He was the Godfather of his day, a swaggering blackguard with a crew of faithful followers and a bloodthirsty desire for wealth and status which he quenched using fear and violence.  

But Patrick Roy MacGregor, one of the most ruthless rogues to roam the Highlands, would earn his comeuppance when he dared to cross the good folk of Keith.

As the Highland bandit strutted into the small Morayshire town intent on using his typical calling card of brute force and terror tactics to extract money from law-abiding citizens, he met his match.

In wild scenes of blood, guts and defiance, the Keith folk took up arms and the reign of one of 17th century Scotland’s notorious crime lords collapsed.

Wounded and captured, the once ruthless and now tamed MacGregor was bundled up and taken to Edinburgh to face justice, with some torture thrown in for good measure.

Having confessed, he was sentenced to death.

The Herald: Image from an 18th century execution. Pictures reproduced courtesy of the York Museums Trust.

MacGregor’s demise more than 350 years ago is one of several real-life tales of dark deeds, murder, terror and deceit unravelled from hundreds of criminal court documents by Scottish history lecturer Dr Allan Kennedy.

In a quest to shine light on a corner of the nation’s criminal past, he sifted through 40 years of early records from Scotland’s central criminal court, held in the archives of the National Records of Scotland.

As well as documenting crimes which could just as easily have occurred in modern Scotland – robberies, crimes of passion and violence – the papers, spanning 1660 to 1700, contain disturbing allegations of witchcraft, cases of infanticide as unmarried mothers struggled to cope with shame and poverty, and treason.

They also shed fascinating light on how people lived at the time, what mattered most to them and the lengths they would go to improve their lot.

Such as the 17th century Edinburgh love triangle that led to a twisted murder plot, forgery, false accusation and, eventually, execution – so enthralling that it could easily form the basis of a gripping television period drama.

Indeed, the meandering plot has now been retold for modern audiences, in a graphic novel, The Persecution of Jean Lands, developed by Dr Kennedy along with colleague, Professor Chris Murray, the university’s chair of Comic Studies.

The Herald: One of the 17th century court cases has been turned into a comic bookOne of the 17th century court cases has been turned into a comic book (Image: Contributed)

It follows the salacious crime of passion involving lovers, Daniel Nicholson and Marion Maxwell who plotted to rid themselves of Jean Lands, Nicholson’s wife.

“The case begins with these two conspiring to murder Jean Lands with poison with the intention of getting married,” says Dr Kennedy.

“They enlist the help of local apothecary, John Elliot, who supplies the poison - probably arsenic.

“They try to administer it to Jean Lands, but it doesn’t work.

“They then try to get rid of her by framing her for murder. They go back to Elliot and get him to forge various receipts and documents to suggest Jean is trying to kill Nicholson and to get her prosecuted for attempted murder.”

Their bold scheme appears to work at first, with Jean hauled in front of authorities.

But it eventually unravels, with Maxwell and Nicholson facing charges of “notorious adultery” – an extra-marital affair defined in Scots Law as particularly open or flagrant and carrying a potential death sentence, and  Elliot charged with forgery.

The trial in Edinburgh in 1694 ends with all three being executed.

The Herald: Pages from a comic inspired by one of the court cases Pages from a comic inspired by one of the court cases (Image: History Scotland/University of Dundee)

It’s hoped the graphic novel, produced by the university in association with History Scotland magazine, will be the first in a series inspired by Dr Kennedy’s research, produced by the university in association with History Scotland magazine.

There is no shortage of gripping tales: such as the strange case of a son’s ruthless murder of his father, which resulted in a charge of treason and went on to be held up as an example to all of what could happen should they dare to rebel against authority. 

After years of offering him his loyal support, Philip Stansfield’s frustrated father finally announced he had enough of his wayward son, and was disinheriting him.

It was 1688, and Haddington wool mill owner Colonel Stansfield’s decision to deprive him of an inheritance was said to have sent Philip into a murderous rage.

“He is accused of murdering his father and the government prosecutes it as a case of petty treason,” explains Dr Kennedy, of the University of Dundee.

“Killing your father is rebelling against the social boundaries that society is constructed around.”

Stansfield’s punishment included being hanged, his tongue cut out in retaliation for speaking evil of his father, his head was cut off and put on display along with the rest of his remains.

As if that wasn’t enough of a warning, the authorities took the unusual step of publishing the court records as a book.

The message, says Dr Kennedy, was: “Don’t kill your father; it is breaking one of the ten commandments, a divine law as well as a human law.”

As well as an academic book set for publication later this year, Dr Kennedy says the wealth of rich detail, curious cases and characters found within the papers provide scope to tell their stories to modern audiences.

In particular, the records show the array of social challenges faced by women, which will form the basis of a presentation by Dr Kennedy at Dundee’s Glasite Hall next month.

The Herald:

“Women at the time are being prosecuted for a much narrower range of offences than men,” says Dr Kennedy.

“It’s either witchcraft or they are prosecuted for infanticide.

“That usually seems to involve women who are poor, often servants or farm workers who have fallen pregnant with an illegitimate child and either can’t look after the child or can’t face the social stigma that comes with being unmarried mother, so they end up either killing the child.”

Even mothers who suffered a stillbirth could face prosecution. “Particularly around 1690, they are assumed to have killed the child if they didn’t call for help or attempted to conceal the pregnancy - even in absence of proof.

“These women would almost certainly be sentenced to death. Although a lot are given a reprieve from government and have their sentence reduced, nevertheless they appear on a charge of infanticide on what seems whimsy evidence.”

Women often emerge as victims of violent crimes, ranging from the 1690s’ case of an elderly woman who attempted to raise the alarm after witnessing a robbery only to be assaulted when one of the perpetrators threw a live chicken at her, to another who protested at a drunken man urinating on her front door only to be battered and killed.

The Herald: HISTORY: Witchcraft

The 1660s case of Margaret Hutchison, charged with notorious adultery, shows how fragile women’s lives could be.

“She marries in 1650 but the marriage breaks down,” says Dr Kennedy. “There’s a long list of people she has had affairs with and across a social range; some are minor nobles, lords and landlords, others are tinkers.

“It seems pretty clear she has become a sex worker; the marriage breaks down and she has no means to support herself - it reflects the vulnerability of women in that period.”

Dr Kennedy, who is also consultant editor of History Scotland magazine, says the court records offer enormous detail about Scotland in the latter part of the 17th century, including professional housebreakers and the Highland bandit, Patrick Roy MacGregor. 

"He is one of the most serious of bandits, who operated extortion rings, demanding money in return for not duffing you up," he says.

"He is like the Godfather of Speyside, stealing, taking livestock and running what seems to be a protection racket. 

"Keith is a small place in 1667, and he launches an attack to extract lots of protection money. But he underestimated his target."

Dr Keith says the court records of the latter half of the 17th century offer precious insight: "Judiciary court records did not exist in the 1650s because of the Cromwellian conquest, and there is quite a lot of research after 1700.

The Herald: witchcraft memories

“The period in between is one we don’t know much about.

“In these records you get a high level of detail and insight into what is going on. The quality of information is exceptional and incredibly rich in colour.”

The papers are peppered with salacious cases, including the well-documented case of Major Thomas Weir, an apparently pious lay preacher who confessed to consorting with the Devil, incest involving his sister and bestiality.

He was not the only man of the cloth to live a double live: one minister on the isle of Arran had a criminal sideline in armed robbery, brandishing firearms and threatening people.

But there are surprisingly few cases of rape, sexual assault or homosexuality appear – largely because of a lack of witnesses to corroborate the claims and the risk that making a complaint could leave the victim at risk of the spotlight turning on them.

The Herald: Dr Allan Kennedy, University of DundeeDr Allan Kennedy, University of Dundee (Image: University of Dundee)

Although there were no police forces at the time, allegations of crimes would be investigated, with witnesses quizzed and lengthy statements taken for the court to consider.

But while the papers reveal huge detail about Scotland’s late 17th century criminal landscape, they can only tell part of the story.

Dr Kennedy adds: “Enormous amounts of criminal activity was not prosecuted at all, and we are probably seeing a very restricted snapshot.”

Dr Kennedy’s talk, Women and Serious Crime 1660 to 1700, is at Dundee’s Glasite Hall on March 7. Details here

The Persecution of Jean Lands, written by Allan Kennedy, Artwork and production by Gary Welsh, Edited by Chris Murray, is available from History Scotland