GIBBETING JAMES STEWART

BY DR. RACHEL BENNETT


I do declare that I made no confession of the crime alledged against me, at Inverary, or elsewhere; and that I had it not to make.....I die in full hopes of mercy.
— James Stewart's Dying Speech as printed in Scots Magazine, 6th November, 1752

The case of James Stewart in 1752 occurred in the wake of 1745 Jacobite Rebellion and embodied tensions still evident in the political management of parts of Scotland. The highest legal authorities in Scotland, as well as those in London, monitored its progress from his apprehension to his trial and subsequent execution. Despite deficiencies in the case against him there was an evident determination to see him receive swift and exemplary punishment. James had been active for the rebels during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion and was the illegitimate brother of Charles Stewart of Ardshiel, the exiled leader of the Lochaber and Appin Stewarts. Prior to the murder, James was employed by Colin Campbell of Glenure, also known as the ‘Red Fox’, as his assistant. Campbell was the Crown Factor on the forfeited estates of Ardsheal, Callert and a portion of Lochiel and Stewart helped to oversee the properties, which had once belonged to members of his clan. The determination of the authorities, and powerful members of Clan Campbell, to prosecute and convict James Stewart, despite the deficiencies in the evidence against him, demonstrated this continued tension in the area even after the Jacobite cause was soundly defeated in 1746.


On 14th May 1752 Colin Campbell was on route to Lochaber to carry out evictions of Stewart tenants in the area. One of his travelling companions and kinsman, Mungo Campbell, provided an account of the events that led to his murder to the court. They were travelling through Lettermore Wood, on the south side of Loch Linnhe. As the road was too narrow to accommodate two horses riding abreast Colin rode behind him. Mungo heard two gunshots and turned to find Colin had been shot in the back. Although Mungo told the court that he caught a brief glimpse of the assailant he was only able to recall his dark coat. Despite attempts to get him medical attention, Colin died shortly after.[1] The scene of the murder continues to be commemorated. The events that followed led to perhaps one of the most well-known, yet still contentious, cases in Scottish legal history. Immediately following the murder the case attracted widespread attention. On 18th May Charles Areskine, the Lord Justice Clerk, wrote to the Earl of Holderness, the Secretary of State, in London to assure him that a vigorous enquiry would be made in order that the “barbarous wretches, actors and accomplices of this assassination may be discovered and exemplarily punished”.[2] In reply Holderness had warned Areskine of the dangerous consequences should this “notorious attack” on the government go unpunished.[3] James Stewart was accused as he and the deceased had previously engaged in public disputes despite working together. Stewart had claimed Campbell was “no friend of his” as he carried out his business with a “high hand”.[4]

Image of the ‘Appin Murder Cairn’ which commemorates the spot upon which the murder occurred. The plaque on the cairn reads "This cairn is erected on the spot where Colin Campbell of Glenure was murdered on 14 May 1752. Image Author Euan Nelson, reproduced from Wikimedia Commons. 

Image of the ‘Appin Murder Cairn’ which commemorates the spot upon which the murder occurred. The plaque on the cairn reads "This cairn is erected on the spot where Colin Campbell of Glenure was murdered on 14 May 1752. Image Author Euan Nelson, reproduced from Wikimedia Commons


From the beginning of the legal proceedings the odds were stacked against Stewart as he was to be tried before the Western Circuit at Inveraray, a Campbell stronghold, as opposed to the High Court in Edinburgh which may have been more appropriate for such a high profile case. In addition, 11 of the 15 jurors in the case had the last name Campbell and the presiding judge was Archibald Campbell, the Duke of Argyll and Chief of Clan Campbell. Stewart was indicted and convicted of being guilty “art and part” of the murder and this in itself demonstrates the determination of the authorities to see someone capitally punished for the crime as the suspected principal actor, Allen Breck Stewart, was never found nor tried for the murder. During debates over the reform of Scots law in the 1820s a particular critique expressed by Whigs such as Henry Cockburn centred upon the Scottish system of jury selection. 45 persons would be gathered from the surrounding areas and named in the circuit court as potential jurors. From these, the presiding judge would choose the 15 to hear the case. In his critique of the system in 1822 Cockburn used Stewart’s case to highlight the defects of the system as he claimed there were several qualified jurors who had no affiliation to either side and could have been balloted to be on the jury but instead a Campbell judge was allowed to appoint a Campbell jury in what Cockburn called a “mockery of justice”.[5] 

Following a lengthy trial James was sentenced to be taken back to the prison of Inveraray until 5th October when he was to begin the journey through Argyleshire to Inverness and then onto Fort William. On 7th November, he was to be escorted by three companies of soldiers on the ferry to Ballachullish in Appin, on the south side of Loch Linnhe and there to be executed upon a gibbet to be erected on a “conspicuous eminence” on the 8th November. His body was to be subsequently hung in chains on the same spot.[6] The location was chosen due to its proximity to the murder scene and as the nearby Ballachullish was the home of Stewart. Due to the political tensions surrounding the case, largely attributable to the doubts over his guilt, his gibbeted body was to be guarded by 16 men from the command at Appin. A military guard built a hut at the scene and it was continually guarded until April 1754. In January 1755, it was reported to the High Court that the body had blown down but the Lord Justice Clerk ordered it to be speedily hung up again before the news spread and attempts could be made to bury the body.[7]


James Stewart’s trial occurred just prior to the time when the Murder Act came into effect yet he was sentenced to be hung in chains, as were others at the time, due to the believed heinous nature of his crime and the need to make a stark example. Immediately following the murder the correspondence between the highest legal authorities in Scotland and London demonstrated the widespread concern over finding the perpetrator. Shortly after the capital conviction was returned reports of the trial had been sent to London. Holderness wrote to the Lord Advocate to commend how the whole had been conducted and stated that “nothing could be more material to the future wellbeing and governing of distant parts of Scotland”. Furthermore, he hoped the exemplary punishment of this notorious criminal would convince those “previously misled that hitherto the only true and solid happiness was founded on His Majesty’s authority and protection.”[8] From this correspondence we can discern undertones that Stewart’s case was being billed as almost treasonous in nature. Despite standing trial, and facing death and hanging in chains, for murder his execution was to make a lasting political statement. The case continues to garner debate today with a general consensus that neither James Stewart, nor even Allen Breck Stewart, committed the murder. Some years following his execution and hanging in chains the body was taken down from the gibbet and secretly buried in the chapel of Keil which was situated on the shore of Loch Linnhe. Today Stewart’s case continues to attract visitors to the scene of the execution and believed location of his burial. A memorial was erected in 1911 poignantly stating that he was executed “for a crime of which he was not guilty”.

James Stewart's monument erected in 1911. Image Author James Yardley.  Image from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Licence.

James Stewart's monument erected in 1911. Image Author James Yardley.  Image from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Licence.

[1] National Archives Scotland JC8/14/27.(NAS) JC13/10/25.

[2] The National Archives (TNA) SP54/42/9A.

[3] TNA SP54/42/12.

[4] NAS JC13/10/61.

[5] Henry Cockburn, Observations on the Mode of Choosing Juries in Scotland (Edinburgh: 1822), pp. 90-92. In 1825 the criminal law was reformed to permit the balloting of juries in Scotland.

[6] NAS JC13/10/165.

[7] Scots Magazine, Monday 6 October 1755, p. 48.

[8] TNA SP54/42/34. 


BANNER IMAGE: Appin Murder Cairn. The plaque on the cairn reads "This cairn is erected on the spot where Colin Campbell of Glenure was murdered on 14 May 1752". Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.