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From the archives in association with the Highland Archive Centre: The Burgh of Inverness Treasurer’s Accounts documents grim punishments for law breakers

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Treasurers accounts
Treasurers accounts

The Burgh of Inverness Treasurer’s Accounts documents a wide range of expenses incurred by the city in a variety of ways. One of the regular entries is for the hangman’s expenses and all the others incurred from keeping, flogging and executing the condemned criminal.

In one small extract, dated 1749, we can get a sense of the number of people involved in the 18th century world of crime and punishment. There are those who were tasked (and therefore paid) for finding criminals on the run, and for “carrying of the ladder, coffen & digging of graves”. Then there are costs for “ropes for the several executions” and “the Executioner’s fees for executing the several criminals and a whipping”.

The “Hangman” (also referred to as Dempster or Executioner) was paid well and was also given reasonable lodgings, a clothing and food allowance and could help himself to a fresh fish at the market. However, this was not a sought-after job, hence the “perks” given to sweeten the fact he would have been unpopular with the general public, feared and shunned by many.

What we know today as Castle Street was known in mediaeval times as “Doomsdale” as it led to the town gibbet, about half a mile to the south of the town centre, on the “Barran Muir”. When houses were being built there in the mid-20th century, excavations found the remains of more than 20 people, all buried “standing up” so that, even in death, they would have no rest.

Map showing gibbet
Map showing gibbet

As well as actual hangings, the Hangman’s duties included putting people in the pillory and carrying out floggings at the Exchange. Floggings were carried out at midday on Fridays when convicts would be led out from the jail (Tolbooth) to the Mercat Cross. This stood where the present-day Inverness Town House is. The prisoner would have their hands tied behind their back, followed by the Hangman who would hold one end of the rope whilst the other, with the noose, would be around the prisoner’s neck. To add to the humiliation, there would also be a placard around the prisoner’s neck carrying details of the crime they were meant to have committed such as “A thief and a liar!” and “a notorious liar and a pernicious thief!”

The spectacle always drew a good crowd as Fridays were market days, and even female victims would be stripped to the waist and led through the town to the beat of a drum. This practice was eventually abolished (for females) in 1817 by an Act of Parliament. When people were flogged it was not unusual for banishment also to be included in the sentence. This might be for a few months or years but there are many examples of people being banished from the burgh of Inverness for life.

Such harsh sentences were given to people for all sorts of crimes, including for being drunk on a Sunday or for stealing even small amounts of food.

• The Highland Archive Centre is open on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. To make a booking or to enquire about remote archive or family history research email archives@highlifehighland.com, call 01349 781130 or visit here.

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