The Last Hanging In Crieff ; Kangaroo Court ?

The Last Hanging In Crieff

The Gallows of Crieff : The importance of Crieff as a place of significance in Perthshire was emphasised  rather  strangely  by the fact that it  not only was it  an established place for executions  but also had a full time hang man to carry out the prescribed  sentence . This  was  somewhat  unusual in Scotland  in the 16th , 17th and 18th centuries and his services  were often called upon  for from not only the “ Fair City “ of Perth but places  much further afield . Although there has  been  some debate over the years  as  to where the actual location of the gallows  was in the  town , circumstantial evidence  points  pretty convincingly to the appropriately named  Gallow Hill , a small knoll once the locus of  cattle pens  but now given over to a small development by Hillcrest Housing Association . When the news  broke that houses  were to be built on the site I contacted  Hillcrest  pointing out that because of the  historical importance of Gallowhill in the annals of our local heritage I felt it incumbent upon them to recognise this  in some way to preserve  such an important part of our past . I do wish that other developers had the same community attitude as Hillcrest . I  had  a meeting with their architect and they came up with a proposal  to erect a granite cairn on the  site . I was  asked to write an appropriate text and it  gives  me great satisfaction  that despite the hustle and bustle of  today’s  society there is now  a  physical reminder  of what was  such a traumatic part of yesterday’s society .

Why  did  Crieff  have a   gallows  and a hang man from such an  early date ? The answer lies in the fact  the this  was  the  centre  of the ancient Kindom of Fortren or Fortriu ruled over  by the all powerful Pictish Earls of Strathearn . The hub of their  control over their Kingdom lay in the Stayt a court of administration and justice . The original Stayt was located  in what is  now a farmer’s filed virtually opposite the good’s entrance  to the Strathearn Campus  and High School . The Earl’s  representative  was the Steward of Strathearn who  sat  on top of  a large  mound on  a throne like chair where  he  listened  to a passed judgement on a variety of cases ranging in magnitude from boundary disputes   to cattle theft and physical assault . He was judicially omnipotent and if  he felt it required  the ultimate  sanction  you were dispatched a mile   down the road  to Gallow Hill !

The fame  and notoriety of this continued  for centuries . Sir Walter Scott and Lord Macaulay both mentioned the “ Kind Gallows of Crieff “ in their writings . The gibbet was a multi capacity unit allowing  for more than  one cadaver  to dangle from its arm. Although the last  execution   took place prior  to the height  of the annual Tryst after the end of the ’45 Jacobite Uprising , it  was  an undoubted  deterrent to the approaching catarans with their beasts . They would doff their  Highland bonnets  in respect and indeed  awe  as they  passed the dreaded knoll .The term  the “ Kind Gallows “ was  born and survives  in writings  to this day . The original gibbet  was  kept  in Wright , the blacksmith’s smiddy at the top of King Street , a site  now  occupied  by the Police Station . Mr Wright  may  have  been excellent at  shoeing horses  but he  was also a  capable entrepreneur ! It is  said that  he  would cut up pieces  of the scaffold  and sell them as souvenirs to eager  visitors  to the town ! Eventually enough was  enough  and  what remained  was  placed in a glass  case and displayed  for  many years in the meeting room of Crieff Town Council . With the advent of Regionalisation  it  was  finally removed  to the safe  keeping of the basement of Perth museum where it still remains despite  an effort  some  twenty  or  so years ago to  display it back  in Crieff .

The Last Execution : On the 8th of June  in 1681 The Bishop of Dunkeld heard a complaint against the incumbent minister of Kinkell. Kinkell was  a small parish which had  been amalgamated  with its  larger neighbour , Trinity Gask, to the north on the other side of the  fast  flowing River Earn .The minister , Richard Duncan was accused  of “ scandalous offences “  and it was written “ a visitation  shall be held  at the Kirk of Trinity  Park for the tryal of ane scandal, laid  to the charge of  Mr Richard Duncan , minister there “ . The inspection  duly took place and Duncan was  deposed  from his office .After he  had  left his manse  some alterations  were  required and to the horror  of those carrying out the work , the body of  a child  was  found  under the hearthstone . Duncan was  alleged  to have  been the father of the child  born  to  him by  his maid – servant .He was charged  with that if he had  not murdered the  child he had  been  an accessory to it’s killing . He was tried  at the Steward’s Court , presided over by the Earl of Perth – the Drummond family were the heirs  to the old jurisdiction and as one of the local land owning families wielded  considerable  power including that of  being responsible  for the annual Tryst and being allowed  to levy  monies  on each beast sold . The minister  was found guilty and condemned  to be hanged on the gallows of Crieff . In modern day talk we often refer to “kangaroo courts “ where  individuals are condemned  without  proper evidence  and with out  independent juries . The Reverend Duncan had  support for his innocence  from several quarters . Lord Fountainhall , an eminent expert , stated  that “ he had  been  convicted on very slender  presumptions , which however they might amount to degredation , and banishment , yet it was  thought hard  to extend them to death “ . His parishioners   and others  held similar compassionate  views and efforts  began to try to obtain a reprieve . In those day power  very  much lay in the hands of titled  classes  and it was  James Drummond  , son of the very  Earl of Perth , who took the case in hand  and after much effort  was duly successful .

This  is the stuff of  our present day  Sunday broadsheets ! Although Drummond had  secured  a reprieve  for the unfortunate Duncan it  is  quoted in Porteous ‘s  History of Crieff   that “ the hour of the executions was anticipated by the ill-will of some pretentious busy body dressed in a little authority “. Duncan was led  to the scaffold and summarily dispatched . The  person bearing  the reprieve  had  by then reached Muthill,  a mere three  miles  distant but too late ! . The tale is told that Duncan professed  his innocence  to the end  and declared that after he  had  been executed  a white dove would  land on the scaffold in token of his stand  . It is said that  in fact this  did indeed happen !

The tragic  demise of Richard  Duncan was preserved in a verse in the Scot’s language :

Oh! What a parish Oh !What a parish
Oh !What a  parish  is that o’ Kinkell
They hae hangit the minister , droned  the precentor ,
Dung doon the steeple  and drucken the  bell .

A “ precentor “ was  the person in the Scottish church who led  the congregation in the singing of the psalms or hymns prior  to the introduction of the organ . The Kinkell Precentor  was drowned accidently one day while trying to ford the River Earn  at Kinkell . At that period  there were two churches , one at Trinity Gask  and the other  at Kinkell on the  south side of the river and the Precentor  was  making  his  way to one from the other . The present building that was Kinkell Church is  that of St Beans near the present bridge  ( I will be covering the history of the church in my next Blog ). The steeple  was removed and  the bell , for  some reason was sold and  discovered many years later  in the possession of a church in Cockpen in the  
Lothians !

This sad tale  was  perhaps  one of the reasons that the power of the Strathearn Stewards was lost  when in  Scottish Law abolished heritable  Jurisdictions in  1748 .


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