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Crime and Punishment

The jurisdiction of the Magistrates extends over the whole of the City and Royalty, and they hold a Bailie Court every Saturday, for Civil actions to any amount, in which they are assisted by an Assessor, appointed for that purpose, who is generally an Advocate of Aberdeen. The Sheriff, however, exercises a concurrent jurisdiction with the Magistrates, and since the establishment of the Sheriff's small-debt court, the Civil business of the Bailie court has been very much diminished. The Police establishment is considered to be fully sufficient for all purposes connected with its institution, and is under the control of commissioners elected by the 9 wards, into which the Police district was divided by the act of 1829.

The Bishops of Aberdon held all their lands around the Cathedral as a Barony of Regality, which gave them all the power over their lands and their inhabitants which the Crown itself possessed, with certain reservations. They could put thieves and others to death; but their power was restricted to those who lived on the church lands. They, like other barons, delegated their judicial authority to a Baillie. In 1536 "William Lyoun, bailye to My Lord of Aberdene, askit lycens at William Holland, balye of this burgh, to hang ane thief convickit in my Lord's court ; quhilk.  The said William grantit, protest and it suld not hurt the townis privilege in nae sort."  (Town Council Register).  Tillydrone was the hanging place in the Regality.  

The Burgh Charter of Aberdeen not being now extant - if ever it was put on a sheep's skin - we cannot tell what powers of government were committed to the Town Council, but it may be assumed that they were the same as those in other burgh charters. These usually enumerate a long string of crimes and offences within the jurisdiction of the Burgh Magistrates, some of which are never heard of nowadays. Some of the terms, as sak, sok, thol, them, infang thief, outfang thief, and bludwits, are hardly intelligible to moderns. This shows that Burghal institutions must be very old, pointing back to a time when the Sovereign was very willing to give self-government to communities, to relieve himself or his Justiciar of as much as possible of his duty, and to allow of swift execution of justice.

Among the punishments which charters give burghs and barons power to inflict is that of death, which was freely executed for theft. Two modes are named, drowning and hanging, the former usually adopted for women and youths, and the latter for men, though they also were sometimes drowned. For drowning recourse was had to a river at a deep place called the thief's pot. Sometimes a hole like a grave was dug and filled with water, in which the criminal was drowned and covered up. Hanging was carried out on a knoll near the place where the sentence was pronounced, but, after the appointment of Sheriffs, the sentence could not be carried out without allowing time for an appeal to the Sheriff of the county. There is mention of a Sheriff in Aberdeen in the reign of William the Lion (1165-1214), and though the burgh magistrates could have delivered over to him persons accused of crimes they still continued to execute the powers entrusted to them by the Crown.

The first place of execution in Aberdeen was the north end of the high ridge of ground between West North Street and the Gallowgate. It is plainly shown in Gordon's Map of 1661, titled "Gallowgait or Hill." As the termination of a name, gate has two meanings. In English towns it usually means an entrance, but it may be legitimately applied to a street leading to or from a gate.  In Scotland though it may have this meaning it usually means a way or road. The fore part of the name tells the nature of the way, as in Broadgate, Longate, Hardgate, or the special purpose which it served, as in Cowgate, and Bowlgate — two names having exactly the same meaning — or the place to which it led, as in the Aberdeen Nether- and Upper- kirkgates, Castlegate, and Gallowgate. It is likely that this last name originated long before the town extended quite to the Gallow Hill, and that it means the road leading to the knoll where the burgh courts were held in the open air, and where a permanent gallows stood as a warning to evil doers, or where there was a stone with a hole in it to receive the lower end of the "gallowstree." The stone on the summit of the hill beside the battlefield of Bannockburn has a round hole in it, not made for a flagstaff on the day of battle but as a base for a gallows.

The Gallow Hill is shown as being to the north side of the line of Spring Garden, with the Gallowgate Port in the south-west corner of the area. It extended 120 yards in length, as far as to the present point of the ridge between the Gallowgate and West North Street; but a considerable slice was cut off this point in forming West North Street.  Criminals were usually allowed to remain hanging on the gallows some time even for common theft, and for long periods for heinous crimes. This must have been an offensive, gruesome sight, and when houses had extended northward the gallows had been shifted to another place, farther from the inhabited part of the town.

Flibertigibbet - oft associated by the suspended 'dance' of the victim before death.

The 1st place actually mentioned as the scene of executions was the knoll which afterwards became the site of the Powder Magazine of the town. About the middle of last century the Powder Magazine required to be enlarged, which led to excavations for a foundation. Remains of skeletons were found, and this showed that criminals had been buried, as was usually said, "at the foot of the gallows tree." The Powder Magazine was intended to be protected from lightning by a metal rod projecting above it and terminating in two thick chains extending under the surface of the ground for some distance in opposite directions. The gallows knoll was sandy and dry, and after some time it was discovered that some damage had been done to the building by lightning. As a further protection two other chains were connected with the conductor. The Magazine was thought to be too near the town when houses were built beyond the railway, so it was removed. The site of the Magazine and its predecessor the gallows is now occupied by a building called The Shelter, at the corner of Trinity Cemetery; but the north side of the Gallowhill became a sand quarry, and has been taken away. In excavating the sand near the Shelter the chains were found, and though bits were removed the ends of some of the chains may still be seen on the west side of the Shelter. When first found it was supposed that they had been used to attach the bodies of criminals to the gallows in such a way as to prevent their friends from removing them, as was sometimes done; but they were too heavy to have been used for that purpose.

"One of the last persons who suffered here was a sailor who was hung in chains in 1752; many years afterwards his wasted skeleton was taken down by some irreverent shipmates, who placed it by the door of the Methodist Meeting-House and affixed to it this sorry couplet — T, William Wast, at the point of damnation, Request the prayers of this congregation." (" Book of Bon-Accord," p. 337.)   The last person who suffered on the Gallow Hill was Alexander Morrison, who was hanged on November 6, 1776. The Gallow Hill road branched off from the public road to the Brig of Balgownie by Justice Port and the Links. The south end of the road to the Gallows may still be seen turning off to the left after crossing the railway. It joins on to Urquhart Street, but the north end is now built over. It was about the line of Urquhart Lane. The Gallows is shown in Gordon's chart of the City. James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

Hangman, hangman, upon your face a smile, 
Tell me that I'm free to ride, 
Ride for many mile, mile, mile. 

Oh yes, you got a fine sister, She warmed my blood from cold, 
She warmed my blood to boiling hot to keep you from the Gallows Pole, 
Your brother brought me silver, Your sister warmed my soul, 
But now I laugh and pull so hard, see you swinging from the Gallows Pole 
Swingin' on the gallows pole!

Swingin' Swingin' on the gallows pole!
See-saw marjory daw
See-saw knock at my door

Gallis Pole

The Thieves' Bridge
For a long period the place where criminals were executed was the Gallow Hill, which was reached by Justice Street and Park Street. This street was the way to various enclosed pieces of grazing ground, to which the townsmen sent their cows in summer. It crossed the Powcreek Burn, in the line of Jasmine Terrace, by a small bridge which criminals passed over on the way to execution. These being mostly thieves the bridge was called the Thieves' Brig.

The old inhabitants of Aberdeen and its neighbourhood were really as rough as their soil. Judged by their records, they must have been dreadfully haunted by witches and sorcerers down to a comparatively recent period; witch-burning having been common in the town until the end of the 16th century. We find that, in one year, no fewer than 23 women and one man were burnt; the Dean of Guild Records containing the detailed accounts of the "loads of peattis, tar barrellis," and other combustibles used in burning them. The Lairds of the Garioch, a district in the immediate neighbourhood, seem to have been still more terrible than the witches, being accustomed to enter the place and make an onslaught upon the citizens, according as local rage and thirst for spoil might incline them. On one of such occasions, 80 of the inhabitants were killed and wounded.   

In Pitcairn's Records of Criminals Trials in the reigns of Mary and James VI. there is frequent mention of other modes of capital punishment — beheading with the machine called the Maiden, and strangling at a stake followed by burning of the body. The Maiden is first mentioned in Edinburgh records in 1566. It probably came into use in Aberdeen soon after. In Edinburgh it stood at the Cross; in Aberdeen it had stood on the Heiding Hill east of the Castle Hill, its name meaning beheading. It was not in use at the execution of Sir John Gordon in 1642, who was cruelly mangled by an unskilful executioner, probably using a sword.  A common sentence found in Pitcairn is : — " To be wirriet at the stake and brunt to asses." This was the doom on the hangman of Edinburgh for "lese majeste " to James VI. He was selling the effects of some person at the Cross and hung the King's portrait on a nail driven into the Maiden, for which he suffered death. This mode of execution was carried out by tying the criminal to a post fixed in the ground and strangling him with a rope twisted round his neck and the post, behind his back. Then fuel was placed round the stake, and the body and was all burned to ashes. Witchcraft and heinous crimes against decency were punished in Aberdeen in this way at the back of the Castlehill, in the hollow between it and the Heiding Hill.

Agnes Sampson was garrotted and burnt at Castlehill on the 16th January 1590. Agnes Sampson was not the only person accused and executed for witchcraft. Janet Wishart was accused of being one of the thirteen members of the coven of Aberdeen Witches. Her crime was supposedly using magic to murder Andrew Webster and causing illness to Alexander Thomson. She was also accused of taking body parts from a corpse for her own purposes.  Isobel Cockie, Margaret Ogg and Helen Rogie were also amongst the condemned. King James I created even more hysteria by publishing a book call "Daemonoloogie".  At least twenty-three women and one man were condemned and executed for witchcraft during this era. It was a gruesome era with many innocent people being tortured and executed in the name of the King and the Church.

Another place of execution was the Castlegate. " The precise spot," says " The Book of Bon-Accord," " where the gallows was planted is now (1839) marked by a millstone inserted in the causeway, opposite to King Street. Delinquents were here put to death in the following manner : — For a long period there existed in the burgh a fraternity of watermen, or individuals who drew butts of water through the streets on sledges ; and it was the duty of the youngest member of this society to convey the criminal to the gallows. The rope being adjusted the carriage was driven off, and the victim was left suspended by the neck, with his feet within a yard of the ground. ' You couldna',' said a venerable octogenarian, in describing the scene, ' get a richt sicht o' him unless you was close in by.' " In the excavation for the lavatory in Castle Street the place where the pole had been was found in the north-west corner. The waterman's part had afterwards to be taken by the hangman himself. In a description of a street fight in the town it is said that the hangman kept a cart, which was taken possession of by one of the contending parties. In Dickie's " Botanist's Guide," The Hangman's Brae is named as a habitat for mignonette. Its older name was Futtie Wynd, which issued from the south-east corner of Castle Street, and, crossing the site of the Sick Children's Hospital, ended at the head of James Street and the middle of Virginia Street.

About 1790 the Gallows was removed to the door of the Tollbooth, where the notorious Malcolm Gillespie, Exciseman at Skene, was hanged in 1827 for forgery. Very little sympathy was felt for him, though the sentence would now be considered severe for the offence. It was generally believed that he delighted in provoking sanguinary encounters with "the up-throw lads" on their way from Highland Glens to Aberdeen with home-made whisky. The last execution in Aberdeen was conducted on a platform gained from one of the windows of the first floor of the Town-house in 1857.

In Aberdeen the sentence of death by drowning was carried out in the harbour in a deep pool opposite the Shore Brae, known as The Pottie. Between the years 1584 and 1587 six criminals suffered death at this place; of whom two were men convicted of murder, and four were women guilty of child murder. The term given in old times to the legal execution of a capital sentence in any mode was Justification.

In 1766 a woman was found guilty of killing her infant twins at their birth. She would have been hanged but her petition to be banished to "The Plantations" in Virginia was granted and her life was spared. In the same year a man convicted of stealing a horse was twice whipped through the town — probably at the ports — and committed to prison to be sent to The Plantations for life.

Anciently imprisonment was far less in use as a punishment than it is now. For political offences men were sometimes kept in close confinement. Edward I. of England ordered the Countess of Buchan to be kept in a part of a room enclosed by bars and rails and hence called a cage, and the sentence on the young Earl of Mar that he was to be imprisoned, but not secured with a chain on account of his youth, shows that grown men were so treated; but very often political offenders were ordered to "ward" themselves in Edinburgh or in a Castle, and were " kept within bounds " under surveillance, but not much restricted in their personal liberty. Rutherford, minister of Anworth, was sentenced in 1639 to reside in Aberdeen during the King's pleasure. The lord of a barony required to have in his Castle or Mansion a place — usually in the lowest part, and hence called "the pit" — where an accused person could be kept a few days till he was tried. After trial he was set free or executed in a few days.

The punishment called the Cock or Cuckstool (Cook Stoole) had been early in use in Aberdeen, for the place where it had formerly stood is mentioned in 1320. It was in the south-west of Castle Street. The instrument consisted of a long beam with a slit in the middle by which it could be turned round in any direction and moved up and down as in the child's play called "Coup the Ladle." The beam was placed on a pin in the top of a post near a pool or the edge of a river. A small chair with arms was fixed to one end, and the convict was tied securely into the chair. The man in charge held a rope attached to the other end and let the chair and the occupant plump into the water, and then he pulled down his end and raised the other. Sometimes several dips were administered before the vengeance of the law was satisfied. There is a sketch of the instrument in the first edition of "Chambers's Encyclopaedia." Scolding women, brewsters of bad ale, and profane swearers were dipped at the Cuckstool. Cuck in names is a corruption of the Gaelic word " cnoc," a hill. This indicates that the middle of the beam had rested on a hillock. There was in old times an instrument at James Street for loading and unloading ships with heavy goods. It could be swung round and loads could be lifted or let down as was required. This was called the Cran, and in the century 1600-1700 "ducking at the cran" was prescribed for the immoral females of the town.

A more gruesome odour assailed the nostrils of citizens. This was the smell of roasting flesh as the Town Council joined with zeal in the fantastic witch hunt of 1596-97.  From the earliest days of the Burgh, Aldermen and Baillies were responsible for law enforcement, though serious crimes might be remitted to a visiting Justiciary.  Punishments were severe, and the corpse of some thief or assassin almost invariably occupied the gallows.  Witches were ‘wirriet at the stake and brunt to asses,’ while minor crimes were punishable by ducking on the Cuckstool or an hour or two in the jougs (witches collar) - or branks (iron bridle), the latter specially reserved for nagging wives and gossips. In the 16th century Aberdeen also acquired its own version of the ‘Maiden’, a sinister beheading machine first used in Edinburgh in 1566.

A punishment said to have had a deterrent effect upon ladies with loose, ill-hung tongues was standing an hour or two in the branks or jougs, an iron collar which encircled the neck at the end of a short chain attached to a post at the Cross. In 1588 two persons, after being bound at the Cross 3 hours, were burnt on the cheeks with a hot iron and banished for ever from the Burgh.

At an ancient court held at Aberdeen 3 men found guilty of riotously taking meal out of a ship at Banff in 1766 were sentenced to be whipped through the town of Aberdeen by the hangman. Soldiers attended to see the sentence carried out, but their friends attacked the military with stones and clubs and rescued the prisoners. Scourging at the Mercat Cross was sometimes ordained for delinquents. The instrument of correction is not mentioned; but the Town Records of Edinburgh show payments for "tows and besoms" for scourging, and the same articles were probably in use in Aberdeen. The besom had been the bundle of birch twigs so familiar to youngsters of both sexes and of all ranks in England. A few years ago, and most likely at the present day, in any English town "Mater-familias " could buy for a penny a nice little specimen of the birch for nursery use. It was shown in " Notes and Queries " that within the reign of Queen Victoria the birch was in use in ladies' boarding schools in England and in the public schools.

Summoning the Police in the early 40's -  These coinless emergency telephone devices were placed at strategic junctions and connected directly with Lodge Walk Police Station.  The light on top would flash if the Station needed to contact a Policemen urgently on the beat,  Later developed into a Doctor Who feature as a Police Box.

Slacks for women were evolved a result of the freedoms they enjoyed from the disciplines of skirts when they wore 'overalls' during the war as replacement workers for the absent fighting men.  In those days they buttoned or zipped at the back giving a very defined line to rounded posteriors.

This picture is probably near the Auld Brig o' Dee terminus.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013