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Alcohol-fuelled Knife Crime 1828

A Cautionary Tale based on High Justiciary Court records

Researched and written by Ruairidh Greig

Alcohol-Fuelled Knife Crime 1828:

A Cautionary Tale based on High Justiciary Court records

“The Jury find the pannel Guilty of Maliciously assaulting and cutting tho’ not with intent to murder and the Jury in consideration of the previous good character of the pannel unanimously recommend him to the leniety of the court”[1]

Alexander Pattillo must have breathed a sigh of relief. The thirty-eight year old pannel[2], from Upper Sinsharnie, parish of Cairney, near Huntly, Aberdeenshire was sentenced by the Judge, Lord Mackenzie, to six months in the Aberdeen’s Bridewell prison. My Great Great Grandmother’s elder brother was fortunate not to receive a longer sentence for injuring neighbouring farmer John Watt of Whitehillock. The High Court of Justiciary records, preserved in the National Archives of Scotland, give a dramatic account of the incident. The Court Minutes lists the charges, the names, home communities and occupations of the fifteen members of the jury, chosen by ballot, their decision and the sentence passed by the Judge. The precognition, prepared for the court by the Sheriff and his substitutes, includes the testimonies of all the witnesses and the medical report by the attending Doctor. The witness statements even include the actual words spoken by those present.

The Pattillo family moved to Upper Sinsharnie from Corskie near Banff where Alexander was born in 1790. His father, Andrew, died in 1821, so he lived with his Mother, Jean, and his younger brother Andrew, earning his living as a “square-wright” or furniture maker. Sisters Helen (my Great Great Grandmother) and Margaret had recently married. According to family tradition, Helen left for her wedding to John Cramond with four wagon-loads of “providings”, so the family were relatively prosperous and respectable.

The parish of Cairney was a close-knit community, and it was because of a community dispute that Alexander spent six months in the Bridewell. The story is told by the precognition[3]. John (Jock) Watt told the Sheriff that both he and Alexander Pattillo were members of the Cairney Friendly Society and that there had been a dispute about a payment which Watt had made, to which Alexander strongly objected. The payment was made, since Watt was the “cautioner”[4] of the Society, authorised for such actions. Strong words were passed; Jock recalled saying that the bill would be cashed “tho’ he Pattillo were cursed for it”[5]. This dispute took place in August 1828.

The small town of Keith, in the county of Banff is about six miles north-west of Cairney. It is a historic market town, the centre for the surrounding agricultural area. Each September a special market, the Summer Eve Fair was held in the town. It attracted visitors not only from neighbouring Aberdeenshire and Morayshire, but from all over Scotland. On Wednesday 17th September 1828, Jock Watt and Alexander Pattillo were both at the market. Jock remembered meeting Alexander and discussing the Friendly Society. He believed at that time, that the issue was settled and that they parted on good terms.

They met again on the way home at Alexander Paul’s house at Mains of Botarie, on the road between Keith and Huntly, about a mile west of Cairney. This was a Public House, serving mainly punch and whisky. On that evening, after the fair, its several rooms were full of men from the local area and those from further afield, pausing on their way home to Huntly and beyond. The company included farmers, road makers, a shoemaker and a soldier from Huntly, a private in the 92nd Regiment of Foot (later to become the Gordon Highlanders). Margaret Paul, the Landlord’s wife was serving customers and keeping order. All the witnesses were interviewed by the Sheriff or his substitute and their evidence describes what subsequently transpired.

Jock Watt, on his way home at about 8pm, decided to call into Paul’s, “for a dram”. Some time later, after having some punch and whisky, he remembered that the landlord came in to pass on a request for him to join John Smith of Clashbrae for a drink. Smith was there, he had noticed, drinking with Alexander Pattillo and Jock decided to decline the invitation. Alexander then came into his room and started to discuss the Friendly Society. An argument started and following the exchange of “high words”, the pair went outside to settle the issue. After some pushing and shoving, during which Alexander seems to have come off worst, they were separated and it was agreed they would go back inside. This they did, but not before Alexander unexpectedly threw a punch at Jock’s face and made his nose bleed.

Once inside the argument continued and Jock decide to leave the room and sat down in the kitchen, by the fire. Some time later Alexander followed him and, tapping him on the shoulder, asked him to go outside again:

“Jock Watt, come away out, I want to speak to you.”[6]

Despite advice from the shoemaker, Alexander Pirie, Jock Watt did so. Pirie followed, asking him not to go near Pattillo. Ignoring him, Jock Watt went up to Alexander Pattillo, who struck him on the cheek “with something sharp which he held in his hand”. Watt threw Pattillo to the floor and got on top of him but received several more cuts in the process. Hearing Watt shout that he had been stabbed, several men, including the soldier, John Dunbar, and the cooper, John Stevenson, separated the men and took Watt inside. John Stevenson recalled:

“Watt was cut in the face, in the breast and in one of the legs; and a good deal of blood was flowing from the wounds on his face.”[7]

Pattillo followed them in and the landlord said to him:

“You bloody rascal, come in and see your handy work – the man will die”[8]

Paul recalled Pattillo’s reply:

“That was the way I wanted it.”[9]

The Landlord tried to restrain him but was struck in the chest and Pattillo got clear and left the house.

The Doctor was called and he attended to Watt’s injuries, putting dressings on the more serious wounds on his chest and leg. Doctor Bremner, in his medical report, said that the former wound:

“…might have proved fatal either by wounding the left lung or by causing an effusion of blood in the thorax.”[10]

There was a superficial cut across the left cheek on which he commented:

“…had it been deep enough to divide the external jugular vein the consequences might have proved fatal from loss of blood.”[11]

After his wounds had been attended to, Watt was helped onto his horse and rode the half mile home to Whitehillock farm. The Doctor saw him the following day and checked his wounds, changing the dressings and prescribed Sulphate of Magnesia for the headache caused by blood-loss and over-consumption of alcohol. Jock was unable to work for eight days, but apart from some scarring, made a full recovery.

One of the road makers, Duncan McPherson found the weapon:

“The same evening of the affray and just after it ended the Witness found a knife lying on the ground just beside where the affray had happened and there was blood on the knife. That the knife had one blade and a white haft; and the blade was shut when the witness had found it.”[12]

Two days later the knife was reclaimed by its owner, another road maker, William Millar. He remembered being asked by somebody at Paul’s (he could not recall who) for:

“…something to rid out a tobacco pipe with.”[13]

This took place at least an hour before he saw Watt re-enter Paul’s house, covered with blood.

So, had Alexander borrowed the knife with the intent to injure or kill the man who appeared to be getting the better of him in the on-going dispute? His comment to the Landlord suggests that he did. When the Sheriff Substitute, Alexander Dauney Esq. LL.D interrogated him at the Tollbooth[14] about the knife, Pattillo declined to answer.

A few days after the incident at Mains of Botarie, the Minister of Cairney, Mr Cowie, arranged a meeting with Jock Watt, Alexander Pattillo and Dr. Bremner at which Pattillo agreed to pay the Doctor’s fee for attending to Watt. He also agreed to pay twenty shillings to the Poor of the Parish and:

“…expressed himself sorry for having so injured the witness.”[15]

The court accepted evidence from four people as to Alexander Pattillo’s previous good conduct and character. They include one of the witnesses, Robert Stevenson, cooper, of Mill of Castletown, Captain McPherson of Gibston, Dr. James Christie of Huntly and George Gordon Esq. (possibly a member of the Marquis of Huntly’s family), also of Huntly. They appear to have been individuals of some social standing and influence, possibly some of Alexander’s customers or clients. Their evidence is unfortunately not included in the records, but it must have been very positive in influencing the court’s “leniety” or leniency.

Alexander survived his six months in the Bridewell and returned to Cairney, where he continued in his trade as a furniture maker and carpenter. He died in 1848, aged 60yrs, leaving a second wife, two sons and a daughter by a first.[16]Whether he learnt his lesson or not is a matter for conjecture. Hopefully, he learnt to control his temper and limit his alcohol consumption. The sentence he received was indeed lenient even by today’s standards. Dr Bremner’s medical report makes it clear that two of the wounds inflicted could have proved fatal. That Alexander Pattillo was very fortunate not to be charged with the murder of Jock Watt, potentially leading to capital punishment, is without doubt.

Researched and written by Ruairidh Greig

[1] High Court of Justiciary Minute Book JC11/75 p.85

[2] Scots legal term for accused or defendant

[3] High Court of Justiciary AD14/29/179

[4] Surety

[5] Precognition, p.3

[6] Precognition p.33

[7] Precognition p.28

[8] Precognition p.34

[9] Ibid

[10] Medical Report p.4

[11] Ibid p.3

[12] Precognisance p.41

[13] Ibid, p.46

[14] Aberdeen’s prison for those awaiting trial

[15] Ibid p.13

[16] Past and Present Company, Alan Pattillo, London 2000, Table F, p.162

Owner/SourceRuairidh Greig
Linked toAlexander PATTILLO

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