This town and county is the receptacle, once a year, of all the vagabonds and black-guards in Scotland: It resembles the heart, from which, and to which, there is constant and perpetual circulation. - A Scheme for better Police within the county of Mid-Lothian, 1769.
If you take folk tradition as a guide, vagabondage and being a blackguard may be typical of the poor, but serious crime's for the seriously rich. Most of the old ballads of incest, infanticide and blood feud have the nobility and gentry as their subject. At one time that was basically accurate. When the ballad tradition began, score-settling among the rich accounted for a large proportion of the recorded cases, as is confirmed by legal histories like Pitcairn's Ancient Criminal Trials of Scotland, which depict the relationships between Scottish landed familes as centuries of vendetta, extending to assault, "stouthrief" (burglary with violence), rape, murder, and arson. For centuries Edinburgh had its own guillotine, "The Maiden", a device reserved solely for executing the gentry, which is now in the Museum of Scotland.
Two Brothers was a product of this folk stereotype. In July 1588, William, one of the sons of Somerville of Drum, accidentally killed his brother John with a pistol; his father at first thought it was murder and William had to flee. The family never recovered from the tragedy and lost all its wealth and power over the next few generations. Folk tradition sometimes declares it was murder prompted by rivalry over a girl, and almost always has the killing done with a knife. The more precise and detailed a version of this ballad is, the less it has in common with the historical events. The text I've given is the one from C.K. Sharpe's Ballad Book, which gives only the common core of the story. A frequent addition, derived from other ballads, is for the dead boy's lover to summon him from his grave by singing or harping (or, in one American version, playing the banjo) to ask him for one last kiss. There are many American and Canadian versions, collected orally until well into the twentieth century; these are given in B.H. Bronson's The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. One very long American version, which attaches most of the Edward ballad on the end, begins with more geographical specifics than anything found in Scotland itself:
It was in the Midlothian country,
Up near the Pentland Hills,
Two brothers met one summer's day,
To test their strength and skill.
Edward was the eldest one,
And John was the younger man;
They were equally matched in every way
To try what valor can.
"Shall we go to the school grounds?
Or will we remain at the Hall?
But, better we go to the greenwood,
To see which of us must fall."
"No, we'll not go to the school grounds,
Nor will we remain at the Hall,
But we will go to Roslyn woods
To see which of us will fall."
No tune has been preserved for it in Scotland. The five I've given are all North American, taken from Bronson.
Some of these "crimes" were not quite what they seemed. The Stuart family and their allies held on to power by organized violence. This reached the level of civil war when James II suppressed the Douglases, and small-scale military raids continued into the next century when James V crushed the Armstrongs in 1530 as described in the ballad Johnny Armstrong. But from then on the Stuarts' policy was to prosecute their enemies on criminal charges, which was never difficult since there was hardly a noble family in Scotland that didn't commit a capital offence in every generation. The victims were dramatically executed in Edinburgh with all the ceremonial required to drive the message home.
While some of James VI's enemies, like the Ruthvens and Logans, were disposed of with such deadly police-state efficiency as to leave no trace in song, these purges were often marked in music or ballad. Thomas Armstrong, the subject of one of the last pieces in this book, was one such. Another was Robert Chrichton, Lord Sanquhar, laird of Crichton Castle near Gorebridge in Midlothian, a spectacular isolated ruin whose immediate surroundings look unchanged since the Middle Ages except for the attentions of Historic Scotland's modern lawnmower. His story is outlined in Dauney's Ancient Scotish Music: he lost an eye in a fencing accident and some time later, prompted by the King, hired two hitmen to shoot the fencing master dead in revenge. The hitmen were executed, but at the time a gentleman could have expected a pardon. Chrichton didn't get it and was hanged in 1612. The reason seems to be that he offended James when in Paris, by laughing at a joke that alluded to the rumour that the King's real father was David Rizzio: the joker, possibly King Henri IV of France, had said it was no wonder that James was known as Solomon since he was the son of David. James VI had spies to report who laughed at him, so he had the last laugh, even if three bystanders had to die first. Chrichton's Gud Night is a lute tune from the Skene manuscript of the early 17th century. Dauney thought it was by an English composer.
The McGregors suffered not only as opponents of the King but also as enemies of the neighbouring Clan Colquhoun and as obstacles to the Napiers of Merchiston, who laid claim to their traditional lands and ultimately got them. After the Battle of Glenfruin in 1603, simply being a McGregor became illegal like being a Gypsy. There are two songs about McGregors executed in Edinburgh. The Gaelic Lament for McGregor of Roro marks one hanged in 1603 with his followers; it was a popular tune throughout Scotland long afterwards. I've given two versions: Mac Griogair a Ruaro from Patrick MacDonald's Collection of Highland Vocal Airs of 1784 and Oran do Mhac-Griogair o Ruadh-Shruth collected by Frances Tolmie in Skye in 1861; the text was first published by Gillies in 1786. In her 105 Songs of Occupation from the Western Isles of Scotland Tolmie reported a tradition that the original air was Bothan an Easan, as in Simon Fraser's collection of 1816. Fraser claimed to know the original texts for most of the tunes he printed, and mentioned the existence of several texts for that tune, but not this lament. Since it was very well known at the time, and he could hardly have failed to mention it if he knew the connection, this doesn't add up. I am inclined to believe Tolmie's account and see this as a typical example of Fraser's pretending to hidden knowledge he did not in fact possess.
The other lament is Gilderoy, which recalls a McGregor hanged in 1636. I've included two versions: a simple one from Barsanti's A Collection of Old Scots Tunes of 1742 and a complicated one with variations from Oswald's Caledonian Pocket Companion which must be intended for the flute. The tune of Gilderoy is one of the Dives and Lazarus family, very widespread in England and Ireland as well as Scotland, though the Scottish version is the earliest documented one. I've given two versions of it, a simple setting from Barsanti's collection of Scots tunes of 1742, and a much more complicated one for the flute from Oswald's Caledonian Pocket Companion.
The tunes of both of these laments were used by Burns. Their texts are very long and praise their subjects in very general terms. The first is so vague there is nothing at all in the Gaelic to identify its subject, and only tradition pins it down.
The ballad usually called Geordie was very widespread in Britain and America; the locations changed according to the singer. The historical basis of it is from Edinburgh: the arrest and subsequent release of James, 6th Earl of Huntly, charged with treason and reprieved in celebration of James VI's marriage to Anne of Denmark in 1589 (a hugely expensive party held in both countries, musically marked by a 6-part motet specially commissioned from Abraham Praetorius which has probably never been performed since). This version, the most historically detailed and accurate, has a happy ending like most Scots versions. Most traditional singers in England or America preferred to have Geordie hanged while a reprieve was on its way, like the outlaw Macpherson. An even darker English broadside made Geordie into a serial killer who murders the lover who rescues him. Gight's Lady was collected from William Walker in 1907. The tune is the very simple one from the Scots Musical Museum.
Versions of Mary Hamilton are found in many parts of England and Scotland. Mary Queend of Scots did have four attendant called Mary, two of them being Mary Seaton and Mary Beaton, but there was no Mary Hamilton or Mary Carmichael, and none of them suffered anything like the fate of the heroine of the ballad. The events are always described as taking place in Edinburgh; in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots something like this was described by Knox, but the woman was a French servant of the Queen made pregnant by the Queen's apothecary, rather than Lord Darnley as implied by the ballad. An episode that fitted better, involving a Scottish woman called Mary Hamilton, occurred in St Petersburg in 1718. The ballad story seems to be a hybrid of both. Knox's censorious attitude to the Queen and her entourage does not colour this song, but passed into popular culture, recurring in an epitaph of the early 18th century:
Here lyes a Maid at full sixteen
Who was a servant to the Queen;
More men than years she had upon her,
But yet she dyed a Maid of Honour.
The tune I've given for the ballad is the most popular one these days, recorded from Belle Stewart and published by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger.
Jean Livingston, aged 19, killed her husband on 2 July 1600 in retaliation for an assault. Two days later she was beheaded by the Maiden. Her two servant women had very little part in the killing but were burnt on the Castle Hill anyway. Her houseboy Robert Weir probably did help - he was broken on the wheel, a punishment very rare in Scotland. The Laird of Waristoun is from Robert Jameson's collection of 1806. A longer version recorded later by Kinloch tells the story more accurately, but this one is better poetry. A pamphlet of the time, reprinted by C.K. Sharpe, describes Jean Livingston's last hours of repentance and death as a model Christian; written by the minister who attended her in the death cell and performed the conversion, it reads like the last pages of Orwell's 1984 or a CIA handbook on psychological warfare techniques. A relative of Lady Wariston's, Christian Nimmo, killed her lover Lord Forrester in 1679 after he refused to marry her.
No tune has been recorded for the ballad, but it fits the first strain of the seventeenth-century English dance All in a Garden Green, whose title is echoed by the opening line. This tune was popular all over Europe and must have been known in Edinburgh. I've taken it from John Playford's English Dancing Master of 1651.
For a time after the period marked by most of the ballads, serious crime was rare, and in the early 18th century every execution was marked with a flurry of ballads and eve-of-execution confessions written on the criminal's behalf by topical commentators. The murder rate increased sharply at the beginning of the nineteenth century At the start of Queen Victoria's reign so many were being hanged that most died unmarked. Prison populations showed the same trend: the all-time high for the Calton Jail was in 1841, with 500 prisoners.
Nicol Muschet was an apprentice surgeon trained in Edinburgh. Within weeks of marrying in 1719, he found his wife Margaret an encumbrance to his plans of starting a career abroad, and enlisted the help of a long series of friends and relatives to get her out of the way. First he tried to set her up for a staged adultery by drugging her unconscious with opium and getting a friend to act as her lover, but the court ruled the evidence inadequate for a divorce. Then he tried to poison her with mercuric chloride, but she survived three successive attempts. After an even more abortive attempt at a fake adultery using his relative James Muschet as the accomplice, he and James planned to throw her from a horse into a pond and drown her, then changed their minds and decided that James would hit her over the head. After waiting several freezing nights in a doorway, hammer in hand, for Margaret to pass when there we no onlookers, James developed a raging toothache and gave up. Finally Nicol took her on a walk on a deserted route through Holyrood Park at night and cut her throat somewhere on the eastern side of Whinny Hill, leaving his monogrammed sleeve by the body to confirm what James's wife said when she informed on him the next day. He was hanged in the Grassmarket on 6 January 1721. The cairn was erected to mark the murder site, but was demolished and re-erected fifty years later with the new location (grid reference NT 2777 7409, not marked on many maps) a rough guess. Mushit's Cairn is a reel by James Porteous; if it sounds rather like a triumphal march for an army of drooling morons, it could not be a more fitting memorial for one of Scotland's most callous and witless murderers. All the documents from the time spell his name "Muschet", except for a broadside with "Mucshet"; Porteous wrote it as "Mushatt" and the name of the cairn is usually spelt "Muschat". I've continued this tradition by inventing yet another way to spell his name wrong.
Many of the hangings in early 18th century Edinburgh were for infanticide or presumed infanticide. Margaret Dickson was a fishwife from Musselburgh who, when separated from her husband, went to work for an innkeeper near Kelso; she became pregnant by the innkeeper's son, and abandoned her dead baby on the banks of the Tweed. She was hanged in the Grassmarket in 1724. Her friends took her body back towards Musselburgh for burial, but she revived halfway back, near Peffermill, was taken to a pub, had ale poured down her injured throat, and made a full recovery. The law decided they couldn't hang her again, and she went back to her husband.
The case of "Half-Hangit Maggie" was as sensational as might be expected. One broadside fell casualty of the inevitable risk of of reporting news before it happens: combining an account of the crime and the criminal's final statement of repentance, it ended with a description of Dickson's hanging, but failed to predict that she would come back to life. She was commemorated by a splendid Scots elegy, probably by Alexander Pennecuik, and now has a pub named after her in the Grassmarket near the site of the old gallows. While there is no trace of it until much later, I believe Maggie go back and take up your Scullie is the air for a lost song about her; a "scullie" was a basket of the type used by the Forth fishwives. This copy of the tune is from David Glen's pipe tune collection of the end of the 19th century; there is an older set by William Christie from 1820, elaborated into a fiddle showpiece, but Glen's sounds more like something that might have been sung and played in Maggie's own time, and does not seem to have been based on Christie's.
English law was not so liberal about letting its victims escape. Thomas Vert was hanged in Durham in 1730, revived, and gave his family and friends a terrifying account of the afterlife that made superb copy for moralizing broadsides; he was rehanged anyway. Maggie Dickson was said to be quite unreformed by her experience, and got away with it; that first beer after the hanging was the prelude to a lifetime of hard drinking.
The High Court of Justiciary and the Court of Session, Scotland's supreme criminal and civil courts, have been second only to the royal court in prestige for much of Edinburgh's history. But they have not always been much loved. While many citizens benefited from the economic spinoffs of having such elite institutions in the city, more resented paying for them. And the Court of Justiciary was frequently a rubber stamp for tyrannical rulers; this reached its extreme under the rule of James VI, when the judges could sentence anyone to death on a trivial or trumped-up charge if the King requested it. In 1600 alone, Archibald Cornwall was hanged for fixing a picture of James on the gallows; for slandering the King, Francis Tennent was sentenced to have his tongue cut out at the root and then be hanged (James exercised his royal clemency by having him merely hanged); and after Francis Mowbray died while attempting to escape from the Castle, he still met with the King's posthumous revenge, with his corpse put on trial for treason on no specific charge, chopped to pieces, and his estate forfeited - to the King, of course.
Besides, there were those whose grudges against the law were simply because the law decided against them. At least three judges were murdered by gentlemen who had lost civil actions; the most celebrated case was the murder of Lockhart of Carnwath by Chiesly of Dalry in 1689, but there were earlier revenge killings of judges in 1543 and 1592, and in at least one instance the killer got away with it.
As Burns put it in a letter about Act Sederunt of the Session, from 1793: "Well! the Law is good for something, since we can make a Bawdy-song out of it". The Court of Session is the court for civil cases; most cases were dealt with in one of the three courts of the Outer House, under one judge, but could be appealed to the Inner House, under all 15 judges. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was often seen as an instrument of the King and bitterly resented by the citizens of Edinburgh who had to pay for it, particularly after an ale duty was imposed to fund the court's new building, Parliament House, in 1693. Throughout the 18th century the Court was a byword for corruption. Judges, known as Lords of Session, were appointed by patronage, and rich patrons could appoint them so as to get the result they wanted in lawsuits. Burns had no specific incident in mind, but the mentality he was satirizing is epitomized by an Act Sederunt (standing order governing civil procedures) of the Court of Session in Edinburgh from June 20, 1710, allowing anonymous informers to denounce people for bad language in court:
her Majesty requires the Lords of Session, and all the other Judges to put the Laws and Acts of Parliament against Cursing, Swearing, Reproaching, and Mocking Religion and Piety, to Due and Punctual Execution, upon the Complaint of any Person whatsomever; and being Informed that Abuses of that Kind are sometimes Committed in the Outer-house, when the Clerks are Calling Processes... the Lords Declare they will receive Informations in their Boxes, either by Subscribed, or Unsubscribed Notes, Condescending upon the Persons Offending, the Time and Place the Offence was Committed, and on the Person Witnesses thereto... that all such Scandalous Persons may be brought to Condign Punishment, according to Law.
The fines were calculated per swearword; history does not record whether naughtier words cost more. The tune for this satire, O'er the Muir Amang the Heather, was first published by Bremner in 1764; its best-known set of words was recorded later by Burns from Jean Glover, a whore and petty thief from Kilmarnock. It acquired many alternate texts over the next 50 years.
The High Court of Justiciary once used elaborate ceremonial, little of which now survives. Until the late 19th century, each circuit sitting was accompanied by two trumpeters, who escorted the judge to the court and would sit in it during the proceedings. According to the 1929 Encyclopaedia of the Laws of Scotland, "the judge as a Lord Commissioner is entitled to six bars of the National Anthem", a rather unusual measure of a person's importance (perhaps having an OBE got you seven?). The court still marches the few yards from St Giles to the courtrooms of Parliament House three times a year, but without music. The Justiciary March, which sounds like a rather long and complicated children's nursery song, is from the anonymous eighteenth century manuscript MS.21733 in the National Library of Scotland. It's obviously a flute or fife piece, but I have found no record of Scottish judges parading to anything other than trumpets. The Celebrated Trumpet Tune was published by Nathaniel Gow, who says of it
Upon the Circuits in Scotland this Air is played by his Majesty's Household Trumpets attending the Lords of Justiciary, when that high (Solemn) Court has occasion to Exercise it's most painful Duty.
Since judges would also put on a special tricorne hat when passing this sentence, being condemned to death was something of a multi-media experience. (At one point the tune sounds disconcertingly like the "Gloria in excelsis" chorus of the Christmas carol Ding Dong Merrily On High and suggests the judge putting on a Santa hat instead). But the condemned could challenge even that elaborate display of authority. Peter Walker's The Life and Prophecies of Mr Daniel Cargill (1782) says of the Covenanter condemned in 1681:
Mr Cargill and these martyrs murdered with him, got their indictment with sound of trumpet: when they ended their sound, he said, That's a weary sound, but the sound of the trumpet will be a joyful sound to me, and all that will be found having on Christ's righteousness.
I've provided two versions of this tune; each may suit different ABC software better.
The two songs My Ain Kind Lordies, O and O Let Me Aff This Ae Time are from The Justiciary Garland, a miniature musical drama about court proceedings written collectively by a group of Edinburgh lawyers (probably including James Boswell) late in the 18th century and first published by Andrew Duncan. Along with other pieces of the same type, they were collected by the lawyer-antiquarian James Maidment (c.1795-1879) in The Court of Session Garland. Each "musical" gives a complete trial, with a song for every person present in the court. Both the the two pieces I have reproduced are for the accused. The first is to the first strain of My Ain Kind Dearie, also known as The Lea Rig, here from Robert Chambers' Songs of Scotland Prior to Burns. The second uses the night-visiting song Let Me In This Ae Nicht, here from Gall and Inglis's Select Songs of Scotland.
Lord Cassel's Reel is from a collection by Neil Stewart; it is also known from manuscripts as He courted me on Sunday and I lost my heart on Friday. Lord Cassill's Jigg is a slightly later variant of the tune by John Riddell of Ayr. From the date, these are most likely to refer to David Kennedy the 10th Earl, an advocate in Edinburgh in the late 18th century. A better-known song associated with the Cassilis family, whose primary home was in Ayrshire, is Johnny Faa, or Earl Cassilis's Lady. An Earl of Cassilis, as Deacon of Mother Lodge Kilwinning, was one of the founders of Edinburgh Freemasonry.
He clenched his pamphlets in his fist is a depiction by Burns of a legal duel between the Lord Advocate and the Honorable Henry Erskine. The tune is Gilliecrankie; I've given the almost unsingably complicated version from the Scots Musical Museum. His reference to the din is accurate; at the time, the Court of Session met in the old hall of Parliament House, a dark, smoke-stained, cavernous, echoing space with several cases going on at the same time, each one a huddle of plaintiffs, defendants, counsel and hangers-on crowding round the judge and shouting into his ear.
Erskine was one of the leading lawyers of the time, and Dean of the Faculty of Advocates from 1785, taking over from Henry Dundas. He was deeply involved with many of the other characters described here; he had saved Lunardi's enterprise from disaster by finding him a plumber to assemble his hydrogen-generating apparatus, and a few months later became one of Burns' first patrons on his arrival in Edinburgh. He took the progressive side in most of the political disputes of the age; his poem The Emigrant was one of the first writings from the Lowlands to oppose the Highland Clearances.
In 1795 he attacked the Government's Seditious Writings Bill, intended to restrict freedom of speech and assembly on grounds that present-day governments would call "national security" or "the terrorist threat". The background to this was a year of severe food shortage verging on famine, and consequent civil disturbance; in London this reached the point that a mob attacked the King's carriage with a hail of stones, shouting "No war! Down with George!" and "Bread! Bread! Peace! Peace!" Erskine chaired a small campaign meeting which diplomatically passed two resolutions: one condemning the attack on the King and one calling for the bill to be dropped. The Town Guard arrested the campaign's flyposting squad and the manager of the meeting hall was forced into a public apology for allowing it to be used, but the petition against the bill still got 8000 signatures in a few days, about 10% of the city's population. Erskine's opposition was intensely unpopular with the legal establishment, and he was abruptly voted out of his deanship in favour of Henry Dundas's nephew Robert at a heated meeting, with only a brave minority of the Advocates supporting him. The episode strongly recalls the attacks on civil liberties of the Thatcher years, and Erskine's principled stand was rather like defending the Birmingham Six or opposing the Prevention of Terrorism Act then. His statement in a letter to the Faculty of Advocates could still stand today as a defence of civil liberties:
Where would now have been the Laws and Constitution of Britain, if no gentleman had stood forth in the reign of James II, to explain to the ignorant and giddy multitude, that passive obedience was not ordained by the law, though preached from the Pulpit, and proclaimed by the Throne?
Burns wrote a song in support of Erskine over this episode: The Dean of Faculty ("Dire was the hate at old Harlaw"), but included so many historical and Biblical references that few people can ever have sung it. Erskine regained the post a few years later, as state policy swung back towards grudging toleration of minor dissent. That was as far as Erskine went: he was no radical. He had opposed Thomas Muir of Huntershill and William Skirving in their efforts to set up the Scottish Friends of the People in 1792, and, in a piece of private score-settling, had got Muir expelled from the Faculty of Advocates in 1793.
He had a wicked sense of humour: after talking to James Boswell and Dr Johnson in the street in Edinburgh, he handed Boswell a shilling. Boswell asked why, and Erskine said it was "the common fee for a sight of wild beasts". The slow jig The Honorable Henry Erskine's Favorite and Mr Henry Erskine's Reel both come from Pringle's second collection.
Duelling was never very common in Scotland, and its most celebrated duel was also one of the last. The feud that led to it started with a slanderous article of 1821 in a short-lived Edinburgh Tory magazine, The Beacon, which attacked the Whig lawyer and landowner James Stuart of Dunearn in a comment on a proposed visit by Queen Caroline, who had just been acquitted by Parliament over a charge of adultery brought by the King. The Beacon's editors said they
did not think that any one above the rank of Mr James Stuart would desire to be presented to her
Stuart retaliated by horsewhipping the printer, Duncan Stevenson, at his office in Parliament Square. Stevenson challenged Stuart to a duel; Stuart refused, dismissing the printer as a mere lackey, whereupon Stevenson published an even more ferocious libel on Stuart's character. The row continued to escalate with leading Tories, notably Sir Walter Scott, giving their financial backing to the Beacon and becoming more and more deeply implicated in its campaign against Stuart and his ally James Gibson of Ingliston. Gibson threatened to challenge Scott to a duel, forced him to withdraw his support for the Beacon, and it folded.
But, with the same sponsors, the Glasgow Tory magazine The Sentinel continued the attack, taunting Stuart with cowardice for refusing the duel in a series of articles and most offensively in Whig Song, an anonymous parody of Sheriffmuir. Early in 1822, Stuart got its original manuscript from the Sentinel's office (perhaps by having it burgled), discovered the handwriting was that of Sir Alexander Boswell, challenged Boswell to a duel and killed him with a pistol-shot through the spine.
Boswell had continued publishing ever more abusive songs about Stuart and his friends despite lawsuits and the impending duel. Four of them characterizing Stuart as a common thief were printed in the Sentinel on the day of Boswell's death as The Bully's Lament - A popular new Anglo-Scottish medly written by a celebrated Pickpocket in Edinburgh Jail.. It included Knaves wha hae wi' Haggart bled, to the tune of Scots wha Hae, referring to the psychopathic robber and killer David Haggart, hanged in 1821. The song named Stuart only indirectly, as the laird of Inverkeithing, which was spelt with half the letters dashed out, but by this time the dispute was Scotland's most celebrated scandal and even the most obscure reference to it would have been understood by anyone. Stuart stood trial for murder; I've taken this song from Henry Cockburn's manuscript copy of the notes for his defence.
Boswell had been a Member of Parliament for six years. Ironically, the only new law he had initiated while in office was the repeal of some old Scottish statutes against duelling. Perhaps in part due to this unwitting assistance from his victim, the jury acquitted Stuart of all charges without even leaving the court to discuss it.
With remarkably unfortunate timing, Nathaniel Gow published his slow strathspey Lady Boswell of Auchenleck in January 1822, only two months before the duel; it can't have had many playings. James Porteous's typically chirpy strathspey The Duel shows little sympathy for the deceased, and John Burns's wildly extrovert Mr James Stewart's Reel, also published in 1822, and hence likely to be another musical commemoration of the same event despite the variant spelling, shows even less. Gibson later became Sir James Gibson-Craig of Riccarton; his son William was Member of Parliament successively for Midlothian and Edinburgh, with strathspeys by William Marshall dedicated to both him and his daughter. But nobody seems to have missed Boswell enough to commission a lament for him.
Panic about "resurrectionists" stealing bodies from graveyards for dissection was widespread in Lowland Scotland from the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th. Communities mounted night watches over their graveyards, which is why there are still watchtowers on so many cemeteries around Edinburgh, most conspicuously the small circular tower on Lothian Road. The watches probably had little effect, and sometimes hit the wrong targets in the dark, like the one in Haddington in 1820 that shot the local minister's sheep, and the case in 1828 when the watchman Andrew Ewart shot a man dead thinking he was a resurrectionist and was executed for it. A unique perspective on the business came from the printer John Muir of Glasgow in 1826, commenting on the discovery of six corpses smuggled from Ireland on a boat arriving at the Broomielaw, labelled as stationery and addressed to Edinburgh:
It is to be regretted that importations of this kind are not more carefully managed. Since dead bodies are necessary for dissection, it is much better that they be brought from Ireland, than that our own church-yards should be robbed. Such packages might easily be wrapped up in such manner as to avoid suspicion, and prevent those popular effervescences that are sure to follow detection.
But there were few songs about the trade until Burke and Hare were exposed in 1829. Their story hardly needs to be told here when the broadside ballads Burke's Confession, A Timely Hint, and Burke's Execution detail it so thoroughly. The mention of the West Port in Burke's Confession is significant: many Irish immigrants stayed on there after work on the canal ended. It became the main Irish community in the city.
The dissection of Burke's corpse attracted 2000 medical students trying to gain admission; the anatomists allowed the general public to file past his dissected body as well, and 40,000 took the opportunity over two days. One of the College of Surgeons staff took the opportunity to make himself a tobacco pouch of Burke's skin as a souvenir.
Much of this material comes from a scrapbook of broadsides about the case collected by C.K. Sharpe. He bought tickets for himself and Sir Walter Scott to watch the execution, which was a great business opportunity for people whose windows had a good view: the best positions rented out at as much as £1.5s a seat. Sharpe and Scott then got a quick lesson in the laws of the market, as they've worked in Edinburgh from when Adam Smith was writing about fish pricing in The Wealth of Nations to accommodation costs during the Festival today:
Edinburgh 14th Janr 1829
I respectfully beg leave to mention that I shall be happy to give you a share of one window, on the morning of the Execution of Burke. Mr Stevenson Bookseller wished one window for Sir Walter Scott and yourself but on account of the number that has applied, that will be out of my power. But I shall be happy to accomodate Sir Walter & yourself with a share of one.
Your most obed. & humble Servant
Burke and Hare's main client, Knox the anatomist (1791-1862), never stood trial, but was sentenced to an eternity of opprobrium by the ballad-mongers, as in the ending of one of the execution ballads:
'Midst a fiendish yell, Burke danced to hell;
'Gainst him the door old Satan locks.
Says he, This place you shan't disgrace;
Go back to earth and dwell with Knox!
He was next in the news for dissecting a blue whale that died in the Forth in 1831; its skeleton is now in the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street. His anatomical collection is still in use at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Daft Jamie, the best of these ballads, must be intended for a specific tune, but I have not identified it. Burke and Hare's idiot victim had been a well-known figure on the streets of Edinburgh before his murder, and became the subject of several songs. Most of them tried to represent his mother as a bereaved madonna; but she had beaten her son so badly that he fled from home to live on the street and never dared to return. There were many stories about what happened to Hare after he left Edinburgh. On one account some labourers in England discovered who he was and left him to die in a pit of quicklime, but in reality he seems to have lived to an uneventful old age.
Concern about bodysnatching or murder for the anatomy trade continued well after Burke and Hare; there was a panic in 1831 that two women shellfish-gatherers in Leith had been "burked" and preserved in a barrel of salt. Burke and Hare is a song first written down in recent times. Despite what it (like much of the folklore of the travelling people) says, Burke and Hare never operated in the countryside, though perhaps others did, unrecorded; the law would not have cared about missing gypsies.
The Unhappy Convict's Mournful Lamentation is from a broadside of 1833, which also included a letter from the New South Wales convict John Paterson describing the situation of these private-enterprise prisons thus:
A man who calls himself a settler, first imposes on his slaves and goads them to speak, and then drags them before a magistrate to be lashed and tortured for insolence. If a slave speak, the wretch's stomach is taxed. We all feel a tenfold degradation here; we feel that we are slaves to paltry tyrants, who seem as if they were born to add to the stings and tortures of wretched criminals.
No tune is given for this ballad, but the metre is a common one; the tune found or adopted by A.L. Lloyd for another Scottish transportation ballad, Van Diemen's Land, fits perfectly. Ballads like this were shaped more by Scottish moralizers than by Australian convicts; the intended effect was dissuasion from crime rather than outrage at the penal system. The Scotsman, in an article of 1855 about transportation to the Cape of Good Hope, agreed more with the caricature in The Justiciary Garland:
Those who have seen much of our criminal courts must have observed the irrepressible exultation with which sentence of transportation was often received. The late Lord Cockburn's sense of humour sometimes tempted him to a gentle and quaint repression of its exuberance. On a very brisk and emphatic "thank you, my Lord," he would say in his gravely sarcastic manner "you're very welcome." On one occasion when a little vixen clapped her hands and cried out "I'll get a black man now," there was an irresistible mixture of the sad and ludicrous in his face when he said "I sincerely pity the black man".
Elizabeth Banks, or McNiel, or McNeil, was hanged in 1835 for poisoning her husband in Pathhead. The place of the hanging provoked a legal dispute. The old Tolbooth had once been the official place for hangings, but had never been used exclusively, and for centuries the city magistrates had the power to decide on where offenders were to be executed. Usually this was in the Lawnmarket, Grassmarket, or Libberton's Wynd in between - the former site of the Lothian Regional Council offices, serving as temporary offices for the new Scottish Parliament as I write this. As an old children's rhyme had it:
Up the Lawnmarket,
Down the West Bow,
Up the lang ladder,
Down the little tow.
"tow" meaning a rope. But this time the council wanted Banks hanged in the Calton Jail. The owners of the newly developed buildings in Waterloo Place objected furiously; this would attract crowds and ugly scenes that would lower their property values. They successfully got the council's privilege removed. It didn't do them much good, as hangings continued in the Calton Jail anyway. Elizabeth McNeil afraid of the Hangman's Fa', by "John MacLean, Coalminer", is the only ballad about her I have traced; there's not a single original idea in it.
Mary McKinnon was driven from home by her father at the age of 16 after an affair with an army officer, became a prostitute in Edinburgh, and ran a brothel on the South Bridge. She was hanged in 1838 for knifing a man to death. She was a more dramatic murderess than Banks and attracted better songs, though they were only produced in tiny runs and are now extremely rare.
Mackinnon's Ghost grotesquely dramatizes the horrors of dissection as a deterrent to crime, coming close to being necrophiliac pornography. It parodies Margaret's Ghost, an adaptation of a traditional ballad made by David Mallet when he was janitor at the High school of Edinburgh, first published in 1724. The tune doesn't fit all that well. The other two songs, from the same pamphlet, are similarly melodramatic but less original. Mary McKinnon's Lament is a conventional warning to young women against temptation, using a tune named as Jockie's far awa, which is presumably Over the Hills and Far Away since that song is about a Jockie who goes far away, although those exact words don't appear in it and I've never seen it given that title anywhere else. I've given the tune as it appears in the Scots Musical Museum. (In his notes to that collection, William Stenhouse argues that that tune was a Scottish one taken to England by musicians at the court of James VI in 1603; there are allusions to the text from that period, though the full song was not printed until around 1700 and its present form as a recruiting song developed in the reign of Queen Anne).
The gruesomely misogynistic McKinnon's Garland gave her the body count of another William Burke and identified prostitution with venereal disease and alcoholism, with less compassion than even the Daily Record manages today. Its tune is Katherine Ogie; the version from Joseph Mitchell's ballad opera The Highland Fair of 1731 fits perfectly. "Garland" usually meant a collection of ballads in a broadside named after the most notable piece in the collection; it's an English equivalent of the Latin "florilegium", used to mean "anthology" in the Renaissance. It went a long way downmarket to describe 19th century chapbooks like this one. To show what the broadside author was working with, I've included an early version of Katherine Ogie: it's A New Scotch Song from Thomas D'Urfey's Wit and Mirth (or Songs Compleat, or Pills to Purge Melancholy) of 1719. Its Scots idiom is more natural than D'Urfey's usual attempts to fake it, so I suspect he was printing a genuine Scottish song of the time with little change. There are enough Lothian placenames to suggest a local origin.
Edinburgh made many attempts to throw the responsibility for policing on to the citizens. The Trained Bands were citizen police forces, each assigned to a specific district of the city, which meant they usually had 16 companies.. They were first instituted in 1580; something seems to have gone wrong, since the city went back to a professional watch in 1607 and only tried again in 1627. Their minute books show they suffered from the perennial confusion among Edinburgh's middle-class part-time forces as to whether they were an army or a drinking club; fines for non-attendance at meetings were levied in claret. By 1669 the council itself could fine them for failing to keep guard, and in 1689 it finally faced reality and relegated them to a reserve, raising a professional town guard to do the real police work. The Trained Bands of the early 18th century were sarcastically described by David Hume in 1746, after their failure to do anything remotely effectual during the Jacobite invasion:
when I was a Boy, I had a very contemptible idea of their Courage. For as they were usually drawn out on Birth Days, and marched up through the main Street, it was very common for any of them, that was bolder than usual, and would give himself Airs before his Wife or Mistress, to fire his Piece, in the Street, without any Authority or Command from his Officers. But I always observed, that they shut their Eyes, before they ventured on this military Exploit; and I, who had at that time been accustomed to fire at Rooks and Magpyes, was very much diverted with their Timorousness.
Of the major riots of the eighteenth century, the minute books of the Trained Bands do not even mention the Act of Union riots of 1707, the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745, the Porteous Riot of 1736, or the Macraes' mutiny of 1778. But they do mention the anti-Catholic riot of 1779, in these terms:
After sitting a decent time at dinner, the corps sallied forth, armed with oaken bludgeons, to patrol the streets, and by the formidable appearance they made effectually intimidated the mob...
No other account of the riot notices the Trained Bands; the Dragoons and Fencibles did what little intimidating was done, with swords and firearms, and even they failed to stop the mob from burning down the Catholic chapel.
In 1779 Lord Haddington, through his "Anti-Gallican Society" formed to promote patriotism during the American War of Independence, offered marksmanship prizes to the Trained Bands. History does not record how many of them were sober enough to compete. The only notable figure I have found who belonged to them was Adam Smith. As a result of the formation of the Royal Edinburgh Volunteers, the Trained Bands were abolished in 1798, and only reconstituted as a purely ceremonial body in another year of revolution, 1848.
The Edinburgh Trained Band's March is found in many 18th century sources. The first one is from the Baxter Manuscript, the second (in two parts and probably a straight copy of a fife band score) is from the Gillespie fiddle MS of 1768, and the third, a florid duet for English guitars tuned CEGceg, is from Bremner's Instructions for the Guitar of around 1765.
Despite the impression given by the amount of music it generated, the Edinburgh Defensive Band was an ephemeral force, set up in 1781 with similar aims and composition to the Trained Bands, under the Lord Provost as Colonel. A year later it gave rise to a Masonic lodge drawn from its members, also called the Edinburgh Defensive Band. All pretence to being a military or police force was abandoned early in 1783 and the brothers got down to the important business, drinking. Special constables were called for during several later crises in Edinburgh's history, and kept on duty throughout World War II, but citizen police were never again established as a permanent force. The Defensive Band lodge continued into the 19th century, and in the war panic of 1860 they recalled their paramilitary origins and tried to form a rifle corps. Perhaps recalling what had happened before, the members who were serious about it joined the Queen's Edinburgh Rifles instead.
The Edinburgh Defensive Band's March, Edinburgh Defensive Band's Quick March and Edinburgh Defensive Band's Quick Step all come from a late 18th century manuscript in the National Library of Scotland, MS 21752; from the range of the music it must be intended for flute or fife. The first tune was also published by Joshua Campbell in 1788, simplified for the fiddle. A motto quoted by John Kay in his Edinburgh Portraits conveys the same pompous image as the music:
Colonel Crosbie takes the field;
To France and Spain he will not yield;
But still maintains his high command
At the head of the noble Defensive Band.
But in their own day it was Edinburgh's professional officers of the law who were more likely to be regarded as a laughing-stock. An early 18th century broadside, Sutherland's Lament, for the Loss of his Post, satirized an executioner who was himself whipped through the streets for adultery:
When ance I Whiped Nannie Fender,
To let them see I was na tender,
Many a lusty Lick I lend her,
On her bair Back,
Till a the Folk cry'd out he'l end her,
At ilk a Whake.
But Peas for Beans O Dool! O Dool!
I'm Whiped now at my aun School,
E'r I were lad Just like a Fool,
Thro' a the Town,
I'd sit ten Sundys on the Stool,
And wear the Gown.
The Town Guard can be traced back as far as the aftermath of Flodden, but by the 18th century the force was widely seen as job creation for otherwise-unemployable alcoholic Highlanders. They were so often drunk on duty that there was a wooden punishment horse set up in the High Street outside their barracks, depicted in an engraving by John Kay. Offending guardsmen were tied to it for a few hours, straddling a sharp ridge like the roof of Snoopy's dog kennel in the Peanuts strips.
According to Walter Scott, they used to play the song Jockey to the Fair when marching to their duty at the Hallow Fair. I've taken the tune from Aird's collection of the 1780s. On the last occasion they did this, they substituted The Last Time I Came O'er the Muir. I've taken this from William Dauney's notes to his 1838 edition of the Skene Manuscript, Ancient Scotish Melodies. He described it as the "common version" of the tune, so it's likely to be what the Town Guard played a few years before. Both were probably played on fifes.
The Burgh Reform Act of 1833, imposing a consistent policing system on the whole of Britain, ironed out the local idiosyncrasies that made for so much Edinburgh folklore. The new, professional, better-paid Victorian police were nowhere near as easy to laugh at as the Town Guard. In the next few decades they only achieved ballad-worthy levels of incompetence on a few occasions, like the Snowball Riot of 1838 and the struggles over the Annuity Tax, both described in other chapters. And their own songs were better. Inspector, an account of a policeman's life in Victorian Edinburgh, was published as a broadside in 1872; I found it reprinted in a 1942 issue of The Edinburgh Special, the magazine of the wartime Edinburgh Special Foot Constabulary. The tune is the Fife ballad Maggie Lauder, in the version from the Scots Musical Museum.
Duncan Campbell is also known as Erin-go-Bragh. The text comes from two almost identical 19th century Edinburgh broadsides; another almost identical version was printed by Superintendent John Ord of the Glasgow Police in his Bothy Songs and Ballads of Aberdeen, Banff & Moray, Angus and the Mearns (1930). The tune here is from the 1904 edition of Ford's Vagabond Songs. Dick Gaughan sings a variant of it which I feel is slightly better. Another use of the same basic tune in the same spirit is Matt McGinn's hilarious ballad of workplace revenge in the Glasgow shipyards, The Foreman O'Rourke.
The Edinburgh Police Pipe Band's Quickstep is by James Manson, taken from David Glen's collection of the late 19th century. The band was formed as Edinburgh Municipal Band in 1882, with the drum section drawn from the Gas and Transport departments; it was reorganized as Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band in 1890 and soon became one of the best in the world, winning the World Championship at Cowal 1897 and later in 1919. It has never been exclusively composed of policemen. The irregular Special Constabulary, formed between the wars to crush strikes, also had its pipe band, first formed when they were guarding against the possibility of protests during the Munich talks of 1938. But they had no tunes of their own.
Saughton Prison is Edinburgh's present jail, opened in 1924 to replace the old Calton Jail; mostly for prisoners serving medium-length sentences, it has seen four executions. The Saughton Hotel was collected from Edinburgh children by John Ritchie in the 1950s. Its ideas and music are far older. A broadside on the banknote forger John Curry, who spent a few hours with his ear nailed to the Tron and was then banished from the city in 1728, began like this:
Altho my Lug's nailed to the Tron,
Yet I am not Tongue tacked John;
I'll speak, tho' all the Bank look on,
And call me Rogue;
I have not been an idle Dron,
But clever dog.
In Manufact'ring ev'ry Noat,
I did lay down this Solid plot,
For to grow great: and I have got
what I design'd,
My Servant, with a Livery coat,
Who walks behind.
Surrounded, by my body Guards,
I'm far above the rank of lairds,
Better forge Bills, than play at cards,
or yet at dice
You see, the Law gives fine reward
to actions nice.
Before my noble parts were known,
I walk'd demurely all alone,
And no Man said, how do ye John,
upon the street;
But now, there's hundreds looking on,
My Fame's compleat.
The tune for The Saughton Hotel is the one Sir Walter Scott used for his pseudo-Jacobite song The Lords of Convention and which has been confusingly known since as Bonnie Dundee; nobody now knows where Scott got it. The older tune Bonnie Dundee has survived unchanged attached to countless sets of lyrics at least since the time of the Skene Manuscript of 1625, which called it Adew Dundee. It often went with words about breaking out of jail; Playford stuck a fragmentary verse about two men escaping from Dundee onto the end of a very silly song to this tune in the late 17th century, Where have you been with that havermeal bannock, which Burns truncated almost into nothingness in an attempt to rescue something from it. The Child ballad Archie o Ca'field (usually sung to a different tune from either) has a similar turn of phrase both to Playford's piece and to The Saughton Hotel, as in this fragmentary version from the manuscripts of the collector Macmath, taken down in 1886:
We'll awa to bonnie Dundee
And set our brither Archie free
They broke through locks and they broke through bars
And they broke through everything that cam in their way
Until they cam to a big iron gate
And that's where brother Archie lay.
[Little John speaks]
Oh brother Archie speak to me [...]
For we are come to set ye free [...]
"Such a thing it cannot be
For there's fifty pund o' gude Spanish airn
Atween my neckbane and my knee."
To add to the confusion, Macmath's singer seems to have linked this to the English Robin Hood cycle by calling one of his characters Little John, though there is no surviving part of the Robin Hood legend anything like it.
I wish I was a bobby is a children's song noted down many times since the late nineteenth century. Its tune is the American revivalist song Tramp, tramp, tramp the boys are marching.
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Embro, Embro Copyright © 2001, Jack Campin