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Issue 54 - The blood thirsty lawyer

Scotland Magazine Issue 54
December 2010


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The blood thirsty lawyer

Annie Harrower-Gray goes in search of George Mackenzie's bloody legend

Throughout the 19th century, boys of George Herriot’s School in Edinburgh enjoyed a prank that made them shudder with both fear and pleasure. Sneaking into the neighbouring Greyfriars churchyard, pupils would peer through the grating of ‘The Black Mausoleum’ and cry out: It seems that the King’s Advocate, known as ‘the hanging judge’ despised small boys as much as they abhorred his memory. One schoolboy, hiding in the vault to escape a beating from a master became trapped and is said to have lost his mind after being confronted by ‘Mackenzie’s entity.’ Born in Dundee in 1636 to Elizabeth Bruce and Simon Mackenzie of Lochslin, George by his tenth year of schooling had mastered all the classics. He went on to study Greek and philosophy at St. Andrews and Aberdeen and spent his first years as a lawyer protesting against ignorance, superstition and the burning of witches.

He later founded the Advocates Library in Edinburgh and strangely, given his English connections, opposed an Act of Union between the parliaments of Scotland and England.

George Mackenzie may have gone on to be a national hero after his death had not his personal ambition and thirst for blood intervened.

Around 1660, Mackenzie was appointed a justice-depute, or assistant to the chief justice. Part of his duties was to visit Musselburgh and Dalkeith, and judge those accused of witchcraft.

In one account of these trials written by Mackenzie, he claims a poor creature was glad to confess, not because she was guilty but she knew that being defamed as a witch meant no one would give her meat or lodgings and she would rather be out of this world than starve. It is most likely this speech was coerced by Mackenzie to dissuade others from protesting innocence.

This period serving as justice-depute supplied Mackenzie with experience of the dark sciences and matter for his work on the criminal law of Scotland. He employed his talents to pervert every principle of law and justice in order to condemn those he chose to execute. One famous trick was to overawe the jury with his knowledge of the law and threaten to serve a writ of error if they failed to bring in a proper verdict, the verdict suggested by him. It was a talent that served him well in destroying the Covenanters and advancing his career at the English court of Charles II.

On 28th February 1638, The National Covenant was signed in front of the pulpit of Greyfriars church, the signatories choosing Presbyterianism over Anglicanism as the national religion of Scotland. Charles I promised to honour the covenant and then went back on his word. It was the signing of this document that precipitated financial ruin for the king and ultimately the English Civil war.

The restoration in 1660 began the Covenanter’s period of martyrdom. Their armies fought the crown and the Covenant was declared illegal. For the following 25 years the signatories would be brutally persecuted.

Presbyterianism was not the only religion Charles II had to contend with. His brother the Duke of York (later James VII of Scotland, II of England) held views on restoring Catholicism that were opposed in England. To ease the situation, Charles exiled him to Scotland as his majesty’s commissioner. This cruel and vindictive bigot saw no truth in anything Rome had not sanctioned.

The tyranny he imposed upon the Scottish people was calculated to subjugate them and by York’s reasoning eventually convert England to Catholicism. Mackenzie was his perfect tool.

In his persecution of the Covenanters, Mackenzie proved just how low he could sink in his quest for victims. Two such victims were Isabel Alison, a single woman from Perth and Marion Harvie, a young maid from Borrowstouness.

Council apprehended both on suspicion of one having passed remarks on the cruelty soldiers inflicted on the covenanters and the other of being on her way to hear a forbidden field sermon. There was little evidence against them apart from both admitting to having heard the Cameronian minister Patrick Scargill preach. The Cameronians publicly renounced their allegiance to Charles II and were especially sought out for persecution. Despite lack of evidence the case was transferred to the criminal court. At their trial the jury alleged that no fact had been proved.

Mackenzie angrily replied the women had admitted to treason, one of the advocate’s favourite accusations when all else failed. He demanded that the jury reached a verdict according to law. He went on to threaten that if they did not, he would bring a writ against them.

Isabel Alison and Marion Harvey were both condemned to death by hanging at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh on 26th January 1681 and this barbarous sentence was carried out, imposing maximum humiliation on the two women. They were hanged alongside three other women accused of infanticide and other crimes so that they would be deemed as worthless as their fellow-sufferers.

As the two martyrs were led to the scaffold, Paterson Bishop of Edinburgh tried to drown out their last devotions by having one of his own Episcopal curates give a devotional service. With great dignity Marion turned to her companion and said ‘Bel, let us sing the twenty-third psalm’ The pair sang psalms and prayed on the scaffold with such fervour, the curate could not be heard. Both were prepared to meet their death not with resignation but with triumph. In her final speech Marion condemned the Anglican religion that had brought her to the scaffold with false accusations of treason. The officer of the guard cut her last testimony short by commanding the hangman to give her up. She was then promptly strangled.

Mackenzie died on 2nd May, 1691 and his body was conveyed with great pomp and ceremony to Greyfriars Churchyard, between the old Flodden wall and the candlemakers building now a public house, the graveyard well known as the resting place of that loyal Skye Terrier, Greyfriar’s Bobby.

Queen Mary donated this deserted Franciscan friary to the people of Edinburgh in 1561 when the graveyard at St. Giles became full. The choice of his last resting place was ironic in that he was buried within the Covenanters prison. This area of the churchyard became Britain’s first recorded concentration camp in 1679 when around 12,000 covenanting men, women and children were herded into the squalor of its confines.

A homeless man looking for shelter on a cold and dark winters night is said to have awoken Mackenzie’s poltergeist. Since that night some 500 people have fallen prey to supernatural experiences around ‘The Black Mausoleum.’ Are those just pranks inspired by the dramatic stories told by Ghost Tour presenters haunting the graveyard?

Could the incidents be connected to the underlying geology of the area? It is not uncommon in cemeteries for natural forces to bring old bones to the surface. Or could it simply be that Mackenzie in death is as malicious as he was venal and vindictive in life?