I mentioned the unfortunate Andrew Low in a post about the later witches in Angus several years ago, due to his connection with a 'wise woman' named Lizzie Kinmont. (The post can be read here.) This piece adds more details about his story, although (as always), there is more yet to be discovered about his story.
Here's what I wrote then:
A public execution in 1785 incidentally involved witchcraft. The condemned man was a young thief named Andrew Low, who was hanged on Balmashanner Hill, Forfar. He was said to have been the last person executed for theft in Scotland. Andrew had once stolen a hen from Lizzie Kinmont of Brechin, unluckily for him a famous witch. Lizzie duly predicted that as many folk would see him die as there were feathers on her lamented hen - and of course it came true.
Andrew Low was a wild youth whose behaviour was possibly decreed in part by his upbringing. His widowed mother was Babbie Wyllie and his father, Geordie Low, was a carter went missing in a snowdrift between Forfar and Arbroath a month before he was born. Babbie, who lived in Jarron's Pend in Forfar solicited the aid of her two neighbours, Jamie Grant and Tam Broon, when her husband did not reappear in the morning. They found George not far from the town, with a broken neck in a ditch, his cart having veered off the road in the treacherous weather.
His boisterous behaviour was marked from his earliest years, leading his hapless mother to remark: 'I ken he's royd [unruly], but he likes his mither, and, puir loon, he disna ha'e a faither. But maybe he'll be better when he's aulder.' Minor misdemeanours were noted in his youngest years. These included tying pots and pans to the tails of dogs and cutting people's washing lines. Later, there happened the incident with Lizzie's chicken, while he stole and then wrung its neck and then sold to an alewife. She was reputed to have powers and predicted , 'There'll be as mony lookin' at his death as there were feathers on my bonny chuckie's body.'
But Andrew drifted into a pattern of petty crime that led to his demise. Once, he had his friends went to Oathlaw on a Sunday and he stole half a crown from the collection plate. Babbie found the money that evening and returned it to the minister who did not press charges, though he warned the woman about her son's future. She and Andrew later relocated to the Lower Tenements in Brechin. Babbie died when her son was 12 and his behaviour degenerated. He is alleged to have been publicly whipped for minor crimes on repeated occasions. When he was around 20 he formed an attachment to a girl named Jessie Smart, but she could not alter his way of life.
Around this time he burgled the house of a merchant, Andrew Lindsay, in Slateford and also a cobbler called John Bailie in Mainsbank, Kinnell. He purloined knives, scissors, tobacco, and shoe buckles, then went to Arbroath to sell them, staying at David Carrie's alehouse. Following a few days' drinking he went to Forfar and met up with associates at another alehouse, run by Robert Young, in Osnaburg Pend. The group attended the Mason Lodge Theatre in East High Street to see'Jack Sheppard' about a criminal. Their behaviour was so boisterous that some of the audience passed notice to the Procurator Fiscal who was also attending. The latter informed the burgh's officers to arrest Andrew on suspicion of housebreaking as news of the Slateford and Mainsbank crimes had come back to the town.
As he was being taken to the tolbooth in the High Street his friends contived to free him and he escaped and hid on Montreathmont Moor for three days. He lived on oatmeal and turnips from a woodcutter's hut. But he was later captured and put in prison. On the 28th December 1784 Andrew was served with the Indictment and trial date was set for the 21st January. Charges against him included those brought by James Scott, shoemaker, who said that Andrew had sold him several objects which were produced and kept as evidence. A dyer called Thomas Whyte changed some money for Andrew and also bought a pistol from him. Alexander Williamson in Geghtyburn said the accused sold him numerous articles. Other witnesses included the men from Slateford and Kinnell.
Judgement was given on 28th January 1785 by Sheriff Depute Patrick Chalmers of Aldbar:
The Sheriff-Depute having Considered the verdict of assize returned upon the twenty-first instant against the said Andrew Low the Pannel, whereby they unanimously find him guilty of the Crimes charged against him in the Indictment. Therefore the said Sheriff Decerns and adjudges the said Andrew Low to be carried back from the bar to the Tolbooth of Forfar, therein to remain until Saturday the nineteenth day of March next to come, and upon that day to be taken to the west end of the Hill of Forfar, the common place of execution, and there betwixt the hours of Twelve mid-day, and four in the afternoon, to be hanged by the neck on a gibbet until he be dead. Requiring hereby the Magistrates of Forfar to see this sentence carried into due and lawful execution, and ordains the said Andrew Low’s haill moveable goods and gear to be escheat and in brought to His Majesty’s use, which is pronounced for doom.
On Saturday 19th March 1785 the authorities loaded 20 year old Andrew onto a cart which made its way to Balmashanner Hill in Forfar. On the journey, as was customary, the cart stopped at the Toll House on the Dundee Road and Andrew was given a parting glass of whisky. A huge crowd was waiting for him that day at Gallowshade. Gallowshade or Gallow Hill was on the west side of Balnashammer Hill. The place was said to have been grotesquely marked by nine mounds marking the graves of previously executed felons. That day the presiding minister was the Rev Bruce and the executioner was John Chapman of Aberdeen.
Asked if he had any final words, Andrew said, 'I want to tell you lands. And fat I hae to say is just this, that I'm hangit innocent. No' that I've been a guid bairn a' my days, but the only thing that has troubled me, and aften I cudna get sleep for thinkin' o't, wis the stealing o' Lizzie Kinmont's clockin' hen.' A laverock (lark) was singing sweetly above the cart on the final stages of its journey. Its singing stopped as he was hung.
Andrew Low was the last man in Scotland to have been executed publicly by sheriff's authority. According to David Black in The History of Brechin (1867), there were some people in that town who firmly believed that Low should not have put to death. 'Low's fate was long a matter of conversation and regret in Brechin,' he says. 'But it was darkly insinuated that he had been led by cunning men to be participant in deeper crime than mere housebreaking and theft.'