By dawn’s harsh light, child killer James Robertson paced his death cell and picked through the tinder of a wasted life. Remorse was his first thought on waking. Remorse for the Christmas Eve infanticide of his own child and remorse for the licentious ways that had brought him to ruin.
Robertson, 25, used his time in the condemned cell in Forfar in 1848 to write treatises urging his fellow farm workers to reform. He co-wrote these with Harry Stuart, minister at Oathlaw. They contained fierce condemnation of the bothy system to which they attributed the rootless lives of many young men. After his death, extracts of Robertson’s final thoughts were published in The Courier.
Robertson worked on a farm at Findowry, Angus, and had fathered two illegitimate children to farm servant Jean Duguid of Inglismaldie.
The second, a girl, was born on December 3 1847. Jean, who lived with her brother, Charles, was unable to support the child, so Robertson told her he had secured the services of a nurse at Craigend of Careston.
She handed the infant to Robertson and a week or so later went to Careston to visit the child. The woman named by Robertson knew nothing of the child.
When Jean’s questions were blanked by Robertson, she employed Mr R Mathers, writer, Brechin, to demand access.
Robertson agreed to meet Jean and her brother in Brechin in March 1848. Jean brought clothes for the child but Robertson told her the child was in “better clothing than you can provide”.
Robertson, said to be strikingly good-looking, then cracked and confessed to the killing.
The Duguids fled home and alerted the Inglismaldie police officer who assembled a team and arrested Robertson at his bothy that night. In the days that followed, the child’s body was found rolled in straw in the mouth of a field drain.
Robertson was held in Forfar to await execution. His friend, the Oathlaw minister, tried to secure commutation of sentence. He visited Edinburgh to interview judges and intervened on Robertson’s behalf. Secretary of State for Scotland Sir George Grey ruled out a reprieve.
Harry Stuart spent his free time with Robertson and their letters are a rare record of a condemned man’s thoughts. Robertson wrote that his pious parents wanted him to continue his schooling then learn a trade, but he only wanted to work with horses.
From aged 14, he lived in a bothy where he saw no good: “Our masters never curb us for wonder and so they care no more for us than the horses. We were always flitting about and cared for nobody. We grew regardless of God and man.
“The women servants have been my ruin. Warn them not to come near bothies and so entice away young boys. Some kent how they laid snares for me when I was a young boy.”
When he stepped up to the gallows, the crowd of 2,500 was composed chiefly of women and girls.