EXECUTION  AT  ELGIN.   (1810) Courtesy of NLS Word on the Street

When the drop gave way, so great was the fall, that he yielded his spirit without a struggle....Having hung an hour, he was cut down and put into irons, and he now remains suspended to his gibbet, a shocking example of the dreadful effects of vice, when permitted to usurp the empire of reason; an example which, it is hoped, will strike deep into the minds of the rising generation, and tend to prevent the recurrence of such terrifying spectacles.
— A Broadside entitled Execution at Elgin (1810). (Pictured). From the National Library of Scotlands' Word on The Street Archive

Alexander Gillan was a farmer’s servant in the parish of Speymouth, Elgin who was condemned before the Circuit Court at Inverness in 1810 for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Elspet Lamb. The court heard how she had been herding her father’s cattle when Gillan barbarously assaulted her and beat her to death. When passing the death sentence, the Lord Justice Clerk stated that the magnitude of the crime required an exemplary response and added that the location chosen for the offence was remote and well calculated due to the ample concealment it offered and thus it was his duty to make the area “as safe as the streets of the most populated cities.” Therefore, Gillan was to be executed upon the spot where the body had been found and his body was to be hung in chains to act as a constant warning of the fatal consequences of murder.[1]

The Murder Act of 1752 had directed that the bodies of executed murderers be either dissected or hung in chains. However, although gibbeting remained a legal penal option until 1834, in Scotland it had disappeared in practice by the late 1770s. The reasons for the cessation of the punishment can be linked to the changes that occurred to the carrying out of capital punishment more widely. For example, the shift in the locations at which executions were conducted meant that the newer and more centrally located common places of execution were unsuitable for the long term gibbeting of a dead body. In addition, there was evidence that in the most heinous murder cases in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the courts had considered sentencing the punishment but refrained primarily due to a belief that it would be detrimental to the local area. Therefore Gillan’s case provides an interesting exception to an otherwise uninterrupted pattern of the decline in gibbeting. Although his crime stood out in its atrocity, what is crucial to our understanding of why the courts ordered that his body be hung in chains is its correlation with an increase in crime scene executions in the early nineteenth century. The remote location he had chosen for the perpetration of his crime would later serve as a suitable location for the gibbeting of his criminal corpse. Therefore, the court was not only willing to forgo the concerns that had previously prevented the use of hanging in chains, they were also willing to pay the additional costs of having the gibbet and the iron cage in which the body would be encased custom-made to provide a stark reminder of the reward for murder.

Gillan’s execution in November 1810 was attended by an immense crowd who had followed in procession from the place of confinement in Elgin. After the body had been suspended for one hour it was taken down to be placed into the iron cage and hung up again from the projecting arm of the wooden gibbet post. A broadside detailing his execution described the process and stated its hope that the example would “strike deep into the minds of the rising generation and tend to prevent the reoccurrence of such terrifying spectacles.”[2] From a reading of this evidence one gets the impression that when the author wrote of a desire to prevent the reoccurrence of the spectacle they were referring to the nature of the crime as well as to the nature of the punishment. Despite the authorities aiming to ensure the longevity of the punishment by ordering the gibbet post to be a great height, the night following the execution several of the local inhabitants went back to the scene to take the body down and they buried it at the foot of the gibbet, although part of the cage remained in the trees for years after. It does not appear that any action was taken against the perpetrators, perhaps as the central legal authorities had departed the area, and the body remained buried until 1911 when it was discovered during cultivation of the land by the Duke of Richmond and Gordon. Gillan’s skeleton was discovered along with the gibbet chain but the Duke ordered that it be reburied with a slab put over the spot to mark ‘Gillan’s Grave-November 1810’.[3] There were cases in the eighteenth century of bodies being illegally removed from the gibbet cages and taken away for burial whether this was by family, relatives or the local inhabitants of an area. However there was certainly no public sympathy for Gillan due to the atrocious nature of his crime and thus the removal of his body was most likely prompted by a desire to remove the sight and smell of the rotting corpse from the area rather than any desire to see him properly buried or to afford him any dignity. Attending an execution may have caused a great deal of interest in a local area not accustomed to the spectacle but witnessing this prolonged post-mortem punishment and having it entrenched within the landscape indefinitely was clearly a step too far. 


[1] NAS JC11/51/38.

[2] National Library of Scotland [hereafter NLS], A Broadside of Gillan’s Execution, 6.314 (23).

[3] Aberdeen Journal, Friday 16 June 1911, p. 5. 

BANNER IMAGE: Broadside entitled 'Execution at Elgin' (1810) Image courtesy of The Word on the Street Archive - National Library of Scotland.