23 September 2012

A hanged man's lesson for Holyrood...

In his Sunday Herald column this morning, Ian Bell takes blasphemy for his theme, dipping into the Scottish history books to recount the case of Thomas Aikenhead, who was prosecuted and hanged for the offence in Edinburgh in 1697, during the reign of William and Mary.  The student, killed at the age of just twenty, was indicted in the following terms by the Lord Advocate of the day, James Stewart who gives several instances of Aikenhead's often witty, tragically fatal analysis of the Bible, of Jesus and of Moses. The libel isn't exactly pithy, but I reproduce it in its entirety, for historical interest. Three-hundred-and-something years gone by, the stately, ponderous prose of the Scots lawyer remains recognisable...

Thomas Aikenhed, sone to the deceast James Aikenhead, chirurgeon, in Edinburgh, prisoner in the Tolbuith thereof.

YOU are indyted and accused, att the instance of sir James Stewart, his majesties advocate for his highness interest, and by speciall order of the lords of his majesties privy council, that where by the laws of God, and by the lawes of this and all other well-governed Christian realms, the cryme of blasphemy against God, or any of the persons of the blessed Trinity, or against the holy Scriptures, or our holy religione, is a cryme of the highest nature, and ought to be severely punished:

Lykeas by the act of parliament, first parliaments Charles 2d, act 21, Intituled, act against the cryme of blasphemie, it is statute and ordained, that whosoever not being distracted in his witts shall raill upon or curse God, or any of the persons of the blessed Trinity, shall be processed before the cheife justice, and being found guilty, shall be punished with death; and by the 11th actm 5 session of the present current parliament, the forsaid act is not only ratified, but it is farder statute, that whosoever shall in their wryteing or discourse denye, impugne or quarrell, or argue, or reason against the being of God, or any of the persons of the blessed Trinity, or the authority of the holy Scriptures, of the Old and New Testaments, or the Providence of God in the government of the world, shall for the first fault be punished with imprisonment, ay, and while he give publict satisfaction in sackcloth to the congregatione within which the scandal is committed; and for the second fault to be ffyned, besydes his being imprisoned as above, and for the third should be punished with death, as ane obstinat blasphemer: 

Nevertheless it is of verity, that you Thomas Aikenhead, shakeing off all fear of God and regard to his majesties lawes, have now for more than a twelvemoneth by past, and upon severall of the dayes within the said space, and ane or other of the same, made it as it were your endeavour and work in severall companies to vent your wicked blasphemies against God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, and against the Holy Scriptures, and all revealled religione, in soe far as upon ane or other of the dayes forsaid, you said and affirmed, that divinity or the doctrine of theologie was a rapsidie of feigned and ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the morall doctrine of philosophers, and pairtly of poetricall fictions and extravagant chimeras, or words to this effector purpose, with severall other such reproachfull expressions;

Lykeas you scoffed at, and endeavoured to ridicule the hole scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra’s fables, by a profane allusione to Esop’s fables, and saying that Ezra was the inventer thereof, and that being a cunning man he drew a number of Babylonian slaves to follow him, for whom he made up a feigned genealogie as if they had been descended of kings and princes in the land of Canaan, and thereby imposed upon Cyrus who was a Persian and a stranger, persuading him by the devyce of a pretendit prophecy concerning himself; and as for the New Testament, you not only scoff at it, but in your scoffing did most blasphemously raill upon our Lord and Saviour Jesis Christ, calling the said New Testament the History of the Impostor Christ, and affirming him to have learned magick in Egypt, and that coming from Egypt into Judea, he picked up a few ignorant blockish fisher fellows, whom he knew by his skill and phisognomie, had strong imaginations, and that by the helpf of exalted imagninatione he play’d his pranks as you blasphemously term the working of his miracles:

Lykeas you affirmed Moses, if ever you say ther was such a man, to have also learned magick in Egypt, but that he was both the better arteist and better politician than Jesus; as also you have cursed Ezra, Moses and Jesus, and all men of that sort, affirmeing that the holy Scriptures to be so stuffed with madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that you admired the stupidity of the world being soe long deluded by them;

Lykeas you reject the mystery of the blessed Trinity, and say it is not worth any man’s refutation, and you also scoffe at the mistery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, affirming blasphemously that Theantropos is as great a contradictione as Hircus Cervus, or a quadratum to be a rontundum; and as to the doctrine of redemptione by Jesus, you say it is a proud and presumptious devyce, and that the inventars thereof are damned, if after this life ther be either rewaird or punishment; you also deny spirits, saying that the notion of a spirit is a contradiction, and you have maintained that God, the world, and nature, are but one thing, and that the world was from eternity; and you assert that man’s imaginatione duely exalted by airt and industry can do any thing, even in the infinite power of God: 

you have lykwayes in discourse preferred Mahomet to the blessed Jesus, and you have said that you hoped to see Christianity greatly weakened, and that you are confident that in a short tyme it will be utterly extirpat, and you have been so bold in your forsaid blasphemies, that when you have found yourself cold, you have wished to be in the place that Ezra calls Hell, to warme yourself there: 

and these blasphemous raillings and expressions in the words above sett dwn, or words to like purpose, you have wickedly uttered in severall companies without the least provocatione, but meerly prompted by your irreligious and devilish malice against God and our blessed Saviour, and the most concerning truths of the Christian religion. By all which, it is manifest that you are guilty art and pairt of a horrid blasphemy, railing against and cursing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and impugneing and denying the truth of the Holy Scriptures, and the quarrelling and argueing against the being of God and against his providence and making and governing the world, which being found by the verdict of an assize, you ought to be punished by death, and the confiscation of your moveables, to the example and terror of others to committ the lyke in tyme coming. 

Sic subscribitur, JA STEWART.

Convicted, for these provoking, skeptical assessments of scripture and the godhead, the Scottish authorities hoist young Aikenhead from a rope.  But that was hundreds of years ago. Surely we've dispensed with these sorts of laws in contemporary Scotland, surely blasphemy has been scrubbed from our law codes? The curious answer is, apparently not. While Holyrood abolished the offences of sedition and lease-making (lèse majesté) in 2010, no doubt putting the spirit of another young Scotsman profoundly ill-used by the state to some sort of rest, the offence of blasphemy has never actually been abolished.  Here's what the Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia says on the topic:

 It is a crime at common law to publish or expose for sale blasphemous works which are intended to asperse, vilify, ridicule and bring into contempt the Holy Scriptures or the Christian religion. The last reported Scottish case of blasphemy was in 1843. Blasphemy is not now the subject of prosecution in Scotland although it cannot yet be said to have been extinguished by desuetude. The reason that blasphemy was criminal at common law was that the Christian religion and the Bible were said to be part of the law of the land and that accordingly any vilification of them was an infringement of the law. It follows that blasphemy protects only the predominant religion in Scotland and is not available to shield the sensitivities of other non-Christian faiths. As such, in a pluralistic society, it is open to criticism. Whether it is necessary in modern society must now be a moot point. In any event, it seems tolerably plain that a prosecution for blasphemy, were one ever to be mounted, could contravene article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Even so.  When our tribunes next gather in Holyrood to reform the criminal law, they might consider making a post-mortem tribute to the sad, dangling figure of an Edinburgh student, whose little blasphemies earned him a noose, and finally expunge this ancient, unused, reactionary offence from our criminal law.


  1. Well said. The notion of a blasphemy law, used or not, is a nonsense.

    Believers have the right to believe what they want. Non believers have the right to give their views too.

  2. Got my granddaughter's report card a while ago. The school have grave concerns about her Religious and Moral upbringing which is not at the level it should be according to the standards expected within the curriculum for excellence. Maybe she wil be more open to God when she is older, 7 perhaps. As she is being raised by me, her old tankie granddad, God is not a major talking point in the home. Morality is, but apparently socialism is at odds with the aims of the Scottish government. Superstitious drivel still rules it seems.

  3. Another fine piece thanks LPW. The Ian Bell piece is rather good - have just gone over to look at it - I gave up reading him when he had a havering piece on cricket, glad to see a spark of old fire.

    The Aitkenhead trial resonates in all sorts of ways - the reason we know so much about the trial is because Locke collected as many documents as he could on it - see


    Locke was the (as it were) godfather of the Scottish Enlightenment in more than one way.

    Removing this law would perhaps be symbolic but would be a major piece of symbolism. Yes, it should be gone.

  4. I blame Arthur Herman for the proliferation of the Aikenhead trial as evidence of Scottish religious barbarity towards unbelievers, but as a historian of 17th century Scotland I have to acknowledge he was on to something.

    It's worth remembering, though, that when Aikenhead was condemned for blasphemy it was during one of the Kirk's most uncertain periods. They had only been restored as the national church a decade before, and in the intervening years had witnessed Scotland be scourged by famine and economic strife, plagued by rumours of Jacobite insurrections (and one actual one) and the kingdom increasingly disenfranchised as a political power by aggressive English mercantile interests.

    That the Kirk made an example of a prominent young law student was tragic, just as it was when the Scottish Parliament made an example of Thomas Green, captain of the Worcester, as the fallout from Darién intensified. But there's only so much we can learn from it today. Yes, blasphemy is still against the law in Scotland, but law only has so much power. If nobody enforces it, what's the worry?

  5. http://braveheart-braveheartsblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/doleful-anniversary.html

    Aikenhead's fate warns against mixing up church and state.

    Salmond's wooing of Archbishop Keith is therefore not healthy...

  6. I had assumed that the laws on blasphemy in Pakistan and similar against non muslims was hundreds of years out of date; 17th century stuff, but to find Scotland still had a case as late as 1843 tells me that it takes time to rid a nation of its unjust laws against those who choose not to believe the "popular" position.

  7. There were protesters outside the Scottish Parliament in the last week demanding new blasphemy laws.

    The price of freedom was ever vigilance.

  8. Freedom is not licence.

    Gratuitous insult is not debate.

    The true enemies of freedom are those who think free speech is a liberal, secular prerogative and want to arrest people for diplaying pictures of aborted foetuses but imagine that foul mouthed abuse aimed at religious believers is acceptable.

  9. As much as I agree that 'blasphemy' borders on the ridiculous as a criminal offence, the Scot nats have enough controversy to deal with -- it can wait till 2015.

  10. And 'Braveheart' as ever the Borders Lab our councillor has to find a way to attack the SNP or Salmond -- how's that working out for you?