This Saturday, 12th May marks the 150th anniversary of the last public execution in Scotland. Robert Colvin Smith was hanged for murder at the old Buccleuch Street Prison, ensuring his place in the annals of Scottish criminal history. Our award-winning team has created a new history tour focusing on this landmark case. Deadly Dumfries will document Smith’s story and how it left a dark imprint on our town.
Team Founder Kathleen Cronie reveals more about the tour:
“We’ve been intrigued by Robert Smith’s case for many years. I remember as a child seeing his death mask at Dumfries Museum and that image never left me. Given our fascination with the darker side of history and also the significance of the case, we wanted to create a tour revealing the story behind The Annandale Murder.”
It was just after 8am on Tuesday, 12th May 1868 when Robert Smith met his maker in front of around 600 onlookers. The subdued group were mainly made up of women and young people from the mill. Some horrid shrieks erupted when Smith took his place on the scaffold, but generally, the crowd conducted themselves with great dignity.
Robert Smith, a nineteen-year-old farm labourer from Eaglesfield, murdered Thomasina Scott near the village of Cummertrees. Thomasina, who was only nine at the time, had been running an errand for her mother and had taken shelter from the rain at the house of Mrs Jane Crichton.
It was there she encountered Robert Smith, who offered to accompany her on the road to Annan. Thomasina was never seen alive again. Smith robbed the child, before raping and strangling her in the Croftshead Wood. He then tried to murder Mrs Crichton, frightened she could implicate him in the attack.
After that, Smith didn’t attempt to hide his tracks. The police found him at a lodging house in Dumfries and from there he was arrested, tried and found guilty. Smith admitted his crimes in full and given their severity, he was sentenced to death by public execution. Smith kept a calm demeanour throughout most of his imprisonment, finding solace in religious studies and making his peace with God.
Kathleen said: ‘I don’t think any of us can imagine facing a crowd of people awaiting our deaths: the formalities prior to the act, meeting your own executioner and catching the first glimpse of the dreaded gallows. Robert Smith however, seemed to accept his fate and was ready to meet it.
A Bill was being passed in Parliament to end the spectacle of public hangings and some efforts were made for Robert Smith to be hanged in private, however it was found to be impossible.
On the day of the execution, hangman Thomas Askern, courting publicity in a white vest, assisted Smith to the fatal drop. Before drawing the bolt, Askern had to make some last-minute adjustments, adding to the day’s tensions. Even then, death was by no means swift. Due to a misplaced rope, Smith’s convulsions, thankfully screened from view, continued for nine minutes before death released him.
Between 1807 and 1868, Smith and seven others met their fates at the old prison and some of these grim events will be explored on the new tour.
Guests can look forward to a collection of real-life stories of crime and justice. They will visit interesting locations around Dumfries and learn of a jealousy-fuelled murder in an old close, the cold-blooded murder of a pedlar boy and the gut-wrenching account of a double execution. We never forget that real people were affected by these ghastly events and each story will be told with sensitivity and respect.
In addition to the new Deadly Dumfries tour, we’re giving a talk on Robert Smith’s crime and execution at Annan Museum, part of the Festival of Museums programme. Research into Smith’s case has been ongoing with visits to the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, Dumfries Ewart Library and of course, Dumfries Museum.
We feel very proud to be working with Dumfries Museum and for the first two tours, guests will have a chance to view artefacts. This new venture covers a very unique event in our region and through our passion for storytelling, we aim to encourage visitors to learn more about the town’s dark past.”
Deadly Dumfries tours take place on Friday 11th May and Saturday 12th May at 7pm. Meeting place: St Michael’s Churchyard. Festival of Museums talk takes place on Friday 18th May at Annan Museum at 6:30pm. Tickets available from Midsteeple Box Office or online at Ticketsource.
For more info, please contact us through this online form or by phoning 07791 047835 or 07912 145865
Main photo: courtesy of Allan Devlin
Smith’s death mask: courtesy of Dumfries Museum