The triple X- ecu­tion

Poor Mar­garet was the last per­son to be con­victed of wil­ful fire

Ayrshire Post - - AYRSHIRE LIFE - Stephen Hous­ton

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

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