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
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 .