Banishment from the Burgh

Tales from the Sheriff Court of Linlithgow

In 2008, a Book of Enactment from Linlithgow Sherrif Court was deposited in West Lothian Archives; the father of the depositor had saved it from destruction during WW2. The book offers us an insight into the 18th century Scottish justice system and the nature of cases that were heard by the Sheriff Court.

 The majority of records in the volume are “bonds of caution”. These contain details of “cautioners” who undertake to ensure that persons who stand accused of a crime or who are being taken to court by another party will attend court.  Cautioners faced significant penalties if the individual in question absconded; fines were as high as £100 in the mid 1700s; equivalent to £8,516 in today’s money. Common offences included assault and battery (often domestic) and rioting, indicating perhaps that criminal behaviour was not much different two hundred years ago.

  In a number of cases young women took the alleged father of their children to court ; in April 1786, Margaret Hardie of Beecraigs initiates proceedings against William Potter “for payment of inlying charges and aliment for upbringing of a female child of which she was delivered in the month of September last”.   In these records we seem to see the very early roots of the Child Support Agency!

 Some of the cases contained within in the volume did not proceed to trial.  Instead, several prisoners “incarcerated” in the Tolbooth at Linlithgow apply to the court for sentence of banishment.   In July 1803, James Brown acknowledges that he is guilty of housebreaking and theft and voluntarily banishes himself from the Burgh of Linlithgow for the rest of his days. The Sherriff Substitute ordains that should Brown return to the Burgh of Linlithgow he will be returned to the Tolbooth for 3 months before being led through the streets of Linlithgow on Market Day to be “publicly whipped on the naked back…by the hands of the Common Hangman”. Other prisoners, like Agnes Girdwood in 1723, go a step further and apply for banishment from the whole Kingdom of Scotland. One wonders how long it took for Agnes to become the focus of criminal proceedings south of the border.

 To see some excepts from this volume, click on the images below

Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign

William Ewart Gladstone

Midlothian Local Studies holds a large scrapbook of political and satirical cartoons from William Ewart Gladstone’s famous Midlothian Campaign of 1879-1880.

The Midlothian Campaign marked the return of William Gladstone as a politician and ultimately to his second term as Prime Minister. Gladstone’s first administration had run from 1868 to 1874. After his electoral defeat in 1874, Gladstone resigned as leader of the Liberal Party, but from 1876 he began a comeback based on opposition to Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria. Around this time, a series of news stories appeared in the British press about the brutal suppression of the Bulgarian April Uprising by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. British public reaction was generally one of dismay, but the Conservative government of Benjamin Disraeli continued to support the Ottomans, an ally of Britain in the Crimean War and a bulwark against possible Russian expansion. 

By 1878, William Gladstone was publishing articles in favour of ending British economic support for Turkey. His dogged focus on the issue gradually dragged it to the forefront of public attention. By 1879, Gladstone had been accepted as Liberal Party candidate for the Scottish constituency of Edinburghshire, popularly known as Midlothian. He committed himself in person to campaign for the Midlothian seat against the Tory Lord Dalkeith. 

The Midlothian Campaign of 1879-1880 is often cited as the first modern political campaign in Britain. In many ways, it focused on Gladstone as a celebrity with the Earl of Rosebery as his campaign manager. Gladstone used the newly developed railway system to move rapidly around both the country and the county, giving a series of passionate speeches in different towns and cities. These in turn were widely reported and debated in the national press. The campaign also produced numerous souvenirs, such as badges, political prints, pamphlets and china figurines. Gladstone’s meetings attracted huge audiences, even though the franchise was very restricted at this time. Midlothian, for example, had only 3620 voters. Gladstone’s enthusiasm and eloquence are credited with swaying a large number of undecided voters to support the Liberals in the General Election of 1880, thus ousting Disraeli’s last Conservative government. 

The scrapbook held in Midlothian Local Studies is a collection of cartoons that both support and ridicule William Gladstone. Here are two examples from the scrapbook.  

Gladstone as the Gentle Shepherd


This cartoon is titled ‘Scene from the Gentle Shepherd’ after the well-known play by Allan Ramsay. Gladstone is the man in the kilt and Rosebery is the dog leading him down the road to Midlothian. Mrs Lightheart, Mrs Curiosity and Mrs Blunt discuss them on the corner. ‘It’s maybe the dog’s fault.’ They discuss letting it go and suspect that Gladstone may throw himself on ‘parish’ welfare if not re-elected. 

Gladstone and the Russian Bear


The second cartoon shows Gladstone dancing whilst chained to a trumpet-playing bear. The implication is that he is dancing to the tune of the ‘Russian bear’ on a map of Eastern Europe. The text states: ‘The Tables Turned or Who Dances Now?’ The Afghanistan War (1878-1881) was taking place at this time. It began when Britain sought to extend control from India to discourage Russian advancement into central Asia. It is also worth noting that dancing bears were a common feature of street entertainment in British towns and cities.

Dead Poets in the Minutes

Robert Fergusson, Poet

‘Though joy maist part Auld Reekie owns,  Eftsoons she kens sad sorrow’s frowns.’   

From ‘Auld Reekie’ by Robert Fergusson, 1773.

The Canongate Kirkyard minutes held by the Edinburgh City Archives record the complicated business of burying the dead. The managers of the Kirkyard funds met regularly to settle disputes about burial plots, grant leases and keep track of their accounts. Amongst the notes of fees and plots is a piece of literary history. A volume of the minutes dating from 1784 to 1807 contains a transcription of a letter from the poet Robert Burns. In his letter to the managers, Burns explains ‘I am sorry to be told that the remains of Robert Fergusson the so justly celebrated poet, a man whose talents for ages to come will do honour to our Caledonian name, lie in your Church yard amongst the ignoble dead unnoticed and unknown.’  

Author of the famous Scots poem ‘Auld Reekie’ (a tribute to Edinburgh’s nickname), Robert Fergusson was born off the High Street of the Capital in 1750. Fergusson pioneered the use of the Scots language in poetry. An accomplished poet in his own right, he wrote witty verse that vividly captured the drinking, debating and diversions of 18th century Edinburgh. He is also well known for his influence on Scotland’s most famous bard, Robert Burns. The two poets never met. Tragically, Fergusson suffered a head injury and died in the city’s Darien House asylum at the age of just twenty four.  

Robert Burns, Poet

Today, a recently commissioned statue of Robert Fergusson stands on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile a short distance from the poet’s burial plot. At the time of his death in 1774, Fergusson was buried in an unmarked grave in the Canongate Kirkyard. After his 1787 visit to the grave, Burns was moved to write to the Kirkyard managers asking to pay for and ‘…to lay a simple stone over his revered ashes, to remain an inalienable property of his deathless home.’  The same stone, renovated in the 19th century by Robert Louis Stevenson, still stands on Fergusson’s grave and carries Burns’ valediction to him: 

No sculptur’d marble here, nor pompus lay,
No story’d urn nor animated bust;
This simple stone directs pale Scotia’s way
To pour her sorrows o’er her poet’s dust.  

You can view Robert Burns’ letter in the Kirkyard minute book below. If you’re interested in reading some of Robert Fergusson’s poetry, click here.