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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
James M'Kean, Tried for Murder


This is understood to be a striking likeness of the prisoner, as he appeared at his trial—placed between two of the Old Town Guard— for the murder of Buchanan the Lanark carrier.

The name of M'Kean is well remembered by the inhabitants of the west of Scotland; and the circumstances of his crime are yet fresh in the memory of many old people of the district. He was a shoemaker in Glasgow, and, though poor, had maintained a reputable character up to the period of the murder. M'Kean was intimate with his victim, James Buchanan, the Lanark and Glasgow carrier, and was aware that he was in the habit of carrying money betwixt these places. On the 7th October, 1796, the day on which the deed was committed, it appears he had obtained information that Buchanan had received a sum in charge; and immediately contemplated making himself master of it. With this view he invited him to his house in the evening to drink tea. The unsuspecting carrier accordingly called about six o'clock, and was ushered into a room perfectly dark, there being neither fire nor candle. Here M'Kean accomplished his villanous design in the most deliberate and revolting manner. He then thrust the body of Buchanan in a closet; and on coming out of the room asked his daughter for a towel, which she gave him; but, remarking that it would not do, he took up a piece of green cloth which covered the carpet, and again retired into the room. With this he attempted to dry up the immense quantity of blood on the floor; but his wife, being attracted by the noise of chairs driven about, ran to the door, which was opened by M'Kean. On discovering the blood, she shrieked "Murder," when her guilty husband, taking up his hat, instantly disappeared. The neighbours having caught the alarm, and hurried to the spot, found the body in the closet, and also the instrument of death lying upon a shelf in the room. This was a razor tied with a rosined thread, so as to prevent it from yielding.

M'Kean fled from Glasgow, proceeding by the Kilmarnock road, and on the same night stopped at Mearns, about nine miles distant, where the people with whom he lodged remarked his agitated manner, and observed some spots of blood on his clothes. He left Mearns about four o'clock in the morning, and proceeded to Irvine, where he intended to take shipping for Ireland.

In the meantime, the Magistrates of Glasgow were extremely active in dispatching officers of justice in all directions in search of the murderer. He was traced to Irvine, where the officers learned that he had sailed a day or two previous for Dublin, but that the vessel would probably put into Lamlash Bay, in Arran. They could get no boat to sail, however, on account of the tempestuous weather, until Mr. Cunningham, of Seabank, a respectable and active Justice of the Peace, impressed one for the purpose. Arriving in Lamlash Bay, the party found the vessel M'Kean had sailed in, and, proceeding on shore, they discovered the object of their pursuit sitting among the other passengers, at the fire of a public house, in Lamlash. On seeing the officers, he immediately surrendered himself, saying—"I know your errand."

The cold-blooded cruelty of the deed had created a strong excitement in Glasgow, and when the officers, Graham and Munro, arrived with their charge, the populace could not be restrained from expressing their satisfaction by loud cheering. On his examination before the Magistrates, M'Kean confessed the murder, but endeavoured to palliate his guilt. He addressed the Magistrates with astonishing composure, but with great deference and respect. Buchanan's pocket-book, containing bank notes to the amount of .£118, his watch, and several papers, were found upon him by the officers of justice, who, for the activity they had displayed, besides a reward of twenty guineas previously offered, received the thanks of the magistracy.

M'Kean's trial came on at Edinburgh, on the 12th December, 1796. When brought to the bar be gave in a written confession, and pleaded guilty. He had neither counsel nor agent. When offered professional assistance by the Court, previous to proceeding in the trial, be said— "No; I will have no counsel but the Almighty. I am guilty of the crime laid to my charge in all its circumstances. If the Court, as a matter of form, appoint an advocate for me, I will have none of bis assistance. I am determined to plead guilty, and submit to my fate." For the satisfaction of the Court, and the country in general, several witnesses were called in, who fully proved both the robbery and the murder. The jury accordingly returned a verdict of—guilty; and the prisoner was sentenced to be executed at Glasgow on the 24th of January following.

During the trial the prisoner behaved with the utmost calmness and composure. He is described as having been a decent-looking man, about forty years of age, five feet six or seven inches high, dressed in a brown coat, black silk waistcoat and breeches, and wore a striped green great-coat. He was very pale, and had nothing of a vicious expression in his face. On the day of his execution a vast concourse of people were assembled from all parts of the country, particularly from Lanark. The culprit met his fate with great resignation.


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