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Death in Scotland

Chapters From the Twelfth Century to the Twenty-First


Peter C. Jupp and Hilary J. Grainger

For the past twenty years, Scottish death culture has emerged as a focus of scholars drawn from a wide variety of disciplines. Death comes to us all but too often we treat it as a private or personal matter. The former taboo about death is slowly lifting and contemporary research is playing an increasing part. Accordingly, the fifteen essays gathered in this book probe the multi-facetted role of death in Scottish history and culture. They explore personal fears of death, anxieties about Predestination, prayers for the dead and the appeal of Spiritualism. They analyse the public face of death in law, economics and medicine: changes in capital punishment, funeral poverty, the teaching of anatomy and prevention of stillbirths. Within the worlds of religion and ritual, they consider the making of saints, burial practice following the Scottish Reformation and the tradition of keening within the Gáidhealtachd. With an Introduction by Professor Jane Dawson, these essays by specialists in the field not only highlight the richness of the primary sources for studying death in Scotland but reveal how death studies identify key features of Scottish life and society across ten centuries.

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8 ‘I am resolved to avoid being made a public spectacle’: Suicide and the Scottish Criminal Body (Rachel Bennett)


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8 ‘I am resolved to avoid being made a public spectacle’: Suicide and the Scottish Criminal Body


Executions in Scotland were intended as public events that went beyond the taking away of an offender’s mortal life. The theatre of the gallows was intended to steep the person’s death in symbolic rituals of power and punishment. However, this chapter will examine cases where condemned malefactors circumvented their state-sanctioned death by taking away their own lives. It will explore the multiple judicial and popular responses prompted by the commission of self-murder and will highlight the contested fate of the suicide criminal body.


In his posthumously published essay on suicide, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume stated, ‘so great is our horror of death, that when it presents itself under any form, besides that to which a man has endeavoured to reconcile his imagination, it acquires new terrors’.1 Historically, the act of self-murder was both a sin and a crime. It contravened the prerogative of the Almighty over life and death, but it also intruded upon the power of the sovereign and the state. It prompted a plethora of legal and popular responses that could target the suicide’s body, property and legacy. This chapter will examine cases where capitally convicted criminals committed ← 169 | 170 → suicide in the condemned cell in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Scotland. It will explore their motivations for the act and the multitude of...

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