Abbotsford

Law, Crime, and Friendship: Sir Walter Scott and Thomas ‘Tam’ Purdie

I have just returned from a conference entitled ‘Reworking Walter Scott’, held at the University of Dundee in Scotland, where I gave a paper on ‘The Chartist Robin Hood’ (a reworked and expanded version of an earlier blog post). Obviously there was no way I could have missed this one, given that Walter Scott (1772-1831) had such a profound and lasting influence upon the legend of Robin Hood, having authored the novel Ivanhoe in 1819. On the way back, I decided to stop at Abbotsford, the Baronial hall that Scott had built in the early nineteenth century. While there, I learned how Walter Scott became best friends with a man who was originally caught poaching from his land. This man’s name was Tam Purdie (1767-1829).

Abbotsford

Abbotsford, the Home of Walter Scott (c) Stephen Basdeo

In 1804, long before Abbotsford was built, while Scott was living in Ashestiel, a small village near the Scottish border, Thomas ‘Tam’ Purdie was caught poaching from Scott’s land. This was a serious offence during the eighteenth century, and in England (whose laws on this matter were practically the same as those in Scotland), there was no right to trial by jury, and sentencing was summary in front of the local magistrate.[1] Summary justice was meted out, probably, because juries were often reluctant to convict offenders of poaching. For example, there was a case in the 1830s where,

A poacher was acquitted because though he had a gun, which had just been fired, and was holding a “warm pheasant”, there was no proof that he had actually fired the gun.[2]

It was not unusual for juries to downgrade the charge, or look for ways to deliberately lessen the verdict, a practice that was known as ‘Pious Perjury’ (after all, especially in those cases which involved potentially warranted the death sentence, what decent person would want to be the among the ones to sentence a person to death?). Needless to say, for the wealthy landowners whose lands were being poached, in a time when the plaintiffs had to fund the prosecution of a felon themselves, having the case dealt with summarily by a magistrate would have had a better chance of them getting the verdict they desired: a guilty verdict for the defendant. Indeed, many of the magistrates would have been landowners and hunters as well, so they would have been sympathetic to those whose lands were being invaded by poachers. And there could be a heavy fine imposed by the magistrate if a person was caught poaching, amounting to £10 as well as three month’s imprisonment.[3]

And so Purdie found himself in the dock at Selkirk Courtroom before Scott in his role as Sheriff (Scotland’s equivalent, in those days, of the English magistrate, who dealt with civil cases such as bankruptcies, probates, as well as the summary cases outlined above). One might imagine that Purdie would have received an unusually severe sentence, given the fact that the man he had stolen from was the man who was deciding what should be done with him.

Purdie stated that his reasons for poaching Scott’s land were the fact that his family were going hungry, and that, to quote Purdie, ‘work was scarce and game plentiful’, and that he had merely, ‘grinned a hare or twa to prevent them frae doing any mischief’.

What happened next demonstrates Scott’s good nature: he took pity on the man, and instead of sentencing him to a fine and a prison sentence, decided to employ Purdie on his land instead as his ‘Special Assistant’. Purdie brought his own family to live on Scott’s estate with him, In time, he became, not only Scott’s gamekeeper, but also his librarian, and most importantly, his best friend:

What a blessing there is in a man like Tam whom no familiarity can spoil, whom you may scold and praise and joke with.[4]

The pair spent much leisure time together, and sometimes Scott preferred Tam’s company to that of some of the members of high society whom he entertained from time to time (by virtue of Scott having been the world’s first celebrity author).

When Tam died, at Scott’s home, Abbotsford, in 1829, he was much affected:

I have lost my old and faithful servant – my factotum – and am so much shocked that I really wish to be quit of the country and be safe in the town.[5]

Scott had his old friend buried in Melrose Abbey, and the following inscription was laid upon Tam’s grave:

In Grateful Remembrance of the Faithful and Attached Services of Twenty-Two Years, and in Sorrow, for the Loss of a Humble but Sincere Friend, this Stone was erected by Sir Walter Scott, Bart. of Abbotsford.[6]

Scott died just two years later of a stroke in the latter part of 1831, but I like to think that his friendship with this criminal has potential lessons for our own day: it asks us to consider whether punitive sanctions are always the appropriate course of action to take against those convicted of petty thefts when circumstances have driven them to commit crime.


Works Cited

[1] Drew Gray, Crime, Policing, and Punishment in England, 1660-1914 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p.128.

[2] Rob Close, ‘Ayrshire History: The Cunnock Poaching Riots of 1833’ Ayrshire History [Internet <http://www.ayrshirehistory.org.uk/Poaching/poaching.htm> Accessed 2 April 2017].

[3] Gray, Crime, Policing, and Punishment, p.129.

[4] The Journal of Walter Scott, 7 January 1826.

[5] The Complete Works of Sir Walter Scott with a Biography 7 Vols. (New York: Connor and Cooke, 1833), 7: 545.

[6] Ibid.

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