The Martyr of Solway


The Martyr of Solway, by John Everett Millais in 1871, is a painting of Margaret Wilson, an 18 year old Scottish Convenanter who was executed by drowning (shown in the picture) on May 11th, 1685.

The Covenanters of Scotland were a radical Presbyterian sect who wanted to have nothing to do with the Pope or the Roman Catholic Church. However, during this time the monarch was the Catholic James VII of Scotland (James the II of Ireland and England) and it was required to accept his Letters of Indulgences. Those who refused, like the Covenanters, were executed. Three well known Covenanters include Margaret Wilson, her 12 year old sister Agnes, and 63 year old Margaret McLauchlan. The latter woman would hide the persecuted and continuously attend Church meetings and the two girls, devout as well, were daughters of a Covenanter parish. All three, despite their ages, were accused of rebellion and treason. The girls’ father was able to raise money to free his younger daughter, but not enough for Margaret. The older Margaret McLauchlan was drowned first near Wigtown, Scotland to put fear into the younger. Nevertheless, Margaret Wilson would not swear that she wants “God to save the king.” She too was tied to a stake in the Bladnoch River in the Solway Firth, underneath the flood-mark. When the water was about to overwhelm her, she was brought up again, but remained steadfast in her beliefs. To this day, she is a great symbol of martyrdom in the Presbyterian churches.

In The Martyr of Solway, Millais paints a very fantasized and romantic version of the execution of Margaret Wilson, as he does in Ophelia in painting the character’s suicide. Wilson was practically submerged underwater, but here the river seems way behind and beneath her. Also, she is dry and her clothes seem dry too. Like in The Proscribed Royalist, 1651, every ruffle, fold and dot pattern of Wilson’s top is defined and her facial features seem perfect as well. It is easy to notice every long, curly, red lock on her head and every silver link in the chain. Although this painting seems unlikely, the mood is appropriate. The skies are gray and dark and the water is not light blue and clear either. She seems sad, most likely because she is about to die, although she doesn’t seem hysterical and remorseful, quickly making oaths to the king to save herself. Wilson is clearly chained to a wooden stake, with her arms behind her, showing her oppression and subjugation. Also, her top is coming undone and her sleeves are rolled up. I believe this was to show either that she must have been tortured beforehand, or simply to make this painting more fantasized. The wooden stake seems to be rotten and covered in greenish moss (that blends in the wood’s color), and it could have become that way because of exposure to water.

Although The Martyr of Solway is a very visionary image of the execution of a celebrated Presbyterian martyr, Millais portrays Margaret Wilson and a major part of Scottish history beautifully.

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