Meeting Report: Mary Timney, The Road to the Gallows, the story of Scotland's last public execution of a woman

Date: 
21 November 2014
Speaker(s): 
Jayne Baldwin

The Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society recently met to hear a talk by Jayne Baldwin, entitled 'Mary Timney, the Road to the Gallows', Mary Timney being the last woman to be publicly hanged in Scotland.

Members of the Society, who attended, agreed that they were treated to a tale told by a master storyteller. The speaker, using only the power of her voice to create eerie atmosphere, told one of the best ghost stories they had ever heard. Yes, the speaker was that good.

Members, most of them knowing the road in question, were asked to imagine themselves walking along that lonely road, the road going north from Castle Douglas towards Carsphairn. About three miles north of Dalry one reaches a tiny settlement at Polharrow Bridge where the events took place on Monday, 13 January 1862.

Agnes Maclellan, known as Nan, kept house for her father who was an agricultural worker. She was surprised by nine-year-old Susan Timney calling and asking her to go and bake for her mother, Mary, who was ill. Mary Timney had three other children — Margaret, Mary and John, a baby.

Nan, in her late thirties, was friendly with Mary Timney's landlady, Ann Hannah, who lived at Carsphad Farm. Neither Nan nor Ann thought very much of Mary, and it was unusual for Susan to knock on Nan's door, although the Timneys were poverty-stricken and often asked neighbours for food.

Nan reluctantly agreed to go to the Timneys and at about one o'clock walked up the lonely road to their house. In doing so, she passed her friend Ann’s front door. Nan, having noticed the door ajar, went in to see her. She said she could hear that the beasts were unsettled and felt something was amiss. Ann’s brothers were out at work. Nan went through to the kitchen where she found Ann lying on the ground in a pool of blood. Nan chose not to go to Mary's house for help and instead she returned to the Hannah's house with her neighbours. Unusually they took note of everything they could see. There appeared to be no sign of a struggle, but near to Ann was a blood stained poker and a butcher's knife. A folded piece of cloth had been placed under Ann's head.

The couple at Knocknalling had asked their son, Lockhart, to go and fetch John Robson, the local policeman at New Galloway. John Robson went to Mary Timney's cottage because of neighbours' gossip, and ordered Mary to light the last stub of her candle. He discovered a bundle of blood-stained clothes in the rafters and a mallet on the floor.

John Robson returned to Ann Hannah's house. When Ann died he arrested Mary, who was taken to the police house at New Galloway. John left Mary there having tea with his wife whilst he went to fetch the chief constable from Kirkcudbright. As there had not been a murder for a generation before, this was a very unusual situation for him to handle.

Mary's cottage was searched again. They discovered that the mallet had been moved. Mary denied knowledge of the mallet. She was taken to Kirkcudbright.

Everything was reported in great detail in the newspapers, which universally blamed Mary for the tragedy.

Mary was taken to Dumfries jail in March and the trial took place in April. Mary was given little opportunity to defend herself. Most of the evidence was circumstantial. The mallet was presented by the Prosecution as the murder weapon. Lord Deas, the judge, gave the jury clear directions in his summing up. As a consequence, the jury took only ten minutes to find Mary guilty of murder. She was sentenced to death.

At this time the death sentence was unusual and rarely carried out. Public opinion changed towards Mary and a petition for clemency was sent to the queen. For some unknown reason the petition failed, and the execution took place, leaving Mary's four children without a mother.

William Ewart, MP for Dumfries, had been campaigning against the death sentence. He tried to utilise this case to change the law. Unfortunately all he succeeded in achieving was the cessation of public hangings, but executions continued within prisons. Hence Mary Timney was the last woman to be publicly hanged in Scotland.

This case raises many issues, some of which were discussed at question time. Everyone was left with a feeling of disquiet over the whole sorry affair.

Jayne Baldwin's meticulous research has been published in her book, 'Mary Timney, The Road To The Gallows', which is recommended reading to anyone wishing to learn more of the details of this case, which has become embedded into local folklore.