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A Hanging at Symington Toll

On Thursday 27th October 1814, late in the afternoon, there were four men eating four pence worth of bread and drinking whisky, a gill between them, in the public house and grocery shop kept by James Ballantine in Monkton. The tallest was about six feet, had an ill-looking, yellow face and wore a long, dark coat with yellow buttons and wide, grey trousers, like a soldier. Another was small, no more than five feet five inches, red-faced and with red hair and whiskers. The third was about five feet six, dark-complexioned, with a long, black beard. He wore a blue coat, with small yellow buttons, and his stockings were dark grey. No one could afterwards give a description of the fourth man.

Ballantine's wife was afraid of the men. She and her husband called a customer to observe them surreptitiously. This was James Henry, a weaver in Monkton, who was buying a pound of candles. When the four had left, Ballantine remarked to Henry that there would be robberies before the night was out. It was Kilmarnock Fair that day and there were sure to be some returning towards Monkton or Ayr.

It was a little after six o'clock, dark and raining, when they found their first victim. David Dickie was an apprentice upholsterer to William Lamont in Kilmarnock. His pony having cast a shoe near Symington, he was leading it when he came to the first of the Rosemount plantations, at the sixth milestone from Ayr. He was set upon by the four men, who sprang from cover of the trees and knocked him into the ditch. They robbed him of about seven shillings in silver, his gloves, a handkerchief from his pocket and another of black silk he was wearing about his neck. When they had done with him he continued to Rosemount smithy where his pony, with commendable presence of mind, was waiting.

Soon afterwards James Ferguson, farmer in Newlands and Alexander Paterson, farmer at Aikenbrae, both of Monkton parish, came riding by and were attacked at the same spot. From Ferguson they gained a pound note and some shillings and halfpence, together with the keys of his desk. Paterson was still more productive, yielding nineteen pounds, mostly in one pound or guinea notes, and a silver hunter watch no. 47,599.

The alarm was raised in Monkton and a party set out along the road, but though they searched the plantation they found no trace of the gang.

Over near Craigie however, Robert Guthrie who lived at Townhead of Drumley rode into their path and he too was knocked off his horse and robbed. He was sure that he had recognised one of the men as a certain Witheredge, a hawker who travelled the country with a green pack. This was actually John Worthington, a peddler who had lived for some time in Kilmarnock and was now thought to be living in Glasgow.

About eight o'clock Worthington turned up with one companion in Kilmarnock, at the house of Robert Hamilton, his daughter and his twelve year old son, who was apprenticed as a shoemaker with Alexander Macfie in the town, having arrived there earlier. Hamilton, a customer weaver, had known Worthington for about three years, but was not pleased to see him, being aware that he had been banished from the county for theft. However he admitted him, and Worthington sent his son to buy a mutchkin of whisky costing two shillings, sending him first with a pound note and then, when no change was to be had, with silver. He and his companion left later, saying that they were going to Irvine.

Between Kilmarnock and Kingswell on the Glasgow road was the village of Rose Fenwick, where the Black Bull Inn was kept by David Taylor and his wife Jean Parker. Their door was bolted when, at about ten past ten that night, four men arrived demanding half a mutchkin of whisky. When the man in the blue coat, identified as Worthington, attempted to pay with a note, there was insufficient change, so he increased the order to two half mutchkins. After spending about half an hour in the kitchen they asked to stay the night, and bought another half mutchkin to take with them to a room upstairs where there was a bed.

Jean Parker's suspicions were aroused and she did what she never did before. She spied on them through a broken part of the lathing at the side of the door. They were counting out money; she saw a Note, or Notes, or something the size of a Note lying before two of the men; could not see anything lying before the other two. Some few shillings were lying on each Note; ... Shortly after this the men came downstairs and left the inn.

The Air Advertiser, or, West Country Journal for Thursday, 3rd November carried an advertisement by the Sheriff Substitute of Ayrshire, William Eaton, offering a reward of twenty guineas for information leading to the apprehension and conviction of any or all of the offenders.

Worthington, the black-bearded man in the blue coat with yellow buttons, was picked up in Glasgow early in December and taken to Ayr, where a number of witnesses identified him as one of the four who had carried out the robberies. On 8th December he was despatched from Ayr to Edinburgh, under strong escort, for trial in the High Court of Justiciary. His companion on the journey was John Anderson, a sailor on the brig Amity of Ayr, who was accused of murdering Margaret Wilson by throwing her over the Old Bridge.

John Worthington's trial took place on Monday, 14th January before the Lord Justice Clerk. The matter of the assault on Guthrie was withdrawn because of an error in the charge, and Worthington pleaded not guilty to the other charges of highway robbery, alleging that he was plying his trade as a peddler in Lochgilphead at the time. Having heard the detailed evidence of a number of witness, but none called in his defence to support his Lochgilphead story, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of Guilty.

Passing sentence, Lord Justice Clerk rebuked Worthington and one of his alleged co-offenders, also a peddler, for having brought a lawful and honest calling into disrepute. He implored him to repent of his sins, and to assist in bringing to justice his three associates. He should not believe for a moment however, that the prerogative of Royal Mercy would be invoked, so diabolical were his crimes. Your dreadful fate is unavoidably necessary. You are to receive your punishment not at the ordinary place of execution. As a great offender, you are to be transmitted from Sheriff to Sheriff till you be incarcerated in the jail of Glasgow; and you are then to be transmitted in the same manner till you reach Symington toll-bar. I have appointed your execution to take place on the public toll road which leads from Kilmarnock to Monkton, that the inhabitants of that respectable and extensive manufacturing town, and the other inhabitants of Airshire, may long remember the punishment of your offences being exacted on the spot where they were committed, and that they may see the power of the Law in protecting their persons and properties. The date set for the execution was Friday, 17th February 1815.

On that day the procession from Glasgow, with Worthington conveyed in a coach and four, was met at Flockside on the county line by the following party: Sheriff Substitute William Eaton, Procurator Fiscal Alexander Murdoch, Head Constable Angus Gunn into whose charge the prisoner was placed, and as escort a troop of the Second Regiment of the Queen's Cavalry. About two miles from Kilmarnock they were joined by twelve mounted special constables from Wallacetown, complete with batons, who had volunteered their services. At Kilmarnock, Worthington was allowed to see his son, whose cries were heart-rending to all those present.

Worthington was placed in a cart for the remainder of the journey. The magistrates of the town, and Mr Parker, Deputy Lieutenant, at the head of one hundred and twenty special constables, accompanied the procession to Riccarton Bridge. When Symington toll-bar was reached, John Worthington prayed with the two Catholic clergymen who had, at his request, accompanied him, Mr Paterson of Glasgow and Mr Scott of Paisley. Very shortly after he ascended the platform, he dropped the signal, and was launched into eternity without any apparent struggle, and his body was carried and buried in Kilmarnock churchyard . The Air Advertiser reported that a large crowd had an excellent view of the melancholy scene and that, thanks to the presence of the military party which was augmented by a detachment of the 91st Regiment from Ayr, there were no disorderly incidents.

One witness of the execution has left us a fuller account. John Kelso Hunter, who was the age of Worthington's son, set down his recollections more than fifty years later in his autobiography. He called the dead man Witherington, echoing Guthrie's name for him; the Withrington who committed highway robbery near the Red Burn between Irvine and Kilwinning was presumably the same.

According to Hunter, as it neared Symington Toll the cart slowed at some water, at which he jumped aboard and shared the last of the journey with priest (he remembered only one) and sinner. A crowd of thousands was there, enjoying a holiday atmosphere, complete with a band of music. The platform of the gallows was hinged at one side, the other being supported by a wooden prop with its lower end resting on a plank and connected to a length of rope. Tam Young, a soldier with the Berwickshire Militia (Hunter admits some doubt on this point), was to officiate at a hanging for the first time, and he had practised pulling away the prop several times, to make sure the platform was dropping cleanly; on each occasion the boys never failing to salute him with a cheer. When he performed this deed in earnest it was with such vigour that he fell backwards head over heels, while Witherington hung with his toes ten inches of the ground. After hanging for an hour, the body was placed in the coffin which had been lying open at the foot of the gallows, and taken to Kilmarnock Low Churchyard. From the shallowness of the grave, Worthington's friends suspected that robbery was intended, so they rendered the body unfit for dissection by means of a bottle of vitriol and a bucket of quicklime. One of them said that as they hurried away the grave was reekin' like a lime kiln. With this charitable, last act by his friends, ends the story of the Ayrshire highwayman.

David McClure

This article was first published in Ayrshire Notes No. 9 (1995).

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Notes

  1. From accounts in the Air Advertiser 3/11 and 8/12/1814; 19/1 and 23/2/1815.

  2. The following Ayrshire measures are from Ayrshire at the Time of Burns (Ayrshire Collections Vol. 5, AANHS 1959).  I have added a metric conversion.
    1 gill = 107.5 mls.
    4 gills = 1 mutchkin = 430 mls.
    2 mutchkins = 1 choppin = 860 mls.
    2 choppins = 1 pint = 1.721 litres
    8 pints = 1 gallon = 13.765 litres (840 cubic inches or approximately 3 English gallons).

  3. In his Autobiographical Reminiscences (Glasgow 1871), James Paterson tells us that many robberies were committed on the Ayr and Kilmarnock road in the early 19th century.

  4. John Kelso Hunter, The Retrospect of an Artist's Life (Greenock, 1868), p.73.

  5. One who works for "private families".

  6. According to William Johnson's 1828 Map of Ayrshire, Rose Fenwick lay half a mile south of Fenwick on the Kilmarnock and Glasgow road, where the OS Landranger Sheet 70 shows Laigh Fenwick now.

  7. If it is assumed that on each occasion the whisky was shared equally, Worthington had consumed 331 mls.  At today's strength of 40 per cent alcohol, this was equivalent to 13 unites.  It might shock the health lobby, but he would not have been particularly drunk.  At 2 shillings a mutchkin, his share cost 1/6 (one shilling and six and a half pence).

  8. Now called the Auld Brig.

  9. Note the signpost on the A77 for the farm of Floak.

  10. An "enterprising and active young man" recently appointed at a salary of 80 a year.

  11. His name does not appear in Pre-1855 Graveyard Inscriptions in Kilmarnock and Loudoun District, ed. Beattie and Beattie (available in the Dick Institute, Kilmarnock).

  12. John Kelso Hunter, op. cit., pp. 68-74.  Hunter's description forms the basis for the account in Rev. Kirkwood Hewat, A Little Scottish World (Kilmarnock 1894), pp. 107-109.

  13. John Strawhorn, The History of Irvine (Edinburgh 1985), p. 118.

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