The Martyr of the Solway by Sir John Everett Millais. 1871. Oil on canvas, 70.5 x 56.5 cm. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. WAG 2123: Gift from George Holt, 1895. Click on image to enlarge it.

Margaret Wilson (c.1667-1685) was a teenaged Scottish Covenanter from Wigtown in Scotland who, along with Margaret McLachlan, was executed by drowning because they refused to swear an oath declaring James VII of Scotland (James II of England) as head of the church. The two became known as the Wigtown Martyrs but Wilson became the more famous of the two because of her young age at the time of her death. On May 11, 1685 the two women were chained to stakes on the Solway Firth and allowed to drown as the tide rose, despite having been given a reprieve by the Privy Council of Scotland.

Margaret Wilson. 1862. Wood engraving, 5 1/16 x 4 inches (12.8 x 10.2 cm). Private collection. You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.

Millais initially treated this subject in a wood engraving that appeared in the 1862 Once A Week. Both painting and wood engraving show the young girl with her head turned toward her left shoulder and eyes downcast, but the earlier work, which depicts Wilson in full length, also includes details that fill the picture space while indicating the setting of her death: seagulls fly behind her and a ship and large rock appear in the distance. Millais also includes details that indicate her approaching cruel death: the rope or chain that holds her to the pier compresses her dress, and feet appear visible beneath the water that will soon kill her.

Millais’s later painting approaches the young girl’s martyrdom quite differently, the most obvious difference being that it takes the form of a half-length portrait that has only a single element — the chain around her waist — that indicates how she is about to die. Whereas the wood engraving presents Wilson something like a waif with windblown, scraggly hair, the painting offers an image of a stunning red-haired Scottish beauty, someone in fact surprisingly like Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s lush fair ladies. The painting is both far more attractive and far more ambiguous than Millais's early approach to this subject. Whereas the version that appeared in Once A Week offers us simply a somewhat cluttered image of the young woman about to die, The Martyr of the Solway presents us with yet another Victorian representation of a beautiful young woman in chains, a subject particularly popular with sculptors of the period. The combination of her being enchained and her lush beauty, which her full lips and beautiful flowing red hair emphasize, offers the viewer an image of yet another helpless sexually attractive young woman — one that seems to use the young woman's terrible death as an excuse for a presenting a subject particularly pleasing to many male Victorian viewers.

The Knight Errant. Oil on canvas, 184.1 x135.3 cm (72 ½ x 53 ¼ inches). Courtesy of Tate Britain.

Surprisingly this painting started as an entirely different subject in Millais's The Knight Errant of 1870 with the young woman posed nude and chained to a tree. As Alison Smith explains in her catalogue entry for the painting in Exposed: The Victorian Nude (2001), in the original version of The Knight Errant the woman’s head had turned towards the knight thereby establishing direct eye contact between the two. The woman’s bold look created a controversy at the time and offended Victorian sensibilities by suggesting she might have been responsible for her own predicament. Poor reviews and the fact that the painting did not sell led Millais to cut out the head and torso from the painting and replace it with an image of the woman turned slightly to the right and looking away from the knight. “The extracted portion was subsequently sewn into another canvas and completed with the model clothed and with a more demure expression into what is now known as The Martyr of the Solway” (70). Exposed contains x-ray photographs of both paintings that show the area cut from The Knight Errant and moved to The Martyr of the Solway.

Millais’s wood-engraving’s full-length image of Margaret Wilson’s execution inspired at least one other Victorian artist to attempt to portray this subject. Around 1875, John William Waterhouse painted Margaret, Scottish Martyr. — Dennis T. Lanigan and George P. Landow


Lanigan, Dennis T. “J. W. Waterhouse’s Margaret, Scottish Martyr – A Rediscovery.” The Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society 28 (Summer 2020): 14-15.

Millais, John Guile. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899

Exposed: The Victorian Nude. Ed. Alison Smith. London: Tate Britain, 2001.

Created 18 September 2021