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Biggar and the House of Fleming
Chapter XX - Crime in the Biggar District


THE Biggar district has long been inhabited by an industrious, ml . intelligent, and moral population. It has acquired no celebrity for the perpetration of the higher class of criminal acts. Quarrels, fights, petty thefts, etc., have occasionally taken place; but instances of forgery, housebreaking, arson, and murder, committed by the native inhabitants, have been remarkably rare. We may refer, however, to one or two instances of crime connected with the district, which caused some sensation at the time at which they happened, and which are still more or less remembered.

We may, in the first place, notice the case of Janet Brown, daughter of John Brown, Biggar, who, on the 25th of June 1614, was tried before the Justiciary Court of Edinburgh, for the crime of child-murder. The child was illegitimate, and the alleged father was John Stevenson. The indictment charged her with concealment of pregnancy, as none of her neighbours were aware that she was with child, and as she had left her father’s house and gone to the fields in the neighbourhood of the town, where she was delivered of a female child without the help of a midwife. 8he was further charged with having immediately strangled the child, and having taken its body to a dykeside, and there covered it with a number of turfs, and thus was guilty of murdering (the said bairn.’ In her confession, she denied the murder, and asserted that the child died shortly after it was born, and ‘ sae she earthed it in the grund of a turf stack.’ The assize, by the mouth of William Fleming of Persilands, Chancellor,

'fand and pronouncit the said Janet to be fylt, culpable, and convict of the murder of the said infant;’ and her sentence was, that she 'be tane to the Castlehill, and be hangit quhill she be deid, and her moveable goods to be escheat’ This is the only native of Biggar, so far as we are aware, that ever suffered the ignominious doom of capital punishment.

A case of a somewhat similar kind, but, so far as we can ascertain, without such sanguinary results, occurred in 1646. On the 15th of July, of that year, the bailies of Biggar reported to the Biggar Presbytery ‘that some folkes of yr toun had fund a young bairne in Biggar Mosse, covered over, and being alyve, had broucht it furth; and also, that they had apprehended the mother, who had confessed the haynous and unnaturaH facte done be her to her chylel.’ The advice of the Presbytery was, that the bailies should detain the woman in prison till their next meeting. The members offered to contribute along with the town to her maintenance, and they instructed die moderator to write to the King’s advocate to obtain his opinion re* garding the nature of her crime, and his advice as to her disposaL The answer of the King’s advocate was, that she should be sent to the Justice-General at Edinburgh; and, therefore, the Presbytery called on the bailies of Biggar to put her confession on record, and send her forward to Edinburgh. The fate of this person, as we have already indicated, is not now known.

An instance of murder occurred at Biggar, on a fair afternoon, in the latter part of last century, under very peculiar circumstances. Two individuals who happened to meet in John Craig’s public on that occasion, were J. M‘Ghie, farmer, Mosside; and George Paterson, an old soldier, and at the time a labourer. Mr M‘Ghie had been in the habit of employing Paterson on his farm, and it appears that, in the course of their transactions, some misunderstanding had arisen. The quarrel was resumed over their potations, and was carried to such a height that a scuffle ensued, and M‘Ghie was laid prostrate on the floor. At this juncture M‘Ghie’s son James came in, and seeing his father maltreated by Paterson, seized a pair of tongs, and struck Paterson so severe a blow on the head, that be was instantly deprived of life. Young M‘Ghie was shortly afterwards apprehended, and committed to prison.. Lord Elphinstone and other persons exerted themselves in his behalf, and the consequence was, that, on being brought to trial, he was sentenced to receive what, even at the present day, would be regarded as a lenient punishment, viz., banish-ment for a few years furth of Scotland.

We will now refer to a murder committed near the village of Newbigging, which made a great sensation in the Biggar district, and was closely associated with a man well known in Biggar at the commencement of the present century. An . old man, named Adam Thomson, with his wife and a daughter, occupied & solitary hut at the place referred to, and employed himself in the manufacture of heather besoms, straw mats, and similar articles. About 11 o’clock on the night of Monday, the 17th of June 1771, when the inmates had retired to rest, a loud knocking was heard at the door and windows by several persons, who peremptorily demanded that Thomson should rise and show them the way across the muir to Peebles. He accordingly got up, and, on reaching the door, was struck a heavy blow on the head, and knocked down. The ruffians then tied his hands behind his back, and maltreated him in a brutal manner. Mrs Thomson, alarmed by the noise of the scuffle, sprung out of bed, and went to the door, when she was instantly struck also, and laid prostrate on the ground The daughter, hearing the violence that had been inflicted on her parents, made her escape by a back window, and proceeding, with all speed, to the nearest house, gave the alarm. In a short time, several persons, who had been hastily collected hurried to the cottage, and found that Thomson and his wife had been seriously wounded; that the house had been rifled, the chest broken open, and a quantity of linen, a silver watch, several banknotes, and a red plaid carried off. A surgeon with all haste was brought from Carnwath. The old man was found to have received some deadly strokes on the head, and at six o’clock next morning breathed his last Mrs Thomson was less dangerously injured, and in course of time recovered.

Great efforts, by offering rewards and otherwise, were made to discover the perpetrators of this foul outrage. Several persons were apprehended on suspicion, and all manner of reports was put in circulation ; but no satisfactory discovery was made, and most persons began to consider that further search was hopeless.

Adam Thomson, a son of the deceased, a man of strange notions and eccentric habits, and then schoolmaster of the Parish of Walston, after pondering for a long time over the mysterious death of his father, resolved to make personal efforts to discover the murderers. From time to time, so often as his vocation would permit, he left his native locality, and travelled over the greater part of Scotland and England, making minute inquiries after suspicious characters, visiting jails, and mixing with thieves, tinkers, and vagabonds of all sorts. Again and again he returned home, baffled and disappointed. One evening, as he lay in bed ruminating on the painful subject which had taken so firm a hold of his mind, he felt a strong and irresistible impulse once more to renew his search. He rose early next morning and wended his way to Jedburgh, where, as was his wont, he repaired to the Tolbooth. Here he made the usual inquiries at the prisoners, if any of them knew the perpetrators of his father’s murder; and it is understood that he obtained such information as enabled him to take effectual steps to apprehend them and bring them to justice. It was thus ascertained that the murder was committed by two men, John Brown and James Wilson, and two women, Martha Wilson and Janet Greig. At what place James Wilson was apprehended, we have not ascertained; but John Brown was captured in a house near the Fort of Inversnaid, by a party of soldiers from the garrison, on Sabbath, the 8d of January 1773, and conducted first to Stirling, and then to Edinburgh. As no person had seen them commit the act, it would have been difficult to obtain a conviction against them; but the two women basely agreed to turn king’s evidence. The trial of the two men was fixed to take place on the 28th of June; but it was postponed till the 12th of August, on the plea that at least one of the panels could bring evidence to prove an alibi The individual who at length came forward and made this attempt, was a person of their own Iridney, called William Robertson; but his statements were so inconsistent and contradictory, that the Court committed him to prison. The jury unanimously found the prisoners guilty; and the sentence pronounced upon them was, that they should be executed in the Grassmarket, Edinburgh, on Wednesday, die 15th September, and their bodies given to Dr Munro for dissection.

Previous to their execution, they emitted their 4last speech, confession, and dying words,’ all of which were attested by Richard Loch, inner-turnkey of the Tolbooth, and printed and published by H. Galbreith, Edinburgh. James Wilson declared that he would make no public confession of particular crimes, and that he would confess to God alone. His last speech, therefore, throws no light on the murder, or the manner in which he and his associates in crime were detected. John Brown, in his declaration, was more explicit. He said, '1 do acknowledge that I was at the house of Adam Thomson, in Carnwath Muir, on Monday, the 17th of June 1771, along with Martha Wilson and Janet Greig; but as they did not tell the truth, the whole truth, I will give a simple declaration of it to the world. I declare that I never knew that house before; neither had I any intention to call at it that night^ until I was led to it by Martha Wilson and Janet Greig; neither did I knock at the door, as they declared; it was the man that was with me that went to the door. I acknowledge that when Adam Thomson came out, I was standing by; but I did not give him the first stroke, neither did I give him the last; but the women, Martha Wilson and Janet Greig, struck both the woman and the man most desperately with sticks. As to the story they told as to my beating him with a potato-dibble, it is entirely false; yet I do acknowledge that I gave him several strokes. I acknowledge also that I gave the woman the first stroke, although it was declared before the judges that it was the other man, for which I sorely repent, as I acknowledge myself art and part in the murder. As to robbing the house, I touched nothing in it; but when I went in to desire the women to come out, I saw one of them at a chest, and another at the amry.’ He made a number of other statements, but none of them bearing particularly on the murder and robbery.

The execution of Brown and Wilson took place on the day appointed ; and Adam Thomson, it is said, appeared with them on the scaffold, and offered up a solemn prayer, an exercise of which he was very fond, and in which, it is allowed, he greatly excelled. On his return home, he erected a stone at the grave of his father in Carnwath Churchyard, with an inscription in Latin. It was long an object of attraction, and was visited by many persons at a distance, who had heard the story of the murder, the extraordinary efforts made by young Thomson to discover the perpetrators of it, and the singular epitaph which he had composed. A relative of Thomson, some years ago, removed the stone to the neighbouring churchyard of Iibberton; and there barbarously caused the inscription to be defaced or erased, and another one, regarding his own immediate relations, to be put in its plaoe. So far as can be remembered, the inscription ran as follows

*Hie jacet Adamus Thomson, qui xr. ante CaL Julii 1771, cruentis manibus, Joannis Brown, Jacobi Wilson, et dnaram feminarum, apod Nigram Legem prope Novam JSdificationem, crndelisnme trncidatus erat. Eli, Adamo Thomson, defonoti filio et ludimagistro de Walston, detect! erant. Ob quod crimen nefandom, Brown et Wilson, capitis damnati, et xvii* Gal. Oct. 1773, suspensi erant.

'Hoc moaumentmn extractum fuit Adamo Thomson, rectore Academise de Walston.'

The late Rev. William Meek of Dunsyre was wont to quote the above inscription, as a curious sample of the latinity of the dominies of the Upper Ward, putting special emphasis on the rendering of Blacklaw near Newbigging, by 'Nigram legem prope Novam Edification em,’ and the fine conceit of Thomson in styling himself L ludi-magister1 and * Rector ’ of the Academy of Walston. Mr Thomson some time afterwards left the ‘ Academy ’ of Walston, and became teacher of the School of Quothquan. He was a frequent visitor to Biggar, and his appearance and oddities were familiar to all the inhabitants. Many anecdotes regarding him were at one time current in the district, all of which tended to show that he was a man of simple manners, devout feelings* and eccentric hahits.

We will only give another incident of a criminal kind, which made a considerable noise in the Biggar district, and indeed over all Scotland ; and which is the only instance, so far as we are aware, of individuals suffering the last sentenoe of the law for injury inflicted on a Biggar man.

Nearly fifty years have elapsed since the incident happened. At that time, in the Wynd of Westraw, Biggar, dwelt a man named David Loch, and his spouse, Jeanie Dodds. In his early days, David pursued the vocation of a pedlar, and realized a little money; but tiring of this wandering profession, he settled down at Biggar, and became a carrier and a dealer in old'horses* He frequented the principal fairs in Scotland,* and few men in the Upper Ward put so many old hacks through their hands. When not attending markets, he employed his ‘ auld yades,’ as he called them, in driving coals to Biggar from Ponfeigh, and visited regularly, once a week, in the capacity of a carrier, the old burgh of Lanark.

A gentleman having occasion to proceed to the south, from Edinburgh, hired a horse to convey him the length of Biggar. David Loch, who was going to Edinburgh next day on some business, engaged to take the horse back to its owner. He accordingly left Biggar, mounted on the hired horse, between one and two o’clock in the afternoon of Wednesday, the 23d of November 1814, and was soon jogging along at a alow trot, by Toftcombs and Gandy Bum. In his pockets were four bank-notes and twenty shillings of silver, a tobacco spleuchan, made of a piece of calf s skin, and a twopenny loaf, put there by the affectionate attention of his spouse, Jeanie Dodds, that he might have the wherewithal to appease any gnawing of hunger that might arise, and have no pretext to misspend his time and his means, by indulging in refreshments in the many tempting ale-houses by the way. At that time the country had been put into a state of great alarm by the perpetration of a number of most daring highway robberies. In almost every quarter, men and women bad been knocked down and maltreated, and their money, and in many cases their clothes, carried off. Participating in the general apprehension, David felt anxious to reach the metropolis at an early hour in the evening, and therefore steadily pursued his journey, and, although the day was piercingly cold, manfully resisted all the allurements of Bridgehouse, Ninemile Bum, Howgate, and Lothian Bum, favourite resting-places in those days for the wayfaring man. The days at that season of the year being short, the shades of night began to descend ere he had reached House of Muir, but, as the sky was unclouded, and the ground covered with snow, the night was by no means dark.

He had now passed the Buckstane and the Brigs o’ Braid, and was descending the road towards Morningside, congratulating himself that he had escaped all danger, when, near a solitary thora-bush, which long bore his nAme, he met two men, one of whom inquired at him if he knew what the clock was. David slackened the pace of his steed a little, and replied that * he didna ken, but he believed it wad be about sax.’ ‘ Sure enough,’ said the one who had not spoken, ‘ it is as near eleven.’ David took them to be two drunk rustics, who had been in Edinburgh at the market, and was about to proceed, when one of them rushed forward and seized the bridle, while the other dragged him off the horse, and tossed him into a ditch by the wayside. Instantly the two ruffians were above him with their knees, and in the struggle several of his ribs were broken. Age, and an attack of paralysis, had greatly weakened his bodily powers, and, consequently, he was able to offer very little resistance, but he roared out'Murder, murder,’ as loud as he was able. . One of the villains then struck him several severe blows on the head with the butt end of a pistol, and threatened, if he would not. be silent, to knock his brains out. He stall, however, kept crying ‘Oh dear;’ and the noise which he made reached the ears of Mr Andrew Black, blacksmith, Braidsburn, who had been convoying one Samuel Payne towards Edinburgh, who had passed the robbers a few minutes before, on the road, nearer the city, and had remarked to his companion that they were gallows-looking scoundrels, whom he would not like to meet in a eolitary place with a hundred pounds in his pocket Andrew hastened with all speed to the spot, and the villains seeing him approach, ran off across the fields, carrying with them all the articles contained in David's pockets, formerly mentioned. Andrew pursued them for some distance, when one of the robbers wheeled round and discharged a pistol at him, which caused him to halt and turn back. He found David still lying in the ditch, all covered with blood, and the horse standing about thirty yards distant. Andrew, having procured some assistance, got David conveyed to Mr Scott's of Myreside, and afterwards to the Police Office, Edinburgh, where his wounds were dressed, and where he made a statement of the assault and robbery to the authorities.

Suspicions had for some time been entertained that two Irishmen, named Thomas Kelly and Henry O’Neil, were concerned with some of the numerous robberies which had been recently committed. Their houses in the West Port were searched, and several articles found, which had been taken from persons who had been robbed, and among the rest was David Loch’s spleuchan. It was shown to David, who recognised it at once. Some of the legal gentlemen inquired how he was able to identify it as the article which he had lost. Davie replied, '1 ken the spleuchan weel eneugh frae the look o’t, as I hae putten mony an ounce o' tobacco in till’t, and also frae having shu’d a slit in’t the morning afore I cam’ awa’ frae Biggar.' The spleuchan being unrolled, David’s rude needlework was discovered, and its identity thus established beyond a doubt. The Irishmen were accordingly forthwith lodged in the old Tolbooth, and, in a few days, served with an indictment to stand their trial before the High Court of Justiciary, on the 16th of December, little more than three weeks after their robbery of David Loch.

The trial took place on the day appointed, and excited a very lively interest. The culprits having been placed at the bar, the indictment was read, which contained three separate charges,—1st, for having, on the 22d of November, attacked and robbed William Welch, parish schoolmaster of Stenton, East Lothian, near the farmhouse of Howmuir; 2d, for having, on the same day, attacked and robbed James Leigo and Thomas Wilson, farm servants in the parish of Haddington, on the high road between Haddington and Dunbar; and 3d, for having attacked and robbed David Loch, carter in Biggar, as already stated. Although the panels had, in their declarations, confessed their perpetration of the crimes laid to their charge, they now chose to plead not guilty, and so the case went to an assize. A number of witnesses bore testimony against the prisoners, and among others, Andrew Black, the smith at Braidsburn, who, on that occasion, was highly complimented by the Court for his humanity and attention. The evidence being closed, the Solicitor-General addressed the jury on the part of the Crown, and Messrs Gilles and Brodie on behalf of the prisoners. The charges against them having been clearly proved, the jury, without leaving the box, unanimously returned a verdict of guilty. The sentence of the Court was, that they be carried, on Wednesday, the 25th of January, between the hours of one and four in the afternoon, from the Tolbooth, to the spot at which they had committed the robbery on David Loch, and that they be there hanged till dead.

The sentence was carried into effect on the day appointed, in presence of a large concourse of spectators, many ot whom came from a great distance. Two large square stones, in which the beams of the scaffold were placed, still remain in the public road, to mark the spot at which the execution took place; and, as they consist, of sandstone, they have a dark damp appearance, even in summer, and are thus conspicuous to the eye of the traveller. The thorn-tree, so long a terror after nightfall, was, a few years ago, cut down; but the incident of the robbery and execution is still fresh in the memory of many of the citizens of the Scottish Capital.


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