IN February 1770, Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary witnessed one of the most controversial trials in Scottish legal history, and possibly one of Scotland’s worst miscarriages of justice.

The trial arose from a tragic confrontation between an Earl and an excise officer 250 years ago last autumn on the North Shore of Ardrossan, about four hundred yards from my house.

On a wall above where Ardrossan’s Montfode Burn runs into the sea there is a small blue plaque which simply states: “Mungo Campbell, 1712-1770, excise officer and murderer.”

When I first saw this plaque several years ago, I probably didn’t know enough about the “murder” that took place on the nearby shore to challenge the “murderer” label, but I knew enough about it to doubt its accuracy and to make me want to investigate further. The more I have found out about it over the past few years, the more I am convinced that this plaque perpetuates a historical lie and a miscarriage of justice.

I first read about it as a teenager in an old copy of William Robertson’s Historical Tales of Ayrshire, 1889, but it wasn’t until many years later that I realised just how unreliable his account is, partly as a result of a talk from the late James Kennedy of Kilwinning. But I must have performed Tam o’ Shanter over a hundred times before I finally realised who the hanged “Mungo’s mither” actually was.

Just about every version of this tragic tale ever written (including the sycophantic account given by John Galt’s unreliable narrator, the Rev Balwhidder, in Annals of the Parish, or more recently Anna Blair in her Tales of Ayrshire, 1984, based largely on Robertson) has referred to Campbell as a disreputable poacher and cold-blooded killer, but the actual court records provide enough evidence to show that Mungo was nothing of the sort.

He was no poacher and he was probably acting in self-defence after being angrily confronted by the Earl, a man who was a keen agricultural reformer, but a very severe enforcer of the penal gaming laws and a man with the reputation of being a bully.

What actually appears to have happened on that fatal day is that the Earl accused Mungo of poaching on his land on the word of his servant Bartleymore, who had previously been caught by the gauger with a large quantity of smuggled rum and a man who probably escaped prison thanks to the Earl’s influence. In fact, Mungo and his assistant, John Brown, were on the shore, not on the Earl’s land, but in spite of this, the Earl demanded that Campbell hand over his gun, something he was entitled to carry and indeed required in his excise duties which could often be dangerous.

Earl Alexander then became enraged at Mungo’s refusal to hand over his weapon, and sent for his own gun from his coach. However, before it could be delivered to him, he drove Campbell back about a hundred yards towards the edge of the tide and attempted to seize the weapon. The exciseman fell backwards over a rock and his gun was discharged into the Earl’s stomach, fatally wounding him. According to the testimony of the Earl, given before he died, Campbell fired at him deliberately, evidence of course corroborated by his four servants who were nearby, while Campbell’s only witness, John Brown, had already retreated some distance, as instructed.

Bartleymore was obviously a man intent on revenge, but there may also have been a significant political undercurrent to both the confrontation on the shore and the trial, as Mungo Campbell seems to have been a radical supporter of political reform, something that may well have caused the Earl to dislike and challenge him, while the jury was certainly loaded with men supportive of the establishment.

THE incident and the trial were the headline news of their day and the court records provide us with a who’s who list of Scotland’s 18th-century legal profession, involving, as one of five judges, Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck, father of James Boswell (who was also a close friend of the Earl’s), and, as part of a prosecution team of no less than 10 advocates, we find Robert McQueen who later became Lord Justice Braxfield, the notorious hanging judge and persecutor of the Radicals, as well as Henry Dundas, who became Pitt the Younger’s closest ally, and a man christened “the uncrowned king of Scotland”.

In spite of a brilliant defence by four advocates, all of whom were very much part of Edinburgh’s Enlightenment circle, the guilty verdict was probably predictable (though the verdict was fairly close). But the strange thing is that Mungo never reached the scaffold on Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket. Before the day of execution in April 1770. Mungo was found hanged by his own white silk scarf in his Tolbooth cell.

Apparently he was buried below Salisbury Crags, but his body was dug up by the mob, abused and dragged through the streets before being retrieved by some of his friends who claimed to have then buried him at sea. Yet local legend has him turning up in Saltcoats years later, so perhaps he “jouked the gibbet” after all. Was his “hanging” perhaps staged, and did he somehow survive it with a little help from his friends. Was someone else possibly buried and dug up? Maybe this was all just rumour or folk-tale, but maybe not.

The dramatic confrontation that took place on the North Shore 250 years ago had of course tragic consequences for both men involved and their families. What lay behind it and what actually happened may still be debatable, but there is enough evidence, if we dig deeply enough, to show that it was not a murder case at all, but one of homicide at worst, and possibly self-defence. The Edinburgh High Court case may also have been a sort of political show trial.

But why does this all matter today? The first reason is that a man was unfairly convicted of murder, and secondly a misleading narrative was constructed around the events to protect the reputation of a rich and powerful man, a reminder that history is often constructed, or fabricated, by such people. It also reminds us that the justice system is fallible, and even sometimes far from just, and no matter how long ago it was, truth and justice still matter.

As a result of my research over the past few years I became so engrossed in the story that I couldn’t stop writing about it: firstly The Ballad of Mungo Campbell in the form of an 18th century street ballad, then a drama script, a radio and film script. My scripts attempt to capture both the drama of the struggle on the shore and of the trial, and offer contrasting versions of the “truth” as well as trying to portray the human tragedy behind the confrontation and finally exploring what could have happened to Mungo in the end.

His fate remains shrouded in mystery, but his tragic tale still has much to say to us today.