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Old World Scotland
Chapter XX. Executions

IN Scottish history - ecclesiastical or political--execution is a less distinctive feature than assassination. The roll of the assassinated is probably a more distinguished one than that of the legally executed, for it embraces several kings and regents, two Church dignitaries of the highest rank, and nobles too numerous to mention. Moreover, assassination acquired in Scotland a certain lustre from the rank of those who deigned to use it as a weapon of revenge; and as practised under these conditions it far transcends the rival method in pungency of interest. Other things being equal, the tragic doment in assassination greatly exceeds that associated with the stereotyped legal methods of terminating life. A peculiar fascination always attaches to the exhibition of the emotional side of human nature; and conventionalities being, in the case of assassination, cast aside, we have glimpses of character and personality which could not be otherwise obtained. Thus Scottish history is necessarily more edifying to the student of human life than to the pedantic constitutionalist. In English history—excepting as regards the earlier centuries—the position is reversed. We have the minute details and circumstances of several extraordinary plots, but the catastrophes are, on the whole, sadly disappointing. True, it will be difficult to find in Scottish annals any piece of political villainy so pitiful and so base as the murder of the princes in the Tower; but this is an exception—literally—that proves the rule. The very obscurity in which the crime is shrouded may in itself be taken to indicate how alien was political murder to the English habit.

In Scotland assassination was practised for the most part brazenly and openly; no special odium appears to have attached to it; it was a matter rather for boasting than for shame. But even in the throes of revolution the English nation never lost her instinctive respect for law and order; and in the perpetration of her most notorious political murders she strove at least to travesty the traditional legal forms. it follows that for religious or political executions Scotland cannot compare for a moment to the Southern kingdom. The martyr-pyres on the Scores at St. Andrew's, or on the Edinburgh Calton Hill, do pale their ineffectual fires in the great blaze of Smithfield; and no spot on Scottish soil can boast of such a notable assemblage of the doomed as that which crowds on the memory at the mention of Tower Hill. For centuries in Scotland a certain number of nobles were nearly always at feud with their sovereign; but they were treated rather as belligerents than as rebels, and it was rarely indeed that the extreme penalty of the law was exercised against them. Until the Reformation there are comparatively few deaths of notables at the instance of government or king; and some of them—as those of the sixth and eighth Earls of Douglas—may more fairly be placed in the category of assassinations. The case of Sir Robert Graham, however —the murderer of James I.—stands out conspicuous for all time by reason of the almost incredible cruelty of the tortures (by "hooked instruments of iron all glowing hot") with which he was done to death. It is a remarkable fact that the majority of political executions in Scotland, even after the Reformation, were traceable directly or indirectly to religious controversy. They date properly from the construction of the maiden by the Edinburgh magistrates in 1565. It may be that the need of the maiden was brought home by the fact that the "auld heiding sword had failyet," and that the two- handed sword then bought of William Macartney was discovered to be inconvenient and unserviceable. Perhaps, too, so ingenious and consummate an instrument of death was deemed a fitting complement to the more complete judicial arrangements consequent on the erection of the Tolbooth a few years before. Anyhow, this same Maiden-with the occasional substitution of a new blade— continued to figure as the presiding genius or familiar spirit of the High Street and the Tolbooth for the next hundred and fifty years, the scene of her operations being generally the Cross, but occasionally the Castle Hill (she appeared in the Grass- market only once or twice), while the west gable of the Tolbooth became more and more hideous with the grisly trophies of her prowess. Those she caressed were not necessarily criminals of rank, nor even political criminals. In Scotland the ancient custom of reserving the honour of death by decapitation for persons of birth and station had fallen somewhat into desuetude, though strangulation was still regarded as especially opprobrious. Decapitation by the maiden seems, however, to have been chiefly confined to criminals under sentence from the judges of the supreme courts, and for offences of peculiar heinousness—as murder, rape, and treason. None to whom this method of execution was deemed appropriate had been guilty of mere theft; and it must be remembered that while the maiden went on plying at the Cross, the hangman was also at work on the Borough Muir, and afterwards in the Grassmarket. Among the more distinguished of the maiden's victims were the Regent Morton, the Marquis of Argyll, the Earl of Argyll, the Marquis of Huntly and the Earl of Gowrie - all executed at the Cross. Morton had been sentenced to the more shameful death of strangulation, but the sentence was modified by the king. In two other conspicuous eases—those of the Great Marquis and Kirkcaldy of Grange—religious bigotry insured the substitution of strangulation for decapitation. Both were executed at the Cross; but the method practised on the criminals at the Borough Muir was deemed the more fitting reward of persons excommunicated by the Kirk. In Montrose's sentence it was specially mentioned that if at his death he was penitent and relaxed from excommunication," the "trunk of his body" (his limbs were assigned conspicuous positions in the chief towns) was "to be interred by pioneers in the Greyfriars, otherwise to be interred in the Burrow Muir by the hangman's men under the gallows." The fashion of Kirkcaldy's death was no doubt determined by what was held the necessity of fulfilling It prophecy of good John Knox—that he should "be brought down over the walls of it" (the Castle) "with shame, and hung against the sun"; and, as a fact, he was ''put off the ladder" just after the sun, having passed the northwest corner of the steeple of St. Giles, began to gleam down upon the pitiable scene. "As he was hanging,'' records the devout Calderwood, "his face was sett towards the east ; but within a prettie space, turned about to the west, against the sunne, and so remained ; at which time Mr. David" [Lindsay] "marked him, when all supposed he was dead, to lift up his hands, which were bound before Min) and to lay them down again softlie which moved him with exclamation to glorify God."

It is a common error to suppose that Edinburgh has had but two chief places of execution, the Borough Muir and (later) the Grassmarket. Even the latest edition of Chambers's Encyclopced'ia compiled in this very High Street, within a stone's- throw of these centres of history, will have it that " at Edinburgh the place of execution was chiefly in the Grassmarket till 1784, when it was transferred to a platform at the west end of the 1othoo', This general forgetfulness of the original scene of the principal Political executions is a doleful comment on the transiency of fame. The only political executions of importance associated with the Grass- market are those of certain leaders of the Covenanters—as Johnston of Warriston, Renwick, and others—all deemed only worthy of death by strangulation; but in the case of the Covenanters the extreme sentence was generally carried into execution immediately after capture, and in accordance with the regulations of martial law. The Jacobite risings swelled in no inconsiderable degree the roll of Scots political victims; but the trials of the rebels-in-chief were held in London, and the Scotsmen who fell under the axe were made to follow in the footsteps of More and Cromwell and Strafford and Laud and— like the Greys, the Dudleys, and the Howards—they looked their last upon the world from Tower Hill.

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