N E W S F E E D S >>>
Historical Articles     Page One          Caithness Field Club Bulletins

Hanging About The Highlands
George Watson

Page Two

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
Back To Page One

This article first appeared in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin