attract attention to himself, he tried to scare it away, but when night approached, finding it still grazing near him, he mounted it and rode home to Waterhead, and from thence he proceeded to his hiding-place on Mennock hill. No owner could ever be found for the pony, although diligently sought after, and it died at Waterhead of sheer old age. Steel bore upon his head the marks of his encounter with the miller to his dying day. Stewart, his companion, was conveyed to Glasgow, found guilty of being a Covenanter, and hanged.

Fresh advertisements were affixed to public places renewing the offer of 1000 merks for Steel's head, and his house was surrounded by soldiers at all hours; but it is pleasing to record that he was delivered from his enemies, after a hot persecution of nine years, by the Revolution of 1688. His name appears with many others rescinding fines and forfeitures. He returned and occupied his lands in peace, and although he never received compensation for the damage done to his property, nor for the loss of its products during so many years, he obtained from the Marquis of Douglas a captain's commission in the 26th or Cameronian Regiment, then just raised in Douglas. It may be mentioned that the lineal descendants of John Steel at present occupy the farms of Waterhead and Skellyhill.

In 1689, Prelacy was abolished by Act of Parliament, and in the following year, the ministers then alive, who had been deposed since 1661, were restored to the free exercise of their ministry, and Episcopal incumbents were ordered to remove and desist from ministerial functions. Captain Steel was employed to see this act enforced, which, to his credit, he did in a mild and gentle manner. He repaired his dwelling-house in 1709, and inserted a stone in the wall with this simple inscription: –

"Praise God." J. S. 1709

He lies buried in Lesmahagow churchyard, beneath a plain stone, without either name or date.

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