By Jon Tait
Adam Scott of Tushielaw
Adam Scott was such a notorious leader of sheep and cattle raiders that he earned the nicknames ‘King of Thieves’ and ‘King of the Border.’
Scott was born sometime in the late Fifteenth century, a son of David Scott in the
forest of Ettrick, who had gained possession of the lands at Tushielaw sometime
between 1480 and 90.
Adam was granted a charter by King James IV to the forest stead and lands of
Tushielaw ‘with the right to build a tower and fortalice’ in 1507 for a yearly payment
of £24. His brother, William, was also a reiver who in 1502 was riding and
committing ‘stouthreifs, slaughters, burnings and other crimes,’ with Archibald and
Adam specialised in taking ‘blackmeal’ – protection money – and it appears he was
still demanding money with menaces even while imprisoned in Edinburgh in May
1530 along with fellow villain William Cockburn, the Laird of Henderland.
A description of Blackmeal in 1596 stated that because the borders were very poor
and didn’t own much silver, they paid their rent in meal, corn, etc. The payment to the landlord was called greenmeal, and that to a gang doing extortion blackmeal because it was taken foul and dishonest.’ It was an illegal tax.
Sir Robert Carey wrote in 1598 that ‘the times are such that every gentleman in
Northumberland seeks the Scots thief’s favour and have long paid ‘blackmeale’ as
they call it; while the poor men that cannot, are continually spoiled.’ Another official
document around the time complained of the ‘intolerable exaction of ‘blackmeale’ by the Grahams and others. Scott also stood accused of murder, theft, receiving stolen
goods and ‘maintaining thieves’ i.e. being the head of a criminal crew.
Forget the romantic view of him being hung from a tree in his backyard that was
popularised by Border Balladeers; it seems that he was actually lifted, tried and
executed in the capital city.
The then 19-year-old King James V of Scotland consolidated his power in 1529/30
with a clampdown on the Border families that also saw the Earl of Bothwell banished
and the Lords Maxwell and Hume and Lairds of Buccleuch, Cessford, Ferniehurst,
Polwart and Johnstone, among others, imprisoned.
This was probably in response to the fact that the Border warlord Archibald Douglas,
6th Earl of Angus – his stepfather – had held the teenager virtually prisoner and
exercised power for him for three years until 1528. Buccleuch (Walter Scott of
Branxholm and Buccleuch) had actually tried to free the young King in 1526 during
what became the Battle of Melrose.
Adam Scott had been previously jailed in Edinburgh castle in 1505 but had broken out and, perhaps most tellingly, in 1525, he agreed to assist the Earl of Angus in
‘staunching theft, reiving, slaughter, etc.’
Most likely this would involve them actually controlling the reiving activities and it
was this connection with Douglas that made the young King probably see Adam as
such a threat that he had to go.
Adam Scott and William Cockburn were publicly hung, then beheaded and their
heads fixed on spikes at the Tolbooth in Edinburgh.
Soon after, the King descended on Ewesdale and Eskdale with estimates of up to
12,000 men and hanged another 48 well-known reivers – including the infamous Johnny Armstrong of Gilnockie, whose tower at Hollows just north of Canonbie has
been lovingly restored and is open to the public.
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Bio: Jon Tait is a UK-based journalist and the author of the historic true crime book ‘Dick the Devil’s Bairns : Breaking the Border Mafia’ about the notorious Anglo-Scottish border reivers. His book can be found HERE. If you live in England it can be found HERE. If you live in Canada it can bought HERE. If you are in Australia you find it HERE.
The Yard: Crime Blog will be posting several more Historical True Crime articles by Jon, in the very near future. Read Meet The Medieval Mafia #1 HERE.