Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Gallows Hill

If you were standing on this anonymous hillock next to Trinity Cemetery Lodge at the foot of Errol Street about twenty years ago, you would have had a free view into Pittodrie stadium, hence the name ‘Miser’s Hillie’.  However, standing here three hundred years ago, you would have been a condemned criminal, as this was the site of the Gallows Hill from the fourteenth century until 1776.  Gallows Hill is not to be confused with Gallowgate, which led to another gibbet on the Porthill, but was reached by an old road (now Park Road) from the Justice Port at Castlegate.  Indeed, Old Aberdeen and Ruthrieston had their own gallows at Tillydrone and the Brig of Dee respectively.

Once led to the gallows, the condemned person’s view would have been of open grassland and the distant North Sea, not the cemetery, football ground and local housing as today.  Hangings always attracted a large crowd, as with the very last hanging which took place in 1776, of Alexander Morison who slew his wife with an axe.  It was a cold, stormy day, yet the people came, ghoulishly keen to observe the killer’s final moments.

The real problem with hanging was ensuring the pull of the noose broke the neck of the condemned individual otherwise they would die slowly of strangulation.  By the nineteenth century however, the ‘long drop’, between four and six feet, snapped the second or third vertebra of the spine and caused rapid brain death.  Not so for Morison, he was brought to the Gallows Hill on a cart, bound hand and foot with the rope around his neck.  City executioner Robert Welsh whipped the pony pulling the cart and Morison slowly and painfully choked to death as the cart was yanked from beneath his feet.  His body later hung in chains on the gibbet until it rotted as a warning to others.

Fifty years later the hill was partly excavated to create a gunpowder magazine for use by the King Street Militia barracks;  the soldiers made a gruesome discovery — piles of human bones, the remains of the condemned who had been buried under the hill, excluded from sacred ground because of their sins.  Stand on the Gallows Hill today just as the sun sinks below the horizon and you might imagine the sounds of the baying crowd and the executioner’s final words… ‘May God have mercy on your soul!’

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