1700: Jamie Macpherson, Highlander

5 comments November 16th, 2014 Headsman

The legendary Highlands freebooter Jamie Macpherson was hanged on this date in 1700 in Banff.

Macpherson is said to be an illegitimate half-Gypsy child with every talent necessary to live larger than life — and if gigantism can be inferred from the size of his enormous alleged sword, that would be extremely large indeed.

Besides his elite SPARQ score, Macpherson was blessed with complementary gifts for making music and sweet sweet love, and plundered livestock and merchandise and maidenheads as he sprang through the vicinities of Banff and Aberdeen. Despite living by his prowess with the sword every source concurs that he never used it to harm anyone that the audience would sympathize with.

But he outraged the local grandees, and at length he was apprehended (as befits his outsized tale) by a fellow with the improbable name “Duff of Braco” — then was duly condemned to hang on market-day (“Forasmeikle as you James McPherson, pannal are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian and a wagabond” etc.).

In the week before his hanging, Macpherson reportedly composed an air variously described as “Macpherson’s Lament” or “Rant” or “Farewell” which he then performed on the gallows.

In the most picturuesque version, he played his own fiddle in this exit performance, then dramatically smashed the instrument. As Chambers’s Journal observes, it seems hard to accept that the sheriff would have given this veritable Goliath the free use of his hands at such a desperate moment. Indeed, local legend has it that the authorities were so afraid that a reprieve might arrive that upon catching sight of an approaching rider on the horizon, they put the town’s clocks 15 minutes forward.

At any rate, several versions of the Lament/Rant/Farewell survive and one can follow its evolution in this open-source Annals of Banff. Robert Burns’s eventually immortalized the verse with this gloss on it from the late 18th century:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Outlaws,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Scotland,Theft

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1305: William Wallace, Braveheart

10 comments August 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1305, Scottish knight Mel Gibson — er, William Wallace — was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield for treason to a British crown he refused to recognize.

Just like so:

Well, close enough. Some wags have alleged one or two historical liberties in Braveheart.

Among the lesser (but more pertinent here): that they weren’t — you knew this already — offering the former Guardian of Scotland the opportunity to reduce his suffering with a public submission, or use the stage for theatrical defiance. Hanging, drawing and quartering was a brand new execution Edward I was experimenting with for emasculating, disemboweling, and (so the idea went) utterly cowing the rebellious hinterlands of the British Isles. Wallace may have been just the second person to suffer it.

But only a pointy-headed blogger could possibly care when the main point is that back before Christendom succumbed to nancy decadences like Vatican II, men wore woad, defenestrated queers, and tapped top-shelf babes.


Among the few things known for certain about William Wallace is that he did not score with Isabella of France. Or with Sophie Marceau.

Facts? This is show business!

Mel’s bloodbath only riffs the already-fantastic 15th century epic of “the Wallace” by Scottish minstrel Blind Harry, which in turn got a lyrical call-out in Robert Burns’ 18th century Scottish patriotic tune Scots Wha Hae.

National martyrs — and, sure, it helps to die at the right time, as Wallace did just before Robert the Bruce secured Scottish independence — feed a train of hungry authors and ready audiences in every time, place and medium.

However genuinely flesh-and-blood the limbs that wrought his feats and were torn apart on this day, Wallace returns to his generations of interlocutors half-shrouded in mythology. Seven centuries on, his contested (and sometimes absurd) use as precedent or metaphor stakes a claim to his Truth at least as compelling as battlefield tactics at Stirling Bridge. What does he “really” have to tell us? No matter how grisly his end, William Wallace doesn’t get to decide: it’s between you, me, Mel, and a few billion other folks.

Only a character really worth remembering is worth that kind of fictionalizing.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mature Content,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scotland,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason

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