Last hanging for horse theft remembered

By Willie Johnston
BBC Scotland


Two hundred years ago this month, the last man hanged for stealing a horse in Scotland was sent to the gallows.

George Watson probably thought he had got away with his crime, but had not reckoned on the remarkable lengths the horse's owner would go to in pursuit of justice.

That man was John Kerr, a farmer at Knockburnie, near New Cumnock in Ayrshire. Kerr was, by all accounts, a benevolent man who gave shelter to the many tinker-travellers who passed his way. One of them was George Watson.

But Watson abused this hospitality, making off in the middle of the night with Kerr's best horse, a distinctive grey Clydesdale mare.

When Kerr awoke in the morning to find both horse and tinkers gone, he was an angry man. Even more so when he discovered that they had also stolen a horse from his brother William on the neighbouring farm, Marshallmark.

Together the farmers saddled-up and set off in pursuit.

Given that they left without food or money, they obviously expected to catch the thieves quickly, but Watson's band had a good start and were well ahead.

When the Kerrs reached Kilmarnock, William had had enough and turned back. John, however, pressed on.

He followed the tinkers over Fenwick through Mearns and Glasgow and up Loch Lomond-side.

At Tarbet, he headed west to Inveraray where he got a warrant from the Sheriff and the help of two police constables who rode on with him.

They were apparently able to track the thieves because the stolen horse had a broken shoe and left distinctive hoof prints on the muddy roads.

They also got information from people in communities they passed through who were able to confirm that the tinkers had passed by ahead - a grey mare leading the way.

The pursuit continued by Dalmally, King's House, Glencoe and Appin. Watson was eventually caught in a remote glen near what is now Benderloch.

A later account of the episode reveals his surprise.

"I didn't expect to see you, Knockburnie" he said.

"I didn't expect you would steal my horse", replied Kerr.

At that, Watson is said to have tried to attack Kerr but was stopped by the two constables who arrested him.

Kerr's "pursuit of justice" had taken more than a week and covered 150 miles.

George Watson was taken initially to the jail at Inveraray and then sent for trial to Ayr where he was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

Shortly after the punishment was carried out the law changed and Watson's theft was longer a capital offence. Thus, he became the last man to steal a horse in Scotland and pay for it with his life.

As for the horse, it is said to have lived to a ripe old age under a new name: Tinker!

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