Hanging around Crieff
Crieff nowadays is called the “Holiday Town” but it, like Inverary, was known in days long past as the “Hangin’ Toon.” Many of the “formal” hangings which occurred in and around Strathearn were done there where all preparations and trappings for a hanging reached a fair degree of sophistication. Crieff was in many ways ideal for this service in that its position guarded the Sma’ Glen to the north, it straddled the east-west road between Lochearnhead and Perth, and sourced the road to Stirling to the south.
The Earls of Strathearn and other feudal superiors held frequent court in a field located to the south of the town and known as the “Stayt.” Here, those convicted for cattle rustling or general thievery, were condemned. As often as not, the penalty being that, “they be hangit by their necks until they were deid.”
The place of execution, the Gallows Hill, was located on a small knoll nearly a mile away to the north-west of the “Stayt” and many a poor cattern was left hanging in the breeze. For those returning to the north passing by and seeing well-known friends rotting on the gibbet the sight must have given them much food for thought.
The unfortunately so-convicted were hanged in the most expedient fashion. A trial of fairly short duration would be sufficient, a judgement passed and the man gone to Valhalla without delay. It was reported that after one raid by Highlanders which resulted in the theft of cattle and other possessions, the raiders were captured and “a score of plaids dangled in a row the following day.” It is suggested nowadays that the there were only six gibbets set up! The last authenticated hanging in Crieff strangely involved the Minister of Trinity Gask, the Reverend Richard Duncan, who was condemned for murdering his illegitimate child. He was condemned at the Steward’s Court at the “Stayt” and executed in June, 1682.
In 1685 the following is recounted:
An Executioner sent from Crieff
12th. September, 1685
“In the burgh records of Dunbarton of this date as above it is minuted--Finlay McArthur to go to Crieff with the letter from the Court of Judiciary direct to John Mitchell, clerk there, for the executioner, for execution of the two criminals who were sentenced upon Thursday last, and they think fitt ane letter should be written to the magistrates at Stirling, that in case Finlay miss the executioner at Crieff that he come in by Stirling and bring their executioner. To get six £6 Scots in hand for present expenses. The officers to lye nytly in the tolbuith till the criminalls be executed. His (the messenger’s) route was via Drymen, Kippen, Stirling, etc.”
Finlay McArthur’s bill against the town for expenses on the journey, made out in a neat, clerkly hand, albeit difficult to decipher, contains twenty-three different items ranging in price from 8d. to 14s. Scots. The sum total being only 4s.and 8d. in excess of the budget which the Council allowed him to cover his expenses on his long pilgrimage to and from Dumbarton as executioner.
The account dated 10th October of the same year, states “Finlay McArthur was voted six lib Scots by and attour qt. he has already received for his paines in bringing along to this burgh ane executioner from Crieff for executing the two thieves.” On the same date William Buchanan, officer, received from the Council two merks for conveying the executioner back to Crieff. The Crieff’s hangman’s services were requisitioned on several subsequent occasions for the burgh.
The following copy of a curious document shows that the Crieff headsman was known and required at Perth:- “At Perth, and within the Council House therof, the twentie-ninth day of April, one thousand, seven hundred and six years, being conveyed the Provost, Dean of Guild, Bailies, Treasurers, Council and Deacon of Crafts of the said burgh, in ane solemne and frequent manner for treating the common affairs of the same--whilk day the Provost represented to the Council that the town is at a loss by the want of an executioner, and he that hath cause apply to ane Noble Lord, James Lord Drummond, for Donald McCarie, his Lordship’s executioner at Crieff, and that he is informed that his Lordship is pleased to allow the town the use of his executioner upon the Magistrates and Council their granting of the obligement under-written: therefore the Magistrates and Council Doe hereby bind and oblige them, and their successors in office, that the said Donald McCarie shall be made forthcoming upon all occasions when required by his Lordship, or serving his Lordship or his friends within Perthshire. And if it shall please the noble Lord to have the said Donald McCarie back again from the town of Perth at any time during the said Donald his Lifetime, then, and in that case, the Provost and Magistrates and Council Doe hereby bind and oblige them, and their successors in office, To deliver back the said Donald McCarie to the said James Lord Drummond, upon demand.
Extracted from the present Council Book of the said Burgh by me, Robt Graham, Clerk.”
The salary for the headsman in 1741 amounted in meal and money to £27, nine shillings, Scots money. Hangmen in the old times had a right to a ladleful of meal out of bags exposed for sale in the public market-places.
Sir Walter Scott visited the locality more than once and inspected the famous gallows, noting at the end of his novel “Waverley,” “this celebrated gibbet was, in memory of the last generation, still standing at the western end of Crieff.” It is not known why the gallows were referred to as “kind” but it is alleged that the Highlanders used to touch their bonnets as they passed a place which had been fatal to many of their countrymen saying, “God bless her nain sell, and the tiel (devil) tamn you.” It may therefore, have been called “kind,” as being a sort of native or kindred place of doom to those who suffered there, as in fulfillment of destiny. An interesting fact appeared in an 1870 French-English dictionary published in Paris and much used in French schools with regard to the word “Kind.” It was explained as “Kind-Kain’d a bon, ne aimable - gallows, ecosse, potence de Crieff, f.”
The story is told of a recalcitrant Highlander who on being sentenced to hang there was given a last request by the sitting judge about the choice of the tree from which he was to be hanged. “Oh” said Donald, “She wad like a grosser buss (gooseberry bush).” “Na, Na,”said the judge, “that’s ower sma” “Then,” said Donald, “She can wait till it grows!” (Gaelic speakers often confused English genders).
The hangman retained his position till 1746 and an old map of Crieff shows the site of the hangman’s house on the rising ground close to the west of Burrell Street. The small remains of the “kind gallows” are kept in a glass case in the Court room of the Crieff Town Council. The “Stayt” or mound of judgement was levelled in 1860.