Who was James MacPherson?


James (or Jamie) MacPherson lived from 1675 to 16 November 1700. He was an Aberdeenshire outlaw who was hanged in Banff.


James MacPherson was said to have been the illegitimate son of a Highland laird and a traveller (or ‘tinker’) woman. He was acknowledged by his father and brought up at Invereshie House near Kincraig. After his father was killed by caterans or cattle thieves, James was brought up by his mother's family. At this point, history becomes slightly intermingled with folklore, and James is said to have grown up "in beauty, strength and stature rarely equalled".


He was an expert swordsman, a famous fiddler, and ended up as the leader of a band of caterans with a side-line as a legitimate horse dealer. According to many accounts he seems to have evolved into a sort of Banffshire Robin Hood, robbing those rich enough to deserve to be parted from their worldly goods.


MacPherson's downfall came through over-confidence. His group seemed to have developed a habit of arriving on market days in places like Forres, Elgin or Banff, as a large armed group who marched in behind a piper. MacPherson's activities gained him many enemies, as well as a number of friends and supporters. He was especially disliked by Alexander Duff of Braco, who set out to bring him to justice. He was captured on two occasions, once in Aberdeen, but managed to escape both times. What less favourable accounts call a "reign of terror" came to an end at Saint Rufus Fair in Keith in September 1700. MacPherson and his men were surprised by a force under the command of Alexander Duff of Braco.


One of MacPherson's men was killed in the fight that followed, and MacPherson himself was prevented from fighting by a carpet which was thrown over him from the upper floor of a house. MacPherson and three of his men were tried in Banff before Nicholas Dunbar, Sheriff of Banffshire on 8th November 1700. MacPherson was hanged in Banff on 16th November 1700. Sheriff Nicholas Dunbar lived at Durn House, Portsoy, for most of his life.


During the final days of James’ life, he is said to have written a song that is known as ‘MacPherson's Lament’ or ‘MacPherson's Rant’. He is said to have played it under the gallows on his fiddle before offering his fiddle to anyone in his clan who would play it at his wake. When no one came forward, he broke the fiddle and threw it into the crowd. The broken fiddle can be seen today in the Clan Macpherson Museum in Newtonmore.