Posted by: Jim Bell | March 17, 2011

The Hanging Of Jock Johnstone, Dumfries, 1733.

There was one Jock Johnstone who had been condemned for robbery, and, being accessory to a murder, to be executed at Dumfries. This fellow was but twenty years of age, but strong and bold, and a great ringleader. It was strongly reported that the thieves were collecting in all quarters, in order to come to Dumfries on the day of the execution, and make a deforcement as they were conducting Jock to the gallows, which was usually erected on a muir (moor) out of town. The magistrates became anxious; and there being no military force nearer than Edinburgh, they resolved to erect the gallows before the door of the prison, with a scaffold or platform leading from the door to the fatal tree, and they armed about one hundred of their stoutest burgesses with Lochaber axes to form a guard round the scaffold. The day and hour of execution came, and I was placed in the window of the provost’s house directly opposite the prison: the crowd was great, and the preparations alarming to a young imagination: at last the prison-door opened, and Jock appeared, enclosed by six town-officers. When he first issued from the door, he looked a little astonished; but looking round a while, he proceeded with a bold step. Psalms and prayers being over, the rope was fastened about his neck, and he was prompted to ascend a short ladder fastened to the gallows, to be thrown off. Here his resistance and my terror began. Jock was curly-haired and fierce-looking, and very strong of his size — about five feet eight inches. The moment they asked him to go up the ladder, he took hold of the rope round his neck, which was fastened to the gallows, and, with repeated violent pulls, attempted to pull it down ; and his efforts were so strong that it was feared he would have succeeded. The crowd, in the mean time, felt much emotion, and the fear of the magistrates increased. I wished myself on the top of Criffel, or anywhere but there. But the attempt to go through the crowd appeared more dangerous than to stay where I was, out of sight of the gallows. I returned to my station again, resolving manfully to abide the worst extremity.

Jock struggled and roared, for he became like a furious wild beast, and all that six men could do, they could not bind him; and having with wrestling hard forced up the pinions on his arms, they were afraid, and he became more formidable; when one of the magistrates, recollecting that there was a master mason or carpenter, of the name of Baxter, who was by far the strongest man in Dumfries, they with difficulty prevailed with him, for the honour of the town, to come on the scaffold. He came, and, putting aside the six men who were keeping him down, he seized him, and made no more difficulty than a nurse does in handling her child: he bound him hand and foot in a few minutes, and laid him quietly down on his face near the edge of the scaffold, and retired. Jock, the moment he felt his grasp, found himself subdued, and became calm, and resigned himself to his fate. This dreadful scene cost me many nights’ sleep.

(From Autobiography, containing memorials of the men and events of his time, by Rev. Doctor Alexander Carlyle, published in 1860.)


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