Table 7.1 provides a breakdown by decade of Scottish offenders hung in chains across this period. There was a concentration of cases between 1746 and the late 1750s, with some evident links to ongoing attempts to establish control and sustained stability in parts of northern Scotland. The concentrated use of the punishment between 1746 and 1758 correlates with the increase in executions more generally. However, there were only a handful of cases in the 1760s and 1770s before the punishment disappeared, apart from one particularly atrocious case in 1810. The chapter
will now provide an analysis of the chronology of the punishment in Scotland, offering comparisons with its use in England
. It will then
offer some potential explanations for its disappearance in practice by the late 1770s, despite its remaining a penal option until 1834.
As discussed in previous chapters, the mid-eighteenth century is an important period of investigation for historians of capital punishment
in both Scotland and England. The drivers behind the increased use of the death sentence
north and south of the border are informative to a discussion of the punishment of hanging in chains
made the argument that the mid-eighteenth-century crime wave did not compromise the use of capital punishment in England
. Instead it gave rise to calls for more severity in its implementation. He
highlighted that between 1748 and 1752, forty criminals were hung in chains for the crimes of highway robbery
, smuggling and murder in the southern counties of England, twice as many as in the previous four years combined.
provided a more thorough examination of the punishments meted out to the Hawhurst gang in the late 1740s for smuggling, robbery and murder and
argued that their gibbeted bodies held specific temporal and spatial significance. She
highlighted cases where offenders were executed at Tyburn and other execution locations but gibbeted miles away in East Sussex due to its links with the activities of the gang.
In Scotland, 14 of the 22 cases occurred in the 12-year period between 1746 and 1758, seven of which were prior to the passing of the Murder Act. Again, the geography of the punishment was important, as seven of the 14 cases occurred following trials before the Northern Circuit. Thus, the chronological pattern of gibbeting
was broadly consistent with wider capital punishment
practices in the mid-eighteenth century, as the Northern Circuit was also sending the most offenders to the scaffold
in an evident determination to make stark and lasting examples of certain malefactors. However, as the eighteenth century progressed,
there was less of a correlation between the use of gibbeting and periods of increased capital punishment levels.
Following a concentration of gibbeting in the late 1740s and 1750s, three of the remaining cases occurred in the 1760s, four in the 1770s and one final case in 1810. In terms of comparing the use of the punishment north and south of the border, Tarlow highlighted that in England
and Wales, of 1394 offenders capitally convicted under the terms of the Murder Act, 134 were hung in chains.
The proportions found in Scotland are relatively similar as, of 104 convicted male murderers between the passing of the act and the repeal of gibbeting
in 1834, thirteen were sentenced to be hung in chains. Of the remaining cases that made up the total 22 in Scotland, six murders had occurred prior to 1752 and three offenders were gibbeted for property offences. However, the chronology of
hanging in chains in Scotland needs to be examined further. Despite occupying a similarly central role in the criminal justice system as dissection
in the two decades following 1752, gibbeting disappeared in Scotland after 1779, apart from one isolated case in 1810. Comparatively, although gibbeting in England was used to a lesser extent than dissection, the collapse of the punishment south of the border occurred later, in the early nineteenth century.
In Scotland, following the case of James MacLauchlan in 1779, another 31 years would pass before the next offender was hung in chains.
The chapter will now provide an in-depth examination of the final gibbeting in 1810 before
offering some explanations for the disappearance of the punishment in practice.
Alexander Gillan, a farmer’s servant in the parish of Speymouth, Elgin, was convicted at the Inverness
in September 1810 for the rape
and murder of 11-year-old Elspeth Lamb. She had been herding her father’s cattle when Gillan barbarously assaulted her and beat her about the head with a large oak stick. Her mangled body was found concealed in the nearby woods. When addressing Gillan, the Lord Justice Clerk stated: “I look upon any punishment which you can receive in this world as mercy.” He added that the enormity of the crime called for the most severe and lasting punishment. Gillan was to be executed on the moor, near to where the body had been found, and hung in chains on the same spot. The Lord Justice Clerk
stated that it was his duty to make the area of vast woods, well-calculated for the perpetration and concealment of crimes such as Gillan’s, as safe as the streets of the biggest cities. Therefore, his gibbeted body would hang “until the fowls of the air pick the flesh off your body and your bones bleach and whiten in the winds of Heaven” to serve as a constant warning of the fatal consequences of murder.
Gillan’s case provides an interesting exception to an otherwise uninterrupted pattern of the decline in gibbeting
. Although his crime stood out for its atrocity, what is crucial to our understanding of why the courts ordered that his body be hung in chains is its correlation with the increased use of crime scene executions in the first third of the nineteenth century.
The reintroduction of crime scene executions, which had been used sporadically following a concentration of cases in the mid-eighteenth century, and the remote location Gillan had chosen for the perpetration of his offence offered a suitable location for the gibbeting
of a criminal corpse
. Both were crucial factors in the decision-making process. The court was not only willing to forgo the concerns that had previously prevented the use of hanging in chains
, they were also willing to pay the additional costs of having the gibbet and the iron cage in which the body would be encased custom-made to provide a stark reminder of the reward for murder. Gillan’s execution potentially held additional punitive currency as the area in which it occurred was unaccustomed to hosting public executions. A broadside of the execution described how the body had been lowered from the gallows and placed into irons and how it was hoped the example would “strike deep into the minds of the rising generation and tend to prevent the recurrence of such terrifying spectacles.”
From a reading of this evidence one gets the impression that when the author wrote of a desire to prevent the reoccurrence of such a terrifying spectacle,
they were referring to the nature of the crime as well as to the nature of the punishment. By the last decades of the eighteenth century, hanging in chains increasingly came to be viewed as an unsuitable penal option in Scotland. Even in the most atrocious cases, where previously the punishment would likely have been gibbeting
rather than dissection
, the judges had refrained from using this sentence
due to a belief that it was potentially harmful, and thus counter-productive, to the public good.
In Scotland, apart from Gillan’s case, hanging in chains
had ceased as a punishment by the end of the 1770s. There were notable examples when the punishment appeared to have been considered by the courts but was not sentenced due to both practical and ideological concerns. In 1770 Mungo Campbell, an excise officer in Ayr
, was condemned before the High Court
for the murder of Alexander, Earl of Eglinton. On the night of the murder the deceased had been informed that there were two men on his lands who were suspected to be poaching. He rode along the sands and came upon Campbell. He demanded that Campbell give up his gun but Campbell had refused, stating that he was an excise officer looking for smugglers in the area. The Earl then went to get his own gun before advancing upon him. Campbell told the court that, as he was backing away, he tripped over a stone and his gun went off, mortally wounding the Earl.
Following a guilty verdict, one of the judges stated that, due to the circumstances of the case, he did not want to hang Campbell in chains or go further in the post-mortem punishment
of the body than was obliged by the Murder Act.
Campbell was therefore sentenced to be executed and his body sent for public dissection
in April 1770, although he committed suicide in prison
and his body was handed over to his relatives.
His case had garnered much debate during the court proceedings, especially over the charge of murder as opposed to the non-capital option of culpable homicide
. However, the status of the victim, in large part, swayed the decision against him. The fact that the judge did not want to hang his body in chains demonstrates a belief at the time that, of the two available post-mortem punishments
, hanging in chains
was the harsher and was to be reverted to only in the most atrocious cases.
, the last instances of hanging in chains occurred in 1832. Convicted murderers William Jobling and James Cook were gibbeted in Jarrow and Leicestershire respectively. However, the removal of Jobling’s body by his fellow colliers for burial and the order to pre-emptively remove Cook’s by the Home Secretary signalled the end of the punishment. During parliamentary debates to abolish the punishment, it was labelled an “odious practice”, with Lord Suffield adding that it was “unsuited to the present state of public feeling.”
In Scotland, similar attitudes towards hanging in chains
had already gone some way to its prevention several years prior to the 1830s. When addressing the court following the conviction of McDonald and Black for a heinous murder committed just outside Edinburgh in 1813, the judges expressed at length their abhorrence for the nature of the crime. They stated that they had intended to order
their bodies to be hung in chains so they could “wither in the winds.” However, due to a “consideration of the uneasiness it must occasion to the innocent neighbourhood”, they instead sentenced them to be executed at the scene of their crime and their bodies were to be sent for dissection
highlighted a similar argument made in 1770 in Amersfoort, a city in the province of Utrecht in the Netherlands
. Although the practice of gibbeting
did not stop completely, the council decided to relocate the standing gallows, which was also used for the exposure of criminal corpses
, away from the Utrecht main road. It was stated that the sight of the corpses “cannot be but horrible for travelling persons.” Previously, criminal bodies had been displayed upon main roads to act as a stark warning for people travelling into the city.
Following the conviction of William Burke
in 1829, the Lord Justice Clerk
, David Boyle, stated that the only doubt in his mind was, whether to satisfy the violated laws of the country and the voice of public indignation, his body ought to be exhibited in chains. However, in taking into consideration “that the public eye would be offended by so dismal a spectacle”, he stated that he was “willing to accede to a more lenient execution of your sentence, and that your body should be publicly dissected.” He added that he hoped
Burke’s “skeleton will be preserved in order that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes.”
While the sentence of dissection
for Burke was apt in poetic justice, the fact that Boyle had appeared to consider, yet dismiss, the prospect of hanging his body in chains due to the enormity of his crime is important for two reasons. First, it supports the argument that in Scotland hanging in chains
was a post-mortem punishment
largely reserved for the most heinous murderers and by Boyle’s own admission was apparently more severe than dissection
. Second, despite Burke’s
status as perhaps Scotland’s most notorious murderer in living memory, by the 1820s there was a belief that the punishment would cause more damage and offence to the public than good, thus undermining and even threatening its punitive value. Again, this attitude was perhaps reflective of a wider ideological shift in attitudes towards public and punitive bodily display. However, this must be measured alongside the more practical and logistical considerations that impacted upon the disappearance of the gibbeted body in Scotland.