On this day (January 8th) in 1697, 20 year old Thomas Aikenhead was executed by hanging in Edinburgh for the crime of blasphemy. He was the last person to be executed for this crime in the British Isles. Despite being found guilty for a first offence, the punishment for which was being sack-clothed and imprisoned, the prosecutor Lord Advocate Sir James Steuart was intent on the death penalty to make an example of Aikenhead and serve as a warning to others.
Thomas Aikenhead was the son of Helen Ramsey and James Aikenhead, a surgeon and burgess of the city of Edinburgh. He was a student at Edinburgh University when he was indicted in December 1696 on the evidence of his friends:
[He] had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras: That he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra’s fables, in profane allusion to Esop’s Fables; That he railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles: That he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ; That he said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Muhammad to Christ: That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of ChristProceedings against Thomas Aikenhead for Blasphemy, T. B. Howell, 1816
Aikenhead himself, 2 ministers and 2 privy councillors made appeals on his behalf, but the Privy Council put the matter in the hands of the Kirk’s General Assembly, who demanded “vigorous execution [to curb] the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land“. As a 19th century broadside put it:
Mercy was asleep, as well as Justice and Science, so the dreadful sentence was executedBroadside printed by John Muir of Princes Street, Glasgow, c 1821-39
On the morning of 8 January 1697, Aikenhead wrote his final letters and was marched to the execution spot, the Gallows on the Gallow Lee, between Edinburgh and Leith, a spot we now known as Shrubhill. Seen here in John Adair’s 1682 map.
Aikenhead gave a fairly lengthy final testimony before sentence was carried out, the closing paragraph of which was;
…as the Lord in his providence hath been pleased in this exemplary manner to punish my great sins, so it is my earnest desire to him, that my blood may give a stop to that raging spirit of atheism which hath taken such footing in Britain, both in practice and profession. And of his infinite mercy recover those who are deluded with these pernicious principles. And for that end that his everlasting gospell may flourish in these lands, while sun and moon endureth.The last words of Thomas Aikenhead, 8th January 1697
Enlightenment Edinburgh, this was not.
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