The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History

Tim Flight - June 11, 2018

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
Romantic ruins of abandoned crofts such as this one are all that remain of many farming communities in Scotland after the Highland Clearances. Urban Ghosts Media

The Highland Clearances

The aftermath of the Battle of Culloden was the wholesale destruction of the way of life in the Scottish Highlands. Highlanders were no longer allowed to wear their clan’s tartan, meet in public, or bear arms. The 1747 Act of Proscription even forbade teaching Gaelic and playing the bagpipes (a small mercy, some would argue). Though the act was repealed in 1782, when the English government felt safe from Jacobite sentiments, by that time an even graver threat to the old Highland way of life had emerged: the Highland Clearances, the violent eviction of families from their homes.

The primary cause of the clearances was the Agricultural Revolution, which had happened long before in other areas of Britain. Under this, the former system of individuals farming their livestock on common strips of land maintained by the community was replaced with huge areas of privately-owned farmland being enclosed to run enormous agricultural enterprises. Cattle, the traditional livestock of the Highlands, were replaced with the more profitable sheep, and different crops were grown on a huge scale for export. To achieve this, the locals had to be ousted by the landowners: effectively, landlords were valuing sheep above people.

The tenants in the Highlands, with few rental rights, were understandably furious about being forcibly ejected from areas that their families had farmed for centuries. This often led to violent clashes, as in the notorious clearance of Sutherland between 1811 and 1821. Riots could not dissuade the Countess of Sutherland from replacing her tenants with sheep, and many families were simply burned out of their homes or chased with dogs when they refused to leave. Whilst some Highlanders were forced to emigrate, mostly to America, many who stayed followed suit anyway when famine broke out in their meagre homesteads.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
Deacon Brodie, engraving by John Kay, from Old & New Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1890. Science Source

Deacon Brodie

William Brodie was a respected man about town in late-18th-century Edinburgh. He was a cabinet maker and locksmith, and also served as a deacon of a trade guild and as a city councillor. What people didn’t know was that Brodie was also a degenerate gambler who broke into houses partly to pay for his debts, and partly for the sheer fun of it. Like Major Thomas Weir (possibly) before him, Brodie lived a successful double-life for many years, but was caught after an audacious attempted robbery failed in 1788, shocking the city of Edinburgh to its very core.

Part of Brodie’s effective camouflage came from his ancestry. He was the son of a successful businessman, and grandson to 2 prominent lawyers, and thus had a misleadingly-bourgeois reputation. Being a cabinet maker and locksmith was also vital. Brodie would design and build furniture for his wealthy clients, giving him intimate knowledge of where valuables could be stored, and was also the city’s premier locksmith, which meant that he could make wax impressions of keys, get duplicates made, and rob his unsuspecting customers. As well as his gambling debts, Brodie also had 2 mistresses and 5 children to support.

Though it is thought that his first robbery was of £800 from a bank in 1768, Brodie’s criminal career only really took off in summer 1786 when he formed a gang with 2 other thieves to launch a campaign against businesses and the city’s richest denizens. Brodie’s downfall came when he bungled the armed robbery of the Excise Office in Edinburgh. His accomplices were bribed to give him up, and Brodie was tracked down hiding in the Netherlands. A staggering 40, 000 people turned out to see him hanged in October 1788; testament to a bloodthirsty and punitive age.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
Burke and Hare, engraving taken at their trial in 1828, Edinburgh, 1829. Daily Record

Burke and Hare

In the early 19th Century, Edinburgh was at the forefront of anatomical research and discovery. It was home to several prominent anatomists, including Alexander Monro and Robert Knox, who lectured on the subject to students, leading to massive advances in surgery and making the study of anatomy a recognised scientific discipline. Unfortunately, teaching anatomy required a good supply of dead bodies, for which Scottish law permitted the bodies of prisoners, suicides, and orphans to be used. Supply could not meet demand, however, and so ‘resurrection men’ illicitly dug up cadavers and sold them to the anatomists on the black market.

The ‘resurrection men’ soon realised that fresher bodies commanded a bigger price, and so newly-buried bodies had to be guarded by the deceased’s relatives. This confluence of circumstances led 2 men involved in the trade, William Burke and William Hare, to resort to murdering people to provide fresh, lucrative corpses to the (probably unsuspecting) Robert Knox. They entered the trade by accident, when one of Hare’s tenants died owing him rent, and his body was sold to settle the debt. Thus they began luring poor and vulnerable people to Hare’s lodging house, where they were usually murdered by suffocation.

Over their 10-month career, Burke and Hare murdered 16 people, selling them for up to £10 to Knox. They were caught when 2 legitimate lodgers, Ann and James Gray, were paid to stay away for a night (while a murder took place). When they returned the next morning, Hare would not let them collect their belongings, and their suspicions led them to find the concealed body of the pair’s final victim later that night. Attempts to bribe the Grays failed when the lodgers confronted their landlords, and Burke and Hare, along with their complicit spouses, were arrested in November 1828.

Knox’s laboratory was searched, and the four accused blamed one another. Their trial began on Christmas Eve, and by the end of Christmas Day the jury had found Burke guilty of murder, with the other 3 released due to insufficient evidence. 25, 000 people turned out to see Burke hanged at Lawnmarket on 31st January 1829. Hare escaped to England, and though Knox was cleared of any complicity, he resigned under pressure from his position of curator of the College of Surgeons’ Museum. Burke’s body was, fittingly, donated to science, and his skeleton remains displayed at the Edinburgh Medical School.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Baxter, Colin, and C.J. Tabraham. Scottish History. Edinburgh: Lomond Books, 1998.

James I. Daemonologie. New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.

Prebble, John. The Highland Clearances. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

Prebble, John. The Lion in the North. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

Ritchie, William K. Mary Queen of Scots. Harlow: Longman, 1990.

Tacitus. Agricola and Germania. Trans. by James Rives. London: Penguin, 2010.

Wallace, Margaret. William Wallace: Champion of Scotland. Musselburgh: Goblinshead, 1999.