Seven Covenanters were put to death by hanging in Ayr following their capture at the Battle of Rullion Green on 28 November, 1666. Known as the Ayr Martyrs, the seven included James Muirhead of Irongray.
A commission of the Privy Council held a Court of Assize to try twelve of the Covenanters taken prisoner at Rullion Green. The judge who presided over the trials was Pontius M’Adam, the Earl of Rothes, whose name was immortalized in a poem that stands in the Old Churchyard at Ayr: “Pontius M’Adam the unjust sentence passed; What is his oun the world will know at last.”
The sentences against the Covenanters directed that, in order to set an example to other Covenenaters in the region, two would be hanged at Irvine, two at Dumfries, and the remaining eight at Ayr. One can well imagine the uproar this would have caused ~ having to witness some of your neighbors and kinsmen being hanged in your own community. The government sent a detachment of soldiers to Ayr in order to maintain order, against which a leading burgess, John Moore, protested, but to no avail.
The eight prisoners included Cornelius Anderson of Ayr, John Graham of Midtoun, George M’Kertney of Blairkenny, Alexander M’Millan of Carsphairn, James M’Millan of Mondrogat, James Muirhead of Irongray, John Short of Dalry and James Smith of Old Letham. (In some records, the Muirhead individual is listed as John Muirhead, rather than as James.)
As the day set for the hanging, the 27th of December, 1666, approached, the hangman for Ayr, without the courage to carry out the execution, simply left town. In his place, the governmental authorities enlisted the service of William Sutherland, the resident hangman for Irvine. Sutherland, himself a Covenanter, was cast into the Tolbooth when he protested against performing the executions. An attempt was made to bribe Sutherland; the authorities thought he was afraid that the local residents would cause him harm. They offered him a sum equal to fifty dollars to pay for his way from the place after performing the executions, but he remained obstinate in his refusal. Finding they could not convince him to act on their behalf, Sutherland was taken and put into the stocks.
The authorities, the Council of Ayr, (even though none of their own number would agree to act as hangman for the occasion) came up with an idea for remedying the situation. They made and offer to the eight prisoners that they would grant life to any one of them who would perform the executions of the others. The only man among the prisoners who was actually from Ayr, a tailor by the name of Cornelius Anderson, accepted the offer. But he came to regret his decision, and on the day of the executions the officials had to get him drunk with brandy in order to carry out the act. Anderson would soon afterward die, some said, out of remorse for his part in the affair.
Despite the relunctance on the part of the executioners, the seven remaining prisoners were hanged. As their spirits rose upward to Heaven, their names went down in history as the Ayr Martyrs.