Anniversary of last man hung for blasphemy

The Kirk was keen to curb profanity. Picture: Paul Parke
The Kirk was keen to curb profanity. Picture: Paul Parke
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THREE hundred years ago today, an Edinburgh student was written into the history books by becoming the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy.

Thomas Aitkenhead was just 20-years-old when he was led to the gallows for “ridiculing the holy scriptures” and denouncing them as “stuffed with madness”.

He made a plea for leniency, highlighting his “tender years”, but magistrates held firm and insisted an example be made.

The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, sitting in Edinburgh at the time, urged “vigorous execution” to curb “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”.

On the morning of January 8, 1697, Aitkenhead wrote a letter to friends speaking of the “insatiable inclination to the truth” which may have been read aloud outside the Tolbooth at Canongate before he made the long walk to the hangman located between Edinburgh and Leith.

He is said to have died with a Bible in hand.

Historian Thomas Babington Macaulay said of Aikenhead’s death that “the preachers who were the poor boy’s murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and. . . insulted heaven with prayers more blasphemous than anything he had uttered.”