A previous post mentioned puritan martyrs, hounded across the Galloway countryside in the last years of the seventeenth century. While it doesn’t have much to do with grouse, the weather has been so wild recently that I haven’t been able to get up to the farm for the last two days, and it occurred to me to tell instead the story of one of Galloway’s forgotten martyrs. A small stone memorial stands on an open ridge six miles west of the farm, and on a clear day you can make out the distinctive shape of the hills which rise slowly out of the countryside towards the border with Ayrshire.
John Dempster was a tailor from St John’s Town of Dalry, a village ten miles north west of the Chayne. No record survives of when he was born, but in 1685 he was outlawed for failing to adhere to the new religious laws established by Charles II. These were brutal times for southern Scotland, and the government had little patience with rebellious civilians who refused to accept the King as the head of the church. Enlisting the help of the region’s most depraved and reckless noblemen, the government began to iron out the creases of popular resistance. John Dempster was more than a wanted man. Instructions were given for him to be shot on sight.
One of the most severe government soldiers from this period was a man named Sir Robert Grierson of Lag. Arrogant, ruthless and unfathomably cruel, he rode his dragoons across the county bringing death and destruction to anyone who dared resist him. He gave orders to have a young girl drowned in the Solway. He refused his victims a burial, cursing them as they prayed for mercy and spitting on their bodies after death. He was the scourge of the county, but when he first ran up against John Dempster, luck was with the tailor. As the dragoons closed on the fleeing man, he turned at the last minute and buried his scissors into the lead horse’s eye. It reared up in agony and he was able to escape in the confusion.
Grierson was furious, and when he spotted the lonely figure crossing a hillside the following day, he swore that he would have vengeance. Legend has it that he drank a toast to “the fox”, before unleashing his dogs on the trail. Dragoons followed, and the bleak hillside played host to a grim hunt. Grierson’s dogs were bred to kill men. They were savage wolfhounds, and they would only respond to their master’s call. Dempster’s only escape route lay over the summit of the Meaul hill, nearly two thousand feet of rough scree banks and bristling heather. The dogs closed on him quickly, but the outlaw made it to the summit, turning at bay on a ridge overlooking the Firth of Clyde. Reaching the exhausted fugitive, Grierson’s lieutenant James Douglas is said to have dismounted his horse, laughing breathlessly. He slapped Dempster on the back and thanked him for a fine hunt, then fired a carbine into his head.
Galloway’s mini “civil war” has been remarkably badly documented. Shreds of historical evidence can be pieced together about men like Sir Robert Grierson, but these are filled with superstition and myth. It was widely believed for many years that the devil himself flew up the Solway Firth in a carriage drawn by skeleton horses to collect Grierson when he died, and that a raven landed on his coffin as it was lowered into the ground.
John Dempster’s grave is not marked on any maps, nor is it remembered in any guides or modern reference books. I found a passing reference to the site in a seventeenth century pamphlet while researching another project and thought I’d pay it a visit. The Galloway hills are filled with history, and although the event didn’t take place on the Chayne itself, it is hard not to feel passionate about a landscape that drips with adventure and legend.