When outlaw and folk hero James Macpherson was hanged

Outlaw James Macpherson as depicted by Chinese artist Qi Xing as part of the Glenfiddich Artists in Residence programme. PIC: Contributed/William Grant and Sons.
Outlaw James Macpherson as depicted by Chinese artist Qi Xing as part of the Glenfiddich Artists in Residence programme. PIC: Contributed/William Grant and Sons.
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He is described as Scotland’s answer to Robin Hood - an outlaw and freebooter who shared the spoils of his thieving campaign against the gentry with the poor of the north.

On November 16 2018, a form of justice finally caught up with James Macpherson whose life and death has become the stuff of legend and lore.

Reportedly the son of a Highland laird and a gypsy woman, Macpherson is remembered as a man of magnificent stature, strength and intellect who could handle a sword as expertly as he could play a fiddle.

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Some accounts record him as the leader of a band of caterans, or cow thieves, as well as a legitimate horse trader.

His story was so rich that it caught the attention of Sir Walter Scott with Robert Burns rewriting a lament composed by Macpherson in the run up to his death.

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On November 16, 1700, Macpherson was hung from the clocktower at Banff with foul play surrounding events that led him to the scaffolds.

His downfall was executed by his enemy-in-chief, Lord Duff of Braco, who had become increasingly incensed by the antics of the outlaw’s armed posse who were increasingly brazen in their deeds, often marching into towns on market day. Sometimes, they would be led by a piper.

Macpherson was captured on two occasions, once in Inverness and another in Aberdeen before being finally seized in an operation executed by Lord Braco in the autumn of 1700 at the St Rufus Fair in Keith.

One of the posse was killed when fighting broke out with Macpherson captured after a woman threw a piece of rug over him from an upstairs window.

He was tried in Banff by Sheriff Nicholas Dunbar, a friend of Lord Braco, and was condemned to hang for the crimes of purse cutting, theft - and of being an Egyptian or gypsy.

Macpherson was “to be hanged by the neck betwixt the hours of two and three”.

Lord Braco, on hearing that a lone rider was approaching from Turriff with a reprieve, had the town clock turned forward by 15 minutes to ensure the execution went ahead.

Before his death, Macpherson apparently mounted the scaffold at Banff to play a fiddle tune that he had composed in his cell.

When finished, he offered the fiddle to the crowd which had gathered - but no one dared to accept.

He then smashed his instrument and dropped it at his feet, with the remnants on display at the Clan Macpherson Museum in Newtonmore.

The tune said to have been played ahead of his execution is widely known as Macpherson’s Rant or Macpherson’s Lament. Robert Burns later used it as the basis Macpherson’s Farewell.

Those involved in moving the clock forward were punished, and for many years afterwards the clock was kept fifteen minutes fast, as a reminder of Macpherson’s killing.

Some time after 1839, the faces of the clocktower were removed from Banff and rehoused in the newly built Dufftown tower. It is known locally as ‘the clock that hung Macpherson’.