The Tron Church stands on Edinburgh’s High Street, almost at the midpoint of the Royal Mile, which rises to Edinburgh Castle at one end and slopes down to Holyrood Palace at the other. In 1696 the Tron Church was in many ways a monument to the strength and success of Scottish Presbyterianism, or as the Scots themselves call it, the Kirk. In 1633 the Edinburgh Town Council had decided they needed a new place of worship near the “tron,” or public scales, where merchants and officials established the true weight and measure of commodities sold in the city markets. It would be designed as a specifically Presbyterian church. Unlike the larger St. Giles Cathedral, or the former monastery site of Greyfriars Church off Candlemakers Row, it carried no taint of association with Scotland’s Roman Catholic past. Nor would it be under the sway of the new Bishop of Edinburgh, appointed by King Charles I to thrust a foreign Anglican creed down the people’s throats.

Construction got under way in 1637. Then, the next winter, High Street was filled with the sound of drums and psalm-singing crowds, as citizens flocked to sign a National Covenant to take up arms against King Charles. The Covenanters took over the city in defiance of their English oppressors. The Tron Church sat unfinished while the Scots routed Charles’s army in the Bishops’ War. It withstood the siege of Edinburgh by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in 1652. It was still unfinished when Charles I’s son, Charles II, sailed across the English Channel to be restored to his throne in 1660. Not until 1678 did builders finally complete its unpretentious steeple, “an old Dutch thing composed of wood and iron and lead edged all the way up with bits of ornament,” and set Edinburgh’s coat of arms above the doorway, with this inscription in Latin:



Edinburgh’s tron served the community in another way, as the town pillory, where the courts sentenced transgressors to be bound and punished. “Much falset and cheiting was daillie deteckit at this time by the Lords of Session,” wrote one diarist in 1679. He continued with relish, “there was daillie nailing of lugs and binding of people to the Tron, and boring of tongues; so that it was a fatal year for false notaries and witnesses, as daillie experience did witness.”

Sixteen hundred ninety-six would be a fatal year for another kind of transgressor. August had been a cold month, in fact it had been raining and freezing all summer. As the Tron Church struck eight o’clock, four young men were hurrying past, huddled against the cold. One was John Neilson, law clerk in the Court of Session, aged nineteen; the next Patrick Midletoyne or Middleton, aged twenty, a student at the College of Edinburgh. With them were Thomas Aikenhead, almost nineteen, a theology student, and John Potter, also a university student at the tender age of thirteen. We do not know for certain, but they may have been coming from Cleriheugh’s Tavern, a favorite neighborhood haunt for students, law clerks, and members of the legal profession.

As they passed the church, Aikenhead shivered from the cold wind blustering around them. He turned and remarked to the others, “I wish right now I were in the place Ezra called hell, to warm myself there.” Again, it is not known whether any of the other lads laughed at his little joke. But the next day one of them, or another of their circle, informed the kirk authorities of what Aikenhead had said.

Aikenhead’s joke turned out to be no laughing matter. Other students revealed that, in between theology classes, Thomas Aikenhead had been systematically ridiculing the Christian faith. He had told astonished listeners that the Bible was not in fact the literal Word of God but the invention of the prophet Ezra—“Ezra’s romances,” as he called it. He asserted that Jesus had performed no actual miracles, that the raising of Lazarus and curing the blind had all been cheap magic tricks to hoodwink the Apostles, whom he called “a company of silly witless fishermen.” He said the story of Christ’s Resurrection was a myth, as was the doctrine of Redemption. As for the Old Testament, Aikenhead had said that if Moses had actually existed at all, he had been a better politician and better magician than Jesus (all those plagues of frogs and burning staffs and bushes and so forth), while the founder of Islam, Mohammed, had been better than either.

All this would have been horrifying and insulting for a believing Presbyterian to listen to, but Aikenhead had expounded larger issues as well. He claimed that God, nature, and the world were one, and had existed since eternity. Aikenhead had opened the door to a kind of pantheism; in other words, the Genesis notion of a divine Creator, who stood outside nature and time, was a myth.

Maybe Aikenhead had been bored. Maybe the theology student was merely showing off his ability to play fast and loose with issues that others treated with reverential care. The stunned silence and dumbfounded looks of his listeners must have been very gratifying to a young man who, at the ripe old age of eighteen, believed he knew it all. But the authorities were not amused. The truly damning evidence against Aikenhead came from his friend Mungo Craig, aged twenty-one, who said that he had heard Aikenhead say that Jesus Christ Himself was an impostor. When the Lord Advocate, the Scottish equivalent of attorney general, heard this, he decided that Aikenhead’s remarks constituted blasphemy as defined by an act of Parliament in 1695, which decreed that a person “not distracted in his wits” who railed or cursed against God or persons of the Trinity was to be punished with death.

Scotland’s legal system operated very differently from the system in England. All power of criminal prosecution rested in the hands of one man, the Lord Advocate. He had full powers to prosecute any case he chose. He could imprison anyone without issuing cause, or decide to drop a case even in the teeth of the evidence, or pursue it even when the local magistrate deemed it not worth the effort. Lord Advocate James Stewart was learned in the law, heir to a landed fortune, and a keen member of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. He also knew that the Kirk was deeply concerned about the wave of new religious thinking coming up from the south, from England, which its enemies called “latitudinarianism.”

Latitudinarians were “big-tent” Anglicans. The name came from the supposedly wide latitude they were willing to give to unorthodox religious opinions that a more tradition-bound Protestant might see as lax or even blasphemous. They believed Christianity should be a religion of tolerance and “reasonableness” rather than rigid dogma. Although they were deeply despised in Scotland, the Latitudinarians had become quite powerful in the Church of England. Several were now bishops; one, John Tillotson, was even Archbishop of Canterbury. Tillotson and the other “Latitude men” were also closely wired into the new scientific ideas sweeping across seventeenth-century Europe. They were keen admirers of England’s two most famous scientists, the chemist Robert Boyle and the mathematician Isaac Newton, and saw no conflict between religious belief and rational scientific inquiry into the nature of man and the world. To a Scottish Presbyterian of the old school, Latitudinarianism was little different from atheism. And in Aikenhead’s jocose remarks, Lord Advocate Stewart sensed more than a whiff of both.

Stewart had a formidable battery of laws with which to prosecute the case. In 1695 the General Assembly of the Reformed Church had recommended that ministers apply directly to civil magistrates for punishing cases of blasphemy and profanity. Scotland’s Parliament had then obliged by stiffening the old blasphemy statute with a “three strikes and you’re out” provision, in which after the third offense the unrepentant sinner could be put to death “as an obstinate blasphemer.”

Now, Aikenhead was no third-time offender. This was the first time he had been up before the magistrate, and by law that was punishable only by imprisonment and public penance. But if it could be proved that he had “railed and cursed” against God and the Trinity, then he came under the special death-penalty provision. This is what Lord Advocate James Stewart decided Craig’s testimony established, and so when he ordered Aikenhead’s arrest on November 10, 1696, he fully intended to see him on the gallows.

Aikenhead was taken to a cell in Edinburgh’s municipal prison, the Tollbooth. He realized at once that he was in a very serious position. At first he strenuously denied he had ever said such things. But when presented with the depositions, he claimed that if he did say them, he was just repeating doctrines he had read in some books (he did not specify which) that he had been given by another student—ironically, the chief witness against him, Mungo Craig. He instantly regretted everything. He did not only “from my very heart abhorre and detest” the words he had uttered, he wrote to the court, “but I do tremble” at the very sound of hearing them read aloud again. He stressed his sincere belief in the Trinity, in Jesus Christ as Savior, and in the truth of Scripture. As a native of Edinburgh, it was “my greatest happiness that I was born and educated in a place where the gospel was professed, and so powerfully and plentifully preached.” Thomas asked that his case be set aside, pleading his repentance and his extreme youth. But he was now in the grip of larger forces.

The trial got under way, with Lord Advocate Stewart himself conducting the prosecution. There was no defense counsel.

A Scottish jury had three options, not two, in offering a verdict, just as it does today. They are “guilty,” “not guilty,” and “not proven,” which jurors invoke when they decide the prosecution has failed to make a compelling case even when the prisoner is obviously guilty. Such a verdict might have enabled Aikenhead to escape the extreme penalty Stewart was demanding. But, confronted with the evidence absent a formal rebuttal, and with a prosecutor determined to make a public example of the boy, the jury found Aikenhead guilty of blasphemy.

On December 23, Stewart asked for the death penalty. “It is of verity, that you Thomas Aikenhead, shaking off all fear of God and regard to his majesties laws, have now for more than a twelvemonth . . . made it as it were your endeavor and work to vent your wicked blasphemies against God and our Savior Jesus Christ.” Having been found guilty, Stewart added, “you ought to be punished with death, and the confiscation of your movables, to the example and terror of others.” The sentence was duly pronounced, and Aikenhead was condemned to hang on January 8 of the new year.

By now the case was acquiring some notoriety. Two of Scotland’s leading jurists, Lord Anstruther and Lord Fountainhall, visited the boy in prison. They were disturbed by what they heard and saw. They found Aikenhead in tears and near despair. He told them he repented that he had ever held such beliefs, and asked for a stay of execution, “for his eternal state depended on it.” Anstruther in particular had his doubts about using a secular court to prosecute a case of blasphemy. “I am not for consulting the church in state affairs,” he wrote to a friend. The purpose of the courts, and of capital punishment, Anstruther said, was to punish crimes that disturb society and government, rather than sins against God. The law normally paid no attention to questions of cursing, lying, and drunkenness, and correctly so. “But,” he confessed, “our ministers generally are of a narrow set of thoughts and confined principles and not able to bear things of this nature.”

One of those who certainly could not was Thomas Hallyburton, later Professor of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews. His argument against Aikenhead was straightforward and brooked no opposition. God makes the laws, not man, and they must be obeyed. “We by our very beings,” he argued, “are bound to obey, submit, and subject ourselves to his will and pleasure who made us . . . and therefore his will, if he make it known,” as in scripture and the Gospels, “is a law, and the highest law to us.” Aikenhead, “this inconsiderable trifler,” had broken that law and so he had to be punished. Hallyburton’s attitude was, let him serve as an example to anyone who tries the same thing.

A battle was shaping up between two different views of the proper relations between the civil and the religious law, with hard-liners like Hallyburton on one side and more secular-minded lawyers like Anstruther on the other. Someone who took an obvious interest in this, and in the Aikenhead case generally, was the Englishman John Locke. Locke was nearing the end of his career as a political writer and theorist, but his most recent work touched directly on these issues. This was A Letter Concerning Toleration, published in October 1689, which took the exact opposite approach to Hallyburton’s. “The care of Souls cannot belong to the Civil Magistrate,” Locke had written, “because his Power consists only in outward force; but true and saving Religion consists in the inward persuasion of the Mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.”

Locke’s point was that it did not matter whether Aikenhead had broken God’s laws by saying that the Apostles were “witless fisherman” or Jesus was an impostor, or not. Religious belief was a matter of private conscience, and no public authority has the right to interfere in how it is exercised. It was a view closely allied with that of the Latitudinarians: “I esteem Toleration to be the chief Characteristical Mark of the True Church,” Locke said. It also overlapped with Anstruther’s. Civil power was limited to “Civil Concernments,” as Locke put it, which by their nature excluded religious matters. Locke’s arguments, which form the basis of our modern idea of the separation of church and state, were beginning to have an impact in England, as the Act of Toleration of 1689 showed. But in Scotland, where witches were still being prosecuted in the courts and hanged (two would be executed that next year), as in Massachusetts (the infamous Salem witch trial had taken place in 1692), a different attitude prevailed.

Another Scottish lawyer who was sympathetic to Aikenhead’s cause, James Johnstone, kept Locke informed of the trial, including copies of the indictment, the student depositions, and Aikenhead’s appeal. Johnstone pointed out that all the witnesses against Aikenhead were barely out of their teens, and that “none of them pretend, nor is it laid in the Indictment, that Aikenhead made it his business to seduce any man.” He noted, “Laws long in desuetude should be gently put in Execution, and the first example made of one in circumstances that deserve no compassion, whereas here there is youth, levity, docility, and no design upon others.”

Meanwhile, Aikenhead had petitioned Scotland’s leading judicial officer, the Lord Chancellor, and its governing body of royal officials, the Scottish Privy Council, for mercy. He restated his regrets and his desire to repent. “May it therefore please your Lordships,” he wrote, “for God’s sake, to consider and compassionate my deplorable circumstances.” Anstruther also stepped forward as the boy’s advocate, pleading mercy and saying that in his opinion Aikenhead would grow up to be an eminent Christian if his life was spared. But the Privy Council told him there was no chance of mercy unless the Kirk interceded for him. This it would not do. Instead, as Anstruther wrote, “the ministers out of a pious and ignorant zeal spoke and preached for cutting him off.”

When the final vote came in the Privy Council on Aikenhead’s appeal, it was a tie. Then Lord Chancellor Polwarth cast the deciding vote for death.

Only one possible source of rescue remained, and that was in London. The English Parliament and the Privy Council were of course powerless to do anything; this was Scotland and out of their jurisdiction. If, however, King William and Queen Mary, who resided at Whitehall Palace but who were also rulers of Scotland, got wind of the case, they could use their power to issue a pardon or at least a reprieve. This is what the Kirk now had to forestall. They sent a petition to William and Mary: “We cannot but lament the abounding impiety and profanity in this land, so we must acknowledge your Majesty’s Christian care in enacting good laws for suppressing the same, the rigorous execution of which we humbly beg.”

Execution was right. On January 8, the Year of Our Lord 1697, at two o’clock in the afternoon, Thomas Aikenhead was taken to the gallows on the road between Edinburgh and Leith. Shivering in the cold wind, he delivered a final speech, the condemned man’s right by custom. “I can charge the world, if they can stain me, or lay any such thing on my charge, so that it was out of a pure love of truth, and my own happiness, that I acted,” he declared in a wavering voice. “It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to truth,” he added, and to follow reason where it leads. This he had done, and now it would cost him his life.

He then blasted the chief witness against him, Mungo Craig, “whom I have to reckon with God and his own conscience, if he was not as deeply concerned in those hellish notions (for which I am sentenced) as ever I was.” But then he forgave Craig, as he forgave all concerned in the trial, and wished that the Lord might forgive Craig likewise.

He then uttered his last wish: “It is my earnest desire that my blood may give a stop to that raging spirit of Atheism which hath taken such footing in Britain.... And now, O Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in thy hands I recommend my spirit.” The hangman pulled away the ladder, the body swung, and Thomas Aikenhead, not quite nineteen, was dead.

Such was Scotland as it stood at the end of the seventeenth century. A nation governed by a harshly repressive Kirk; a nation of an unforgiving and sometimes cruel Calvinist religious faith; of trials for blasphemy and witchcraft; of a cranky, even perverse contrariness in the face of an appeal to mercy or reason or even the facts.

This was Scotland on the threshold of the modern world. Yet it would be misleading to call it “traditional Scotland.” It was in fact of relatively recent vintage. The men who persecuted Thomas Aikenhead belonged to a cultural world that had come into being a little more than one hundred years before, with the Scottish Reformation.

To men such as the Reverend Thomas Hallyburton or Lord Advocate Stewart, the religious revolution John Knox had brought to Scotland in the sixteenth century had left a legacy of glory, but also of great bitterness. The True Faith had triumphed over Popery and corruption. But it had cost a century of almost uninterrupted violence and bloodshed, with Scotland torn apart by anarchy, civil war, foreign invasions, religious persecution, and repression. Throughout it all, the Scottish Kirk had had to fight a relentless battle against established political power. Securing the Presbyterian faith had led to the overthrow of one monarch (Mary Queen of Scots), rebellion against and then execution of another (Charles I), and the forcible removal of a third (James II).

In 1696, memories of the struggle were still fresh. Scots gave the years of the Restoration, the 1660s and 1670s, a sardonic nickname: “the Killing Time.” In England, King Charles II is remembered as an easygoing, amiable rogue. In Scotland, however, his government used brutal armed force to stamp out the remnants of the National Covenant movement, which had rebelled against his father. Many of the Presbyterian ministers who asked William and Mary not to save Thomas Aikenhead could tell of having to go into hiding for their faith, pursued like animals across mountains and glens, and watching friends and neighbors murdered or transported into servitude across the Atlantic.

Aikenhead’s prosecutor, James Stewart, had been forced to flee for his life abroad. Patrick Hume, Baron of Polwarth, who had cast the decisive vote for death, was no decadent bewigged Restoration aristocrat. He knew what it was to be a hunted man. When several prominent opponents of Charles II were arrested for plotting against his life (the so-called Rye House Plot of 1683), Hume, although not directly implicated, had been forced to hide in the family burial vault in the parish church in Polwarth. For one month he had remained there, surviving on food smuggled in by loyal servants, with no light except through a narrow slit in the stone. By that tiny beam he had read and reread a Latin translation of the Psalms to keep his spirits up, so that, at age eighty, he could still recite them by heart.

Having received no mercy themselves, how likely was it that they would extend it to the likes of young Aikenhead the blasphemer?

Yet in 1696 this old order was already on its last legs. The execution of Aikenhead was the last hurrah of Scotland’s Calvinist ayatollahs. There was already a new generation on the rise of ministers and university professors and lawyers like Anstruther and Johnstone, who were not immune to the more progressive attitudes percolating up from the south. Then in 1701 James Stewart himself pushed through Parliament an important legal reform, an act of habeas corpus that limited the Lord Advocate’s power of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

There were other, more ominous changes in the offing. On the same day Aikenhead was executed, January 8, the Edinburgh city fathers asked the Scottish Privy Council to make provision for the multitudes of poor and indigent people begging in the streets “in this great dearth and time of scarcity.” The traditional economy of Scotland was dying, under the hammer blows of harvest failures and famine. Beginning in 1695, Scots suffered three failed harvests in a row. Two hundred years later a historian described what happened:

The crops were blighted by easterly “haars” or mists, by sunless, drenching summers, by storms, and by early bitter frosts and late snow in autumn. For seven years this calamitous weather continued—the corn rarely ripening, and the green, withered grain being shorn in December amidst pouring rain or pelting snow-storms . . . The sheep and oxen died in the thousands, the prices of everything among a peasantry that had nothing went up to famine pitch, and a large proportion of the population in rural districts was destroyed by disease and want.

No one knows how many died during the famine of the Lean Years of 1697–1703, but they probably numbered in the tens of thousands. Wrote Sir Robert Sibbald at the time, “Everyone may see Death in the Face of the poor.” For an already impoverished and sparsely populated country of fewer than two million souls, the 1690s set a benchmark of collective misery and misfortune Scots never approached again, not even in the worst years of the Highland Clearances.

The new century, then, marked the end of one way of life for Scotland and the beginning of another, simply because there was nowhere else to go. For the next generation of Lowlands Scots, the world of their fathers—of Covenanters, of the Killing Time, of famine and starvation, of pillories at the Tron, of the execution of witches and of Thomas Aikenhead—would become more and more a remote memory.

For this was the culturally and materially backward nation that forward-thinking Scotsmen worked to change. In doing so, they would also change the world. Before the eighteenth century was over, Scotland would generate the basic institutions, ideas, attitudes, and habits of mind that characterize the modern age. Scotland and the Scots would go on to blaze a trail across the global landscape in both a literal and a figurative sense, and open a new era in human history. In fact, the very notion of “human history” is itself, as we shall see, a largely Scottish invention.

Fundamental to the Scottish notion of history is the idea of progress. The Scots argued that societies, like individuals, grow and improve over time. They acquire new skills, new attitudes, and a new understanding of what individuals can do and what they should be free to do. The Scots would teach the world that one of the crucial ways we measure progress is by how far we have come from what we were before. The present judges the past, not the other way around. And for the modern Scot, for Adam Smith or David Hume or Henry Brougham or Sir Walter Scott or any of the other heroes of this book, that past was the Scotland that had tried and executed Thomas Aikenhead.

Yet that same fundamentalist Calvinist Kirk had actually laid the foundations for modern Scotland, in surprising and striking ways. In fact, without an appreciation of Scotland’s Presbyterian legacy, the story of the Scots’ place in modern civilization would be incomplete.

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