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Hanging About The Highlands
George Watson

Page One

There are five or six Gallows Hills in the county, some in the Gaelic guise of Cnoc na Croiche. Place names 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."

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