Crime and punishment in late 18th-early 19th century Scotland: Levels and types of crime
This is the first post in an exciting new blog series focusing on crime and punishment in late 18th-early 19th century Scotland. During the next few weeks we will be looking at levels of crime and changes between the Old Statistical Accounts and New Statistical Accounts; types of crime committed, with specific examples; types of punishment; crime prevention (as well as lack of!); causes of crime; prisons; police and sheriffs; and the judicial system and courts. It has been really fascinating to research this topic, with lots of interesting and eye-opening information found in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. We hope you really enjoy reading these posts.
Levels of crime
Some parish reports state that no, or very little, serious crime had been committed for many years in that parish. In Kilninian and Kilmore, County of Argyle, “it is very seldom that any gross, crimes are committed; and as an evidence of this, it may be mentioned, that although there is a lock-up-house or jail in Tobermory, yet none of the inhabitants of the parish have been confined there for the last four years, and, the upper flat of that jail is occupied by the school of industry before noticed.” (NSA, Vol. VII, 1845, p. 356) In Kennoway, County of Fife, “only one instance of suicide has occurred within the last 20 years, and not a person belonging to the parish has been punished for any crime or even been imprisoned, on any account whatever, during that period.” (OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 128) It is very interesting to note that suicide is mentioned in the same context as crime in several parish reports, which gives us an idea on how suicide was viewed by some at the time.
Several parish reports do give an example or two of ‘serious’ crimes carried out there. These include:
- Criech, County of Sutherland – “Only one person has suffered for a capital crime within there 20 years; viz. for theft and house-breaking.” (OSA, Vol. VIII, 1793, p. 373).
- Kilfinichen and Kilviceuen, County of Argyle – “Such has been the general good behaviour of the inhabitants, that none have suffered capital punishment in the memory of any person living; nor has any been confined in jail for any crime that is remembered, except one man in summer 1793, who is supposed to be a fraudulent bankrupt.” (OSA, Vol. XIV, 1795, p. 211)
- Banff, County of Banff – “During the last rebellion in Scotland, a poor fellow from the country, whose imprudent curiosity led him to mark, by notches on his staff, the number of British ships passing in the bay, was apprehended as a spy, and arranged by the King’s troops, without the formality of trial.” (OSA, Vol. XX, 1798, p. 378)
The low level, or lack of, crime was attributed to the good, honest disposition of the parish inhabitants. Examples include the parishes of Saddell and Skipness, County of Argyle (OSA, Vol. XII, 1794, p. 488), Rutherglen, County of Lanark (OSA, Vol. IX, 1793, p. 6) and Peebles, County of Peebles (OSA, Vol. XII, 1794, p. 6). Indeed, several reports state that the manners of inhabitants had improved over the last few years, so lowering crime levels. “The inhabitants of Bothkennar [County of Stirling] are distinguished for their sober and industrious habits, and live in the most friendly terms with each other. They are most attentive to the public ordinances of the Gospel; and their moral conduct has been such, that there is not an instance upon record of any individual having been arraigned or punished for any offence against the laws of his country.” (NSA, Vol. VIII, 1845, p. 205) Here are some more examples:
Roxburgh, County of Roxburgh – “the general character of the people is intellectual, moral, and religious. In proof of this, it may be stated, that hardly anything of the nature of crime occurs, and the people are almost all in communion with the Established church or the Secession.” (NSA, Vol. III, 1845, p. 132)
Edzell, County of Forfar – “it is beyond a doubt, that the people are much improved since last century, both in morals and in manners. In the old records, there are instances of persons subjected to discipline for dragging nets on the Sabbath; and farmers, with their wives and servants, convened in parties for drinking, fighting, and scolding, on the Lord’s clay during divine worship. Such irregularities would now cause horror.” (OSA, Vol. X, 1794, p. 110)
Kemnay, County of Aberdeen – “the commission at least of heinous crimes is less frequent, and the propensity to low vices less general, than they were during the seventeenth and greater part of the eighteenth century, and also that a higher tone of morals now prevails.” (NSA, Vol. XII, 1845, p. 817)
Have a read of what crimes used to be committed in the parish of Kirkoswald, County of Ayrshire! (OSA, Vol. X, 1794, p. 499) Even Scotland as a country was seen in some quarters to be a place with less crime and, therefore, less punishments handed out than previously! (OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 16)
However, not every parish had exemplary parishioners. In the report for Portpatrick, County of Wigton, there is a very honest account given of its inhabitants! “The people are generally characterized by intellect naturally vigorous, but uncultivated. They are capable of being excited to very great violence of feeling: and vindictive feelings usually find with them a free and instant expression. But withal, they display more external courtesy towards one another, and more respectful manners in addressing their superiors, than may be observed in the more populous districts. In common with the other inhabitants of Galloway they are distinguished by a ready and ungrudging hospitality. Among the crimes ordinarily falling under the cognizance of the civil magistrates, assaults, rioting and fighting on the public streets, are much to be complained of, but are not so frequent as at one time, when it used to be said at Donaghadee, “I’ll not meddle with you just now; but stop till I get you at Portpatrick, where there is no law.” Petty thefts are prevalent. They are often attributed to the bands of tinkers who encamp on the common on their way to and from Ireland; but these undoubtedly deserve but a small share of the blame. The facilities afforded by the wild coast for plundering the goods cast ashore in shipwrecks, have always presented a strong temptation.” (NSA, Vol. IV, 1845, p. 147)
Of course, not all changes in crime levels have been positive. In the Appendix for Edinburgh, “in 1763 house-breaking and robbery were extremely rare. Many people thought it unnecessary to lock their doors at night. In 1783, 1784, 1785, 1786, and 1787 house-breaking, theft, and robbery, were astonishingly frequent; and many of these crimes were committed by boys, whose age prevented them from being objects of capital punishment. The culprits were uniformly apprehended in houses of bad fame, in which they were protected and encouraged in their depredations on the public. During the winter, 1787, many daring robberies and shop-breakings were committed, by means before unthought of; but the gang were discovered, by one of them becoming evidence against the rest, and the others suffered capital punishment.” (OSA, Vol. VI, 1793, p. 613) Street robbery and pick-pocketing was also on the increase.
In Glasgow, “great crimes were formerly very uncommon; but now robberies, housebreaking, swindling, pick-pockets, pilferers, and consequently executions are become more common.” (OSA, Vol. V, 1793, p. 535) Interestingly, in the New Statistical Account for Glasgow we find the following excerpt on crime:
“Within the last twenty years, population of Glasgow has almost doubled; but crime, instead of merely doubling, has, as is proved from the records of the Court of Justiciary, increased nearly eight times.” (NSA, Vol. VI, 1845, p. 909)
One suggestion for the higher levels of crime in cities is given by the writer of the parish report for Inveresk, County of Edinburgh. “Large cities are the nurseries of crimes, as they furnish the means of privacy and concealment, as well as of temptation.” (OSA, Vol. XVI, 1795, p. 33)
In the parish report of Duirinish, County of Inverness, there is a comparison made between the crime levels of the Highlands and that of the parishes in the south of Scotland. “The balance will still be found in favour of the Highlands. But it is too apparent, at the same time, that crime in this part of the country has been much on the increase for several years back. This is partly owing to the poverty of the people: but in a great degree to the kind of intercourse which they carry on with the Lowlands.” (NSA, Vol. XIV, 1845, p. 347)
Types of crime
Here are some types of crime and specific examples of crimes found in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland:
- Hutton and Corrie, County of Dumfries – Vagrant begging (NSA, Vol. IV, 1845, p. 547);
- Fodderty, County of Ross and Cromarty – Sheep stealing (NSA, Vol. XIV, 1845, p. 257);
- Ayr, County of Ayrshire – Crimes committed by sailors (NSA, Vol. V, 1845, p. 59);
- Perth, County of Perth – Having illegitimate children (OSA, Vol. XVIII, 1796, p. 524);
- Paisley, County of Renfrew – Illustrations of Ancient Manners, including banishing a person from the county for stealing a pair of breeches (NSA, Vol. VII, 1845, p. 181)
In Markinch, County of Fife, the kirk-session identified “the usual immoralities… which were then punished by fine and by rebuke in the face of the congregation.” Specific examples of crimes include “pursuing their ordinary avocations on the Sabbath, for absenting themselves from church and from the administration of ordinances, for slandering neighbours, for profane swearing, for drunkenness, and frequenting houses of public entertainment during the hours of Divine service.” (NSA, Vol. IX, 1845, p. 678)
The parish report of Leochel, County of Aberdeen, gives a fascinating list of offences and punishments, including “breaking and destroying young trees in the churchyard of Lochell” (one merk for each tree), “putting fire to a neighbour’s door and calling his wife and mother witches” (L. 100 fine) and “abusing the minister and calling him a liar, and saying in the church-yard that he would prove him a liar” (put in the stocks during the baillie’s pleasure). (NSA, Vol. XII, 1845, p. 1125).
Incidentally, the above image is taken from a book, published in 1841, entitled “The chronicles of crime, or The new Newgate calendar. Being a series of memoirs and anecdotes of notorious characters who have outraged the laws of Great Britain from the earliest period to the present time including a number of curious cases never before published. Embellished with fifty-two engravings, from original drawings by “Phiz” [pseud.]”, which can be found on the Internet Archive. It is a very fascinating read!
Mentions of the crimes of smuggling, poaching and witchcraft are particularly noticeable in the Statistical Accounts, as we don’t hear, or rarely hear, of these in this country nowadays.
By the time of the New Statistical Accounts of Scotland, smuggling was very much on the wane in some parishes due to measures being taken against it. In Dunkeld, County of Perth, “smuggling prevailed extensively at one time in the district, but after the late Duke of Atholl got the Highland distilleries legalized, smuggling ceased. ” (NSA, Vol. X, 1845, p. 989)
However, in the parish of Glenshiel, County of Ross and Cromarty, smuggling “which was introduced about twenty years since, prevails, especially upon the estate of Letterfearn, to an extent that threatens to prove destructive to all habits of regular industry, injurious to the health, and ruinous to the morals of its victims; and is likely to continue to produce these distressing results, until the owners of the land choose to discountenance it.” (NSA, Vol. XIV, 1845, p. 202) Neighbouring land owners had threatened to remove smugglers and this was enough to act as a deterrent. This illustrates how important active crime detection and prevention is. (These are topics we will focus on future blog posts.)
In Mordington, County of Berwick, “as this parish lies on the border between Scotland and England, the illicit traffic of smuggling Scotch whisky into England is carried on to a considerable extent at two public-houses on the turnpike-roads to Berwick-on-Tweed. Those who engage, however, in this unlawful employment, are persons of low character from Berwick, who buy the spirits at these two public-houses, and convey them secretly into England. A guard of excise officers, which is maintained by Government at considerable expense, traverses the roads, by which means the traffic has lately somewhat decreased, but it is still carried on to a considerable extent; and its demoralizing influence on those engaged in it, is lamentably apparent. No remedy, however, seems likely to avail, but an equalizing of the duties on spirits in the two countries.” (NSA, Vol. II, 1845, p. 342) This is the same case in Hutton, County of Berwick (NSA, Vol. II, 1845, p. 156)
Several parishes report some instances of poaching, which, in the main, is waning. In Hutton, County of Berwick, “convictions for poaching game and salmon indeed sometimes occur, but these are by no means frequent” (NSA, Vol. II, 1845, p. 156). In Dunkeld, County of Perth, “poaching is rare; when committed it is generally by strangers.” (NSA, Vol. X, 1845, p. 989) In Roxburgh, County of Roxburgh, “the temptation of poaching is very considerable, because of the abundance of game; and, in consequence, this offence has occasionally occurred.” (NSA, Vol. III, 1845, p. 132)
Poaching was actually on the increase in Penicuik, County of Edinburgh. “The landed proprietors endeavour to protect their game, by employing keepers, while their tenantry are strictly prohibited from shooting; an unhappy arrangement, and one that signally defeats its own end. The tenantry have no interest in detecting the poacher, and the game-keepers are intimidated, and are consequently of little service. Some time since, one of these keepers was fired at and severely wounded by four poachers at eleven o’clock in the forenoon.” (NSA, Vol. I, 1845, p. 41)
During the late 16th and early 17th centuries “the belief of witchcraft prevailed, and trials and executions on account of it were frequent in all the kingdoms of Europe”, as stated in the parish report of Kirkcaldy, County of Fife. (OSA, Vol. XVIII, 1796, p. 57) In the Statistical Accounts of Scotland there are many mentions of witchcraft trials, including:
- Dalry, County of Ayrshire, which “was the scene of one of those revolting acts which disgrace the annals of Scotland, of condemning persons to the flames for the imputed crimes of sorcery and witchcraft.” (NSA, Vol. V, 1845, p. 217)
- Aberdeen, where “many poor old women were sacrificed to appease the terrors which the belief in it was calculated to excite. Few of the individuals who were suspected were allowed to escape from the hands of their, persecutors; several died in prison in consequence of the tortures inflicted on them, and, during the years 1596-97, no fewer than 22 were burnt at the Castlehill.” (NSA, Vol. XII, 1845, p. 21)
- Kirkcaldy, County of Fife, where a man and his wife “were burnt here in 1633, for the supposed crime of witchcraft.” (OSA, Vol. XVIII, 1796, p. 57)
- Erskine, County of Renfrew, where “one of the last trials for witchcraft which happened in Scotland, had its origin… in 1696-7”. (OSA, Vol. IX, 1793, p. 74)
If you would like to read more about witchcraft in Scotland, read our post Wicked Witches.
We end this post with a table showing the number of commitments, etc. for crime in the County of Berwick during the year 1834. This gives a fascinating snapshot of crimes committed and the resulting punishments given out at that time.
|Crimes||Persons remaining untried from preceding year||Persons committed for trial||Persons convicted||Persons acquitted||No. of persons tried and before what court||Sentences of those committed|
|Robbery and assault||3||1||3||3 – Justiciary||1 sent. death, 2 transportation for life.|
|Theft||—||5||3||3 – By jury, without jury, and by justices or other court||Imprisonment for 3 months or less|
|Theft by housebreaking||—||2||1||1||2 – Justiciary||Transportation 14 years|
|Assault||—||15||14||14 – 6 by jury, 3 without jury, 5 by justices or other court||Imprisonment for 3 months or less|
|Breaking windows||—||1||1||Without jury||Do.|
|Vagrancy and breaking windows||—||2||2||Do.||Do.|
|Vagrancy||—||2||2||2 – Justices||Do.|
|Contravening Act 9 Geo. IV. Sect. 69||—||2||2||1 – Without jury||Do.|
|Trespassing in search of game||—||1||1||1 – Do.||Do.|
|Contempt of court||—||1||1||1 – Do.||Do.|
N.B. All persons in the table refer to males.
In the parish report of Paisley, County of Renfrew, you can find a table that shows “a view of the state and Progress of crimes, &c. as judged by the magistrates, from the period when the police establishment began down to 1818, and for the last five years. The melancholy progress of crime, particularly of late years, may be judged of from this table; a progress for which the rapid increase of population will not wholly account.” (NSA, Vol. VII, 1845, p. 189) There are a number of other tables giving crime figures in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland, and we will look at some more of these in our future post on prisons.
In our next post in this series on crime and punishment we will look at reasons for crimes and crime prevention.
[…] blamed the lack of religious upbringing and moral and spiritual standards. As pointed out in our last blog post, a number of parishes reported that their citizens as, in the main, law-abiding, using such words […]