James Macpherson (1675–1700) was a Scottish outlaw, famed for his Lament or Rant, a version of which was rewritten by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. The original version of the lament is alleged to have been written by Macpherson himself in prison on the eve of his execution.
Macpherson was the illegitimate son of a Highland laird, Macpherson of Invereshie, and a beautiful Tinker or gipsy girl that he met at a wedding. The gentleman acknowledged the child and had him reared in his house. After the death of his father, who was killed while attempting to recover a “spread” of cattle taken from Badenoch by reivers – the boy was reclaimed by his mother’s people. The gipsy woman frequently returned with him, to wait upon his relations and clansmen, who never failed to clothe him well, besides giving money to his mother. He grew up “in beauty, strength and stature rarely equaled.” Macpherson is reported as being a man of uncommon personal strength. He became an expert swordsman and a renowned fiddler, and eventually became the leader of the gipsy band. The tinker-Gypsies then lived by buying and selling horses and seem to have been quite popular with the ordinary country folk.
Though his prowess was debased as the exploits of a freebooter (pirate), it is certain, says one writer, that no act of cruelty or robbery of the widow, the fatherless, or the distressed was ever perpetrated under his command. Indeed, it is alleged that a dispute with an aspiring and savage man of his tribe, who wished to rob a gentleman’s house while his wife and two children lay on the bier for interment, was the cause of his being betrayed to the vengeance of the law. Thus he was betrayed by a man of his own tribe and was the last person executed at Banff previous to the abolition of heritable jurisdictions.
Macpherson had incurred the enmity of the rich lairds and farmers of the low country of Banff and Aberdeenshire, and especially of Duff of Braco, who organised a posse to catch him. “After holding the counties of Aberdeen, Banff, and Moray in fear for some years”, says Chambers, “he was seized by Duff of Braco, ancestor of the Earl of Fife, and tried before the Sheriff of Banffshire (8 November 1700), along with certain Gypsies who had been taken in his company.
Before ultimately being brought to trial, Macpherson was captured several times but always escaped from his enemies. In Aberdeen, his cousin, Donald, and a gipsy named Peter Brown, aided by the populace, rescued him from prison. Shortly afterwards, he was again captured but was once more rescued, this time by the Laird of Grant.
Capture and trial.
Macpherson’s career of robbery had culminated in a “reign of terror” in the markets of Banff, Elgin and Forres. Apparently, under the protection of the Laird of Grant, he and his band of followers would come marching in with a piper at their head. Perhaps he became too powerful for comfort for he was hanged at Banff in 1700, for bearing arms at Keith market. At the Saint Rufus Fair in Keith Macpherson was attacked by Braco’s men, and was captured after a fierce fight in which one of Jamie’s crew was killed. According to the traditional account penned by Jamie himself, a woman dropped a blanket over him from a window, and he was disarmed before he could get free of it. Duff and a very strong escort then took him to Banff prison.
It was still at that time a criminal offence merely to be an Egyptian (Gypsy) in Scotland, and it was under this statute that Macpherson was tried in November 1700. Macpherson and three others were brought to trial at Banff before Sheriff Nicholas Dunbar, Sheriff of Banffshire (who allegedly was a close friend of Duff’s), on 8 November 1700, accused of: “Being ye mercats in yr ordinary manner of thieving and purse-cutting, or of the crimes of theft and masterful bangstree and oppression”, and they were found “Fyllen, culpable, and convick” and sentenced “For sae muckle, as you, James Macpherson, are found guilty of being Egyptians and vagabonds and oppressors of his free lieges. Therefore, I adjudge and decern you to be taken to the cross of Banff to be hanged by the neck to the death”.
The actual procès-verbal of his trial is still extant; the following is the text of the death sentence:
“Forasmeikle as you James Macpherson, pannal [accused] are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian and a wagabond, and oppressor of his Magesties free lieges in ane bangstrie manner, and going up and down the country armed, and keeping mercats in ane hostile manner, and that you are a thief, and that you are of pessimae famae. Therfor, the Sheriff-depute of Banff, and I in his name, adjudges and discernes you the said James Macpherson to be taken to the Cross of Banff, from the tolbooth thereof, where you now lye, and there upon ane gibbet to be erected, to be hanged by the neck to the death by the hand of the common executioner, upon Friday next, being the 16th day of November instant, being a public weekly mercat day, betwixt the hours of two and three in the afternoon…
While under sentence of death in the jail, during the week between his trial and his execution, Macpherson is said to have composed the tune and the song now known as Macpherson’s Lament or Macpherson’s Rant. Sir Walter Scott says that Macpherson played it under the gallows, and, after playing the tune, he then offered his fiddle to anyone in his clan who would play it at his wake. When no one came forward to take the fiddle, he broke it – either across his knee or over the executioner’s head – and then threw it into the crowd with the remark, “No one else shall play Jamie Macpherson’s fiddle”. The broken fiddle now lies in the Macpherson Clan museum near Newtonmore, Inverness-shire. He then was hanged or, according to some accounts, threw himself from the ladder, to hang by his own will. This was allegedly the last capital sentence executed in Scotland under Heritable Jurisdiction, taking place on 16 November 1700.
The traditional accounts of Macpherson’s immense prowess seem justified by his bones, which were found not very many years ago, and were allowed by all who saw them to be much stronger than the bones of ordinary men. He was assuredly no ordinary man, that he could so disport himself on the morning of his execution.
It is universally believed in the North-East of Scotland that a reprieve was on its way to Banff at the time of the execution. The legend has it that Duff of Braco saw a lone rider coming from Turriff and correctly assumed that he carried a pardon for Jamie from the Lord of Grant. As the story goes, he then set about turning the village clock 15 minutes ahead and so hanging Macpherson before the pardon arrived. The magistrates allegedly were punished for this and the town clock was kept 15 minutes before the correct time for many years. Even to this day, the town of Macduff has its west-facing town clock covered so the people of Banff can’t see the correct time!
A text (and there are many variations) of “Macpherson’s Lament or Rant” follows:
I've spent my life in rioting, Debauch'd my health and strength, I squander'd fast, as pillage came, And fell to shame at length. Chorus: Sae rantingly, sae wantonly, Sae dauntingly gaed he; He play'd a tune, and danc'd it roon' Below the gallows-tree. My father was a gentleman, Of fame and honour high, Oh mother, would you ne'er had borne The son so doom'd to die. Chorus Ach, little did my mother think When first she cradled me That I would turn a roving boy And die on the gallows tree Chorus Farewell, yon dungeons dark and strong, The wretch's destinie! Macpherson's time will not be long On yonder gallows-tree. Chorus O what is Death but parting breath? On many a bloody plain I've dar'd his face, and in this place I'll scorn him yet again. Chorus But vengeance I never did wreak, When pow'r was in my hand, And you, dear friends, no vengeance seek, It is my last command. Chorus Forgive the man whose rage betray'd Macpherson's worthless life; When I am gone, be it not said, My legacy was strife. Chorus It was by a woman's treacherous hand That I was condemned tae dee Aboon a ledge at a windae she stood And a blanket she threw o'er me Chorus Untie these bands frae aff o' my hands And gie tae me my sword There's no a man in a' Scotland But I'll brave him at his word Chorus There's some come here tae see me hang And some tae buy my fiddle But afore that I dae part wi' her I'd brak' her through the middle Chorus He took his fiddle into both of his hands And he brak' it o'er a stone Said, Nae ither hands shall play on thee When I am deid and gane Chorus Now farewell light, thou sunshine bright, " And all beneath the sky! May coward shame distain his name, The wretch that dares not die! Chorus A reprieve was coming o'er the brig o' Banff Tae set Macpherson free, But they pit the clock a quarter afore And they hanged him from a tree. Chorus Sae rantingly, sae wantonly, Sae dauntingly gaed he; He play'd a tune, and danc'd it roon' And they hanged him from a tree.