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Caithness Field Club Bulletin


George Watson

There are five or six Gallows Hills in the county, some in the Gaelic guise of Cnoc na Croiche. Placenames like these arouse a certain morbid curiosity about our barbarous past. In bygone times butchering animals was a household chore and putting down dangerous animals a practical necessity. When the dangerous animal turned out to be man the logic was unchanged. Poor societies could not afford to maintain unproductive members in prison and execution provided a common-sense solution.

Hanging was known in Norse times, one of Odin's nicknames was the "Gallows God". Usually they reserved it as a punishment for theft. Although the Orkneyinga Saga records many deaths and murders, hanging is not mentioned once. Nevertheless it is significant that "Thingsva" is near the gallows-hill of Thurso and "Sysa" is close to Olrig gallows-hill. Both these grassy knolls have connotations of Norse law-places.

From the time of King David until just after the '45 Rebellion, the Hereditary Sheriffs held absolute power of life and death within their jurisdiction. Indeed, the first hanging to be mentioned in the County was carried out on the instructions of the Earl of Caithness, who was also the Sheriff. The luckless victim, Murdoch Roy, was strung on the gallows at Girnigoe Castle for attempting to release the Earl's son from the dungeon. This event probably happened towards the end of the son's captivity which lasted from c. 1570 until his death in 1576.

Sheriffs were also great landholders and dealt severely with poachers, sheep stealers or anyone else who offended. Hanging was fairly common, though the frequency varied from place to place. Kirkwall, under the Hereditary Sheriff, had a period of forty years with only two hangings but when the Circuit Court came to Inverness there were one or two executions each year.

The technique of hanging changed very little over the years, to begin with the victim and the executioner climbed a ladder placed against the gibbet, the noose was put round the condemned man's neck and he was pushed from the ladder. The skill of the hangman was in estimating his victim's weight and combining it with the right amount of slack rope. Too short a drop led to slow strangulation; too long a drop changed the hanging to decapitation. Some of the less obvious snags which could arise are described by Burt writing in Inverness about 1725. The murderer had been imprisoned for the statutory forty days. He was fitted with irons and marched with two ministers in attendance for about a mile through the town. At the gallows it was found that he could not climb the ladder with his hands pinioned behind his back. A smith had to be sent for to release him. The executioner was an eighty-year-old man whose agility on the ladder left much to be desired. There were so many delays that the victim eventually jumped unaided to his death.

This type of gallows gave rise to the superstition that it was unlucky to pass under a ladder. In later times a scaffold with a trapdoor was built under the gibbet to make the process easier. In the recent past the condemned cell was placed on the same level as the trapdoor to save the prisoner stumbling on the scaffold steps.

In most cases the body was recovered by relative and was decently buried but sometimes it was sentenced to hang in chains, as a public warning. This is why most gallow hills are in prominent positions near crossroads. In the case of James of the Glens, this practice was taken to quite extraordinary lengths. He was possibly an innocent scapegoat found guilty of the political murder of Campbell of Glenure. He was executed in 1752 on the rocky knoll on the south side of Balahulish bridge. For several months a company of soldiers guarded the corpse until it disintegrated in the winter gales. The pieces were then collected, wired together and re-hung. In all the remains were on the gibbet for more than two years and several folk- tales have grown up on how they were finally reclaimed by the family.

Local justice could be quite arbitrary, it is told that Donald MacAulay the Laird of Uig lost his eye in an encounter with the blacksmith. Donald refused to execute the blacksmith because he was the only one in the district. Instead he hung one of the two tailors in the township.

Not unnaturally, such injustice was resented and the hangman was very often the target of revenge. The office was difficult to fill and to maintain a supply it was not uncommon for condemned prisoners to be given a conditional pardon, if they promised to carry out the duty. In 1615 the Sheriff or Orkney sentenced Olaw Smith, a convicted sheep stealer from Stronsay, to be the executioner for the rest of his life. Ten years later Olaw was still officiating when a Shapinsay woman, found guilty of child murder, was condemned to be drowned in the sea.

In Wick in 1741, William Callum, a confessed sheep stealer, in order to liberate himself from imprisonment in the Cross of Wick, enacted himself to be the hangman within the burgh and county.

As late as 1819 a native of Barvas in Lewis, who had been imprisoned for stealing seed corn, applied for and obtained the post of public executioner.

A hangman had to be a lad of parts for in addition to his primary function he was expected to be the jailer who flogged or branded as required. His reward was a rent free croft and perks at the local market.

In Wick the Hangman's Rig was above the shore at the east end of the town. He was allowed one fish out of every dozen landed. This was, of course, before the days of the herring boom.

The value which a burgh placed on a good hangman was illustrated in 1720 when Sir John Sinclair, Sheriff of Caithness, applied to Kirkwall for "the benefit of the common hangman of the Burgh in order to execute one William Farquhar, guilty of murdering one Donald Elder; and promising to return him safely and to reward him for his pains". Kirkwall Magistrates insisted on a bond of 100 sterling being guaranteed against the safe return of their lockman Alexander Downie and they stipulated that in addition to his expenses he should have a fee of 30 Scots and 3 meiles of malt (about 216 lbs.).

Mothers whose new born babies died, were often subjected to the full rigour of the law. Post-natal depression was no excuse and it was not unknown for small children who often slept with their parents to be smothered in the night. The primitive state of medical knowledge made it possible for the mother to be charged with murder and some were convicted. Such a case arose in Tain in 1762. Kathrine Ross had been condemned. A local executioner could not be found and the Inverness hangman was brought in. Immediately after the execution the sympathetic crowd saw a dove settle on the victim's head; this was taken as a sure sign of Kathrine's innocence. Public reaction was so strong that there were no more executions in that burgh.

What was probably the last execution in Kirkwall was that of a young Shapinsay woman who also had been convicted of child murder. The cost of her execution on 4th December 1728 has been preserved:-

"To one double spar 2 8s
To one stone iron 2
To 4 double spar 4 16s
To one harrow bill 2s
To 3 pounds white rope 18s
To one single spar for a borron (hand-barrow or bier) 12s
To nails to the borron 2s
To candle the night before the execution to persons attending the malefactor being two officers and the lockman 2s
To ale to the aforesaid attenders 6s
To ale to the wrights and smiths and officers making the gallows, and the pynners (porters) burying the dead 4 2s
Summa is 15 8s
Note:- "Mind 2s scots given to the hangman after the execution not inserted in this account."

By the early 1700s national courts were taking over much of the work of the Lords of Regality and the last execution in Scotland under this system was in 1701. After the '45 Rebellion the Government forcibly bought out the remaining Regality rights and national justice in the shape of High Court Circuits visited Inverness to hear major offences. At this time executions took place on the Longman the last being in 1835. The criminal was John Adams who had been found guilty of murdering his wife at Mulbuie. His body was said to have been buried in Bridge Street but by 1845 the remains had been re-interred under the steps of the Police Office in Castle Wynd.

The office of Hangman in Inverness was described by Joseph Mitchell in the following way: "The official who then held the appointment was a person condemned for sheep stealing, which at this time was a capital crime; but he received a pardon on condition that he agreed to act as hangman, an office very unpopular. The former hangman, Taylor, died from severe treatment by a mob. The office was no sinecure, as there was generally a hanging at every circuit in April and August. The man however was well to do. He had a comfortable house, 60 a year and some control over the fish and meal markets. He rang the bell when there was fish in town and had the perquisite of a haddock out of every creel, and a handful of meal out of every sack that came into the market to be sold."

This contemporary report shows that while the legal system had improved, the supply of suitable hangmen was still a problem. It was one thing to appoint a hangman, but quite another to get him to perform his duties. When Dingwall Town Council were preparing to hang Rorie MacAlister in 1733 they ordered wood for the gallows and a search party to find their hangman Donald Gair. The fact that executioners absconded when a hanging was imminent was taken to its logical conclusion in Wick. On one occasion friends of a newly sentenced man, approached the town executioner and by bribery or threats induced him to flee. This left the way open for the condemned man to apply for the vacant post and of course a pardon.

In general local gallowshills were out of use by the late 1600s and records are scanty. It would be interesting to hear of any folk traditions associated with the following places.


In 1611 Sir Robert Gordon hung a band of murderous robbers on the highest part of the Ord and in 1726 two ruffians found guilty of murdering a pedlar were also executed in this neighbourhood. Remembering that the old road ran along below the present road, "the highest part of the Ord" refers to Cnoc na Croiche to the south of Berriedale. To the north of Berriedale on the cliff edge near Borgie is Clais Crochaire (ND 125231) which could mean the Villain or Hangman Hollow.


Wick certainly appointed a hangman whose terms of reference included his use anywhere in the County. There was also a gallows hill near the airport but there are no surviving records of executions, however it is unlikely that an official would be paid for doing nothing.


A grassy cairn behind the radio mast on Olrig hill marks the site of the gallows. Once again there are no records relating to its use. Another hillock to the south is named Ghoul Law. This may not be as macabre as it sounds for when agricultural improvements were in vogue, it was necessary to eradicate from the fields a type of wild chrysanthemum called 'gool'. Inspections called 'Gool Ridings' identified careless farmers and brought them before Gool Courts to be tried and fined. Whatever its origin. the map spelling of 'ghoul' supports the tradition of a gallows hill in the area.


Sourdale hill is strategically placed near cross roads and at the boundary of three parishes. The cairns on the top are prehistoric though they may have been used as a foundation for the gibbet.

BACKLASS, (Watten).

In Watten parish the gallows was at the old market stance on top of Backlass Hill, which is close to an ancient crossroad.


The gallows hill of Thurso was in the rough ground to the west of Naver House. This is a typical site in a prominent position near the junction of the old roads to the south and west and within sight of the old road to Halkirk. There is a small grass covered mound (ND 105680) which probably marks the spot; although there is also a tradition that hanging took place in the field (ND 103687) opposite Scrabster Service Station. Who the Thurso executioner was and how often he was asked to perform his gruesome task is now lost. The only execution on record took place on the 25th May 1711 at the Mercat cross of Thurso. Where Robert Munro, who had been convicted at the Circuit Court in Inverness of complicity in the murder of Baillie Laurence Calder, met his end.


There are no marked gallows hills in the parish of Reay, but near the American radio station is Geo Croiche (ND 014697). The site has none of the features which are typical of other gallows hills and it is possible that this placename had nothing to do with hanging but is related to the Chapel of St. Mary's, for 'croiche' can also mean 'cross' and there may have been a girth cross here. The old market cross now at Reay is said to have come from Crosskirk farm where in former times there was a market stance. Crosskirk is about as far to the east of St. Mary's as Geo Croiche is to the west and the two names may represent the extent of the sanctuary.

Public executions are now historical events and as such have considerable tourist value. There is growing competition to claim the spot where the last one took place. Edinburgh has marked the place in the High Street where a carter from Ratho, called Bryce was publicly hanged in 1864 for fatally slashing Jane Seaton with a razor. Two years later in Perth Joe Bell was publicly executed for shooting a baker. While at Montrose on 31st January 1866 a seaman Andrew Brown was put to death for cleaving his captain's head with an axe. As one would expect London can claim the last in Britain when on 26th May 1868 Michael Barrett was hanged outside Newgate Prison for his part in a Fenian bombing.


A. Whetstone Scottish County Government in the 18th and 19th Centuries John Donald 1981
J. T. Calder History of Caithness Wm Rae 1887
J. Mitchell Reminiscences of My Life in the Highlands David & Charles 1971
Burt Letter from the North of Scotland John Donald 1974
Wm MacArthur The Appin Murder JMP Pub. Ser 1961
D. MacDonald Lewis Gordon Wright 1978
R. S. Barclay (ed.) Court Books of Orkney & Shetland 1614-1615 T & A Constable 1967
J. Horne Ye Towne of Wick in Ye Oldene Tymes Wm Rae 1895
W. R. Macintosh Glimpses of Kirkwall and its People in Olden Times   1887
RW & J Munro Tain through the Centuries Tain Town Council 1966
W.R. Macintosh Curious Incidents from the Ancient Records of Kirkwall James Anderson 1892
John Fraser Reminiscences of Inverness Charles Leakey 1983
N. Macrae The Romance of a Royal Burgh (Dingwall) EP Publishing 1974