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Issue 68 - The hanged man

Scotland Magazine Issue 68
April 2013


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The hanged man

James Irvine Robertson investigates the events leading up to Scotland's only execution for blasphemy

In 1696, intellectual life in Europe was stirring. In Amsterdam, the philosopher Spinoza was laying the ground for the Enlightenment and the Scots Parliament passed an Education act that stipulated that every parish without a school must provide premises and a paid teacher. The funds were to be raised by a tax on local land holders and the supervision would be undertaken by the Church Presbyteries. But six witches were burned at Paisley in the last mass execution for witchcraft in Western Europe, a seventh escaped justice by killing himself the night before, and the only man ever executed in Scotland for blasphemy was hanged in Edinburgh.

A dozen years before the Union with England, the country was in an unhappy state. The economy was dire. William, a Dutchman, was king and he had been imposed on the nation by England as part of their Glorious Revolution. He was brought over to preserve the Protestant Succession, but his Protestantism was feeble stuff compared to the fiery ferocity of Scots Presbyterianism and the laws passed to ensure the preservation of the principles of the National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. Scotland shared a king with England, but it ran itself with the Church holding extraordinary influence.

The unfortunate Thomas Aikenhead was in the third year of his studies at Edinburgh University, a good student 'not vicious and extremely studious'. His father had been an apothecary and in the city and both his parents had died when he was a child. Then as now students will blether about anything, particularly when in their cups which has never been infrequent in Edinburgh. Aikenhead considered himself a Freethinker, likely influenced by Spinoza, whose books along with Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and other atheistical writers were in the University Library. Spinoza believed that the Deity is abstract and impersonal and that God and Nature were two names for the same reality. This was good meaty stuff for students to chew over, but one of Aikenhead's fellow students, a Mungo Craig, reported his view to the authorities. It has been suggested that Aikenhead was set up and provided with atheistical books and ideas by Craig. Indeed Aikenhead stated that the opinions he expressed were those of the authors of the books, not his own.

The Privy Council was already in a bit of a flap about the rise of irreligious opinions and had ordered a trawl of Edinburgh bookshops for works that were "atheistical, erroneous or profane or vicious". In November 1696, Aikenhead was summoned before it, charged with Blasphemy and sent for trial. The charges were that for more than twelve months Aikenhead had blasphemed against God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures, and all revealed religion. Aikenhead was accused of having said that theology was "a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense" and made up of "poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras". It was reported that he had called the Old Testament "Ezra's Fables" and the New Testament "the History of the impostor Christ who learned magic in Egypt and picked up a few ignorant blockish fisher fellows". The 'friends' told the court that Aikenhead rejected the Trinity as "not worth any man's refutation", scoffed at the incarnation as contradictory, professed pantheism, and denied creation. They further reported that he had declared that he preferred Mohammed to Jesus and hoped to see Christianity soon extirpated. Finally, he was accused of having wished, when cold, to warm in Hell.

Five men summoned to be jurors refused to attend and were fined. The prosecution was undertaken by the Lord Advocate, Sir JamesStewart of Goodtrees, a Covenanter, who wrote the act in 1690 that established Presbyterianism in Scotland. Aikenhead was charged under two acts. The 1661 Act ordained death for anyone "not being distracted in his wits" who shall "rail upon or curse or deny God, and obstinately continue therein." The 1695 Act confirmed the earlier act but graduated its penalties: first offence, imprisonment and sackcloth; second offence, imprisonment, sackcloth, and a fine; third offence, death. Aikenhead had no defence counsel, nor was it suggested he should have one, who might have pointed out that he was a minor at the time of the offences, or that the jury had no direct evidence when they unanimously found the prisoner guilty of 'railing against God, railing at and cursing Christ, and of the whole other articles in the libel.' or that it was his first offence and only merited imprisonment. Or that he sincerely repented what he had said. The accused was sentenced to death.

Aikenhead petitioned the Privy Council to consider his "deplorable circumstances and tender years." Two ministers and two Privy Councillors pleaded on his behalf, but to no avail. On January 7, after another petition, the Privy Council ruled that they would not grant a reprieve unless the church interceded for him. The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly urged "vigorous execution" to curb "the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land". and the sentence was confirmed.

Aikenhead was executed on 8 January 1697, having been marched to the gallows ‘between a strong Guard of Fuzileers, drawn up in two Lines’, possibly reflected anxiety that popular sympathy might lead to an insurrection on his behalf. He was said to have died Bible in hand, "with all the Marks of a true Penitent".

North of the border, many clergy spoke out strongly in favour of his punishment, believing that ‘God was glorified by such ane awful & exemplary punishment’.

In London, the case was fully reported and shocked public opinion. The historian Lord MacAulay sums up posterity's verdict on the case 'The preachers who were the boy's murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and while he was struggling in the last agony, insulted Heaven with prayers more blasphemous than anything that he had ever uttered.'