Our Legal Heritage: James Macpherson – hung for being an ‘Egyptian’

Our Legal Heritage: James Macpherson – hung for being an ‘Egyptian’

Burns, part of the Macpherson cult

He has attained folk hero status as a sort of Scottish Robin Hood and at Burns Suppers around the country this weekend his execution will be recalled with performances of ‘Macpherson’s Farewell’ also known as Macpherson’s ‘Rant’ or ‘Lament’.

But who was the 25-year old who met his end on a gallows in Banff on November 16, 1700 and why was he accused of being an Egyptian?

Macpherson was a ‘dykesider’, the term for an illegitimate Laird’s offspring in the North East of Scotland. He was born as the result of a liaison between his father, Macpherson of Invereshie, and a traveller girl after they met at a wedding. He was raised in his father’s house until Macpherson senior’s untimely death whereupon his mother reclaimed him but he always remained on good terms with both sides of his family.

He was said to cut quite a dash and was “in beauty, strength and stature rarely equalled.” He was a legendary swordsman and a gifted fiddler. To what extent his attributes have been exaggerated in the telling – we’ll never know. But he does seem to have been a charismatic figure and attracted a band of traveller followers who paid scant regard to the law.

Macpherson and his men targetted rich lairds and wealthy farmers and seem to have enjoyed some support from local folk. Eventually they became so emboldened that their entry to towns on market days would be preceded by a piper. His reign of robbery, mayhem and terror extended across Aberdeenshire in the market towns of Keith, Forres, Banff and Elgin but finally incurred the displeasure of Lord Duff of Braco who made several attempts to capture Macpherson. On one occasion he was detained but was freed by his brother who was assisted by the populace of Aberdeen.

He was finally captured by Duff and his men at the Saint Rufus Fair in Keith. Macpherson’s men put up stiff resistance and one of them was killed. But Duff prevailed and Macpherson was taken to the tolbooth in Banff under heavy guard.

In 1609, the Scottish Parliament passed an act against Romani groups known as the “Act against the Egyptians”, which made it lawful to condemn, detain and execute Gypsies if they were known or reputed to be ethnically Romani.

It was not the most enlightened piece of legislation and the sentencing statement made at Macpherson’s trial makes interesting reading:

“Forasmeikle as you James Macpherson, pannal, are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian and a wagabond, and oppressor of his Magesties free lieges in ane bangstrie manner, and going up and down the country armed, and keeping mercats in ane hostile manner, and that you are a thief, and that you are of pessimae famae. Therfor, the Sheriff-depute of Banff, and I in his name, adjudges and discernes you the said James Macpherson to be taken to the Cross of Banff, from the tolbooth thereof, where you now lye, and there upon ane gibbet to be erected, to be hanged by the neck to the death by the hand of the common executioner, upon Friday next, being the 16th day of November instant, being a public weekly mercat day, betwixt the hours of two and three in the afternoon….”

In the run up to his execution Macpherson composed his famous ‘Rant’ and Duff is said to have ordered the Banff clock to be put forward to thwart a reprieve that was on its way. Macpherson sang his lament on the gallows and smashed his fiddle before meeting his fate.

A legend was born and Robert Burns was instrumental in developing the cult of Macpherson with his rewrite of the famous rant:

Farewell, ye dungeons dark and strong,
The wretch’s destinie!
McPherson’s time will not be long,
On yonder gallows-tree.

Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,
Sae dauntingly gaed he;
He play’d a spring, and danc’d it round,
Below the gallows-tree.

O what is death but parting breath?
On many a bloody plain
I’ve dar’d his face, and in this place
I scorn him yet again!

Untie these bands from off my hands,
And bring me to my sword;
And there’s no a man in all Scotland,
But I’ll brave him at a word.

I’ve liv’d a life of sturt and strife;
I die by treacherie:
It burns my heart I must depart,
And not avenged be.

Now farewell light, thou sunshine bright,
And all beneath the sky!
May coward shame distain his name,
The wretch that dares not die!

Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,
Sae dauntingly gaed he;
He play’d a spring, and danc’d it round,
Below the gallows-tree.

Graham Ogilvy

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