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476 HISTORICAL NOTES
The story of James McPherson indicates the lawlessness and disorder at the time in the Highlands. He was the leader of one of the gangs of cattle-lifters which roamed over the Province of Moray, helping themselves to all the moveables they wanted. They were armed with matchlocks slnng behind, and broad swords, or dirks by their sides, and visited fairs to discover who received money or goods, in order to waylay and despoil them. McPherson was a tall, handsome, powerful man, the son of a gentleman by a gipsy mother. His lineage and ability raised him to authority over his associates. He wore an enormous sword which at the time was almost out of date, and which in his hands was a formidable weapon of offence and defence. One of the Highland Chiefs—Duff of Braco—was conspicuously active in trying to root out the depredators, and put an end to brigandage; while on the other hand, the Laird of Grant protected the maranders, and undertook their defence. At the Keith fair, Duff and his assistants tried to seize the raiders, but they made a desperate resistance and Duff had a narrow escape with his life. McPherson and Peter Brown— the two leaders—were caught and locked up with a sentry over them. The Laird of Grant came to the rescue, and released the men, but shortly afterwards they were retaken, and on November 7, 1700, James McPherson, two Browns, and a Gordon were brought before the Sheriff of Banffshire charged with being ' Egyptian rogues and vagabonds, of keeping the markets in their ordinary manner of thieving and purse-cutting, also, being guilty of masterful bangstrie and oppression.' Grant, with much legal acumen, applied to have the Browns tried in the Court of his own regality, as they lived within his bounds, and offering Culreack or pledge for their appearance, but the application was refused. The evidence against the prisoners was complete; they had stolen sheep, oxen and horses; they had robbed many men of their purses, tyrannously oppressed poor people, and they spoke a peculiar gipsy language. They also spent their nights in dancing, and singing, and debauchery—McPherson himself being the minstrel at these feasts. Gordon and he were found guilty, and sentenced to be hung at the Market Cross next market-day. McPherson spent his last hours writing verses and composing a tune for them, and as he walked from prison to the place of execution, he played his tune on the violin. At the gallows he offered his instrument to any one who would accept it, but upon every one declining it, he broke it over his knee and threw the pieces among the crowd. His two-handed sword and target were taken from him by Duff at the time of arrest, and are now in the possession of the latter's family. McPherson was buried at the place of execution, and a considerable time afterwards his bones, proving him to have been a tall powerful man, were found at the gallows hill. The sword is six feet long, including a handle of eighteen inches, and the blade is two and a half inches broad. Such are some of the particulars—partly fact and mostly fiction—of the notorious freebooter, whom Burns has immortalized in ' a wild stormful song, that dwells in our ear with a strange tenacity.' The process against McPherson is given in Spalding's Miscellany, I'll. ijj.
The original ballad from which Burns modelled his song was printed shortly after the events to which they refer, in a broadside entitled MThersoiis Rant; or the last words of James M'Pherson, murderer. To its own proper tune. The verses are a good deal above the general level of the ordinary street ballad, and consist of eleven eight-line stanzas in vigorous language of somewhat inferior rhyme. The first stanza is as follows:—
' I spent my time in rioting, I'm brought to punishment condign;
Debauch'd my health and strength; Pale death draws near to me,
I pillag'd, plnnder'd, murdered, The end I never did project
But now, alas! at length To die upon a tree.'
An incomplete copy is in Herd's Scots Songs, 1769, 264 : a complete version is in Maidinent's Scotish Songs andBallads, 1859,29, with the title above quoted.