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Significant Scots
Sir James Turner

Memoirs of his own Life and Times
By Sir James Turner (1828) (pdf)

Sir James Turner (1615–c.1686) was a Scottish professional soldier of the 17th century.

Sir James Turner (1615-1686), was a Scottish soldier and in retirement a military writer, but is remembered mostly for his cruelty and rapaciousness when ordered to enforce the law against the West of Scotland Covenanters. The son of a minister in Borthwick and Dalkeith, he was educated, like so many young men of modest background, with a view to his entering the Church. But he preferred soldiering, joining the Swedish army. He saw considerable service in the Thirty Years’ War, and in 1640 returned to Scotland as a captain.

Turner was regarded by many as a good soldier, punctillious, remorseless , and very thorough. He was the product of an age in which men were used in the sense that they “emasculated themselves of the higher virtues, to become butchers of each other under a semi chivalrous code of warfare, for pay, loot and fame”. In this respect his service on the continent turned him into a typical mercenary. It was similarly so with other persecutors of the Covenanters – Dalziel (The Beast of Muscovy), Middleton, Claverhouse, Montrose, Drummond – all were a product of the Continental armies and ingrained with a strong sense of duty, as well as callousness. Turner himself confessed in his Memoirs

“I had swallowed without chewing in Germanie a very dangerous maxime which milaterie men then too much followed, which was that so we serve our master honestlie it is no matter what master we serve.”

With this background and training it only required some semblance of authority to turn him into a merciless brigand when there was harrying to be done – which he could be relied on to do without fear or favour. Daniel Defoe described him thus :

“ It is impossible to give the details of the cruelties and inhuman usage the poor people suffered from this butcher, for such he was rather than a soldier.”

It was not long before he secured employment as a major in Lord Sinclair`s Foot from 1642-48. This regiment has been described as “a noxious weed in the garden of godliness which the Covenanters tried to maintain their armies”. It gained a reputation for improper behaviour and for `quartering` itself without authority, thus imposing financial demands on local lairds and towns. In 1640-41 the regiment imposed itself on Aberdeen. At 8 December 1641 the `bill` amounted to 93,029..19s..4d for a total of 474 men and 84 officers. It was also credited with responsibility for “impregnating at least sixty five honest women servandis “. The men also debauched, drank heavily, swaggered about the streets making a nuisance of themselves, fought and swore. In 1641 the regiment was split up, part to go with Munro to Ireland and part, accompanied the Scottish army in its invasion of England . Major Turner served in Ulster during 1642 -1643 and served with some distinction. leading several troops of men in hotly contested battles against Sir Phelim O`Neill at Anachshamry in Loughgall barony. and later at Charlemont. In late 1643 Turner signed a truce with Col. Turlagh O`Neill and the regiment’s service in Ulster ended. An interesting end to the stay was that in order to recoup their expenses, the town of Newry was sold to the Marquis of Ormond for 960. In their defence it is relevant that the regiment had received only three months pay for their service between April 1642 and February 1644. During this time Turner showed some concern for his men when they were quartered without adequate shelter or rations and it would appear, financed their needs out of his own pocket. It was while in Ireland at Newry, that he met and married his wife, Mary White.

On their return to Scotland , landing on 26 February 1644, Turner and some other officers from the Earl of Lothians Foot, sought to join the Earl of Newcastle`s service out of loyalty to the king. But after failing to join Montrose’s army – to whom they would have defected given the opportunity, Turner accompanied the Scottish army into England where he was to the fore in clearing part of the wall at Newcastle which made it easier for other regiments to enter the city. The Lord Sinclair meanwhile, was instrumental in the negotiations with the French diplomat Montereuil, to receive Charles I into the Scottish camp. The negotiations came to naught as the Earl of Lothian placed Charles under virtual arrest when he arrived. During this time Turner spent time with Charles and at one stage offered to help him escape, but the offer was declined. Subsequently the regiment left England, but not before the Covenanter commander, Alexander Leslie, specifically banned Turner from having access to the king. The regiment was ordered to go to Ulster but when Turner went over to arrange quarters etc he was told there was insufficient resources available. The regiment was then disbanded on the orders of the Estates. Turner then appears to have served for some time as a Major in the College of Justice Foot between 1644 -1647. This regiment was composed of 1200 writer (solicitor) apprentices, servants and tradesmen from Edinburgh. It served at several locations in England, including garrisoning Morpeth Castle where it surrendered to Montrose.

In 1647 Turner was adjutant to Sir David Leslie in the campaign against the MacDonalds in the west of Scotland and was at the massacre of Dunaverty . Leslie and Argyll with some 8000 men surprised the MacDonalds at Kintyre and drove them back into the ruined castle of Dunaverty which was besieged on 31 May 1647. The MacDonald himself escaped by sea while some eight hundred soldiers and camp followers were given quarter; but about half were then slaughtered in cold blood. In this work Leslie was allegedly encouraged by John Nevay, minister of Newmilns. Afterwards Leslie allegedly said to Nevay ” Now Mr John, have you not once gotten your fill of blood.”

Up to this time Turner had served against the king, but always with some reluctance, he therefore welcomed the opportunity when in December 1647 the `Engagement` took place. On 11 May 1648 the Engager parliament appointed Turner Colonel of Holbourn`s Foot (Major General James Holbourn having defected from the Engager cause). His appointment was greeted by a mutiny on Leith Links, which was subdued. Turner now turned his forces into an anti Covenanter mode, first quartering in Renfrewshire with eleven troops of horse, then on Paisley and Glasgow where he particularly placed his men in the homes of the principal Covenanters – to great effect. In June he was at Mauchline Muir breaking up a Covenanter meeting where the firebrand John Nevay was present. In the scuffles that broke out Turner was quite badly wounded. It was while in Glasgow that Turner `convinced` ( probably threatened) the Rev Dick not to preach against the Engagers but in a sermon subsequently Dick preached against the king and parliament which caused Turner and some officers who were present to get up and leave. Dick then complained to the Duke of Hamilton and the General Assembly about Turner`s behaviour and he was cited by the Assembly. 1 June 1648 “Major James Turner to be cited to appeare before them the sixth day of June next; to answer for the tumultuous going out of the Kirk of Glasgow upon the last Sabbath, being a day of humiliation; and calling others out of the Kirk whilst the minister was preaching, for disturbing the worship, reviling the ministers, and other scandalous miscarriages”. Turner did not compear, and was referred back to the Assembly. As a specific example it can be said that this perhaps mean spirited act by the Rev Dick ( who allegedly went back on his word) was the beginning of the ill will that thenceforth existed between Turner and the Covenanters.

Turner and his regiment rendezvoused with Hamilton for the disastrous campaign in England where he tried to have the horse diverted through Yorkshire (as had Middleton) which was better going for cavalry. Hamilton, however, had a fixation about taking the Presbyterian stronghold of Manchester, and declined the sound advice given by his professional soldiers. The experienced officers were overruled with the consequential split of forces being at the heart of the debacle that followed at Preston. On the 19th August Col. Meldrum and 131 men surrendered to Cromwell, and Turner with the Duke of Hamilton fled only to be taken in the final surrender at Uttoxeter. Turner blamed the disaster on Hamilton whom he accused of leniency on the march and disregard for discipline (as well as lacking basic military skills and constant indecision).

Turner was imprisoned in Hull but was able to ransom himself for 540 and gained his release in November 1649. He was unable for want of means to reach Montrose in time to join in the final venture of his campaign, but he landed in Scotland on the day before Dunbar. The weaning of those of Engager sympathies from the Army and the subsequent change of policy permitted Turner, probably falsely, to profess repentance and to get an appointment with the Covenanters.

As a colonel and Adjutant-General of Foot he was with Charles II. at Worcester. In that battle he was captured, but regained his liberty, and escaped to the Continent, where for some years he was engaged in various Royalist intrigues, conspiracies and attempted insurrections. At the Restoration he was knighted, and in 1662 he became a major in the Royal Guards. Four years later, as a district commander in Scotland, he was able to release some pent up venom for the Covenanters when required to deal severely with Covenanter disturbances in the west. In 1664 he became a member of “the Crail Court” – the High Commission set up under Archbishop James Sharp as its President, with oversight of every ecclesiastical offence. In this role he became inextricably linked to the persecution of Presbyterians. In November 1666 he suffered the ignominy of capture during the Pentland Rising and was fortunate in some ways to get away with his life. He was well treated in fact; his singular complaint was having to listen to the interminable `graces` delivered by the ministers at meal times.

His dragooning methods and rapine behaviour, eventually led to his being deprived of his command. In 1684 he was appointed a Commissioner with justiciary powers , along with Lt. Col. Winram, and others, for the shires of Lanark and Dumbarton. Theirs was ” to pass sentence and see justice done accordingly, conform to law. ” It was this Commission that heard the case of John Richmond of Knowe, James Winning a tailor of Glasgow, Archibald Stewart a peasant lad of Lesmahagow, James Johnston of Cadder, and John Main of Old Monkland. Charged with the usual allegations of rebellion, converse with rebels and reset all five were sentenced to death and on 19 March were hanged at Glasgow Cross, and bodies buried in the Cathedral Churchyard.

In 1683 he had published his Pallas Armata, Military Essayes of the Ancient Grecian, Roman and Modern Art of War, one of the most valuable authorities for the history of military sciences of the day. In a lighter form, Turner is thought to have been the author of a scurrilous pasquil (an anonymous satirical writing, often a poem) entitled Mitchell`s Ghost, that hinted at impropriety of Claverhouse with the wife of the Lord Advocate, `Bluidy` MacKenzie. A pension was granted to Turner by James II in 1685 but he did not enjoy it long, dying in 1686.

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