Blasphemy! The Sins of Thomas Aikenhead
On 8 January 1697, Thomas Aikenhead became the last person in the UK to be executed for 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 site of execution 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 (marginally) more compassionate 'three strikes' policy, with sentences of imprisonment for the first two offences proven, followed by death for a third.
During August 1696, Aikenhead had been walking through Edinburgh with a couple of his friends, and had had cause to remark that the Scottish weather was so unforgiving, he "wished he were in Hell, where at least it would be a little bit warmer".
The Scots are sometimes noted for their dry sense of humour, but Aikenhead's remark were not found to be as amusing as he may have hoped. He 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 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. Unable to afford to pay for legal representation, Aikenhead defended himself at the trial, but no record survives of the defence that was lodged.
It was unfortunate for Aikenhead that the man prosecuting him, Sir James Stewart, was notorious as a legal authority, the Lord Advocate for Scotland at the time - who lived on Advocate's Close in the Old Town - and an intimidating figure at the bench, making him a public celebrity during his own lifetime. Quirks of the legal system aside, this was a true David and Goliath battle, and on this occasion it was Goliath who was the victor.
In a strangely un-festive spirit, Aikenhead was found guilty and 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 of Scotland itself the sentence would be dropped.
Alas, Christian forgiveness was in short supply and the church made no such intervention. Thus, on January 8 1697 Thomas Aikenhead found himself wearily walking two miles to his death, along the road from town to the gallows near modern day Pilrig.
On the day of his execution, Aikenhead made a written 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 have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure."
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.
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