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Hangman's Brae or Castle Lane

Hangman - A man employed to execute condemned prisoners by hanging. The rope which had been used at a hanging of a particularly notable criminal could also be sold for good money - up to 5 shillings  an inch. (Hence the expression “money for old rope”.)

Castle Terrace sloped downwards above the greenie to Castle Brae - (Hangmans Brae) - before the Virginia Steps it was originally the route of Futtie Wynd  (Castle Lane) An area 11.1m long, 1.5m wide and 1.2m deep was excavated. Below the disturbance caused by various services lay a badly disturbed road surface consisting of well worn stones and large beach pebbles, with a few shards of 14th-century pottery. Immediately underlying this road was a much cruder road surface. Research suggests that this was the original Futty Wynd (Castle Brae) which led from the Castlegate to Futty. Prior to the construction of the sloping terrace roads, the area had been used as a midden. In places 0.73m of midden deposits were revealed, including a shell midden filled with mussel shells, animal bones, a large number of pottery shards and a few oyster shells. The pottery from this horizon ranged in date from the late 13th to mid 14th-century. The area had been quarried for clay before the midden was created

A book which traces the history of crime and punishment in Aberdeen until the end of the century. Witch-burnings, beheadings, hangings and terrible riots are vividly described. The author tells of the bloody work of 'The Maiden', a decapitating machine that was used in Aberdeen 200 years before the French guillotine; the outrage of Queen Victoria at the grisly theft of the Earl of Crawford's body from the family vault at Dunecht House, and the macabre scandal at Nellfield Cemetery. The dark and secret world of the official executioner is revealed. John Justice, the Aberdeen hangman who was paid 6s 8d for executing a witch; Johnny Milne, criminal turned Hangman who went on 'strike' at his first execution, and William Calcraft, the famous London hangman who loved children and pets, and who carried out several hangings in Aberdeen. The municipal gallows he used was hired by other Scottish cities. The adventures of an Aberdeenshire criminal officer make enthralling reading. He always got his man and even spent two nights chained to a brutal murderer.  Our city's most useless hangman, Johnny Milne of Tullyskukie was given the job of hanging a man called Andrew Hosack, whom people believed was a murderer, rather than just a thief, for which he was condemned. So, the public were quite happy to intervene and ensure justice was served - Hosack was meat for the anatomists, he deserved no better!  The Hosack case was only a few years before the Burker riot, because Milne died in the early 1830s - then the public wanted to burn the doctors at the stake for doing the same thing as they wanted them to do to murderers!

Milne is portrayed in a panoramic scene of Castle Street by R Smeaton

William Calcraft - Little Baddow, near Chelmsford, Essex (1800- 1879). Period in office - 1829-1874.
Calcraft was the longest serving executioner of all. It is not known precisely how many executions he carried out but it is between
430 and 450, including those of 34 women, of which at least 388 were public and 41 in private. In some provincial executions in the 1830’s it is unclear who the hangman actually was.  Calcraft was a cobbler by trade and also sold pies outside Newgate on hanging days.  Here he became acquainted with the then hangman for 
London and Middlesex, James Foxen B1769 and through this was recruited to flog juvenile prisoners in Newgate.  His first experience as an executioner at 50 was the hanging of housebreaker Thomas Lister at Lincoln Castle and highwayman George Wingfield at Lincoln Beastmarket on the 27th of March 1819. The latter was a Lincoln City execution.  James Foxen died on the 14th of February 1829 and it was announced in the Morning Post on the 18th of March that Calcraft would succeed him as hangman for London and Middlesex on the 4th of April of that year. His first job in London was to execute the murderess, Ester Hibner, at Newgate on the 13th of that month. 1829 was a busy year for him with no fewer than 31 executions. He was assisted by Thomas Cheshire in some of these.  Calcraft claims to have invented the leather waist belt with wrist straps for pinioning the prisoners arms and one of the nooses he used is still on display at Lancaster Castle. It is a very short piece of 3/4" rope with a loop worked into one end with the free end of the rope passed through it and terminating in a hook with which it was attached to the chain fixed to the gallows beam. This particular noose was used for the execution of Richard Pedder on the 29th of August 1857.  He managed two trips to Scotland, one on the 28th of July 1865 to hang Dr. Edward William Pritchard who had poisoned his wife and the other to hang George Chalmers at Perth on the 4th of October 1870 in what was Scotland’s first private hanging.  It is often stated that William Calcraft bungled his hangings because he used the "short drop" method, causing most of his victims to strangle to death.  However this is neither true, nor fair to Calcraft.  He could not be expected to know about something that hadn’t been invented (the long drop) and just carried on doing what his predecessors had done.  It wasn’t until near the end of Calcraft’s career that the concept of using a longer drop began to take shape.  Although at this time Ireland was part of Britain, hangmen in Dublin were experimenting with much longer drops in the 1860’s aided by surgeons there, especially the Rev. Dr. Samuel Haughton  If the condemned prisoner was to be given a drop of 6 to 10, feet depending upon his weight and with the noose correctly positioned, death would be "nearly instantaneous" due to the neck being broken. The long drop removed all the gruesome struggling and convulsing from the proceedings and was, undoubtedly far less cruel to the prisoner and far less trying to the governor and staff of the prison who, since the abolition of public hangings, had to witness the spectacle at close quarters.

Thomas Askern officiated at the last public hanging in Scotland, that of 19 year old Robert Smith on the 12th of May 1868 at Dumfries, for the murder of a young girl.

Norman Adams, author and journalist. Born: August, 1936, in Aberdeen. Died: 12 August, 2011, at Auchattie, near Banchory, Kincardineshire, aged 74.

Norman Adams, the Aberdeen-born author and journalist, died aged 74, had a passion for ghoulish and military subjects. He was working, almost up to his death, on his latest book on body-snatchers and scripts for the Commando magazines, published by the DC Thomson group.


Castle Hill and Heading Hill
- were places of judgement and execution, as during the witch-burning frenzy of 1590-7.   The name ‘Heading Hill’ appears on old maps, but seems to have fallen into disuse.   Open-air courts were held in the hollow between the two hills, now occupied by Commerce St., whilst executions and witch-burnings took place on the ‘Heidin’ Hill’.   The other main place of execution was in front of the Tolbooth, latterly facing down Marischal Street.   Although the Tolbooth – known satirically as ‘The Mids o’ Mar’, meaning the heart of the province of Mar – was the town prison, it had only limited capacity, and it cost too much to keep convicts in prison for long.   So convicted criminals were mostly executed.   The aristocracy were beheaded, by sword or, later, by Aberdeen’s own patent guillotine, the Maiden, last used in 1615; the blade is on display in Provost Skene’s House in the Guestrow.   Common criminals were hanged.   The Town Hangman was allocated a small, isolated house on what became known as Hangman’s Brae, which descended the Castle Hill to the present vicinity of Virginia St. and which ran from Castle Terrace to the base of Virginia Steps to be seen there now.   The office of Public Executioner was abolished in 1833 when the Council decided that it would be cheaper to hire such a person from somewhere else, as and when needed.   In the event, the last public execution in Aberdeen took place in 1857.

James VI. paid several visits to Aberdeen, viz. in 1582, 1589, 1592, 1594, and 1600, and, generally speaking, these royal visits were expensive affairs to the citizens, both in entertainments, and in presents of money given to his Majesty, according to the custom of the time. About this time, the crime of witchcraft was supposed to be prevalent in Aberdeen as well as in other parts of the kingdom, and many poor old women were sacrificed to appease the terrors which the belief in it was calculated to excite. Few of the individuals who were suspected were allowed to escape from the hands of their persecutors; several died in prison in consequence of the tortures inflicted on them, and, during the years 1596-97, no fewer than 22 were burnt at the Castle Hill.

Aberdeen Witch Trails of 1596-97
The names of the Witches and their Crimes

In 1590 James VI presided over a witchcraft trial in North Berwick.  This very high profile trial reinforced the existing anti-witch sentiments of the time and sparked a wave of similar trials throughout Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries. At least 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft. Many of these were tortured and up to 70% were put to death. It is thought that William Shakespeare wrote his famous play Macbeth when James became King of England. It is a tale of witches, Scottish kings and murderous plots.

Aberdeen Town Council had its own shameful record of witchcraft persecutions. Between February 1596 and April 1597, 23 women and one man were tried and convicted. The guilty were first hanged and then burned on the Heading Hill. The town’s hangman had a set fee, £1 6s 8d and for that four witches were killed in a single day.

The identity of the spirit allegedly encountered by a man tried in Aberdeen in 1598. The trial dittays record that:  Thow confessis that the Devill, thy maister, quhom thow termes Christsonday, and supponis to be ane engell, and Goddis godsone, albeit he hes a thraw by God, and swyis to the Quene of Elphen, is rasit be the speking of the word Benedicte

Margaret Clarke of Lumphanan- accused of the death of John Burnett. As he rode by on Horseback she 'lurkit back towards him and cast up her hands and mumbled some of her ‘devilish prayers’. He took to his bed and died.

Janet Davidson of Sundayswells, said to have killed Patrick Hunter with her 'diverse writings of witchcraft'

Helen Rogie of Findtrack, she specialised in making 'pictours' of her intended victims. (a pictour is a image made from soft lead or wax or other materiel ). At her trial it was described how 'she roasted sundry times the pictours of men whome thou murdered'.

Margret Ogg was said to have bewitched her neighbour’s cattle.

Janet Lucas was found to have a magical charm of coloured thread in her purse when arrested at the Kirk in Lumphanan.

Isobel Ogg of Craigtown of Lumphanan was indicted for using witchcraft so that two Banchory women could outsell their rivals at market.


A list of charges of witchcraft brought against Isobel Strathanchyn or Scudder.  She faced a number of charges, and the image above highlights just one of them. Along with creating a love potion, she is also accused of breaking the wheels of a mill in revenge after the miller had refused to give her any meal.  It is also alleged that she took the bones of the dead from the Kirkyard at Dyce, washed them in water which was then used to clean a sick man in Hatton of Fintray.  To complete the 'spell' the bones were then cast into the River Don, causing the water to rumble as if all the hills had fallen in.  Another accusation against her was that she had managed to cure diseased sheep in Gartly by using witchcraft.  Isabel was found guilty and sentenced to death.  Other records in the City Archives detail what was used to carry this out.  It seems that Isobel and another woman, Katherine Fergus, were executed together.  Payments for the items used include £1 12s for four tar barrels, 6s 8d for two iron barrels, 13s 4d for the stake and for someone to carry it and set it up and 6s for six fathoms of tow, or rope, which would have been used either to tie them to the stake inside the tar barrels, or to drag them through the streets before the execution.  Twenty six loads of peat to burn them were paid for at a cost of £2 13s 4d.

"Secundlie thou are art Indyttit for cu[m]ming to elspet mutray in vodheid vodes and askng fra hir to len the a pennie, q[ui]lk quhen sche had gevin the, thou tuik the pennie and bowitt it, and than tuik a clout and a piece of reid wax, and sewit the pennie and the wax within the clout, and therefter thow having Inchantit that clout thow gawe it to the said elpset mutray, Bidding hir hing the same about hir craig, and quhen sche saw the man sche luffit best, baid hir thin tak the clout w[it]h the pennie and the wax and straik hir face thereft[er] and she sua doing sult atteane to the mariage of the man quhom sche luffit best, and the s[ai]d elspet understanding that thy said directioun to hir was plane witchcraft and devilrie she keist that clout in the fyre, q[ui]lk had almost birnt all hir hous, and this you can not deny."

Secondly you are indicted for coming to Elspet Mutray in Woodhead woods and asking her to lend you a penny, which when she had given you, you took the penny and bent it, then took a cloth and a piece of red wax and sewed the penny and the red wax inside the cloth, and then having enchanted that cloth you gave it to the said Elspet Mutray bidding her to hang the same about her neck, and when she saw the man she loved best, bade her then take the cloth with the penny and the wax and stroke her face thereafter, and she so doing should attain to the marriage of the man whom she loved the best, and the said Elspet understanding that the said direction to her was plain witchcraft and devilry she cast the cloth in the fire, which had almost burned all her house, and this you can not deny

Fire burn and cauldron bubble 1597
The late 1500s were a turbulent time, and many were suspected and accused of being witches. Men and women were put on trial for various reasons, and this image shows a set of charges laid out against Isabel Strathanchyn.

Along with creating a love potion, she is also accused of breaking the wheels of a mill in revenge after the miller had refused to give her any meal. It is also alleged that she took the bones of the dead from the kirkyard at Dyce, washed them in water which was then used to clean a sick man in Hatton of Fintray. To complete the 'spell' the bones were then cast into the River Don, causing the water to rumble as if all the hills had fallen in. Another accusation against her was that she had managed to cure diseased sheep in Gartly by using witchcraft.

Colin Massie of Glendye, the warlock, who like his aged mother was said to be able to take the form of a hare, at some point his mother was shot by young Russel Of Tillyfroskie, whose gun was loaded with a silver sixpence.

They were all imprisoned in the Tolbooth in Aberdeen and most likely tortured to get confessions by means like thumb scews, red hot leg irons, heavy weights, the witch bridle and the ducking stool, Aberdeen’s hangman, John Justice was paid 13/4d per execution.  The public gallows would be sited just outside the Tolbooth looking down Marischal St. Take a look outside Archibald Simpson's pub, down at the kerb, till you see a set of cassies/paving blocks in a square - that's the marker of the hole where the dreaded gibbet was placed!


The most popular threat to young neds of the 18th and 19th centuries was Ye'll end up lookin' doon Marischal St!' in other words, executed by rope!

The surname Justice is probably a pseudonym as was 'Jack Ketch' the last Hangman at Tyburn was for all Hangmen.  But then there is Justice Street and Justice Mills.

Henry John Burnett (5 January 1942 – executed 15 August 1963) was the last man to be hanged in Scotland and the first in Aberdeen since 1891. He was tried at the high court in Aberdeen between 23 and 25 July 1963 for the murder of merchant seaman Thomas Guyan. His execution, at Craiginches Prison, was carried out by the hangman Harry Allen former assistant to Albert Pierrepoint Burnett had blasted Thomas Guyan in the face with a shotgun when lover Margaret Guyan had refused to leave her sailor husband for him.

In the grisly days of hanging, beheading, burning, drowning and torture in Scotland, Criminals in the past were sentenced to die on the gallows, in the drowning pit, or beheaded by one of 3 instruments: the axe, the 2-handed sword, and "the Maiden", a crude machine used in Edinburgh and Aberdeen 2 centuries before the French guillotine. In medieval times there was hardly a town without its ghastly exhibition of severed heads and limbs.  The common hangman, also known as the "lockman", "hangie", "commoune burreour" and "staffman", was much feared. The executioners themselves, - there was Andrew Finnie, the Edinburgh hangman, John Justice, who burned the Aberdeen witches, the mystery hangman of Dundee, Glasgow's famous Tom Young, and John Murdoch, Britain's oldest hangman, who ascended the steps of the scaffold with the aid of a walking stick.  Public executioners also used the thumbkins to crush flesh and bones, the cashielaws for roasting flesh, and the torkas - red-hot pincers for tearing out fingernails.  They also practised branding, whipping and humiliation of their victims by placing them in the ducking stool, jougs or branks.  After the demise of the burgh hangman in Scotland, English "finishers of the law" such as William Calcroft and William Marwood executed Scottish criminals, with the last public hanging taking place at Dumfries in 1868.

Susan Newell, from Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, was the last woman hanged in Scotland, in 1923, for the senseless murder of a young newspaper boy, which she denied committing.

Halloween.

 ‘The night of all the witches’

Hallow-e’een. [Shortened from All-hallow-even].
The eve of All-Hallows or All-Saints, the last night of October. In the old Celtic Calendar the year began on 1st November, so that the evening of October was ‘old-year’s night’, the night of all the witches, which the Church transformed into the ‘Eve of all Saints’.

Halloween was thought to be a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings, are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the Fairies, are said on that night, to hold a grand anniversary.’   A suitable night then for the Witches conventicle, for which kirkyards, like the one in Alloway, were believed to be a favoured location.

Burns grew up in a rural environment hearing such tales of witches, ghosts, fairies and the like; stories and superstitions which no doubt fed into his own tale of Tam O’ Shanter, and his lucky escape from the ‘hellish legion’ of warlocks and witches.  The mock moral of the story suggests perhaps that Tam’s supernatural experience may perhaps have had a more earthly explanation…

The Witch in her Cutty Sark ends up with Meg the old Mares Tail severed when it crosses the 'Brig o'er the watter'  The inspiration for the Tea Clipper's Name and her Figurehead

tam o' shanter being chased by Cutty SarkNow, do thy speedy utmost, Meg, 
And win the key-stane o' the brig; 
There at them thou thy tail may toss, 
A running stream they dare na cross. 
But ere the key-stane she could make, 
The fient a tail she had to shake! 
For Nannie, far before the rest, 
Hard upon noble Maggie prest, 
And flew at Tam wi' furious ettle; 
But little wist she Maggie's mettle - 
Ae spring brought off her master hale, 
But left behind her ain gray tail; 
The carlin claught her by the rump, 
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump


Hangman's Brae

Castle Terrace actually ran from the Castlegate down the hill with a rising castle terrace rampart on the left and with the 'Greenie' at a lower level below another terrace rampart which tapered to a point at the gas lampost on a granite plinth at the top of Hangman's Brae (Castle Brae),  The renamed Castle Brae ran from the point of the green diagonally to the foot of the Castle Hill in Virginia Street with the Scaffies Hoose (Store) on the right built into the rise. The inhabited side of the Terrace opposite the rampart was a row of Aging Tenements broken only at the top of 'Hangmans Brae' by a magnificent 'dressed block' granite single storey house called The Angle (always seemed a mis-spelling to me).  This house was completely out of context with the remainder of the street buildings.  Was it the original Hangmans Abode? The Angle a corruption of Angel of Death or Right Angle for the Gallows Gibbet.  The short drop led to the The Dance of Death by strangulation, child rhyme - See Saw, Marjorie Daw - Johnny shall have a new Master, and the saying Flibberty Gibbet applied to nervous twitches in death throes.

Hangman's Brae was swept away by the urban carraigeway which mow leads up to Commerce Street but the Greenie survives in part..

Petty criminals were hanged, traitors were beheaded on 'Heading Hill' which was approximately where the old Commerce St. School is today. 

The route to 'Heading Hill' led down from Castle Terrace, or Justice Street or via castle Hill Bridge

The Aberdeen Town Hangman was allocated a small, isolated house on what became known as Hangman’s Brae, (Officially Castle Brae) which descended from the lower rampart Terrace to the Castle Hill to the present vicinity of Virginia Street and ran from the main Tenement 'Terrace' down to near James Street at the base of the step flight of Virginia Steps,  to be seen there now.  It was part of the old Futty Wynd which ran to the shorelands The office of Public Executioner was abolished in 1833 when the Council decided that it would be cheaper to hire such a person from somewhere else, as and when needed.   In the event, the last public execution in Aberdeen took place in 1857

Gibbets were strategically placed on the main routes into the town for the same reason – there was one at the Brig o’ Dee, for the benefit of those approaching the Burgh from the south.

Gallows Hill was used from the 14th century until 1776. Gallows Hill is not to be confused with Gallowgate, which led to another gibbet on the Porthill, but was reached by an old road (now Park Road) from the Justice Port at the Castlegate.  Old Aberdeen and Ruthrieston had their own gallows at Tillydrone and the Brig of Dee respectively.

Virginia Steps - much overgrown since my childhood and added Balustrades replace the walled lower section.

Old Castle Terrace Area 1866

Shows Futtie Port and Castle Lane (old Futtie Wynd) and Castle Brae (Hangmans Brae)


Gallows Hill

Galley Hill and GibbetFrom the end of the 16th century until 1776 there was a gibbet on Gallows Hill - (Port Hill or Windmill Hill) which overlooked the Links and, from the early 20th century it overlooked the Pittodrie Stadium, hence its later description as ‘Miser’s Hillie’ – it afforded a free view of the football matches.   It was approached from the Tolbooth or Castlegate via the Justice Port, or Thieves’ Port, now Justice Street, on which the heads and dismembered limbs of executed criminals were displayed.   Thieves Brig crossed the Tile Burn

Otherwise, the bodies of criminals were covered in tar and left hanging in chains or in a kind of cage for years and decades, to discourage persons of similarly malign intent.

Once led to the gallows, the condemned person’s view would have been of open grassland and the distant North Sea.  Hangings always attracted a large crowd, as with the very last hanging which took place in 1776, of Alexander Morison who slew his wife with an axe. It was a cold, stormy day, yet the people came, ghoulishly keen to observe the killer’s final moments.  The real problem with hanging was that they would die slowly of strangulation on the noose.  Morison was brought to the Gallows Hill on a cart, bound hand and foot with the rope around his neck. City executioner Robert Welsh whipped the pony pulling the cart and Morison slowly and painfully choked to death as the cart was yanked from beneath his feet. His body later hung in chains on the gibbet until it rotted as a warning to others.

Fibberty Gibbet -  the dance of death on the end of a rope.

Some old maps show a powder magazine sited on Gallows Hill, and a rifle range extending down the right-of-way between Broad Hill and Gallows Hill, chiming with some of the martial aspects of this part of Aberdeen. An ancient site of execution, where the gibbet remained in place until at least 1776, the choice of this site for the storage of volatile military materiel was apt. No doubt folk would avoid the area if they could, because of its associations with crime and punishment, death and bodily corruption.

Pit and Gallows

It was enacted at the parliament assembled in Forfar in 1057 by King Malcolm Canmore that every baron should erect a gibbet for the execution of male criminals, and sink a well or pit, for the drowning of femaled The term pit and gallows described the jurisdiction of a Baron in criminal cases; in full 'pit and gallows', sake and soke, toll, team, and infangtheif. A pit, according to Mackenzie was a form of dungeon or prison cell, not a pit for drowning the condemned.  Others take the view that the pit was the drowning pool for women and the gallows for the men.  It is not clear why men were more likely to be hung and women drowned in a fen, river, pit or 'murder hole', however it may relate to ideas of decency. In Norse law the reason was that men, were sent to Wodan, and women were given to Ran (a sea goddess) or Hel.  In Norse tradition the pit and gallows stood on the west of the moot-places or the prince's hall ready for use.

The 'furca and fossa', or the 'pit and gallows', refers to the high justice including the capital penalty. The furca was a device for hanging slaves in ancient Rome and refers to the gallows for hanging men; the fossa was a ditch filled with water for the drowning of women. As previously stated, the hereditary right of high justice survived until 1747 when it was removed from the barons and from the holders of Regalities and sheriffdoms, by the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746.

It is not clear that the moot hill was also the actual site of executions; folklore, tradition and the association of separate 'gallow' places names with moot hills on balance suggests that the usual place of execution was a separate 'gallows hill'. At Gardyne Law however an eye witness recalled that judgement and execution took place on the same law.  It does seems unlikely that in those superstitious days meetings would be held at places of death; at Mugdock separate moot and gallow hills are a good example. Such gallows may have been built of worked timber or a Dule Tree may have been used.  RCAHMS records show that human bones have been frequently found in association with 'gallows' place name sites, but not at 'moot' sites. The term 'murder hole' may relate to the drowning sites, bones have been found close to some of these.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013