The History of Leith

November 29, 2011

The Story of James Hay

In 1783 there occurred one of the last remarkable escapes from the Tolbooth. James Hay, a lad of eighteen, son of a stabler in the Grassmarket, was a prisoner in November, under sentence of death for robbery, and a few days before that appointed for his execution, the father visited th condemned cell, apparently to condole with his unhappy son. When night was closing in and visitors were compelled to retire, old Hay invited the keeper of the inner door to partake of some liquor he had brought with him. He did so, and became rather tipsy about the time for finally locking the gates—ten o’clock. Hay expressed some regret to part just at a moment when they were beginning to enjoy their liquor, and proposed that his companion should run out and procure a bottle of good rum from a neighbouring tavern. The turnkey consented, and staggered down the turnpike stair, neglecting to lock the inner door behind him. As had been concerted, young James Hay followed close behind him; but the outer warder closed the outer door when the panting prisoner was about to spring into the street! At that dread moment old Hay put his head to the great window of the hall, and gave the authoritative order then in use, ” Turn your hand !” the usual drawling cry which hourly brought the outer warder to unlock the external gate. Mechanically the man obeyed ; the young culprit sprang out, and while his father and the turnkey were jovially discussing the rum, he fled like a hunted hare down Beith’s steep wynd, that lay opposite the Tolbooth, and, according to a preconcerted plan, scaled the walls of the Greyfriars churchyard near the lower gate, a feat impossible to one less agile; but so well had every stage of the business been arranged, that a large stone had been thrown down to facilitate the act. James Hay had been provided with a key that opened the long-unused gate of the gloomy-domed mausoleum of Sir George Mackenzie, a place still full of terror to boys, as it is supposed to be haunted by the blood-red spirit of the persecutor, and there he secreted himself, while the following advertisement appeared in the Edinburgh Advertiser of the 24th November, 1783 :—
” ESCAPED FROM THE TOLBOOTH OF EDINBURGH,
” James Hay, indicted for highway robbery, aged about 18
years, by trade a glazier, 5 feet 10 inches high, slender
made, pale complexion, long visage, brown hair cut short,
pitted a little in the face with the small-pox, speaks slow
with a haar in his tone, and has a mole on one of his cheeks.
The magistrates offer a reward of Twenty Guineas to any
person who will apprehend and secure the said James Hay,
to be paid by the City Chamberlain, on the said James Hay
being re-committed to the Tolbooth of this city.”
But James Hay had been a ” Herioter,” brought up in the famous hospital which adjoins the ancient and gloomy burying-ground; thus, he contrived to make known his circumstances to some of his boyish
friends, and besought them to assist him in his distress, as it was impossible for his father to do so. A very clannish spirit animated ” the Auld Herioters” of those days, and not to succour one
of the community, however undeserving he might be of aid, would have been deemed by them as a crime of the foulest nature; thus, Hay’s school fellows supplied his wants from their own meals,
conveying him food in his eerie lurking-place, by scaling the old smoke-blackened and ivied walls, at the risk of severe punishment, and of seeing sights ” uncanny,” for six weeks, till the hue and cry abated, when he ventured to leave the tomb in the night, and escaped abroad or to England, beyond reach of the law.

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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