On 23 December 1696, Thomas Aikenhead became the last person in the UK to be convicted of the crime of blasphemy. He had been a student at Edinburgh University, and was just 20 years old when he died at the end of a rope at the Gallowlee, a execution site between Edinburgh and Leith.
The Blasphemy Act of 1661 first specified that anyone found guilty of being observed to "rail upon or curse or deny God, and obstinately continue therein" should be sentenced to death. Thirty years later an amendment to the act instituted a 'two strikes and you're out' policy, with sentences of imprisonment for the first two offences proven, followed by death for a third.
Aikenhead was charged with denouncing God and Jesus Christ, railing against the holy scriptures, and speaking against all forms of religion. Specific allegations claimed that he had suggested that Jesus had "learned magic in Egypt", and suggested he preferred the teachings of Mohammed to those of Christ.
Just 140 years previously, the religious landscape in Scotland had been massively impacted by the shift away from Catholicism to a Protestant doctrine, and the laws which were enshrined as a result of this change were partly seeking to protect a similar seismic theological shift from happening again. Such was the strength of religious conviction by the Scottish Presbyterian authorities, it had been stipulated that every Scot should have access to a Bible - and, by assumption, be able also to read it. (It was partly down to this insistence that, by the 18th century, it's believed an astonishing three-quarters of Scots were literate.)
At his trial in Edinburgh, five fellow students testified against Aikenhead, which suggests little of a sense of student solidarity. There is no record of the defence that was lodged, so we may never know the grounds on which the young man sought to justify his speaking out. On the day of his execution, however, he is recorded as having made a statement which contains echoes of some modern defences of the principle of free speech.
"It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man," Aikenhead wrote to those very friends who had helped to condemn him, "to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure." In essence, Aikenhead may have been questioning what he considered to be unsubstantiated statements that he read in religious teachings, to challenge the doctrines that he considered to be unsupported and at odds with an alternative perspective on human destiny.
In a strangely un-festive spirit, he was sentenced to death on Christmas Eve 1696. Appealing the decision, Aikenhead asked for clemency on the grounds of this being his first offence, and also on account of his "tender years". The appeal found little sympathy with the authorities, who seemed determined to make an example of Aikenhead. However, the Privy Council ruled that although they were not minded to be lenient on the boy, on the word of the church itself the sentence would be dropped.
Alas, forgiveness was in short supply and the church made no such intervention. Thus, on January 8 1697 Thomas Aikenhead found himself wearily walking to his death, along the road from town to the gallows near modern day Pilrig.
Perhaps the example made of Aikenhead had the desired effect, as he was the last person to be executed for the crime of blasphemy in the UK.
Explore more of Edinburgh's dark history with my private Up-Close and Personal walking tours of the city!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh with 19 years of experience living and working in the city...