The History of Leith

February 25, 2011

Executions at the Grassmarket

Prior to the adoption of this place for public executions, the Castle Hill and Market Cross had been the spots chosen; and a sword, as in France and elsewhere on the Continent, was used, before the introduction of the Maiden, for beheading.
Thus we find that in 1564, the magistrates, because the old beheading sword had become worn out, received from William Macartnay “his tua-nandit Sword, to be usit for ane heiding sword,” and gave him the sum of five pounds therefor.
Among some of the most noted executions in the Grassmarket were those of the fanatic Mitchel in 1676, for attempting to shoot Archbishop Sharp in 1668,of Sergeant John Nisbett, of Hardliill, in 1685, who had received seventeen wounds at the battle of Pentland, and fought at Drumclog, according to the Wodrow Biographies ; of Isabel Alison and Marion Harvey—the latter only twenty years of age—two young women, for merely having heard Donald Cargill preach. The human shambles in this place of wailing witnessed executions of this
kind almost daily till the 17th of February, 1688, when James Renwick, the celebrated field preacher, and the last martyr of the Covenant, was found guilty, on his own confession, of disowning an uncovenantcd
king, and executed in the twenty-sixth year of his age. Most of the hundred and odd pious persons who suffered for the same cause in
Edinburgh breathed their last prayers on this spot
Hence arose the Duke of Rothes* remark, when a covenanting prisoner proved obdurate, ” Then let him glorify God in the Grassmarket”—the death of that class of victims always being accompanied by much psalm-singing on the scaffold. In the time of Charles II., Alexander Cockburn, the city hangman, having murdered a King’s Bluegown, died here the death he had so often meted out to others.
In 17*4 the same place was the scene of the partial execution of a woman, long remembered in Edinburgh, as ” Half-hangit Maggie Dickson.” She was a native of Inveresk, and was tried under
the Act of 1690 for concealment of pregnancy, in the case of a dead child; and the defence that she was a married woman, though living apart from her husband, who was working in the keels at Newcastle,
proved of no avail, and a broadside of the day details her execution with horrible minuteness; how the hangman did his usual office of dragging down her legs, and how the body, after hanging
the allotted time, was put into a coffin, then of which were nailed firmly to the gibbet-foot.
After a scuffle with some surgeon apprentices who wished to possess themselves of the body, her friends conveyed it away by the Society Port, but the jolting of the cart in which the coffin lay had stirred vitality and set the blood in motion. Thus she was found to be alive when passing Peffermiln, and was completely restored at Musselburgh, where flocks of people came daily to see tier. She had several children after this event, and lived long as the keeper of an ale-house and as a crier of salt in the streets of Edinburgh. (” Dom. Ana,” III., Slat.
Acct, Vol XVI).
In the account of executions of Wilson and of Porteous, in 1736, in this place— the street “crowded with rioters, crimson with torchlight, spectators filling every window of the tall houses—the Castle standing high above the tumult amidst the blue midnight and the stars.”
It continued to be the scene of such events till 1784; and in a central situation at the east end of the market there remained until 1823 a massive block of sandstone, having in its centre’a quadrangular
hole, which served as the socket of the gallows-tree; but instead of the stone there is now only a St. Andrew’s Cross in the causeway to
indicate the exact spot.
The last person who suffered in the Grasstnarket was James Andrews, hanged there on the 4th of February, 1784, for a robbery committed in Hope Park; and the 6rst person executed at the west end of the old city gaol, was Alexander Stewart, a youth .of only fifteen, who had committed many depredations, and at last had been convicted of breaking into the house of Captain Hugh Dabrymple, of Fordell in the Potterrow, and NcidpathOutle, the seat of the Duke of Queensbeny, from which he carried off many articles of value. It was expressly mentioned by the judge in his sentence, that he was to be
hanged in the Grsssmarket, “or any other place the magistrates might appoint,” thus indicating that * change was in contemplation ; and accordingly, the west end of the old Tolbooth was fitted up for
his execution, which took place on the aoth of April, 1785

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