James Macpherson was hanged in Banff on the 16th of November, 1700.
James ‘Jimmy’ Macpherson, the famous fiddling freebooter, was a Banffshire outlaw and the last man to have been hanged in Banff prior to the abolition of Heritable Jurisdiction. Whilst the story of Jimmy Macpherson is true, his history has rather become intermingled with folklore, but it seems that the best legends are those that embellish true facts. So, whether or not Jimmy truly was an expert swordsman and a famous fiddler, he does appear to have ended up as the leader of a band of thieves and vagabonds with a sideline as a legitimate horse dealer. He was of gypsy origin as confirmed by the records of his trial, so it’s amusing to think that the lived as a lot of such folk still do, by buying and selling the means of transport; horses then and second-hand cars now. According to many accounts, Jimmy seems to have evolved into Banffshire’s answer to Robbing Hood, but Macpherson's downfall came through conceit.
James Macpherson was born about 1675, the illegitimate son of one of the Macphersons of Invereshie and a beautiful gypsy girl he met at a wedding. Jimmy was acknowledged by his father and brought up at Invereshie House near Kincraig until that man’s death, after which he was brought up by his mother's people, with some measure of support from his paternal family. Jimmy’s father was said to have been killed while attempting to recover a spread of cattle stolen in Badenoch. His mother’s people were gypsies or ‘Egyptians’ as such folk had been known in Scotland since the time of the early Stewart Kings, given that ‘gypsy’ derives from the term ‘Egyptian’. According to the first volume of the ‘New Monthly Magazine’, Jimmy “grew up to beauty, strength and stature rarely equalled”, but how can we believe that; not even Johnny Depp deserves such an accolade. The anonymous author of that magazine article would also have us believe that “no act of cruelty, or robbery of the widow, the fatherless, or the distressed was ever perpetrated under his command” – and, neither he nor his men had to wear tights under their kilts.
Macpherson’s band of lawless freebooters operated in the shires of Aberdeen, Banff and Moray, and although he was captured on two occasions, he managed to escape on both occasions. According to a report in ‘The New Statistical Account of Scotland’, published by William Blackwood and Sons, in 1845, Macpherson and his large, armed gang developed the habit of arriving on market days in places like Forres, Elgin or Banff and marching in as cock-sure as you like, behind a blawing piper. His ‘reign of terror’ came to an end at Saint Rufus’ Fair in Keith in September 1700, when Macpherson and his crew were surprised by Alexander Duff, the Laird of Braco, and some of his followers. Braco was the first to seize upon Macpherson and a desperate fight ensued in which one of Macpherson’s men was killed. It was only by blankets being thrown over his head from the windows above that his numerous assailants could obtain any advantage over him. However, he still contrived to escape their clutches and fled “seeking to reach the gable of the church” and “parrying the attack of his enemies by the way”. But, “he fell over a gravestone” and was captured and lodged in the tollbooth in Banff. Three of his men, a Gordon and twa Brouns, were also captured and imprisoned.
MacPherson was tried at Banff before Nicholas Dunbar, the Sheriff of Banffshire, on the 8th of November, 1700. His three cohorts were tried the following Spring, but bear in mind that at the end of the 18th Century in Scotland, it was still a capital crime merely to be an ‘Egyptian’ and it was under such a statute that MacPherson was tried. An extant procès-verbal of his trial records the details for posterity: “Forasmeikle as you James M’Pherson, pannal 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… Therfor, the Sheriff-depute of Banff, and I in his name, adjudges and discernes you [Macpherson] to be taken to the Cross of Banff… to be hanged by the neck to the death… betwixt the hours of two and three in the afternoon…”
The foregoing is essentially fact, but now the legend takes over. Apparently, Macpherson was a fiddler of renown and a composer to boot, but that is something for which there is absolutely no contemporary evidence. One of his men, Peter Broune, who was jailed with him, “got money sometyms for playing on the wiol [viol – a precursor of the modern fiddle]...”, which might be significant; at least it’s an interesting coincidence. On the other hand, a broadside entitled ‘The Last Words of James Macpherson, Murderer’, which was printed about 1705, contains nothing at all about any dramatic gesture such as he was supposed to have made. If true, rarely has death been faced with such perfect contempt as in Macpherson’s grand gesture of defiance before he was ‘turned off’ by the ‘common finisher of the law’ on the afternoon of the 16th of November, 1700.
Macpherson’s lasting fame is assured, because everyone is prepared to believe that he not only composed his eponymous ‘Lament’ but that he played and sang it before the gallows. As the final notes died away on the breeze, he offered his viol “to anyone in the crowd who would think well of him” and as no one was brave enough to take it from the hands of a condemned man, he broke it over his knee and cast it into the crowd. Some versions of the story get carried away and report Macpherson dashing his fiddle over the head of the executioner, before flinging himself headlong into oblivion. Other reports suggest he threw pieces of the instrument into his awaiting grave. Both are almost as absurd as his having been at all allowed to play the viol. Nevertheless, the broken remains of his fiddle can be seen in the Macpherson Clan Museum in Newtonmore.
The tail end of the story involves the legend of the town clock, which was said to have been put forward by a quarter of an hour in order to get Macpherson hanged before the arrival of a messenger carrying a reprieve from the Laird of Grant. Allegedly, the Magistrates were punished for that perfidious expedient and for many years were forced to keep the town clock fifteen minutes behind the correct time. It is also said that Macduff has no west facing town clock visible to the folks of Banff across the bay so they can't see the right time. If you apply some small measure of logic to all of the above, if they were in such an indecent haste to ‘turn off’ Macpherson, you’ve got to ask yourself, why would they have granted him time to cavort on the gallows? Whatever the truth, it is a fact that, to this day, folks in the North East make jokes about the veracity of the time in Banff.