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The Mercat Cross Trial: 1772

 

A summary of the trial story in English

The late 18th century covered a period known as the Scottish Enlightenment. In response to the horrors and division of the Jacobite rebellion just a few decades earlier, wealthy landowners such as George Ross (the senior Justice) tried to bring peace, justice and improvement to their estates. Ross is a wealthy lawyer who has made his fortune in London prior to buying the run-down Cromarty Estate as a retirement project. He is flanked by William Forsyth, a successful and well-travelled Cromarty merchant and Hugh Rose, another wealthy local landowner.

It is George Ross who has funded the construction of this new Courthouse and it is still being fitted out internally. Before this, trials were heard in a local alehouse.

This trial seems, at first, simple enough. Cromarty man Jamesie (or James or Jamie) Banks has been caught after breaking the mercat cross – once the symbol of the burgh’s right to trade. 

Simple vandalism, then – but is vandalism ever truly simple?

The only witness to the crime is a local widow, whom we have named Widow, or Mistress, Hogg.

It becomes clear that the other townsfolk have been most unwilling to talk about why Banks may have broken the cross or give any idea of who else may have been involved. They have closed ranks. In spite of all his good works in the town, George Ross is still seen as an incomer and outsider. How depressing that must have been. His new courthouse barely complete, its interior still being fitted out, and now the mercat cross he has so carefully transported to the front of the building has been smashed. 

He knows who did it. What George Ross really wants to know now is why.

The townsfolk are shocked to learn that his surprise witness, Widow Hogg, has accepted his generous bribe to confess what she saw – or heard rather – on the night the cross was broken. Thanks to her testimony she will be provided with money and a comfortable home for life. She heard laughter, she says, at first taking the voices to be those of people who had attended lavish party George Ross had held to celebrate the completion of the Courthouse works that night. Later, however, listening from the chilly attic she occupies above the rooms of Banks and his wife, Mistress Hogg hears Banks return late and fall in the washing tub. There is an argument and Banks tells his wife to hold her tongue, if she doesn’t want to see him hanged for what he has done.

Once questioned, Jamesie Banks himself blames everything on excessive drinking and a defective memory – and who can blame him, for someone has been hurling rocks against the bars of his cell in an effort to intimidate him into silence. He changes his tune as soon as he hears that William Elder’s man (whom we have called Alexander Hossack) managed to give chase and capture the culprit, a local thug named Robbie Williamson. The spectators approve. 

Banks then explains that he and several unnamed others involved disliked George Ross’s attempts to improve Cromarty on ‘moral’ grounds, including his placing of Buckinghamshire farmers to instruct them in ploughing and their wives who he hopes will teach local women to make lace. They even disapproved of the introduction of pigs as meat. 

Ross had paraded the old cross through the town to relocate it, giving Banks and his cronies an excuse to destroy it on religious grounds, he claims, as a pre-Reformation idol. So there even appears to be religious disapproval underlying of some of George Ross’ well-intentioned actions – or is there?

The Justices now press Banks for the names of the other men involved. Banks honourably and obstinately refuses to give way. William Forsyth suggests a clever way out and so Banks agrees, with considerable relief, not to perjure himself by naming his former friends, but instead to name their roles. Ross finds out that he was betrayed and ridiculed by those he had placed in positions of confidence: the managers of his Brewery, his Hempworks and even the Nailworks where Jamesie works. Jamesie confesses that their motivation was in fact in the main disgruntlement at not being allowed to come to the grand party up at the Big House.

The Justices decide that there is little point in pursuing the three guilty managers since they will be long gone, and having assaulted a Sheriff’s Officer a grim future awaits Robbie Williamson: but what are they to do with Jamesie Banks? He did after all, eventually, tell the truth. George Ross is clever enough to know that any serious punishment of Banks will undermine his fragile popularity in the town: instead he fines him and in a stroke of genius orders him to mend the mercat cross in the sight of all. Jamesie’s mends can still be seen holding the cross together today.

At the end of the story the Seers remind us that instead of Kirk Session or Court records, we have the remarkable pen of scientist and man of letters Hugh Miller to thank for this fabulously detailed account of the mercat cross incident. He describes the story’s origins in his Scenes and Legends of the Northern Highlands, packed with detail of life in Cromarty, Resolis and this part of the Highlands. 

Miller [1802 – 1856] was born in the thatched cottage just two doors along from Cromarty Courthouse. The Hugh Miller Birthplace Cottage and Museum is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland and well worth a visit.

 

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