The Trial and Execution of Henry Greig

by ” M’K ” (John C MacKenzie)

These events excited great interest at the time and for many years afterwards in Kirkcudbright and the district. Indeed nothing had equalled it from the time in the preceding century when a woman, condemned for witchcraft, was burned in the field now called Dr Clark’s, or Silver Craigs Park. In the year 1858 we heard Miss Culton, of Auchenabony, tell that one of her forefathers, on leaving the town by the old road over the Barhill, witnessed the cremation. The fact of his having done so had been handed down from generation to generation. Miss Culton was then an old lady and the last of the line. In Mackenzie’s ‘History of Galloway’ the trial and execution of Henry Greig are narrated as follows

Bands of lawless depredators, called gypsies or tinkers, still continued to infest the country, and harass the inhabitants by their insolence, their threats, and their robberies. The new Steward-Depute determined to put a stop to such disgraceful practices, and free the district from those dangerous vagrants. As an example to others of similar dishonest habits, he ordered three of a party – one man and two women – to be brought to trial on the 31st of May, 1750. The prisoners – Henry Greig, Margaret Stewart, and Anne Gibson * – gave in on the day of trial, by their procurator, Roger Martin, a petition to the Steward, acknowledging some parts of the crimes charged against them in the indictment, and stating “that, in order to save the court from farther trouble, they were willing to subject themselves to transportation to any of his Majesty’s plantations, never to return.”

*Anne Gibson is mentioned by one of the witnesses as the “daughter of William Marshall, the gipsy and robber, who had long harassed Galloway.”

The petition having been openly read, the Procurator-Fiscal (Mr. Miller) consented to the prayer of it “so far as concerned Margaret Stewart and Anne Gibson. But so far as concerned Henry Greig, alias John Wilson, he refused his consent thereto; looking upon it as inconsistent with his duty to enter into any compromise with so great a criminal.”

The judge, having found “the libel relevant, proceeded to name fifteen persons to pass upon the assise of the said Henry Greig, alias John Wilson.” *

* Assise. – Patrick Heron, of Heron; George Moore, of Cassencarry; Edward Cairns, of Girdstingwood; Rodger Cutlar, of Orraland; John M’Culloch, merchant, Kirkcudbright ; Hugh Alison, of Dunjop; David Corrie, of Newlaw; William Copland, of Gregory; David Telfer, late Provost of Kirkcudbright; Robert Carmont, merchant, Kirkcudbright. John Freeland, merchant in Kirkcudbright ; Thomas Bean of Auchenhay; Thomas Telfer, of Townhead ; James M’Nish, merchant in Kirkcudbrigbt; Thomas Kerr, mason, there.

After the public prosecutor had concluded his evidence, the jury retired, and next day returned a verdict unanimously finding the prisoner guilty of the crimes laid to his charge, namely; “theft, robbery, and housebreaking.” The Steward-Depute then “decerned and adjudged the said Henry Greig, alias John Wilson, to be taken, upon Friday, the sixth day of July next to come, from the Tolbooth of Kirkcudbright to the ordinary place of execution of the said burgh, and there, between the hours of two and four of the clock of the afternoon, to be hanged by the neck on a gibbet until he should be dead, and ordained all his moveable goods and gear to be escheat and inbrought to his majesty’s use, which was pronounced for doom.”

Some difficulty subsequently existed respecting the execution of the sentence. John Newall, styled the “Common Whipper of the town and Stewartry,” at first refused to hang the culprit. *

* June 5th, 1750. “The said day the Magistrates and Council recommend to Baillie Freeland, with all possible diligence in his own prudent way, to cause apprehend the person of John Newall and to incarcerate him within the tolbooth of Kirkcudbright, there to remain till he be treated and agreed with by the Magistrates and Council, for putting in execution the sentence of the Steward-Depute, against Henry Greig. tinker, and thereafter to continue therein till the execution of said sentence be performed.”
Roger Martin, J.P.C.
Town Council Records.

A question next arose whether it was the duty of the Magistrates of the burgh, or the Steward of the Stewartry, to procure an executioner; but as the day on which the sentence was to be carried into effect drew near, the Town Council resolved to treat with the Magistrates of Dumfries for their executioner. *

* ‘Eo die. Bailie Martin further represented to the Council that, by sentence of the Stewart of this Stewartry, the first of June current, Henry Greig, alias John Wilson, present prisoner within this prison, is to be hanged till he be dead, at the ordinary place of execution in this burgh, upon Friday, the 6th day of July next, and that John Newall, the common whipper of this town and Stewartry, being imprisoned agreeable to last act of Council, refuses to act as executioner, therefore desires the Council to concert on proper measures for getting an executioner, and erecting a gibbet, which being considered by the Council, they are at an uncertainty whether the town are by law or custom bound to find executioners for the Sheriff’s sentence ; but the time of the execution drawing nigh, which must not be disappointed, therefore, the Magistrates and Council do hereby authorise and empower Mr John Freeland, one of the Magistrates, to go to Dumfries sometime in next week, with his conveniency, and there to treat with the Magistrates and their executioner, to procure the executioner coming up here in order to execute the sentence before mentioned, and that upon such terms as he can agree with them, whereof and all his expenses, he is to be relieved by the town of Kirkcudbright; but declaring alwise that this town finding an executioner for the Sheriff’s sentence, for this turn shall not be led into a precedent for the future, in case upon counsel had, it be found they are neither bound by law or practice to find executioners on such occasions.
Roger Martin, J.P.C.
John Freeland.’

Town Council Records.
“26th June. The said day John Newall, whipper, being called before the Council, he did and hereby does accept of the office of executioner for this town and county, of all corporal and capital punishments to be inflicted upon criminals by the Magistrates, Sheriff, and Justices of the Peace, for which office the Magistrates and Council engage to pay him yearly henceforth the sum of twenty pound Scots, besides finding him in a house and a yard rent free; and particularly, the said John Newall becomes hereby bound to execute the Stewart Depute’s sentence upon Henry Greig, alias John Wilson, upon the 6th day of July next to come ; for which execution, besides the salary aforesaid, the Magistrates and Council engage to pay him five pounds five shillings sterling, and the Magistrates and Council hereby declare that the above salary, house and yard, with the five pounds five shillings, is by and attour any salary or other encouragement he has from the Commissioners of the Land Tax for this Stewartry, or may hereafter be provided in by them, and ordains the Treasurer to pay him at the rate of fourpence per day since he was incarcerate till he be again set at liberty. J. N.
Roger Martin J P C
John Freeland.”

Town Council Records.
John Newall, however, was at last induced to undertake the duty. The expense of the execution was defrayed by the Magistrates. Greig behaved very penitently on the scaffold. Owing to the notoriety of his character, a vast multitude attended to witness the dismal spectacle. James Murray, Esquire of Broughton, held the office of Provost of Kirkcudbright at this time.

In the minute book of the Squaremen Incorporation there is the following minute – “Kirkcudbright, 25th June, 1750. – The Squaremen Incorporation being employed by the Magistrates and Toun Councill to make and set up a new gibbet in the ordinary place of execution, and it being agreed by the Incorporation that every member shall attend the Deacon in the Milburn Yeards to cut down a tree for that purpose on Thursday next, by six o’clock in the morning, and then proceed to the said work, it is hereby enacted that any member not appearing in time and giving proper assistance, shall be fined in six pounds Scots, and immediately distressed for the same.

(Signed) JOHN M’DOUAL.

Henry Greig’s body was buried close to the northern wall of St Cuthbert’s Churchyard.

When a boy we remember hearing it told that when the criminal was being conducted on foot by the officers of the law, attended by an immense crowd of persons, to the place of execution, a pigeon on the street, scared by the crowd, took to flight and alighted on the doomed man’s head, he being tall and overtopping his attendants. We remember frequently seeing a son (Wull Newall) and a daughter (Leezie Newall) of the executioner. The son was a miserable looking mortal, and travelled the country as a beggar. His clothes were little better than rags, and he had quite a load of them on him, as if he wore doubles of his garments-such as they were. His beard seemed never to have seen a razor-scissors it might; he was known as ‘Wull Newall the Miser,’ although I think his hoard must have been small. The sister was a respectable little woman who sewed white seam. Our mother used to employ her. On one occasion one of our sisters happened to be in her house when her brother, of whom she was ashamed, called. He produced the stroup of a pair of bellows from his capacious coat pocket-finely polished by the attrition of the sundries contained in it- and offered the article for sale, while his sister upbraided him for doing so. He was up in years, and seemed to be an outcast, the office which his father held no doubt to a certain extent having tended to make him so. John Newall appears to have died in 1765, for the treasurer of the burgh is on 1st Jany., 1766, ordered to pay the half-year’s salary, which fell due at Martinmas then last, to his widow and son.


P.S. – The execution took place in the Town Common, at a spot subsequently and still called the Gallows Hill, and which is now marked by a quarry on the side of the roadway, which in olden time led from the Millburn and town to the north. Previously the place of execution – Gallow Hill – was in the same neighbourhood, to the east of the Shillinghill Cottages. About the year 1825, when the face of the quarry was being encroached upon, a shoe showed itself. The place was opened up, when the skeleton of a man was found, and in a pocket of his clothes there was a guinea. The remains were those of a man apprehended many years previously for sheep-stealing. Mr Gordoune, of Campbelltown, the Stewart-Clerk, had said to the prisoner, “you’ll hang, stir” – he was in the habit of putting a ‘t’ into his sirs. The poor fellow got for his dinner, inter alia, a sheep trotter. He fastened it into the wall and hanged himself, to cheat, as he thought, the gallows. His remains were denied burial in the churchyard, and the site of the gallows was considered the right place for them. The late Mr Wm. Johnston purchased the guinea as a relic.

Note: This article was privately published, and the above is taken from a copy held in the Ewart Library. It is there attributed to John C MacKenzie who was a writer and, who in 1881 was 80 years of age, living in St. Cuthbert St., Kirkcudbright, according to the census.