CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
most of Britain, what passed for justice in Edinburgh, amounted to the
harshest punishments for even the least misdemeanors. The stealing of
a loaf of bread or failure to notify authorities of a pregnancy were sufficient
crimes to warrant a hanging, though petty criminals (often vagrants) were
more commonly abused in a brutal and public manner to provide a means
Typically this would involve dragging the poor miscreant to the Mercat
Cross, or a similarly public site to be shackled and shamed.
Burning criminals at the stake was an alternative to hanging, particularly
as serious criminals were seen to forfeit rights to 'dignified' execution
or burial. It was also a public spectacle in which the principle of prevention
was seen to be at its most effective. Keeping such retribution in the
public eye was a matter of displaying disembodied heads on spikes around
the walls of the city.
Making sure that justice was 'seen' to be done was taken to its extreme
in the case of traitor Francis Maubray who was killed during an attempted
escape from his cell at Edinburgh
Castle. Despite his denial of guilt, the royal warrant served
on him, was deemed to necessitate continuity of his trial. His cold, lifeless
corpse was therefore taken to court to receive official sentence. Found
guilty of treason, his body was drawn, quartered and then displayed in
typical fashion around conspicuous sites in the city.
The regicide (murder of a ruling agent) of James I (1406-1437), perpetuated
by Walter, the Earl of Atholl and his grandson Robert Graham, was met
by horrific retribution. For masterminding the plot, Walter was subjected
to various forms of bone-breaking torture culminating in a ceremony during
which vital organs were removed before his eyes and thrown into a fire.
Superstition and accepted belief were often inseparable in view of crimes
involving woman, seen as either immoral or wayward. If some calamity or
misfortune could not be readily explained with reference to logic, suspicion,
followed by 'mob rule', would ensure that a suitable candidate was accused
and tried, often without any basis in evidence. Guilt would be established,
either through torture and a likely confession, or ducking.
This preposterous practice involved submerging the accused in water on
a stool to which they were shackled. If they floated up to the surface
they were assumed to be a witch. If they remained underwater and drowned,
the accusation would be proved false. One might hope, in view of these
customs, that Scottish justice has moved forward, somewhat, from days
in which over 200 crimes were punishable by hanging.