Black & White Publishing: Edinburgh, 2014
Body snatchers, murdering bigamists, and poisoners.
Whisky-joints and smuggling rings.
A socially-excluded victim of bullying that finally snapped and killed his tormentors.
These are all stories that we have come across, either in the news of today or in films and books about the past. Bloody Scotland: Crime in 19th Century Scotland taps in to society’s centuries-long wish for fanciful tales about lurid deeds. With this recent addition to ‘true-crime’ literature, Malcolm Archibald sets out to uncover the stories of nineteenth century Scotland that have previously been ignored in favour of the sensationalised personalities, such as nineteenth century media darlings Burke and Hare, and mass poisoner Madeleine Smith. This fascinating book adds to the growing works by Malcolm Archibald which investigate the less than story-book underbelly of Scottish life.
There are many unpleasant and terrifying characters in this book. Fathers who murdered their wives while their young family slept; a housekeeper, worryingly called Mrs Beaton, who attempted to poison an entire dinner party because of a perceived slight; and the genuinely disagreeable Mr Morgan of Cardenden. However, Bloody Scotland also includes those people that had been pushed to the limits of their sanity by isolation or bullying, people who threw a rock that caught someone at the wrong angle, and the numerous ‘wannabe’ criminals who were so inept to be funny. Chapter eighteen, ‘Of Thieves and Muggers’ features my favourite character in the book: James Muirhead, or “Scotch Jimmy”. Muirhead was a master of disguise and accent who conned and robbed people from Glasgow and Edinburgh all the way down to London. One such robbery involved Muirhead adopting a Cockney accent and simply driving away from the home of Wilson Barrett, a famous actor of the late nineteenth century, with his most valuable items. Muirhead had even talked the removals men into packing up the items for him, an act that led to Barrett calling the robbery ‘one of the most impudent robberies that was ever conceived’ (p.225).
Ordered thematically, this book can be viewed as an anthology of murder and crime, to be dipped in and out of depending on what distasteful (or scandalous) aspect of nineteenth century Scotland you fancy. Based on a mixture of newspaper-based primary source research and secondary sources, Archibald recreates the atmosphere of the various towns, cities, isolated farmlands, and ‘navvie’ camps with skill. Bouncing from the gallows in Leith where men convicted of piracy took their final breath to the man from Tain who tried to murder his wife by post, Archibald often manages to transport the reader back through the centuries. This does sometimes lead to the use of archaic language in the prose which can be a little disconcerting if you are not familiar with the terms, and can feel slightly at odds with the often modern turn of phrase used to retell the speech of the victims and perpetrators. Archibald has a tendency to fall in to the same sensationalist prose that littered the penny dreadfuls that were so popular during the mid- to late-nineteenth century. However, this was, perhaps, a conscious decision to draw the reader in, and to allow them to read about these stories in a similar way to the newspaper reading public of the nineteenth century.
This is by no means an academic book, and Archibald is very clear in this from the outset. Many stories ended before I wanted them to, leaving me wondering what happened next, but the beauty of this book is the speed with which you pass on to the next varied and wonderful tale. The format of Bloody Scotland allows you to delve inside violent early trade union strikes and then to move quickly on to a domestic murder in Shetland, summing up the diverse and international nature of “Scottish” life in the nineteenth century. This book definitely lives up to the blurb which promises to show the reader another side to the Scotland romanticised in novels and artwork. I highly recommend reading this book while curled up in armchair with a rug and a cup of tea as the weather outside gets gradually worse.
Bloody Scotland: Crime in 19th Century Scotland is available to buy HERE.