The History of Leith

October 26, 2011

THE Sands of Leith,

THE Sands of Leith, like other districts we have described, have a notabilia peculiarly their own, as the grim scene of executions for piracy, and of the horse-races, which were long celebrated there amid a jollity unknown now at the other locality to which they have been transferred—the Links of
Musselburgh.
All pirates, and those who committed crimes or misdemeanours upon the high seas, were, down to 1822, hanged within the flood-mark; but there does not seem to have been any permanent erection, or even a fixed locality, for this purpose, and thus any part of the then great expanse of open sand must have been deemed suitable for the last offices of the law, and even the Pier and Shore were sometimes used.
On the 6th of May, 1551, John Davidson was convicted by an assize of piratically attacking a ship of Bordeaux, and sentenced to be hanged in irons on the Sands; and this, Pitcairn observes, is the
earliest notice in Scotland of the body of a criminal being exposed in chains, to be consumed piecemeal by the elements.
In 1555, Hilbert Stalfurde and the crew of the Kait ofLynne, an English ship, were tried for piracy and oppression, “in reiving and spoiling furth of a hulk of the toun of Stateyne (Stettin), then lying in the harbour of Leith,” a cable of ninety fathoms, three or four pistolettes, and other property, for which they were all hanged as pirates within the flood-mark.
Pitcairn gives this case in full, and it may not be uninteresting to note what constituted piracy in the sixteenth century.
In the ” Talbot Papers/’ published by the Maitland Club, there is a letter, dated 4th July, 1555, from Lord Conyers to the Earl of Shrewsbury. After stating that some ships had been captured,
very much to the annoyance of the Queen-Regent Mary of Lorraine, she sent a Scottish ship of war to search for the said ship of Lynne; and, as the former passed herself on the seas as a merchantman,
the crew of the Kait ” schott a piece of ordnance, and the Scottis shippe schott off but a slinge, as though she had been a merchant, and vailed her bonnet,” or dipped her ensign. The crew of the Kait then hailed, and asked what she was laden with, and the reply was, ” With victualles; and then they desired them to borde, and let them have a ton of bacon for their money.”
The Scots answered that they should do so, on which there swarmed on board the Kait a hundred or eighty men, “well appoyntit in armoure and stoutlie set,” on the English ship, which they brought, with all her crew, into the haven of Leith; ” and by that I can leafri,” adds Lord Conyers, “there is at least iij. or iiij. of the cheefest of the Englismenne like to suffer death. Other news I have none to certifie yr Lordschippe, and so I cornmitt the- same unto the tuicion and governmente of Almichtie God.”—Berwick, 4th July, 1555.
The seamen of those days were not very particular when on the high seas, for in 1505 we find the King’s Admiral, Sir Andrew Wood, obtaining a remission under the Great Seal for ” ye rief an anchor and cabyell” taken from John of Bonkle on the sea, as he required these probably for the king’s service ; and some fifty years later an admiral of England piratically seized the ship coming from
France with the horses of Queen Mary on board.
In 1610 nine pirates were sentenced by the mouth of James Lockhart of Lee, chancellor, to be hanged upon ” the sandis of Leyth, within the floddis-mark;” and in the same year Pitcairn records ‘the trial of thirty more pirates for the affair at Long Island, in Ireland, already related. In 1612 two more were hanged in the same place for piracy.
Executions here of seamen were of constant occurrence in the olden times, but after that of Wilson Potts, captain of the Dreadnought privateer of Newcastle, on the i3th of February, 1782, none took
place till the execution of Heaman and Gautiez, at the foot of Constitution Street, in 1822. Potts was convicted before the Admiralty Court of having plundered the White Swan, of Copenhagen, of four bags of dollars. He was recommended to mercy by a majority of the jury, because it was in proof that he had committed the crime while in a state of intoxication, and had, on coming to his senses, taken the first opportunity of restoring the money to its owners ; but the recommendation was made in vain.

In 1667 the Sands were the scene of that desperate duel with swords between William Douglas younger, of Whittingham, and Sir John Home, of Eccles, attended by the Master of Ramsay and Douglas of Spott, who all engaged together. Sir James was slain, and William Douglas had his head stricken from his body at the Cross three days after.

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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