A Scottish martyr

March 4, 2016

The Story Of Young Thomas Aikenhead

The years between 1645 and 1715 are known as the Little Ice Age and its low point between 1695 and 1702 as the Ill Years. Arctic ice expanded southwards leading to an Inuit migration, some fleeing to Orkney and Aberdeen. Then in 1693 and 94  dust from three massive volcanic explosions: Hekla in Iceland, Serua and Aboina in Indonesia, partially occluded the sun compounding the situation.  For Scotland the consequences were a succession of  crop failures and famine, and a miserable population.

On a mid August evening in 1696 a  young medical student walking past the recently built Tron Kirk with three friends proclaimed he wished he was warming himself in that place Ezra called hell rather than shivering in Edinburgh.

He was an avid reader and made good use of the university library which contained books by Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes and other atheists such as recently acquired Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious and Servetus’  Christianisimi Restitutio. The Privy Council ordered all Edinburgh booksellers to be searched for books deemed to be ‘atheistical, erroneous or profane or vicious’.

In early October John Frazer, an Edinburgh book-keeper was charged with maintaining that ‘there was no god to whom men owed that reverence worship and obedience so much talked of, and more to the point that the beliefs in established religion were made to frighten folks and to keep them in order’. Frazer owned to having read Charles Blount’s Oracles of Reason and claimed to be explaining the author’s views rather than expounding his own. He marshalled merchants and presbyterians in his support, it was his first offence and he was repentant. He was committed to Tollbooth prison until February and sackclothed.

Young Thomas Aikenhead was in the habit of discoursing freely with his friends in the Edinburgh coffee houses and drinking dens frequented by students and boldly stated his radical views, and very likely they discussed John Frazer’s case when it became news. One of those friends, thought to be Mungo Craig, reported Aikenhead and he was arrested and remanded to the Tollbooth Prison. There he would encounter Frazer and probably expected a similar fate.

Aikenhead was charged under two Blasphemy Acts, that of 1661 ordained death for anyone who shall rail upon or curse or deny god and obstinately continue therein. The 1695 Act graduated its penalties: for a first offence imprisonment and sackcloth, for a second offence a fine was added and only for a third offence was death prescribed.

Although Aikenhead’s profession of repentance was considered half-hearted, there was no reason for the young man to fear for his life while he mouldered in the Tollbooth. So it must have been a great shock on reaching the High Court on 23rd December to hear the death penalty demanded by the prosecutor Sir James Stewart, the Lord Advocate. Aikenhead was indicted with having maintained in conversation that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense; that he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the old testament Ezra’s fables and that the new testament was a history of the imposter christ; that he rejected the mystery of the trinity and scoffed at the incarnation of christ. Stewart demanded the death penalty to set an example to others. Five ‘friends’ testified against him: Adam Mitchell, John Neilsons, John Potter, Patrick Midletoune and Mungo Craig, claiming that Aikenhead scoffed and cursed in a scorning and jeering manner.

The verdict came the following day. Aikenhead was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on the 8th January. He petitioned the Privy Council to ‘consider his deplorable circumstances and tender years’ and to take account of the fact it was his  first offence. Two kirk ministers and two Privy Councillors pleaded on his behalf to no avail. A further petition was submitted on the 7th of January to which the Privy Council responded that they would not grant a reprieve unless the kirk interceded for him. But the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, in session at the time, was not minded towards leniency, indeed they urged ‘vigorous execution to curb the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land’.

The following morning Aikenhead wrote a letter to his friends. ‘It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth and to seek for it as for hid treasure. So I proceeded until the more I thought thereon, the further I was from finding the verity I desired…’ Perhaps he was allowed to read out this letter when he stood outside the Tollbooth before commencing his last walk.

At 2pm on the 8th of January 1697, somewhere along the road from Edinburgh to Leith, twenty year old Thomas Aikenhead climbed the ladder to the gallows for a noose to be placed around his neck, he was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. The preachers who were the poor boy’s murderers crowded round him at the gallows according to contemporary reports. To ensure the lesson was learnt they increased their surveillance of intellectual dissidence in the university and town, and instigated a register of students with a view to ensuring their piety.

Just fifteen years later the Great Infidel David Hume was born in Royal Mile. The fanatical calvinists were soon consigned to history and the first literate nation, thanks to John Knox’s wish that every person should be able to read the bible, under the influence of Frances Hutcheson adopted more moderate and charitable sentiments. In the eighteenth century the Scottish Universities played a major role in developing Enlightenment ideas which influenced civilisation throughout Europe then and ever since.


J Gibson

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