Friday, 28 August 2009

Fifteen Minutes to Execution

When does a clock decide between life and death?

The tower clock in Dufftown, a short distance from Cottarton Cottage, has been called, “The clock that hanged McPherson.” On November 16, 1700 the clock, located then in Banff was put forward by 15 minutes to allow for the execution of Jamie MacPherson before a rider bearing a pardon could arrive.

Jamie MacPherson was the illegimimate son of a Scottish laird and a gypsy woman. After his father’s death, Jamie was adopted by his mother’s family. He grew up to be a good swordsman, a poet and musician. As the leader of the gypsy band, he lived by rustling and selling horses and lifestock. Even detractors admit that he never murdered anyone or was guilty of any act of cruelty. Though popular with common people, for whom he was a kind of “Robin Hood”, he earned the emnity of the landed gentry, in particular the Earl Duff of Braco. Among his many supporters were the Grant family who held considerable influence in the Northeast, still do today where they are the owners of the Glenfiddich, Glengrant and other distilleries.

MacPherson’s band would often march into local fairs behind a piper. The day they appeared in Keith market, Braco’s men ambushed them, killed most of the gypsy band and captured McPherson. In a Banff court, he was charged with theft, being a vagabond and a gypsy --- then a criminal offence, found guilty and sentenced to death, as follows:
For sae muckle, as you, James MacPherson, are found guilty of being Egyptians and vagabonds and oppressors of his free lieges. Therefore, I adjudge and decern you to be taken to the cross of Banff to be hanged by the neck to the death.

While awaiting execution, MacPherson is said to have composed his lament, later the basis for Robert Burns’ poem – “MacPherson’s Farewell”. Upon reaching the gallows, he played a tune on his fiddle, then asked the onlookers whether anyone could play the violin. As no one raised their hand he broke the violin over his knee, declaring that “Hence forth no one would play McPherson’s fiddle.”

Meanwhile Jamie’s supporters prevailed on the Lord Grant to stay clemency. A rider was dispatched with the stay of execution, but Braco saw the rider at a distance. Suspecting correctly that the rider carried a padon, he arranged for the Banff clock to be moved up by 15 minutes so that the execution could be carried out before the pardon arrived. For years afterward the Banff clock was set fifteen minutes ahead of the other clocks, to commemorate the execution.

Today there is no capital punishment in the UK. Jamie MacPherson’s story is the stuff of legend, but less mythical is the parallel case of Michael Richard, executed in Texas on September 25, 2007. A last minute appeal for a stay of execution was rushed by his lawyer to the office of Justice Sharon Keller, nicknamed “Killer” because of her well known support for the Texas death penalty. Because of computer printing problems, the appeal arrived after 5pm, only to find the court doors closed. Though the lawyer had phoned the court to tell Keller that the appeal would be late, she ordered the court clerk to close the doors on time. Richard was executed two hours later.

Some things don’t change.

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