The fiddling fighting freebooter

Qi Xing painting 'As if James MacPherson had ever played fiddle to a white stag'
Painting by Qi Xing ‘As if James MacPherson had ever played fiddle to a white stag’

This is the story of my favorite folk hero, Jamie MacPherson. Now, whilst his life and exploits don’t exactly share the same level of fame and national significance as that of Rob Roy; in MacPhersons tragic story, his origins set the tone of a tale in the archetype of so many romantic tales concerning outlaws; with tragedy being central; whereas, Rob Roy’s story simply embodies the swashbuckling exploits of an itinerant rogue, full of adventure and the outwitting of lords and soldiery, yet lacking in any sense of intrigue or emotion on the part of the man himself’. It’s a fascinating and fun account, like that of an action movie wherein you already know that the hero is really in no danger. Whereas with MacPherson we find an intriguing figure in every sense and from the get go: mysterious origins, and appearance; tall, swarthy and of unusual strength, and said to have been an exceptional and self-taught swordsman, as well as a gifted fiddler, and composer.

The product of an illicit affair between a Highland laird, and that of a beautiful Tinker; upon his birth, Jamie’s father, one MacPherson of Invereshie, touchingly, actually acknowledged the infant as his own, even going so far as to take him into his home at Invereshie House near Kincraig, were he was raised to childhood; the circumstances of his lowly mothers life, in comparison to that of his own good fortune was surely not lost on the boy who would go on to become the charismatic, and in some instances, morally upright leader of a band of Tinkers (Scottish Gypsies).

Yet, sometime in the early 1680’s, tragedy struck that young man’s (so far) charmed life; his father, having been made aware of the location of some stolen cattle, rustled from Badenoch, had then went to the location with an armed party of men with which to recapture the purloined beasts. Once there however, he had had the unenviable task of defeating a band of hardened reivers to do so, and was slain in the attempt. Thus, the young Jamie found himself back with his mother’s Tinker kin. Yet, he was not so unfortunate as to have lived so harshly, for the men and women of his own Clan, Clan MacPherson, had endeavored to see him and his mother done right by; clothing and feeding him often, as well as providing her with money.

As he grew older, it seems he had inherited a great deal from his mother’s exotic appearance; his jet-black hair and swarthy skin certainly very uncommon in Scotland at that time; and so had soon grown into a man described by the first volume of the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ as:

“in beauty, strength and stature rarely equaled.” 

Side note: This magazine also helpfully informs us that neither MacPherson, nor his men, had to wear tights under their Kilts.

Starting his early career buying and selling horses, whether legitimately or not is impossible to know (Though I suspect it was the latter); he and his band of Tinkers were said to have been fairly well liked among the common folk during this time, perhaps due in no small part to MacPherson’s objection to unnecessary violence, and unwillingness to rob widows, the poor, and to harming either children, or the vulnerable. Sadly, in the end, it was such righteousness that would prove his undoing; though that part comes later in this tale.

At some point in his relatively short life, MacPherson had become such a well-known figure in the north east of Scotland, specifically Aberdeen, Banff, and Moray, that he had gathered behind himself a great number of powerful enemies due to his criminal activities; nobles, lairds, and gentlemen farmers chief among them; so that soon he found himself being chased through the low country of Aberdeenshire and Banff by as formidable a posse as such men could muster. And although he was captured several times during this period, no doubt thanks in large part to his willingness to stand and fight his pursuers, rather than skulk and hide; he was always able to escape them shortly afterwards. In one account, it was said, whilst being held at Aberdeen, one of his cousins, by the name of Donald MacPherson, along with a Tinker, Peter Brown (Then spelt; Broune), were able to so thoroughly rile up the local populace, that they aided the two men in his’ rescue. Another unlikely escape took place not long after that, wherein he was once again captured, but was this time aided by only one; the laird of Grant. As to the reason why a laird aided him, I have no idea. But, it wasn’t uncommon for such men to strike bargains with those like MacPherson, an investment of sorts; or even employ them as cattle-guards and agents with which to carry out their less gentlemanly affairs. Whatever the case was, MacPherson was a free man again, and now under the protection of the aforementioned laird. Though true to form, such freedom was never going to last very long if MacPherson’s boldness was to have a say in it.

In 1700, at the small town of Keith, Moray; the Saint Rufus Fair was in full swing; Alexander Duff of Braco, ancestor of the Earls of Fife, and a large company of men were among the revelers present that day, and if some sources are to be believed, it might not have been a coincidence, for that very same fair was paid a visit by none other than MacPherson and his band of outlaws who, according to a report in ‘The New Statistical Account of Scotland’, published by William Blackwood and Sons, in 1845; had a habit of visiting such market days in places like Forres, Elgin or Banff, were he would just swagger on in in as boldly as could be, he and his band armed to the teeth and with a piper leading them.

Now this is the part in the tale where things get a little murky for a moment, for some sources suggest that the reason for Duff’s presence at the fair might have been orchestrated by betrayal. Months earlier, MacPherson had supposedly gotten into a heated exchange with a particularly brutal member of his group whose intentions were to attack the house of a gentleman, despite the man’s wife and young children being present. MacPherson refused…firmly; and thus, may have gained himself a knife at the back for his trouble.

Whatever the case may be, armed boldly as he and his band were, which was an offence during that period; Duff, the laird of Braco, and his men fell upon them swiftly and a great battle ensued, with MacPherson fiercely displaying his frightening personal strength in the midst of that hectic fray; his Claymore, wielded by such raw power as it was, able to cleave grown men in two, amputate limbs, and part heads from shoulders; not a single man it was said could gain any measure over him. However, as the fighting shifted to a narrow street, those in the apartments above begun to drop blankets atop the battling MacPherson; covered now in layers of cloth and wool, and fighting for his very life on all sides, he half-freed himself and took away “seeking to reach the gable of the church”; “parrying the attack of his enemies by the way”. And he did indeed reach the Churchyard, but not the gable, for “he fell over a gravestone” and was, unfortunately, swiftly detained; as were two more of his number, one by the last name Gordon, and “twa Brouns”. It’s quite possible that one of those twa Brouns (two Browns) was the Peter Brown who had helped rescue him earlier.

Regardless, this was to be Macpherson’s final brush with the law. His trail took place at Banff, before Nicholas Dunbar, the Sheriff of Banffshire, on the 8th of November, 1700. Now, if it wasn’t bad enough that he was a known outlaw, “wagabond, and oppressor of his Magesties free lieges in ane bangstrie manner”, it should be noted also that it was actually a capital crime to be an ‘Egyptian’ (I.E Gypsy) within 18th century Scotland; and it was under such a statute that MacPherson (part Gypsy) was tried. Needless to say, and to cut a long story short, he was unsurprisingly-

“-to be taken to the Cross of Banff… to be hanged by the neck to the death by the hand of the common executioner… betwixt the hours of two and three in the afternoon…”

And it was whilst in jail, during the week before his execution, that MacPherson’s fame was truly cemented within the folk memory of Scotland, for it was then that he was said to have composed the song now known as MacPherson’s Lament, or, MacPherson’s Rant; the very same tune that he was then said to have played on his fiddle, beneath the gallows that would see him dead. When the bold MacPherson was finished, he had offered his instrument “to anyone in the crowd who would think well of him”, but, perhaps out of fear of betraying their familiarity to the condemned, not one among neither his Clan, nor band, accepted the parting gift. Incensed, MacPherson proceeded to break the fiddle, either over his knee, or that of the executioners’ head, and then tossed the ruined instrument into the crowd, snapping:

“No one else shall play Jamie MacPherson’s fiddle then!”

MacPherson's fiddle
MacPherson’s broken fiddle, on display at the MacPherson Clan Museum

On the 16th of November, 1700, Jamie MacPherson, freebooter and fiddler, aged 25 yrs.’ old and with a noose around his neck, leapt from the gallows, to hang on his own terms.

P.S. In some parts of the North East, it is still widely held that a reprieve from the laird of Grant was inbound, but that Duff had seen the rider approaching, and had then set the village clock 15 minutes ahead so as to ensure MacPherson was executed before the pardon could arrive. The magistrates were apparently punished afterwards, and the town clock was kept 15 minutes before the correct time for many years after. Even to this day, the town of Macduff has no west-facing town clock visible so the people of Banff cannot see the correct time.

PPS It’s also worth noting that his bones were later found close to the site  of his hanging, and actually seem to corroborate the description of him having been (even by today’s standards) a very tall, and very muscular individual.