The triple X- ecution
Poor Margaret was the last person to be convicted of wilful fire
This section might be called Ayrshire Life, but the feature this week is life being taken away.
The – nowadays macabre – scene of a triple hanging. With the public watching, not exactly an X- Factor style spectacle.
It happened 200 years ago and was not only the last triple hanging, but the last time a woman was hung in Ayr.
Today the thought of the busy shopping street of The Sandgate being the execution centre of the west coast is in fact unthinkable.
The Tolbooth was in the centre of the street, up the slope from the river, and housed the gallows.
Richard Devine, who conducts walks of Auld Ayr, will bring the gruesome story of the last mass execution back to life during a tour on November 19.
It was on October 17, 1817, that town hangman James Aird was preparing his apparatus at the tollbooth. Firestarter Margaret Crossan and thieves William Robertson and Joseph Cairns were preparing to breathe their last.
They each had to climb 19 creaky steps onto the platform of death.
Richard revealed: “The three condemned came from Galloway and were tried at the District Court in Ayr.
“Margaret Crossan was a 30- year- old mother of an infant child, who when threatened with eviction from Carsegowan Farm in Wigtonshire, set fire to it with 12 cows, a bull and three calves perishing in the flames.
“She was the last person, and the only woman ever in Scotland, to be convicted of wilful fire raising. Of the 41 woman executed during this time, only 8 were convicted of anything other than murder.
“She left her child in the care of the parish, who presumably from then on would be referred to as a ‘ foundling’.”
William Robertson and Joseph Cairns were persistent housebreakers and were convicted for robberies carried out in New Luce and Mochrum.
Between 1751 and 1963, wilful fire raising and robbery were two of the 16 capital offences in Scotland for which you could be hanged.
Local journalists watched as the condemned appeared from the Tollbooth cell to the scaffold.
And one report said: “In Robertson’s eye there stood a tear, and his countenance wholly indicated a mind affected by the deepest grief; Cairns was unmoved, but sedate; but in the countenance of the women nothing could be discovered save a smile, but not of levity.”
Robertson was so weak that he was supported by the rope even before he was suspended. Cairns stepped onto the platform with a slow steady pace, whilst Crossan, dressed in a white robe and a cap knotted with black ribbons followed with a hasty but firm step.
As Cairns was to give the signal, he enquired if the others were ready. Robertson waved his hand and Crossan answered coolly in the affirmative. When the drop fell Robertson died quickly and without a struggle, leaving Cairns and Crossan to convulse for some time.
All three remain buried in the graveyard of Ayr Auld Kirk, though they appear to be in unmarked plots as their names are not evident.
Records say Robertson died of an unknown cause, and Cairns and Crossan said to have succumbed to consumption.
With a touch of irony their hangman also lies there, again we were unable to find his headstone.
James Aird lived in the Wallace Tower and some years after the last triple killing he was found dead within the tower after suffering a head injury on a boat in the harbour.
■ The Remembering Auld Ayr Facebook site creator Richard Devine is running the free historical walk on November 19, from 2pm, starting Wellington Square.
Margaret’s byre Carsegowan still exists Love of Auld Ayr Richard Devine ( right)
Grave secret Hanging victims buried at Auld Kirk