Anyone visiting Dufftown or looking into the history of its Clock Tower will come across a story that is told many times about James Macpherson, a Highland Freebooter, who got hanged in Banff in 1700. According to the folklore tale that’s told today the clock that was set forward was removed from the Banff tower and transferred to the Clock Tower in Dufftown. But, in an 1878[1] journal the following text can be found: “It is said that his death was hurried on by the Magistrates, and that they also caused the messenger entrusted with a reprieve to be stopped by the way, in consequence of which acts of injustice it is alleged the town of Banff was deprived of the power of trying and executing malefactors”. There’s no mention of a clock being set forward. Also, when reading through all the documents, there’s no mention of a clock being transferred from Banff to the Dufftown Clock Tower. If the clock was indeed transferred, and knowing the Clock Tower was built in 1839, it was after more than 139 years the clock was installed. As we learned in a previous chapter the first clock was installed in the 1850’s. This original clock had a black face and has been replaced in the past years, making the story very unlikely.

After some research I have been able to locate the real clock. If you want to find out more about the ‘Clock That Hung Macpherson’, click here.

Figure: Drawing of the Sword [2]

 

The Freebooter

James Macpherson was born, the illegitimate son of a Scottish Laird and a gypsy girl, in 1675.  He was a well-known freebooter and outlaw around the north of Scotland, and particularly in the Moray area, towards the end of the 17th century.  James (Jamie) Macpherson was a man of magnificent stature, strength and intellect. He excelled in war and was the best fiddle player and the best swordsman of his name. He led a band of Gypsies who terrorised the landed gentry around the Moray area and he earned a reputation as a Scottish Robin Hood by stealing from the wealthy and sharing the spoils with the less fortunate. Tradition asserts that, if it must be owned that his prowess was debased by the exploits of a freebooter, no act of cruelty, no robbery of the widow, the fatherless, or the distressed, and no murder were ever perpetrated under his command or by his knowledge.

Jamie was finally captured in Keith in Moray by a posse organised by his arch enemy, Lord Duff of Braco.  He may have escaped if a woman had not thrown a blanket over him from an upstairs window. Because of the blanket he couldn’t see where he was going and tripped over a stone in the grave yard. He was then captured and taken to Banff Jail.

Prosecution of James Macpherson[3]

James Macpherson, the two Browns, and James Gordon, were brought before the sheriff of Banffshire at Banff, on the 7th of November 1700, charged with ‘being habit and repute Egyptians and vagabonds and keeping the markets in their ordinary manner of thieving and purse-cutting’ … being guilty also of masterful violence and oppression.’ A procurator appeared on the part of the young Laird of Grant, demanding surrender of the two Browns, to be tried in the court of his regality within whose bounds they had lived and offering a pledge for them. But the demand was overruled on the ground that the Browns had never been truly lived there. Witnesses were adduced who detailed many felonies of the prisoners. They had stolen sheep, oxen, and horses. They had broken into houses and taken away goods. They had robbed men of their purses and tyrannously oppressed many poor people. It was shown that the band was in the habit of speaking a peculiar language. They often spent whole nights in dancing and debauchery, Peter Brown or Macpherson giving animation to the scene by the strains of the violin. An inhabitant of Keith related how Macpherson came to his house one day, seeking for him, when, not finding him, he stabbed the bed to make sure he was not there and, on-going away, set the ale-barrel a flowing. The jury gave a verdict against all the four prisoners, but sentence was for the mean time passed upon only Macpherson and Gordon adjudging them to be hanged next market-day.

The verdict in the original manuscript account of James MacPhersons trial

Macpherson spent the last hours of his life in composing a tune expressive of the reckless courage with which he regarded his fate. He marched to the place of execution, a mile from the town, playing this air on his violin. He even danced to it under the fatal tree. Then he asked if anyone in the crowd would accept his fiddle and keep it as a memorial of Macpherson; and finding no one disposed to do so, he broke the instrument over his knee, and “threw himself indignantly from the ladder.

Macpherson’s Farewell

Sae rantonly, sae wantonly,
Sae dauntingly gaed he,
He played a spring and danced it round
Below the gallows tree.

I’ve lived a life of sturt and strife
I die by treacherie,
It burns my heart I must depart
And not avenged be.

Now farewell light thou sunshine bright,
And all beneath the sky,
May coward shame disdain his name
The wretch that dares not die.

Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,
Sae dauntingly gaed he,
He played a spring and danced it round
Below the gallows tree.

It is said that his death was hurried on by the Magistrates, and that they also caused the messenger entrusted with a reprieve to be stopped by the way, in consequence of which acts of injustice it is alleged the town of Banff was deprived of the power of trying and executing malefactors. According the story that is told the people involved in moving the clock forward were punished, and for many years afterwards the clock was kept fifteen minutes fast, as a reminder of that fateful day. Still to this day the clock tower in Macduff has the clock on its western side blanked out as a gesture to the people of Banff.

One thing is certain amid all the traditions which have come down regarding this bold and singular robber; his strength and stature far exceeded those of common men; and this was proved, when his grave was opened in early 1800’s, by the examination of his bones.[4]

Not the first time

Before the well-known capture and prosecution James had been taken to a jail before. He was under citation to appear before the Lords of Justiciary at Inverness on a charge of having despoiled John Grant of Conygass of certain oxen, sheep, and other goods in June or July 1689, ‘ when Dundee was in the hills.’ The Laird of Grant being sheriff of Inverness and other Grants engaged in the intended trial, Macpherson, though protesting his entire innocence, professed to have no hope of ‘impartial justice’ yet he appeared at the citation and was immediately committed close prisoner to the Tollbooth of Inverness where he was denied the use of pen and ink and the access of his friends. So that he ‘expected nothing but a summary execution.’


[1] Celtic Magazine Office, Inverness, September 1878, James Macpherson, the famous Musician and Freebooter.

[2] The Graphic, Royal Wedding Number, 2 August 1889.

[3] Domestic annals of Scotland, from the revolution to the rebellion of 1745, 1861.

[4] Celtic Magazine Office, Inverness, September 1878, James Macpherson, the famous Musician and Freebooter.