[1809:] For the benefit of future antiquaries, however, we may observe that many of the songs, claimed by the present editor [Cromeck] as the exclusive composition of Burns, were, in reality, current long before he was born. Let us take one of the best examples of his skill in imitating the old ballad,--McPherson's Lament was a well known song [see above] many years before the Ayrshire Bard wrote those additional verses which constitute its principal merit. (Quarterly Review, Vol. 1, Number 1, February, p. 30.)
[1900:] [MacPherson's Farewell] This old "rant", which gave Burns the material for his stirring lyric of the same title, which Carlyle calls "a wild, stormful song, that dwells in ear and mind with strange tenacity", is said to have been written by a Highland freebooter a night or two before his execution. He is reported as being a man of uncommon personal strength, and an excellent performer on the violin. "After holding the counties of Aberdeen, Banff, and Moray in fear for some years", says Chambers, "he was seized by Duff of Braco, ancestor of the Earl of Fife, and tried before the Sheriff of Banffshire (7th November, 1700), along with certain gipsies who had been taken in his company. In the prison, while he lay under sentence of death, he composed a song and an appropriate air, the former commencing
I've spent my time in rioting, debauch'd my health and strength;
I squandered fast as pillage came, and fell to shame at length
But dantonly, and wantonly and rantingly I'll gae;
I'll play a tune, and dance it roun' beneath the gallows tree
The records of MacPherson's trial are extant, and have been published. Through the medium of this document, we learn that he was convicted of being "repute an Egyptian and Vagabond, and oppressor of his majesty's free lieges, in a bangstree manner, and going up and down the country around and keeping markets in a hostile manner." Only eight days intervened between the dates of his trial and execution, and the magistrates, tradition asserts, hurried the hanging early in the morning, so that the condemned man suffered several hours before the specified time, the motive of this indecent haste being a desire to defeat a reprieve which they knew or suspected to be on the way. When brought to the place of execution, on the Gallows Hill of Banff (16th November), the bold outlaw played on his violin the stirring tune he had so recently composed in the condemned cell, and then asked if any friend was present who would accept the instrument as a gift at his hand. No one coming forward, he indignantly broke the violin on his knee, and threw away the fragments, after which he submitted to his fate. The traditionary accounts of MacPherson's immense prowess are justified by his sword, which is still preserved in Duff House, at Banff, and is an implement of great length and weight - as well as by his bones, which were found not very many years ago, and were allowed by all who saw them to be much stronger than the bones of ordinary men. He was assuredly no ordinary man that could so disport himself on the morning of his execution. Death, we presume, has rarely been faced with such perfect contempt. Sir Walter Scott says that he offered the violin to any of his clan who would undertake to play the tune over his body at his lykewake, and none answering, he dashed it to pieces on the executioner's head, and flung himself from the ladder.
An anonymous article in the first volume of the "New Monthly Magazine" affects to supply particulars of the hero's lineage and exploits. James MacPherson, it says, was born of a beautiful gipsy who at a great wedding attracted the notice of a half-intoxicated Highland gentleman. The gentleman acknowledged the child, and had him reared in his house until he lost his life in bravely pursuing a hostile clan, to recover a "spread" of cattle taken from Badenoch. The gipsy woman hearing of this disaster came and took her boy away; but frequently returned with him, to wait upon his relations and clansmen, who never failed to clothe him well, besides giving money to his mother. He grew up in beauty, strength and stature rarely equalled; and though his prowess was debased by the exploits of a freebooter, it is certain, says the writer, that no act of cruelty, or robbery of the widow, the fatherless, or the distressed was ever perpetrated under his command. Indeed, it is said that a dispute with an aspiring and savage man of his tribe, who wished to rob a gentleman's house while his wife and two children lay on the bier for interment, was the cause of his being betrayed to the vengeance of the law. He was betrayed by a man of his own tribe, and was the last person executed at Banff previous to the abolition of heritable jurisdiction.
The original 'rant' [see above] lacks the matter-force, swing, and verbal piquancy of Burns's song on the same subject, but is otherwise fully as interesting. [...]
The [version in Herd] is full, and even elaborate, forming quite a narrative ballad in extent, but a briefer version has appeared, more likely to be the original, I think, if the story of the composition is to be trusted. (Ford, Histories 219ff)
[1958:] All the world loves an outlaw, and the folk in Scotland were no exception. The best- known Scottish bandits were two contemporaries - Rob Roy McGregor and James Macpherson. Tradition goes further, however, and describes the two men as great friends. At any rate one has been the subject for our greatest novelist and the other is the hero of one of the best of our later ballads, the racy, lilting Macpherson's Rant.
Macpherson was said to be the illegitimate son of a member of the family of Invereshie and a gipsy woman of great beauty. On his father's death he joined his mother's people - an "Egyptian band". (Norman Buchan, Weekly Scotsman, Sep 4)
[1978:] James MacPherson, most famous of Scottish outlaws, was the illegitimate son of a Highland laird, MacPherson of Invereshie, and a beautiful tinkler-gypsy girl he met at a wedding. Jamie was brought up in his father's house, and it is related that "he grew up to beauty, strength and stature rarely equalled". He became an expert swordsman, and a renowned fiddler. After the death of his father - Invereshie was killed while attempting to recover cattle stolen by reivers - Jamie was reclaimed by his mother's people, and eventually became the leader of the band. They lived, as their descendants still do, by buying and selling the means of transport (horses then, second-hand cars now), and seem to have been quite popular with the ordinary country folk. However, MacPherson incurred the enmity of the rich lairds and farmers of the low country of Banff and Aberdeenshire, and especially of a brash go-getter Duff of Braco who organised a posse to catch him. At Saint Rufus Fair in Keith he was attacked by Braco's men, and was captured after a fierce fight. (According to the traditional account, a woman dropped a blanket over him from a window, and he was disarmed before he could get free of it.)
It was still at that time a criminal offence merely to be an Egyptian (Gypsy) in Scotland, and it was under this statute that MacPherson was tried in November 1700. A procès-verbal of his trial is still extant; the following is the text of the death sentence:
"Forasmeikle as you James McPherson, pannal [accused] are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian and a wagabond, and oppressor of his Magesties free lieges in ane bangstrie manner, and going up and down the country armed, and keeping mercats in ane hostile manner, and that you are a thief, and that you are of pessimae famae. Therfor, the Sheriff-depute of Banff, and I in his name, adjudges and discernes you the said James McPherson to be taken to the Cross of Banff, from the tolbooth thereof, where you now lye, and there upon ane gibbet to be erected, to be hanged by the neck to the death by the hand of the common executioner, upon Friday next, being the 16th day of November instant, being a public weekly mercat day, betwixt the hours of two and three in the afternoon ...."
While under sentence of death MacPherson is said to have composed the tune of the Rant, and he is also said to have played it under the gallows, and then to have broken [his fiddle] either across his knee or over the executioner's head. It is universally believed in the North-East that a reprieve was on its way to Banff at the time of the execution, and that the town clock was put forward a quarter of an hour so that MacPherson could be hanged before the reprieve arrived. The Laird of Grant is mentioned in the song because he attempted to secure the release of two men captured with MacPherson, by claiming that they were subject to his hereditary feudal jurisdiction. He is referred to as "that Highland sant" (i.e. saint) because unlike the MacPhersons he was a staunch Protestant and a militant partisan of King William, whose cause he had supported with three hundred men at the Battle of the Haughs of Cromdale (1690).
MacPherson's Rant has naturally been a permanent favourite with the travelling people [...]. [Davie Stewart's] text, like Jimmy McBeath's, is a descendant of a broadside execution ballad about MacPherson which was probably on sale either at or soon after the execution. It has been held to be appreciably superior, as poetry, to Robert Burns's celebrated braggadocio re-write. Again, the popular voice attributes the original broadside text to MacPherson himself. (Hamish Henderson, notes 'Davie Stewart')
[1979:] In the 17th century, as McRitchie points out in his "Scottish Gypsies under the Stewarts", it was a capital crime in Scotland to be a gypsy; the famous outlaw and fiddler James MacPherson (hero of MacPherson's Rant) was executed under this statute. (Hamish Henderson, notes 'The Muckle Sangs', Scottish Tradition vol. 5)
[1980:] James MacPherson's long career of robbery culminated in a reign of terror in the markets of Banff, Elgin and Forres. Apparently under protection of the Laird of Grant, he and his band of followers would come marching in with a piper at their head. Perhaps he became too powerful for comfort for he was hanged at Banff in 1700, for bearing arms at Keith market. A certain haste to get rid of him is evidenced by the period of only eight days which elapsed between sentence and execution, and there is a tradition that a reprieve failed to arrive in time since the town clock and thus the hour of execution was put forward. MacPherson is said to have composed the farewell 'rant' himself, delivered it from the gallows, then broken his fiddle. An instrument which purports to be his has been preserved at the Clan MacPherson Museum, Newtonmore, Inverness-shire. (Palmer, Ballads 116)
[1981:] Although we can well believe that defenceless ragged nomads were occasionally the victims of murderous body-snatchers, we must probably look further back in history in order to understand the deeper-lying reasons for this persecution complex [among tinkers]. In the seventeenth century it was a capital crime in Scotland merely to be an 'Egyptian' - Egyptian, for the courts, meaning not merely a gypsy, but any sort of wanderer, vagabond minstrel or travelling tinsmith of no fixed abode. If it could be proved that a travelling man of uncertain occupation was 'halden and repute to be an Egyptian', he was as good as dead. Among the victims of this law was the famous fiddler James MacPherson, who was hanged at Banff in 1700; his name is immortalised in the folksong MacPherson's Rant, which survives on the lips of present-day tinker singers. (Hamish Henderson, Alias MacAlias 230)
[1986:] Amongst others Robert Burns collected this song and composed a version. Following a Robin Hood career, McPherson was captured at Keith Market and executed at the Cross of Banff in 1700. A famous fiddler, he is reputed to have composed and played a rant at his execution, before breaking his fiddle and throwing the pieces into the open grave awaiting him. (Conway, 100 Songs 14)
[1988:] A week elapsed between sentence and execution, which was a long time by later English standards. (An Act of 1752 provided that a condemned criminal be hanged two days after sentence, or three, if the second fell on a Sunday.) A reprieve was known to be on its way for MacPherson, but its timely arrival was circumvented by the simple expedient of putting the town clock forward. In view of such unseemly haste, it seems most improbable that the prisoner would have been allowed to delay proceedings by singing; but tradition holds that he did precisely this [...]. (Palmer, History 122)