HE is often called the Robin Hood of Scotland, but there is a huge difference between Jamie MacPherson and the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest. James MacPherson existed in reality, many of his amazing adventures were real, and he really was hanged, in Banff on November 16, 1700. He was just 25.

As with Hood, the legend of Jamie MacPherson survives and grows to this day, his story much embellished over the centuries. His tale does, however, have the testimony and approval of none other than Robert Burns. The involvement of our national Bard comes from the fact that more than 80 years after MacPherson’s execution, Burns rewrote the words of the song MacPherson’s Rant, supposedly written by the outlaw himself, that first appeared in print a year after Jamie was put to death for the crime of being ... a Gypsy. That’s right – in Scotland at that time, you could be hanged just for being of the Roma race. Thankfully, we have moved on.

With rather more delicate lyrics than the original, Burns called the song MacPherson’s Farewell, and it has been a standard of the folk canon for more than 200 years.

Yet it only tells a part of the extraordinary story of Jamie MacPherson, the Highland Freebooter, an outlaw, swordsman of great repute, a musician of note, and composer of the tune that bears his name. When delving into the story of MacPherson, it is often very difficult to distinguish between fact and fantasy, and yet again Sir Walter Scott pops up, cited as an authority on the story of MacPherson, except that Scott muddled things up and didn’t even get his place of execution correct, stating it was Inverness rather than Banff.

It was most certainly in the latter that MacPherson was hanged, and the final part of the proceedings of his trial is still extant. Sadly for MacPherson, the hereditary Sheriff of Banff, one Nicholas Dunbar, was determined to hang him, and pronounced this sentence for doom.

“Forasmeikle as you James McPherson, pannal (the accused) are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian (Gypsy) and a wagabond, and oppressor of his Magesties free lieges in ane bangstrie manner, and going up and down the country armed, and keeping mercats in ane hostile manner, and that you are a thief, and that you are of pessimae famae (worst repute).

“Therfor, the Sheriff-depute of Banff, and I in his name, adjudges and discernes you the said James McPherson to be taken to the Cross of Banff, from the tolbooth thereof, where you now lye, and there upon ane gibbet to be erected, to be hanged by the neck to the death by the hand of the common executioner, upon Friday next, being the 16th day of November instant, being a public weekly mercat day, betwixt the hours of two and three in the afternoon.”

As William Chambers wrote about MacPherson 170 years later in his Journal, volume 50: “In these old times, the Scottish local authorities went to work in a very peremptory way when they chanced to catch a band of marauders. The whole were summarily tried, hanged and done with.”

SO what did MacPherson do to earn such a fate? He was born in 1675, the illegitimate son of a laird, MacPherson of Invereshie, and a beautiful Gypsy woman. His father acknowledged his bastard son, and Jamie lived at Invereshie in Inverness-shire until his father died, reportedly killed by cattle thieves. Jamie was taken into the care of his mother’s people.

Growing up tall, strong and handsome, somewhere along the way he acquired great skill as a swordsman and a fiddler – his fiddle and a replica of his sword can be seen in the Clan MacPherson Museum in Newtonmore.

As a naturally charismatic figure he soon became leader of his own band of Gypsies. When working as tinkers, they were well liked by the common people of the north and north-east of Scotland, but MacPherson wanted greater wealth and soon turned into a “freebooter”, effectively a land-based pirate. He soon acquired the habit of annoying those in authority in various parts of the north east. He and his men were declared outlaws, not least for their habit of marching behind a piper into towns where markets were being held, there to relieve wealthy types of their cattle and other goods, though one anonymous writer claimed “no act of cruelty, or robbery of the widow, the fatherless, or the distressed was ever perpetrated under his command”.

ROMANTIC tosh, in all probability, but there is evidence that he did distribute some of his ill-gotten gains among his Gypsy folk and the poor.

The MacPherson band became notorious in a whole swathe of the country from Inverness to Aberdeen, and it was in the latter city that he was first captured and imprisoned. With the help of his most loyal outlaw, Peter Broune, Jamie made a daring escape, and he would repeat that feat when captured again.

In Keith in the autumn of 1700, MacPherson would not be so lucky. The Laird of Braco, Alexander Duff, and his retainers surprised MacPherson’s small band as they attended St Rufus’ Fair, no doubt with a little larceny in mind. Instead they found themselves in a fierce hand-to-hand fight in which one of MacPherson’s men was killed and he himself was captured after a woman threw a blanket on top of him from the upper window of a house.

Firmly imprisoned in Banff, MacPherson was tried on

November 8 for the capital crime of being an “Egyptian”. Never mind the fact that his father was a Scottish laird, MacPherson was doomed from the outset, and Sheriff Dunbar gave him the unwanted title of being the last man in Scotland to be condemned to die by a judge who gained his office by Heritable Jurisdiction. In the week before his execution, MacPherson composed his Rant to a tune that he apparently devised himself though it is similar to an old folk tune that was heard in Moray and Aberdeenshire.

It is unlikely that, as legend has it, MacPherson actually played his song underneath his gallows, though a version which states that he broke his fiddle so that no-one else would ever play it has more truth. There is also no written evidence for the story that he was hanged ahead of the set time because Duff of Braco found out a pardon was being hurried to Banff. The town clock was allegedly set 15 minutes fast and so MacPherson really was hanged before his time. His song was written down within a year, and became popular with the ordinary people of Scotland who took to the story of the man who danced and played his fiddle in the face of death at the hands of unpopular authority.

After Burns made his improvements to the song, and Walter Scott wrote his version, MacPherson’s fame spread internationally. None other than Dmitri Shostakovich was inspired by MacPherson’s Farewell, one of the two Burns’ settings in his 1943 work Six Romances for Bass, otherwise known as Six Romances to Verses by English (sic) Poets. The other is ‘O wert thou in the cauld blast’.

The most famous version of the Rant is still that written by Burns, and we print that below in the version sung by The Corries. There were other verses, either from oral tradition or written down, which tell the fuller story.

“It’s little did me mither know, When first she cradled me, That I would become a rovin’ boy, And die on the gallows tree.

“There’s some come here to see me hang, And some to steal my fiddle, But before that I do part with her, I’ll break her through the middle.

“He’s ta’en his fiddle into both his hands, And breaked her on his knee, Said when I am gane no ither hands, Shall ever play on thee.

“The reprieve was comin’ ower the Brig o Banff tae set MacPherson free, But they pit the clock a quarter afore, and they hanged him frae the tree.”

Fareweel ye dungeons dark and strang

The wretch’s destiny,

MacPherson’s time will no be lang

On yonder gallows tree.

Chorus – Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,

An’ sae dauntingly gaed he.

He played a tune and he danced a-roon,

Below the gallows tree.

It was by a woman’s treacherous hand that I was condemned tae dee

She stood abune a windae ledge and a blanket threw ower me


Oh what is death, but parting breath,

On many’s the bloody plain,

I’ve dur’d his face, and in this place

I scorn him yet again!


I’ve liv’d a life of sturt and strife;

I die by treachery,

It burns my heart I must depart,

An’no’ avenged be.


So tak off these bands fae roon’ my hands,

And gie to me my sword;

And there’s no a man in all Scotland,

But I’ll brave him at a word.


So farewell night, thou parting light,

An’ a’ beneath the sky!

May coward shame, disdain his name,

The wretch that dur’na die!

Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,

An’ sae dauntingly gaed he.

He played a tune and he danced a-roon,

Below the gallows tree.

A final note, based on the fact that in the town of Macduff, where MacPherson was well liked and had the protection of the local laird, there stands Doune parish church which has a clock tower with only has three faces. The side that looks across the Bay to Banff is blank.

Local lore has it that the people of Macduff wouldn’t give the time of day to the folk of Banff, but another version is that the tower was made that way as a gesture of disapproval to Banff for hanging “their” Jamie MacPherson. Even three centuries after his death, MacPherson is still the stuff of legend.